Wednesday, June 2, 2010

So You Want to Be a Chicago Bicycle Messenger?

Industry veterans offer tips on breaking into the biz

By John Greenfield

[This article also appears in MOMENTUM magazine,]

It’s hard out there for a courier. Business is down in Chicago due to the sluggish economy, and building security is tighter than ever in the wake of 9/11. And of course there’s always traffic dangers and weather challenges.

But for long-time messengers the work is its own reward. “Riding a bike and being free is the best part of the job,” says Andre Gordon, warming up at Cal’s Liquors, a courier hangout at 400 S. Wells, after a day working in cold December rain. Steve Kuntsler, Gordon’s co-worker at Dynamex, agrees. “I like not being stuck in an office all day,” says Kuntsler. “There’s no one over your shoulder cracking the whip.”

With dozens of companies and hundreds of riders, Chicago has one of the largest bike messenger populations in North America and couriers play a key role in greasing the wheels of commerce. “If every messenger stopped working one day the Central Business District would cease to function,” Gordon says.

Receiving orders by two-way radio, couriers crisscross the Loop, picking up and dropping off packages at office towers and loading docks. Most are paid commission, usually 50% of the delivery charge, which varies according to the urgency, distance and weight of the delivery.

Mark Hirsch with Faster Messenger

Although it’s been a slow winter, if you’re interested in checking out the lows and highs of the job, this spring might be a decent time to give it a spin. “March and April is a good time to get hired because it’s tax season,” says Scott Sons, a dispatcher at Arrow Messenger Service.

Arrow’s one of a handful of companies, including Standard, Chicago Messenger, Apex and Chicago Messenger Service, which hire newbies. “We sometimes prefer people with no experience because then we get to train people to do the job the way we want it done,” says Sons. Before applying for a courier job, he recommends wannabe couriers study a map of the Central Business District (between Division, Halsted, Roosevelt and Lake Michigan) and ride around downtown for an afternoon to get the lay of the land.

Marshall Arnold, who dispatches for Dynamex (which doesn’t hire rookies) adds that anyone who wants to messenger should learn basic repairs. “You’re not going to make any money if you’re going to a bike shop every time you get a flat,” he says. Arnold also recommends applying to companies where the bikers are employees, not independent contractors, because the latter are required to pay their own social security taxes and are not covered by workers’ comp.

Once you’re ready to apply, try hitting up local messengers for leads on who’s hiring, says courier Josh Korby. During the daytime you can often find them “standing by” in the outdoor plaza or basement food court of the Jim Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph, AKA the “Tom-Tom.” After work, Cal’s and the Blue Frog Bar & Grill, 676 N. LaSalle, are popular, especially on Friday payday.

Korby’s an “owner-rider” with 4 Star Courier Collective, a cooperatively run messenger company where everyone bikes as well as dispatches. “A good messenger always shows up on time or early, and always ‘10-4’s all work, no matter how challenging,” he says.

He recommends being agreeable and polite at all times – especially with the building security guards who sometimes delay couriers by demanding they drop their bags at the front desk, leave an ID and sign into the building log. “If you’re too pushy that goes against you sometimes,” he says. “A smile goes a long way.”

Julian Benitez with U.S. Messenger

Korby says it’s important to put some thought into what to wear while working so you can stay reasonably comfortable in nasty weather. He recommends a wool base layer and waterproof jacket and pants for cold and wet conditions. “I spare no expense for gloves and socks,” he says. “If your feet get wet that’s one thing, but if they get cold that’s a problem.”

It’s also key to invest in a comfortable, waterproof messenger bag that will keep the packages dry, says Korby. “It makes such a difference,” he says. He uses a Shag Bag, made in Milwaukee, and also recommends Chicago-made W.I.G. bags, as well as bags by Freight, Seagull, RE-Load and Bailey Works.

As for your vehicle, Korby recommends a single-speed road bike, either fixed-gear or freewheel, as lightweight, cost-effective and low-maintenance, although he prefers fixed since freewheels sometimes freeze up during the winter. “A fixed-gear with a hand brake and full fenders is your best year-round bike, the most miles for your money,” he says.

But aren’t hand brakes on fixies considered un-cool? “There’s a certain machismo to riding brake-less, but a front brake is a good thing to have because it allows you to stop with both wheels,” Korby says. “There used to be a stigma to having a brake, but nowadays I don’t think anyone would make fun of you – at least not to your face.”

Copenhagen Cyclery's Brent Norsman

Manager Phil Marmet and owner Brent Norsman with a Long John

By John Greenfield

With its spacious layout and white walls adorned with beautiful bikes, Copenhagen Cyclery feels like an art gallery. The shop opened in May at 1375 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park, the third of Chicago’s three European bike shops which opened in the past year, joining Dutch Bikes, 651 W. Armitage in Lincoln Park, and De Fietsfabriek, 1311 N. Wells in Old Town.

Vote With Your Feet recently chatted with owner Brent Norsman about how his work as an architect led him to open a bike shop downstairs from his firm; the selling points of his Danish, Dutch and Italian bikes; and intriguing urban planning proposals in Wicker Park-Bucktown.

Tell me about your background with cycling.

I’m pretty avid. I grew up cycling and had a short stint in road racing when I was a teenager, but not too serious. I transferred to mountain bikes in college. After I moved to Chicago my last mountain bike was stolen, probably ten or twelve years ago. At that point I transitioned into riding vintage three-speeds. I’ve got an old Raleigh and an old Brompton in the garage.

I didn’t come to this from the position of an extreme cyclist. Like a lot of people, when I matured into my forties I stepped away from cycling a little bit. This line of stuff that we’re carrying is kind of what got me excited again.

What kind of architecture work do you do?

I’ve had my own practice [Norsman Architects] for about six years. I do mostly urban work, residential and commercial, all of it sustainable to some degree. We like to challenge the boundaries of mainstream architecture a little bit. It’s a nice little collective that’s been operating for about six years.

So is there a connection between your work as an architect and the kind of bikes you sell? It seems like a lot of thought went into the design and appearance of these bikes.

Yeah, it’s definitely a thoughtful collection of well-designed products here. The specific connection is that the European product is a little more sustainable because it’s designed not for a few years but for generations. That in itself is sustainable, in addition to encouraging people to get out on their bike and to enjoy the city.

There seems to be a commonality between architecture and cycling as well. A lot of my employees over the years have been avid cyclists. My employees are responsible for getting me involved in a competition last summer, making the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn a more bike-friendly environment.

We did a lot of research on existing bike utopias and came across Amsterdam and then found Copenhagen, which we knew had pretty good urbanism but we were pretty amazed at how fresh it was and how integrated into everyday life. So we were somewhat envious and incorporated that into our proposal for our design.

We also came across a lot of different brands of bicycles during that time. The impetus to open the shop came from an inquiry with the Velorbis line. I sent them an e-mail asking if they had a distributor in the Chicago area and they got back to me the same day. It was one of those Internet queries that you didn’t know where it was going to go, and it kind of lead to us opening the bike shop. That was a little over a year ago and it took us a while to get things going. We’ve been open for four or five months now.

Who’s involved with the shop?

The seed of the idea came from me. Phil [Marmet], my manager is considered a partner and he’s kind of the front man of the bike shop. He’s got years of bike shop experience and he’s the perfect fit. My architecture practice is right upstairs so we’re in pretty close proximity – I think that’s the only way I would have done it. And my wife Shawna [Hanson] became integrally involved as well, much to her surprise, and now she’s very excited about the shop. She’s doing marketing and communications for us.

How’s business?

Business is good. I think the word of mouth is pretty incredible. We are selling most of our bicycles to people in other parts of the country and our website [, now live] is just getting officially launched this week. We’re getting traffic from our manufacturers’ website and blogs, which are really fun to follow.

You’ll be able make purchases from our website. Not that we expect a lot of sales from on-line shoppers because I think buying one of our bikes is a pretty personal thing. Our customers are searching for the perfect bike. They want to talk to us, they want to figure out what these bikes are all about.

(Image courtesy of the shop)

There are three European-style bike shops that opened up in Chicago in the last year or so. Why are these kind of bikes taking off now?

Interest has been building incrementally, but I think high gas prices have encouraged people to reevaluate how they’re approaching life and transportation in cities. When we were doing the Red Hook competition, definitely one of the motivating factors behind our work was coming up with sustainable alternatives.

So I think that had a lot to do with it. There’s a couple of blogs out there –, – that are really getting the word out.

But I think quality of life is the main thing. This past year everyone has reassessed how they approach business, life, lifestyle. I certainly have with both my businesses and my home life. Sort of reevaluating what’s important.

And I think there’s obviously a slow growing, or actually a fast growing, cycling movement around the world. I heard some stat that bike commuters on Milwaukee Avenue have gone up 200 percent or something crazy in the last five years. In the six years my architecture firm has been located here we’ve had this intimate connection with Milwaukee. We’ve watched as the bike density has increased. The morning commute is kind of insane.

You guys are in a great location for a bike shop, on this “bike highway.”

Bikes by Velorbis

We’re definitely excited to be in this location. I actually bought the buildings with a partner of mine and I was excited because I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 14 years and I’ve kind of adopted Milwaukee Avenue. I’m very excited to be on it for both my practice and also the shop.

I’ve recently been appointed to Alderman [Manny] Flores’ planning committee overseeing both increased zoning issues and also improvements to the infrastructure of Milwaukee, which is pretty exciting.

There have been two major master plans for the street and the neighborhood which are proposing a lot of these kind of wacky bike urbanism ideas which we were toying with last summer: dedicated bike lanes, widened medians at crosswalks. There are also proposals for street closings, widening the sidewalks, taking back the street, developing a more balanced realationship between, walking, cycling and the automobile.

One of the things that interested me the most about some of the urban planning theories we read for the Red Hook project is that in the European approach towards urban commuting it’s not an “us against them” attitude. It’s more about developing a more balanced relationship. It’s been very autocentric in the U.S. for many years and as the density of cyclists and pedestrians increases there’s increased consciousness of cyclists and pedestrians.

One theorist who’s pretty well-respected recommended no street signs at all, which is pretty radical. He says the presence of street signs gives people a false sense of security and gives automobiles an authority to drive a certain speed. If everyone on the street was encouraged to be conscious of each other, through a heightened sense of fear essentially, we’d all be more cautious of each other. There’s a lot of examples where that’s actually working successfully in Europe, which is pretty cool.

Alderman Flores is embracing a lot of these ideas. I went to him last January to propose on-street bike parking in front of our store here, and also propose the idea of separated bike lanes or more pronounced bike lanes along Milwaukee Avenue. He’s the one who told me about the Wicker Park – Bucktown Master Plan which is proposing all these things. It’s a very progressive plan and the alderman is very receptive to it.

Going back to the question of why the bike shop, we got excited about design, we got excited about these brands. I’ve enjoyed classic-styled bicycles as a civilized way of getting around town. So I was attracted to some of the brands we carry. Hopefully we’re going to attract some existing cyclists but I think we’re going to attract people aren’t currently cyclists and are excited by the brands we carry.

I think there’s a great community of activists in Chicago. But I think if we get some homeowners who are trying to drive their two kids in front and they realize it’s not safe then we may have another voice to push the city and our planners. So that’s kind of the ulterior motive of everything.

My wife Shawna is not really a cyclist and she’s pregnant right now so she hasn’t been riding lately, but last summer she had a ball the handful of times we were out on these bikes. She felt safer, she was upright, she felt pretty and we enjoyed our rides.

Would you like to show me around the shop and point out some of the features of the different models you sell?

Sure. One of the lines we specialize in is Velorbis, designed in Denmark and manufactured in Germany. The frames are hand-built, hand-lugged and hand-assembled. We have their classic black Churchill Classic [diamond-frame roadster] and Victoria Classic [step-through bike with basket] for $1795. They have the full Brooks leather accessory line [saddle, grips, under-seat bag]. They have internal drum brakes, front and rear, internal three, five or eight-speed gearing system and internal hub dynamos as well. So everything’s very low maintenance.

Velorbis kind of funks it up a little bit with their fat tire cruisers; they’re a little more contemporary with a bouncier ride. The Scrap Deluxe, is one of our top sellers because it’s kind of classic with a bit of a contemporary edge. That’s kind of my daily rider – it’s pretty fun.

They have a simpler bike, less expensive bike called their Studine, without the internal dynamos, for $1295.

The Velorbis Leikier

We have their classic cargo bike, the Long John, the Short John, which is a 70-year-old Swedish design. We also carry the Leikier, which almost looks like a hotrod of some sort, but it’s a completely upright riding position with this bar that runs through the handlebars. We just got in our three-wheeled Velorbis trikes which have a completely enclosed kid carrier in the front, with two wheels in the front. They’re a little more stable than two-wheeled kid carriers.

We also carry Abici which is this great Italian line of bicycles. The frames are hand-built in Italy and they’re lugged frames. It’s a young company, these three guys out of Italy who have a very good eye for design. They’ve updated classic designs – I think they’re the quintessential bike in a way. The Abici Amante is kind of their deluxe cruiser which has front and rear rod brakes and some other bells and whistles. The Gran Turismo has a single-speed rear coaster brake and a front caliper brake and it’s a great café bike. It’s actually a pretty lightweight bike as well, which is not necessarily something we’re pushing in this shop.

Abici Gran Turismo

Our only Dutch bike is the Batavus line. It’s a great company which has been building bikes for years. We’re carrying their classic line, which is a little bit more mass-produced so we can offer it at a lower price, starting at only $750 for the Old Dutch single-speed with a rear coaster brake. You can get a three-speed with front and rear drum brakes for $850. We also sell a five speed. If you want all the bells and whistles for a lower price it’s a great product.

Our most contemporary line of bikes is called Larry vs. Harry out of Denmark. It’s actually two guys named Lars and Hans with a super-great sense of humor. Their Bullitt is a front-loading two-wheeled cargo bike for $2,795. It’s kind of a new interpretation of the Long John. They’ve updated the bike with an aluminum frame. It weighs only as much as some of our normal commuter bikes. So it’s fast, and it’s high-performance, a great product for getting around.

[They also stock Basil bags and baskets, Bern helmets, Walz caps and accessories made from recycled inner tubes, like belts and business card holders, by Schlauch and Alchemy.]

Tell me about your customers. What are they doing with these bikes?

I think it’s about 50-50 avid cyclists versus new cyclists, or people who are thinking they want to be new cyclists. Some people have multiple bikes and they’ve been saving and waiting to buy a nice new bike. On the other hand we’ve got an older lady whose kids are out of the house and she wants to start riding a bike again. These people are excited to get on something that’s not necessarily about sport and more about getting around town, and a more enjoyable lifestyle. Most of our buyers are coming from across the country.

How are people from other places finding out about you?

Mostly from the bike companies’ websites. For example, I think we’re the only Velorbis dealer in the U.S. right now.

So we have three European-style bike shops in town nowadays. There’s not much problem with brand overlap is there? Nobody else in town is selling Velorbis, nobody else is selling Abici.

Yeah, we all picked our own lines and they obviously compete but they each have their own benefits and strengths and the educated consumer is lucky to have three shops to shop around and choose from, as well other shops like Boulevard and Rapid Transit that stock city bikes. To have such a great variety in one town is pretty fortunate. We’ve actually had people fly here from out of town just because of the density of bike shops. They check out all the different shops, try a bunch of stuff and then pick one and leave.

So you think the three European shops in town compliment each other and it’s not a problem that you all opened up at the same time

I don’t think it’s a problem. Competition breeds a better marketplace and we feed off of each other’s marketing. If there’s an article written about one of the other shops in a magazine or a blog we benefit from it as well.

Has opening the shop turned out to be a positive experience?

Yeah, it’s been a really good experience actually. My wife and other people were saying, why a bikeshop? I told them it’s better than a skateboard shop. For me, it’s an outgrowth of my interest in urban issues and architecture. But it’s also been a fantastic networking tool. I’ve met more people in the neighborhood the past summer than I have in the past twelve years of living here. So it’s a nice compliment to my architecture practice. The bike shop appealed to me because as a designer I kind of fetishize objects, maybe a little too much sometimes.

An S24O to Chain O’ Lakes State Park

By John Greenfield

Grant Petersen from Rivendell Bicycle Works has written about the “Sub-24 Hour Overnight” as a type of bicycle travel anyone can do. Even if work and domestic obligations keep you from taking off a large chunk of time to go on a long-distance bike journey, you can squeeze a S24O into your schedule.

You simply pack your bicycle with camping gear, leave in the afternoon or evening, ride a couple hours, camp, sleep and ride home. This kind of trip is not so much about getting tons of miles in, but rather the transformative power of leaving your daily routine to go spend the night outdoors. Even if it’s only for one night, it’s worth it.

Petersen recommends driving out of urban areas to get to green space if necessary, but here in Chicago we’re lucky to have Metra, an extensive commuter rail system that allows bikes on board. There are a bunch of state parks that allow camping which are only a short bicycle ride away from Metra stations: Illinois Beach, Rock Cut, Shabonna Lake, Kankakee River and Big Foot Beach. In southern Wisconsin, only 13.5 miles from Metra’s Antioch station, is Bong Recreation Area – put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Last Saturday, a few of my bike buddies did a fairly spontaneous camping trip to Chain O’ Lakes State Park in northwest Chicagoland, near the Cheddar Curtain. The Chain O’ Lakes area includes several good-sized lakes, some of them three or four miles long, popular with boaters and fisher-folk. For most of our crew this is truly a S24O – they catch the train in the afternoon northwest to the Fox Lake station and pedal a mere five miles to the campground, returning early the next afternoon.

My friend Kevin and I decide to get some more biking in by catching a different train west that morning to Elgin and pedaling up the Fox River and Prairie trails most of the way to the park, making it a 40-mile day. Arriving at this river town of about 100,000, we eat a hearty Thai lunch at the subterranean Bangkok House, 11-15 N. Douglas. Afterwards, Kevin grabs an espresso at nearby Domani Café, a tiny Italian coffeehouse at 109 E. Highland.

We pick up the paved Fox River Trail and start heading north past a small island in the river with a picnic pagoda, a small dam, then a Soviet-style sculpture or a pioneer family. What started out as chilly, drizzly day has turned lovely with fluffy clouds in the cobalt sky. As the trail continues out of town into wooded areas we thrill to the fall colors.

We stop in East Dundee, formerly home to the slightly creepy amusement park, Santa’s Village, to check out the trailside Bicycle Garage, 11 Jackson, an old-fashioned shop with a vintage J. C. Higgins on the sales floor. Nearby a farmers-and-flea market is shutting down but one booth still has a good selection of pumpkins and gourds.

Vintage Panasonic banner at the Bicycle Garge

In Algonquin the trail leaves the river and changes names. We stop at Prairie Trail Bike Shop, a more modern trailside store at 315 Railroad St. I duck in to check out the merchandise while Kevin remains outside. “You’ve obviously come a long way,” says the owner,” looking out the window at our camping gear. “And your friend’s even smoking a cigarette.”

Continuing past areas with tall grasses and fading wildflowers, we stop at a supermarket in McHenry to pick up groceries. As I’m waiting outside with the bikes an older woman comes outside and unlocks her mountain bike. She tells me she commutes 18 miles each way during the summer to her job in Barrington. “Biking is a good way to get around,” I say. “Yes,” she says. “It’s good for you, it saves gas and it’s good for the environment.” “And it’s fun,” I add.

When Kevin returns, he tells me he just had a run-in with a tough guy in the bakery section. My friend’s wearing an army jacket and a furry Elmer Fudd hat. The tough guy said, “I thought Halloween doesn’t come until next week.” Kevin answered, “Actually, it’s two weeks.” This story reminds me of Bob Segar’s song about touring with a band, “Turn the Page”: “Well you walk into a restaurant, strung out from the road / You can feel the eyes upon you as you try to shake the cold /You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to explode [saxophone wail].”

We leave the trail and head past Johnsburg, Illinois. Singer Tom Waits’ wife grew up on a farm here, so he wrote her a love song with the town’s name as its title. The terrain is getting surprisingly hilly for Chicagoland – at times I’m actually getting down in my drops and whizzing down the hillsides.

Soon we’re at a back entrance to the state park and before heading to our friends’ campsite we make our way to a boat launch to check out Grass Lake before the sun sets. A group of kayakers is heading back to shore. On another camping trip here a few years ago a friend and I rented a canoe and paddled out to Blarney Island, a floating Jimmy Buffet bar in the middle of the lake, but unfortunately it’s closed for the season.

We find our friends Corey, Mario and Mr. Bike at their nicely wooded non-electric site, and the fellows are already in good spirits. As darkness falls the temperature drops and I keep needing to add layers of clothing to stay warm.

We light a roaring fire and prepare a feast: bread and brie with homemade pesto; tostadas with black beans, cheddar, tomatoes and salsa; fresh steamed vegetables; and a Tofurkey, a soy-based turkey substitute that looks like a large softball. I cut the orb into thick slices and sauté it in butter and it’s not too bad. Afterwards we stay warm around the fire with whisky and fat White Owl “New Yorker” cigars. Mr. Bike and I exchange terrible puns.

Sleepy, I snuggle fully clothed into my medium-weight sleeping bag on a thick inflatable ground pad inside my tiny one-man tent and stay roasty-toasty all night, despite the sub-freezing temperatures. In the morning all of our gear is covered with a thin layer of frost.

After a quick breakfast of instant coffee and pop tarts, Kevin and I pack up and pedal to the town of Fox Lake. With time to kill we grab a second meal at the cozy trackside Whistle Stop diner. I scarf down a warming, calorie-dense Cowboy Skillet: eggs, potatoes, cheese, diced sausage and gravy, served with a biscuit.

Soon we’re onboard the train that will take us back to the city, only slightly late for my noon shift at the bike shop where I work. At the Libertyville stop, for some reason a group of well-dressed professionals is standing outside holding picket signs reading “Free Hugs” for “Global Free Hugs Day.” I say, “Gee, I didn’t even know Hugs was in prison.”

Interview with Jon Lind from De Fietsfabriek

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.

Des Plaines Boss, Des Plaines

By John Greenfield

In mid-November I put a call out to my bicycling pals to do one more bike camping trip before the deep-freeze set in. Not that that’s going to prevent me from doing a train-plus-cross-country-ski camping trip to the Indiana Dunes or Illinois Beach State Park this winter.

I propose we go to Bong State Recreation Area in Southern Wisconsin or Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, IL, but nobody is up for chilly tenting. My friend Jonathan suggests that instead we ride up the Des Plaines River Trail, a dirt path that runs from about 50 miles from west suburban River Forest to the Wisconsin border.

We could spend the night at the very northeast corner of Illinois at Winthrop Harbor in a little cottage a stones throw from the border, owned by his old roommate Scott, AKA “Slim” or “Whitey” due to his build and pigmentation. Since Scott has mostly been living at an ashram in Edgewater lately, we’d have the place to ourselves.

As it happens, the prologue to this trip due north is a Friday night bike excursion due west along the Illinois Prairie Path. I meet my buddies Kevin and Seth at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and then pedal west on streets to Oak Park and Val’s Halla, 203 Harrison St., a terrific record store.

Val worked for Capitol Records in the ‘60s when the Beatles were on the label, so on display is a copy of the infamous original cover for the Fab Four’s “Yesterday and Today” album. To protest the record company slicing and dicing the contents of the disc, the musicians posed in bloody butcher’s jackets surrounded by severed baby doll parts.

We catch the Prairie Path in Maywood and make our way a few miles west to Villa Park for dinner at Tong’s Tiki Hut, 100 E. Roosevelt Rd., a Chinese restaurant with tropical drinks and faux-Polynesian décor. There’s a mural of a beach scene, fishing nets with plastic lobsters hanging from the ceiling, lamps covered with seashells and a tiki idol nearly six feet tall.

I guess I’m a hopeless cheeseball, but this kind of kitsch never fails to make me smile. Yvonne, the owners' daughter, comes up to chat with us. She's a mom, and when we tell her we biked there from the city she says wistfully, “You guys must be single, to be out doing fun stuff like this.” Well, perhaps three straight guys out drinking Mai Tais on a Friday night isn’t so glamorous, but we’re having a good time.

Afterwards we head a couple miles north to Lunar Brewing Company, 54 E. Saint Charles Rd., a brewpub with a blue collar vibe, for a couple of tasty coffee stouts. From there we pedal east on the Prairie Path and catch the CTA Green Line back into the city.

Maybe it would made sense for me to sleep in a motel in the western ‘burbs, because early next morning I get right back on the Blue Line and ride out to the southern terminus of the Des Plaines River Trail at Washington Blvd. and the river, just a few blocks from where we got on the Prairie Path. Across the street is the Golf Dome, a surreal tented indoor course.

I’d planned to ride up the dirt path and meet Jonathan, who lives in Rogers Park near Chicago’s northern border, at a Dunkin Donuts off the Des Plaines Rive near Oakton, St., due west of his house. But the southern end of the trail proves to be much rougher than I’d expected - a hilly, undulating, barely detectable path carpeted with dry leaves, more suitable for a mountain bike than my touring rig.

Ducking bare tree branches and occasionally spotting deer, I hustle as fast as I can. But after a bone-shaking spill I decide there’s no way I’m going to meet Jonathan in time riding on the path, so I bail and hammer on roads up to the rendezvous. I make a mental note to return to the trail some time with knobby tires. On the way I pass near, but don’t have time to photograph, the amazing multi-room tiki bar Hala Kahiki, 2834 N. Des Plaines River Rd. in River Grove.

From the donuteria we get back on the trail, which at this point has become a flat, crushed-limestone surface, much friendlier to road bikes. At one point we lose the trail and get directions from a scruffy old Polish immigrant on a mountain bike who says he’s ridden all the way from Washington Blvd. that morning. We’re much faster than him, but as we often get confused as we navigate the trail we find ourselves playing tortoise and hare with him for the next hour.

It’s a gorgeous Indian summer day and as we head north we encounter lots of people out biking, walking with children, jogging, horseback riding, canoeing on the river and even roller skiing. We roll through swaths of tall-grass prairie and past swampy looking oxbows in the river.

In Gurnee we spot the roller coasters of Six Flags Great America, then pass near the Gold Pyramid House in Wadsworth, a 1/100 model of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, guarded by a 40-foot statue of Ramses. Jonathan has never seen the pyramid but by then it’s getting dark, so we roll on to the end of the trail at Sterling Lake Forest Preserve, just south of the Cheddar Curtain.

Heading east to Scott’s shack, we stop for a beer at R & R Crossing, 14827 Russell Rd. a biker (motorcyclist) bar by some railroad tracks. Hogs are lined up in front and I fear we’ll have a “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” mishap, knocking the cycles over domino-style, and to avoid being beaten to a pulp we'll be required to dance on the bar to “Tequila.” One we're inside the regulars are nice enough - Jonathan even strikes up and acquaintance with a friendly, if taciturn, old cowpoke.

We roll a couple more miles to Lake Michigan and the cottage, a cozy little place with cheerful green, yellow and orange walls and a potbelly stove. When we plug in the stereo we’re lulled by blissed-out East Indian music, but there’s also a shrine-like niche populated by a weird assortment of dolls and action figures: the Pink Panther, robots, Kewpie dolls and Andre the Giant.

We cook tacos for dinner then relax on the couch with beers and books, listening to the trippy sitars and chanting. I read a book from Whitey’s shelf, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In the morning we enjoy a John Denver moment drinking coffee on the porch as deer frolick in the adjacent meadow. We pack up and headed to south to Zion for omelets at the Star Lite Restaurant, 2325 Sheridan Rd., then stop at Zion Cyclery, 2750 Sheridan to chat with the owner, the mother of Chicago jazz drummer Tim Daisy.

Instead of pedaling home along the lake, a route I’ve done a dozen times, I persuade Jonathan we should spend the day hiking and sightseeing in the area. We could head across the border to Kenosha, WI, where there’s bratwurst joint and yet another tiki venue I’ve been meaning to check out, then catch Metra back to Chicago.

We ride to nearby Illinois Beach State Park, lock up our bikes near the park’s little resort hotel and walk on hiking paths on the southern end of the nature preserve. We stroll along the beach and on the top of a small dune ridge, walk past a current-less "dead" river and see slender, swirling trees that look like something out of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Back on our bikes we head north a few miles on trails through the park to North Point Marina, the largest harbor in the state, then go two miles west to catch the Kenosha County Bike Trail into the Badger State. In Kenosha we stop at the Southport Rigging bike shop, 2926 75th St., where we test ride an extremely fat-tired Surly Pugsly and I buy a bicycle bell with a picture of cow on it.

On the owner’s advice we visit Tenuta’s Delicatessen, 3203 32nd St., with a wonderful selection of Italian cheeses, sausage, pastas and wine. A poster on the wall portrays a fantasy scene of famous Italian-Americans hanging out together: Sinatra, Pacino, DiMaggio, Stallone, Madonna and Dom DeLuise. I buy some black pepper pecorino and chocolate Gran Marnier pecans.

We pass by Tacos to Go, 2422 52nd St., where big letter on the façade reading “Mexican egg-rolls” make me slam on the brakes. Just as advertised, these turned out to be egg rolls filled with meat, beans and cheese – worth trying once.

It turns out that the Rendez'vous, the punk-rock tiki bar I want to check out at 1700 52nd St., won’t be opening that night until after we catch our train, a bitter disappointment. So we roll downtown to the Brat Stop Too, 5511 6th Ave., a tavern populated by guys wearing green and gold watching a Packers game. Munching on fried cheese curds and bratwursts and drinking New Glarus beer, unavailable outside of the state, we enjoy a quintessential Wisconsin moment before sleepily catching our ride home.

Interview w/ Stephan Schier from Dutch Bike Co.

By John Greenfield
Photos courtesy of Dutch Bike Co. Chicago

Dutch Bike Co. recently opened a shop at 651 W. Armitage in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, selling several models of practical, comfortable and beautiful city bikes. Vote With Your Feet recently dropped by the shop and spoke with co-owner Stephan Schier about the origins of the business, the cycles they sell, bike culture in the Netherlands and the rise of "slow cycling" in the United States.

This is the first 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 De Fietsfabriek, 1309 N. Wells in Old Town.

How long has the store been open?

Since October 16th.

So this is a branch – there’s a few other Dutch Bike Co. shops in the U.S.?

Well, our company, Dutch Bike Seattle, Dutch Bike Chicago, is a family-owned business. And we’re opening in New York in August. So that’s three in our Dutch Bike brand.

Did you move to Seattle from Chicago to open the store?


Of all the cities where you could have opened the store, why did you choose Chicago?

I think Chicago is the best big city for a cycling lifestyle in the U.S. Functionally, it’s billiard table-flat. Secondly, the mayor is committed to making things more “cycle-able,” if you will. The streets are wide and all major streets where you want to ride have some sort of bike lane or marking or signage, or at least an awareness that there are bikes on the road.

And it’s neighborhood oriented, so it’s easy to live within a ten-minute bike ride of everything you might need to do. Living here in Lincoln Park, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, my bank, my gym and the lake are all within 10 minutes on a bicycle. And that’s on my cargo bike – I’m not racing to get anywhere. So I can ride my bike here all year long, and I do, and it’s easy. And I just use the cargo bike here in the neighborhood, I don’t even bother with any of our other bikes.

How did you get into the business of selling Dutch bikes?

Well, this is my business partner, David Schmidt, his family and me. Both of our families are of German descent. My family’s from Bremen in northern Germany. So we both spent a lot of time traveling in Europe, all over. And the European cycling lifestyle has always appealed to me and I know it has to David. And one day he called me up and said, “I bought a container of bikes and I think I can sell these. Do you know where I can get some shop space?” I said, “Dave, that’s a really ballsy way to start a business.”

Schmidt, mechanic Will Brehman and Schier at Chicago opening party

We’ve known each other for probably 17 years and we’d worked in the same industry together, running high-rise window cleaning businesses in Seattle. I got out of the industry a long time ago and was doing consulting for start-up companies, and a lot of traveling.

In most cases lived near where I work. I’ve been able to walk or ride my bicycle to work and to me that’s my favorite kind of lifestyle: living in the middle of the city, having access to all the cultural and social things that are available in the city and enjoying a relaxed life. I just don’t understand why all those people have created their lives to where they have to be on the freeway. Emotionally that’s the last thing I want. I want every part of my live to be within a neighborhood.

Why do you think European bikes are becoming popular in the U.S., or at least why have so many European-style bike shops opened up recently?

Art on shop walls by Tully Satre

I think some people are opening because they have a dream of opening a bike shop. A lot of people have jumped in out of romance for the idea of selling these bikes. Whether or not they’re good business people is yet to pan out.

I guess what I’m asking is, why do you think the time is right for European bikes?

I don’t necessarily know that the time is right. I know that our business is growing but I wouldn’t call it a particular trend that has to do with European bikes because each bike has its own level of quality and performance. Some bikes are selling now because they’re trendy and there’s a lot of marketing money behind them but they’re also failing. We’ve already gone through cycles of buying product that didn’t do to well because it didn’t have the quality that we and our customers expected.

There’s a trend towards European bikes, but I wouldn’t just call it European bikes. It’s a trend towards quality and comfort, and people who have never ridden a bike or haven’t ridden a bike in ages wanting to ride.

What do bikes like these offer people that they wouldn’t get from a typical American-style hybrid or mountain bike they night buy at Village Cycles?

Our bikes are the kind of bike you only need to buy once in your life. Most of our bikes will outlive their owners. There are a few things that are particular to our bikes. [Schier points to an Oma city bike.]

Oma by the Dutch brand Workcycles

If you look at the wheel on this bike it’s build with 13-guage stainless spokes which I don’t think you’ll find on any comparable bike sold in America unless it’s some radical downhill mountain bike or something. These spokes come from Belgium – I don’t know that they’re available through any wholesaler in the U.S. And the rims are double-walled aluminum. So it’s a wheel that’s built to handle an extreme amount of stress and an extreme amount of wear and to last a long, long time.

You see all the Schwinns running around Chicago that are 20, 30 years old and they’re still rolling. A lot of them, if they haven’t had a wreck, their wheels a re still pretty good and those wheels aren’t necessarily that well built but they’re heavy and sturdy.

So our bikes are built that way. They’re built as appliances, not sporting goods or some consumable. In Holland people are interest in something that’s durable, comfortable and low maintenance. So that level of quality isn’t really being sold in the U.S. Most people are being sold finicky, lightweight and maintenance-intensive bikes that have index shifting systems, exposed chains and derailleurs. If you ride one of these in the Chicago winter on the salty, wet streets, you might want to clean your chain every night.

Brehman carries boxed bikes on Bakfiets cargo bike

In Holland after World War II, because of the density and the level of affluence – people didn’t have enough money to buy cars – bicycling remained as a primary form of transportation. And even today in Amsterdam 60% of all trips are on a bicycle. And it’s normal to ride and people in Amsterdam would never call themselves “cyclists.” They’re just people who happen to be getting around on a bike, no more than you or I would call ourselves “motorists” if we were on the freeway. I wouldn’t be putting on my motoring clothes.

Do you think that’s part of the appeal of these bikes, that they allow people to ride with very little preparation, you don’t have to put on special clothing?

Yeah, that’s a huge appeal. There’s no special regalia required, they’re easy to ride. And most of our customers don’t call themselves “cyclists.” They’re just people who want to ride a bike. They’re not going to go cycling for helmets or jerseys or cycling shoes or shorts.

You guys don’t even sell helmets here, right?

No. At some point we will, but right now so much of our business is selling bikes to people who don’t care about the rest of that stuff.

I’m guessing that you would endorse wearing a helmet for certain types of cycling. People in Holland generally don’t wear helmets for urban cycling. Do you think that is the style of bike that they’re riding?

Well, in Holland you have so many more people riding and they’re not racing about. There’s 18 million bikes and 16 million people. People think of cycling as a safe, normal activity. Here in America, and depending on the advocacy group you’re dealing with, you would think that cycling is the most dangerous activity someone could possibly do in a city. So it’s a different attitude.

I think it’s a choice for everyone – whatever it takes to make you feel safe. I know that being upright and comfortable and being able to turn your head to the left or right, and having a high vantage point, versus having to bend over a low handlebar on a road bike, and also having tires and wheels that can go over rough roads without throwing you off the bike, those things all make cycling safer. I’m a big fan of awareness and comfort and confidence on a bike as a way to prevent crashes. But a helmet certainly might protect your noggin if you do crash.

What’s the price range on your bikes?

Our bread-and-butter bikes are at $1,589 for the Oma and the Opa [“Grandma” and “Grandpa” with step-through and diamond frames, respectively.] It’s $1,749 for the Transport bikes with a front beer rack, and $3,000 for the Bakfiets cargo bikes. [Right now the 2009 cargo bikes are $3,029 and the 2008's are $2,749.]

Transport bike with front beer rack

We also sell Viva bikes from Denmark for $1,355. Those have seven-speed Shimano Nexus internally geared hubs and a front and rear rack. They have a bit more sporty riding position than the Dutch bikes. The Dutch bikes are perfectly upright. And then we have some handmade German bikes by Retrovelo for $2,139.

Schier on a Retrovelo

Could you show me around and point out the other features of your bikes?

Sure. They come completely equipped, with sealed Shimano internally-geared rear hubs, similar to the old Sturmey-Archer three-speeds. The Shimano hub is very low maintenance; you basically do nothing to it except maybe have your mechanic take it apart and oil it every year or two. They all have the sealed Shimano generator hubs in front to power the lights. They all have sealed Shimano roller brakes. All of the fittings on these bikes are stainless steel, from the spokes to the stem to the handlebars, which is very unusual in the U.S.

What does that do for you?

Basically, you can leave the bike out in the rain. People in Holland don’t have garages. Most bikes will start rusting but everything on these bikes, even the steering return spring, is stainless. The spring is so when you park the bike on its center stand the wheel always comes back to center and the bike doesn’t flop over. They all have a full chain case which reduces the chain maintenance. And the chain is a fixed length – there’s no derailleur to wear out and it’s very easy to maintain.

You guys do maintenance here?

Yeah. 95% of the maintenance we do is on other people’s bikes.

I guess one thing about these bikes, they’re pretty hard to work on yourself, they’ve got pretty specialized parts?

The thing is, there’s nothing to do. The bearings are cartridge bearings. If you want to do something yourself, typically you can adjust a brake cable and the shifter indexing and replace the front light bulb pretty easily. You can patch a flat without taking off the wheel. But there’s not much else to do. There are no derailleurs to adjust. The wheels are built like motorcycle wheels so you don’t really need to true them. Because people in Holland are not interested in working on finicky bikes.

The racks are sturdy enough that you can take your friend along for a ride, which is very common in Holland. The tail lamp is generator-powered and has a feature called a stand light which means it will stay lit for a few minutes while you’re stopped – it has a capacitor that stores up a charge while you’re riding.

All the bikes have a built-in handcuff lock on the rear wheel. It’s kind of a medium-duty, convenient locking solution that makes it really easy to lock up if you’re just running in and out of stores doing errands. The lock also has sockets and you can plug in a heavy chain or cable we sell into the sockets and chain the bike around an object. A lot of the frames even come with their own pump.

What kind of bags do you guys carry?

They’re FastRider, a Dutch, double-sided rear rack bag. They’re anywhere between $59 to $110. [Right now they’re selling all small rear bags at a 20% discount since these bags are more likely to fit smaller bikes than the Dutch bikes they carry.]

Did you see the recent article in the New York Times about the European bike trend?

We were interviewed in it.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing – it probably is a good thing. But it seemed that the gist of their article is that the Dutch bike is becoming kind of a fashion statement. You’re on a trendy stretch of Armitage with a lot of boutiques. Do you find a lot of your clientele are looking for a bike they can wear nice clothes and ride on? Are they looking for a classy-looking bike that’s a fashion statement?

All of those things. As far as I’m concerned, whatever it takes to get people interested in cycling. Many of our customers drive a Range Rover and they own one of our bikes and they wouldn’t ride any other bike. Or they have an old bike that’s been sitting in their garage for 15 years because it’s not attractive and it’s not comfortable. It is pleasing to a lot of people to ride a beautiful bike.

Do people have stories about unusual places they’re ridden their bikes to? Is anybody riding their bike to the opera?

All over. We have people taking their children to school every day on the bikes, people going out for a nice dinner on our bikes. In Seattle one of our customers had us drop off his bike at the courthouse where he got married. His bride climbed on the rear rack with a bundle of tulips and they rode off to their hotel together. So people are getting into the spirit and the joy of cycling as an everyday activity.

Transit-friendly Taverns

Drink and don't drive at these station saloons

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

Metra’s beloved bar cars made their final run last August, but you can still railroad tie one on at taverns inside the stations while waiting for the 6:15. And thanks to liberal alcohol policies on regional rail (hear that CTA?) all these pubs offer to-gos to enjoy on your car-free commute. Be sure to toast the poor souls stuck in buzz-killing traffic on the expressways.

By the Great Hall at Union Station, 200 S. Canal, Metro Deli and Café has old-timey décor like a photo of Richard J. grinning under a “We love Mayor Daley” banner. Goose Island and Blue Moon are on tap at the large, oval bar, and there’s pool tables, video poker and Wednesday karaoke. Upstairs in the food court the three-level bar the Snuggery features vintage photos of greats like Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters. A barmaid at a separate station sells tallboy and drafts in lidded plastic cups to time-strapped salarymen.

Next stop: De-train at Aurora on Metra’s Burlington/Santa Fe Line and keep the party rolling at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse (205 N Broadway, Aurora, 630-264-2739) next to the station.

South Siders departing Metra’s LaSalle Street Station, 440 S. LaSalle, buy beer, wine and Margaritas from the trackside Club Car kiosk, in business for 24 years. There’s no proper bar in the building but around the corner, under the Loop elevated tracks, the transit-themed Sky Ride Tap, 105 W. Van Buren, sells cans and cocktails in Styrofoam cups for carry-out. Metra-sexuals dig the foxy bartenders at this 35-year-old, wood-paneled dive; others kill time with Golden Tee and video bowling.

Next stop: Head to Sean’s Rhino Bar (10330 S Western Ave, 773-238-2060) near the Rock Island Line. Sean’s is one of several quality South Side Irish pubs just four blocks from the 103rd Street Station.

In February Bar Millennium, a slick sports pub, opened in Millennium Station, 151 N. Randolph. Dance music blares and cool vintage beer cans cover one of the walls. There’s draft Guiness and Fat Tire; pies are available from Chi-Town Pizza next door; and a tub girl sells tallboys, wine and airline-size liquor to hurrying Metra and South Shore riders.

Next stop: Head to Indiana’s tranquil Dunewood Campground (Hwy 12 and Broadway, Beverly Shores, 219-926-7561) by boarding the South Shore Line. It’s a great respite after the station bar’s overload of flat-screens and Lady Gaga.

Ogilvie Transportation Center, 500 W. Madison, boasts two track-level taverns. The swanky, dimly-lit Rail Club has an octagonal dark-wood and brass bar, Art Deco hanging lamps, and a mural featuring a locomotive, Rolls Royce, ocean liner, bi-plane and zeppelin. The Chicago News Room features metal cut-outs of the world’s continents behind the bar and clocks that tell time in Chicago, NYC, London, Paris, Switzerland and Japan – set ten minutes fast, so tanked Metra riders won’t miss their trains.

Next stop: Ride to the Arlington Park stop on the Union Pacific Northwest Line to play the ponies at Arlington racetrack (2200 W Euclid Ave, Arlington Heights, 847-385-7500)

Cyclists bring a "home zone" to Logan Square

2400 Block of N. Albany

by John Greenfield

[This article also runs in the May 20 edition of Time Out Chicago,]

Logan Square is poised to get Chicago’s first “home zone.” The European concept tames traffic and creates green space on a street, fostering a safe, friendly environment for walking, biking, playing and socializing. But it might never have happened if a critical mass of cycling activists hadn’t settled on the 2400 block of North Albany Avenue.

After years of effort, the group is nearing final approval for its proposal to slow the drivers who speed through the angled residential street between Kedzie and Fullerton Avenues. The plan would switch parking from parallel to diagonal spaces and add bulbouts (sidewalk extensions), creating a narrow, winding travel lane while accommodating playground equipment and community gardens. Similar vehicle-control features and public-use spaces can be seen in Lincoln Square’s Giddings Plaza and near Uptown’s Truman College campus. But, as a block tailored to its residents’ needs, the Albany Home Zone is unprecedented in Chicago.

It’s no coincidence the idea came from this block, a magnet for movers and shakers in the green-transportation scene. Most are friends who met in the ’90s through the monthly Critical Mass bike parade. Past and present residents include the owner of Boulevard Bikes; staff from the Active Transportation Alliance and Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Bicycle Program; the director of West Town Bikes; a founder of Yojimbo’s Track Cats, a youth bicycle racing program; and the director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an environmental group that promotes enviro-friendly transportation options.

“I like living here because it’s totally normal to ride your bike everywhere you go and worry about the welfare of the city and the environment,” says John Edel, a green developer who lives on Albany with wife Julie Dworkin and kids Zoe, 4, and Miles, 1. His biking buddy Gareth Newfield bought a two-flat here first, in 1989. In the mid-’90s, Edel and fellow cyclist Craig Luddington purchased buildings on the street, inviting their pedaling pals to move in as tenants. “At one point, I counted 23 folks on the block who rode all the time,” Luddington says.

Two of them were transportation planner Lisa Phillips and her husband, Todd Gee. After their daughter Violet, now 2, was born, they grew concerned about the danger that speeding cars posed to children on the block. “It’s not that we wanted to turn the street into a playground,” Phillips says, “but if a kid does get into the street, 20 mph versus 40 could mean the difference between life and death.”

In May 2007, Dworkin caught a presentation on home zones at the Active Transportation Alliance. “I thought, We’ve got to do this,” she recalls. Dworkin and several others brainstormed, drew up plans and promoted the concept to neighbors with meetings, a block party and a website,

Proposed design for the Albany Home Zone

When they presented their idea to 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon the following year, he was all ears. “Our community is above the national norm for obesity, so we want to get people walking and biking however we can,” he says. “And a lot of folks on the block are environmentalists, so this is a good fit.”

The Albany Home Zone committee met with CDOT engineers who agreed to edit their designs to meet city specs. Last month, after several revisions, CDOT offered a design that balances the cyclists’ wish for more green space with their neighbors’ parking worries; only two parking spaces will be sacrificed.

Colon has even agreed to foot the bill—an estimated $100,000 to $150,000—with ward funds, provided the advocates get support from 70 percent of the block’s residents. Phillips believes they can gather the signatures by the end of May so CDOT can start construction next year. “We just need to convince people the benefits are going to outweigh losing a little parking,” she says.

The Mag Mile goes car-free for Oprah

By John Greenfield

On Tuesday, September 8, I drop by Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to check out a nearly unique phenomenon: the bustling Magnificent Mile shopping district void of motor vehicles and packed with people, between the river and Ohio Street, for a taping of the season premier of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Between set-up and tear-down the street closure is lasting about two days.

The city normally only shuts down the artery to motorized traffic for an annual parade to kindle the street's holiday lights. But Mayor Daley has said the “Oprah Kickoff Party” will give a boost to the local economy and bring positive attention to the city – just what he needs as he’s trying to get Chicago selected next month to host the 2016 Olympics.

CTA buses are being re-routed off Michigan and drivers have grumbled to the media that their commute will be screwed up. Me, I’m happy anytime cars are removed from public space to make room for people to hang out and have fun, from neighborhood festivals to the Open Streets ciclovia.

I’ve read that the few bicycle racks on Michigan will be off-limits, probably due to fears of bikes being used as pipe bombs, so I lock up on Ohio a block west of the “Boule Mich.” Barricades are set up along the south side of the Ohio/Michigan intersection and lining Michigan all the way to the river, so you have to go through a checkpoint to hang out in the street with audience members.

But the sidewalks along Michigan are still accessible, though crowded, and in theory one could still patronize the fancy shops. It’s around 4 pm - the taping of the show takes place from 5 to 7 - and motorized traffic is light north of Ohio. A mass of humanity is gathered in front of the giant stage, set up just north of the river.

Pedicab driver Bobby Lentell is hanging out at Ohio/Michigan waiting for passengers, but he’s probably going to have a long wait – he’s only had one fare all day. “This hasn’t been as helpful as I thought it would be,” he says. “I think most people are sticking around and aren’t trying to catch a ride anywhere. It’s a lot like election night was in Grant Park.”

Still Lentell, who operates as an independent, thinks the street closure is a good thing for the city. “I’m sure some people are irritated but I think it’s kind of nice,” he says. “It’s relaxing, like Sunday afternoon.” He asks me to put in a plug for a route he and other pedicab drivers are proposing for this month’s Critical Mass bike parade that will end at a fundraiser to help establish a communal garage for pedicabs in Garfield Park.

Walking south on the sidewalk along the west side of Michigan I encounter Alex and Arcel, here on holiday from Munich, Germany. “This is great,” says Alex. “We saw the Black Eyed Peas perform and they were really cool.” She says in Munich it’s common to close down streets for concerts.

As I get closer to the stage the throng in the street gets denser. Reflecting Oprah’s audience, the crowd is racially mixed and mostly women. There are plenty of people taking advantage of the captive audience, handing out flyers for everything from cell phone services to psychics.

As a country singer performs onstage, South Sider and longtime Oprah fan Joanne Brown, resting in the Plaza of the Americas near a statue of Mexican president Benito Juarez, says she’s enjoying the street closure. “I like the fact that you can walk a lot of places you normally can’t,” she says. “And it gives people a chance to mingle. I’d like to see the city do this more often. It’s a peaceful gathering, and that’s always a good thing.”

To take a break from the masses I head downstairs from the plaza to Lower Hubbard Street and duck into the subterranean Billy Goat Tavern. The bar is only partly full but owner Sam Sianis tells me business has been good today. “People are enjoying themselves up there,” he says. “All of them have big smiles on their faces.” He’s fine with closing down Michigan once in a while. “For a good show, it’s OK.” He says he’s met Oprah three times: twice at her studios and once on Jay Leno.

Lots of people are milling around down on Lower Michigan. I take a different staircase back up to the Mag Mile sidewalk. A barricaded walkway allows me to cross through an incredibly dense section of people. A helicopter and the Goodyear Blimp are hovering overhead.

Standing with his bicycle on the west side of the avenue, Portage Park resident Israel Rivera seems grumpy. He stopped by to check out the scene on his way to the lakefront. “This is kind of a hassle,” he says. “It messes up traffic.” Rivera says he used to live in Logan Square and street festivals there would make it difficult to drive home. “It’s the same thing with the Pride Parade. It’s too crowded and crazy to even walk your bike through it.”

At Allen Edmonds, an upscale mens’ shoe store, assistant manager Dave Nelson says the closure is definitely affecting business. “Oprah’s show is geared towards women and we sell mens’ stuff,” he says. “But it’s not a big deal. I think it would be cool if they did this more often.”

Soon after I return to the street a voice over the sound system booms, “Ladies and gentlemen please welcome Oprah,” and the crowd goes wild. The talk show host’s persona is larger than life, as is her image on the multiple Jumbotron screens, as she says to the audience, “I can see you all the way down the Magnificent Mile.” Later she greets Mayor Daley and his wife who wave to the crowd via Jumbotron.

I have a lot of respect for Oprah as a cultural figure and also as an ambassador for our city, but her show is not my cup of tea. After another lip-synched performance by the Black-Eyed Peas featuring synchronized dance moves by hundreds of plain-clothes dancers planted at the front of the audience, and an underwhelming magic trick by Vegas showman Criss Angel, I’ve had my fill of middlebrow pop culture and start heading back to my bicycle. Although this is not my scene, it is a wonderful scene, of people enjoying each other’s company on car-free streets.