Jon Lind on a covered bakfiets
by John Greenfield
De Fietsfabriek (“The Bicycle Factory”) opened its storefront at 1311 N. Wells in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood this spring, selling eye-catching Dutch-style city bikes and bakfiets (“box bikes”) cargo bicycles. Vote with Your Feet recently visited owner Jon Lind to talk about how Lind got into the business, the features of the unique vehicles he sells, and why he thinks the time is right for European-style bikes in the U.S.
This is the second of a series of interviews with the owners of Chicago's three new European bike shops, including Copenhagen Cycles, 1375 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park, and Dutch Bikes, 651 W. Armitage in Lincoln Park.
By John Greenfield
Tell me about your background with cycling.
I grew up in Oak Park and remember as a kid getting my first bike, a Schwinn Stingray, and the freedom that went along with that – the first time my parents would allow me to cross certain borders and boundaries. It was the bike that did that.
I’m 32 now and I’ve yet to own a car, I’m proud to say. I’m not exactly anti-car. I think they serve a certain purpose in the world and they’re not all bad. I went to school down at Champaign-Urbana, a very bike-friendly community and rode my bike all during college.
I’ve lived here in Old Town, Chicago, pretty much since college, with the exception of the time I got to live in Amsterdam. A lot of that’s because Old Town’s an easy place to live a car-free lifestyle, because of its proximity to the Loop and public transportation, and other amenities. I was an eight-month bike commuter, not a year-round commuter, to work in Streeterville for a number of years.
It wasn’t until after Holland, where everything you do is done by bike, that I really got hooked on the lifestyle. After that it was like, OK, I’m going grocery shopping, I’m going to meet my friends. I started looking at the bicycle as more than A to B for work commuting and some recreation. It became A to Z, the whole gamut.
What were you doing in Holland?
In 2006 the consulting company I worked for sent me to Amsterdam. I was in an accounting and finance position. It had been a goal of mine since college to get an expat assignment overseas and I had the time of my life.
How did you get involved with De Fietsfabriek?
I’d been in the Netherlands for 18 months and I was just about to return. I was hanging out with some of my Dutch buddies in the Pijp neighborhood. It’s where the Heineken brewery is and it’s kind of the Wicker Park-Bucktown. We were at my favorite pizza place and this guy rolls up on this tremendous orange bike, very unusual. He throws his kickstand down and walks into the pizza place.
My friends said, “That’s the De Fietsfabriek guy,” and started questioning him about the bike and he offered to let us test ride his bike. It had a 400-watt electrical assist battery, which turns out to be illegal in Amsterdam, and a front disc brake.
His name is Yalçin Cihangir and he’s one of the founders of the company. He’s originally from Turkey and he didn’t speak English, only Turkish and Dutch. As my friends were speaking to him in Dutch I overheard the word “burgemeester” which is the Dutch word for mayor.
At the time Daley was taking a trip to Paris to check out their bike rental program and Yalçin had read something about Daley and how cycle-friendly Chicago is. When he heard I was from Chicago he literally said, “You sell my bikes in Chicago.”
I went to his shop and met his partner Dave Deutsch, got a feel for what they had cooking and felt their passion for what they were doing. Right away I felt like there was something there. When I came home I racked my brain for three or four months wondering if this could work in Chicago.
I looked at “proof of concept,” what’s happening in Vancouver with Rain City Bikes and Dutch Bikes in Seattle and Clever Cycles in Portland. The people at Clever Cycles were super nice and friendly. I talked my friends ears off about what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. They finally told me to shut up and do something.
So in January of ‘08 I finally went back to Amsterdam with a business plan and made it happen. I flew home with two sample bikes, a gentleman’s city bike and a two-wheeled “bakfiets” (“box bike”) cargo bicycle. That was a harrowing experience – I flew home with the bikes as checked luggage, which definitely tested the patience of the over-sized cargo people.
When did the store open?
The retail location opened on April 1st of this year. I operated for almost a year and a half using public storage as my headquarters. The streets of Chicago were my showroom. It was all word-of-mouth, generating interest and as much direct sales as possible.
Kevin Womac [the owner of Boulevard Bikes, where John Greenfield works] was my first official sale. The amount of confidence that gave me when I was able to sell to a bike shop owner was all I needed to go forward and take the risk of ordering my first container.
Kevin Womac's bakfiets with daughter Hazel and her friend Miguel
Now we have three European-style bike shops in Chicago and new shops are opening all over North America. Why is the time right for Euro-style bike shops here?
As far as adopting the lifestyle of Amsterdam and Copenhagen and other European cities where cycling is in the blood, towns like Chicago are laid out perfectly for it. It’s flat here and there’s a movement towards sustainability. You can get 70% of your needs within a three to five mile bike trip and the weather three-quarters of the year is ideal for biking.
But in order for that culture to take you need to have the right tools. By that I mean a bike that comes standard with the kind of features these bikes come with, that being fenders, a chain case, skirt guard, a lighting system, a rack to carry your things.
And there’s a battle between the U.S. biking mindset which says lighter is better and performance is better. But for commuting comfort is better than speed, especially when you’re talking about shorter distances, which is what these bikes are ideal for, getting to or from your job or going out with your friends, all within your local community.
Even in Holland the Bakfiets concept is less than ten years old, so it’s still fairly new.
What’s the price range for your bikes?
I this last shipment I got a hold of what we call a “Simple City Bike.” They’re single-speed with battery-powered lights and a rear rack. [Most of the store’s more expensive models built-in cantilever racks.] Those retail for $799 for the “Oma” [step-through] style and $899 for the male style. Our main line of city bikes go from $1600 up to about $2,000. Our cargo bikes range from about $2,000 up to around $4,000. The one Kevin bought was about $3,000.
What would you say to someone who has sticker shock and says, “Well, I could get a reasonable used car for $3,000.” What selling points would you use to get someone to buy a premium cargo bike instead?
One, it’s quality that lasts. You’re investing in the car-free lifestyle and the mobility that a bicycle like this can offer. These are hand-made, not mass-produced. There’s no planned or perceived obsolescence. They really are built for the long haul and they maintain resale value.
Any bike is basically an up-front investment and not something that has continual costs such as monthly insurance bills and maintenance and gasoline, parking tickets and getting towed and things like that. If used properly, these bikes pay for themselves.
Why don’t you walk me around the store and give me your sales spiel about the different models.
The BF18 is one of our most popular models. It is a three-wheeled cargo bike with two wheels in the front. It can carry 265 pounds of cargo. It can be set up with two benches and it has the capability to carry four children. The benches fold up so it’s very versatile if you’re just moving a larger cargo item. We have rain canopy covers which are wonderful features not just for rainy days but for wind-chill purposes, to keep your child’s body heat inside the bicycle.
It’s set up with internal drum brakes on the front two wheels, nicely sealed and good for all-weather riding. When the parking brake is set it effectively acts as your kickstand so the bicycle does not roll whenever you’re stopped, loading or unloading your children or cargo. Your true stopping power comes from a coaster brake in the rear wheel.
Just like all of our bicycles you have a full chain case. You have an internally geared rear hub, sealed and protected from the elements, very low maintenance. For the wheels and tires we use nothing but the best. We put Schwalbe tires on all our bikes – they’re generally noted as the most flat-resistant on the market. Spokes are extremely sturdy 12-guage spokes. Most of our bikes have skirt guards to protect loose children, or if you have a child seat it makes sure that your child’s feet don’t get caught in the spokes.
So the gear shifter is down on the seat tube?
Yes, We have three different versions, essentially stock versions, of three-wheel cargo bikes. This model, the BF18, is set up so the front cargo box is its own separate entity that pivots at one point. The handlebars are more like your ice cream man on the lakefront, as opposed to your traditional handlebars. If the shifter was on the handlebars there’d be too much distance for the cable to go. So what we’ve done in a clever, somewhat unorthodox design where the shifter is on the top of the seat tube, which gives you a very short distance for the cable to get to the internally geared hub.
[Points to a large chrome canister attached to the frame.] This is a very clever feature. People always ask if it’s used for champagne or flowers. There’s nothing to stop you from doing that but it’s actually designed to store your chain lock, because you’re going to want a nice heavy-duty lock for this type of bike. Of course you could just carry it in the cargo box but it would rattle and make noise and this really doesn’t.
Besides making bikes that are super high-quality and ultra-durable, the form is very important to us. We consider these bikes to be works of art. For example [points to wheel], this arch piece here with the FF logo. Sure it does have a function – it could help keep a child’s hands out of the spokes – but in reality it’s just for pure beauty.
We focus on being as low-tech and low-maintenance as possible, simple machines that last. We’re not trying to have the latest and the greatest in technology. Not saying that technology is bad but it requires more maintenance. Separate from the internally-geared hub, which is an almost 100-year-old technology and is a fairly intricate piece but is internally sealed, these bikes are designed to be as simple as can be.
Do you do maintenance on these bikes?
I do. We do a 30-day check-up: we check the chain tension and tire pressure, tighten down all moving parts and check for wheel truing. After that we recommend you bring in your bike once a year for a tune-up.
You guys manufacture the bikes yourself, right?
Yes. We have our very own factory where we make everything from the frames, the chain cases, the fenders, the forks, the racks. The factory where the parts are fabricated is in Yalçin’s hometown in Turkey and then the bikes are assembled in Holland.
A good 60 to 80 percent of our bikes are made-to-order. You have a choice of thirty different colors, you can put your name in the frame quite easily. The classic matte black is the most popular color choice, but if somebody wants to do a bike where the frame is in pink and the chain case and rack are a rose color, we can do that and make a one-of-a-kind bike.
Are any of your customers doing interesting things with their bikes?
Absolutely. One of my first customers uses the bike for her daycare center. She has about eight kids in her daycare. She brings them on two cycles from school which is within a mile and a half from the daycare center.
Another bike was shipped down to New Orleans this past June. A customer there saw someone riding around her neighborhood on a Fietsfabriek. She tracked us down on the Internet. Her husband called me and said, “We want this bike. It’s something we covet dearly.” Unfortunately it was something they were going to have to save up for before they could get it.
Very dear friends of theirs who happened to live a block away from here in Old Town contacted me and said, “Do not sell a bike to them.” I said, “Hmmm… What do you mean?” They said, “We want to buy it for them. It’s going to be surprise.” They were able to raise money from family and friends in about a month and were able to pull off a tremendous surprise. Kind of a heartwarming story.
Opening the shop was a big career change for you. You took a real leap, trying to sell these type of bikes in Chicago. Are you happy with your career choice?
Couldn’t be happier. From a very young age I always had it in mind to find something I could be passionate about, to make this kind of sacrifice and leave the security blanket of a 9 to 5 job. When this opportunity presented itself as something I could put 100 percent of my passion behind, that was tremendous.
It’s been more work than I could ever have expected and more sacrifice and risk. But I feel fortunate. Certain things find you, you find things some times. In this case it was a little bit of both. I’m tremendously happy.