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Going Dutch: pedalling Amsterdam’s ubiquitous bikes

Holland (or to be more politically correct, The Netherlands) is famous for a many things … world-famous tulips, historical canals, gabled houses, wooden windmills, clog-making and, of course, Edam cheese. However what impressed me most during our stay in Amsterdam was the plethora of bicycles. There were bikes, bikes, bikes everywhere.

The bicycles of AmsterdamIn Amsterdam, the bicycle rules. It is the most popular mode of transportation for everyone. And what’s more few people wear protective helmets. The bicycle, it appears, has priority over cars, over buses and even over pedestrians. Eye contact, we noticed, was the most important factor. Beware he who steps in the path of a Dutch cyclist!

The most common Dutch bicycle is a solid, heavy but practical piece of machinery. Not all bikes are painted boring black. Many are spruced up with easily identifiable colours … bright orange, regal purple or luminous green. The typical Dutch bicycle boasts a chain guard, a mud flap, a skirt guard, a heavy-duty kick stand, dynamo-operated front and rear lights controlled by pedal power and often a tinkling bell. Of course, no cyclist ever leaves home without a sturdy security lock. In some cases, I think the lock was in fact the more valuable item! Many bikes have a back carrier. This is frequently laden with groceries or whatever the rider needs to transport. Even a friend can hitch a ride by perching side-saddle. Alternatively, he may choose to balance, feet dangling, on the cross-bar. The bicycles of AmsterdamThis seemed somewhat precarious to our unaccustomed eyes. However, most “hitchhikers” seemed totally relaxed and obviously just put their trust in the driver. We even saw one dad transporting his son who was standing erect with both feet firmly planted on the rear carrier. We watched spellbound as they negotiated the tram tracks and several corners without a care in the world. Some bikes have a basket (covered or otherwise) attached to a front carrier to hold a change of clothes, an obvious necessity in rainy weather, or to transport the family pet. These baskets may be adorned with a display of artificial flowers or the owner’s favourite mascot.

The Dutch bicycle is ridden by anyone … anywhere … at any time. One sees businessmen in tailored suits their briefcases slung over the handlebars and smartly dressed career women sporting high heels riding to work, mothers and fathers taking children to school, athletes riding to the sports ground, dedicated musicians pedaling to a practice session, teenagers with long hair flying in the wind en route to meet friends at a local hang-out. Anyone and everyone pedals in Amsterdam with no regard for age or ability.

Every youngster must surely become accustomed to riding in a bicycle child seat very early in life. In some instances, we saw a large wooden box attached to the front of the bike. Its use: transporting goods and/or children. One day we even saw three siblings crammed into such a specially-designed box! My heart went out in sympathy to the mother pushing that load. Luckily, Amsterdam is fairly flat, the only “hills” being over a bridge across one of the numerous canals.

Bicycles have long been a part of the Dutch culture. However, during the first oil crisis in 1973, the Dutch people and their politicians collectively decided to discourage car drivership and strongly promote the use of the bicycle. The concept quickly took hold and today more and more journeys are made powered by human energy. Cycling is by far the most efficient way to get around as car parks are expensive and many streets are closed to cars. Near Amsterdam Central Station, there is a secured bicycle park for over 9,000 bikes! We could hardly believe our eyes. It was a sea of bikes. And this is not nearly enough capacity. The city is proactively seeking to secure a location for a second storage garage. Throughout Amsterdam (and in many other parts of The Netherlands), there is a complex system of dedicated bike paths stained a rusty-brown to differentiate them from footpaths. Bike racks to lock up one’s two-wheeled friend are also plentiful. Of course, this is essential when over half a million residents are the proud owners of a bike.

One of Amsterdam's urban casualties

Bikes are popular with tourists, too, and many companies offer guided tours throughout the city. Cycling is a relatively safe pastime here in the “Venice of the North”. Even so we did notice that some bikes died an ignominious death and ended their lives wheels upward in the canal!

Go two-wheeling next time you visit Amsterdam … it’ll be a memorable experience. But be warned the cycle routes are busy. And trust me cycling Dutch-style can present a challenge for the neophyte!

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