Stuff you do in Amsterdam — acquire a bike. I say acquire because it connotes the possibility of multiple ways in which to take possession of a pushbike in Amsterdam. Owning one is like a rite of passage here. Even the adult princes and princesses of the Dutch royal family once pedalled to school just like the commoners. There is a bike for everyone across the country. That equates to almost 20 million.

There are multi-storey bike parking stations at major transport hubs: commuters ride to the train station before continuing their journey to work. In fact, 30% of all weekday commuter travel is pedal powered. This compares to less than 2% in the UK and the United States, and I’d guess even less in Australia.

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The Dutch parliament house in The Hague even has its own bike repair workshop and there once was a Professor of Bicycling at a Dutch university.

This bicycling culture is helped by the country being as flat as a snooker table. The only stretch of elevated land is the continually topped-up system of dykes that stop rising sea levels from swamping most of the country. Oh, and the little bridge on the corner of Brouwersgracht and Prinsengracht [canals] has a deceptive incline that sometimes forces elderly and laden cyclists to dismount and push their bikes over the crest.

So, one of the first things expats, international students or lingering tourists do is get a bike. Several retailers offer deals whereby you enjoy a 10% discount for a second-hand cycle with the promise from the retailer to buy back the bike for up to 50% of the purchase price. There is also a guerrilla army of Robin Hood types who find abandoned bikes, return in the dead of night with bolt cutters or an oxy torch and recycle them at very competitive prices. Their services are posted on university notice boards, the back of public toilet doors and light posts.

No matter what method you use to acquire a bike, the uninitiated will always have a few questions:

  • “What’s the right size and colour for me?”
  • “Does my bum look big on this?”
  • “Where does the bidon fit?”

Fortunately, the Dutch have overcome these quandaries. Just about every bike is the same size and shape; you just adjust the seat or handlebar height. And no one carries a bidon — if you must have water, pack a bottle in your saddlebags. Or stop at a café. As for colours, there’s only one: black. This way it goes with whatever you’re wearing. It is an upright conveyance with raised handlebars. The eponymous Gazelle brand name is a misnomer; these cast-iron machines are as solid as a Sherman tank. The little tweeting ping of the bell to indicate you’re overtaking is just part of the city’s signature soundtrack.

This homogenisation of the Dutch bicycle, therefore, takes a lot of the guesswork out of the buying quandary. Conversely, it becomes quite a guessing game when you go to retrieve your bike from the hundreds that litter most pavements most days looking like clumped nests of metal ants. That’s why you see some ingenious and creative identification solutions. Plastic ivy wound around the frame is particularly popular at the moment. Unless you plan on marrying a local, this is to be avoided by temporary visitors as recognising your ivy from the next takes years of training.

Once you’ve selected your bike, the next challenge is getting your confidence on the road. Again, the Dutch have sorted this out. Apart from the massive infrastructure budget to develop and maintain a vast network of cycle ways, the first rule of the road here is that there aren’t any: even when riding the wrong way up a one-way street in the early hours of an icy-cold morning without a light and battling a blood alcohol limit the equal of your metric shoe size, the cyclist is always in the right. Motorists are aware of this and take necessary measures. However, on the very off chance you get nabbed by the police for RUI, you’ll actually lose your car licence for a very long time.

I cannot tell you how liberating it is to run your first red light (traffic, that is) or plough through an intersection at speed without so much as a sideways glance. You feel as free as a, well, a gazelle! Everyone else on a bike does it, so you may as well too. And yet there are never any accidents.

Finally, depending on your length of stay in Amsterdam, there are unwritten levels of rider proficiency to which to aspire. Cycling with no hands, talking on your phone, even texting can all be achieved on two wheels. But the gold medal goes to those who can perform all three simultaneously while also smoking and bopping to the beat of whatever’s echoing through their headphones. I’ve seen it. It is multi-tasking symmetry in motion, Dutch style. It is a joy to behold.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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