Monday, May 7, 2012

Achielle Oma: Handmade in Belgium

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
When I learned about Achielle Bicycles from a Belgian friend three years ago, I immediately wanted one - so much so that I contacted the manufacturer and considered buying one direct when I learned there was no American distributor. However shipping a single bike was expensive, and so Achielle did not end up being my first transportaion bicycle. But I remained interested in the manufacturer. Eventually they gained US distribution, but still I never heard of any bike shop that sold them. It was therefore entirely unexpected when I literally bumped into a wine-coloured Achielle Oma at Hudson Urban Bicycles in New York last week. I did not know they sold them, but there it was - the elusive bicycle I'd been admiring from afar all this time, just standing there and waiting for me to try it.

New Amsterdam Bicycle Fashion Show 2012
There was also a grayish-cream one in stock, being prepared for the New Amsterdam Fashion Show.

The owner of HUB had no idea who I was, but knew I had no intention of buying the bike and just wanted to write about it on some blog. The shop was hectic, with everyone running around getting ready for the New Amsterdam Show, and it was almost closing time. Still, he got the bicycle ready for me and was very helpful - much appreciated. Many thanks also to Nona Varnado, who introduced me to HUB and vouched that I was not a bicycle thief. I test rode the Achielle and just barely managed to snap some pictures before the light faded.

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
So what makes Achielle bicycles such a big deal? Well, it is this: As far as I know they are the only production Dutch bikes that are still handmade locally from the frame up. Even the tubing is produced locally, according to the manufacturer. Does local production mean a bike is better made than had it been outsourced to the Far East? Not necessarily. Quality depends on skill, method and tools, not on a factory's location. But there is something to be said for bicycles that are produced 100% in-house, from frame to paint to assembly. Pashley does it in the UK with English Roadsters and Achielle does it on the continent with Dutch bikes. They are part of the special remaining few and they keep local manufacturing traditions alive.

Achielle has been making bicycles in the Flemish region of Belgium since 1946 and you can read a summary of their history here. The paint is by Dija-Oostcolor - Achielle's parent company.  Because pretty much every aspect of production and assembly takes place in-house, a great deal of customisation is possible. But plenty of stock production models are available as well. 

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
The model I rode is the Craighton Pick-Up Oma - a steel loop frame with 28" wheels, body colour fenders, chainguard and large front carrier. This bike was a 57cm frame, 3-speed with coaster brake only, fitted with cream tires, bottle dynamo lighting, double-legged kickstand, leather saddle and grips, and large wicker basket in front.

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
The Achielle Oma frame has all the features I value when it comes to craftsmanship. It is fully lugged, including the seat cluster, fork crown and even the loop connector. It also has the bolted rear triangle and the track ends in the rear that I prefer on a bike of this style. The frame is utilitarian and the lugwork is simple, there are no flourishes. But everything that I like to be there is there, and the quality of the finish looked excellent, with precise joints and no sloppiness or bulges anywhere along the frame.

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
On a bicycle like this, I actually prefer to have a modern bottle dynamo to a hub generator, and Achielle has the option of a braze-on "arm" on the fork for this purpose. Both the bottle and the headlight attach there, making it possible to use a front carrier system without obscuring the headlight. 

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
The classically high and swept back Dutch handlebars are near-identical to the set-up on my formerly owned 90s Gazelle

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
Although this particular model has a one-sided chainguard and not a full chaincase, models with full chaincases are available also. A tail light is mysteriously absent here, but it is pictured on the Achielle website.

I rode the Oma briefly along the quiet streets of the West Village. It was exceptionally smooth and, by Dutch bike standards, fast. I did not feel that the weight of the front carrier and basket (with my jacket and camera inside) affected handling. However, the lack of front brake was a problem for me and kept me from testing the bike's speed limits to the extent I would have liked. For those considering the bike, a front caliper can be easily retro-fitted and there are options for a hub brake as well, but obviously this could not be done in the short amount of time I spent with the bike. I would love to do a long-term review of this bicycle with better pictures and more nuanced observations.

New Amsterdam Bicycle Fashion Show 2012
The Achielle Oma is a classic Dutch bike in every respect, including weight savings not being a priority. It was funny to watch the model who posed with the bicycle at the New Amsterdam Bike Fashion Show "hand" the Achielle to the assistant whose job was to carry it off stage. This big-boned beauty can weigh upward of 45lb, depending on size and what accessories it is fitted with. Like all Dutch bikes, the Achielle Oma was designed to be stored outdoors or in sheds, not carried. And it is certainly durable enough for outdoor storage, as well as suitable as a winter bike. 

Achielle at Hudson Urban Bicycles
Priced at $1,450 for the model shown, the Achielle is not inexpensive. But it is handmade in Belgium from scratch, it looks well-constructed and it handles well. The price simply reflects how much it costs to do that, with only modest profits being made by the manufacturer, distributor and retailer. For me, it is worth it. For others, maybe not. It is good to have options. Were I in the market for a Dutch bike today, Achielle would be the one.

52 comments:

  1. "The Achielle Oma frame has all the features I value when it comes to craftsmanship. It is fully lugged, including the seat cluster, fork crown and even the loop connector. It also has the bolted rear triangle and the track ends in the rear that I prefer on a bike of this style. The frame is utilitarian and the lugwork is simple, there are no flourishes. But everything that I like to be there is there, and the quality of construction looks to be excellent."

    We've talked about this before - there may be a false conflation of finish quality and presence of lugwork as determining quality construction. How well it is constructed lies beneath the paint, welds and lugs. I don't doubt, however, this bike is well-constructed.

    The proximity of the bars to the seat borders on, I'm not going to say ludicrous for 2012, but "classic" to the extreme.

    It's time for me to reiterate a desire to see front fork mounted racks with a load properly tested. Y'know, just to see if it works.

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    1. You're right, I should have written "finish." Will edit. The finish looks better than the other Dutch bike brands currently on the market, where I almost always observe sloppiness around the joints and weird bulges. None of that here.

      The bars look so high partly because the saddle is relatively low; for myself I'd get the bike in a size smaller and lower the bars too.

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    2. Speaking of bolted on stays and finish quality, this has been making the rounds lately, complete with proper accents: http://vimeo.com/39401575

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    3. Someone just forwarded that to me this morning : ) My DL-1 enjoyed the video very much!

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    4. I enjoyed it, but watching the poor robots, er, workers without respirators above toxic vats of chemicals and hand dipping frames into enamel made me pucker.

      We do live in privileged times.

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    5. "The proximity of the bars to the seat borders on, I'm not going to say ludicrous for 2012, but "classic" to the extreme. "

      Several recent threads revolve around such city bikes (DL-1, Dutch bikes) and pique an interest that has been dormant for years and which raises many questions about this sort of frame design and riding position. I personally am about 2 cm close to buying a thrashed DL-1 ($45!! But missing rear fender, chaincase and saddle and pretty beat up) so I know the appeal, but I have to say that my rational mind screams in objection. Why are these things designed with such a horribly inefficient riding position, with no bend in your back and your hands, on the grips, hovering around your knees? It was the rule that energetic riders always grasped the center of the bar and leaned forward, trying desperately for a minimally efficient way to apply their muscles to the pedals. Add to this the ludicrous over-gearing -- 90" high???? 50" low???? -- and you have what is ergonomically a clown bike. The in-itself doggish Raleigh Sports was ergonomically a quantum leap ahead! And as pointed out in an earlier blog, the classic Dutch bike is even worse!

      So why this bolt upright design? My hypothesis is that it is old enough to have been influenced by the riding position on pennyfars where the size of the front wheel required an unnatural riding position. Am I right or rong?

      Still, I have a huge nostalgia for the DL-1, having ridden Indial clones thousands of hilly miles as a boy and teenager.

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    6. For short urban trips, I would say it feels comfortable to many if not most people who are not "cyclists" to be as upright as possible on a bike, which is what the Dutch bike fit is designed to address. It is also easier to wear regular clothing in that position: sleeves pull less at the shoulders, your shirt does not get untucked. That sort of thing.

      As I understand it, the DL-1 (at least starting from the 1950s) was actually designed for the handlebars to be just above saddle height, so the bolt-upright design is Dutch specific.

      As for the overgearing, I have no answer. I agree that stock DL-1s were insanely overgeared. I imagine one got used to it over time. In comparison, Dutch bikes are actually geared quite normally.

      Last thing, you've mentioned DL-1 clones before, and I remember you off-handedly referred to the handling as identical. Have you ridden real DL-1s and determined this, or are you assuming from the way they look? Because according to what I've heard from others, most of the clones were clunkier, slower, and not as smooth as the real deal, with inferior wheels, frames and components...

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    7. @Bertin753 - I haven't spent much time on this kind of set up so my comments are mostly theory. But I don't think it's true to say that an upright position is inefficient for the muscles. Our legs are actually designed specifically to extend power out directly down.

      The advantage of leaning forward is really about aerodynamics. This is increasingly important the faster you go, so someone wanting to go faster would want to lean forward mostly to cheat the wind. At grandma (Oma) speeds, an upright posture makes perfect sense.

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    8. Max - bending forward engages the largest muscle mass of the lower torso, the glutes, moreso than sitting bolt upright. The degree of bend to engage also varies person-to-person; for the very flexible the more so the better. This is also related to how straight the rider keeps his/her back, no matter the angle...

      Bertin, I've thought about your question over the years and just think the upright posture on the bike carries over the the emphasis on good posture in life from that era. "Dignified, upstanding, proud and sure of himself; this is the Raleigh man." <--made up add copy.

      I've set up one of my bikes to allow for a leaned forward and bolt upright position; it's just a question of technique to get one or the other to work. All things equal aside from aerodynamics leaned over = faster IF one is adapted to it.

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    9. "Last thing, you've mentioned DL-1 clones before, and I remember you off-handedly referred to the handling as identical. Have you ridden real DL-1s and determined this, or are you assuming from the way they look?"

      No, I have not -- guilty as charged. But they were designed like the DL-1; analogues to the Hindustan Ambassador which was built from the exported machine tooling for the Morris Oxford. See http://www.yellowjersey.org/EASTMAN.HTML.

      "The advantage of leaning forward is really about aerodynamics. This is increasingly important the faster you go, so someone wanting to go faster would want to lean forward mostly to cheat the wind. At grandma (Oma) speeds, an upright posture makes perfect sense."

      Not so. A great benefit of leaning forward is to put into use muscles that otherwise are not used: see for example http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/fitting.htm. Riding fixed as I do in rolling terrain, I often find myself dropping into the hooks for an incline just for the extra "boost" of power -- this at speeds where aerodynamics have less effect overall on speed.

      Don't get me wrong. I am not badmouthing those who like these bikes; hell, I like these bikes! I just can't understand the design, which seems so inefficient. Even the Electra Amersterdam that I tried a couple of years ago -- a so-called semi-recumbent design -- felt more natural and efficient. Is it just my body type? -- Anglo Asian, so Asian build but Anglo size (5'10" but taller when sitting than my 6'1" Norwegian-American bro-in-law). Very, very odd.

      I will go talk to the bike store -- Stevie's Happy Bikes in Corrales, NM -- tomorrow about the DL-1. Hope to get him to sell my Worksman trike, too.

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    10. If you wear a pith helmet and jodhpurs you will have less trouble with the ergonomics of the DL-1. At some point anyone who rides these creatures has to accept that the design comes from a 1913 military contract. If you think the British Raj arrived at perfection in 1913 then ride the bike as is and stop complaining. Otherwise get busy modifying the bike so you can ride it.

      Watching that 1945 film from the Nottingham works was a lot like watching third world mfg processes. My observation of DL-1s and clones is that quality has always varied. My Indian DL-1 was frame-aligned and assembled in Wisconsin and handily exceeds the ride quality of any other DL-1 I've tried. I'll admit that most test rides have been on long neglected bikes, never used but for garage ornaments. Which is how most American DL-1s have ended up.

      There is and will be a shortage of curators for DL-1s. An owner who mods until the bike is rideable allows the bike to be what it's supposed to be: transportation.

      Very old and fine examples of course should be cared for if at all feasible. My experience of 70s and 80s bikes has been that they were awful when unboxed, needing many hours of shoptime to become functional. Most shops just never did all the needed work. And the ball went downhill from there unless and until a hardcore enthusiast wanted a project.

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    11. Whoops! I think the Amersterdam I rode was a "Townie" model and thus even more laid back. Still, a pleasure compared to the (Indian clones of) the DL-1!

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    12. Ground Round: Your "Edwardian dignity" hypothesis may well have merit; dunno. At any rate, it's a hard trade, dignity for such a damn'd awkward position!

      Velouria: I agree that a bolt-upright position is easier on the shoulder and sleeve seams. I continually fight "that gap" at the rear between top of shorts and bottom of jersey, and my bars (road bikes) are only 3 cm below saddle.

      I must say, putting things together all in all, that there are few bicycles with as much style as an all-dressed Raleigh DL-1. If I go buy that derelict and refurbish it, it will be the perfect bicycle on which to accompany my soon-to-be-11-year-old daughter on short rides near my house. Dignity -- can't promise that.

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    13. Fitted with Riv/Nitto Dove bars I've had my DL-1 to 25mph on the flat, windless. Being paced I've done 28mph. 48x20 fixed. Big Apple 700-50. Efficiency can't be that bad.

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    14. My experience with Indian-made DL-1 cones suggests that the basic design is cloned, in terms of overall mission, geometry, and most of the details. However, the quality is NOT cloned at all; fit-n-finish is spotty, the frames seems to be made from lead pipes, and the hardware seems to be made of some kind of soft cheese. Of course, my experience is limited to about a dozen Hero Jet Golds I'd looked over very closely at the store, the best of these which I bought and rode/wrenched on sporadically for about a year, and casual observations of some roadsters I've seen in Phila. There may be some top-notch fake DL-1 bikes coming out of India, but I doubt it.

      -rob

      ps-also, from what i've observed, most of them are singlespeed. And the braking system is shaped the same, but the Indian john bulls are made mostly from stamped parts, while the Raleighs had some forged bits in their rod brake systems.

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    15. "28 mph" -- I've spun clones up to 30 drafting slow motor vehicles but it's not the most efficient bike for this sort of thing!

      "Indian-made DL-1 clones" -- doubtless you are right; don't know if those of 40 years ago were better in quality. They weren't top quality, that's for sure -- cut my wrenching teeth on them. But the overall geometry and design seems identical.

      See here for a limited edition 125th anniversary (I thought the design came from 1913?) http://dl-1.blogspot.com/ This leaves out as far as I am concerned all that makes the things nostalgically appealing such as the rod brakes and full chaincase. It's as if they made a Model T out of carbon fiber.

      Lastly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlmGknvr_Pg

      The relevant part is at about 4:50.

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    16. amazing old video, I disagree about the quality 40 years ago, my older (than 40 that is Raleigh is in way better shape anything made in the last 20 odd years seems to be in, and it hasn't been looked after..

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    17. An awful lot of what is perceived as inherent quality is work performed by shop mechanics or work performed by motivated and talented owners. There are bikes that do not deserve all the work. There are bikes that do deserve the work and die because they never get it. There are marginal bikes lavished with attention that are fun for a while. Any DL-1 needs a lot of work.

      My 28mph was paced by two pals on bikes. Either 28 or 30 is way too much for Raleigh rod brakes. Look at other rod brake systems with bushings and smooth guides and no slop and provision for handlebar adjustment and the Raleigh brakes will look less monumental and more like old cheap bad hardware. Kinda cute in its' way and I would not molest a DL-1 from the 50s or earlier. But they don't stop.

      The best bike is one that's used. Used without fear. Used on hills. Used in traffic.
      For that you need brakes. Good ones.

      If you just have to keep the marginal OEM brakes intact at least use a fixed gear. You'll have a chance. And lots of bikes would've been used as fixed back when.

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  2. Like you, I considered Achielle but could not find these bikes for sale in the US. The distributor was not very helpful. I have since moved to the hilly suburbs, but if I move back to the NYC next year this may be the bike for me. I will be making a b line for HUB to try it at least. Did they have any other colors and models or just these?

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    1. They might have, but I didn't see any. The shop is quite big and time was limited. But I am sure HUB can order any colour and component configuration you want from the distributor; Achielle seems to be all about that.

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  3. It is funny that you are still in love with Dutch bikes despite having sold yours. Why are you not in the market for one? You do seem to enjoy them.

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    1. I like many bikes and see merit in different types of bikes; I can't have them all : )

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  4. don't care for that matronly maroon, but otherwise the bike is gorgeous!

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  5. I think it;s great that you can appreciate different kinds of bikes for what they are. I know you are not interested in opening a bike shop... but if you were, I'd love to know which bikes you would stock in all the different categories!

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    1. Oh that's a yummy question. Of the options available today, I would probably stock Achielle, Retrovelo, the Paper Bicycle, Bella Ciao, Pashley, Bobbin, Brompton, Bakfiets, and the Rivendell Betty & Sam (set up for commuting)... I would then probably go out of business, because that is way too many brands to stock!

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    2. ...Oh and I would also sell refurbished vintage 3-speeds with modern wheelsets and brakes : )

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    3. Which would you say is faster, Retrovelo or Achielle?

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    4. After riding them casually I honestly can't tell. Would need to devise a controlled comparison. The handling is completely different.

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  6. SP? "clour" vs color (or colour? "body clour fenders"). No need to post comment

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    1. continental spelling?... : )

      (Thanks, fixed it)

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  7. I have ridden this bike (the exact same bike I think) and prefer it to Batavus and Workcycles. I have not tried a Gazelle yet.

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  8. I don't think the bike is expensive at all for what it is. Workcycles Omas cost $1,700 and they outsource frame production.

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    1. I agree that the Achielle is not expensive for what it is, but just want to point out that the Workcycles Omas at that price point have 8 speed hubs, a front brake, a full chaincase and dressguards. That stuff adds up. We need to compare apples to apples.

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    2. Even worse, the lugged Workcycles Omas use frames made by Achielle.

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    3. For which models? The frames with the unicrown forks are still made by Azor, are they not?

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    4. The Workcycles Omas are Azor frames, not Achielle. Azor is a Dutch company and all the frames are made in The Netherlands.

      I live in Amsterdam and have a Workcycles Oma and my wife has this Achielle (she commented below). Both are beautiful bikes with pros and cons. I like some of the extras that Workcycles adds like the lights with a hub generator and a few other nice details that are nicer than the Achielle. It is also a bit more of a work bike. Less beauty, more function. Overall the Achielle is a more beautiful bike. And both have a very different feel. If I had to choose one, I would be hard pressed to decide which I like more.

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  9. I'm curious about the spring that connects the downtube to the back of the fork crown. I first noticed one in your pictures of the fork crown on the Pilen Lyx, and this seems to be the same sort of thing, only with a rubber sleeve. What purpose do these serve? The only thing I imagine they'd do is provide some tension for straightening the wheels, but I doubt it makes much, if any difference, given the other forces involved.

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    1. On bikes with center stands and front fork-mounted racks these stabilizing springs are common so your front wheel doesn't flop around while you are loading/unloading stuff.

      On a properly-designed bike this doesn't affect steering feel much, if at all.

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  10. You say a front caliper brake could be fit, but note that with the steel rims, and the long caliper arms required, wet braking performance will be pretty bad.

    Concerning efficiency and posture, efficiency and resource optimization in general is an important consideration in the context of scarcity or of edge-seeking performance. Toodling along at 10 mph in a flat place no more than a few miles at a time (e.g., running errands within a Dutch city, or a mythic Manhattan) is so undemanding of a daily rider's metabolic resources that efficiency is beside the point. You might even argue that it would degrade the modest exercise value of riding to contrive to expend fewer calories per mile with a more aerodynamic posture. And it would be less comfortable.

    WorkCycles Azor-sourced bike frames are brazed in lots of places. Azor makes some, but mainly they do finish and assembly with the frames coming to them bare. As far as I've heard, frame models Kruis, Transport, Opa, and the Secret Service ones are brazed in Belgium (perhaps Achielle?). Model Oma is reportedly brazed in either Taiwan or the PRC, where a lot of other nice bikes come from. We note that the Oma frames are consistently straighter than the Belgian-brazed ones FWIW.

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    1. In wet conditions on a bike like this I use predominantly the coater brake anyway. I mostly just need the front brake for that extra umph when coming to a complete stop in traffic, to prevent the bike from rolling. I imagine you are reading this with horror, but remember I don't live in Portland. So while no front brake is unacceptable for me, a weak front brake is fine and even to be expected if the coaster brake is good. That's how the bike I ride in Austria is...

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    2. "Concerning efficiency and posture, efficiency and resource optimization in general is an important consideration in the context of scarcity or of edge-seeking performance."

      Or mileage, Mr. I Carry Surlys now.

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    3. yup, "edge seeking." any sort of riding where you expect to be pressing up against the limits of your resources, whether maximum speed or ultimate endurance, then efficiency matters a lot!

      lately i've fixed up my 90's road bike as a town bike. it did several years' time moldering in the basement, set up far too sportily for town use when every other trip involved child passengers, groceries etc. i admit that it's awfully pleasant to be back on a light supple steel frame, good old fussy derailleur technology, and light tires only 35mm wide after years of riding what were either tanks or bromptons. anyway this rediscovery has something to do with our decision to stock Surlys. GRJ, you seem to know me; do I know you?

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  11. We've had a few in-person Clever convos, all pleasant! I like your shop and staff very much, you guys are very generous with your knowledge and general helpfulness. Also have purchased a few things there and utilize the Brompton seat pin thingy on two bikes.

    Welcome back to the other side, though of course it is all good.

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  12. I wish the bike shops around here would sell such lovely bikes for me to drool over. We have your typical midwestern bores.

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  13. Series of photos of the Achielle workhop, with owner Jan Oosterlinck, his sons Tom and Peter and various workers:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/achielle/

    It's only a small company so can be forgiven for not being available worldwide.

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  14. I bought a steel blue, Achielle Craighton about 2 months ago. (Our family lives in Amsterdam at the moment.) I love it. It's completely gorgeous, and I love the ride. My husband has a WorkCycles Oma, and they feel so different. I could only find one local bike shop (even here!) that sells Achielle bikes- a lovely husband and wife team, but my buying experience with them was really pleasant. I was so happy to see this post- I've been hoping you'd write about these bikes! Anyway, I added a back rack, hand brakes, and a baby seat, but the bike still manages to look slender and elegant. And yes, it's heavy. The company posts pics on their tumblr, and they are yummy:) http://achielle.tumblr.com/

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  15. Thanks for your review. Glad you like our omafiets!
    Always loved your blog, but now even a bit more!

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  16. I bought a Achielle Sam a few weeks ago from Morgans Cycles in Sydney and had it shipped down to Melbourne. It's a truly lovely bike... my friend rides a Pashley Guvnor and they really complement each other well. I'm very happy with this bike:)

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  17. I was searching for information about Gazelle, found your blog, then this article. I scoured the Internet in search of an Achielle dealer in California and came up empty.

    I called "A Street Bike Named Desire" in Palo Alto California looking for pricing on a Workcycles Opa and got the good news that they were getting a shipment of Achielle bikes in March.

    Long story short, I ordered my Achielle Craighton Pure Opa in steel-gray from "City Bicycle Works" in Sacramento California.

    Thanks for helping me find my new bike! Dan is the guy to talk to in Palo Alto and Jess is they guy to talk to in Sacramento. The achielle-usa distributor is now defunct, but there is a distributor in Canada (http://onthefourth.com).

    http://www.astreetbikenameddesire.com
    Http://www.citybicycleworks.com

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  18. I found this post the same way FreeBSD4me did. And like him/her, I just ordered an Achielle Craighton Pure, an Oma for me in blue/gray.

    I worked with Dan at A Street Bike Named Desire. He was terrific and very patient in answering my every question about the bike.

    Mine looks like the same frame as the one reviewed here, but it will come with a rear rack, dyno hub, front and rear roller brakes, and a Nexus inter 8 IGH. $1700.

    I put down the deposit today. The bikes should come in sometime in mid-February. Can't wait!

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    1. Forgot to mention, Dan said it weighs 18 kg.

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  19. I got my Achielle today. I love it! Thanks to you and this blog and City Bicycle Works in Sacramento California!

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