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On 'submerged' innovations. The Fietsvak Travelogue.

Posted on 12 February 2010

Editors note. This article feels important in a market that today views "disruption" as a necessarily good word. There is little doubt most bike stores have found the city bike disruptive since it appeals to a client they're not used to. Motorists find it disruptive. Yet, for all its disruption the city bike really isn't. It's been around too long. However, everyone and their mother in Silicon Valley wants to start a bicycle company that "disrupts" regular retail channels. Part of this is fair, especially if most bike stores choose to not adapt, but part of this is based on the naive idea that disruption = authority. Just because you started a bike company doesn't give you the authority to crown every person assembling your bicycle at home a bicycle mechanic. Chances are few of these companies can assemble their own bikes properly. Bicycles have been around a long time and yes, the city bike is disruptive, but only because it remind ourselves of something very simple, joyful and wonderfully analog, if not human. 

- February 2016. 

The Fietsvak bike show in Holland is probably deadly boring to Dutch bike retailers, but fascinating to us out-of-towners. In many ways, the Fietsvak is the Dutch bicycle industries way of kick-starting the year by showing some 'late release' products and 'limited edition' products that keep consumers anxious and the bike industry on their toes after a boring winter. But its really just the same stuff in different colours or parts. As known to many (and discussed here), Batavus is known as the innovator in Holland while its competitor Gazelle as the perpetual perpetuator of tradition. Even still, the bike industry in Holland is remarkably conservative. Products are measured far more by standards of longevity and practicality than by goofy artist-series bikes or other clever gimmicks. In North America where the bicycle consumer has been typically been told what to buy (here! a mountain bike! they're great in the city!), the Dutch city cyclists keeps their industry in check with relentless demands - a sophisticated consumer indeed. So, to be an innovator in such a market still means one must be conservative - and that's a good thing, we think. In a culture where no one blinks at the millions of bikes everywhere, the sense of quality is hard-wired into every Dutch cyclist. It's genetic.

At this years Fietsvak, Batavus indeed had some fresh colours in the new BuB bike as well as a new e-BuB model in prototype stage. They even had a bike we affectionately called the "USA, A-OK" bike which would go perfectly with the cowboy shirt on a cattle-hustlin' Texan rancher, if they were ever to drop their Ford F150 for a city bike. (We've never understood the Dutch sense of humour, or, if it's even a joke). If you rode this around NYC you would be laughed at. If you rode this around Amarillo, Texas you would be laughed at. If you rode this around Seattle you would be ironic. The real question is: where do you get those tyres? Anyhow, what was most interesting to us was the booths that weren't packed, like Electra and Kryptonite. There are so many tiers to the Dutch bike industry that it is practically a caste system of quality - and thus there are certain products that are (legitimately so, in this case) untouchable. Shoddy engineering, constant product recalls, and rapid disposability are a hard thing to import into Holland. The clash of American and Dutch worldviews are on full display at a show like the Fietsvak. Just like the insane worldview clash in the All-America Dutch bike (it still makes us laugh). Most people didn't see the quiet drama, but we did.

The bike is big business in Holland and Denmark. While the automobile industry spends as much in advertising as the bike industry sells in North America, the disproportionality between auto and bicycle sales is quite different in the Netherlands. Take for instance the matter of trade shows. In North America a huge number of bicycle retailers converge in Las Vegas (of all places) to attend Interbike. In Holland, the bicycle retailers will not only attend Eurobike or the IFMA show in September, but also the Bike Motion Benelux show in October, and the Fietsvak in late January. Add to this several private shows held by each bike company including a sneak preview show in late August and several travelling shows around Europe throughout September. For any North American bike retailer or wholesaler, this is truly dizzying. Today, our company is the first and largest distributor of dedicated European city bikes yet we still only sell .05% of what Batavus sells in Holland in a single year. That's just one bike company in Holland (although the largest). Nonetheless, North Americans are learning, and fast.

But that's Holland and Denmark. While other countries adopted the automobile as a primary mode of transportation, Holland stuck to the bicycle and continued to innovate on it within its submerged geography, creating a product equally submerged and profoundly revolutionary. To those who study economics, a product, when introduced, can either be 'evolutionary', 'revolutionary' or 'disruptive'. An evolutionary product is like a perfect thing always being perfected, like a chair or a table. A revolutionary product is the sudden enhancement or optimization of a product that doesn't render the older product obsolete, but comes awfully close. For instance, the iPhone was revolutionary for all sorts of reasons but many people still use a basic cell phone, because a basic cell phone still takes calls - it works.  A disruptive product offers something completely new and often instantly makes obsolete something previous. An example is the microchip, which killed all those living room-size computers operating on vacuum-tubes.

But therein lies the problem. The Dutch bike is actually neither. It is, in fact, an 'evolutionary' product, built on over 100 years of consumer input, clever innovation, and a great deal of adaptability as it expanded into export markets all over the hillier and icier regions of Europe. Now, import that highly distilled product into North America and it stands in stark contrast to the bikes offered there. In fact, it doesn't even compete. It competes far more with a car, and takes itself about that seriously too. Given over a century of production, a Dutch bike simply cannot be considered revolutionary. Except it is. But then consider why it is revolutionary and it no longer should be considered so. Eliminating chain oil from clothing is not revolutionary. Neither is comfort, nor is low maintenance. This what people should minimally expect. Yet it is for these reasons that a Dutch bike is so starkly different from North American bikes. In this way it is also a disruptive product, for a Dutch bike neither revolutionizes the existing bikes of North America nor even speaks to their level. But yet a Dutch bike can't be disruptive for the simple reason that its been around for over a century, where it evolved very slowly and very conservatively. Like the very country itself, the Dutch bike is a submerged product. Or at least, that's what we're calling it here in our little muse.

Perhaps thats the thing about the Dutch. When you're submerged below sea level you can never stick your head in the ground. You're always making new ground. You're ground-breaking. You make the rest of the world look, well, submerged.

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