Posted on 14 February 2017
Achielle Factory: Custom drawn tubing ready to become a BIKE!
Curbside may have started by the side of the curb converting racing bikes into city bikes, it may have spent years as a storefront building legitimacy with core North American bicycle brands, but our strongest moment of self identity was when we decided to import Dutch bikes.
Importing Dutch bikes was never intended to be a moment of self-identity, it was never done for the sake of fashion (we didn't know we'd kickstart a North American wide trend), it was done because we were listening to our customers from the repair shop and the retail floor.
Peter putting the frame in the jig (they make all their tooling)
It was 2006 and every bike on the market featured a minimum of 21 speeds, a hunched-over position for long-distance recreation riding, and if you wore a dress, Japanese denim, or tailored pants - forget about it. With their exposed drivetrains, these bikes sprayed oil and ruined clothing. If you weren't into "sporty" or dressing sporty just to ride a bike, you probably weren't walking into bike stores. Except for our customers. Because whether or not their bike made sense for city biking, city biking made sense for them.
In the repair shop these bikes came back constantly. Exposed cables rusted and needed to be replaced every year ($40), new chains and freewheels would wear in a year of riding ($80), and because everything was so finicky, it needed a tune-up every year ($75), or two ($150). Our customers were right to feel like something was wrong, and they were vocal about it. As a peace offering, we lowered our labour costs, but that just devalued our mechanics. These guys were working way too hard making the wrong bike work right.
Water based powder coat. Non-toxic, environmental, and tough as nails.
Feeling a bit helpless, we did the natural thing. We petitioned our suppliers to bring in European bikes. To say they laughed in our face would be understatement. Looking back, we can guess why for two reasons. The first is cultural. In North America, Southern California runs the bike industry and they view cycling as "sport," whereas our customer viewed cycling as transportation. The second was macro-accounting. The bike industry didn't look at micro-markets like Toronto (or Canada), and to this day still doesn't. So, unless we did something ourselves, we were stuck.
In 2006 we did something absolutely reckless, we bought an entire container of Pashley bikes. (Back then no one take us seriously unless we bought a whole sea container). That was roughly x200 bikes with little assurance that they would sell other than hope. They had upright positions, low maintenance internal gears, rust-resistant powder-coated frames, full chaincases so you could look dandy, and they were handmade in the UK. What couldn't work? They looked lovely!
A lifetime of colourful experiences.
And so began something of an ontological journey. Pashley's were nice, but they were inextricably tied to England's class system. Ultimately, they were posh bikes for occassional rides, and much of the component spec had to do more with British provenance than quality. The five speed hub on the Pashley models never worked, and many frames looked like they were welded on a Friday before (or after?) the pub. We needed the genuine article.
The Dutch don't tie their bikes to class. If anything, bikes are the great social leveller, since rich or poor, you all ride the same heavy black bike. What they lacked in romance they made up for with quality (such is the nature of Dutch provenance). These weren't bikes meant for indoor storage in a Notting Hill coachhouse, they were designed for multi-decade outdoor storage in a climate where it always rains and the salty North Sea continually threatens.
Typical street-scene in Antwerp.
We started selling Batavus and Gazelle bikes at the exact time that two major things were occuring in the Dutch bike industry. The first was a large series of mergers and acquisitions that turned every small village bike manufacturer into part of a stock-listed company. The second was the accountants running these mergers. They couldn't possibly understand why the bike was built in Holland when it could be made much cheaper elsewhere. And so we witnessed a sad reality. Shareholders became the customer rather than the hardy Dutch cyclist, and quality became increasingly not-like-it-was-before. Plus, the accountants didn't really understand why they were selling to a dinky company in Toronto. Lack of entrepreneurial foresight, a definite lack of support, and the writing was on the wall.
So, was it possible to find a made-in-Europe Dutch bike that was committed to Dutch quality? We scoured Holland until we finally tossed in the towel - nothing was left unscathed by their scorched-earth mergers and acquisitions. Then, on a trip through Belguim we realized that the Flemish are Dutch, they have the same bike culture as Holland and you could mistake Antwerp easily for Amsterdam. They also have better food. So who makes their bikes? Could they also be better?
Half Dutch bike, half French racer. Only in Belgium...
The answer is yes, and that company is Achielle. Like Pashley, they make their bikes completely by hand in Pittem, Belgium (near Brugge and Antwerp). They've been doing this since 1946 in the shadow of the Dutch. However, unlike Pashley, they coat their bikes with far more chip and rust resistant finishes, and use parts that are more concerned with quality than provenance (their provenance is that delightful Belgian sense of stern Dutch quality and a French je ne sais quoi). Besides England's Pashley and Sweden's Skeppshult they are the last man standing when it comes to European production, and of the three, they are certainly the highest quality (although the Swedes are close). The Achielle Craighton, for instance, is the best crafted city bike we've seen.
The great thing about Achielle is that, like Brompton, they've achieved a scalability without surrending to mass production. This means they can produce a perfectly built bike for under $2000 and do so with multiple colour and spec options. And, because their shop floor lies right outside their office, an AutoCAD drawing can turn into a new product very quickly. And, the excitement to create is tangible. The original owner, Achiel has passed the business onto his grandsons who carry the tradition with a notable hipster flair (bikes like the Sam feature road bike geometry with low maintenance Dutch parts, and no one does stuff like that!). But the tradition continues. They still draw their own steel tubing (who does that anymore?!), braze it by hand, and use the highest quality finishes we've seen. Built to last a lifetime. Or two.
That's Achiel on the headbadge, before he had his first coffee.