If you read the previous post, then you have been waiting with increasing excitement to learn of our adventures in Amsterdam. Wait no further, kind reader!
I’ve read a great deal about the cycling culture in Amsterdam. There is no doubt that the city has made a major effort to accommodate cyclists and this has paid off handsomely. Today, there are more bicycles in Amsterdam than there are people. I recently had the opportunity to see the city up close as we spent a weekend there prior to embarking on a Rhine River cruise.
Many people speak very highly of the cycling culture in Amsterdam. Below is a typical description from Pete Jordan:
“The Dutch life is beautifully attuned to the deliberate pace of bicycle riding. It has the same calm and slow rhythm which allows the Hollander time off for coffee in the middle of the morning, for tea in the afternoon, and tea again in the evening. . . . To a Dutchman a bicycle becomes a matter of individual expression, almost a part of the body, controlled subconsciously and leaving him free to meditation.”
Sounds idyllic. A contrasting view is offered by Terry Pratchett:
“My experience in Amsterdam is that cyclists ride where the hell they like and aim in a state of rage at all pedestrians while ringing their bell loudly, the concept of avoiding people being foreign to them.”
So which is it? A cycling utopia or a “Mad Max meets The Tour de France” nuthouse? In my experience, it was a little bit of both.
Bicycles truly are almost everywhere in Amsterdam. Many of them are being ridden. Others are parked outside of homes, chained to rails. Near major intersections, they gather in large heaps – scores of them all tangled together. One wonders how their owners ever find them. Occasionally some brightly colored tape suggests an owner’s solution that that particular problem.
Below is a more dramatic solution to the bike identification issue:
Then there’s the central train station:
There were thousands of bicycles here. A great many never moved for the three days we were there. It seemed most of them just sat in this sea of wheels, chains, and rotting bicycle seats. More than one tour guide mentioned that the city finds it necessary to dredge its iconic canals annually to pull up bikes that have been dumped there. Are there more bikes than people in Amsterdam? Almost certainly. Sadly, it would seem that a very large number of them have been abandoned.
While many bikes go without owners, a huge amount are very much in use. There is a steady stream of cyclists going about their business. It is rare when you can’t see one somewhere. Of note, helmets are almost unheard of, as are cycling-specific clothes. Every possible type of person of all ages, genders, and walks of life are simply hopping on bicycles and going about their business. Their behaviors mimicked car drivers elsewhere. Some were attentive. Others not quite so much. Some were on their phones as they pedaled. Some were smoking. Men in Italian loafers pedaled next to women in dresses. One lady pulled a brush out of her purse and combed her hair at a red light. There was a little bit of everything.
The bicycles themselves were decidedly low-key. They were built for practicality – not speed. Since many bikes are left outdoors, high-end components and carbon were not common. A simple flat bar cruiser bike was the option for the great majority of people. However, some bikes were built for a specific purpose, such as carrying your kids or hauling groceries and other bulky objects.
In an effort to not be too creepy, I refrained from taking pics of people as they pedaled past me, but I did sneak this pic of a typical scene – about 10 cyclists stopped at a red light. You’ll note the special “highway” they are on, complete with its own traffic lights.
So what’s it like to actually cycle the streets? We thought we’d give it a shot and signed up for a three hour cycling tour of the city.
The tour gave us the bikes pictured at the top of this post. They were typical of the type used in Amsterdam – three speeds, disc brakes, with a chain guard, fenders, and a rack for carrying medium-sized packages or bags. They were in excellent condition and almost brand new. After a quick safety brief, we were off and riding!
The tour was a blast. Our guide was very informative and funny. He took us along canal-lined streets and into some of the oldest parts of the city, where he explained sites such as the original headquarters for the Dutch West Indies Company and how it brought incredible wealth to the city. He explained how centuries-old warehouses were converted into posh apartments. I find its always best to get a tour when in a new place and this ride was no exception.
But here’s what a tour guide cannot easily explain to a stranger who has been in the city less than six hours – all of the road signs, customs, habits, and subtle signals to look out for when pedalling in a major urban center. It’s important to remember that the cyclists in Amsterdam behave much like car drivers elsewhere. They aren’t out there for fun; they’re trying to get somewhere and you spazzing about while being a tourist can be annoying. If you don’t pick up on their hand signals, or simply forget to pay attention because you’re staring at a 16th Century warehouse, or fail to understand a street light, you’re going to cause a hiccup in the great ballet of cyclists and cars. This is undoubtedly what happened to Mr. Pratchett and what led to his views at the top of the post.
So did any of the negative stuff happen to me? A little. Was it a bit confusing at times? A little. Would I do it again? Absolutely. And having a tour guide to pick the best streets and navigate certainly helped!