Plumb Lines

May 1, 2009

The Dutch Bicycle

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 3:52 pm

dutchbike1

The Times has been thinking about Dutch Bicycles recently. More than their elegant frames and sensible chain guards, the absence of which on most American bikes exemplifies the deep American hostility to city life — biking is a sport over here — the best feature of these bikes is that they make the rider sit perpendicular to the street. American cycling culture is still basically anti-urban. Everyone wears helmets, and must, because the balls of their feet are clipped to the pedals and any speed below twenty-five miles per hour makes them feel pedestrian and diminishes the undoubted sublimity of their thrills. In San Francisco, Chicago, and Brooklyn, supposedly the American urbanists’ urbanisms, the cyclists’ cyclists pedal with their backs parallel to the ground. The Dutch Bicycle, by contrast, is designed for cyclo-flanerie, for the aimless, unsporty civilian. Its riders thrill to the beautiful, not the sublime, even if the beauty of a busy city seen at a not-quite-pedestrian ten miles per hour is a bit unstable.

David Schaengold

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26 Comments »

  1. As your post suggests, it will be particularly hard to get men behind the dutch style. Alas, calling it ‘Dutch’ is not likely to help.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 1, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  2. We can make anything masculine by first making it ironic, surely. The fashion slideshow linked to in the Times post indicates that the hipsters are already on this.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 1, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  3. Riders should wear helmets at any speeds. You’re already riding a bike, so it’s not like you can look any less cool. Might as well be safe.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — May 1, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  4. see, for reference, the American bicycle:

    these colors don’t run!

    Comment by Suzanne W — May 2, 2009 @ 2:16 am

  5. I feel like not wearing a helmet may be the only way to say, “I may be riding a bike, but I’m still a rebel.” That, and the classic, “Look! No hands!!!”

    And in reply to Suzanne, maybe we can make this bike seem American by saying that it is called “Dutch” in honor of that greatest of Americans, Ronald Reagan.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 2, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  6. Helmets are cyclo-prophylactics: 1. they falsely claim to make safe an activity that is inherently dangerous, and wouldn’t be much fun if it were perfectly safe; 2. they isolate “biking” as an activity in itself and isolate it from stopping by bars, conversing in the streets, and walking out your front door. There is indeed a place for the sublime in cycling, just as there is a place for the broad, straight street in cities, and it consists of not wearing a helmet.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 2, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  7. Also, if 10% of all trips now undertaken in cars were undertaken on bicycle instead, total transportation fatalities would certainly decrease, even if none of those 10% wore helmets. In an almost carless city, cycling without a helmet becomes almost perfectly safe. The vast majority of cyclists who are killed each year while cycling are killed by cars.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 2, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  8. David,

    “Helmets are cyclo-prophylactics: 1. they falsely claim to make safe an activity that is inherently dangerous, and wouldn’t be much fun if it were perfectly safe”

    This argument is the same as the one people who refused to wear seat-belts made when mandatory seat-belt laws came into being. Driving a car is still deadly serious, but a lot less deadly if wearing a seat-belt. The same is true of biking. While a helmet does not make you less likely to have a car door opened into you or do get taken out at an intersection, it keeps your brains from being dashed out all over the sidewalk. Even in a carless city, tumbling over the handle bars of a velocipede is a very real possibility. If you had a choice between brain damage and looking cool and wearing a hot helmet, which would you choose?

    Of the two instances where bicycle crashes occurred to people I know, one racer had her life saved by a helmet despite some temporary cognitive impairment, and the other suffered brain damage because he was not wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet doesn’t keep you from stopping by a pub; it just means you have to take it off. Prophylactics work. And if properly employed the methods work the majority of the time.

    I don’t want to lose a Schaengoldian brain because you don’t want to mess up your hair or but a “barrier” between yourself and the community.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — May 2, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  9. David, I think there’s a certain gap between the idea you advance in the post–a leisurely, two-wheeled flanerie–and the idea of sublime, dangerous bicycling. There’s not much need of a helmet on a Dutch bicycle because there’s little danger, but there is also very little of the sublime left to preserve.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 2, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  10. Matt, you’re certainly right. Very little of the sublime — just a tiny icicle of it.

    MEvL: I’m not sure the seat-belt foes advanced the same argument, but at the least it was a similar one. Nonetheless, it an argument that applies to bicycles and not to cars. Driving a car is already isolating. There is no speed at which cars are commonly driven where a wreck will almost certainly not be fatal. The thrill of driving a car can only be sublime, not beautiful.

    If you’re actually racing a bike, or biking at a pace incompatible with flanerie, bikes are more like cars, and a helmet certainly does seem prudent.

    However! There’s been some research indicating that statistically (though of course there are anecdotal exceptions) helmets provide a very marginal safety benefit to the average rider, but if they are mandated by law massively discourage cycling. And speaking of the Dutch, we do, after all, have examples of societies where almost everyone bikes and almost no one wears a helmet.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 2, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  11. Completely agree with Schaengold’s last point here. Unless you are doing rigorous urban assault biking or true mountain biking, the only real reasons to wear a helmet are due to the threat of cars on roads that are inherently unfriendly to bikes.

    However, the US does have a wonderful bicycle history, look for a later post on the history of Schwinn…

    P. Langdale Hough

    Comment by PLH — May 2, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  12. I acknowledge Schaengold’s point that increased velocipede use, even without helmets, will lead to a sharp decrease in automotive fatalities, whether car-on-car, car-on-man, or car-on-bicycle. I will admit that in one of my unscientific scare anecdotes, too, the person was racing so traveling at speeds higher than a normal individual promenading à la hollandaise around town on a warm spring day.

    Yet save for the flattest of towns (like Charleston, SC or O’Neill, NE) hills increase speeds, there are telephone polls to connect with and shoelaces to become entangled in pedals. While I am sure that all of us wear Beatle boots or weejuns, I fear for individuals that stick to laced footwear. A helmet can prevent significant injury from happening, and here I include concussions as they have ongoing ramifications in many cases. This basic fact cannot be denied.

    So I trust you all will be wearing your helmets next time I see you. If you prefer, I will purchase you all Tommy-style helmets to appeal to the George V lover in all of us.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — May 3, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  13. I think this needs to be linked here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z19zFlPah-o

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 3, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  14. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 5:00 am If Jules et Jim is the filmic Dutch Bicycle, this is the filmic Pomocon […]

    Pingback by Monday Movie Still: Germania Anno Zero « Plumb Lines — May 4, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  15. […] be grateful for any reason to stop talking about it (I really would much rather talk about bicycle design), I hope we “move on” legitimately, with criminal prosecutions and a truth commission, […]

    Pingback by In Defense of Moral Reasoning « Plumb Lines — May 4, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  16. […] has some interesting musings up on the Dutch bicycle, the sublime, and the pros and cons of wearing a helmet whilst cycling.  […]

    Pingback by To Helmet or Not to Helmet? | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen — May 4, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  17. Completely agree with Schaengold’s last point here. Unless you are doing rigorous urban assault biking or true mountain biking, the only real reasons to wear a helmet are due to the threat of cars on roads that are inherently unfriendly to bikes.

    Speaking as a road cyclist who has been involved in a high-speed crash in paceline/racing conditions, a helmet is an absolute necessity for the “parallel cyclist”, cars or no.

    Comment by Joel — May 5, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

  18. […] the fact that no one has died as a result of an airship accident in 20+ years. Whilst engaging in cyclo-flanerie I always, always helmet. Our American apartment home finds itself on the second floor of a high […]

    Pingback by How to Overcome an Attack by Struthio camelus « Plumb Lines — May 11, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  19. Also, if 10% of all trips now undertaken in cars were undertaken on bicycle instead, total transportation fatalities would certainly decrease, even if none of those 10% wore helmets. In an almost carless city, cycling without a helmet becomes almost perfectly safe. The vast majority of cyclists who are killed each year while cycling are killed by cars.

    If this is meant–as it appears to be–as an argument against the practicality of wearing a helmet while bicycling, it is laughably stupid. I suppose, in a hypothetical world where cars did not exist, helmets would not provide much benefit, because bicycling accidents would be so rare. However, in the actual world, where cars do hit bicyclists, it makes complete sense to reduce your risk of head trauma or death by wearing a helmet while you bicycle.

    Comment by NadavT — May 13, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  20. Helmets are not necessary on these bikes. See Amsterdam, with a head-injury rate of 1/20 that of the USA and less than 1% helmet usage.

    Comment by scott — June 23, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  21. Thanks, Scott. You’ve provided some empirical justification for my position. As always, the best way to effect structural change is not necessarily to act as if the structure had changed already, but there is something to be said for heedlessness. Even Dutch Bicyclists can thrill with a small and secret sublimity, and slow-speed danger is infinitely to be preferred to the hygienic speed of the helmeted sport-cyclist.

    Comment by David Schaengold — July 24, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  22. I really can’t tell if you’re as thick as you appear to be, or if this is just an elaborate satire. Yes, it would be lovely if American cities were as safe and low-speed as Dutch cities. And I have plenty of sympathy for the argument that urban bicycling shouldn’t be considered a sport. But to suggest that cycling without a helmet is the way to capture the “sublimity” of Dutch-style bicycling is utterly ridiculous. Unless American cities change so that cars drive slower and leave more room for bicycles, the risk of getting hit by a car while riding on your bicycle is going to be too big to ignore. It doesn’t matter whether you’re leaning forward or sitting up — if a car knocks you off of your bike, you’re going to want to protect your head. Maybe you don’t personally know anyone who has died or suffered head trauma from getting hit while bicycling, but there are far too many of them.

    Comment by NadavT — July 24, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  23. The Dutch can have bicycles like this because Holland is FLAT. It is not so elegant to be scraping up a hill, with your “back perpendicular to the ground”. A more aggressive posture will help you make it to the top and to your destination a bit faster, on the other hand.

    Comment by Mia — December 23, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  24. I’ve been riding an Oma bike in Chicago for years. It’s the perfect city bike and has changed my entire transportation, living, and eating situation. Everyone in a (at least somewhat flat) city should try one.

    Comment by Scott — March 21, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  25. I read these comments and think “Great, there is a variety of people from all walks of life out and about on bicycles.” What cyclists should realise is that there will always be trouble negotiating with cars and there will be always discrimination from car users towards cyclists. Why? Because I read through this blog and pick up discrimatory comments between cyclists. It doesn’t matter if you ride for fitness or for transport. The important thing is you are riding. And yes, riding for fitness does require a diffent style and bike to riding for transport. But let’s not mock one another for the difference.

    Comment by Peter Kenyon — June 6, 2010 @ 5:15 am

  26. […] on November 9, 2010 I’m very pleased to see that the fight against fast cycling, spandex, helmets, thin seats, and other automotive-like cyclalia has taken on a religious dimension. Random […]

    Pingback by The Church of Sit-Up Cycling — November 9, 2010 @ 10:45 am


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