Are Americans ready for European trekking bikes?

Are Americans ready for European trekking bikes?
The traditional European city bike. Courtesy of Bianchi

There is something romantic about European bicycling.

Scenic mountain passes. Ancient cobblestones. Ornate roundabouts. Grand boulevards. Narrow avenues. Historic bridges. Whether one is a fan of professional bicycle racing or simply an admirer of efficient everyday transportation, most American cycling enthusiasts have a soft spot for European bicycling culture.

We really admire Europe's relationship with the bicycle.

We applaud its reverence for a sport that has been continually contested over the same demanding terrain as it was two centuries prior. We envy the progressive politics that emphasize moving people over expediting motor vehicle traffic. We seek to emulate Europe's best practices in our quest to become a more bike-friendly nation.

We rave about the stadsfiets or city bicycle.

We respect the businessman dressed in full business attire (sans helmet) pedaling leisurely to his office. We admire the mom who spins alongside her kids as they ride to school, then heads off to the market to pickup a day's worth of groceries. We marvel at the modified bikes that carry both cargo and passengers up and down busy city streets. If only we could have such a cooperative and cohesive mobile society here in the states...

I have yet to meet anyone who has traveled to Europe that wasn't in awe of a bicycle that contained mudguards (fenders), a luggage rack, chain protector, self-generating lights, and a built-in wheel lock. The heavy, steel, step-through, single-speed, traditional Dutch bike is hands-down the favorite model of the returning tourist. In the eyes of American cyclists, it is the European city bike that symbolizes all that is right in a truly progressive society.

While we Americans seem to really appreciate Europe's iconic bicycle models, we tend to stop short of endorsing them for our own use.

This is an interesting phenomenon. A single model equipped with fenders and a rear cargo rack stands out like a sore thumb on the sales floor of your traditional American bike shop. It may feature the same styling as the sportiest of fitness hybrids and offer more functionality than the single-speed, balloon-tire beach cruiser, yet it is quickly overlooked as an alternative to either. Are we guilty of feigned admiration?

Even the would-be bike commuter is more likely to choose something simpler or more "hip" for daily transportation. Ironically, what starts off as "all I need is a cool bike and a backpack" ends with repeated trips to the bike shop to add more practical accessories. Backpacks can become too heavy, prompting the addition of a cargo rack and a set of pannier bags. That cold, wet stripe up the backside and soaking wet shoes after even the lightest rainfall necessitates the addition of a set of fenders. A cool, American-style bike quickly morphs into that European trekking model that was summarily dismissed.

Here in America, the masterful marketing of the auto industry has shaped our perceptions and blurred the line between need and want.

We lust after sporty. We crave speedy. We eschew utility. Are more sport utility vehicles and crossover car models sold because they carry more cargo, get better gas mileage, and cost less than minivans? Nope, the SUV loses on all practical accounts, but we buy them anyway because they look cooler...

This type of rationalizing shouldn't apply to bicycling. It isn't about how you look when you arrive, it's about how you got there!

Bicycling, as I've been known to say, is about the adventure. Arriving at new places under your own power. Whether that new place is the ice cream shop you've only ever driven to before, your office, a nearby forest preserve path, or a quaint bed and breakfast at the end of a dusty rail trail, the ride there is the part that satisfies. The easier your bike makes the ride for you, the more you will enjoy riding it.

The Europeans have known this all along.

The traditional city bikes we associate with Europe were built for transportation. Bicycles predate automobiles on the timeline of transportation development. Bikes weren't designed as an alternative to cars, but rather an improvement upon walking. Hopping on a bike and pedaling - rather than walking - covers greater distances far more quickly. Speed is relative, since even a leisurely spin on a bicycle is more than twice as fast as a brisk walk. Stadsfiets didn't have to be sporty or speedy - they just had to be more enjoyable than walking.

Still, European trekking bikes have evolved.

Sport trekking models focus on the essence of practicality while giving a nod to modern styling. The heavy, steel, Dutch bikes with one to seven speeds have evolved into lighter, aluminum, sport hybrids with 21 to 27 gears. Wheel-mounted light generators have been removed to allow the rider the option of more powerful, rechargeable LED lights. O-locks have been eliminated to acknowledge the need for heavier-duty, more theft-deterring U-locks, chains, and cables.

The surviving features that define a European trekking bike are mudguards (fenders) and rear luggage (cargo) racks. Both add utility and enjoyment to every ride. Fenders offer protection from wet pavement, unavoidable puddles, and persistent dust. A cargo rack provides the versatility to carry extra food and water plus a sturdy lock for when you discover that kitschy cafe you've always wanted to try. Picnic lunches, change of clothes, groceries, camping gear - a rear rack can hold a wide variety of bags that will allow you to trek wherever your imagination leads you.

My best piece of advice to anyone looking for a new bike is to satisfy your aspirations.

Don't limit yourself to how or where you are currently riding, but prepare for the rides you aspire to take. If you think you'd like to run more errands and ride to work a couple of days per week, you may not want to settle for a beach cruiser or basic hybrid. If you think you might want to try an all-day excursion or overnight camping trip, a rear cargo rack is inevitable, so why not purchase a model with one purposely built for the bike? And while you can always add fenders to extend the amount of days suitable for riding, it might be better if they match your bike's paint color rather than contrast it with basic aftermarket black or silver.

Every ride is an adventure. Embrace the possibilities. Prepare for eventualities. Follow your whims. Explore.

Keep riding and be safe!

 

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