This month saw the fulfilment of a year’s worth of yearning, when I brought this beauty home.
I can’t remember exactly how it started – perhaps by thinking how convenient it would be to have a chain cover, so I didn’t have to wrestle with trouser clips that always work themselves off after ten minutes.* But at some point I began to be seduced by the swooping downward curve on certain bikes with step-through frames, and noticed this often went with a nice wicker basket at the front and swept-back handlebars, as well as a chain cover and kick-stand. I started going ooh and aah whenever I saw one, or irritating my family by stopping to take a photo or twelve. Then, going to the Netherlands and seeing silver-haired grandmothers gliding around in the dignified, upright position afforded by those handlebars, the deal was clinched. I had to have one.
They’re getting more common in the UK, and you can get some very pretty bikes in this configuration, like Pashleys and Bobbins. I’m sure both are great (a friend who has a Bobbin swears by them).
But my head was turned by Flying Dutchman bikes, imported from the Netherlands, after I watched this video about carrying passengers on a bike. I realised that proper Dutch bikes from Dutchland have a much more robust build than your average British bike – they’re designed to carry an elephant and its child on both front and back racks. This classic design is what the Dutch call an omafiets – ‘granny bike’. And the Flying Dutchman is where Oma, as she is known, was bought by her original owner.
For the last couple of years Oma has belonged to the indomitable Mama Moose. This Belgian lone parent of two and cycle instructor has single-handedly taken on the badly behaved drivers in her adopted home of Tottenham, and when I say ‘take on’, I mean a good number have ended up in court. If you’re going to speed, tailgate, close pass, park illegally or generally harass cyclists in Tottenham, make sure you don’t do it anywhere near Mama Moose. She’s got you on camera and she’s practically got a hotline to the local police.**
Anyway when Mama Moose offered to sell me Oma for a fraction of her original price, I was so excited I didn’t even baulk at the prospect of riding her home all the way from Tottenham – an hour’s ride in what turned out to be torrential rain. This would not have been possible without the Moose’s friend, another cycling instructor who was concerned about someone riding a strange route in the dark on a strange bike. He gallantly accompanied me the whole way to these far northern wastes known as Enfield and then turned around and cycled home in the unrelenting rain (to Streatham. That’s another hour).
And just as bloomin’ well. Although I’d never ridden Oma before I assumed I would love her, so I wasn’t expecting to find that I couldn’t get on or off. To get on, I had to use the kerb or whatever I could find as a mounting block. I could only get off by grasping the brake, screaming, and throwing myself forwards off the saddle. (My goodbyes to Mama Moose were abrupt. Once I’d got on I wasn’t going to stop.) Leaning sideways to dismount did not feel like an option, because Oma weighs a ton. Starting off at traffic lights was unnerving – not only did I have to find a mounting block to get back on, I’d also have to roll Oma backwards to get the pedals in the right position. She has back-pedal (‘coaster’) brakes so you can’t just swivel them into position when you’re stationery. My companion reassured me I’d get used to it, and I told myself I was just doing it wrong.
But two days later I had not got the hang of Oma at all. I took her to Dr Bike, who confirmed that the seat couldn’t get any lower. I started to think, sadly, that I was going to have to sell her. Then, in a stroke of genius that was probably divinely inspired, I realised she just needed a different saddle. Mama Moose’s is broad, sprung, and upholstered like an armchair (see the first picture). Its generous dimensions led Mr Suburbanite to trot out his favourite jokes about my backside and all added up to several extra centimetres of height that I couldn’t handle. I managed to extract the whole seat post and swap it with Mr Suburbanite’s skinny, ancient mountain bike seat,*** seat post and all, and suddenly it was fine.
I made this discovery when I rather urgently needed to get my head down and do some editing work, but this was way too exciting to ignore. So I jumped on and rode to the park, did a circuit and rode home again. It was lovely. I had to clamp my lips together to suppress a manic grin. I’m so upright in the saddle, I keep thinking I’m riding a horse. I feel positively regal. Above all, riding Oma – maybe triggering memories of our Dutch hire bikes – gives me this unshakeable sense that life is one big holiday.
Katja Leyendecker does a great anatomy of a proper omafiets, which she calls an ‘archetypal Bremen cycle’ or ABC. Oma has all the right ingredients, including the integral dynamo lights (powered by pedalling, so no need for batteries), and while she weighs a ton she also has eight gears, so hills are a doddle. She is in great nick, with just a touch of arthritis in her rear drum brake which needs looking at at some point.
Anyway, as I turned back into our street I spotted a couple of neighbours and stopped to chat (in the hope they would admire Oma, which they duly did). Within a minute, we were deafened by the roar of a boy racer accelerating up the street.
“What the…” my neighbours were saying.
I suddenly remembered that a) it’s difficult to exit our road quickly, because of some temporary traffic lights at the far end and b) a lot of the drivers who race up our road stop at a certain business at that end anyway.
“I’m going after him!” I said, and pedalled off to rousing cheers.
Oma was now in her element, having been in this situation many times before, and took me up the road at speed. There at the far end was the offending driver’s car, not only parked illegally but with an idling engine. It was a black Audi (it often is). I was taking a couple of photos to get the license plate when the owner came out of the shop and asked me who I was and what I was doing. I asked him if he could tell me what speed he was doing up our street. Before he got in the car and drove away he made several suggestions about services I could perform for him, for pay, which he described to me in great detail, but I was not really interested as none of them involved bike maintenance. I’m getting quite good at that.
This delightful gent and his car will be logged on the Met website in due course. Meanwhile Oma and I will patrol the streets with joy, dignity, and a camera on the handlebars.
*Or risk rolling up my right trouser leg, only to discover it’s still rolled up three hours later after I’ve given a presentation to a room full of people
** Sound like a poor use of police time? Think again. Every time the police educate or prosecute someone for driving dangerously there’s less risk they’ll be called to the scene of a serious collision – though of course the more common result of bad driving is that most people choose not to cycle. With all the inevitable consequences for public health
*** You can decide whether or not this is just a description of the bike