People-watching is one of the great pastimes of travel. We learn a lot about a place by studying the parade of characters past a café or through a public square. There are limitless clues in their attire, bearing, mannerisms. Studying bikes can be equally rewarding. The insights about local design, history, technology, use of materials can also tell us a lot about a place. Even the details of the bikes can be loaded with cultural information. This became obvious to me in Amsterdam, the bike capital of the western world, where bike lights/headlamps stood out as a unique design feature.
The classic, traditional bike headlamp has become largely a relic of the past, and the streets of Amsterdam are the graveyard of these graceful, buxom retro forms. Click here Dutch headlamps. Bike lamps offer lessons in basics of form and function as well as in the tradeoffs we make in our modern world. Today, the traditional light has been all but replaced by LED lights (an example shown here atop the older light). These new lights are smaller, less obtrusive, more practical, more reliable and probably safer, but they do not run on the same ingenious sustainable generator system. Their other downsides are that they are easy to lose, are often made of non-biodegradable plastic, have batteries that can be a toxic menace, and are not nearly as charming as the older lamps. As with most objects of modern design, there are pros and cons to new and older solutions. Do we want the charm and character of the old VW Beetle or the efficiency of the new models? The good news is that there are new bike light systems on the market today by companies such as Shimano and Lightspin that make excellent attempts at incorporating the best aspects of the old and the new.
You can’t really study bike headlamps in Copenhagen because there are not very many on the streets. (Copenhagen is less hospitable at night for bikers). But there is no shortage of bike seats, and they, too, are a window into the design and cultural sensibilities of the place. Click here for Danish seats. The majority are classic leather seats (saddles) made by the venerable Brooks Saddle Company - tasteful and preppy, but not particularly functional in the wet Danish climate. The Danes get around this problem by using plastic bags, often elegantly tucked in under their bike seats, as if styled for a J Crew catalog photo shoot. Their choice of bike seats reveals a contrast in the mentalities of the Dutch and Danish. Dutch bike seats are eclectic, practical, casual, unpretentious, and even a little messy. Click here for Dutch seats. They rarely use expensive brand name seats (fancy leather saddles would get ripped off in Amsterdam).
Checking out other bike accessories only reinforces this cultural difference. Baskets are one example. The Danes prefer to carry their yoghurt home in tasteful rattan; the Dutch often use funky crates and other highly practical containers – often highly decorated so as to be too conspicuous to steal. You see lots of helmets in Copenhagen, few in Amsterdam. The Danes have bike shelters for storage and safety. The Dutch use any part of the street or street furniture available. Click here for comparisons.
And every now and then the Dutch will greet you with the special salutation that cuts across all cultural differences.
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