A bicycle is an experience good. A lot like a bottle of wine or a book, it’s hard to determine the quality of it before you consume it, so you can easily fall into the trap of buying the wrong one.
It is an easy mistake to make for anyone, but I’d like to focus on women tempted into buying “Dutch bikes.”
I’ve ridden the men’s version of the above, and it was a pig of a thing. 0/10, would not ride again.
People buy Dutch bikes because in the shop, the sitting position seems very important – you seem to be choosing between “hunched over the handlebars” or “sitting up comfortably,” between “sporty” and “relaxed.”
I once went with my mum to buy a bike. She bought a heavy, upright bike and it is almost never used. She still rides though – it is just more likely to be on an old mountain bike.
In the real world, the discomfort of bicycling is – for a healthy person – much less about your body position, and far more about the effort expended.
This is extra relevant if you imagine doing some cycling for transport, not just leisure.
If you are sitting up comfortably on a 20kg bike, you will be going more slowly in almost all circumstances. If riding to work will take 5 minutes longer than the train, it’s unlikely to be your go-to choice when you are stressed in the morning.
You are also exerting yourself for longer. You will be exposed to a higher chance of getting caught in the rain, more tired and more likely to be drenched in sweat when you arrive.
Exertion and time are the real costs of cycling and the real reason bikes get left in the shed while their owners drive. Yet people who imagine themselves as “not sporty” are the most likely to buy heavy, hard-to-ride bikes!
Dutch bikes are slower because of extra weight (this “lifestyle transport bike for ladies” weighs 21.4kg), and the upright sitting position.
Extra weight becomes important on an uphill. Up a 7 per cent gradient, an extra 2.5kg will mean travelling about 2.5 per cent slower. Alternatively, trying to keep up requires more power output, and power output becomes exponentially harder to maintain (see graph).
The effect of sitting up straight is to create drag. Drag increases with speed, so a more aerodynamic position is more important when you would like to go fast. Not so important when idling along the shops or a busy off-road bikepath, but relevant on a long straight road, or when other cyclists are going fast.
Melbourne is not Amsterdam. It is undulating, in places downright hilly, and the other cyclists are not meandering along. If you find yourself pushing your bike uphill and getting overtaken, of course you will give up riding it.
I know women who cycle a lot for transport, and they have this in common – no Dutch bikes. Even this enthusiast sold hers after complaining about the weight.
If we observe actual women cycling, in the wild, we see what kind of bikes actually get used.
What we (mainly) see is this: flat bars, baskets and aluminium tubing. Bikes that weigh perhaps 12kg, not 20kg. Bikes that won’t make it into a shop’s window display but should be celebrated and promoted.
Other experience goods often have independent quality ratings that provide some sort of indication of what you’re getting. You might look for a Booker Prize shortlisted book, or a wine that has won a lot of medals.
So I’d like to contribute an endorsement for light and practical women’s bikes. What Dutch bikes need is an equal but opposite thing. A big red sticker on them that says: “Warning. Will gather dust.”