On the virtues of weight

Posted on 14 December 2008

Editors note: ok, we take some of this back. While many of ride big Dutch bikes at Curbside there are virtues to a lighter bike, as long as you can still get the same level of chip and rust protection - while keeping things low maintenance. Bikes like Simcoe proved this is possible, and as a result pushed things further. Whether through new frame materials, new lighting technology (dynamos are heavy) and technologies like belt-drives (or e-bike systems) we can't wait to see how the city bike develops in years to come. 

- February 2016

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We've been in business for 15 years and it is always humorous to watch a customer lift a bike to gauge its quality. Light means good, heavy means bad. This test is valid, but only if we are considering lightweight recreational bikes meant for toying around on weekends or after work. City bikes are quite another matter. Durability, and above all stability require a heavier bike. A real city bike requires a tough frame that won't crack when locked against a metal pole, a sealed low maintenance internal gear and brake system, and above all, rust-free parts. This adds weight, but it also adds long-term durability and stability. For instance, the recently introduced Velib program in Paris states on their website that the reason why their bikes weigh so much is they are stored outside, withstand heavy abuse and above all, they must be stable (after all, consider the crazy Parisian drivers!). While a Velib is used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and receives an average of 50km/day of use, the average recreational bike (if used recreationally) in North America is used well under 1km per day - in fact, most are just stored in garages. Now, if you were to take that recreational bike and use it for the daily averages and abuses consistent with city cycling, the problems - no surprise - immediately emerge.

Consider this: in Holland there are over 19.1 million bikes to 16.4 million people. Most of the bikes sold in Holland are dedicated city bikes with an average price of $1,100 CDN. Not cheap for a heavier bike, but believe us, they know what they're doing. Each Netherlander rides their city bike an average of 1,200 km per year, in the city! And, in Amsterdam, the average daily trips amount to 12km (4,380 km per year!). You may not believe it, but if you are a Toronto city cyclist, you are pulling the exact same averages. But, chances are you're doing it on a bike that was never made to do this. The result is a bike with a very short life and lots of expensive repairs - hardly worth it when you consider the grease it continues to spray on your clothing. In Holland a bike can be stored outside year round and still last 20 years with a minimum of maintenance. They may seem expensive, but they amortize rapidly because they keep on lasting. They also keep your clothing clean. They were made for city cycling. The Dutch don't have quite the same disposable consumer culture as North America but they also like to do things right the first time. It probably comes from being frugal and living below sea level - if the Dutch couldn't anticipate problems well in advance they would have been under water years ago. Consider a company like Batavus. Having already designed the perfect city bike for Holland they began adapting and exporting their bikes to the more mountainous and icy regions of Europe. If North American bicycle companies are suddenly shocked and scrambling to build city bikes (a product that is hardly part of the North American vernacular) it is because a Dutch bike is the most perfect and cosmopolitan city bike on the market. The Dutch don't water things down, that's why their beer is better too.

Now lets jump to Toronto. Like any Netherlander, the urban Torontonian lives most of his or her life within a 10km radius of home and can easily navigate this by bike. This isn't performance cycling, its just getting around - just like in a car. That means the daily average of a Toronto city cyclists should be no different than a Netherlander, an average distance of, say 3-10 km per day. Now, most Torontonians may not take their city bike riding that seriously, but a yearly (high) average of 3,500 km should make one think twice about what bike one is riding (or storing outside year round). Despite all the maintenance costs that every Toronto cyclist is already familiar with, there is still the destabilizing [sic] fact that there are no bike lanes. Riding a twitchy lightweight bike made for speed is hardly confidence inspiring in a city with so few bike lanes and plenty of streetcar tracks. Stability and durability - these should be key concerns when buying a bike. Sounds obvious? We think so too.

Now, lets flash back to Holland. With over 17,000km of cycle lanes and paths, the need for an ultra stable bike seems perhaps irrelevant. Nonetheless, what the Dutch have over-engineered into their city bikes should be the bare minimum for anyone riding in a city as bike unfriendly as Toronto. And then there is the sheer durability factor: a Dutch bike is also the bare minimum one should seek if one is locking the bike outside year round. A Dutch winter, after all, has nothing on a cold and salty Canadian winter. Despite the tragic fact that real city bikes have not been available in North America and real bike lanes have not been implemented, we applaud the Toronto cyclist for riding anyways - and there's a lot of you! Nonetheless, we bet that if we were to take away all the city bikes in Holland and replace them with lightweight North American hybrids, the Netherlands would have far less daily bicycle use. A bike that keeps your clothing clean, feels safe and stable, can be stored outside without worry of rust (or parts being stolen), and lasts a long time with minimal maintenance is common sense, really. If we really want more cyclists we should consider not only bike lanes, but perhaps more importantly the bikes we ride.

Now, back to the issue of weight. Here's a fact: no one in Amsterdam is sweating buckets riding their heavier bikes. There are no shower facilities in Holland when you are finished your ride (something North American bicycle advocates all over are arguing for...making city cycling sound rather unattractive and even unhygienic). Fact is, a heavier bike does not equal a slow bike. In fact, a super-light beach cruiser with three inch wide balloon tires, laid back seating position, and long wheelbase is the most sweat inducing bike ever. And then there's the issue of speed. The fast kid on the fixed gear bike who passes you is sweating buckets even though you catch up to him at the same red light. The speed of a Dutch city bike is nicely tuned to the traffic patterns of a city - keeping you safe, efficient and darn good lookin'. In any case, a real city bike may be a bit heavier, but it must ride light - this is imperative. The weight simply guarantees durability and stability. Meanwhile, the riding position, wheels, gears, and geometry guarantee efficiency. And, the chaincase and spoke-guard ensure that you can be grease-free and as pretty as the bike you're riding. Hey, that's important too! Think about that next time you lift a bike!

Netherlands source data can be found at Amsterdamize. Velib source data is found at Velo Mondial.

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