A good friend and I have been engaging in an ongoing and amiable debate regarding what constitutes a good commuting/utility bike. He was the editor of a bicycle magazine for many years and speaks from a position of immense knowledge and authority, so he’s a great person to spar with if you want to learn a thing or three. I quite enjoy confronting him with controversial ideas — some of which I don’t necessarily wholeheartedly agree with myself — just to see where it leads our discussion. Something interesting almost always comes out of these exchanges.
Recently, this friend has been on a quest to learn everything there is to know about traditional Dutch (and English) Roadsters. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and he believes the Northern European pedigree of Dutch bikes may transfer well to the rainy climate where he lives. He’s learned much, and shared much with me, about band brakes and internal gear hubs, load carrying and how it relates to frame geometry, the pros and cons of chain cases, and on-and-on. At this point, he’s almost, but not quite, convinced that traditional Roadsters (particularly those of the Dutch variety) represent the ultimate in practical bikes for daily transportation, at least for riders who live in a dank-and-damp climate and don’t have many hills to climb.
Always one to play the Devil’s Advocate when it comes to discussions around bike design, I’ve been throwing it back at him, advocating for more modern, higher performance, U.S.-centered commuter bike designs such as those from Civia, Breezer, Rivendell, Raleigh, and others. I live in Northern California, where on a wet year I’m likely to encounter heavy rain on no more than 20-30 commute days; I don’t need a bike that can withstand sitting in the rain 150 days a year. I also don’t mind working on bikes, maintaining drivetrains, and adjusting brakes and the like.
For the soggy conditions in which he rides, enclosed drivetrains and brakes make sense. He likes drum or band brakes because, unlike rim brakes, they don’t create brake sludge. He likes enclosed chain cases because they protect the drivetrain from the elements. He’s not 100% sold on internal gear hubs, though he likes the concept for ease of use (his reservations have to do with the difficulty of repairing IGHs in the event of a failure). Of course he insists upon fenders and racks. He prefers integrated lighting systems with internal wiring. He wants a bike that won’t be damaged if it’s parked out in the rain everyday. He doesn’t care much about performance or weight, so he doesn’t mind the fact that most traditional Roadsters are built like bricks and are quite heavy.
Here in suburban California, everything is spread out, so getting anywhere on a bike can take a while. I rode a Pashley for over a year, and it’s a lovely bike in many regards. But like my wife said about her Princess just the other day, it’s a bike that likes to go one speed (slow), and as long as you’re not in a hurry or don’t need to travel too far, it’s a nice ride.
The thing is, we’re covering longer distances on a regular basis, and for us, lighter, faster bikes make the trip more enjoyable. We’re not talking racing bikes with skinny tires, but practical bikes that share some characteristics with traditional Roadsters while being manufactured with modern materials to reduce weight and increase performance. These bikes may also be missing some accessories that are unessential for our climes and limited cargo carrying needs.
For example, a bike like the Rivendell Sam Hillborne is a sweet ride for someone who has a longer commute, has access to indoor bike parking, and has the need to carry only up to touring loads. The Hillborne I’m riding is outfitted with a traditional component set including a triple crank, 8-speed cassette, bar-end shifters, and high profile cantilever brakes. My friend, who lives in the rain forest, has little interest in an exposed drivetrain or rim brakes like on this bike, and I can certainly understand that. But it’s a non-issue for me, and I’d rather have a lighter bike with a lively frame, wide range gearing, and exposed drivetrain components that are less expensive and easier to adjust and replace in case of a failure.
My Civia takes a different approach, with a full Alfine group including IGH, generator hub, and hydraulic discs. It’s a bit of an enigma in that it’s built with high-tech materials, yet the components are essentially maintenance-free following the traditional Dutch lead. The Breezers and some modern European Roadsters fit this model as well. I think of the Hyland as the bicycle equivalent of a modern automobile such as a Honda Accord or Toyota Prius; very high-tech and very reliable, but not necessarily easy to service or repair at home for most people. The approach is basically, “ride it until it makes a funny noise, then take it to the dealer for service”, which is a totally legitimate approach and a great way to maintain a bike for many people. What the Civia has over traditional Roadsters is higher performance in nearly every regard.
I could ramble on about individual bikes and their unique mix of design priorities all day (oops, I guess I’ve already done that). Like most bikes, Dutch Roadsters are the result of a process of natural selection, which makes them ideally suited to the wet climes and flat terrain where they were developed. Bikes like the Rivendell and the Civia are coming out of a different lineage altogether, and arguably, may be more well-suited to the varied and expansive terrain found in some areas of the United States. Ultimately, I believe local conditions are everything, and local conditions probably do more to determine our specific preferences than any overarching advantages or disadvantages inherent within differing bike designs.