The Dutch are crazy. For cycling. Type in ‘bikes’ and ‘Holland’ into Google and you’ll get more than 15 million hits. Then move over to the ‘Images’ tab and you’ll see why… Done it? Yeah, as I said, the Dutch are crazy for cycling. There are an estimated 700,000 bicycles in Amsterdam and each year 1 in 7 are stolen and 25,000 end up in the canals.
An online, free encylopedia (which shall remain nameless) has also informed me that 38% of all journeys in the city are made by bicycle. If you took ten minutes to stand and watch all the cyclists go by then you would quickly understand how this fact translates into reality. Mothers and fathers with two, sometimes three, children in the front; business men in suits; friends sitting on the back of others’ bikes; teenagers playing music from their iPhones; kids on their way to hockey practice; pensioners; out of breath tourists who have quickly realised how unfit they are – this is Amsterdam’s rush hour traffic.
Aside from being an incredibly convenient way to travel, bikes seem to be an outlet for creative expression; a symbol for who the rider is, or what they like. A good example is the bike pictured below: does the owner have anthomania or, perhaps, a large desire to attract bees?
For most English people, bikes are something you had as a child because you weren’t old enough to drive and cycling was faster than walking. Now they live their lives in their cars; relying on them to get to work, take children to school, run errands, go shopping, take day-trips, see friends and get home from the pub. Exactly the multi-faceted role which the bike inhabits over here. Except with a bike, you can drink and ride.
For me, the image which most typifies the Dutch obsession with bikes is one I often encounter on my weekly walks: a lycra-wearing pensioner on a racing bike flying past me. Every time it leaves me feeling out of breath and with the startling, shaming, realisation that they would easily beat me in a race. As would their grandchildren.
A word of warning: if you visit Amsterdam (and you should) then do not expect Dutch cyclists to be polite. Or even to obey the rules of the road and stop at a pedestrian crossing that’s displaying the green man. They have places to go, people to see. They will direct an angry, solid ringing of their bell at you but that doesn’t mean they have any intention of slowing down, or even swerving. Only today, a fellow pedestrian had the gall to be using a crossing at the very spot a swift cyclist was careering towards. I wasn’t surprised that a minor collision occurred but I wasn’t expecting the hearty ‘Sorry!’ which sounded from the offending cyclist. Perhaps I have judged them too harshly…