Wednesday, June 2, 2010

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.


Marbo said...

Great interview. Stephan is a welcome addition to Chicago's cycling scene!

I just want to add that Dutch Bike's also carries Po Campo's line of bike bags. They must've received them after the interview, but you can see the announcement on their webpage: Po Campo bags now in stock.

spiderleggreen said...

Good job on the interview. I'm planning a road trip down there, very soon, to seriously look at taking one of these lovely bikes home.

What makes it likely that I will be buying this type of bike, is recently, I had to ride my fast aluminium bike for a week, while my old Schwinn was getting repairs. When I got back on my Schwinn, it was heaven. While the other bike is faster, it puts me in a less comfortable position. So I may get there faster, but my butts is sore... and my neck... arms...

I can justify paying the extra money for a Dutch bike, because I'm an "almost" everday rider and will give that bike some heavy use. My Schwinn is great, but it's old and needs a lot of futzing.

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