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A good New Yorker Magazine article on biking with the Dutch provides good perspective on what biking in cities is all about:

Some interesting quotes:

...Why were the Dutch so much more comfortable on a street that I saw as filled with dangers? As with so many aspects of their society, it seemed to depend on subsuming the needs of the individual to the needs of the community. “If you are not able to anticipate what other people will do, you will have lots of small accidents, or near accidents,” Bot told me. “You must be communicating with your eyes to the other riders in the street. Your decisions must be based on what is best for the flow of traffic, not what is best for your trip in particular.....

....Think of it this way. Car drivers behave like a bunch of geese. They have the same distance from each other and fly at the same speed, and move almost in military formation.  Cyclists move like a swarm of sparrows,” he said. “There are thousands of them moving in chaos, but there are no collisions. They turn a little bit; they change their speed. You must do the same.”

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Riding in NL is not what most Americans think.  It's not like riding on their park path.  There's a lot going on.  Cars, trams, bikes, pedestrians all sharing streets. If you grew up riding a bike, and are used to busy urban environments, it's quite comfortable.  But if you expect to pedal along in your own little world, that's not how it is.  Few American bicycle riders have the skills to enjoy riding in NL.  It's not only the infrastructure that's different - it's also the skill set of the users.

This is great - thanks. 

I was  just  there.  Non-city riders will still be freaked  out as the  locals deftly cross  streets and avoid trams.However,  as noted in the comments here, 98% of the time they are on  a path, often  made  of beautiful brickwork,  that is essentially a PBL.  I had been  struck  by the  lack  of  spandex and wrote  this essay while I was there-

 She could easily be a grandmother, she is about my age, is wearing a stylish long coat over business attire and a thick two inch heel, and her blonde Dutch hair is a little airborne as she whizzes by on a bicycle.  I am sitting near the window of a café that overlooks the little street in front of the canal. It is rush hour, about 5:00 p.m. and she is part of a parade of well -dressed commuters heading home after doing whatever they do during the day.


A younger woman wearing a notable white tunic with a stripe going down the middle over a just above the knee skirt locks up her bike and sits next to the handsome man at the table just outside the window where Ellen and I are inside with our beverages and conversation.  I am flagging at paying attention to the conversation as my eyes keep returning to the window beguiled by the bicycles.  


I see another woman with a bakfiets, a Dutch station wagon that has the bicycle behind a long box on wheels. There are two children sitting inside the box and a third is perched on a seat that is somehow attached just in front of mom who, of course, is wearing a non-sporty, non-techy raincoat that is more like a mid-thigh swing coat or trench.  I imagine her taking this brood to the grocery market about a half kilometer from here and getting the little ducklings to line up while she buy what she will need to make them dinner and stick it in a bag she brought with her  and stick that in the box with the children. Mom shares the streets with the couple who ride on one bike. The girl sits side saddle on the rear rack while the boy peddles.


This afternoon I had gotten lost on my rented bike and passed a number of schools where I saw well- dressed older children biking home and chattering and giggling and being children. Most of them wore their school clothes but some of them looked like they might be going to practice some sport.  I wanted to confirm that I was more or less heading north, the direction I wanted, and asked a middle school looking girl wearing the type of well curated combat boots my daughter had worn when she was this age. The girl informed me that I was “more or less” doing so and she sped off while I checked my phone for confirmation of her advice.


The window of our apartment overlooks a canal and I can see the bicycles on the other side heading somewhere. There are helmetless, men and women who have all paid careful attention to their clothing before walking out their door to unlock their bike. They are all peddling somewhere regardless of the hour, whether I have looked out the window at day or night. It has become a game where every time I look out the window I will see at least one bike no matter what the hour and during daylight see a constant stream of bicycles, riders and outwear and will see a girl peddling hard with one hand on the bike and the other is holding a red umbrella that is keeping her sweater dry.


The Dutch seem to have a fetish for outerwear. The local climate demands it but the coats they wear are not just for the bike but for the tram, being afoot, being at work or being here at this café. Shunning bike gear, their need to cover is matched by the need to look like people and not like cyclists.  My sensible yellow waterproof breathable jacket that has served me well on bicycle tours and commutes through the streets of Chicago stands out as much as a Hard Rock Café or one of the zillion pot leaf t-shirts seen in tourist shops would as distinctly American.


I walked in to a store called Rainwear Couture today and tried on a few beautiful and well-engineered trenches that would keep me warm, dry and considerably less “bikey” if I worn on my cycle. I tried on the largest size they carry and it was just a little snug around my American middle. The sales person minced no words and told me how good it would look if I dropped two or three kilos. I did not buy the coat for a lot of reasons but it has me intrigued.


I am not staring at the pretty girls, well, not as much as I am staring at the assortment of bikes and at the variety of ways in which the riders, boys, girls, men, women and everything in between adorn themselves when they get on their bikes.


After being here over a week I have finally figured out that the Dutch have the bicycle so entrenched in their being that they are not biking, they are just going to work. To them biking is the same as breathing. It is essential to their existence. The bicycle is as much a fabric of the national identity as is  Rembrandt, Van Gogh, tulips or windmills As such, if they are the type to wear all black with combat boots that is how they will bike, if they wear a tailored suit or dress that is how they bike. If they show a bit more skin than you or I they will also do so on their bike.


Next week I will return to my city which calls itself a cycling city but is still one where cyclists are less prevalent and are set apart by their wardrobe, where octogenarians are not regularly riding bikes and where bicycles  are subservient to the motorized vehicles..


Sitting in the café by the canal in the city, I sip my beer with an ear on Ellen, an eye on the window.

I was in Amsterdam this Spring.  Here's my take:



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