Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Going Upright: The good and not so good

For many years I rode a 1960's Raleigh Sports (dubbed "Walter") on an occasional basis. I had tried a drop-handlebar 10 speed (Peugeot... ah, youth), but had never liked it as much as Walter's more upright style. However, the Raleigh had one major drawback: its brakes were practically non-existent in the rain. This was a big problem in the Pacific Northwest. When it wasn't raining, the front brake--no matter what I tried--set up a vibration that caused the fender to make an amazing shriek. I kid you not.

Well, I lived with all of this because Walter had relatively wide tires, three speeds that pretty well covered the needed range, good mudguards, a well-worn Brooks saddle, and lots of little personalized touches. The bike was so well-worn that no one was interested in stealing it. It served me well, especially when I was living in a very flat, small town. 

But those brakes....

There came a time when a number of repairs needed to be made, some key parts were wearing out, and I really wanted better braking in all weather (and at least some in the rain). Then I was introduced to Dutch bikes. Suddenly, I found the bike I had always really wanted: very, very upright, very solid, and with excellent brakes. It came with a full gear case, superb heavy-weather capability, and a very nice rack. While costly, I decided that it would likely be the last bike I would purchase, since the previous one had lasted me nearly thirty years.

I cannot begin to tell readers just what a pleasure this bike has been. Being this upright means being much more aware of traffic around me. The design and construction materials mean a very solid, smooth ride. This takes the cake when it comes to an in-town, dependable transportation tool. 

Upright bikes have a specific purpose at which they excel: basic transportation. They have their limitations, too. The main one is wind. If one is bolt upright and there is any wind opposing the bike, you feel it. This can be quite debilitating on a gusty day. Another matter is weight: Dutch bikes tend to be heavy. They do not take off from a stop quickly, and they never get "fast." Then, there can be the issue of turning and "cockpit" room. If, as on mine, your Dutch bike's handlebars reach far back toward the saddle, one has to get used to making sharp turns with a considerable lean--or by moving one's leg out of the way at a slower speed. Hills are another issue: this bike's weight and geometry make it very difficult to go up steep hills, even with an expensive/extensive set of gears. It is nearly impossible to "pump" the pedals while standing. Since most Dutch bike riders go about town in their regular clothes, there are many times when I just walk it up, rather than get wringing wet trying to tough it out uphill.

But the general utility, stability, and durability of these bikes wins out in my experience. This bike (with the right racks and panniers) can perform many functions of a car, and lead to a variety of added benefits.  Going upright has been a joy, and saved me quite a bit in gas money. This bike also allows me to drink coffee while riding pretty darn safely. That is worth something...

I still have Walter... I can't quite give him up. I trot him out in the summer, for some rides in parks and the like. But Gabriel (my Dutch bike), has proven to be the type of bike I was searching for long ago, but didn't know how to find. I hope others will find the bike allowing them to go "multi-modal" and experience more of the world from two wheels in coming years.

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