24 Dec 2009

Talking to David Hembrow

Posted by Mike Rubbo

Australian cycling, a mono culture. Let’s expand horizons.

There are some great bike blogs in this world, and it’s on these blogs that the best information is being exchanged, good stuff about how to grow urban cycling in our needy times.

Needy from a public health point of view, (we are a very fat nation, Australia) and needy from a climate change point of view. We are a spendthrift nation, too.

Our carbon footprint, each of us, is over 20 tons. We go everywhere in our cars, even the shortest trip has us reaching for the keys.

I say that our cars are not a life style choice as we suppose, but a lifesteal choice. Each unnecessary trip in a car steals an exercise opportunity

Many blogs contribute to this semi underground debate on urban biking Two have come to fascinate me.

Those of Mikael Colville-Andersen in Copenhagen, (copenhagninze.com) and that of David Hembrow in Holland. (A view from the cycle path)

David is actually a Brit. who moved to the Netherlands with his family for the better bike infrastructure, which he now enjoys and makes wicker bike baskets too.

If David has a fault, it’s his constant posting of the Dutch as such paragons of bike lane building, etc. It makes you just feel like giving up in a country like Australia.

I’ve told David this, but he can’t stop. How could you in a country with 29,000 kms. of cycle paths? It’s sickening.

Anyway, my wish is to interview all the great bike bloggers of the world. With no grants, that’s a probably an impossible dream.

In the meantime, I’ve been using a young videographer, Violeta Brana-Lafourcade, who’s super economical, to go places for me, and to film interviews, which she’s done with flair.

Two with Mikael have already been posted. The Guy from Cycle Chic and; Talking to Mikael.

Now, here’s what Violeta sent me on David Hembrow. I hope you like; Talking to David Henbrow. Do leave a comment. It’s mainly about Sit-up bikes which I see as the key to change here.

Thousand will say the type of bike does not matter much, but are they right? Here’s David.

After, making this film, I sent to it David Hembrow with a question which I would have liked Violeta to ask him if I’d thought of it before her visit.

David, Do you think that the sit-up bike sets up a different
“conversation” with other road users as compared with the bent over position favored here?

I think the sit-up is friendlier, that one can make eye contact more easily, and that it’s more apt to be friendly.

That is why I’m pushing hard for people here to think about this posture as not only as safer and more comfortable, but as sending a different message, creating a different climate on the roads. What do think?

David has just replied.

Mike, I think the sit up position is a little more friendly, but it’s only a
part of the difference between cycling in the Netherlands vs. elsewhere.

People are friendly to you here whatever you ride. Dutch cycling isn’t only about sit up bikes. There are also far more dropped handlebar racing bikes and mountain bikes over here than anywhere else, as well as recumbents and velomobiles, and anything else. It really doesn’t matter much what you ride, people will still smile.

One of the things I first noticed about the Netherlands is that people
smile an awful lot more than they do in the UK. On the streets in the
UK you’d think upturned edges of mouths had been banned by royal
decree, but not here. No, people look like they’re actually enjoying

This goes for drivers as much as for cyclists. Drivers give way to you
when they should… and when they shouldn’t. One person holding up
another doesn’t result in car horns blasting and waving of fists out
of the window. The whole situation is de-stressed.

I think a lot of it comes down to road design. Conflict is engineered
out of Dutch roads, particularly at junctions. However, it’s also down
to the amazing social developments in this country.

I think I’ve said before that cycling is just one part of it. The rate of cycling is closely tied with the other things. There is very much a social
contract here.

While in Britain these days it seems to have become
remarkably socially acceptable to drive dangerously around children,
in this country you don’t expect other people to put your children in
danger when they are on the roads.

The sit up position on a bike is better for most people most of the
time simply because it’s comfortable, and very much a hop-on / hop-off

However, the position is not the only benefit of such bikes.
The fully equipped nature of them makes a huge difference too. Quite
apart from being suited to carry lots of stuff, the enclosed chain and
brakes and very puncture resistant tyres are something which I really can’t emphasize enough.

These are bicycle features which everyone takes for granted on a car.
I don’t think anyone would put up with a car which got punctures every
few hundred kilometers, needed brake maintenance as often as that and which required regular gear box maintenance such as re-oiling after
every drive.

Not having to do these things makes all the difference
between a vehicle which you can rely on and a toy.

Tyres such as the Schwalbe Marathon Plus simply don’t puncture. They
are heavy due to a centimeter thick anti puncture layer, which also
makes them slower than racing bike tyres.

However, while they don’t offer speed they do offer utter reliability. There’s nothing slower or less useful than a bike with a puncture. My family’s bikes all have these tyres.

An exposed chain on a bike is much like having a car gear box with
exposed cogs, and the oil getting washed off and replaced by dust and
mud every time you drive.

If cars were built like that you’d have to clean and re-lube the gearbox after each drive, and regularly have to replace parts due to wear.

It’s the same with bikes without a full chain-guard. Enclosing the chain completely changes this. You oil it perhaps once a year, and rarely replace other drive chain components.

The bike can be used with salt on the roads and sit out in all weather
without the chain rusting.

Hub brakes offer a similar level of improved reliability. They last
the lifetime of the bike without adjustment. You simply never have to
replace parts.

On the other hand, the normal rim brakes used on bikes
wear down their pads over just a few thousand km, and also wear down the wheels themselves. That they’re lower in weight is important in competition, but otherwise not.

These things reduce maintenance to near zero and push reliability
right up to the level of a car, and that to me is much more important
than merely sitting up right.

In the past, I tried adapting bikes simply to have a more upright
posture. It’s not a waste of time to try, however the frames are
typically built too long to be completely successful, and you still
have the problems of exposed chains and the wrong types of brakes.

Just to adjust the handlebar position you need to following parts: new
stem (for shorter reach), new handlebars, new cable outers and inners.
Possibly new grips, and maybe new shifters depending on the
arrangement on your existing bike. Also maybe new brake levers
(compatible with whatever type of brake you have).

BTW, the Marathon Plus tyre is available in Australia. It’s very very
popular here due to being the leader so far as never getting a
puncture is concerned:


Oh, and what I will say is that these town bikes are remarkably social
bikes. It’s quite normal for all age groups to transport others on the
rear racks, and teenagers sometimes travel three to a bike. You can’t
do that with a dropped handlebar racer.

BTW, the rear racks on proper Dutch bikes are really robust. They’re
not those skinny 10 kg rated things which you see elsewhere, but
robust chunks of real, heavy, steel which you can definitely transport
an adult on top of !


> mike

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16 Responses to “Talking to David Hembrow”

  1. Mike, you’re taunting me ! Yes, it’s true I’m enthusiastic about what there is here. The Dutch are ludicrously modest about their achievements, in cycling as well as in other things, but they’ve achieved many things which are amazing compared with elsewhere.

    However, that doesn’t mean anyone should give up on anything. If you want a high cycling rate, a lovely example has been provided to copy.

    Anyway, thanks very much for making this film, and the others.

    Merry Christmas !


    David Hembrow

  2. Hi Mike I already replied on the Video as Sunny Joe 66. But here is my thoughts on Sit up and Beg Bikes. I have always loved this style as they reminded me of the Old Fashioned Raleighs of the 1950ties,and when I was on Holiday in Amsterdam in 05 I just knew I had to get one. So I Ordered one from Work Cycles in A/Dam in Sept 07. I got the Kruisframe Pasteurs Fiets/ Crossframe Preachers Bike with a Detachable front Carrier and it is the most comfortable Bike I have ever Ridden.

    At that time only about two People had these Bikes in Dublin now a few have them, together with a Courier Company who has Danish Bulitt Bikes like the one Mikael Colvile Anderson has. I also seen a few Bakfiets around Dublin carrying Children in them.

    My Bike is immensely Strong and Built like a Tank, The Suv 4+4 of Bikes. When more People use these Bikes it shows that Bikes are not just for Recreational use but Day to Day Utilitarian Transport and Cargo use. Not for the Lycra Clad Speed Freaks but for the more Mundane Cycling to get around type Wear your own City Clothes and a Hat as opposed to a Helmet and Hunched down over the Handlebars with a Grimace on your Face Sore Ar*e Person who constanty has to Rub Assos Cream on his Derriere. I also like Reading up on Cycling Infrastructure in the Netherlands and I have commented on the Fietsberaad site from time to time. Happy Christmas, Dublin Ireland.



  3. John, seems like we think alike far as sit -up bikes are concerned. it amazes me that so many people, here ride uncomfortable bikes, convinced that the aches and pains they feel, the sore bum, are all part o the process of riding. But as we know, it’s all avoidable. I hope that Bike share, if we get it here will change the thinking. people will have a chance to try without buying on, a sit up bike, and they’ll be converted, I’m sure.

    They are going to find too that they interact with traffic differently. Sitting up straight you are friends with the world and get treated accordingly. it’s a revoultion we have to have.

    You know, i think there is a good business opportunity for some bike shops to offer special retro fits. You bring in your narrow seat, flat bar hybrid, and they turn it into a sit-up for you . Do you think that’ possible within a fairly modest price range? Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  4. You are very welcome, David. Now, I need to make the second film on with you in which we get to you special love, the infrastructure. I hope I can find the material in what Violeta has given me, to do it justice. Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  5. The Dublin Bikes Bike Vélib that we have are Three Speed Gears and the Lights stays on, they seem to be very Nippy and not slow at all. You Apply on line and you will get your Card in about a Week or two,you Forfeit a Deposit of €150 Euro on your Credit Card in case something happens to the Bike. It is free for first half Hour and then gets charged after that. Very much like the Paris Vélib except we only have at the moment 450 Bikes. They were afraid there might be Vandalism of the Bikes but so far none has been damaged.



  6. The infrastructure in the Netherlands is more or less flat. No hills and distances between cities and villages are short compared to other countries. That’s the main reason why the Dutch Bike is evolved the way it has. And still does; because the model is like it was 50 years ago, the hub-dynamo, LED-lights, materials, etc , are nowadays much better !
    When commuting distances are as long as David’s, then more and more people will make the choice to use a recumbent. And when they are used to the phenomenon, they eventually will go for a velomobile. The only reason most of them keep using a car is because it is relative cheap and it is supposed to give social “status”.
    Of course this “status” is a false one, just as the status of a guy with a beer-belly in spandex and aerodynamic-helmet on a time-trial bike is false.

    Keep on cycling!


    wim harwig

  7. David’s videos and photos from the Netherlands are inspiring. It sets the bar high for the rest of the world and I hope over the next few decades we will start to catch up. North America is starting to move in the right direction and I yearn for the day where people will look at year-round cycling as a normal thing instead of looking at me as if I’m “crazy”

    Keep the great videos coming Mr. Rubbo!




  8. Nice work Violeta! And thanks, as always, for keeping this pro-bike blog rolling along, Mike. Interesting comments all around. Merry Christmas from snowy NYC!


    Rob in Manhattan

  9. Thanks, Mike, Violeta and of course – David, for your good work!

    The first thing I do with every bike I own or work on – I change things to be able to sit up straight. Just like David does. For me, sitting upgright is the only position that makes cycling fun. The second most important thing is a good saddle. The old-fashioned ones with many springs work fine. Nowadays they are hard to find. Lepper is a good manufacturer so I try to find a store that sells Lepper.

    Best wishes
    Johann from Berlin



  10. Hi, Johann, has anyone thought to produce a “how to do it” video or publication. That is, how to covert a road bike, a hybrid etc. to a sit up. I think it would be very useful . It might save a lot of people from going out and buying a new bike . Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  11. Hi Mike, there really isn’t a satisfactory way to convert a bike built for lightness and speed into a sit-up bike, because the frames are designed for different purposes. The sit-up bike needs easy and predictable steering, a longer wheelbase, allowance for fatter tires, fender and rack attachment points, design for an upright seated position, and usually a heavier and sturdier frame. You can change out the stem and/or handlebars (rise and type), and like Johan mentioned try different saddles and saddle height adjustments, but most of those other aspects have to be designed in when the frame is first welded (or glued, molded, whatever) together. Also you would be surprised at how quickly a project of a scope like “converting” a bike becomes more expensive (and often less successful) than just buying what you needed in the first place.


    John Romeo Alpha

  12. Fascinating, John. It shows up how little I know about bikes. I see the sense in what you are saying though it’s of course disappointing that there is no easy way. Maybe people will start to buy proper sit -ups, perhaps as second bikes.
    I have three bikes more or less properly configured. The one I like best is a Giant Suede whose name I mention in the hopes that they will continue to make them. Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  13. Great video MIke! I am a big fan of David Hembrow… thanks a lot for interviewing him!



  14. Another interesting video. Never seen a velomobile before. Are they faster? Visibility and maneuverability seem to be lower though.

    I ride upright bicycles, simply because it is more comfortable. As I ride bicycles mostly for enjoyment, why make it painful with a crunched up position?

    I have had several ‘classic’ racing type bikes that I have turned into a comfortable bike fairly easy. I am taking about the 10 speed, flat frame bicycles that were standard about 20 years ago. To make the riding position comfortable, two simple adjustments can be done:
    1. put handle bars as high as you can
    2. TURN AROUND the handlebars so that the brake levers face you directly.
    That should enable most people to sit comfortably by holding on to the top of the handlebars.



  15. [...] recent video interview with Mikael Colville-Andersen made waves on the internets, posted another great video (check the whole post, it’s a good read too) with David Hembrow of A View From The Cycle [...]


    Talking To David Hembrow | Amsterdamize

  16. Nice interview and nice song. When I’ll grow up I will move to Holland, too. :D



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