You’ve seen those classy, upright city bikes cruising along Amsterdam canals.
You might even have seen them around town in North America.
The quintessential Dutch bike is the symbol of practical cycling, and it’s even catching on far outside its homeland.
But are Dutch bikes any good? Dutch bikes are very good for practical cycling at low to moderate speeds, such as commuting, errands, deliveries, and other personal transportation. Their distinctively upright riding position is comfortable, and the bikes themselves tend to be extremely low-maintenance and steady under heavy loads. However, Dutch bikes are very heavy, too large for small spaces or transit, inefficient for sporty riding, and handle imprecisely. If you want a sportier but still practical alternative, then consider a touring, gravel, hybrid, or fitness bike instead.
While they’re an icon of Dutch transportation, similar bikes are actually common around the world. Similar bikes abound in countries from England to China, or at least they did until cars became relatively affordable.
We’ll take a look at what they are, what they do best, and when they’re not ideal. At the end, I’ll give my personal picks for both authentic and cheaper “Dutch-lite” bikes you can buy today.
First, What Exactly Is A Dutch Bike?
The typical Dutch bike is upright, extremely sturdy, and well accessorized. No matter which country it’s actually made in, it will almost always have the following characteristics.
An upright riding position
Sitting bolt-upright isn’t fast, since it exposes you to more wind and doesn’t let you use your glutes very much while pedaling.
But it sure is comfortable not to kink your neck and strain your wrists!
Another benefit of upright riding is that you can use almost any clothing. There’s no need for Lycra when you’re not stuck in a deep forward bend.
Not only are the handlebars nicely elevated, but the bars themselves sweep back toward the rider. If you let your arms hang by your sides, notice how your palms basically face each other? That’s the same angle the handlebars encourage.
However, it’s not upright in the same way as an Electra Townie, which puts your feet very far forward in a semi-recumbent position. But neither is it like a “comfort bike,” which puts your feet nearly straight below the saddle.
Instead, classic Dutch bike geometry strikes a perfect balance between the two.
Here’s a diagram that might help clarify.
This might be hard to believe, but some folks actually grin the moment they first try one. After a lifetime of discomfort and a “no pain, no gain” mentality from sport-oriented bike shops, it’s probably their first time on a bike that’s thoroughly pleasant.
Enclosed brakes and gears
Every bike’s most vulnerable parts are its brakes and drivetrain. They require the most frequent maintenance and are also the most susceptible to harsh weather.
And speaking of weather, Dutch winters are not pretty affairs. It’s not exactly Siberia, but parking bikes outdoors in a central/northern European climate requires serious durability.
To solve the weather and maintenance problems at once, Dutch bikes often use internally-geared hubs and drum/roller brakes.
Most of us are used to derailleur gears. That’s the spring-loaded contraption that moves the chain up and down between gears.
That’s a simple and elegant way to shift, but it needs frequent adjustment and is vulnerable to knocks and bumps around town.
To solve this, Dutch bikes use a special rear hub with many tiny gears inside it. Good ones give as much range as derailleur can, but it’s all tucked away in a weatherproof package that seldom needs attention.
It’s a similar story with brakes, too. Rim brakes are good enough for most urban riding (as I’ve covered here), and disc brakes have power galore.
But both need a little tuning here and there.
Fortunately, just like gears can go inside a hub, so can brakes. The version most Dutch bikes use is called a “roller brake.” Think of the coaster brakes you might’ve had as a kid, but highly refined. It works identically wet and dry, even if you neglect it a bit.
Generous fenders and chain protection
It’s good to block rain from falling on you. (And my guide to city cycling rainwear walks you through how to do that).
However, it’s critical to block spray from the road.
On a bike, it doesn’t get nastier than a muddy stripe up your back and grimy, brake dust-filled pothole juices all over your pants.
That’s why fenders and a good chain case are absolutely necessary for any useful city bike.
The Netherlands is a famously damp climate. That’s why nearly all local bikes have fenders that wrap fully around both wheels.
They also have a chain case that keeps greasy gunk off the rider’s pants and preserves the chain itself from harsh conditions.
Most even have a coat guard (or dress guard) that keeps long, loose attire out of the rear wheel.
A few other things make a bike “Dutch,” as well. Frame geometry tends to be long and slack, tires are on the fatter side (by road bike standards), and lighting is usually hard-wired (via a dynamo hub) rather than clipped on.
But by and large, the riding position, enclosed parts, and excellent weather protection are what make them so distinctive and practical.
What’s It Like To Ride One?
\My first ride on an actual Dutch bike–as in, one imported straight from Amsterdam–was a revelation.
I had owned or test-ridden many city bikes before, all of which were pleasant and practical in their own way.
But the WorkCycle omafiets was on another level of pleasantness. Even as a lifelong cyclist, who goes out of his way to try every bike around, I didn’t realize it was possible to be that upright and comfortable.
I’ve seen it described as a “regal” ride, and that’s the perfect word.
You’re upright, dignified, and just not inclined to hurry. You can even put at least one foot on the ground without dropping the saddle too low.
One slight quirk is how light the steering feels. It’s not easy to put into words, but it’s like you’re following the front wheel rather than on top of it. (That makes sense, when you think about it, since the design positions you far back over the rear wheel.)
You’ll notice that difference right away, but it only becomes a problem in tight, twisting situations.
I also noticed that the first bumpy stretch of road was much smoother than I expected. The fat tires and sprung saddle are a large part of the reason. The swept-back handlebars also flex slightly, which helps take the edge off of harsh surfaces.
Another interesting point is that they’re fairly one-size-fits-all. Even though the frame measurement was at least one size smaller than anything I’ve owned, the fit was just fine. When you’re that upright, there’s a lot of wiggle room in sizing. As long as you can set the right saddle height, the length of the bike (“top tube length”) isn’t much of a concern.
My last personal observation is that climbing is a slow affair.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s mostly not because of weight.
True, adding several pounds might decrease your uphill speed by 10% or so. And starting from a dead stop is harder work.
But what primarily makes them slow uphill is their upright posture. Leaning forward lets you involve your glutes in pedaling. Sitting straight up involves them less. And the glutes are major muscles, so less use means much less power.
To compensate, I simply gripped the front, horizontal part of the handlebars, on either side of the stem. That makes it easier to lean forward into a good climbing position. It still felt a bit off, but definitely gave me a boost up some very steep hills.
To put all this into a few words: riding a Dutch bike is a relaxed and confidence-inspiring experience. It’s the polar opposite of a road racing bike, on every level.
Is that good or bad? Well, that depends on a) what you need the bike for and b) where/how you’ll store and manipulate it. Let’s take a closer look at those factors.
When Dutch Bikes Are A Good Choice
To the right sort of rider, Dutch bikes are perfection.
If you think of yourself less as a “cyclist” and more has a “person who happens to travel by bicycle,” then they’re probably a good fit.
(In the Netherlands, the two concepts are so different that there are two separate words. A utility cyclist is a fietser whereas a racing/sport cyclist is a wielrenner.)
Here’s how to tell whether a classic Dutch fiets is right for you.
Your riding is mostly practical
Everything about Dutch bikes is optimized for practical, around-town riding.
That means low-maintenance parts, heavy but highly useful accessories, and a supremely comfortable riding position.
All those things add up to a bike that’s as accessible and dependable as a decent car.
When a bike is a main mode of transportation, all those things are worth every bit of their price and weight
Comfort trumps speed
Comfort on a bike is basically a function of sitting up.
Speed on a bike is basically a function of leaning forward.
You can choose to ride harder or easier, but that’s the fundamental trade-off.
And Dutch bikes are far, far toward the comfort side of the equation.
Again, coming back to bikes as primary transportation, that’s a good thing. A bicycle is only practical if you can ride it in everyday clothes and without causing pain!
You’re OK with a high price for high quality
Cheap Dutch-style bikes abound in continental Europe, but they’re vanishingly rare elsewhere.
Importing bikes to the US can be expensive. Duties and small-quantity shipping often cost hundreds of dollars. From a retailer’s perspective, it’s only worth importing high-end bikes.
A reasonable starting point is $1,200-$1,500 before shipping. That’s assuming you’re in the US or Canada and you buy from a bike shop that’s also in the US or Canada. For all the “goodies” like high-end dynamo lighting and beefy cargo racks, prices will start closer to $2,000.
That’s a big number…but it’s trivial compared to buying, maintaining, fueling, and insuring a car!
When To Consider Something Else
Dutch bikes are accessible and useful. But they don’t suit all transportation cyclists, either, especially if weight or size are practical concerns.
Here are a few such situations.
You’ll carry or lift the bike often
At 45-50 lbs and up, Dutch bikes are not meant to be carried.
In practice, this plays out in three ways:
- You need to get a bike onto a bus’s bike rack
- You need to store it up more than a few stairs (or around extremely tight corners)
- You need to carry it through a room
If any of those is true, then you’ll do well to pick something lighter.
The only catch is that lighter weight comes at the cost of practical features. It defeats the purpose if you choose something light enough to lift, but too impractical to serve your daily needs.
Good alternative: Aluminum-framed bikes like the Norco Scene or Specialized Roll have a fairly similar riding position but weigh a few pounds less. Just remember that they’ll need aftermarket fenders and a rack, which undermines some of the weight savings. If you need to shave 15+ lbs for lift-ability, then a fitness bike might be a better option (albeit less practical and higher-maintenance).
Storage space or public transit are cramped
The long wheelbase of a Dutch bike makes for extremely smooth going.
It also makes for a storage nightmare in small spaces.
The Dutch often store their bikes outdoors or in garages. That’s part of why they need to be so weather-resistant in the first place.
But if your storage space is limited, or you need to bring it onto public transit, then a folding bike will make life much easier.
Good alternative: some folding bikes have plenty of practical features in an extremely compact form. A Brompton is the most compact and probably the best-made of all.
You want to ride quickly or aggressively
At a glance, you can tell that a Dutch bike isn’t built for sporty riding. There’s a good reason that nobody races on them!
While lighter city bikes may feel snappier, they still have accessories that get in the way for sport riding.
Instead, visit your local bike shop to try out dozens of sport-oriented models for every type of terrain imaginable.
This is the domain of sport cycling, and it’s something else altogether.
Good alternative: virtually any mountain, road, gravel, or cyclocross bike will suit aggressive and/or fast riding. Choosing a mountain bike if technical singletrack is your goal, or any of the others if you’ll stick to pavement and smoother dirt. Options abound!
You need precise handling for tight, twisty situations
Dutch bike infrastructure is famously thoughtful and organized. That means tight maneuvers are extremely rare. You won’t often find yourself weaving between cars or making 90-degree turns on narrow sidewalks.
In smooth and straight riding, the light and ponderous handling mentioned earlier is perfectly fine. Without much weight over the handlebars, it’s hard to have a good feel for exactly what your steering input will do.
But in most other places, we need agility around town. That’s not to say we want an aggressive, racing feel–far from it–but we do need slightly different geometry that makes it easier to “thread the needle” between urban obstacles.
Good alternative: Hybrid bikes have the most sporty and MTB-like handling of all urban bikes; I’ve recommend some great entry-level hybrids here. For more of a middle ground, consider the marvelous Brooklyn Franklin (see my full review) and similar “classic-light” city bikes.
It’s for occasional use or on a tight budget
As mentioned above, Dutch bikes are a bargain versus car ownership.
But if you’d only like to ride occasionally, then consider saving money on a more readily available city bike.
All the bells and whistles really are terrific for daily use, but they’re rather expensive for anything less than that.
Good alternative: For vaguely similar bikes that are still well-made and fun, check out the more upright models from Brooklyn Bicycle (my personal favorite), Public Bikes, or Linus Bikes. And while you’re at it, read my guide here for more information on how much city bikes cost (and why that’s the case).
Dutch bikes are practical transportation first and foremost.
If that’s how you ride, and you’ve got the budget, then nothing beats a beautiful WorkCycles. Gazelle and Pilen (actually from Sweden) are two more good choices that you can order from Chicago’s J.C. Lind Bike Co.
Lighter and cheaper options from Brooklyn, Public, or Linus are also terrific. Plan on more maintenance and less cargo-hauling, but their prices and ride quality are very good anyhow.
And if you’re still uncertain about the whole city biking idea, read this article next to find out why it’s worth trying!