A Bicycle Built for Transportation

US cities have a long history of bicycling, and Indianapolis is no exception.  However, much of the attention over the past few decades has focused on bicycles as recreation, instead of transportation.  But if we look at the example set by cities where bikes are truly integrated into the transportation scheme, we see they have evolved quite differently from our own rolling stock.  An in-depth look at Copenhagen Cycle Chic will bring you many examples of this bike from Denmark and around the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to buy an old City Bike and learn more about it.  This bike came with a story: a Dutch man brought it over to the US many years ago and used it to explore American cities outside of a car.  This story was somewhat of a mystery to me when I first heard it.  After all, what would convince a person to ship a huge and heavy bike across the world when local bikes were readily available?

A vintage dutch Gazelle (image: Curt Ailes)

After several months of riding this bike, I can honestly see why someone would grow attached to it in this way.  It is unlike other bikes I have owned, even a recent comfort bike marketed for city cruising does not compare.  It all comes down to having the right design philosophy.  These European City Bikes have developed into their current form because of their adherence to 3 key principles:

  1. Reliability
  2. Convenience
  3. Affordability


This, along with 100 years of constant improvement, have created a form that is ubiquitous in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  The features of any given bike depend on the particular climate and needs of the owner, but here is a summary of some common features:

A City Bike is a solid machine intended to get its rider to their destination no matter what the weather or street conditions.  This dependability and durability fosters a relationship between the rider and the bike.  Truth be told, I would gladly pay to ship this bike across the world if I thought that a similar one were not available at my destination.

The upright position and relaxed geometry make city travel comfortable (image: Curt Ailes)
The luggage racks are incredibly strong (image: Curt Ailes)
City bikes have modern technology powering their lights (image: Curt Ailes)
The dealer tag shows the bike’s origin (image: Curt Ailes)

These bikes are great for the demands of a city-dweller.  Any weather, any time of day, and any trip can be accommodated.  The steel frame provides a very comfortable ride compared to a carbon fiber or aluminum option.  The headlights really get attention.  The carrying capacity is only bested by long frame or cargo bikes, and a city bike is often used for 2-up riding. The shifting is smooth and solid. And you never have to worry about getting chain grease on your clothing.

After a relative scarcity of City Bikes in the US, new models are once more becoming available.  Look for Batavus or Gazelle for an authentic version, or check out some of the others on this list. If interested, I suggest talking to your local bike shops first.  Just remember, these bikes are made to last for generations and only rarely require maintenance.  But when it is time, you will want experienced hands working on these mechanisms.

The city bike excels at everything urban

And finally, a word about affordability.  The use of a steel frame and standardized components really brings the cost down, compared with space-age exotic materials and integrated shifters found on most American bikes.  Even with my purchase price, the new front hub and lighting system, and professional maintenance, I have less than $500 invested in my bike.  I know it’s not an insignificant amount, but a really good value when all is considered.  It is my hope that even if a city bike revolution is not just around the corner, that everyone understands a bit more about them.


(acknowledgments:  thanks to Curt Ailes for helping me photograph these.  Also, thanks to those at IndyCog and the Mayor’s office who have worked hard to improve bicycling infrastructure, you have made City Bikes useful in Indianapolis and I am very greatful.)

Comments 10

  • Great perspective Graeme. With the budding cycling culture here, I hope that more people take this perspective instead of a head down race bike

  • Thanks for this post Graeme. When I bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker, I had a hard time explaining why I opted for a heavy steel frame, a higher head tube, the rack, the long frame, etc. This was over a year ago, and I was less familiar with the European tradition of bikes than I am now, but was convinced that for the sort of biking I do (every day, every where, in the city, as I got rid of the truck two years ago), this was just what I needed.
    The LHT, (though sealed gears or brakes would be nice), has indeed proved to be excellent year-round, and for hauling all my stuff around. I’ve added front and rear lights, which makes for great middle-of-the-night trips back home…
    I’ve since become a big fan of heavy bikes and encourage my friends to add more stuff to their bikes (racks, lights, baskets, etc) such that their bikes become the default and convenient transportation for going to the grocery, running errands, going to a brewery; in other words, normal everyday acts that claim the bicycle to be the urban vehicle.

  • I still have my old Schwin from 1963 when I bought it brand new at a Goodyear store in Seymour, Indiana. Back then, you’d have thought I bought a Mercedes…and I still feel the same way. It’s been one of my prize possessions! I think it cost me a whole $69…a lot of money back then! It’s been in my barn for years…and now that I’m moving back to the city, from being in the country all these years, guess what’s coming out of the barn and going with me? My jewel of a bike that I plan to ride around the streets of the Old Northside and Lockerbie neighborhoods!!! I may even find myself riding it to work…a mere 5 minutes (by car) away from my new residence. I’ll take one of these any day over the new fancy “expensive” ones… Yes, any day!!!

    • Those are great neighborhoods to bike around, should be a fun time.

      And don’t forget to lock your bike up tight, the heartbreak of losing a bike you treasure is intense. I use a combination of a wheel lock, cable lock, and U-lock to make mine less of a target.

  • Great article! It seems to me our city is still kinda stuck in the racing bike mentality, as if those are your only options. I think most Circle Citians (I made that up) think of bikes like fitness club memberships. You have to join one that has all sorts of high-tech machines, etc…but you wind up never really using them and then lose interest. Same with bikes, you have to get a megafast racing bike, even if you are riding it once a week for 20 miles.

    Classic styles, steel, vintage, etc really have more charm and are more fun and more fun to look at and talk about than most people realize. Adding racks or bags or lights, etc is so much fun and makes your bike unique…unlike another chromoly, plasticy, prefab, bland (but fast) bike…not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  • Super post. Are you a long-distance rider?

  • Great article, thanks Graeme. To your knowledge, are there any local shops that carry city / cargo bikes? I’d love to try out different brands, but it seems like most of these bikes need to be ordered.

    • I haven’t seen many European versions in local shops. The closest shop I know with some in stock is Copenhagen Cyclery in Chicago (but please feel free to correct me if someone knows otherwise).

      Most local shops will carry American styled versions, which can be marketed as comfort, cruiser, or hybrid types. These have some of the same features.

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