I swerved when I first saw it. I had just turned into my street with my bicycle loaded down with groceries when I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. I did an about turn to check that my eyes had not deceived me. Yes, there stood a splendid example of Dutch practicality meets cycling style: a bakfiets. Delighted by the arrival of this fine iron steed in our street, I had to get off and inspect it up close.
Propped up on its sturdy foot the Dutch beast stood full of self-assurance on the pavement outside a four-storey Victorian home. Its tyres are slightly smaller and thicker than those of the average bike and its saddle was covered in blue and white oilcloth. Jutting out in front of the handle bar where the front wheel would normally have been was a large plywood crate, about the size of two toddlers.
I first came across the bakfiets when I started visiting Amsterdam years ago and instantly fell in love with it. It sums up the healthy Dutch pragmatism and restraint I admire so much. It is also the natural product of a country that is as flat as a pancake and where cycling is in the blood. And in a city like Amsterdam with its narrow streets, tiny pavements and general lack of parking spaces, the bakfiets is an efficient set of wheels for the school run and grocery shopping.
The arrival of this Dutch specimen means there is now another bicycle with attitude on my street, as well as my beloved Pashley. My English iron lady joined me on my temporary return from Paris and stands proudly on our front patch, when she is not out and about with me of course.
The bakfiets’ appearance has also caused me to review and reaffirm my plans for our family wheels. The elegant Pashley with her practical wicker basket and carrier above the rear wheel is perfect for grocery shopping and getting around in south and central London. I can even put her on the train or the riverboat for day trips further north or west in Greater London. However, as much as I enjoy going about my daily business with this fine lady, her carrying capacity is a little limited. Plans are therefore afoot for an addition.
The obvious solution would be a small car but Mr M and I take an almost perverse delight in our status as a car-free household. We are not only car-free, neither of us holds a licence that would actually allow us to drive one. My husband is happy to limit his driving aspirations to his little motorbike – affectionately known as Dolce Nante. In the same vein, my plans for the family wheels are dependent on me passing the motorbike test.
In moments of jest we considered getting a more powerful motorbike – like a Triumph Bonneville – and ordering a custom-built sidecar. Such a handsome pair would not only make the trip to the garden centre a little less of an ordeal; it would also allow us to make forays beyond the M25. I can already picture my husband driving down A-roads through Kent or East Sussex with me in the sidecar, off to a “pick your own” fruit farm for a day or a seafood meal on the coast. Mr M likens this image to a real-life Wallace and Gromit – which would, I supposed, make me a dog – but I am thinking more Kenneth More and Kay Kendal in an eccentric variation on the classic film Genevieve.
No matter how attractive a retro motorbike and sidecar would be, in terms of cost and energy efficiency you can hardly beat the Ape Panel Van for moving one body and a small load around town! This nifty little Italian tricycle may be no more than a Vespa with a metal box mounted on the back and an extra wheel but it ticks all the practical boxes that the bakfiets does, and more. As it is motorised, it would allow me to cover greater distances with a small load. And as tricycles are classified with scooters, it can be driven on a motorbike or scooter licence, and is also taxed and insured as such. Additionally, due to its scooter status, it is exempt from the congestion charge – a not insignificant levy payable each day a driver of most types of vehicles travels into central London – and does not require a residence permit for parking in Greenwich. And it does all this with Italian style and flair!
The Ape Panel Van (whether the smaller Ape 50 Panel Van or the larger Ape TM Panel Van) cuts such a fine figure that it has great marketing potential too. And, as well as being a convenient set of wheels and a moving billboard, this nifty tricycle could also function as the transport and premises for the London operations of a new venture. I am not sure though what Mr M would make of a small Ape 50 Panel Van sprayed in mint green!