Van Nicholas: 'Dutch Bike' Redefined
Over the winter holidays I hosted a rather unusual guest from overseas - a titanium Dutch bike. Van Nicholas is a small Netherlands-based manufacturer of titanium road, touring, mountain and cyclocross bicycles. A reader suggested I try a Van Nicholas after I reported enjoying other Ti bikes, and thanks to him a test ride was soon arranged. What made Van Nicholas particularly noteworthy, I was told, is that one of their models - the Amazon - made for a uniquely comfortable transportation bicycle, combining aspects of the workhorse utility bikes Holland is known for with the special properties of titanium. Add to that a couple of fancy features afforded by modern technology (a 14-speed Rohloff hub and a belt drive), and the Van Nicholas Amazon seemed very interesting indeed.
Based on my understanding of the sizing, I asked for a 54cm bike. The bikes are customizable, and so I also asked for it to be fitted with swept back handlebars, a leather saddle and flat pedals. The American distributor (EU Cycling Imports) sent the demo model to the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington MA, and they put the bicycle together for me. I took it home to test ride and brought it back two weeks later, after which the bike was returned to the distributor. It should be noted that the Ride Studio Cafe carries a certain local brand of titanium bicycles, which is technically a competitor of Van Nicholas. But this did not seem to bother anyone and the RSC displayed the Van Nicholas right on the sales floor along with the Seven bikes for customers to admire. It was a treat to see two different titanium brands side by side.
stem, seatpost and seat collar are also titanium, branded with Van Nicholas insignia.
The many braze-ons for cable routing keep the cables very neat, which is a good thing because there are lots of them thanks to the Rohloff hub. There are also braze-ons for racks, water bottle cage bosses, and everything else one would expect from a touring frame.
fork that comes with the bike is carbon fiber, labeled "VNT Elements" - a house brand I think. There are cantilever/v-brake bosses on it, which sort of horrifies me even though I know this is not uncommon nowadays (but how does the carbon fork withstand the force of the mighty v-brake?..).
Taking the bike on its maiden test ride, I headed straight for the hills of Lexington MA to test this hypothesis. And my hypothesis proved to be incorrect. I approached a long, unpleasant hill and was able to climb it at a leisurely pace by utilizing the 3rd and 2nd gears. I did not feel the bike's rear-heaviness whilst in motion and spun without getting out of breath or even especially exerting myself. If I lived in a seriously hilly area, I could travel to work like this in ordinary clothing without getting sweaty. Later I rode the bike to my art studio, which is also on top of a steep hill, and in 4th gear I did not feel this hill at all. The Rohloff hub is heavy and that has its drawbacks, but I found the range of gearing it provided to be very satisfactory and on par with my derailleur-geared bikes. I am wondering now to what extent the performance of the hub in this case had to do with its interaction with the titanium frame. On a heavier frame, would it still get me up the same hills? This question remains open, so please keep in mind that my experience with the Rohloff so far is limited to this specific bike.
It's been explained to me how Rohloff hubs work, and apparently it is like having an internal derailleur with a double crankset. So if I understand this correctly, there is a gear at which point the mechanism automatically switches not just between the internal rear cogs, but also from one internal chainring to another. A couple of owners of older model Rohloff hubs tell me that whatever gear this happens on can be problematic - either sticking or misfiring when one attempts to switch in or out of it. I tried to figure out which gear this was, and judging by the extra grunting/clicking I was hearing, it appeared to be the 6th gear - a gear I only used when going uphill. I made a point to switch in and out of it a few times and did not experience any problems in the course of my test rides. In general, neither the Rohloff hub nor the Gates belt drive gave me any trouble over the 55 miles I spent riding this bike through the hilly countryside and stop-and-go city traffic. The drivetrain was very quiet and sort of faded into the background.
saddle bag. There were also no provisions for dynamo lighting, and I used my own battery lights.
Freeload rack on the bike, so that I could transport packages and my laptop pannier. Aside from one ride done for the sole purpose of testing the bike on hills and over longer distances, I mostly rode the Van Nicholas for transportation, since that was the context in which I was testing it. Its proportions work well for this purpose. The long (456mm) chainstays allow for optimal pannier clearance; the relaxed head tube angle and long top tube prevent toe overlap with the front wheel. I wore my chunkiest winter boots to test ride the bike and there was not even a chance of toe overlap, which was great.
The handlebars, despite being somewhat swept back, are set very low and you can see that my position on the bike is rather aggressively leaned over. Ideally I would prefer handlebars that are not necessarily higher but more swept back. In other ways the bicycle fit me very well and at 5'7" I was happy with the 54cm frame size. The handling felt familiar and predictable. Not like a classic Dutch bike exactly, but like something I've ridden in the past. Maybe like a Ti version of my Rivendell, were it set up as an upright bike. For transportation cycling I like this type of handling very much.
several titanium bikes so far, so I don't think it would be out of line to speculate that the titanium plays a role here.
my own bike. I should note that Van Nicholas does make a ladies version of the Amazon, but I find the MTB step-through frame design unbearably ugly. Looks are not everything, but the welded titanium and the carbon fork already stretch the limits of my open-mindedness and I am only human. If they managed to make a more attractive step-through or mixte option however (like this please!), I would be in trouble and would desire this bicycle very badly. Offering a dynamo lighting package would also be a huge plus on a bicycle like this - whether it is used for touring or transportation.