The Dutch Bike by Zahid Sardar [Book Review]

The Netherlands is greener, healthier, arguably happier, but certainly a lot more efficient because the Dutch saw something in cycling that most other countries ignored. This is a book that looks at Dutch cycling heritage from an angle I’m surprised we’ve all been ignoring. Who were the bike makers who kept this nation rolling, by plugging away making bikes to suit the Dutch market? If it were left to the French, every Dutch bike shed would be piled high by now with bikes with broken derailleurs. If the world’s only bike makers were British, the cobbled streets of many Dutch cities would have chewed up a million small wheels now I’m sure. Had it been left to Americans to supply the Dutch with their bikes, Dutch bankers would be known by the mud stripes up the back of their trousers. Had it not been for Dutch bike makers like Gazelle and Batavus, whose stories are caught in The Dutch Bike, bike transport in Holland could very well have died in the sixties as it died pretty much everywhere else. Worse still, believers in bike infrastructure in car-centric nations like mine would have no secret handshake; just try being listened to at a bike planning meeting in Sydney, London, New York or Vancouver, if you don’t arrive on a Gazelle or an authentic Dutch bakfiets, and you will know what I mean.

Zahid Sardar shows that telling a history of Dutch cycling through the lens of equipment, is not actually limiting, but opens doors on some intriguing side stories, all new to me, and maybe to some of my know-it-all readers as well. The cutest concerns a comic book character, devised by Gazelle at the turn of century, who was later enlisted by Dutch schools to make cycling seem roughish and cool for young lads. Yes, at a time when we were being warned off our bikes to make way for cars, Dutch kids were told to get out there, and be a nuisance.

The Dutch Bike has a story arc beginning with steel bikes that would be as tempting to thieves as a gate or a clothes line, and ending with bikes crafted from French Oak and Titanium. It is interesting that The Dutch Bike is from a leading architectural publisher (NAi010), because the bikes it concludes with have implications for how the Dutch design buildings. Are they going to start letting bikes inside shops, or have eBikes left on the street where thieves can strip them of batteries? Will the owner of a Bough Bike have to watch its fine wooden surface collect marks or graffiti each time he or she parks it outside their office, or will their employer let them hot-desk with it inside? It hardly matters that a wooden bike has a low carbon footprint if its owner must also own a regular steel bike for most of their trips.

The Dutch Bike is not quite as long as it looks, since all the text appears in both Dutch and English. The use of the term “Dutch Bike” where just “Bike” would have seemed better, was a little off putting, but since you have been warned, you won’t be so bothered. The historical first half is supported by great background research, while the later half dealing with contemporary trends makes good use of direct quotes from bike makers. This brings you into their thinking. I found myself drawing bikes after reading. If you’re better at making than I am, you might find yourself welding, or sawing French Oak.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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