I very rarely use my feet here in the Netherlands. My bionic transformation since arriving to the Utrecht has involved the acquisition of new limbs in the form of two wheels and a high nelly saddle. The upright position the traditional Dutch bicycle has also vastly improved my posture as I glide, shoulders back and head up along my new car free highway routes. I might be exaggerating in saying that I am now permanently attached to my bike, but it is rare that for a distance of over 20 metres, it is not with me. That’s cycling in the Netherlands for you.
Cycling in the Netherlands: Utrecht
Utrecht is famous for its bicycle culture and infrastructure. When friends and relatives visit I await them at the station with the required number of bicycles because I do believe that without such an aid, the city cannot be truly enjoyed.
Dutch cycling really lifted off in the early 1900’s and the country had the most amount per capita in Europe. Now in 2018, of Utrecht’s population of 345,000, one third arrives to the city centre by bicycle every day. And while the canal sides and shop fronts are littered with both well parked, and not so well parked bikes the real mass of these two-wheeled wonders are stored in multi story ‘bike parks’.
Believe it or not, Utrecht is home the biggest ‘bike park’ in the world with a 12,500 bike capacity at the central train station. I very regularly take advantage of this amenity, cruising along the lane parallel to the station, indicating left and wheeling down into the entrance of the bike park. Here one of several friendly elderly men will await you with a card machine. You scan the all round transport card, the OV and then continue into the labyrinth of bike lanes which span three floors.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t already lost my bike in the vastness of this facility after returning from a few beers with friends. It takes a good friend to volunteer to search the expansive possibility of spaces, when the clue you give them is limited to ‘I’m NEARLY sure it was somewhere on the first, no second floor’.
Simplicity is key
The story ended well however, as I still own the very same bike that I first purchased when I arrived to the Netherlands over twelve months ago. It cost me merely 60 euro from the very kind staff at Willemstraatbike. To this day they give me a small discount on bike rental for friends and they have been consistently the best quality service I’ve had in the city.
To think that for over 365 days this noble steed has served me, it is probably the best investment I have or will ever make. Unlike in my hometown, there is no social pressure to own a good bike. I thought that because it was so part of my every day that I would have wanted to invest silly money in a trendy fixie to express my (very cool and very individual) personality.
However, I came to understand that bicycles within a city are not to be of aesthetic appeal. While the old fashioned and cheap dutch bicycles are much more comfortable and flat cities do not require gears, the real golden rule is not to stand out and therefore be safe from theft.
I once heard a habitually boozy Erasmus student of sustainability say to me ‘yea dude, it’s like a circular economy’. I looked at him waiting to explain a complex theory of recyclable bike metal that he had learnt in the one class he might have attended this term. Instead, he continued saying that he had owned 5 bikes this year. He would drunkenly leave one outside a club and return several hours later to find it ‘lost’ or stolen. The next step was to proceed to buy a bike that had been stolen from another careless drunk student for a haggled price of 5/10 euro from a profiteering homeless character. Both members would leave the transaction happy. This practice indeed is very frowned upon here in the Netherlands, but it is worth laughing about if you think of the value placed on bikes. They are merely a transportation device and are quite interchangeable. Maybe for sentimental reasons I would see the theft of my bike as a loss, but really I would be quick to acquire a new one (legally don’t worry) and continue the cycle (pun intended)
Getting a ‘backy’
Final aspect of cycling I must say is worthy of a mention, is the infamous ‘backy’. Dutch people are just great at this art. If somebody attempts to jump on the back of my bicycle my wobbly steering takes about 20 metres to stabilise itself before after one kilometre my legs begin to tire. Here however I see people of all ages and attire (I have seen ball gowns and tuxedos) gracefully hop onto the back of their friend’s bikes and just as nonchalantly slide off at traffic lights all while chatting, on their phones or drinking a can of beer (which is now illegal and could result in a 95 euro fine!)
Similarly I see mothers with 2-3 children on their bikes, attached by extra seats or devices, all the while keeping an eye on the bike apprentice toddler who wobbles alongside them. I have acquired the personal skill of carrying an array of objects on a bike here, my experience thus far including a coat rail, a double bass, two suitcases, a bookshelf and a rather common one: another bike.
I remember growing up outside the Netherlands, the fear that parents had about letting their kids out on the road without a helmet or limiting them to cycle on the footpath. With the carefully planned lanes and slow, gear-less bikes here on the other hand, helmets are not considered.
I have made my love for bikes rather clear in this piece. I would miss it if I did not commence my day cycling with the inflow of bicycles along the Amsterdamstraatweg or waking up to hear the sound of the rattling of the old bikes on the cobble stoned streets below my window. That breezy cruise towards home at the end of the day as each rider converges or diverges with the path, flawlessly navigating the exit or entry with fellow cyclists until they reach their destination to enjoy the evening. Oh, and cycling to and from nights out, well that’s just a lot of fun, if you manage not to ‘lose’ your bike somewhere in between.
And as for the rain? A wise Dutch woman once told me; “Rain or shine, you are not made of sugar.”
What are your thoughts on cycling in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments!