Biking Abroad: A Dispatch from the Netherlands [From BA 43-300]

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"In Amsterdam, a bike falls into two categories: as nondescript as possible or a stand-out hit, a brawling clash of bright pink paint job with blue tiger stripes."

I had a very romantic view of Amsterdam. You know, the city with the canals and lights, the cozy cafés, the risqué women luring weary sailors into their rooms. And the bikes. It was to be the Promised Land of Bicycles, flowing with wheels and high-heel-clad feet stylishly pushing down on pedals, inviting me to join in with every downward push. The bikes would glide through the city like the life-giving water over which the bridges arched so gracefully.

Then I moved here, promptly getting lost in the tiny streets, and living in constant danger of dropping my keys or myself into a canal. Daily I ended up on foot in the bike lane, the guttural sound of Dutch ringing in my ears before I dove out of the way: “Kijk uit! Ga uit de weg of je komt terecht in het kanaal!”

There was certainly a flow, but not that of a peaceful river. It was more like a storm surge filled with debris. Bicycles were everywhere, bells clanging to get out of the way, shooting around each other with barely a nod for hand signals. The ones that weren’t barreling toward you were locked to a pole, rusting, bent, and forgotten.

In confusion and with an odd sense of guilt, I thought of my bike back in the States: apple-green drop frame, cork handlebars, leather saddle. My American bike, Madeleine—named after the shell-shaped cookies and Madeleine L’Engle—wouldn’t stand a chance in Amsterdam. She’d be gone in an instant, squirreled away for parts or else abused one drunken night only to end up in a watery grave.

In Amsterdam, a bike falls into two categories: as nondescript as possible or a stand-out hit, a brawling clash of bright pink paint job with blue tiger stripes. My Dutch bike had to blend in with the rusted horde. My Dutch bike went nameless. She bore a dull hue, a bent wheel, a plastic seat so cracked the gel oozed out and stuck to my pants in little clumps. I was constantly picking them off, lest I leave a sticky trail behind me.

As I test-wobbled my way through the city, I watched. I saw tandem bikes, mail bikes, pizza delivery bikes, bikes with one person, bikes with two persons, bikes with one big and two little persons, bikes with boxes in front, bikes with racks in back, folding bikes, heavy Dutch bikes, light sporty bikes, bikes with very old persons and bikes with very young persons, and even one person with two bikes, one empty beside him.

That was all in one afternoon.

Traffic is a chaotic dance, sometimes choreographed and sometimes lucky, of people taking chances, confident in their skills and your ability to stay out of their way. Eventually I realized that biking in the Netherlands isn’t glamorous, but it is supremely practical. It’s just the easiest way to get around: cars, trams, and feet all take time. But by bike you can zoom along the lanes and around the tourists (bell ringing), arriving at your favorite café in minutes. The bikes themselves are practical, too, rusty because they’ll most likely get stolen soon. But until then, they get you places, even with a bent wheel.

The secret to enjoying biking in Amsterdam? Just do it. Ride late at night, full of Dutch genever and Trappist beer, after an evening with some friends. Lights flickering off the water, the balmy evening wrapping around you, the canals winding under the bridges. Catch a ride on a rear rack, sidesaddle and holding on, whizzing down the lane. Put a bag over the cracked seat. It’s not pretty, but it’s practical—very Dutch indeed.

Though she remained nameless, my Amsterdammer bike was loyal, kind. She showed me her city—its canals and stately homes, the shops and cafés. Sometimes we even skipped town together, gliding through fields of cows and tulips, catching a sight of the quintessential windmill or two.

The bag I used for a seat cover only worked for so long, flecked with gold and slowly coming off onto my clothes, too. I never fixed the bent wheel, and the handlebar grip always popped off if I pulled too hard. But we had some good times, that Dutch bike and I.

Madeleine just wouldn’t understand. 

Evan P. Schneider