Monday, 30 December 2013

A post about bikes

I've never written a blogpost on the subject of bikes before: I've just written about 150 posts on cycling. So I thought I had better remedy this.

I've been spending a lot of time in bike shops lately: mostly Evans, but occasionally Halfords, Cycle Surgery, and others. I have no hesitation recommending Evans, by the way, as I've found their staff knowledgeable and helpful, and a big plus for them in my book is that they are helping fund the London Cycling Campaign's Space for Cycling campaign: exactly the kind of thing that the big bike firms in the UK should be getting involved with, in my view, for their own self-interest. (Brompton previously helped with the LCC's Go Dutch campaign for the 2012 Mayoral elections). Another plus for Evans is that they give a 10% discount for in-store purchases on presentation of an LCC membership card. They even allowed me to take an expensive bike out to test-ride it, for no charge, with only a credit card handed over and sight of a British Library card as proof of identity, and there was no sales pressure at all (I didn't buy it). The branch in question, my nearest one, was their huge shop in the most unpromising location imaginable, on the roaring A41 trunk road in Hendon, on the edge of a steep hill, in the Bikeless Borough of Barnet. I once said to them that I thought this was a terrible location for a bike shop, but they assured me, to my surprise, that they see quite a few commuters cycling past on the A41. In any case they usually seem to be busy, though I suspect most customers get there by car.

Anyway, my point is to make this observation, having spent some time looking at the bikes they stock in London bike shops: the bikes you see in shops are different to the bikes you see on the streets, predominantly. Put the other way round, if, you survey the bikes you see people using for practical tasks on the streets of London, they are untypical of the bikes the shops mostly seem to be trying to sell. This is not entirely true, of course. There is some overlap of the sets. But they are different sets, and that causes me to wonder why.

At Asda. Spot who hasn't learned to use the iPhone camera without their finger over the lens yet.
Here's a scene by the (terrible) bike-parking facility at my local Asda in Colindale. You don't see many people shopping by bike in these parts; I would guess it is a small fraction of one percent of the number of people driving (some people use buses and walk as well, of course). But I've been looking at the bikes people do use for shopping here. The nearest bike to the camera is one of mine. It is my lowest-quality bike. (I acquired it in Morocco on a tour that went wrong, after the bikes I and my friends had taken to Gatwick never turned up in North Africa. I kept it with the idea of leaving it at theft-prone locations like stations, but then I upgraded many components because they were annoying me, and now it is quite good, though still heavy.) It has a rack, mudguards, dynamo lights front and rear, a prop-stand, bell, and straightish, flattish handlebars, giving a fairly upright riding position, like all my bikes. It's my entirely unscientific observation that a high proportion of the bikes you see in London being used practically, on a day-to-day basis, have many of these attributes, which are clearly untypical of the bikes you see in shops, at least in the raw form in which they are sold.

The bike behind mine in the photo has the mudguards and rack, plus bungees, and bell, but battery, not dynamo, lights. It does however have some sort of chain-guard, a refinement which mine sadly lacks. The lady loading the bike at the back, which you can't really see, has both a wicker basket on the front and panniers on the rack.

My point, of course, is that the bikes you see in shops are not sold ready for use as practical machines. Everything you need to turn them into such is an extra in most cases, and in many cases the bike would not be very suitable for such utility use anyway. Go into any low-end warehouse like Halfords or Go Outdoors, and you will see rows and rows of samey, unispiring hybrid and mountain-style bikes, the vast majority with no mudguards, no rack, no incorporated means of carrying luggage of any kind, and no lights. This is in a country famous for its wet weather, and where we have 17 hours of darkness per day for part of the year. So any bike that is used at all is almost inevitably going to be have to used in the wet and the dark, but they don't give you mudguards or built-in lighting. Dynamo lighting systems, so common on the Continent, are almost unheard of in the big UK bike chains, and hub gears, so much better suited to stop-start urban cycling, and so much better for those who don't want to be bothered with bike maintenance, lubrication and cleaning, than the ubiquitous derailleurs front and rear, are rare indeed.

If you go into a store that sells higher-quality bikes, like Evans, or most small, independent shops, you'll see, more predominantly than the faceless mountain-style bikes, row upon row of alloy and carbon racing-style bikes with drop handlebars, derailleurs, and no accessories. Who buys these? I don't know. I don't see many of them actually ridden on urban roads. Here's a point to baffle most people outside biking culture: these bikes are called "road bikes" by everyone in the trade, and by cycling geeks. An ordinary member of the public I suspect, would expect the term "road bike" to mean a bike equipped for normal uses on normal roads, but of course you and I know it means a racing bike: always one with drop handlebars. What should be referred to as a "road bike" is called a "utility" or "town bike". But these are incredibly rare in our shops, so most people who go in  to a shop looking for one of these will probably go out with a mountain-hybrid as the closest available thing, though it probably won't be very suitable at all, without a lot of changes that they have to make. Paradoxically, many so-called "mountain bikes" are actually closer to what is needed as a "road bike" for utility use than what is called a "road bike" is. This all puts a certain barrier between the bike trade and the non bike-enthusiast potential customer, I feel. Language is used confusingly; the categories are wrong.

Why is this called a "road bike"...
...rather than this? (Pictures nicked from Evans Cycles, who classify the red bike as a "hybrid", which it is not, it is a classic town bike design – nothing could be less "hybrid". There's a categorisation problem.)

So what is going on? If the general truth of my observations is accepted, why are the bikes that actually get used around town not the ones the shops sell? There are a number of possible explanations, and the truth is doubtless a combination of these. One explanation is that a high proportion of the bikes sold in the UK are indeed only sold for leisure and sports use. They are taken out of the city in cars and ridden in the countryside, or abroad, or people ride them from their homes in the London suburbs, early on Sunday mornings before I am about, and go on "club runs" and audaxes on them. Some of my friends do do this, and there is nothing wrong with it. Typically, these people don't ride during the week and don't do their shopping by bike. They aren't interested in cycle campaigning or in the concept of mass utility cycling. The people who ride these bikes are being sold the right bikes, and the shops are catering to them.

Another explanation is that lots of people are buying the bikes on offer and then rapidly giving up cycling after trying it in real UK conditions. The problem here is not primarily with the products the trade is offering, but with the lack of suitable infrastructure to cycle on in the UK: you can't cycle unless you can come to terms with, and deal with, constant threat, harassment and bullying from drivers, the lack of subjective safety David Hembrow bangs on about. Most people cannot do this, so the bikes they buy languish in garages, or rust away in gardens. The saddest possible explanation however is that many people are being mis-sold inappropriate machines, and that they fail to become regular cyclists when they might have done so had the products from the retailers been better suited to the tasks they needed a bike to perform. Under this explanation, those users who survive the winnowing out process due to hostile conditions mentioned above do so preferentially if they have been supplied with better bikes in the first place, or have had the determination to improve them themselves.

These are not new ideas of mine. I recall two decades ago Paul Gannon addressing a day-long conference at Camden Town Hall, organised jointly by Camden Cyclists and the council, and asking why the British bike trade did not offer more bikes better suited to utility purposes. He made the point that though the trade will just say they are responding to demand, and that because cycling is perceived largely as a leisure activity and a sport in the UK, that is what they cater to, in reality, the problem is that there is a marketing job which is not being done right. He commented that every successful product is marketed actively, so that people who didn't think they needed it at first become convinced that they do, and that the trade really does not try to market practical bikes as they should. They are, in other words, purely reactive, complacent and lethargic.

Since then, the situation does seem to have improved slightly. There are small, independent shops in London specialising in practical bikes, and Evans does stock a significant number of such machines. (I was able to get the picture of the red Pinnacle off their website). The big lacuna I still observe is the lack of bikes on sale with built-in lighting. This seems to me to be the biggest issue, bordering on scandal. It is as illegal for bikes to be used after dark without lights as it is cars, and rightly so. But how many motorists would have lights if their machines were not supplied with them built in, powered (indirectly) by the fuel they supply? How many would fiddle about to fit them themselves, with screwdrivers and plastic bands, or pay for the shop to fit them as an extra? Of course, this is a silly, childish point. The concept makes no sense. But that our bikes are sold without lights in this 17-hours of darkness country shows clearly the immaturity of our cycling culture.

The UK bike trade, I am told, anecdotally, has historically resisted legislation to make lights on bikes  compulsory at point of sale. The have argued it does not make sense for a trade which is leisure and sports-driven. Their lobbying has been successful, to our detriment, and maybe their own, viewed long-term. For there is a big credibility problem for cycling with the majority of the British public, and much of this stems from the perceived problem of cyclists being lawbreakers. And part of this comes from the difficulty with lights. If quality, solid, reliable and theft-proof built-in lights are not normally supplied with new bikes, chances are that a significant proportion of bikes, inevitably, will be ridden at night without lights. The problem of being responsible for sorting the lighting is too great for many users. What is sold to them is too easily stolen, runs out of battery power, or falls off. Or they just convince themselves they won't ride in the dark, and then they find they have to.

The Germans seem to have solved the problem elegantly. The law there is that bikes over a certain weight must be sold with lights conforming to certain standards. The weight criterion serves to exclude high-end sports bikes. So basically all the bikes used on the streets in Germany have lights built-in. A side-effect is that Germany has developed the world's leading dynamo and bike light industry, and we import their products and use their standards. This legislation has had beneficial social, safety, environmental and economic effects for the country that enacted it. I'd support a similar approach here.

I think it's probably naive to expect the UK bike industry to make a big change on its own. This is a complex, factorially-interlinked, maybe circular,  problem. The trade think they are supplying according to the demand. They perceive the main demand in this country as sporty. The demand for utility "Continental-style" machines won't increase until the government makes the infrastructure better, so a bigger mass of people feel safer engaging in slow, relaxed, routine utility cycling. Unfortunately, the character of the trade as it is at the moment creates problems for people trying to get into cycling, and we need those people to get into it to accelerate the change by experiencing the issues we face and joining the political lobby (though organisations such as the LCC).

The trade resists legislative change on lighting, though that change, arguably, might serve to regularise cycling into British society better, ultimately increasing their turnover. (They could certainly make a lot of money selling high-quality lights and dynamos, and better-quality fully-equipped bikes). The trade promotes certain other things quite a lot, like helmets and high-visibility clothing, that serve, arguably, to distance cycling as an activity even more from the mainstream public. The trade often seems unable to provide people with what they need, or tries to persuade them they need something different to that which they really need. It confuses customers, but that's inextricably linked to the rest of the cycling culture we have, which is shaped by a combination of history and current environment.

Dave Warnock commented on his blog 42 Bikes yesterday:
Also worth noting is that in the UK where cycling is not at all normal you find a much higher percentage of people who ride bikes are “bike geeks” compared to the Netherlands where bikes are just bikes for most people who ride them. That is a clear indicator of the amount of work to be done in the UK to get non bike geeks on bikes (work that I believe should be nearly all focused on safe and convenient infrastructure).
He's right. Though you can get here, or build up yourself, of course, highly practical bikes, we need a situation where those who aren't really interested in bikes don't have to do a lot of research and search high and low, and don't have to fiddle about themselves for hours, just to get easily what any ordinary non-enthusiast bike user would need. What they need should be in their face as soon as they step into a bike shop, as it would be in Denmark or the Netherlands.

In previous discussion of the bike trade in the UK versus that in the Netherlands, Carlton Reid, who is something of a spokesman for the UK trade, has assured me that the Dutch bike trade does not promote utility cycling much either, because most of their income comes not from the utilitarian mass of cyclists, but the sporting minority. This seems unlikely to me, though I suppose it is possible that there is more profit on one anodised stem than on 100 inner tubes. If true, it maybe indicates we can never expect much better from the trade, that it always follows a market environment determined by external conditions, and that it is never likely to be much of an ally for cycle campaigning. I think this could be too pessimistic a view. The actions of Brompton, Evans and other companies supporting LCC campaigning argues otherwise.

When I once commented in a tweet that the Dutch don't really care much about their bikes, they just regard them as "furniture", David Hembrow reacted indignantly, claiming that the "furniture" analogy was not right, and that many Dutch do in fact spend a lot of money on their bikes and regard a nice bike as a status symbol. This could also be true. But it doesn't really invalidate the "bike geek" point. In the UK, if you ride a bike you are probably in to messing about with bikes, adjusting them, maintaining them and optimising them, whether for speed, or usefulness. If you are Dutch or Danish or German, you just buy a bike and use it, and get it serviced when it needs it, like you would a car, or central heating, or a TV set. It's rather symptomatic of a mass culture of anything that most users don't know how to fix the gadget in question.

In summary, I think that to change both the culture of cycling in the UK, and the type of bikes we get, the primary requirement is for government at local and national level to work much harder to change the conditions. The trade could do far more, both in joining and supporting campaigners in ambitious lobbying, and in disseminating more widely an image of cycling that would appeal beyond the enthusiast, backing that up with more pro-active marketing of practical utility bikes, changing the language around them and clarifying the message. They should also be willing to accept sensible legislation on lighting at point of sale. But the situation we have at the moment with respect to these attitudes is a bit of a log-jam, and it's hard to see any part of this jigsaw moving without all the other parts moving first, which is where the basic problem lies. There's been a slow drift in the right direction since Paul Gannon spoke on this 20 years ago, but the fact is that a typical UK bike shop still looks very different to a Dutch one, and this is both a symptom of, and a contributory factor to, the big problem of promoting utility cycling in the UK.

Best wishes for 2014 to my readers.

16 comments:

  1. I completely agree David, particularly on "bike geekiness". I used to ride a hybridised MTB on my commute, with all the attendant gear and clothing and a fair amount spent in time and money adapting the bike to my needs. I did this as yes, I was passionately interested in bicycles, their function and wore my ability to shape it to my needs as a badge of honour.

    However, I got tired of this approach towards the end of last year and after research invested in a folding bike appropriate for utility cycling. Looking back, although the folder (a Brompton) and luggage was initially more expensive, a rough calculation tells me that i have likely spent more on my adapted MTB and gear to the same ends.

    Getting the choice right at the outset is a wise goal, and accessibility and appropriateness indeed vital for keeping new cyclists interested without frustrating them with yet another widget or piece of kit they feel obliged to bolt on to their bike.

    Myself, I don't regret the time spent in teaching myself maintenance and the intricacies of gearing or setting up brakes, but then, as you imply, cycling remains a geeks choice.

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  2. I have been rummaging in my memory to think of any bikes I have ever bought in a multiple such as Evans or Halfords. I came up with one - a 20" wheel kiddie bike on which my kids first learnt to ride.

    Apart from that it has always been either mail-order (4 bikes, of which one from Kettler, and two "town bikes" in a sale from Somerset specialist St John St Cycles) or local specialists.

    That reflects on my choice of bikes - Brompton or Birdie folders which multiples generally don't stock, or town bikes with mudguards and hub gears. I dislike derailleurs for several reasons, particularly because if you don't concentrate and think ahead you always end up leaving changing down until it's too late as you hit the lights or a sharp increase in gradient.

    In fact both Halfords and Evans stock town bikes, but when did you last see one on display in any of their branches? You have to browse online or go through their paper catalogue to find them, and you then have the classic British cultural issue - can I trouble them to get one in store so I can try it? (Would they even agree, or would they say no - you can place an order or nothing?)

    And when it comes to the most celebrated models - Brompton, or Pashley, for example - their price is the same as an independent retailer, or perhaps more once you have factored in the discounts which the independents give to LCC members.

    And finally, when they need repair or maintenance, the independent is much more accommodating. My favourite retailer operates a first-come, first-served no-booking arrangement, where if you drop in before 9am there is a good chance you will get it back by 7pm, or at worst the following day. When I once tried to book a bike into Evans for a service, I was quoted three weeks delay before they could take it. Not much use when you have that itchy feeling that something is going to give in a few days if you don't get it seen to.

    There is one thing though which I think even the independents have yet to really step p to the plate on - e-bikes. Where I live, I think there are quite a few people who are put off cycling by the terrain, which is quite hilly. Most of them have never heard of e-bikes, but when you explain, they are quite enthused, only the nearest e-bike retailer is probably 20 or more miles away.

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  3. Interesting post, and many good points. Road bikes are called road bikes because the design is derived from a design for racing on the road, as opposed to racing on the track. The history of cycling in Britain is largely a sporting, touring history. Utility cycling (which in the British context means cycling to and from work - and maybe through the morning mist to Holy Communion) is a distant, poorer, less glamorous relation.

    On lighting, a good dynamo set will add at least £50 to the cost of a bike, more if it's a hub-driven dynamo and the lights have capacitors that keep them on when stationary. This is a big increment in a country where the average price of a bike is somewhere around £100. I think the Netherlands (or maybe Germany) comes top of the pile when it comes to average bike price, and this tells us a lot about how bikes are valued and the type of bike that is sold, perhaps also the accessories (like lights, mudguards etc) that are included in the basic price of the bike. It also tells us that bikes in the UK are regarded as toys, from bicycle shaped objects for kids to ten thousand pound carbon fibre boys' toys for middle aged men with more money than time to ride.

    Personally, I've always thought that the classic British tourer makes for an excellent city bike for London. The Dawes Londoner was once sold by Covent Garden Bikes, and you still see many of them around. I have one still: http://thebikeshow.net/could-u-be-the-most-beautiful-bike-in-the-world/ Similar bikes were made by Claud Butler and Raleigh, based on a earlier touring design from the 50s.

    The Raleigh Pioneer - the original 'hybrid' - was a decent attempt to update this classic machine, swapping the drop handlebars for flat bars, adding mountain bike style gears (though no hub gears).

    The British bike industry has made practical bikes and I hope will continue to do so, but the current bike boom is very much sport and leisure driven, and bike sales and marketing reflect this. Bike companies in the US were the first to design a new generation of interesting machines that combine weekday utility with weekend leisure potential, bikes like the Surly Cross Check are good examples. In the UK some smaller brands like Genesis, Charge and Planet X (and others) have recently begun to makes bikes like this, increasingly specifying hub gears, which is encouraging. Hopefully we'll see them more in the shops and on the streets!

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  4. I completely agree as well. I tried commuting with a high-end roadbike, with lots of carbon. It was light and fast. However, it was twitchy, lacked fenders (or mounts for fenders), and I had to carry any cargo in a messenger bag, that made my center of gravity very high. I ended up very crash-prone, and sore from the transmission of road vibration right up my spine. I ended up moving over to a 1971 french folding bike, with full fenders, two racks, dynamo lights. The trips are so much more relaxed, and I can carry huge amounts of stuff fairly easily, in a much more comfortable manner. Unfortunately, I'm unable to find a bike like this made today, without having one made custom, at great expense.

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  5. George Coulouris30 December 2013 18:30

    I agree with much of what you say David, especially the points about built-in lighting systems and hub gears. But I think there is a potentially large group of users who both use a bike for commuting, shopping and to go touring or fitness riding. Often they would like to do all of those things on a single bike, and some even manage to do so, but most have two or more bikes.
    This presents a challenge that neither Bromptons nor Dutch utility bikes meet well. With modern components (e.g. 14-speed hub gears and low-mass super-efficient dynamo systems) and good understanding of bike design it is possible to do so. Such bikes aren't cheap. but perhaps one should compare their cost with two less 'all purpose bikes'. I think you know which bike I think meets that challenge (and it is British designed and built), but I won't mention a name in case I am accused of advertising.

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    1. I tend to agree the standard Dutch utility bike may not be the optimum machine for most British conditions. We have more severe gradients, worse surfaces and typically large distances between home and workplaces due to the layout of our cities. Dave Warnock has done an interesting post on what he considers the optimal machine to be. What he comes up with is extremely expensive, and doesn't even approximately correspond to anything that is produced as standard, but I think it should be possible to do something like it much cheaper, and I wish some British entrepreneur would.

      I agree we could keep the all features and general shape of Dutch bikes but give them more gears, with the new generation of hubs, better brakes, hub dynamo lighting, and build them lighter but almost as strong, and still be in a moderate (not cheap) price bracket. I'd buy one.

      (I'll end the mystery here by saying that George doesn't want to be accused of advertising Moulton bikes.)

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    2. I agree that the "standard Dutch utility bike" may not be the best for all purposes, but there are lots of other options in a similar configuration. There are Dutch bikes with aluminum frames and (relatively) lightweight components, but also fenders, dynamo lighting, and (8-speed) hub gears and brakes.

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  6. You made me think about our five bikes and where we got them:

    My Brompton came from Velorution: Velorution is one of those bikes as fashion item shops which (gasp shock horror) employs women as well as men to sell bikes, perhaps not such a daft idea when 51% of the population is female. I've yet to see a woman working in Evans, sadly. (This includes the branch you went to which is at the bottom of the hill from Middlesex University where I work.)

    My teen daughter's Bobbins Birdie came from the now close Bobbins shop. It's a 3 speed hub classic design which she can waste the BMX boys on on the way to school. Evans now sell their bikes as does our local Hatfield Cycles, but that's a change in the past year or so. Does that mean someone has done some market research?

    My son has an Islabike which came mail order. Prior to that we had a series of Pukys for both kids.

    My partner has a Pashley Tri-1 tricyle with folding stem, vital to get it into the front of the house. This we had to get from our nearest dealer in north London, but which they delivered.

    Finally my "mid life crisis sports car substitute" Helios tandem came direct from Circe Cycles. I bought this because it has small wheels, can fit in spaces other tandems cannot and is fitted with the Brompton luggage block, so all my Brompton bags fit, which is a dead easy way to swap over the tool kit.

    Not one of these practial bikes came from one of the chain stores as my experience, like yours, is they don't have what ordinary cyclists want. The Bobbins' at Evans shows a bit of a shift in the right direction.

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  7. I am sure you all miss the old Velorution shop, which did more than anyone else to improve the standard of British bicycle stores ;-)

    I ride everyday a Velorution Scorcher (yes with hub gears and hub dynamo), a bike of great comfort, speed and minimal maintenance. [I have also toured several thousand kilometres with it]

    If you find one second hand, grab it and it will serve you for years.

    Happy New Year!

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  8. The lack of choice in styles of bikes and in standard accessories was once very poor. I remember at one time the only bikes available were ten-speed racing bikes. The only style that all stores carried with no other types sold. I saw many people turn the handle bars upside down to be more comfortable.
    Now, in many cities in Canada, other styles are available. In a city like Vancouver or Toronto, you can find some nice practical utility bikes. Good to see.

    I am not happy with the selection of lights available here though. If I want to pick up a light at the local store, all there is to choose from are battery driven super bright LEDs. I can't blame the stores too much though as they likely can't even carry something that their distributors don't carry.

    The thing that's different than a few decades ago is that if some product line isn't sold at all in a country, people there will still find out about its existence from foreign websites. For example if you go to philips.nl or philips.de you can see some nice bike lights available but if you go to philips.ca they aren't listing any bike lights at all. Why don't they sell them in Canada?

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  9. Dutch bike manufacturers and shops make a lot of profit with electric assist bikes.
    Those are not cheap bikes, but are also not for sport since they only provide an assist until 25 km/h.

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  10. I've ben hearing these comments about bikes for decades. My routine bike is a Dawes Galaxy touring bike. I note that this year "touring bike" doesn't even seem to exist in articles describing the kinds of bikes one might buy.
    Lack of accessories on bikes is because that makes the bike cheaper. Lowest sticker price is all that matters.
    Regarding lights being included (as is legally required in NL, and I think D as well, and maybe more countries too) you have the same problem as with bike facilities: The minimum legally required is the maximum you ever actually get. There's never any point in gold plating. But I want better lights.
    "Touring bikes" are no longer a category. "Road bikes" are a fairly new category, designed for people who want sporty bikes, but have no idea that there are different kinds, optimised for different purposes. What the ones in Evans ads are optimised for, who knows.
    The only thing I've ever bought in Velorution has been a cardboard bike helmet. It's not for wearing - I don't wear bike helmets - but the idea that a cardboard helmet meets the standard appeals to me. When I bought it, just recently, they gave me a copy of their glossy catalogue. It has a good interview with Andrew Gilligan, London's bike Commissioner
    Jeremy Parker

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  11. My first bike (bought four years ago) was an old-fashioned three-speed. Not a bad bike at all for getting around Oxford - it did at least have a kickstand, mudguards, chain guard, hub gears - but I had no idea what I was missing till I upgraded it six months ago, to a European-style city bike with an 8-speed hub, suspension forks, dynamo lights, a parking brake, etc. etc. See my write up about this at http://wanderingdanny.com/oxford/2013/07/kettler-spirit-city-bike-review/

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  12. I think you're spot on here. The shops aren't even meeting current demand.

    I very often see people on bikes riding with shopping bags balanced on each handle – sometimes two or three bags on each handle! This is a frequent occurrence. It looks so dangerous to me, but I guess people feel it's a viable solution for them.

    These people obviously wanted a bike with some carrying capacity – a rack and panniers, or a basket – but ended up with a standard mountain bike and are struggling with the compromises.

    So I do believe there is *already* a market out there for bikes with practical fixtures. Maybe it's not a massive one yet, but it's definitely there.

    More than once we've been stopped while out on our Dutch bikes, by people on foot asking what they're called and where we bought them. Unfortunately, we got them in Haarlem so it's a bit out of the way for most people. I'm not even sure that there's a word for them in English. Tell people to ask for a Dutch town bike.

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  13. Totally agree and it is something which has been on my mind for a while (I am Italian and there is a large selection of utilities bikes there but it's too complicated to take one back!). I find it even worse for children where the choice is usually between heavy mountain-type bikes or Barbie-type pink things, often with no mudguards or rack. Several years ago we bought a bike (of a reasonable weight, with mudguards and back rack) in France for our 8 yrs old daughter and managed to take it back from holiday on the bike carrier of the car. for me, I have bought second-hand bikes from a German lady (3 speeds, mudguards, etc) and, the only new one, a Dawes Kalahari which I find quite good (but probably too many gears for my needs). having to add your own lights (and remember them each time) is a real pain and I wish the bikes here had dynamos!

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  14. I must correct something. It is not illegal to sell bikes without lights in Germany, but for a long time, until very recently, it has been illegal to RIDE a bike (weighing more than 11kg), even in daylight, without a fitted dynamo lighting system. And Germans tend to be rather law-abiding so there's simply not much demand for bikes without lights. Fill your German bike shop with the same stock as you find in Evans, and you will not sell many bikes. This will probably change now they've permitted battery lights, we shall see.

    It is always more attractive for the retailer to stock bikes without them. This is not so much because the bike may cost a bit less and thus be easier to sell (except in Germany), but because there is something like FIVE times as much profit to be made from selling lights as accessories, compared to a very much smaller margin on the very much smaller amount that lights add to the price of a bike when bought in bulk by a manufacturer. For an included dynamo lighting system does NOT necessarily add anything like £50 to the price of a bike.

    Check out the Nework-5 from Decathlon - if you can find one in stock. This a rare importation of an economical European style trekking bike is only £280 complete with hub dynamo lighting, guards, luggage carrier, chainguard and 24-speeds. Derailleur I'm afraid, but not very afraid. Hub gears are a good idea only if the local shop is set up to service them - which is needed more often than you might expect - but ask for your two-year or 2000-mile (whichever comes first) hubgear service at a typical British bike shop and you'll be greeted by blank stares. So people just keep on riding them for about twice that long/far and then have to replace the whole thing for almost as much as they paid for the bike. Unfortunately derailleurs are all that most of our shops understand and they're pretty reliable these days.

    Completely agree about the sporting bias, but Britain wasn't always like that. No other country has ever cycled as much as the Dutch, but from the 1920s and to the early 50s our cycling culture was not different from Denmark and Germany. We lost the everyday cycling plot from the 1950s onwards, when it became a deprecated poor-mans means of transport. Right up until the turn of the century, the only 'smart' way to cycle in an English-speaking country has been to at least adopt the style of bike used by an on or off-road racer - because it's better right? We are at last begining to realise that is wrong. But it will take a while.

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