The omafiets, or grandma bicycle, is synonymous with cycling in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, where cycling accounts for 38 percent of vehicular trips, this black-painted steel design, which places the rider in an upright position, is ubiquitous on the streets and, in stylized form, emblazoned on everything from traffic signs to souvenir T-shirts.
This machine (the one that I rented during my recent visit is shown above) is ideally suited for flat terrain and dense urban areas where clustering of work, housing and shopping keeps most trips short. It won’t win you the Tour de France, but it doesn’t have to, because traffic-calming measures in Amsterdam contribute to slow speeds overall.
Although the omafiets looks humble by American standards, I learned from riding one for five days that what this bicycle lacks in flash it makes up in comfort, reliability, and ease of riding and maintenance. Simply put, I didn’t have to think about it. I just got on the bike and rode…everywhere.
What Makes it Great
Here are some of the features that make the Dutch-style bicycle, which is being introduced into the U.S. market by an increasing number of makers, a good choice for city cycling:
1. Step-through frame: The graceful loop tube lets you wear skirts and dresses, and easily mount and step off the bicycle. The counterpart for men is the opafiets, which has a horizontal tube or, for taller riders, double horizontal top tubes.
2. Upright seating: The “sit-up-and-beg” posture on the bike lends comfort and provides excellent visibility, not only for safety, but also for enjoying the scenery. In addition, in this position it’s easy to carry a regular handbag, tote or briefcase on your shoulder.
3. Chain case and full fenders: This bicycle’s chain is completely enclosed in a lightweight case that prevents grease from staining clothing. In addition, full fenders block spray from the road on rainy days. A skirt guard that covers a section of the rear wheel prevents longer skirts or coats from becoming entangled in the spokes.
4. Single-speed, coaster brake: For riding in flat locales with relatively slow-moving traffic, a single-speed with a coaster brake serves daily needs and cuts down on worries about bicycle maintenance. Flat pedals enable you to wear any kind of footwear, including heels. (My son wanted more options, so he rented a geared version.)
5. Built-in rack: A sturdy built-in rear rack can be used with a bungee as shown above, and easily accommodates panniers. Front-mounted baskets, ranging from wire to oversize wicker, also are popular.
6: Wheel, or cafe, locks: The bicycle is commonly equipped with a keyed, built-in lock that latches around the rear tire to immobilize it. The lock is a convenience for stops when the bike remains in sight, but it’s best used in combination with a heavy U-lock to secure the frame to a rack or the front wheel to the frame. Bicycle theft is rampant in Amsterdam, so take heed when traveling.
7. Kickstand: There are so many bicycles in Amsterdam that you can’t always count on finding a rack or fence on which to lock up. So a kickstand is essential for pauses or for locking the bike upright.
8. Durable materials, heavy weight: The classic material is steel. The bikes are heavy, but they feel solid beneath you and the frames don’t rust, so they can be parked outdoors in any weather.
All these features add up to a city ride that is simplicity itself. And isn’t that what we want from our daily transportation?