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Broken Spoke blog: Where are all the casual cyclists?

This week I found myself in the Netherlands for a couple of days, and it was impossible not to notice the amount of people using bicycles as everyday transport. There were plenty of people out getting the miles in on top-end road machinery, a similar number to that which I regularly see at home, but it was the number of other casual everyday riders that really surprised me.

Now, I know Amsterdam is renowned for the number of cyclists on its streets, but I was in Mierlo, near the German border. However, even there it seems that bicycles are far more popular as a means of local transport than cars or even public transport. This set me to thinking, why is not the case in the UK? You would think that all those new cyclists who are getting into cycling via road bikes would be bitten by the bug and embrace cycling as a holistic lifestyle, getting a bike to commute on, to go shopping, and more besides, but it seems not.

The only place in the UK where people seem to have taken to bicycles as an alternative transport option appears, to me, to be London. It’s easy to see why this is the case – the Santander Bicycles, formerly Barclays Bikes, but perhaps better known as Boris Bikes. These are bicycles that can be hired by the hour from automated stations around the capital. The bikes themselves have chain guards, mudguards, built-in lights, a rack on the front and large volume tyres. Now, personally, I think those features are the key to the bikes’ popularity. Boris bikes are simply practical.

The inclusion of such sensible features was the thing that really struck me about the bikes I saw being ridden in the Netherlands. Not only did most of the city bikes I saw there have those practicalities, but also suspension forks and, most interestingly, a very relaxed riding position. All of the bikes combined high, swept back bars with a relaxed headtube angle to create machines that are extremely stable and let the rider see where they are going without having to strain their neck. How sensible is that?

Obviously, the next question that has to be asked is, why don’t we have bikes like these widely available in the UK? Surely there must be a market for them, and the popularity of Boris Bikes would suggest that this is the case.

The problem is that while the average mamil is happy to spend upwards of a month’s salary on a carbon road bike, there’s no way they’ll spend anything like as much on a sensibly specced town bike. I know this for a fact because I have done some consultancy work for a UK-based manufacturer of urban bikes. Many of the features I would like to have seen on the machines being planned, such as mudguards and racks, were dismissed and when I asked why, the reply was that in order to sell the number of machines needed to make the designs viable, the price had to be kept down. Obviously, the only way to keep the price down is to lose what Dutch cyclists would consider the bare necessities; mudguards, lights, etc.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Until people put pressure on the mainstream manufacturers and start demanding that urban bikes come with mudguards, chain guards, lights, racks and more at sensible prices it simply won’t happen. Instead, what we are getting is hydroformed aluminium framed hybrids with disc brakes and more gears than anyone is ever going to use around town. Take a look at the high-end mountain and road bikes that can be purchased for under £1000 on the Cycle to Work scheme and then consider how much you could get for the same money if you sacrificed a lightweight frame in favour of a higher overall specification that includes what you need for day-to-day riding, whether that be commuting, shopping, or even visits to the local pub, like lights and mudguards.

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