What about hills? Granny bikes vs. Mt Washington

One of Flying Pigeon LA's Gazelle Toer Populairs tackles Mt. Washington

We get this question about our Dutch bikes all the time: “What about going up hills?”.

When I’m feeling snarky, I’ll answer, “Have you ever ridden a bike up a hill before? It’s just like that.” Otherwise, I’ll steer folks towards the modern-style Dutch bikes we carry like the Gazelle Chamonix line or some of the lighter weight bikes we carry from Public or Linus, like the Linus Mixte 8.

I’ve been riding my bikes so long, and so intensely, that I honestly have forgotten what it’s like having this question looming in my mind. Of course you can take your bike up a hill! But then again, what if you’re not in the greatest of shape? Or have an old injury that prevents certain movements? Hmm … this isn’t so easy to answer.

A few months back, the opportunity to test out some of the bikes we had in the shop on a “hill” presented itself.

Equitable Roots CSA box on a Gazelle Toer Populair from Flying Pigeon LA

The Flying Pigeon LA bike shop is just a block away from Mt. Washington – a big “hill” (a mountain, really) with steep streets that wind to the top for a refreshing view of the Los Angeles Basin. On top of Mt. Washington lies Mt. Washington Elementary School, which recently started a PTA-fundraiser in partnership with Equitable Roots, a local organic produce distributor. For $18 a week you get a big box of fresh, and tasty, seasonal fruits and vegetables.

At the time I signed up I was fresh off a Michael Pollan reading binge. I absorbed “The Omnivores Dilemma” and read most of “In Defense of Food”. I then re-watched “Food, Inc.”, scrounged some food-based shows off the PBS web-site and was ready to ditch the entire industrial agricultural system.

When a mom from the school’s PTA stopped in to see if I was interested in their new CSA, I plunked down $72 in cash, and signed up for my first four weeks of produce on the spot. The woman who visited the shop from the PTA was a little shocked. I felt so smug and cool – I was going to eat the way my ethics dictated and I could ride one of my many awesome Dutch and Dutch-style bikes to the school to get my groceri … oh wait, that school is on top of a MOUNTAIN!

The view from Mt. Washington Drive

It turns out, some bikes are better at riding up mountains than others. I had a funky stable of bikes to choose from: a used Electra Amsterdam Royal 8i 8-speed, a used Gazelle Toer Populair T3 3-speed oma fiets (“grandma bike” in Dutch), and an old Gazelle Impala 3-speed opa fiets (“grandpa bike” in Dutch) from the 1980’s .

The Electra Amsterdam Royal 8i? That thing sucked going up hill! Sure, it had a super easy gear – but the riding position made it nearly impossible to stand up and pedal. When I did need to stand up, I had to put so much weight on the front of the bike it made steering feel very unstable. Going down hill on it was awesome, with one exception: I forgot to fasten the bag I was using to carry groceries to the rack of the bike. I almost lost a chunk of my week’s produce on a couple of bumpy downhill turns.

A Gazelle Toer Populair T3 with Basil Cardiff baskets at Flying PIgeon LA

The next week, I chose the Gazelle Toer Populair T3. This bike is a beast! It is made in the same style as Dutch bikes were several decades ago – with rod-activated brakes, and a whole bunch of neat details that make the bike very attractive, like it’s extra large mudflap or it’s Brooks B66S saddle. While the ride up Mt. Washington Road was hellacious towards the end, it was much, much, better than on the Electra. The upright frame geometry made it easier to slam on the pedals. One drawback? The bell, rod brake lever, and shifter prevented me from grasping the handlebars in different positions as I gasped at the last torturous bit of Mt. Washington Drive.

Despite the pain of digging my hand into the sharp edges of a ding dong bell, it was on the Gazelle Toer Populair T3 that I had the most sublime moment. As I came around a bend on my slow slog to the top, I saw a coyote in the middle of the road. He turned to me and then ran down a ravine – only to appear behind me heading up the hill a few minutes later. I turned around to see where he went, slowly scanning the brush for signs of a running coyote when I spotted a second coyote – staring at me silently the whole time, with a small pup beside her.

A coyote staring out from the brush on Mt. Washington Dr.

It was a quiet moment I shared with the coyotes, and one that at first gave me goose bumps at the thought of being eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs. I realized that these dogs were more afraid of me than I could possible be of them, and I had at least 50 lbs. of oma fiets to huck at them if they dared to have a go.

I got back on the Toer Populair and chugged up the hill to the school to grab my box of groceries.

The downhill was sublime, of course, owing to the stability of the bike and the Basil basket I clipped onto the rear of the bike (I’d learned my lesson the first descent!).

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On my final trip up the hill to get my $72 worth of groceries, I grabbed a tough old dog out of the stable, a well-used Gazelle Impala from the 1980’s we were selling on consignment at the time. Shockingly, this monster was the best ride of them all! It was crisp in it’s “easy” gear on the steepest inclines Mt. Washington threw at me. The brakes were a bit worn, so it didn’t stop nearly as quickly as the Toer Populair T3 – which is sort of important when you’re descending Mt. Washington.

Riding with the girl to the Old LA Farmer's Market in Highland Park

All in all, I’d say that Dutch bikes (the really old fashioned ones, at least) are okay on hills, but generally suck at going up and down mountains. I am sorry to say that my relationship with the excellent produce on top of Mt. Washington eventually came to an end, and I have since become a regular at the Old L.A. Farmer’s Market in Highland Park. The produce is conventionally grown, but there less of a climb involved – so I can take my bakfiets and my daughter with me!

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3 Comments

  1. todd
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    i sell and ride dutch bikes too, in a place with hills. i’ve used the same snarky line, even! i keep coming back to the thought that if you ride a lot — anything as long as it’s regularly — you can pretty much ride anywhere on any bike, and chances are you’ll have a fine time as long as you’re not racing a clock or anybody else. worst case is you get off and push here and there, but life is too short not to walk alongside your bike now and then!

    now, if you don’t ride much, the fact is also that climbing hills is going to feel hard. no matter what bike you’re on! in fact, the more money you spend shaving grams and adding speeds, the more frustrated you’ll be when the hill is *still* kicking your fat ass.

  2. Posted November 30, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Yah, I like to cruise hills on my fixie commuter! Also supposedly “impossible.”

    So, Josef, now you’re ready to ride Mulholland with me on your day off.

    That is, if you ever get a day off…!

  3. Posted December 1, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve wondered about this as well and what a helpful post. I recently bought a Gazelle, an Impala too I think, and I’m eager to ride it once I ( or more likely Flying Pigeon) get it fixed up.

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