My father taught me how to ride on my mother’s bicycle, an old black ladies’ bike, probably a Raleigh.
Not the bicycle of an old black lady. The bicycle was old and black.
Soon I had a bike of my own, racing style, with narrow tires and drop handlebars. Years later I switched to a mountain bike when they became popular, and later a so-called flat-bar road bike.
A bike was always, for me, a utilitarian possession. I’ve probably owned around a dozen, but rarely more than one at a time. As a kid, I rode to school, and explored the surrounding countryside. As a young adult, I commuted and got to know Dublin and, to some extent, London.
When I moved to Melbourne, the bike helped me learn the new city, and provided a pleasant way to enjoy the beachfront. Weekend rides around country Victoria were fun.
And without necessarily realizing that I was doing so, I accepted poor design decisions made on my behalf by people who did not understand my needs. I bought bicycles that were uncomfortable. I spent money on things like lights, locks, racks and mudguards, all of which, mysteriously, were not supplied as standard.
And all the while, I rode in a hunched position. Bike shop personnel would sometimes tell me that I could buy an extension to raise the handlebars, but it was clear they didn’t think that was a good idea. After all, if we were meant to ride in comfort, God would have given us longer arms.
I gradually became aware that the old black bicycle had not actually disappeared. That is, it had not disappeared in countries where people used their bikes as general-purpose transport. In Europe and in Asia, there were many countries where people sat upright on “old-style” bicycles. These are often referred to as “city bikes”.
Eventually, I started to look for such a bike. Staff in most bicycle shops in Melbourne appeared to be unaware that they even existed. Or they would warn me that such bikes were heavy, poorly geared, expensive, and unsuited to Melbourne conditions.
On the net, sites like Copenhagenize suggested that there were indeed such bikes, and that they represented a thriving and growing market. Eventually I decided to go actively looking.
(As an aside, if you are thinking of buying a city bike, I would suggest that you avoid any bike shop where the staff are unaware of what you’re talking about, or where they try to persuade you that such bikes are unsuited for local conditions. A good warning sign is any indication that staff eat energy bars and do triathlons.)
I found someone selling Danish Velorbis bikes, and rode a couple of them, and was impressed. Following a reference to Dutch Gazelle bikes, I found the website of Commuter Cycles in Melbourne, and one day on my way back from the airport had my driver drop me there. There, the ever-friendly and helpful Huw showed me a Gazelle, and suggested I take it for a spin. He didn’t bother with asking me for ID or a deposit, just gave me a beautiful bike and sent me out in the street. (He did neglect to mention it was a one-way street, but a friendly driver pointed this out.)
While I rode around the block, I was transported back to my earliest experience of the bicycle as freedom machine. The upright stance widened my field of vision so that I was a child again, with the city spread out around me, and the world at my feet.
I mulled a purchase for a while. I was somewhat concerned about the relatively small number of gears, and about suggestions from “real” bike shops that commuter bikes were not for “real” cyclists, and with the fact that my Scott bike was only a year old (and that I was quite happy with it).
Eventually (and after some helpful advice from Paul at Gazelle Australia) I bought a Gazelle Aristo from Huw. By the time I’d ridden the 10km home, I was very happy with my purchase. Six months and two cities later, I’m still happy.
I was trying to explain the user experience to Gina, and the best (poor) analogy I could think of was to say: Imagine that you had an iPhone once, but then for some unspecified reason switched to lesser phones for 20 years, and that one day you picked up an iPhone again, but in 20 years it had been improved so that it now not only had the characteristics you originally liked, but was vastly improved by various enhancements during the intervening period.
The Gazelle I bought has 8 gears (my Scott bike had 21. Or was it 24?) For the technically minded, it’s a Shimano nexus hub. It has mudguards as standard (on my Scott bike, the bike shop used cable-ties (something that always bothered me) to fit mudguards as an “optional extra”. It has a rack as standard (optional extra on the Scott). The bell is built in to the left handlebar, so you can ring it without moving your hand (optional extra on Scott). It has automatic lights (lights of any sort were an optional extra on the Scott). It has a chain guard and coat guard, so that you don’t have to do something really dorky with your trouser legs.
It also has a built-in lock. If you are old enough, you may remember when bikes that had these locks as standard – they would stop the rear wheel from moving. The Gazelle is a fairly high-tech version, with an (optional!) chain that integrates with the lock. The built-in lock is great – I generally park right at the door of wherever I want to be, and only use the chain if I’m in a neighbourhood where the bike might be a target for thievery.
When we moved to Sydney, some people warned me that it was not suited to city bikes (the existence of hills was the main reason given). However, I’ve had no problems, although I use the lowest gear from time to time (I’d never used it in Melbourne). For example, there’s a hill on the way home from Bondi Beach that I would walk up were it not for my pride.
Is it slower than a road bike? Yes, somewhat, and on three counts. Firstly, the upright stance is not designed for “putting your back into it”. Secondly, the highest gear is somewhat lower than you would typically have on a road bike (although I can still comfortably do 25km/h or so). Thirdly, and most importantly, the thing is so damn comfortable that it makes you want to cruise around, and is so well balanced that travelling slowly is easy.
I’ve found myself frequently taking the long way for the sheer pleasure of the ride, and the thought of driving to the shops is anathema if I can ride instead.
An unexpected side-effect of the upright riding style is that it seems to make for a better relationship with motorists. I’m quite willing to accept that this may be a personal bias, but I’ve found that sitting upright results in more eye contact with drivers. So even in Sydney, where cycling is relatively poorly supported (though improving), I’ve found drivers to be courteous. I know that many Sydneysiders would disagree with me.
The Gazelle is not the only “European style” bike available. There is a growing range here in Australia, and, I believe, worldwide.
A few months ago, in Melbourne, I parked my car next to a young lady who was about to cycle away. I noticed she had a Kronan, a Swedish city bike. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said “It makes me happy every day”. I could say the same about the Gazelle.
What a perfect accolade.
Note: If you're interested in this review, you might also want to read my later comments on the Velorbis Churchill Balloon.