RKP: Tell us about the WorkCycles bike design? What’s unique?
Well, we make a lot of bikes for many different purposes so it’s hard to talk about THE WorkCycles design. Instead I’ll tell you about the Fr8 (pronounced “Freight”), a bike that typifies WorkCycles’ design philosophy. The Fr8 is actually not a single bike but a modular system of parts that can be combined to create a range of heavy-duty bikes suitable for many applications from internal transport in factories to carrying three kids and groceries. The design is clean, all business and timeless; this is a vehicle to rely on daily, not a personal statement. What’s unique is the focus on getting it all right: the ergonomics to fit riders of all shapes and sizes and the steering geometry tuned to ride confidently with enormous loads. We make sure that critical elements such as child seats and parking stands fit and work properly. Most of this is invisible and makes for really boring ad copy but it does actually enhance the experience of cycling.
RKP: By the way, what’s with the name “WorkCycles”? I thought working in this industry was supposed to be fun and NOT work.
Who said work isn’t fun? Studies have consistently demonstrated that people derive the most enjoyment and satisfaction in their lives from their work. The same can be true in cycling; Powering and steering a heavily loaded bike is fun and satisfying if the bike rides efficiently and handles predictably. But WorkCycles began by selling bikes for industry internationally and it’s still a large part of our business, thus the origin of the name.
RKP: So you do the designing of WorkCycles bikes, but do you actually build, cut and shape the tubing, lugs on all of your bikes too? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
I design frames, forks, front and rear carriers, parking stands and some special parts such as chain-cases, cargo boxes, handlebars, lids child carriers etc. For some other parts such as fenders, rims, spokes and tires we have made special versions made to our specs. For example we have rims made from an extrusion meant for downhill and BMX, rolled in 28″, with stainless ferrules for 12 and 13 gauge spokes. The parts existed but not in this combination. Now we have the most abuse-proof, trouble-free city bikes wheels on the planet … and they’re actually lighter than the stainless steel rims we were using before.
WorkCycles bikes are assembled in two Dutch factories, from parts sourced all over the world. Frames are made in Holland, Belgium, Taiwan and China, and then painted in Holland or Belgium. Rims, carriers, some saddles and lights are Dutch made. Fenders come from Italy. Spokes are from Belgium. Taillights and handlebars come from Germany. Shimano hubs and brakes come from Singapore. Quite a few of the simpler components come from Taiwan and China of course.
Stylistic elements? Dude, WorkCycles are the fine tools or tractors of the bicycle world. They’re not really “styled” like carbon racing bikes with fancy curves and graphics nor are they designed for obsessive bike purists like “porteurs” or handmade retro-grouch non-racers. Building bikes isn’t about beautifully cut lugs or sleek seat clusters for us.
Our bikes are stylistically conservative and usually almost all black because it never goes out of style and it’s easy to repair. We like lugs but many of our bikes have tubing and geometry for which lugs aren’t available. We generally use fat tires because they ride well with heavy loads and protect the rims from riders who can’t be bothered to pump their tires up.
RKP: The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. Do you find it a welcome relief when a “short” American (at 6’3”) comes in and starts asking about a custom bike fit? When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work?
Custom bike fit? Again, these are utility bikes. They’re designed to fit many riders with few frame sizes and minimal adjustment. You’re not sitting on them for hours at a time and you ride in street clothes and various shoes so adjusting them to the millimeter is pointless. Many of our bikes are used by more than one rider, for example a family or a factory where dozens of workers share the same fleet of bikes. But don’t take that to mean that we don’t care about the ergonomics of cycling. In fact we believe very strongly in making bikes that are comfortable and pleasant to ride, but we’re just realistic about the precision appropriate for different types of bikes.
RKP: Is there a correlation between the height of the Dutch and the cheese here? If so, which cheese makes them the tallest?
I’ve often wondered about why the Dutch are so much taller than even the people of neighboring countries with what we’d assume to be similar genetic stock. We figure it’s either the flatness of the terrain or lack of sun that causes people to sprout up toward the sky… or the enormous quantities of dairy products they eat here. It might not be the cheese though, as the dairy section in a Dutch supermarket has a mind-boggling collection of cheeses, yogurts, buttermilks and other products familiar only to the locals.
As an American, this concept was completely foreign to me before I came to Amsterdam. I’ve moved apartments twice using one of these tractors! And it’s a fixed gear. Who would have thought someone was actually making bikes like this?
RKP: Let’s talk about the WorkCycles ride. Would you say your all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or does it really just come down to ease-of-use and utility or is all about toodling around enjoying the fresh air?
Yes, all of the above, thanks. I’m a firm believer that all kinds of bikes should be a pleasure to ride. Even the simple city bike or heavy load transporter should be well balanced, handle neutrally and simply disappear beneath you. I’ve spent far too much time on perfectly sorted road, track and mountain bikes (and plenty that weren’t) to accept that utility bikes should be any less carefully engineered. Unfortunately most of the city/utility bikes on the market aren’t designed by enthusiasts and it shows: inappropriate steering geometry, too steep seat tubes, uncomfortable handlebar bends… I could go on for hours.
That’s only the geometry element but bikes for daily transportation are actually much more complicated than bikes for recreational use. WorkCycles produces bikes complete with all the gear you need to ride year-round in a northern climate in normal clothes, carrying whatever stuff you might need to bring along: fenders, full-coverage chain cases, integrated lighting with hub dynamo and wiring through the frame and fork, front and rear carriers, locks, stable parking stands… and it all has to fit and work properly together, and with a broad range of third party accessories such as child seats.
RKP: Who does your paint? What’s your pricing like on the bikes?
WorkCycles frames, carriers, fenders and other parts are painted by an industrial coating firm in the Netherlands and a Belgian powder coater who does actually specialize in bikes. Both of these firms do ridiculously tough paint with zinc-based primer layers to prevent rust even under the worst conditions. The Fr8 and our heaviest duty bikes are actually first zinc-phosphated and then primed inside and out with a very special, underwater, anodic process called KTL. Then they get the color powder coat. The emphasis here is clearly on toughness and corrosion resistance, not the perfect, gorgeous, fluid colors of an American custom painter such as Joe Bell. That would be a waste on a bike that’s going to live the life of an outdoor dog.
RKP: Educate some of Red Kite Prayer‘s readers here for a moment. What exactly is a bakfiets?
Bakfiets is a compound word; “bak” means tray, box or bucket and the latter two are etymologically related. “Fiets” mean bicycle. Thus “bakfiets” is a box or tray bicycle. Say “bakfiets” to the Dutch and they generally think of huge, fixed-gear trikes with hardwood boxes between the front wheels as have been used here for 100 years. Elsewhere bakfiets has come to refer to mom’s long wheelbase two-wheeler for carrying kids as a result of the success of the Bakfiets.nl Cargobike and the dozens of bikes it has “inspired”.
RKP: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build and design?
These days I spend more time designing and building the company and all the things that help it run smoothly than the bikes themselves. I delegate everything possible to employees but WorkCycles consistently grows more than 20% each year. The challenge is to have the people, infrastructure and systems in place in time to maintain or improve the quality of service. We do screw up sometimes but all in all we’ve generally improved even as we’ve grown. It all seems like it happens in slow motion to me but when I stop to look at what we’ve accomplished in just a few years I’m rather surprised. It’s mostly this sense of progress that motivates me, but also that I just enjoy the daily work: helping employees develop, talking with customers… and yes, designing and developing bikes.
RKP: What’s your life away from work like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?
Most of my non-work time is with my family and our friends. I quit racing about 15 years ago but I still ride as much as possible, often with my wife and 19 month old son. The road cycling in Holland is great: quiet, safe, beautiful roads along rivers, through farmland and old villages. You just have to accept the wind and frequent lousy weather.
RKP: What’s your favorite bike to ride in Amsterdam’s Jordaan, where your shop is located? Why?
I guess my favorite city bike is whatever city bike I’m currently riding. I use my own bikes for product testing so every few months I change the hubs, handlebars, child seat, frame or something. I don’t get too attached to these bikes since they just feel like loaners. Right now I’m riding a prototype of the WorkCycles Gr8. It’s a lighter, less over the top version of our popular Fr8 and it’s probably the sweetest riding city bike I’ve ever had. But it’s also built with weird test parts such as a special folding, 2-leg parking stand, pre-production Sturmey Archer hubs and a strange front child seat from OGK in Japan .
RKP: What’s next for you and WorkCycles? Where do you see yourself and the company and your bikes in, say, five years?
What WorkCycles will do in the long term depends how the bicycle industry reacts. If building quality, thoughtfully designed, practical bikes becomes normal practice then perhaps WorkCycles’ role as a bike maker has been fulfilled. In that case we’ll focus more on special components and subassemblies to make better utility bikes. But after 32 years around the bike industry I suspect that in a few years we’ll only see many more bikes that are only silhouettes of real utility bikes while missing their point entirely.
Regardless, WorkCycles will just keep growing at our current pace. A new factory to build our bikes is now being completed here in the Netherlands. At full capacity, we should be able to produce close to 10,000 bikes per year there at the same level of quality as now. That seems high enough to aim for now.
Photos courtesy WorkCycles
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