Office parties usually involve a couple of warm glasses of prosecco and a speech or two, so Tony Fretton was reluctant when a colleague at the University of Delft proposed a bike tour of Amsterdam for her leaving do. But soon the British architect found himself gingerly manoeuvring his way around the Dutch city’s streets. ‘I hadn’t been on a bicycle for a very long time,’ he recalls.
To his surprise, Fretton was quickly hooked. So much so that a week later, he bought a classic three-speed Giant bike and rode it from Chiswick to Piccadilly Circus. ‘That was my first taste of dicing with traffic,’ he says. But then he developed a problem with his knee and cycling became too difficult, leaving him feeling that he couldn’t ‘do this any more’.
It wasn’t too long before Fretton was back in the saddle, but this time with a little extra help. He researched electric bikes and came across VanMoof, a Dutch model that has a concealed battery, so that it looks like an ordinary bike. ‘It’s a great design, but also kind of scary because to turn it on and off you need your iPhone,’ Fretton says. It also boasts a nifty-sounding boost button, which allows its user to streak away from the traffic lights, leaving huffing Lycra-clad cyclists in their wake.
The safety feature that allows the bike to turn on automatically when in Bluetooth range of its user’s phone turned out to have a downside. ‘One day I did a load of shopping, got on the bike and realised that my phone battery was dead,’ Fretton explains. Luckily, despite the lack of electric power, he managed to manually pedal both bike and shopping safely home.
Getting on his bike has allowed Fretton to see the city in new ways. ‘Cycling is very liberating,’ he explains. ‘I’m geographically challenged, so I had to be an architect.’ It has also changed the way he configures space in his buildings. ‘When I designed the Camden Arts Centre, we didn’t put anything there for bicycles, but I wouldn’t make that mistake now.’
Design was always going to be a factor in Fretton choosing this particular bike, but he has taken his aesthetic appreciation up a notch by keeping his VanMoof in the living room. Occasionally he’ll even light up the room with the bike’s lights, much to his girlfriend’s amusement. Fretton chuckles, ‘She thinks it’s very romantic.’
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This story originally appeared appeared in Icon 190, the April 2019 issue, which also featured David Adjaye's memorials exhibition, a new look at the Festival of Britain and an interview with Elizabeth Diller.