In praise of granny bikes

For some reason, mountain bikes have become commoditised and ubiquitous in the UK. It doesn’t really make sense, because they aren’t especially well suited to any task except off-road cycling—and that’s something that, I am sure, only a minority of owners actually do. Most of the time, they are ridden on the road, where their knobbly tyres make pedalling much harder, while the lack of mudguards and chain protection sartorially endanger the rider. And who would ever need 21 gears?! Two or three is surely more than enough considering the versatility of human legs.

It wasn’t until I started using a mama-chari—granny bike—in Japan that I realised how much better they were for everyday use: slick tyres make pedalling effortless; a basket facilitates shopping; a low crossbar means it’s easier to get on and off. There are usually no gears at all: if they exist, they are of the reliable in-hub variety.

There’s a reason why this kind of vehicle predominates in places where cycles are widely used: it’s simply better suited to the task. The Japanese have the mama-chari, the Dutch the omafiets, and I’m sure that other cycling cities have their own version.

So why can’t we buy them in England any more? Apparently, everyone thinks mountain bikes are cooler. Perhaps they are. They look more rugged and manly and technological with their chunky tyres, oversized frames, and complete lack of practical features. Granny bikes seem risible by comparison, I suppose. I used to think so.

However, I now wanted one. I live close enough to work that a tube or bus is extravagant, but not quite close enough: the walk is still a chore. I decided that I wanted to cycle. I didn’t just need any cycle, either: I needed a city bike. A granny bike. I don’t care if people laugh at it: I’m old enough and confident enough that I don’t mind. I wanted something that was suited to the purpose, and I didn’t want to pay much for it. (By comparison, I paid ¥5,000—about £25—for my second-hand cycle when I lived in Osaka.)

With the clement skies and longer daylight of the summer months, I resolved to find a cycle. I visited second-hand cycle shops only to discover that they were challenging common sense with their prices (£150 for a rusty heap in its third or fourth decade of disrepair?!). I resolved myself to defeat.

In the local branch of French sport-hypermarché Decathlon, however, I finally found what I was looking for. Slick tyres, mudguards, built-in dynamo lights, step-through frame, and even a front basket. In case you were beginning to wonder, no, it’s not pink! It’s a sober navy and silver colour scheme. Alas, it has the less-reliable but common derailleur speed system, although with a restrained five speeds. At £100, it was acceptably priced (consider that it is over £20 for a week’s worth of Tube travel in our kleptocratic capital city). I bought it.

My new city bicycle

I’ve been using my new cycle almost daily for the past three weeks, and I’m very happy with it. Although it’s a slight hassle to drag it through the terraced house twice a day, it’s pretty secure in the back garden. It’s the same situation at work, too: the cycle parking is in an inner courtyard. It’s secure, but tricky to get through there. I’m getting better at that. The stand was set too short and it fell over the other day, denting the rear mudguard, but my panel-beating skills restored it to approximately the correct shape, after which I adjusted the stand to a better length.

Granny bikes are great. As well as being comfortable and practical, I suspect that they have a lower resale value and are therefore less enticing for thieves. Best of all for me, though, is the image. It communicates the message I want to project: exactly the opposite of the lycra-clad enthusiasts. This is the cycle as a regular means of transport, one that doesn’t require special attire or athletic prowess. Cycling for the common man—or granny.

Comments

  1. sarah

    Wrote at 2007-06-10 20:47 UTC using Internet Explorer 6.0 on Windows XP:

    Dear Paul,

    I’m sarah a student from The Netherlands.
    I am doing a project about the granny bikes and what the possibilities /problems are if you would import them to the UK. I came across your article/ site . My question is if you can or want to give short anwers on the following questions.
    – What will be the possibilities/ problems of importing grandmother bikes?
    – Are there any demand for grandmother bikes in the UK?
    – If i am going to put the grandmother bikes on the market in the UK what should i definatly take in consideration concerning the marketing?

    If you could give me answers to this questions, i will be grateful .

    thank you .

    Best regards,
    Sarah Dawody
  2. Sean

    Wrote at 2008-01-04 22:51 UTC using Firefox 2.0.0.11 on Windows XP:

    When I was growing up (Cheshire, UK), I didn’t realise there was an alternative to mountain bikes! Sure I’d seen city bikes; I considered them a relic from around the time my mum was growing up and never gave them any serious consideration.

    When I moved to Holland, I got myself an omafiets (I’ve since been told that what I have is just a “girl’s bike” but whatever…) and never looked back. A mountain bike is so uncomfortable to ride for long periods, hunching over to reach the handle-bars, constantly applying unergonomic forces through my wrists… madness!

    There is no doubt in my mind that the omafiets is a superior bike for most in the UK, but that doesn’t mean it’ll take off. People are unfortunately too stupid. If the government wants to protect them from themselves, they should encourage them to choose the omafiets. If I go back, I’m taking mine with me!

    Rock on!
  3. Wesley Westerhuis

    Wrote at 2008-02-19 12:31 UTC using Internet Explorer 6.0 on Windows 2000:

    Hi there,

    I am like others in the comment section a student from the netherlands and I too need to make an artical about the problems and oppertunities of importing grannybikes to the uk, I would appriciate it if you could send me your research information so I can make a marketing plan, if you want i can send it to you aswell when its done. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Best regards,

    Wesley W.
  4. Paul Battley

    Wrote at 2008-02-19 12:37 UTC using Firefox 2.0.0.12 on Mac OS X:

    Attention students from the Netherlands! I’m not going to do your homework for you.

    If you have a specific question, I’ll answer it, but I don’t have any ‘research information’ on importation or marketing.
  5. SnowSphere

    Wrote at 2009-03-24 21:44 UTC using Firefox 3.0.7 on Windows Vista:

    Ohiyo Poru san,

    Love your mama-chari article. In fact your writing and blog design are all rather kakoii.

    I also spent some time in Nippon (my blog: http://www.thefunkydrummer.blogspot.com/ ) – but I never had a mama-chari there.

    cheers

    Sam