Life from the Saddle of an Upright City Bicycle

How making the switch to a classically styled upright city bike can change your perspective and bring more joy to your ride.

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For more than two years now I have been happily riding an upright, step-through bicycle, also known as a city bike, or a Dutch-style bike. Prior to this, I could be found on a heavy mountain bike, complete with 21 speeds, shocks, and extremely straight handle bars. It was a good bike and it got the job done, but after spending years hunched forward and putting a lot of strain on my wrists, shoulders, and back, riding my bike was becoming less and less enjoyable. So, when I saw images of people riding upright on beautifully sleek bicycles on the Cycle Chic photo blogs around the world, making the switch was a no-brainer.

Living in an area where at least three-quarters of my fellow riders are on road bikes, hybrid commuters, and the occasional mountain bike, when I’m out on my city bike I tend to stand out. Even more so when I’m on a family ride, riding alongside my husband and daughter on their upright bikes. However, instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel more like I’m holding onto this big secret that has yet to be revealed to most people. That secret? Riding an upright bike is a pretty spectacular experience.

It happens almost every day that I’m out riding where someone, a friend or a complete stranger, will compliment me on my bike, most notably on its beauty. I enjoy the compliments when I’m out riding, but I can’t help wondering, “Why don’t more people choose to ride upright bicycles?” With all the adulation, one would think that there would be an increase in the number of people out there on city bikes. Still, I’m one of the few people I know who chooses to ride upright. Perhaps it’s just a lack of education about what upright bikes have to offer. So here it is, let me share with you the joy of riding a city bike, and why it just may be the bike for you!

My love for city bikes has only increased now that I’m the happy owner of a shiny, new, red Papillionaire Sommer. With a durable steel step-through frame and comfortable upright riding position, even though it weighs 31pounds (14 kg) and has 3 speeds, I find it easy to ride around, even along more hilly streets. Included on the Papillionaire are pretty standard features that are found on most practical city bikes, or should be: matching fenders, chainguard, and rear rack. These features keep me grease and mud free while also being easily adaptable to carrying groceries or anything else I pick up while on errands. A bonus feature that I have surprisingly appreciated is a sleek leather saddle. I thought at first that the saddle may be to small and thin for my taste, but I find it surprisingly comfortable and adds to the classic lines of my pretty little bike.

There really are many advantages to riding this classic style of bike, aside from being told that you look “like a photo” as you bike along (yes, this has happened to me). Most notably, for me, was the reduced strain I was placing on my body. As I mentioned, riding hunched forward on my mountain bike was doing a number on my back, shoulders, and wrists due to my weight being heavily dispersed forward. Almost as soon as I switched to an upright, I noticed how my back and wrist pain nearly disappeared and that I could ride much longer distances. All that would really hurt was my bottom after spending hours in the saddle. Instead of riding my bike being a chore, I love heading out for a day of riding, whether for errands or just enjoying a leisurely bike ride.

In addition to less bodily strain, I feel incredibly safe while riding around on a city bike. Because the nature of the bike is to sit upright, I can see everything around me easily without having to crane my neck around to check blind spots for passing bikes and cars, or checking for oncoming traffic at intersections. Not only can I can see more clearly, but sitting so straight means drivers can see me easily as well. Because I’m not leaned forward, I’m not hidden by parked cars as I come to an intersection, and it’s hugely comforting to know I’m that much more visible to those I share the road with. Along with being more visible, it’s a natural tendency on an upright bike to ride at a slightly slower pace. Due in part to my body position, the materials used to make city bikes, and that most max out around 7 speeds, it is unlikely that I’ll be racing from point A to point B at high speeds. This means I have time to see the traffic around me and react quickly to the erratic and unpredictable behavior from drivers, fellow cyclists, and pedestrians.

Outside of all the practical reasons to choose a city bike, there’s one really important reason why I choose to ride an upright bicycle. I have the bike I do because when I’m out on a ride, I want to fully experience the world around me. I want to see everything I can, which isn’t easy with a more leaned forward position on a bike. I have enjoyed impromptu rides with my husband and our children, and the sights I was privy to were such a great part of my day. From the beautiful skyline through the foggy clouds to the still water in the marinas, I am completely in awe of the beauty unfolding before me. I have my day brightened by many complete strangers smiling at me as I pass, making eye contact, and saying good morning as they go about their days. When riding my upright bike I feel connected to the people and the places I pass, and I would be remiss without those moments because I was hunched over on a bike focused only on the road ahead of me.

When all is said and done, the best bike for you is one that makes you happy and eager to get back on it for a ride. What I hope, though, is that I have given you a better understanding of why city bikes aren’t just for show, and could quite possibly be the bike you’ve been searching for all along. While the simple bicycle has evolved so much over time to meet the needs of the racer or the mountain biker, there is something to be said for this nearly unchanged early 20th century design. One meant for transportation, not just for recreation, and designed for civilized travel, dressed in even your Sunday best. I am personally very happy to see a resurgence of the city bike, and invite you to join me as I travel along at a leisurely pace, enjoying every aspect of my surroundings and the people I meet along the way!

Melissa Bruntlett lives in Vancouver, BC. When not riding around with her family and enjoying life by the ocean, she writes for her blog Velo Family Diaries. | @VeloFamilyYVR


  • Warren Huska

    I’ve ridden all sorts, and have arrived at this modern upright style. It’s not really retro, as it has 1) all controls at my fingertips 2) a full range of gears including hill-climbing / trailer-towing.
    I switched over since, as the rider in the article noted, I found decades of commuting was starting to numb my forearms – that’s no good. Aside from relief from RSI, I’d have to say it forces a different mental state – less aggressive, more survey-your-surroundings. I suppose I might be fractionally slower, but still pass all but the hardcore jersey-wearers, so whatevs. Commute takes no longer because streetlights.

  • Montréalaise

    Here in Montréal, there are a lot of upright urban bicycles, old and new. I have a Raleigh Sprite mixte, and while I love her, when I find one I can afford in good condition, I’d like to get a bicycle like yours with an even lower step-in, as I have arthritis and mounting and dismounting can be problematic when I experience stiffness (cycling is very good exercise for arthritics).

    My Sprite has 6 speeds, and one is a very easy one called a “granny gear”, which solves the hill problem as much as anything can, except an electric-assist bike.

    I almost always cycle in a skirt (with very warm tights when it is cold) and have never been happy with mountain bicycles; the angle is just wrong for me. I have panniers bought at HEMA (a cheap general-goods shop) in the Netherlands; I leave them on all the time; they cost about 10 €.

  • Ian...

    …it’s worth considering that the first safety bikes that were pedalled record breaking distances back in the days before tarmac were basically what we all relate to as an upright city bike.

  • Ian...

    I have owned a heavy Dutchbike for several years now & rate it for far more than City use. It has done several camping trips loaded to the hilt and even goes off the beaten track once in a while – for slow riding off road the riding position offers superior control & the bike keeps its rider much cleaner than an Mtb. It’s hilly where I live but riding up them is only a problem with loaded panniers – for that reason I bought a ladies framed model for easy dismounts to get off & push. As useful bicycles go, they take some beating.

  • PerthGirl in Melbs

    I’ve been riding my city bike in Melbourne for just over a year now and I’m always looking for excuses to go for a ride. I have a short commute on weekdays (6 kms each way). I love the upright position, and I feel so much more connected to my environment this way. And I wear street clothes. And there’s a crate on the back!

  • Jame

    I have an upright bike, and it actually eliminated my beefs with “biking for transportation.” I wanted to wear normal clothes and not worry about getting greasy. I had no idea these bikes even existed till one fell in my lap.

    There needs to be better marketing around the types of bikes and their uses. Many bike fence sitters, like me, would have jumped on the utility bandwagon a long time ago if I was aware an upright was an option.

  • Jess Mathews

    Great article. I never thought about the safety aspect when you state that you feel safer b/c you’re more upright. Great comment. Also, I wonder, if the reason why more people aren’t riding wonerful uprights are b/c of the fact that you’re going slower. Meaning, many of us live in cities where bicycle infrastructure is either non-existent or not adequate for us to ‘leisurely’ ride at OUR speeds. For me, no matter how leisurely I ride, I am always riding faster than I know I would, say if I were riding in a protected bike lane. I am constantly feeling obligated to speed. I hope one day, I won’t have to feel that way.

  • scooter

    whatever you ride more power to you! Just remember a city bike isn’t the answer for everybody’s commute or utility biking. Riding an ill-fitting bike meant for riding off road is not a good idea, and I find the hybrids and mountain bikes set up for street riding work better than the heavy city bike. I like more than 7 speeds and my touring bike provides nice low gears for climbing hills and great brakes. It’s comfortable to ride, I see around me very well. It didn’t come with racks or fenders, but there are plenty of options to mount them, and sometimes I just prefer a backpack. I see people straining on an upright bike to pedal up a hill and it doesn’t make me want to go out and get one.

  • Melissa N.

    I changed out the drop bars on my old racer for handle bars that let me sit upright six months ago, and also immediately noticed the difference. I enjoy riding my bike so much more now. I think it cost me under $30 to do at Our Community Bikes.

  • John Fortier

    YES. Riding in Smile!

  • Amber

    what a great article! I’ve been looking for the beautiful bike. Thanks so much for writing up this article!!

  • Bex

    I bought my Dutch bike last year, and I love it. On my old mountain bike, my back hurt every time I rode. Now that I don’t lean forward, I’m much more comfortable.

    However, I find the trade-off is lessened power. I pedal slowwwwwly now. Yes, the bike is heavier, but it also seems to have to do with the angle of my legs–I just can’t mash as hard. Have you found this to be the case, too?

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