An American with a bike company in Holland? Part 1
I periodically get interviewed, which I find strange since I’m just the founder of a young company specialized in workbikes, city bicycles and child transport bikes. The nature of the interviews vary, but a number of themes often come up.
- Why is an American pushing the development of transport bicycles in bicycle mecca Amsterdam?
- Why did I leave a comfortable corporate job to start such a risky venture?
- Isn’t the Cargobike or bakfiets just a fad that will soon disappear?
- Are you worried about cheap Chinese copies of your bikes?
- And the big one… Why bicycles anyway?
Journalists don’t always get it all correct, so perhaps its handy to just write all the answers down for the record.
1. Why is an American pushing the development of transport bicycles in bicycle mecca Amsterdam?
Its a natural question though its sometimes colored with a bit of arrogance, and there are both internal and external explanations. I’ll begin with the external: Of course the Dutch are known for their bicycles, and for such a small country The Netherlands has quite a bicycle industry. But its also a very conservative and inward focused industry, on both the manufacturer and retailer sides.
There were once hundreds of small Dutch bicycle manufacturers building a wide variety of models for both individual and business use. But in the last 50 years most have disappeared or been gobbled up by a couple large firms, most notably Gazelle and the Accell Group (primarily Batavus and Sparta in the Netherlands). Along with Giant from Taiwan and a host of “B” brands that’s most of the Dutch bicycle industry now. Gazelle is most famous but seems content with building light revisions of the bikes they’ve always built, and word around the industry is that their quality isn’t at all what it once was. Accell uses their Sparta brand for more innovative products but is still quite conservative.
Part of the Dutch bicycle industry’s lack of vision seems to stem from their locations away from major cities. Simply stated: Amsterdam is where the practical bicycle development is happening. Driving a car in this city is totally inconvenient, frustrating and expensive while riding a bicycle is easy, fun and dirt cheap. But anybody who really uses their bicycle as primary transport in a big city understands the practical challenges: safely carrying their cargo, kids and friends, keeping their bike safe from thieves, and keeping the poor abused bike running reliably. Most of these are non-issues for those in safe villages and small cities, even more so for executives who may even drive to work. So even if people in these firms recognize a market for hard-core transportation bikes, their insight and understanding will remain a weak point.
So that essentially answers why the transport bicycle revolution is coming out of Amsterdam, and WorkCycles grew out of those very Amsterdam conditions. Are they really all coming from Amsterdam? Well, not entirely but mostly:
So then, why specifically has an American become influential here in this so very Dutch field? Again its much a question of perspective. Just like the executive in Dieren sees a different world than a young entrepreneur in Amsterdam, the foreigner sees his new surroundings from a different perspective.
I moved to the Netherlands as a product designer and researcher for Philips. The job wasn’t especially exciting but I fell in love with cycling here. I bought an old dutch bike my very first morning in the Netherlands: I cycled as much as possible: to work, in the snow, drunk, with a girlfriend on the back carrier, with giant packages balanced on the handlebars etc. Not only was the cycling wonderful but it also had obvious and tremendous positive effects on the cities. Compared to other cities Amsterdam is a serene, humane place where you can safely wander quiet streets lined with canals and centuries old buildings. In many areas there’s not even a hint of traffic and you can walk or cycle along a street hearing only the clinking of glasses and conversations in a restaurant, the sound of shoes on cobblestones, the swooshing and squeaking of an old bike riding by. The occasional car or pizza delivery scooter seems like absolute violence.
All this is made possible, in large part, by widespread use of bicycles (and public transport of course) instead of personal automobiles. Bicycles require little space or resources and therefore allow an amazing population density, which in turn builds neighborhoods, makes the city atttractive to tourists, minimizes urban sprawl etc etc. Below is a picture of the bicycle parking facility at Amsterdam Central Station. It was built a few years ago as a temporary facility to hold 2500 bikes while work progresses on a permanent garage to hold 10,000 bikes. In fact its estimated that there are often 4000 bikes crammed in to the present “fietsflat”.
My Dutch friends and colleagues found all this unremarkable. Some couldn’t wait to escape their awful little country and emigrate to America, Australia or rural France. In fact millions of Dutch have indeed left since WW2 and they apparently continue to do so.
I saw Amsterdam, on the other hand, as the model city, with the bicycle as thie easiest key element to spread to other cities. The bicycles themselves were mostly variants on the old Dutch granny bikes and grandpa bikes we all know. But there was also a subculture of riding strange bikes, particularly those built or modified to carry loads. Pierced and heavily tattoo’ed squatters were riding around on giant “bakfietsen”, some clearly 70 or more years old. Mangy dogs and/or old lounge chairs in the box were the key accessories. Hippy families were also beginning to ride their kids (and dogs, of course) in smaller, handmade and even cruder transport bikes and trikes. These were first made by Christiania in Denmark, and then copied with trikes of notably inferior design and quality by ‘t Mannetje in Amsterdam.
Regardless of who was copying who it was all very much about cult audiences, and the few firms involved were busy keeping it all to the extremist elite. I was fascinated by the possibilities and fun of these crude machines and convinced that with better design, quality, service… in short professionalisation the bakfiets would be popular amongst normal families and businesses.
It’s worth adding that I wasn’t exactly a newcomer to bicycles. My first memory is of riding around Brooklyn behind my mom on her dark green, 1965 Raleigh Sports 3 speed. I even still remember the fold-up kiddy seat with flat tartan plaid pads and flat steel arm- and footrests. There was absolutely nothing but a few centimeters of air to keep my feet out of the spinning spokes. Charming though I wonder how many kids got their feet mangled.
When I was 12 I got a job in a bike shop on Saturdays. I started with cleaning duties but the mechanics found that I could lace and true wheels quite quickly too. For the following 20 or so years I worked in bicycle shops, for bicycle builders and accessory manufacturers. I also competed in road races, then mountain bike and cyclo-cross races, and finally track events when it became clear that I was far better at going fast for a couple kilometers than climbing mountains. Regardless of what I was “supposed to be doing” my life pretty much always revolved around bicycles. You could fairly say that my 8 year “corporate career” was just a short diversion from my true calling.
So here I was with a boring job, a great life in Amsterdam, experience in product development, a long background in bicycles… and a conviction that the world would eventually be conquered (rescued?) by beautiful, practical bicycles. So I began WorkCycles and perhaps its just very American to see this as perfectly normal.
This story continues with “An American with a bike company in Holland? Part 2“