While the rest of the cycling world was shaving milligrams off the latest carbon fiber frame and reducing aerodynamic drag to save a few nanoseconds, one bike builder in Amsterdam was focused on the practical and utilitarian aspects of bicycles: What is the best way to transport yourself, your kids and maybe even some cargo around?
Henry Cutler needed a way to get to his favorite cheese shop and local brewery and stock up on life’s finer pleasures. And while he was at it, he figured, the bikes should be a pleasure to ride, even if they lead the “life of an outdoor dog” in this rainy northern European city.
Fast, light, milligram and nanosecond are not in Henry’s vocabulary. And, you wouldn’t really expect that to be the case for a guy building bikes for commuters, bombproof industrial tractor tricycles for factories and “bakfietsen” suitable for carrying a half-dozen kids to day-care.
I had the unique opportunity to sit down and chat with Henry, owner of WorkCycles ( http://www.workcycles.com ). He’s on a mission to make bicycles do what bicycles were first meant to do: transport you from one place to another, day or night, rain or shine. And maybe even carry a 250 kilogram load or two while they’re at it.
RKP: How and when did you get started building bikes?
My dad had a well-equipped workshop and when I was maybe nine or ten I began scavenging the trash of local bike shops, dragging home mangled Schwinns and Raleighs. They’d crush the rear triangles to make them unrideable so I used the jack from my parents’ car and 2×4’s to realign them. Rusty parts sometimes had to be sawed, hammered and vise-gripped out before they could be replaced etc. “Glenn’s Complete Bicycle Manual” (complete with photos of young cyclists proudly posing with Richard Nixon) was my bible. I still have it so if I ever need to overhaul a two-speed Bendix Yellow Band hub I’ll be prepared.
At 12 I began working weekends at a local bike shop. I was hired mostly to clean and retrieve bikes from the constantly flooded basement but they found that I was handy and set me to work repairing bikes and building wheels. I learned a lot from this brilliantly mechanical black guy named Paul there who I totally idolized. He taught me to true wheels not only by twisting spoke nipples but also straightening the rim with a hammer and a door jamb. But I guess I was in awe of him because he could and did build anything: cheap and crazy fast cars and motorcycles, rocket propelled bombs… you name it.
RKP: You’re an American, living in Amsterdam. What’s that all about?
I live here because I can. Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a relaxed pace, a highly diverse population and a million other things I like. But mostly I like it because it’s the undisputed cycling capitol of the world. Amsterdam, like other Dutch cities, was only able to maintain its charm, history, quiet neighborhoods in the center and incredible density and compactness because most people ride bicycles instead of driving automobiles.
It’s also the ideal place to run a company designing and building transportation bicycles. WorkCycles has two shops where we sell and rent bikes to the public and these are the toughest bicycle testing facilities possible. This is really only possible in Amsterdam where almost a million people cycle an average of several kilometers per day, often with (adult or child) passengers, year-round, day and night, in all weather conditions, maybe drunk or stoned. Most of these bikes are stored outdoors, adding nicely to that challenge.
You might be able to fit (and move) a house in this trike’s box. It’s actually designed as a promotion bike: Step 1) Ride to location. Step 2) Park trike. Step 3) Open up tables and create a workspace. Step 4) Start your product promotion and campaigning. It even comes with an umbrella holder.
RKP: Cycling is a way of life here. I can’t imagine living here without a bike. One of the Amsterdam Facts websites tells me there are 600,000 bikes in this city. Amazing isn’t it? How do we export this idea to America?
Actually I’ve read several times that there are more bikes than people both in Amsterdam and the Netherlands . I seem to recall a figure of about 1,000,000 bikes for the 750,000 Amsterdam inhabitants. In any case, cycling is certainly THE way to get around the city and more than half of all trips in the entire city are made by bike. In the city center something like 70% of all trips are made by bike. Only a couple other cities in the world (all in the Netherlands ) rival this level of cycling. Groningen in the north is much higher but it’s a much smaller city.
The only way for cycling to achieve such popularity is for it to be so pleasant, safe and convenient that everybody from kids to elderly people ride bikes daily. Therein lies the great challenge of exporting cycling Dutch style: The city planning and infrastructure in most Dutch cities is amazingly bicycle-oriented and this took decades to build in cities that were always pretty good for cycling. It’s not at all just about bike lanes. It’s about discouraging auto use, keeping auto traffic on specific routes, traffic calming, bike parking facilities, education and many other factors.
Exporting that amazing, Dutch experience of riding your simple bike through the city center along quiet streets or flowing with the rush hour bicycle traffic is a chicken/egg dilemma. It’s been widely demonstrated here and in Copenhagen where “bike-ification” began much later, that the masses simply won’t ride bikes for transportation until it’s the most convenient, pleasant, fastest, cheapest way to get around. Until then urban cycling is the domain of young warriors and grizzled pioneers. But achieving the political and bureaucratic power and funding to create that cycling infrastructure requires broad support… from regular folks, retirees, small business owners, parents, captains of industry etc. It’s just going to be a slow process rebuilding the world’s cities to better suit the needs of real people, especially the more recently “developed” cities that were built from the ground up with personal automobiles as the primary means of transport. Unfortunately it has to begin with intrepid bike warriors fighting the tide and danger.
RKP: So, are you trying to start a revolution, one bike at a time? (ie. one less car, a lifestyle change, less petrol consumption, a simpler life etc.)
No, WorkCycles just builds bikes; beautiful, practical, durable bikes that make cycling a more attractive means of transport.
RKP: Would you consider building bikes a craft akin to making a fine cheese like a tasty Dutch Gouda or like brewing a fine Belgian trappist ale?
I’ve never made cheese or brewed beer but I can imagine there are some similarities. Like cheese and beer our bikes are built in small-scale mass production. It’d be inefficient to make one wheel of cheese or one bottle of beer and the same is true for bikes. WorkCycles are tools for daily use and abuse and we avoid building bikes as objects of obsession. We work with trusted components, often without name-brand status. We let fads in materials, colors and bike categories come and go. Our finishes are chosen primarily for durability and corrosion resistance.
RKP: By the way, what is your favorite cheese? Favorite beer? Why? Where can I find those in Amsterdam?
There’s a great cheese shop in the Marnixstraat called Fromagerie Kef where they sell all kinds of hand-crafted cheeses from throughout the Netherlands, France , Italy and Spain . I’ve bought many yummy cheeses there but I never remember their names.
My favorite beer choice has as much to do with fine memories of rock climbing trips in Freyr, Belgium as the beer itself. It’s called Ciney Bruin and it is a very tasty, dark trappist ale. There are probably twenty other monasteries that make equally good beer but this one happened to be near our climbing crag. I think the “Bier Koning” in the Damstraat sells Ciney. But every beer lover in Amsterdam needs to know Brouwerij Het Ij next to the windmill in Oost.
RKP: Do you ever work in a material other than steel? What do you think of this new-fangled technology called “carbon fiber”? I hear it’s lighter than steel.
I’m not hung up on one material or another, but steel is generally the best choice for WorkCycles frames; Steel is very tolerant of imperfect manufacturing, has a near infinite fatigue life, fails gracefully and can be re-aligned after an accident or just to install a hub with a different axle length. City and transport bikes get abused in all sorts of ways that make aluminium and carbon impractical: locks bang on frames, they fall over periodically, child seats and other accessories get clamped on crudely, a bent crank or wheel will rub on a chainstay. The resulting scratches and dings will kill an aluminium or carbon bike but steel will only get uglier.
We also use a lot of stainless steel parts for much the same reason as steel frames: handlebars, stems, fenders and stays, all nuts and bolts, spokes etc. The stainless is not only corrosion resistant, it’s also very tough and nearly impossible to break.
RKP: Do carbon fiber and other technologies scare old-school guys like you? Why or why not?
Scary? Why? It’s just a composite material and a manufacturing process. I raced on a carbon Kestrel for years and it was the best riding bike I ever owned. I even crashed it a few times and it never seemed the worse for wear. Of course that frame was hand made in the U.S. by a team who really knew what they were doing and it was only a little lighter than contemporary steel frames. It was torsionally stiffer and more comfortable, though.
Now, 15 years later carbon bikes and parts are secretively made in huge quantities in Chinese factories. They vary in design and quality from meticulously engineered, high end models to generic crap sold with various names stuck on. Some of these frames and parts are so light and either inadequately engineered or incorrectly manufactured that they fail in normal use. An acquaintance of mine nearly died when a carbon fork broke during a decent in the Alps. Now THAT scares old-skool guys like me.
Photos courtesy WorkCycles