Archive for the ‘Antique/old bikes and history’ Category

Beldoppen: Why Only Some People Can Be Artists

Monday, November 21st, 2016


Pete Jordan invited me for coffee a couple days ago. Pete is perhaps best known for his 1990’s zine Dishwasher Pete but I know him as another bicycling obsessed Amsterdammer and author of the very thoroughly researched book “In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist“. It’s an absolute must-read for anybody with an interest in the history of urban cycling.


Pete showed me a project he’s been working on for several years and quite frankly I feel a bit stupid for never noticing this phenomenon. It seems there are bicycle bell tops (“beldoppen” in Dutch) pressed into the streets all over the city. Rattling over cobblestones and tram tracks unscrews them from their bells and eventually flings them to the ground. Most beldoppen probably end up in the gutter and get swept up by the street cleaners but some get squished into the asphalt or between cobbles where they remain as part of the road surface. There they remain, sometimes for years, getting driven over by thousands of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Eventually the road gets resurfaced and the beldoppen disappear.


Few people would ever even see the beldoppen. Even fewer, or perhaps precisely ONE person would meticulously record their locations (many hundreds of them) and vital statistics in a database and re-photograph them each year during late May and June. Why May and June you wonder? Well, that’s the only time it’s light early enough to photograph these busy, inner-city locations in daylight but without traffic.


Some beldoppen remain in place so long that the passing traffic eventually wears them down to bell fossils. Only the center, circumference and vague pattern remain. Who would even realize what they were looking at if they spotted one of those?



Pete’s beldoppen project deserves a more public exhibition space though. It’s currently displayed on the walls of his WC. Any gallery curators in the market for a fascinating piece of urban archaeology art?

Safety First! Hong Kong Style

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Workcycles rider Matt Ransford sent this photo from Hong Kong. He added that there aren’t many bikes to be seen in Hong Kong but those you see look like they’ve been around for a long time and they all have rod operated brakes. Thanks for passing that along Matt!

I seem to recall Hong Kong being David Byrne’s pick for World’s Worst Cycling City.

This delivery bike, with its big basket type front carrier affixed to the frame is just like old English delivery bikes. This, of course, was way back when it was still commonplace for tradespeople and delivery boys in the UK to move their goods about by bicycle. This connection is no great surprise given that Hong Kong was a British colony until recently.

Sinterklaas, the Zwarte Pieten and their Workcycles Transport Bikes

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

sinterklaas intocht amsterdam 2010 7

The Sinterklaas “Intocht” (arrival parade) needs no introduction for the locals who began chasing Sinterklaas and his many “Zwarte Pieten”along the Amstel river and through the streets of Amsterdam as toddlers. It goes approximately as follows:

Sinterklaas is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. While they’re both apparently Saint Nicholas only Sint’s white beard bears any resemblance to the fat “Ho Ho Ho!” fellow in the red snowsuit who flies his reindeer driven sleigh from the North Pole. Sinterklaas is tall, skinny, serious and righteous. He comes not from the north, but by ship from Spain. Sint himself is not actually Spanish; he’s Turkish. I suppose it’s all really a lot less weird than flying a reindeer powered sleigh from the North Pole.

How to Carry a Tree by Bike: Established vs. Emerging Cycling Cultures

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

How to carry a tree on a bike

Much of the world is now (re)discovering the joy and practicality of cycling for transportation, often blissfully unaware of how it’s been done elsewhere for a century. So, to use an obvious expression, they’re reinventing the wheel with, as a few examples…

The Croquette Bakfiets of Tilmann Meyer-Faje

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010


I saw this nearly perfect kroket on three wheels a couple years ago while visiting an art exhibition at Museum de Paviloens in Almere with Kyoko. I didn’t realize then it was actually a fully functional croquette (“kroket” in Dutch) frying and vending vehicle. I just figured it was just a humorous art piece. I suppose that’s also the case judging from some of Tilmann’s other projects which include a fake Segway tour of a mental institution, a mall kiosk that made and sold concrete clogs, and a one man university. But we talked with Tilmann at another exhibition last week and he filled me in on the whole scoop. He’s German though and explains it all with a straight face so I’m still not 100% sure about the humor part. I might just be inadvertently insulting an artist here, something I’ve already demonstrated an aptitude for amongst righteous cyclists.

The “Inventor” of the Bakfiets

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

bergreijer-rijwielen 3

A year or so ago Oscar Mulder of My Dutch Bike in San Francisco commented that he’d periodically heard from his family that his great grandfather had a bicycle shop in Amsterdam and was the “inventor of the bakfiets”. Perhaps this was never a particularly notable factoid until Oscar and his wife Soraya began a shop dedicated to supplying bakfietsen and other Dutch bikes last year.

Needless to say I’m always skeptical about anybody who’s supposedly the inventor of anything as straightforward as a bicycle with a box. But also being fascinated by the history of such things, and bikes in particular, I was also very curious to learn more. Was he known for developing a particular style of transport bike, or a special bakfiets for a particular purpose much as Maarten van Andel is much more recently the “spiritual godfather” of the 2-wheeled family bakfiets? Such stories often get twisted, misunderstood and mistranslated as they get passed through generations and languages so such an explanation seemed fairly plausible.

I forgot about the incident until Oscar sent me a note with a number of scans of photos he’d received from his mother (who still lives in Holland). None of the photos are dated but a little archive research as well as some technical features of the bikes seems to puts most of them in the 1910-1915 range. Making the task a little easier is the fact that the shop was in the Jordaan district just a few blocks from both my home and WorkCycles Lijnbaansgracht location where my office is. Much of the Jordaan looks much like it did 100 or actually even 250 years ago… aside from the cars (yes, even here there are some, though mostly just parked), some rather tasteless new buildings from the 1960’s and 70’s, and a few of the bigger canals that were filled in.

Henry’s Yankee Transportfiets

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

yankee transportfiets 7

I have to admit that I have a lot of bicycles, and I’m referring to bikes that are really just mine and not somehow part of the WorkCycles fleet or inventory. I periodically cull the flock but some have too much sentimental value to sell, even if I almost never ride them. There’s the Daedalus mountain bike from 1990, designed by me and built by Kent Ericksen of Moots in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There were six made of which I still know the whereabouts of four. I don’t think I could ever see my lovely De Rosa go. I bought it a year or two old from a friend in about 1982 and raced and trained on it for years until breaking one of the silly diamond shaped chainstays. My friend Brian Spitz (who built some of the world’s cleanest race frames for a while) repaired it but then I hung it up and forgot about it for 15 years. A couple years ago I decided I wanted to get back on a racing bike, found it still wrapped in paper and built it up again. Now it gets ridden regularly, much closer to it’s birthplace in Italy. There are many others, in order of how long I’ve owned them:

  • Custom 60’s Schwinn Typhoon cruiser with Sachs 2-speed kickback hub
  • Bianchi Reparto Corsa road bike built (15 years ago) as a road fixie
  • Castle track bike
  • 1973 Libertas racing tandem
  • Snel touring bike, now my “papa bike” for touring with Pascal
  • 1957 Condor Swiss military bike
  • WorkCycles Secret Service city bike (the daily ride)
  • Brompton folding bike with 2 speed shifter and titanium parts
  • Those are all complete, rideable bikes. I also have a number of bikes in various states of incompleteness and a rather absurdly large collection of (mostly old enough to have no monetary value) parts. The semi-complete bikes include:

  • 1950’s Gazelle Opafiets
  • 1970’s Rih light city bike
  • 3x 1930’s Grossman transportfietsen
  • 2x Hopper (English) delivery bikes with cross-frames, perhaps 1930’s
  • 1970’s Gazelle racing bike, converted to randonneur
  • At least all of the old transport and city bikes are destined for the WorkCycles museum and a few are already on display. A few bikes including the city bike, Brompton, papa bike and racing bike are ridden regularly. Some of the others will return to service when the time is right. Amsterdam has, for example, a fantastic indoor velodrome and I’ve been itching to get back on the track, though that might have to wait until Pascal is old enough to ride too.

    Anyhow this is a long intro to noting that I got another bike. This one is a transportfiets (Dutch delivery bike) from the firm “Yankee” in Hoogeveen (where Azor is now and Union once was). I’d never heard of Yankee but that doesn’t mean much; until the 1960’s there were hundreds of small firms building bikes in the Netherlands. Lugs, tubing and components were bought in from various suppliers and the bikes were built from scratch. The quality was typically excellent but the designs were very conservative. Only experts can tell many of the bikes apart and little changed from the 1920’s through the 1960’s or even 1970’s in some cases. A few of the manufacturers were known for particularly high quality (Empo, Fongers, Gazelle, Simplex) and/or unique design (Fongers, Locomotief, Maxwell, Simplex). Yankee though has somehow disappeared into the gorges of history.

    yankee transportfiets 4

    Bakfiets on the bakfiets ambulance

    Monday, October 19th, 2009

    bakfiets op een bakfiets

    A while back I wrote about how some goon stole the rear wheel of Doede’s antique bakfiets. After some measurements we determined that this bike was quite strange in that the rear hub axle and crank axle were narrower than usual. Consequently the chain line is much closer to the center of the bike meaning that even if we widened the frame (40mm!) to fit one of our wheels the rear cog wouldn’t line up with the chainring in front anyway. It was decided to bring the bakfiets to the WorkCycles shop for further investigation and repair.

    So how does one transport a non-functional bakfiets? On another bakfiets of course! Here Mette van der Linden (brother of web genius and maker of these photos Doede) rides the bakfiets ambulance across Amsterdam. Mind you, an old bakfiets is not exactly something you can just toss in your car, even if you happen to have one; This particular example is over 300cm long, 130cm wide and weighs probably 130kg… OK somewhat less since it’s missing it’s almost 10kg rear wheel thanks to some knuckle-dragging cretin.

    bakfiets op een bakfiets 4

    bakfiets op een bakfiets 3

    bakfiets op een bakfiets 2

    bakfiets op een bakfiets 1

    What’s really new in bicycle world?

    Thursday, October 1st, 2009

    My friend Will Fleishell sent me a link to the great looking Metz Bicycle Museum in Freehold, NJ (USA). They’ve a broad collection of bikes, tricycles and quadricycles from early bike-dom (the 1860’s) to about 1900. Some look remarkably modern while others are of formats that have long since disappeared. Check out this tandem quadricycle that can be converted into no less than two types of high-wheeler bikes, for example:

    tandem quad

    The first bike that caught my eye though was this 1890 “lamplighter’s bike” from New York City. You see a 250cm bike was the perfect way to reach a flame into hundreds of streetlamps each evening. Just ride along and dab the burning stick into each oil lamp as it comes along.


    But wait a minute, you object, isn’t this just a “tall bike” like those weird anarchist dudes do their jousting on? Yes, exactly… except that they just reinvented it, uglier and worse, 100 years later. And this is exactly my point: Most of the real “invention” and “development” of the bicycle occurred more than 100 years ago, back when the bicycle was one of the pinnacles of technology, and certainly the highest tech thing an ordinary person could get their hands on. As I recall some of the things that were developed for bicycles: steel tubing, ball bearings, pneumatic tires, the tensioned spoke wheel, the roller chain drive and the list goes on. People often poo-poo of the achievements of the Wright Brothers because they were bike makers by trade, but this completely misses the point that the bicycle techies of that day were amongst the best suited to be experimenting with aerodynamics (which nobody understood yet) and lightweight, efficient structures.
    archibald sharp

    In 1896 Archibald Sharp wrote what is probably still the most comprehensive book on bicycle technology “Bicycles and Tricycles, An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction”. It’s 400 pages of detailed analysis of bicycle design. From the MIT Press site (they reprinted it in 1979 and my copy is one of these):

    It begins with a general exposition of mechanical principles: dynamic, static, and straining forces. It then covers successive experiments at bicycle and tricycle design, including several “mechanical monstrosities.”

    With the aid of elegant, sometimes humorous drawings, the book examines various designs for their relative stability, steering advantages, gearing and resistance properties. The final selection discusses the design of individual components in detail, including the frame (from the point of view of stress analysis); wheels; bearings; chains and chain gearing; toothed-wheel gearing; the lever-and-crank gear; tires; pedals, cranks and bottom brackets; springs and saddles; and brakes.

    Even if you couldn’t read English or simply can’t be bothered to follow the scientific explanations the illustrations would be worth looking at. There are images and often scorching analysis of all sorts of bike and component designs that have been unwittingly (or knowingly?) reinvented in the intervening 120 years: disk wheels, belt drives, suspension frames and forks, shaft drive, two-speed epicyclic cranks and many more examples.

    Bicycles & Tricycles

    “Bicycles and Tricycles” is again out of print but it should be possible to find a second-hand copy. ISBN-10: 0-262-69066-7, ISBN-13: 978-0-262-69066-9

    My point isn’t that the bicycle hasn’t evolved in over 100 years; It certainly has but largely in details. The basics elements have long been well understood, and unfortunately seem to get forgotten regularly. Thus simultaneous with the evolution of brakes, gearing and other details is constant de-evolution and re-invention of the basic design. A few examples of how current bikes are often actually worse than their predecessors:

  • The generally too high crank axles that make it difficult for the rider to reach the ground when the saddle is adjusted to a biomechanically suitable height
  • Too wide “tread” (aka Q factor), the distance between the pedals… requiring higher crank axles
  • Inappropriate steering geometry on most city and utility bikes
  • Here is thus where we focus our efforts at WorkCycles; not attempting to reinvent the wheel, but merely refine it. This can require searching back a few steps to see where things went wrong (city bike ergonomics) or developing our own knowledge where there doesn’t seem to be any useful history to rely on (steering geometry for very heavily loaded bikes). All the while the designs remain timeless, but not for the sake of “retro style”. We’re either maintaining highly developed designs that are still fundamentally sound or creating new ones with the recognition that the products of evolution rarely fall far from the apple tree.

    Who steals an old bakfiets wheel?

    Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

    Our web developer Doede sent me a despairing note the other day telling me that the rear wheel of his new, old bakfiets got ripped off. The poor beast looks so sad, like a horse with a broken leg.

    In case you’re confused thinking that a bakfiets is a modern, two-wheeler that mom carries her kids in, you’re half correct. That’s a Bakfiets Cargobike, with Bakfiets being the very generic trade name for Maarten van Andel’s brilliant bike. But to Dutch folks “bakfiets” still generally means a giant, heavy duty three-wheeler with a wooden box on the front, a brake lever between your legs and a fixed gear to keep those legs busy. Just to be sure: “bakfiets” is singular and “bakfietsen” is plural. Please remember that as it’s quite painful to read “bakfiet”. Check here for a more detailed description of the etymology of bakfietsen, bakkersfietsen, bakkers, bakken, gebak…

    Anyhow the theft raised the question of who would bother stealing an old bakfiets wheel. They’re nearly impossible to find but then again such a wheel has no significant market value. Thus Doede’s wheel was probably stolen by another bakfiets owner whose hub, drum brake or rim finally died after 40 or 50 years of faithful service. And who rides old bakfietsen like these? Well, Doede reasoned, not the sorts of people you’d expect to be stealing their fellow bakfiets riders wheels: hippies, squatters, socialists and others well to the “left” of the socio-political spectrum. Just goes to show you that you can’t judge a book by its cover… or that such demographic stereotypes don’t actually work for crap.

    [UPDATE 26-08-09: On Sunday while cycling out of the city with Kyoko and Pascal for a day trip we came across a scene I’d never witnessed before: A building getting broken into and squatted. A raucous mob of perhaps 50 men and women with creative hair and almost entirely black clothing was smashing their way through the door of a pretty, 17th century building in the Weteringschans. Upon breaking the door open the crowd cheered and stormed inside with the contents of a delivery van and no less than two big, old bakfietsen. I also recognized a couple of Amsterdam bakfiets/transportfiets “colleagues” of the old skool variety. Just goes to show you that some stereotypes have a basis in reality.

    I pulled my camera out to get a couple pics of the bakfietsen playing a key role in the squatter’s life, but I was immediately apprehended by somebody apparently appointed the “no fucking pictures” man of the event.]

    In case you’re wondering what sort of rear wheel would be supporting the rear frame of that bakfiets had some scumbag not stolen it, here’s a quick description:

  • Transporter tire 26 x 2.25″ or 26 2.5″, roughly equivalent to an old motorcycle tire
  • Thick-walled steel rim about 50mm wide
  • 36 or 40 spokes in 8 or 10 gauge (3.0 to 3.6mm thick)
  • Steel hub with large, hand operated drum brake
  • 1/2 x 3/16″ cog bolted to the hub (fixed gear)
  • It would look like this one on a brand new WorkCycles Bakfiets, meaning thus that such wheels are actually still available… just not at a price many old-fashioned bakfiets riders are prepared to pay for:

    And here’s a picture of a whole, brand-new classic bakfiets, just because I’m so thrilled that such gorgeous, durable, early 20th century vehicles can still be in production. In the background is the Nijland factory where these bikes are made for WorkCycles: