“Ladies and gentlemen, meet the future! The future mode of transportation for the western world. It'll change your whole life for the better."
- The bike salesman from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
The idea that bikes will make the future a better place is one that many cyclists, especially city-based cyclists like myself, are fond of peddling. “Bikes aren’t just cleaner and greener than cars," we’ll tell our friends in the pub, our colleagues at the watercooler or our elderly Top Gear-loving relatives.
“They take up far less space on overcrowded streets and are way safer. Not only that, cycling keeps you fit." If the person we’re evangelising to is still listening we’ll usually add, slightly wistfully: “If only the UK could become a bit more like Holland, then London/Manchester/Glasgow could turn into Amsterdam…"
"Far from making Amsterdam a better place, Tiemen ter Hoeven explains, the huge number of bikes is actually becoming 'a huge problem'."
So well-rehearsed are these arguments - and so strongly held are these views - that if anyone contradicts them we’re usually quick (sometimes too quick) to dismiss them. Which is why I’m finding it hard to believe what the Dutchman currently stood in front of me is saying.
Far from making Amsterdam a better place, Tiemen ter Hoeven explains, the huge number of bikes is actually becoming “a huge problem". I’m shocked. Have we been wrong all these years? Could it be that Amsterdam’s cycling networks are not the future of urban transport? What exactly is the problem?
“Well the Dutch buy a million bikes a year," Tiemen says, spelling it out in the face of my incredulity, “but the number of cyclists doesn't get any bigger. Some bikes go to Africa, some used to go to Eastern Europe, but actually those are relatively small volumes. Effectively a million bikes are discarded every year in the Netherlands."
In cities like Amsterdam many of these unwanted bikes are left locked up outside. Owners simply can’t be bothered to take them away for scrap. Left to rust, these weesfietsen, or “orphan bikes", create issues for municipal authorities fellow cyclists alike.
Not only are the abandoned bikes an eyesore, they clog up useful railings and bike racks in busy places like train stations, preventing others from using them. According to a 2014 study, 10 to 20 per cent of the bike parking spaces at Amsterdam stations are occupied by bikes whose owners will never retrieve them.
Removing them is an expensive and time-consuming process. “It costs around 50 euros per bike for a city to clear them", Tiemen says. And such is the scale of the problem that it’s becoming a serious financial headache for Dutch municipal authorities. “There are over 80,000 bikes left abandoned every year in Amsterdam alone."
But if cyclists have created a problem in the world’s most bike-friendly city then it is also cyclists who are presenting the solution. With his business partner Mark Groot Wassink, Tiemen is the co-founder of Roetz, an unique company which builds bikes that are unlike any others.
“There are over 80,000 bikes left abandoned every year in Amsterdam alone."
“The idea started when I worked for a big German automotive company. They do a lot of work around remanufacturing, getting their gearboxes and engines and stuff back to the original factory and then making a brand new product out of it again.
“Having all the orphaned bikes around in Amsterdam I thought ‘why not do the same with bikes?’"
Clearly the idea was one that would be good for the city, Tiemen explains. But it also offered a business opportunity. “It has a really good green business case around it. It's environmentally very positive but it's also economically interesting."
So Tiemen and Mark set about rescuing orphaned bikes and working on how to recycle them. Getting hold of the bikes is the easy part, he tells me. The city tags locked bikes all the time, making regular collections of the ones that haven’t been moved for a prolonged period of time. “The good bikes they auction off so they reclaim some of the money but the other ones would normally go to scrap. We try to purchase them from the city."
But if getting scrap bikes has proved relatively simple, surely recycling them into new bikes, especially nice new bikes that people are prepared to pay for, presents more problems? Surprisingly not, according to Tiemen. It took him and Mark nine months of development and testing to work it out but now the two and their team of builders have the process down.
It helps that they are selective about the bikes they buy. “There's quite a wide range that we can handle but there are a lot of bikes that we can't handle as well. We only do 28 inch wheels for example."
Even with this restriction the frames still vary somewhat, but Roetz have overcome this by dividing them into three generalised types. “We set up three model lines. We have the granny bikes, The Retro as we call them, the city bikes, The Roads, which are pretty much an upright riding position, and then we have the more sports bikes, which we call The Vigour. By dividing them into the three series the difference between the frames is actually very small."
"Customers like that every frame is a bit different. They have a unique bike."
If anything, any slight variations are a positive. “Dealers sometimes take a bit of getting used to the fact that each frame is different but actually what we've found is that customers actually like that even more. They have a unique bike."
When it comes to the selecting which orphan bikes to buy, strength is more important than shape anyway. “Our frames are pretty much always steel soldered frames," says Tiemen, “because they're stronger. Aluminium gets tired and there are little cracks that you won't see, but then the frame will fail."
They assess the steel frames they choose with “simple measuring tools," before giving them a thorough visual inspection. Once a bike is back in their workshop and “the lacquer is cleared off, our visual inspection shows pretty much everything. When the frame is blasted down like that you can actually inspect it perfectly."
So confident are Roetz in this inspection process that they actually provide a new warranty on all their bikes, despite the fact that the frames may be years or even decades old when they get them.
At the moment it’s just the frames that are re-used. But as you’d expect from a brand with recycling at its core, their other components are also sourced as responsibly (and as locally) as possible. “The leather for the saddle comes from Belgium. It’s taken from cows that have already been slaughtered for meat consumption. It is then handmade into a saddle in a little factory in the Netherlands which has been doing that for 100 years.
“The grips come from Portugal. They’re cork, and every seven years you can harvest cork off a tree, it doesn't damage the tree - it just takes seven years to regrow. So that's very low impact.
“The fenders and the chain guard we've developed ourselves and we try to source them as locally as possible. In the Netherlands there's no local factory which could supply them but we're doing them in Germany, so as locally as possible. They're made from beech wood. The trees are harvested but they are replanted."
Even more impressive than the provenance of the materials is the way they’re put together. “The bikes are assembled in a social workshop," Tiemen says, “a sheltered workplace for people with disabilities.
“It’s mostly mentally handicapped people, people who are not able to function in the normal workplace but are still able to do a lot of stuff."
“Unique men making unique bikes" is how Roetz bills these builders, and the brand is obviously proud of its disabled workforce. They post profiles of each of the bike makers on their website.
Of course as a solution to the orphan bike problem none of this innovation, however noble the sentiments behind it, would be worth toffee unless the recycled bikes actually worked. Similarly, because they’re being marketed to fashionable young urbanites, the bikes need to look the part. Otherwise they risk becoming the cycling equivalent of a quorn sausage - very ethical, very well-intentioned, but actually a bit disgusting.
"The bikes need to look the part. Otherwise they risk becoming the cycling equivalent of a quorn sausage - very ethical but actually a bit disgusting."
However I am given the chance to test-ride one of the Roetz Vigour models and thankfully I can report that it handles excellently. Not only that, it looks amazing too. The red rims, cream tyres and brown saddles turn more than a few heads as I cycle around the outdoor area of the bike trade show.
So have Roetz cracked it? Is this the answer to the issue of orphaned bikes in Amsterdam? And could their model offer a sustainable solution for future problems elsewhere?
Tiemen is careful not to talk it up too much. Roetz is still a fairly small-scale operation, he explains. “We currently do around 1,000 bikes per year." They do have a distributor in Germany and have sold a few bikes through dealers in London, but they still only re-cycle a fraction of the million or so Dutch bikes that are abandoned every year. They do however have ambitious plans to grow. “For us the challenge is to become big enough to really start harvesting all those bikes," Tiemen says.
“For us the challenge is to become big enough to really start harvesting all those bikes."
I reluctantly give him back the bike and turn to leave not just interested in what I’ve heard, but also inspired. If too many bikes on city streets has become a problem, then it’s nice to see someone from within the cycling fraternity developing the solution; a solution that’s not only effective, but also sustainable and beneficial to the community at large. It also feels like a solution that could work widely too, not just in Roetz’s homeland.
He might have just been trying to flog a few bikes, but perhaps the cycling salesman from Butch Cassidy was right. Perhaps with bikes like these, cyclists really could change the future for the better.
Read the rest of The Future Issue by Mpora here