Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Dutch" Bikes - build 'em yourself - take 2

from this...
to this for about $400 using new parts

OK, so everybody and their sister is writing blogs about how great Dutch bikes are. Here's a list of some. "They're great, great, great!"  Some people call them Danish bikes. Actually, they use the same things in Germany, too, and probably most of northern Europe. They also used to use them in England. People don't throw them away so it's pretty common to find 60 or 70 year old bikes in regular use.

These practical, durable, heavy city bikes really are great for urban year round transportation.
But have you seen the prices? Scary. (They must pay those Dutch workers like people and give them health benefits! (Though many frames are now made in Asia really.) And I guess all the stainless steel parts add up. Also, regular bikes on the US market are stripped down by comparison - add the accessories that make them practical and the price gets closer.) So they are great, but expensive.  There's only one thing better for riding in the city than these - a used bike you dutchify!

But what is it about Dutch bikes that makes them so "great" for everyday city riding? How can you add whatever that is to your own bike cheaper?

You can just get on an average Dutch bike in any weather or time of day, wearing whatever you have on, and carrying whatever you usually carry including kids, and you'll probably have everything you need with you to get there comfortably. It will work even though you haven't fixed it lately. And it will be easy to see other traffic while riding because your head will be high above other vehicles. Many people in Holland ride around with two or even three children, groceries, even other adults on their bike. These bikes can carry a lot.

These bikes are - - 
  • Simple to use and take care of (enclosed chain, simple to use gearing)
  • Practical as routine transportation (generator lighting, cargo carrying racks and straps, heavy duty parts that hold lots of kid seats on one bike, fenders for all weather riding)
  • Upright (even uptight), with the handlebars comfortably right in front of you and high enough to grab without leaning over, and a wide seat, often with springs
  • Durable, long lasting with a low maintenance design (heavy lugged steel frame, stainless steel components)

They look distinctive compared to other bikes, with a high front end and lots of luggage racks and baskets and child seats and things on them. Here's another description of them from a guy who sells parts for them. They have slack seat angles because people never have to ride up a hill in Holland. Can't you picture one in your mind now? Aren't they all black? Don't try to lift one up your stairs - they are heavy! As a matter of fact, they are so heavy that they become less practical. Who wants to carry a big heavy steel frame around?

Before you go too much further, look at the website of some actual modern bike manufacturers from the Netherlands (Azor, Gazelle, Batavus...) Did all the bikes look like a (really cool) black 1910 Raleigh? They didn't? Hmmm. Yes, they do make bikes like ancient English roadsters in Holland (and India (Hero, Avon), and China (Flying Pigeon - a version used to be available cheap in the US and they still have a shop in Canada)), and they sell a lot of them, but to be Simple, Practical, Upright and Durable doesn't necessarily mean black, heavy, expensive, single-speed, or "Dutch" looking. A lot of these actual Dutch bikes would be called "City Bikes" here. 

Look at some of those 'people riding their bikes in Holland' videos on YouTube to get some ideas. Later in this very long post we're going to change an old impractical but good bike into a great lightweight "Dutch" city bike.

not dutch but still simple, practical, upright and durable
1965 Raleigh Sports ladies' frame 3-speed

By the way, up until about 1980 Raleigh bikes were basically similar to the Dutch brands (Gazelle and Raleigh were the same company for at least part of the past century - Gazelle made many of those Raleigh Grand Prix 10-speeds.) They just kept building them in Holland. A Raleigh Sports or Superbe is basically like a Dutch bike as is, but with colored paint, a shorter stem holding the handlebars, and a less comprehensive chaincase (as imported to the US). Adjust one to fit you, maybe get a longer stem (it's a 22.2 mm, you need a shim to put Raleigh bars in the new stem) and a nice basket for it, and you're set.  It's just as heavy. It may even have the appearance of a 'classic' Dutch bike if it's a ladies' loop frame (like DL-1L Tourist) or if it's black. Old Raleighs go for between $50 and $350 used. Some Raleigh and Sturmey-Archer parts are hard to find in Chicago but DJ's has many and Uptown Bikes used to do a lot of work on them. There is more than you want to know about old Raleighs from Sheldon Brown. There are also more than a few ready-made city bikes in the $400 range including the KHS Manhattan Green, but you can do better. Read on.
Here's the surprising truth: You already have or can get a bike that you can make (almost) modern "Dutch": Upright and Practical, and if you choose a good starter bike, it may even be Durable and Simple too. And it might be better made than some of those $1500 beauties you've been ogling (some of which are more than worth the money, others of which seem to have stamped and cut tube on the fork ends instead of forged dropouts). It's almost certainly lighter and probably just as strong, and the brakes are likely better. So why not make your sister's old mountain bike (or an old lightweight 10-speed from the neighbors' garbage) into your own Frankenstein Dutch Bike? 

this bike will get dutchified in this post

That old mountain bike - if it's an early to mid 90s non-suspended mid-level steel Specialized StumpJumper like this picture, or a Trek or Gary Fisher or KHS or similar - is much lighter than a lugged Dutch 'gas pipe' steel frame, and it's very, very strong, even if it's a step through style. Steel mountain bikes are pretty darn Durable, with butted cr/mo tubing and strong welds. 

serious wide profile cantilever brakes

They have really effective cantilever brakes (or V-brakes), much better than roller brakes or those awful classic Dutch roadster rod and stirrup brakes. The rims are much lighter but still Durable and rust free. There is plenty of clearance for fenders. They have a lot more speeds than a single speed Dutch bike so you can ride them in places that are not just plain flat like Holland is. (This may not be Simple but it is Practical except when the derailers get iced up in winter). OK, they aren't very Upright. And the suspended ones are a different kettle of fish that we won't deal with here.

the stuff you need is all here
What do you need to make your old bike into a Simple Practical Upright and Durable city bike?
Well, let's say your old 10-speed or mountain bike works pretty well. You could need fenders (mudguards), chainguards, skirtguards, a wide seat, a handlebar and stem, possibly brake levers or tires. Lighting is important too. If you need everything including tires budget about $350-400 for new parts or much, much less for used. 

The single most important thing to make a mountain bike ride like a nice bike is to change the tires. I like Schwalbe Marathon tires because of their durability and the reflective stripes in the sidewalls, but there are some decent cheaper but similar Kendas and others that you can use to replace those silly bumpy mountain bike tires. You will be surprised what a huge difference nice tires will make. They don't need treads molded in so smooth is actually better. For a 10-speed, the old ones will work all right. If the old ones are damaged, try to get the thickest tires you can fit into your frame, maybe 27 x 1 3/8. For a mountain bike try 38-559 which is wide-ish but not silly. Silly Is Not What You Are Looking For. Unless it's putty colored tires like many Dutch bikes now come with - silly but maybe that's what you want. These include Cheng Shin Traveller or several Schwalbe models. Price - $15 to $45 each.

You'll want to get upright handlebars to be Practical in the city and Upright. Here, the mountain bike is going to be a lot easier than the 10-speed since your old mountain bike shifters and brake levers fit fine on upright bars. (squirt water or soap or high pressure air under the old grips to work them off the bars, or cut and ruin the old ones if they are yucky.) 
it needs new handlebars but the shifters and brake
levers will work fine

Get a really long steel stem (the up and down part that goes between the bars themselves and the head of the bike frame) and bars to fit it. You want the grips to be about as high as your elbows when you are walking the bike, so the stem might be 10 or 12 inches high, which might be hard to find. It doesn't need to have much of an extension forward.  I got a stainless steel one from a Dutch bike store as a spare part but it was $35. 

Stems come in different diameters so bring your old one or its size (stamped into the bottom of the old one) with you when you shop. Most old mountain bikes have quill type 22.2 or 25.4 mm stems but don't count on it. While you're there get a cable hanger for the front headset that will fit the stem size (don't ask - just get one).

If your bike has an Aheadset type stem, that is, the handlebars are held by double clamps onto a long tube coming from the wheel, you might want to reconsider that choice of bike. Extender bars do exist for these but talk to your bike shop. You might need a new fork to get the height we're looking for.

New bars are about $25-30 in a bike store, or you can get used ones. A real Dutch bar and stem together is 18 Euros online, but you'd have to ship it.The standard Raleigh type bars are called North Road bars, but there are lots of other options - moustache, for example, or those Dutch squarish ones online. Raleigh bars are thinner than others and need shims to fit other parts. If after your work you think the tall front of the bike looks dopey, put a basket there or attach a child seat (to your STEEL stem) or get used to it. I'd recommend stainless steel (Dutch bike stores, heavy but extra strong) or aluminum bars (lighter, almost anywhere) for practicality and durability. I went for a stainless Dutch style cruiser bar like the ones on the Bakfiets but the same shape is widely available in aluminum.

You will likely need to change the brake cable and possibly shifter cable housings because they might not be long enough to reach the new location of the brake levers or shifters. Easy to do but maybe your local bike shop can do it faster. It took me about an hour between other things to change mine; you have to readjust everything. Real Dutch bikes come with the front brake on the right lever and the back on the left - it's the opposite here. For safety you might want to leave out this touch of authenticity. This step is where the cable hanger you bought comes in. See in the pictures how the front brake cable goes through a mountain bike stem? An upright stem doesn't have that hole so you have to add a hanger with a hole to the headset or stem. Figure $15 for cables, hangers, etc.

Changing bars on a 10-speed is a little harder than on a mountain bike, since the curve of the old 10-speed brake levers might not fit the new bars well. If you choose moustache bars maybe your old drop bar levers will fit. You can get upright handlebar brake levers or mountain bike levers in the same place you buy the bars (careful- V-brake levers are different than regular levers, which fit everything else), and old-fashioned stem friction shifters are easy to find used, or use early mountain bike shifters where you can turn off the indexing, like the ones on the StumpJumper in the pictures. 

Grips made of fancy schmantzy cork and leather can give your bike that boutique look, or just stick with cheap plastic. I got cheapish cork ones and waxed them with boot wax.

the upright stem, bars and cork grips give the bike a comfortable feeling
See the little black nubbin at the headset? That's the cable hanger.

A wider, sprung seat may be helpful if you have one of those ultralightweight dental floss sized racing seats. You can probably find a good cheap one at your local bike store, but you can also buy one used. Most companies that make seats have something that will work. If it has springs in back it'll be fine. Our cargo bikes came with great plastic Selle Royal seats that cost about $40. Brooks seats are trendy and Durable and retro and leather and easy to find (but about $120!). For this project, I finally bought a Brooks seat. We'll see if it was worth it. The old Raleighs had B66 or B72 seats which are wide and comfy. This one is a little narrower - it's a Champion Flyer Short.

Dutch Bikes Have Fenders. It Rains There. It rains here, too. Fenders keep your clothes wearable. Plastic ones like SKS or Planet Bike brand are available at any local bike shop, including Irv's in Pilsen, which has tons of great inexpensive upgrade goodies. Metal fenders are more Durable and can be found or ordered at most good bike shops, and Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square always has some fancy ones. You need to know what size of wheel your bike has. It can also be a pain to install them if you aren't much interested -- something always needs bending or drilling or fiddling. You could ask your bike shop to install them. Used fenders are pretty easy to find at the usual places (Working Bikes, Recyclery, A Nearly New Shop, Blackstone...) The mountain bike has old Wald chrome fenders bought used at Working Bikes for about $30 including all the mounting stuff.

Include lighting here too since the lights attach to the fenders or to the same screws as the fenders. See our post about generator lights or find other lighting you like better. Remember, it's Simple and Practical to have the lights built in so traffic doesn't squash you flat at night. Surely you'll have reflectors, too - we use a lot of reflective tape but real plastic or metal backed reflectors are more "traditional". I haven't gotten to finishing the lighting yet on the new bike but it has a Lumotec Lyt front LED light with standlight, and I'll replace the old rear lamp with a Seculite Plus, which also has one.

Consider a chainguard. From a plastic ring that clicks into the chainring to keep your pants from catching, to a full chaincase, these things are just not optional for northern European city bikes. Look at all those "folks on bikes in Vilnius" sites for proof. A full chaincase is more Dutch and protects the chain so you don't have to oil the chain often, but it will only fit a bike with a fixed chainline, like one with internal gears or a single speed. A full chaincase won't fit a mountain bike and it's nearly impossible to find one here anyway. Lesser guards are available many places including the giant bike parts wholesaler QBP (rings, or a longer $35 chainguard made by SKS that works with front derailer) - your local bike shop can order one. I went for the SKS - it comes in different sizes depending on the number of teeth in the front large chainring, and it only fits most cranks. It took me a while to install since you have to take off the bottom bracket, which was rusted in on my bike, but it ended up looking and working OK. 

Part of the Practical thing is being able to just grab the bike and ride it wearing normal clothes without ruining them or rolling your pants legs up. Go to the trouble now and get a chainguard.

Skirtguards / coat protectors are harder to find and more optional, but here's a place online with lots of Dutch type goodies.  Try the Dutch bike specialist shops in Chicago too if you really want some, or look into the traditional methods of drilling holes in your fender to run strings to the hub (like the 1910 Raleigh), or crocheting your own net ones if they're important to you. In theory they keep your clothes from getting wrecked in the spokes. I never wear clothes on my bike so I didn't order any guards. Plastic ones clip onto most fenders. The Bobike kid seats have a jacket protector option available.

Put on a good rack or child seat at this stage too. I ordered a Bobike Junior from JC Lind and I have a nice Jandd rack from a bike swap to put under it if I need more space for panniers.

The Bobike Junior is a rack...

...And a child seat up to age 10 or so, with footrests and space for stuff

Block pedals, Kickstand, Reflectors, Bell, Rack Strap. I use mirrors, but don't tell any Dutch person. A helmet. (In Holland they have separated bike lanes, cycletracks, so their injury risk is much lower than here, and helmets are unpopular. We have integrated traffic and resulting injuries, so consider a helmet even if it's not authentic. It lowers your risk of serious brain injury by about 80% in most studies.) Little bags for tools or lunch or whatever. Clarijs brand back panniers from a Dutch bike store. A clean up: remove the heavy metal mountain bike decals, the trail mud, and all 8 water bottle holders. Oil your chain. Get non-quick-release skewers and lock those wheels on.

Some Dutch bikes have a laughable but cute little rear wheel lock installed that keeps the wheel attached to the bike while the metal guy throws it, your panniers and your child into his pickup to take to the scrapyard to sell for $6. Many older ones can be opened without the key. Don't waste your time buying one of these and carry a real lock instead. In Holland it would be a heavy padlock and 6 to 8 mm armored chain, like here (cheap and looks good) or here, but go ahead and use what you like best. A big U-lock is easier to carry but a chain fits around a metal streetlight pole. Lock it to something that won't move and that doesn't have a CTA sign on it (or the CTA will impound it).

partly converted mountain bike with old Wald fenders
and new seat and handlebars

Now after all that work (maybe you spent, what, a few hours putting it all together?) you have a really Practical Upright Durable commuting bike, maybe with a couple of kids seats on it, that weighs much less than a Dutch bike and is just as good. Depending on the frame and parts you chose, maybe it's better. You can lift it up the stairs. Even lots of stairs. And I bet it didn't cost $1000. Refer to it as your fiets (as in "feets don't fail me now") and you can be as smug as the Bike Snob about what a good value it was. Quick, increase the cycling mode share: go pick up the kids from school and get the groceries on your new old bike!

Nearly Finished! And I can lift it!
    I'm planning on putting the Bobike Mini handlebar mounted seat in front, so I can get 2 kids on with me, and I'll probably be adding a rack to more easily hold panniers under the Junior seat. The lights need to be tuned up a bit, and do you think it needs a big wicker basket in front? Hmmm.

new stem                                                       35
new handlebars                                            30
new cables and housings                             15
fenders                                                          30
for example, old dynamo with new B&M 
Lumotec D-Oval and DToplight Plus,       60
cargo rack                                                      25
basket, child seat...                                       extra
chainguard                                                     35
Grips                                                              10
Wide sprung plastic seat                             40
2 new Schwalbe Marathon tires                  80
total                                                        about $360
                                                               (but with a Brooks seat and fancy stuff it came
                                                               to a little over $400 for this one)

One grownup, 2 kids, no cargo


  1. Edited the post and lost this comment:

    Julian said...
    Great post, well-detailed. To go "full Dutch" it's helpful to slacken the virtual seat tube angle with a layback seatpost or Brompton seatpost adaptor, especially with a Brooks saddle that is challenging to push back as far as others.

    My version of this:

    That bike is an xtracycle now, but still loving the practical, upright, laidback geometry. And the fat franks.
    May 5, 2011 12:51 AM

  2. I eye those Dutch bikes, and I wonder how much better they would be than my current bike, they're certainly pricier. I think that what I would do to Dutchify my bike is add a chainguard and generator lights. Hmmm. Something to consider. I have a Novara Mia ( ) which already has the upright position, if not the trendy vintage / utilitarian feel.

  3. The chainguard I used is kind of a pain to install but works well once it's on. I think the generator lights are a really good idea too - see if Peter White Cycles still has the special prices on the Lumotec Ovals and save some money. Did you see our post about generator lights?

    The important thing is just getting out and riding around, so make your bike comfortable to hop on and go. Let us know what you do.

  4. The first few comments on this post are still available, at

  5. Custom is Cool!

    I saw a woman with a Dutch Style Bike online that had a kick stand like a motorcycle center stand! That was a nice touch... great for loading and unloading

    I have to lean my big rig

  6. Those center stand kickstands you see on Dutch bikes are mostly from Hebie. Greenfield/pletscher/esge and copies also made of cast aluminum come in 2 variants - both fold on one side or each leg on a side. And there's a dual leg steel stand widely available if you google it called an m-wave; never seen one to notice it. I think the classic steel Trygg used on many Raleighs is my absolute favorite dual leg kickstand since it folds in, and it holds a load solidly, but it won't hold a 10-year old who jumps up and down on it as we found recently. I just put a rear triangle kickstand on this bike and I don't use it if a kid is jumping on.

  7. help! i scored me an old dutch(ish) bike at online auction and now i fancy painting it up! problem is, can i get that chainguard off? i have searched and searched for 'how to's, but i just can't find one. other than saying 'it's difficult', any top tips?

  8. Hmmm. If it's an old or retro bike with an enclosed chainguard made of leather or cloth stretched around a frame, I'm not sure. I think there is lacing to remove on the back side, carefully remove the cloth thing, then see what's next. Maybe you could leave the what's next undone if you are just painting.
    Or is it metal? Most of those bolt to brackets brazed to the frame (or wrapped around it). Undo the bolts and it pops off.
    If it's more recent it's probably easier. The plastic full chainguard on our bikes clicks apart at the very back, then a couple of screws come out and it can be wriggled free, passing the chain through the pry-openable gap between front and back pieces of guard.
    The one on the bike up above is another design that's common - they screw onto a frame that's held by the bottom bracket. Maybe you can remove the guard part and leave that frame attached to the bike, unless you are removing the crank arms and bottom bracket.
    I'll see if I can find anything about those fabric chainguard covers. Maybe there's something near the picture of the 1910 Raleigh at the top of this post that would help.
    Does anyone else reading this blog have a better idea?

    Thanks for the note. We love NZ- both of us have spent time there. So say hello to Otago for us. Is the Wizard still there?

  9. Oh- here's a link to Sheldon Brown about how to change the chain on one of those. Could it help you figure out how to remove it?

  10. Probably worth noting that the Bobike Junior is a $215 purchase at the only place I've been able to find in the US that lists a price on-line. I'd love to get one but it's not cheap.

  11. Thanks for the note. You have a good point, but I'm pretty sure we spent less than $150 for ours. Since a plain old plastic bucket with an orange bar across it costs over $100 most places I've looked, it made sense to us.

    More important is making sure the seat fits your needs. We have had problems with the Junior, which is comfortable and popular even with the 11 year old, but it's really hard to hook up any pannier under or on it (unlike the other Bobike seat - the Maxi- that we have and use all the time) and the seat stay clamps just won't stay clamped on the mountain bike's wide tapered stays. The seat lurches crooked suddenly on this frame and I need to pull out the Allen keys to fix it.

    So I think the seat isn't bad, probably works really well on a traditional frame with a straight seat stay, but it isn't what we'd hoped for. For the price compared to other things we've seen it was probably worth it. Wish there were something better for bigger kids - perhaps just a padded board that fits on a strong rack is as good. JC Lind used to have them or you could make one. GMG makes a couple of options that might also work.

    The German test magazines liked Hamax seats better last time I looked, no idea where to find one.

    Bobike is carried in the US now by Kool-Stop, I think, so many bike stores have access to the wholesaler - can't hurt to ask your local store.

  12. You can see my finished conversion here:

    I have had always had city bike tires - pretty much from day one over 20 years ago (and I gave away the knobbies).

    I did pretty much the same as you but replaced my normal front wheel and cantilevers with a hub gen wheel and new roller brake. (I might have just used a bottle generator but my wheel was somewhat worn out...I needed a hub gen to be legal in Germany with a bike over 11 kilos). I disagree with your roller brake analysis as the brakes are both damage-resistant and good in the wet - I have used this bike for over 20 years and while the cantilever brakes are okay in wet, I think bad brakes are a barrier for some people with low bike investment opportunities). As you can see I still have the rear cantilevers.

    "...just as good"? Hmm... I wrote that I kept the wide-gearing (but would have scrapped the front if it was in bad conditions) and while the frame angles are not ideal the one bad thing that cannot be changed is the high bottom bracket. Even with that Brompton add-on I cannot get my mtn bike to a relatively-efficient saddle height that also allows me to put a foot down while seated.

  13. Thanks for the feedback!
    Since I wrote the post the better roller brakes have become more available here, and they do seem a lot better, but not for heavy loads downhill since they overheat. You are right about the high bottom bracket but on the early mountain bike I used it feels about the same as our dutch dutch bikes. Maybe the frame angles are an advantage, especially heading uphill, since so many dutch products now available here have a laid back seat post - comfortable but inefficient.
    Again thanks for the note.

  14. Is a stem that high safe, though? I thought it would make the bike hard to control, or be likely to bend...?

  15. Well, the stem in the blog post and most similar ones we've seen are steel quill stems, in this case stainless steel, and though they are heavier than aluminum they are designed for regular use. Any stem that's inserted up to its 'minimum insertion' line should be safe whatever it's made from. The tall stems don't make the bike hard to control at all, but they certainly change the seating position. The upright position that comes from using such a stem gives you a better view over traffic and makes you easier to see, too. It changes your pedaling position a bit also. When you have a tall stem you will probably sit differently on the seat and a wider, sprung seat begins to make sense.
    Your main point is very important though - that you should always be sure your stem is safe. If in doubt, don't use it.

  16. Wondering if this would be a good way to bring my old Huffy Jackyl back to life. Say what you want about that brand, but that bike served me quite well for several years. I never challenged it to a really technical trail, but we spent lots of time on nearby singletracks with little trouble. It's one of the later US-built Huffy's, made before they sent 'em to China and a once-decent brand pretty well went to Hell.

    The downside would be that the reason I retired it was cause I was just the slightest bit too tall for it by then. Replaced it with a Haro Flightline Sport. Maybe frame size is less critical when fitting the new city-type parts. It's just been collecting dust in my storage alcove. Little or no rust, still technically ridable.

  17. AMAZING! I can't wait to refit my '90s steelies and start overcharging the local hipsters who don't know how to ride fixies. Thanks for the tips!

  18. What is the manufacturer of the stem?


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