America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
NewsSatiresFictionBooksFilmsEssays

 


 
 


Cycling in Amsterdam

When you think of Holland, the bicycle stands right up there with dikes, windmills, cheese and wooden shoes. It's very flat here of course, so hills are almost nowhere an issue. Many people in Holland travel to work by bicycle, including mayors, Prime Ministers, and even, it has been said, Queen Beatrix.

But every advantage has a disadvantage. If most of the Netherlands is flat as a pannenkoek, then instead of hills there is the wind to contend with. The wind, friend of cross-pollination and of the windmill, is the enemy of the cyclist. Cycling uphill is a solitary battle against a fixed, perhaps known, quantity. But cycling against the wind is to fight against another actor, one who seems to respond to your efforts to master him; who can knock you down; who can make you wonder why you are so stubborn as to keep cycling under such conditions.

Amsterdam presents special challenges for the cyclist, especially the congestion, which can be found not only in the bike lanes themselves, but also in the many other places people ride their bicycles: through streets, sidewalks, pedestrianized shopping streets, markets, and even through train stations. The cyclist is confronted with a permanent state of construction: construction signs (to be taken seriously or not), block-long detours over wobbly wooden boards that you pray will hold you, close-calls with dredging equipment, pile-drivers, or garbage trucks. Because the central canals don't have space for bike paths, you must bear as far right as possible, skirting the short iron poles that guard the sidewalks (the Amsterdammertjes), while endless cars, delivery trucks, white vans, and the Opstapper bus all pass you on your left, and you only hope that the driver is cautious, responsible and sober as he barrels past. Riding along the canals of Amsterdam, while joyous, is never without challenges to one's reflexes and courage. 

The novice cyclist is astonished by the audacity of the Amsterdammer, blithely ignoring red lights, cutting in front of cars, trams, police cars, other cyclists, and lowly pedestrians (voetgangers). Some people can easily manage to ride two (or even three) bicycles home, ill-gotten or otherwise. Others manage themselves plus two or more children on a rickety old bike that looks unworthy to hold anyone. I once saw a cyclist carrying literally the kitchen sink on the back of his bicycle. However, all cyclists assert their moral right to road. For truly it is more inconvenient for the cyclist to stop and dismount, than for the pedestrian to stop in his tracks, or the motorist to apply the brakes.

In any case, it's a matter of national policy to encourage cycling.  Thus, the many easements for the cyclist in Holland: the bike lanes, traffic lights bearing bicycle icons at busy intersections (even for the left turn (!)), bicycle racks everywhere (though never enough), and even bicycle subsidies at some companies. So cycling in Amsterdam can be glorious.

Oh yeah, I forgot about the rain.