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The Bikes of Amsterdam

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering. Foreigners who visit Holland are often surprised by the omnipresence of bicycles and the almost deadly acrobatics performed on them. An American woman who lives here found this aspect of Dutch culture hard to master and wrote the following note:

The Stages of Dutch Bike-Riding Proficiency

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
  1. Learning to ride a bicycle at all
  2. Learning to ride it in public
  3. Learning to ride it in the only part of the country that ISN'T as flat as a pancake (optional, only applicable in Nijmegen or the extreme south of the country)
  4. Learning to ride the bicycle in traffic
  5. Learning to ride the bike in traffic while being passed by a semi/bus
  6. Learning to ride it while carrying groceries/talking on the cellphone and while being passed by a semi/bus
  7. Doing two or more of the above activities in the snow/ice
  8. Getting to the place where you aren't being passed by little old ladies and children

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering. If you master all eight stages, you'll be as close as is possible to riding your bike like a Dutchman/woman… though don't EVER expect to meet or exceed native cloggies in bicycle riding prowess.
[Christy Beall, 'Adventures in Kikkerland']

This is a bit exaggerated, but indeed, in the Dutch cities, one is quite helpless without a bicycle.

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Dutch word for bicycle is fiets, a word that may be derived from the sound fts that is sometimes used to express that something happens really fast. Imagine a nineteenth-century gentleman saying something like "I saw that vélocipède arriving and fts it had already passed along". The bicycle shown here is of a rather common type, called omafiets, "grandma-style bike" (its user is my friend Jolanda).

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
More loving expressions are karretje, "little chariot", and stalen ros, "iron horse". This is a vouwfiets, a bicycle that can be folded, which is easy when you have to commute to another town.

The common fiets has no gear and a simple back-pedalling break. Handbrakes and gears make a vehicle much more expensive, and are quite useless in the cities. On the other hand, if you live on the countryside, or want to make a tour out of town, gears are useful. Many people own two bikes.

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
Cycling is still the easiest and healthiest way to go to your work. Unfortunately, you need big locks to protect your bike. Many drug addicts earn their money by stealing and selling bicycles. Of course, by buying a stolen bike, people encourage the junkies, and most people who settle in Amsterdam say they will never buy a stolen bicycle. After their means of transport has been stolen for the fourth or fifth time, they will usually decide that they can better join than the fight the system.

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
Reportedly, the number of stolen bikes is diminishing every year, but the common wisdom is that people simply no longer bother to go to the police. One way to prevent theft is to put your bicycle somewhere inside, which means that you can nearly always find bikes in an Amsterdam staircase. This is the iron horse of one of my neighbors. Another solution is to paint it in an outrageous color, so that it will be hard to sell. (Still, someone took away my ugly orange bike.)

A problem is the increase of the number of cars. This has changed traffic, and new rules were necessary. They are very hard to maintain, because most Amsterdammers think that the police has no moral right to fine cyclists until they have been able to reduce the number of stolen bikes.

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
A related problem is that the traffic rules are designed for people who think whereas cycling is a process that is done subconsciously. A cyclist is in dynamic balance and moves his weight from left to right automatically, without thinking. When an experienced rider arrives on a busy crossing, he will concentrate on the most important, potentially deadly, objects: moving cars. This means that he will not focus on non-moving objects, like traffic lights. I have often heard people say that they find it easier to approach a red light than a green light, because they feel they can predict the movement of a moving car, but not of a car that is waiting until it can accelerate. This is also my experience. In other words, traffic regulations are somehow incompatible with the way people cycle.

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
To prevent theft, there are cycle racks. This one is in front of my home. The yellow "mountain bike" is owned by one of the visitors of a nearby gym; the pink-and-black omafiets is the property of the girl next-door. It was painted and decorated for a spoof of MTV's "Pimp My Ride" that was broadcasted earlier this year by a local station called AT5. The Dutch show was called "Freak Me Fiets".

Cycling in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
How much the Dutch like their bikes, can be shown by two anecdotes. In 1940-1945, the Germans occupied Holland and confiscated the bicycles. Until quite recently, when a Dutchman wanted to say that he was still angry because ot the occupation, he'd say Me fiets terug, "Give back my bike". Another story is about the American novelist Donna Tartt, who expressed her surprise that the Dutch cared so much about their bicycles, which were, after all, soulless objects. To which someone replied: "Who says bikes have no soul?" You may infer that I was very unhappy when the fork of my bike broke (left) - it's indeed as if I was hurt myself.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 8 April 2007
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