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Batavus versus Gazelle

Posted on 30 July 2009

in REVIEWS

Editors note: for years we were massive boosters of Batavus Dutch Bikes - partly because they had the prescience to enter the North American market. However, we'll be honest: when we first had the idea of importing Dutch bikes we approached Gazelle first. However, they gave us a flat out "no," something to do with liability and whatnot. Nonetheless, we weren't surprised when they did enter the marketplace - two years later. By then we had already created several models with Batavus but were also coming to terms with the fact that Dutch bikes had a very limited market. When this became Batavus' discovery as well, they had to ask whether continued investment made sense, and as a brand that was selling 200,000 bikes a year in Holland and maybe 1000 a year in North America they decided no. We picked up Gazelle but found we were paying way too much for shipping (they were shipped from Holland to LA to Toronto in a box that would put a refrigerator box to shame). Realizing the market was small, we knew we needed a partner that was also small - but experienced - and, who could offer competitive pricing, better craftsmanship and a close working relationship. After a long search, we found Achielle, they've been quietly producing bikes since 1946 in Belgium and although we never would have looked for a city bike in Belgium first (which isn't fair, Belgium was once a part of Holland), we've never looked back since

- February 2016

 

After distributing Batavus bikes in North America for nearly three years, we weren't really surprised to see Gazelle finally enter the marketplace. While Netherlanders typically view Batavus and Gazelle as equals and have no absolute loyalty to either, the two companies have being doing fierce battle for years. In fact, very few people know that there was even a brief period where the two companies merged, but internal conflict ended this quickly. No one at Batavus really likes to talk about it.

There is plenty of room in North America for dedicated European city bikes, and truth is, we welcome the competition. With Gazelle in the marketplace, consumers now have the option of two powerful Dutch brands as opposed to the crude and ineffective city bikes being produced by North American companies (in China). Both Batavus and Gazelle produce excellent quality bikes, and both companies guarantee the consumer an quality product. When it comes to bikes, the rather elitist Dutch maxim 'if you're not Dutch, you're not much' is certainly true. But there are questions. Do both companies have the experience and economy-of-scale to offer reasonable pricing and excellent back-end service? Do both companies produce bikes that are specific to the needs of North Americans?

Gazelle is based in Dieren, Netherlands - a little town in the province of Gelderland. Started in 1892 Gazelle is the oldest of all the Dutch brands. Gazelle has been the more 'traditional' brand and since they supply the Dutch Royalty, Gazelle is often considered the 'figurehead' brand. This, of course, is not without debate. Older is not necessarily better, and indeed, it is often the younger companies that must be more innovative, more creative, and more quality driven. Enter Batavus.

Batavus started in 1905, and like Gazelle, made all sorts of strange things (Batavus made ice skates and stoves) before they settled on bicycles. Batavus has always been an innovator. In the 1970's they produced a moped line that have become cult objects to collectors. In the 1980's they formed the Accell Group, a holding company that produces the iconic Koga Miyata brand, the more experimental Sparta brand (who produce the award winning ION electric-assist system - the best e-bike on the market), and perhaps more impressively, the entire Paris Velib bikeshare system. It appears that Gazelle has unfortunately defaulted to the copy-cat status, and their late entry into the North American market only verifies this. Bikes like the Gazelle MPB (multi-purpose bikes) are almost certainly a crude copy of the Batavus Personal Bike (which preceded the MBP by nearly seven years). And the Gazelle Cabby is, once again, what appears to be a crude copy of the popular Bakfiets bikes. From the first company to use the NuVinci hub to numerous innovation awards in comfort and safety (the Batavus multi-position stem is a piece of engineering genius), Batavus keeps things fresh. They were the first to standardize the use of theft-resistant RFID tagging, the first to update the classic omafiets with fresh colours and they also make the worlds most amazing kickstand. Gazelle may be a figurehead brand, but Batavus is the benchmark.  Viva het verschil! Or perhaps better, viva la difference!

Both Gazelle and Batavus fight each year for supremacy of the market. This usually means Batavus outsells Gazelle by a finite number of bikes per year, or vice versa. And, in fact, most bike stores in Holland carry both brands. But the bike stores in Holland know their market and order their brands accordingly. It is said that Gazelle serves the 'over age 50' market, while Batavus serves a younger, demanding, and more sophisticated market. This difference is certainly important and is illustrated by Henry at Henry Work Cycle who is a blunt, unapologetic and fairly non-partisan observer of Dutch bike culture. On a recent blog post, Henry comments,

There’s a perception within the industry and amongst the public that Gazelle relies much too heavily on fantastic name recognition and reputation, but of course these gradually erode. Certainly in comparison with their archrival Accel Group (Batavus, Sparta & Koga Miyata) Gazelle is extremely conservative and insular, though the quality of the bikes is similar.

High quality, at the end of the day, is a Dutch obsession and Henry's hand-crafted bikes push this even further (pricey, but available from some great shops). Both Batavus and Gazelle guarantee the North American consumer utmost quality. But attitude is equally important. When we first started looking at bringing in Dutch bikes, nearly six years ago, we first consulted Gazelle. The response was a flat-out "not interested." Case closed. No arguments. Yet, after years of developing the North American market for Dutch bikes, we're not surprised that Gazelle decided to enter after all the hard work was done. It's smart - perhaps even cynical, but it's hardly trail-blazing. It is, in short: conservative.

But that's OK. We've never looked back. After all, the greatest advantage of Batavus is that they're a Dutch company that doesn't just make Dutch bikes. A Dutch bike, after all, is made for Holland. And, Holland is deadly flat while distances are short. Both Batavus and Gazelle are made in Holland, so both make quality city bikes. But, the difference between a Dutch bike and a city bike is key. Unlike Gazelle, Batavus has a long history of building, supplying and servicing export markets with city bikes (Gazelle has typically only exported to Germany). Batavus, as it were, thinks outside the dijk. The experience Batavus has with export markets is revealed the minute one visits their Danish, German, French or UK websites. On each website one can find a number of export models specific to each country. After all, to export bikes one must be extremely sensitive to the demands of each region. The Danes love minimalist design, hate drum brakes and prefer coaster brakes where ever possible. The Germans and French want bikes with more gears, since cities are bigger, sprawl is a concern, and there are hills to deal with. The entire Scandinavian market demands bikes that are completely rust-proof, since bikes are stored outside year round in the salty snow. You get the picture.

But the common thread behind all these different city bikes is that each region demands Dutch quality. This commitment to quality and regional vernacular has led Batavus to the production of two North American bikes, the Fryslan and Breukelen. The Fryslan is a classic omafiets adapted to the North American market with 5 speeds to tackle greater distances, or hills. The Breukelen is a clean, nearly logo-free design that features a no-nonsense 7 speed hub, double drum brakes and a hub dynamo. Both are made for the cold, salty winters of the Northeast, the hills and sprawl of the West Coast, and the sophisticated tastes of the urban demographic. But this is old news. This year Batavus will introduce the BUB, a bike that blends the sleek vernacular of Dutch architecture into a city bike that pushes form and function into an entirely new epoch. It's like the Smartcar of the bike world. But we're keeping it quiet for now.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Batavus' experience in export markets is reflected in the vast price differences between Batavus and Gazelle bikes in North America. This is not the case in Holland where both companies are competitively priced.  So, what's up? We suspect this has to do with over-optimism, but more likely, shipping.  In Holland bikes are shipped complete. However, shipping bikes complete to North America and within North America introduces some phenomenal costs as well as a high risk of damage. To reduce these costs, the bikes must be boxed in much smaller boxes, which requires new triple-wall boxes, strategic packaging and people who know what the heck they're doing. If anyone is wondering why a 1sp Gazelle costs $950 USD and a 1sp Batavus is only $730USD its almost certainly because of ocean and ground shipping. In Holland, they cost the same.

Paving the way for Dutch bikes in North America has been hard, trailblazing work. The problem, alas, has been bike shops. Finding consumers has never been difficult. People have wanted comfortable, low maintenance and fashionable bikes for decades. Bike shops, which have typically been male-dominated performance stores have unfortunately been the weakest link in the chain. This is why Gazelle undoubtably moved into Club Monaco - a clothing store - before they moved into bike stores. By hitting the target customer where they shop is obviously quite clever. But it is also cynical. A Dutch bike is a spectacular piece of proprietary equipment worthy of great respect. There are dozens of parts on a Dutch bike that are made in Holland and are only found on Dutch bikes. While bike stores are only beginning to learn the ins-and-outs of Dutch bikes, they remain the only place worth buying a Dutch bike. The very last people learning them should be clothing salespersons. Or servicing them. Heaven forbid. To be fair, Gazelles tactics have changed and they are using some shops that we deeply respect (and are movers and shakers themselves).  But if we had ever put a Batavus in a clothing store that would have been it for us. Case closed. No argument. Integrity above all.

The question of trailblazing is always a question of investment. The greatest investment, of course, is always time and money. There is a marked difference between urban and suburban bike shops in North America. Just like cars, the bike market in North America has, up till now, fundamentally serviced the suburban consumer. From mountain bikes to racing bikes to beach cruisers, the North American bike industry has always made bikes that ride best outside of the city. Urban shops, inside the city, have always struggled. These are shops that despite a lack of options, provided the best options they could. And it is these shops - previously under the radar - that are experiencing phenomenal success with Batavus bikes (and a great deal of other brands). But it took time. The other investment, of course, is money. This year Batavus donated 200 uber sexy bikes to the city of New York for the 400th Anniversary of NYC - entitled "Holland on the Hudson" (New York was once a Dutch colony). New York has seen an impressive increase in bicycle usage and the 200 bikes helped pave the changing perception of New Yorkers (and by a possibly spurious extension, the rest of America) to city bikes. Selling bikes is not hard work. Changing perception is. Each Batavus bike we import imports all the concepts and civility of the Dutch bicycle culture. Together with Fourth Floor Distribution, Batavus has been key in changing the North American perception of what qualifies as a real city bike.

It will take several years for Gazelle to lower their pricing through better logistics and volume. It will take even longer for them to produce key models that appeal to sophisticated North American tastes. This, no doubt, will require a change in the insularity and conservatism of Gazelle - and attitudes, like perception, is the most difficult thing to change. But, to be fair, perhaps this is already happening. Being a visionary is tough work, even if you're a little late on the scene.

Eric Kamphof is the General Manager of Fourth Floor Distribution. His parents are Dutch and when he was 13 his parents went to Holland and brought him back a Batavus catalog. This, obviously, turned out to be a seminal moment.

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