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Taking their wheels to town

Two entrepreneurs spin into New England, betting it's serious about urban biking

Dan Sorger and Maria Salve, siting atop a conference bike at their new Somerville location, moved from southern Florida to be closer to their customers. Dan Sorger and Maria Salve, siting atop a conference bike at their new Somerville location, moved from southern Florida to be closer to their customers. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)
By Jennifer L. Schwartz
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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For years, Western European cities have embraced urban bicycle culture, encouraging professionals, cargo carriers, and child-toting moms to travel by pedal power.

In Somerville, Dan Sorger and Maria Salve, purveyors of Dutch-built bikes engineered for city riding , say Boston has become a test track for making biking a realistic form of alternative transportation in US cities, not just for spandex-clad road warriors but for everyone.

Last year, the co-owners of the Dutch Bicycle Company moved their business from southern Florida because so many of their customers lived in New England.

"People are smarter here," said Sorger. "Our customer base is educated and creative. The community here gets this concept."

Acknowledging the winter weather, potholes, and infamous drivers, Sorger said the challenges in Boston make it an ideal place to prove that biking is viable in a dense metropolis.

"If you can ride a bike here, you can ride a bike anywhere," he said, adding that he's seen a "huge commitment" from city government, the state Legislature, and advocacy organizations such as the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition , where he is a board member.

The Bicyclist Safety Bill, signed by Governor Deval Patrick in January , gives commuters more incentive to ride by legally defending bicycle rights, said Shane Jordan, MassBike's director of education and outreach.

"We're a European kind of city," he said. "There's been a huge spike of bikes on the road since last summer's gas prices, and people seem to be emphasizing comfort and style over speed."

Unlike comfort bikes, cruisers, and hybrids, city bikes come with an integrated lighting system, cargo racks, and parts that stand up to the elements. Cargo versions - used as delivery vehicles or child carriers - are built to the same standards.

Accordingly, the Dutch Bicycle Company is less bike shop and more bike dealership, with a front office and warehouse showroom.

"We think of ourselves as in the transportation business," said Salve.

Sorger and Salve think the masses are weary of urban riding because they haven't had access to urban-specific bicycles, which they say makes riding safer and more convenient.

This reporter - the owner of a road bike with brakes that fail at the mention of precipitation - tested a Gazelle city bike on slushy, broken-up pavement.

Thicker, grooved tires increased traction without the friction of a mountain bike. Disk brakes seemed undaunted by the snow. Fenders and mud flaps protected against grime, and an enclosed chain meant there was no need for rolled-up pants. An upright sitting position afforded better visibility, and the longer frame meant greater stability and less muscle fatigue.

Sorger compared a city bike to a Cadillac and a road bike to an aerodynamic sports car.

It's an apt analogy: City bikes are not built for speed or responsiveness, and they are heavy. The Gazelle weighs 46 pounds.

Adopting the Dutch riding style - and taking advantage of state bike law - means following traffic rules.

"Bicyclists and drivers need to know what to expect from one another," said Sorger.

"I don't think our infrastructure is the biggest issue. Because biking has been ignored for so many decades, there is a culture of hard-core lone wolves. It's the animosity and behavior between bikes and motor vehicles that needs to change."

Vanessa Allen , a 36-year-old Newton mother, is a casual bike rider who gets skittish in heavy traffic. She recently tested a cargo tricycle with a vision of biking to farmers markets, church, and playgroups with her young children in tow.

Allen said her biggest considerations were downpours, avoiding busy roads, parking the bike, and the $4,600 price tag. "It's hard to go up hills," she said. "I don't want to feel like I'm running a 5K to get to the grocery store. Can I really do this? And will I be comfortable enough using it to justify the price?" Though Allen said she'd be too scared to ride on Mass. Ave., she felt safer on the trike than on a two-wheeler.

"If you can ignore the attitude from drivers, then you'll be fine on any road," she said. "You have to have a strong personality to deal with the people who beep at you."

The bikes don't come cheap - they start at $999. The Dutch Bicycle Company is the only official US importer to supply these particular European brands.

The benefits of getting around via bicycle go beyond the ecological.

"It put me in a really good mood," said Allen, who bought the trike, although she also wants to buy an electrical assist for hills.

"I got my exercise in, I got one-on-one with my daughter, and I got some air. I felt like we had a connection to our environment, and that made me happy."

Jennifer L. Schwartz can be reached at jensch72@gmail.com.

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