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Background on the Batavus BuB

Commuter, Review, Utility / Cargo Bike 6 887

I recently mentioned that the Batavus BuB was one of the new city/urban bikes that really caught my attention at Interbike. Soon, I will get a chance to try out a prototype BuB for a couple of weeks… in fact I will be picking the bike up at Renaissance Bicycles this Sunday (speaking of Renaissance, they have several additional pics of the BuB prototypes posted here). I will share my impressions of the bike after I have the chance to live with it a bit, but today I want to post a background story about the design from Eric Kamphof of Fourth Floor Distribution. Eric didn’t write this specifically for the blog, so it may be a bit longer than the average post. Still, I think it provides some great insight into the idea behind this design, so I want to share his story with you in its entirety:

“It may seem difficult to believe, but Dutch bicycle companies like Batavus have recently had a very difficult time penetrating the Dutch urban bicycle market. Companies like Batavus build high quality bikes that tend to last a long time, creating a strong used bike market in urban centers. What is truly impressive is that these bikes last a long time while receiving a massive amount of abuse. The average Amsterdammer leaves their bike outside year round, rarely tunes it, and rides it nearly 3000 miles a year. The average age of a bike in Amsterdam is nearly 35 years old.

The Dutch hardly romanticize their bikes like we do. They are born onto bikes and treat them like tools. They regard their bikes the same way they regard their washing machines. The urban demographic may be tough to reach because of their preference for used bikes, but an even tougher demographic to reach is the 18-35 age group. After riding in the rain from the age of four, many youngsters want nothing more than a car. Perhaps it’s strange, but as Americans fall in love with bikes again, the Dutch are falling in love with cars. To lure urbanites, and especially young urbanites back onto bikes, a new approach was needed. Enter the Batavus Utility Bike – BuB.

As a wholesaler of European city bikes, we knew the only way to get people riding bikes again is to sell the romance of cycling. We call this the ‘lifestyle’ approach. Everyone knows bikes are better than cars, but nonetheless, this knowledge does not create new cyclists. Consider the Velib system in Paris. The Velib system gave Parisians an iconic bike that provided solutions to a range of problems, and it was cute to boot. Velib is romantic, it fills Parisians with Parisian pride – it’s motivational. The Dutch need to be motivated back onto city bikes, and that required a fresh approach.

The typical classic Dutch bike, affectionately called the omafiets (grandma bike) is one of the most memorable icons of Holland. Every bicycle manufacturer in Holland still makes an omafiets, and while the Dutch bike has certainly evolved far beyond the omafiets the omafiets has still been the enduring answer for urban markets. But, it has problems. When Batavus first released the Personal Bike they had an instant hit in urban markets. It had a different seating position than the omafiets, it could stabilize weight better (like children and groceries) – and it was versatile. The seating position of an omafiets is almost excessively upright. The Personal Bike relaxed the position without stretching the rider into a sportive position (which every North American bike company still insists on doing). It also introduced the concept of high pressure 26” tires to the market, allowing the bike to roll exceptionally well despite potholes and bumps. However, like the omafiets, the Personal Bike was a little on the heavy side. While neither bike rides heavy, anyone who wanted to bring their bike inside their apartment (a reality as Amsterdam builds higher) didn’t enjoy lifting it. The Personal Bike was a bold invention, but it missed the mark in terms of reaching the widest possible demographic. What was needed was a lighter, more ergonomic bike with the same broad appeal as the classic omafiets.

Based on the same geometry as the popular Personal Bike, the BuB features a much lighter aluminum frame. It’s a very evolved city bike, but not a commuter bike either. The average city cyclist in Holland travels no more than 7km (~4.5 miles) in a single trip. In fact, the average cyclists in Manhattan or Amsterdam spend 80 – 90% of their time within a 10km (~6.25 miles) radius of home. The BuB, like the omafiets, was designed to multi-task this entire ‘lifestyle radius.’ Conversely, a commuter bike mimics the same patterns of North American car traffic. It takes one from the suburbs to the center, and back. Batavus makes bikes for those people too, but the BuB ain’t it.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to creating an evolved omafiets was the iconic nature of the omafiets. Like wooden shoes or windmills, the classic omafiets is one of the most visible icons of Holland. To create a lighter version with a better seating position may have been necessary, but the real challenge was creating something as memorable. Like the Velib, Batavus needed to create an instant icon that would romance the Dutch (and others!) back to cycling. As one of the oldest companies in Holland Batavus certainly played a role in the development of the omafiets as we know it today. And Batavus also designed and implemented the entire Paris Velib system. They were also the first develop the Personal Bike design, which has been copied by numerous competitors. In Holland – which typically has a very conservative and insular bike industry – Batavus is that one company that thinks outside the dijk, so to speak.

The BuB was a difficult process to implement. Most companies order their bikes directly out of the large “Taiwan Bicycle Catalog” and slap their decal on it. Not Batavus. The BuB was designed from the ground up by Batavus, and the bent ‘paperclip’ design was painstaking in its implementation, requiring an entirely new tube bending technology. While the omafiets may be very ‘Amsterdam’, the BuB is very ‘Rotterdam’. Rotterdam, which was completely bombed out during WWII, rebuilt its entire city center from the ground up with an architectural style that was fundamentally practical, yet playful. The BuB, in other words, is just as Dutch as the omafiets bike. It reflects modern Dutch design, and does so very well. It’s austere, like Danish design but without being cold and aloof.

Planned obsolescence is hardly a Dutch trait. In fact, paranoia may be a more consistent Dutch trait. This, no doubt, has to do with living below sea level. If the Dutch built their products – including their dijks – poorly, they would be underwater. Yet, despite this extremely prescient practicality, the Dutch are also famous for building in delightful quirks into their products. This, no doubt, fulfills their idea of the gezellig life – a word that has to do with delightful sociability, the right atmosphere, and certain ‘coziness’. So, the BuB isn’t just practical, it’s a little bit fun. For instance, it has a ‘mood indicator’, which is hardly practical – but perhaps maybe keeping track of your mood is a gezellig idea? Imagine if a car had a mood indicator…how happy would you be?

The final challenge with the BuB, of course, was price. The average Dutch citizen is used to paying an average of 700 Euros for a city bike. That’s nearly $1100 USD. The perception of a bicycle in Holland is quite different than North America. But then, the Dutch are well aware that their bike is used far more than their car, yet costs a fraction of their car. So they invest. This perception will take years to work itself into the North American consciousness, as people essentially learn what their riding habits are. Unlike the rest of the Batavus line, the BuB will not be made in Holland, but it will be made to the Dutch standards of quality. It’s a simple, yet sophisticated bike. With a three speed coaster brake hub the focus is on a robust, rust free frame and parts that keeps the rider upright, safe, and comfortable. The BuB is not for everyone, but for anyone in a dense urban center that needs a simple bike that multi-tasks their entire lifestyle radius, the BuB is exactly what they’re after.

As you can see, the BuB wasn’t just some clever idea dreamed up in a vacuum. It is intensely tied to the axioms of Dutch product design, and at the same time, aligns itself with recent advancements in bike culture around the world. As city bikes increasingly woo’d North Americans, the BuB offers practicality and a long history of experience building and designing the world’s best city bikes. For anyone who just wants comfort, low maintenance, complete clothing protection and, well, something pretty – the BuB hits the nail on the head!”

Photo credit: Renaissance Bicycles

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  1. Flying Pigeon LA October 31, 2009 at 2:11 pm -  Reply

    I've got two BUB prototypes at my shop as well, and Eric really lays it out here properly.

    They ride just like the Personal Delivery, but they are significantly lighter and have very modern design that gets all the architects saying ,"Wow!".

  2. Sean Carter November 1, 2009 at 9:32 am -  Reply

    i think the BUB looks great – very unique and modern design and (based on the one i picked up at Interbike) quite light for a full featured city bike.

    the "omafiets" style bikes are definitely iconic and durable – however – there are also quite heavy and near impossible for some people to carry up stairs. also, there is an arguement to be made that thy are also somewhat "elitist" in that they are usually a little too expensive for some budgets and not designed to function in hilly areas.

    to me, the BUB looks like it could successfully bridge the gap between NA-style city bikes and the classic omafiets from europe.

    cant wait to ride one!

  3. GhostRider November 3, 2009 at 11:54 am -  Reply

    Great overview and insights into the Dutch cycle scene and overall culture.

    I love the way the BuB looks, and I'd love to add one to my fleet! Here's hoping Batavus can get more market penetration here in the U.S., as many city dwellers would be well-served by having such a bike as their transportation choice.

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