With tip-top health, environmental and congestion-busting credentials, cycling might just save the world. But despite an upsurge in the popularity of this most righteous mode of transport, London is still a long way from resembling bike utopia.
Enter Harry and Kristina, a couple on a mission to introduce Brits to the myriad advantages of riding the sturdy ‘grandma’ bikes that have helped make Holland such a successfully cycle-centric nation.
“Kristina and I met as students in Edinburgh,” explains Harry, who grew up here in north London. “I was really into cycling, and built her a bike as a first valentines present, to make sure she’d come and see me on the other side of town.”
But it was when Harry moved much further away – to study for a PhD in Amsterdam – that everything changed. “I had a re-education in practical bikes living there,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what people could carry around on one: children, shopping, dogs. I was completely blown away by how easy it was, seeing as my own cherished bikes had got increasingly inefficient and uncomfortable over the years.”
Harry saw a gap in the market as, somewhat inexplicably, these workhorse Dutch cycles were still virtually ignored in the UK. Jacking in the PhD and heading home, he and Kristina set about looking for the perfect location for their fledgling Dutch bike business.
“Finding a premises proved very difficult,” admits Kristina. “We really wanted to be in Euston as it’s so central and close to three big railway stations, plus Camden Council have proved themselves quite progressive when it comes to cycling.”
Finally securing a diminutive site on Eversholt Street, they set about transforming it into a small showroom/workshop. It’s adorned in an ‘urban rustic’ style: decorated floor-to-ceiling in wood they salvaged – transported entirely on two wheels, of course – from London’s limitless roadside supply of discarded pallets.
“For the first three months, we didn’t have a single British customer,” Kristina says with a wry smile. “We attracted Scandinavians, Dutch obviously, some French and Germans. But any city with a mature cycling culture inevitably turns to focus on these bikes,” she says. “People realise that they are the ultimate solution for sustainable transport for the masses.”
And it seems the fork in the road that the duo chose following Harry’s evangelical conversion in the Netherlands has indeed been a shrewd turn. The message is beginning to hit home with Brits, often by word of mouth, in the school playground or at the office bike rack.
“Our customers aren’t cyclists, they are people who ride bikes,” says Harry. “Cycling is an Olympic sport with lots of testosterone, lycra, speed and ultra-lightweight materials. These models are more about utility. Low maintenance, comfortable vehicles to carry you, your children and loads of stuff right across town.” Built-in locks, chains and mudguards, plus weather-proof design make them a compelling urban travel option, and may even sway the hardcore types.
“When we looked at our target customers in the beginning,” say Kristina, “we never even thought of people with back or neck problems, but we see so many of them now. Also real enthusiasts who used to ride fixies for years and now their knees are ruined.” The vehicle-of-choice for young beardies and so-called MAMILS (Middle Age Men In Lycra) may look a lot more practical soon.
Meanwhile, the bikes sold at Flying Dutchman are slowly redressing cycling demographic bias towards white male 40-somethings. In one innovate project, Camden Council have been encouraging Somers Town’s Bangladeshi women – for whom exercise is not a strong part of their social culture – to become more mobile, fit and empowered using Dutch bikes. Since the gears and chains are fully enclosed, traditional saris doesn’t get caught up in them, which has already proved a big hit.
Harry and Kristina have also become completely smitten with the potential of electric-powered bikes. “They are one reason we can live 100% car-free,” say Harry. “We travel to our shop and back each day over 10k from East Finchley with all our shopping and dog, wearing normal clothes, and arrive clean and on time, with a smile on our face.”
Their only gripe is with the number of people who lean out of their cars to chirp ‘you’re cheating’, when they spot the electric-assist motor. Yet these technologies could be the catalyst to improve London’s roads for all of us. With the shocking statistic that over 9,000 people in the capital die from respiratory diseases each year, such a viable alternative to emission-spewing cars should be held in much higher esteem.
Likewise, encouraging more road users onto two-wheels is a cause they both feel strongly about. “Parents often feel roads are too dangerous to ride bikes on with their kids, so they take the car, which in turn makes the roads congested and more dangerous,” says Kristina.
There is still a long way to go to design out the conflict and dangers cyclists experience on our roads, but things are constantly moving forwards. And London’s ancient criss-cross of thoroughfares shouldn’t be used as an excuse.
“Forty years ago Holland’s roads were dominated by cars,” says Harry, still besotted with that country’s progressive attitude. “Amsterdam is a city of narrow streets and canals, so who would have thought it could become the urban cycling capital of the world? If it can happen there it can definitely happen here.”
And when it inevitably finally does, his visionary business will indeed be flying.