Cycling In The Land Of Cyclists

The eighteen million residents of Holland own, in total, more than twenty-two million bicycles. Photograph by Martin Parr / Magnum

Whether or not you are a cyclist (as I am), whether or not you have cyclist friends in Holland (as I do), you may appreciate the experience of this writer as much as one of my Dutch cycling friends did (he read it yesterday while on a cycling vacation in Russia and gave it an enthusiastic two thumbs up):

How I Learned to Cycle Like a Dutchman

In the bike-friendly Netherlands, cyclists speed down the road without fearing cars. For an American, the prospect is thrilling—and terrifying.

Where are our helmets?” my daughter Harper asked. We were standing outside a cycle shop in the Dutch city of Delft, along with Harper’s older sister, Lyra, and my wife, Alia.

“We didn’t buy any,” I replied. Along the dark green Wijnhaven canal, confident Dutchmen and Dutchwomen whizzed around, their blond heads exposed to the soft northern sun. “In the Netherlands, only tourists wear helmets.”

“What if we get in a crash?” Lyra asked.

“We won’t,” I said. “O.K., now, let’s line up—oop!” A Dutchman in a sleek blue suit, riding a sleek blue bike, was swerving around me from the south. Another rider, approaching from the north, rang her bell to remind me that I was blocking traffic. “Everyone, get on,” I commanded, but nobody did. Small traffic jams were developing on either side of our uncertain foursome. “Let’s maybe walk our bikes to a less busy street,” I said. We wheeled our way across a bridge into the Markt square, where the primary obstacle was an Italian tour group.

It was April of 2017. We were to live in Delft for three months, and our canalside apartment, on a street named Hippolytusbuurt, was within riding distance of the grocery, the bakery, the girls’ school, the library, the ikea. Back home, in Virginia, our lives had been a blur of traffic, from drop-offs at soccer practice to hectic commutes. While our family was in Holland, Alia and I decided, we would take a break from driving cars. Cycling was the norm in the Netherlands, and fulfilled the dream of every American rider who wished she could rule the road. It was a country with more bikes than people, and we were eager to slip into the two-wheeled flow.

At the cycle shop, we’d bought used bikes for the adults and new but cheap ones for the kids. In the Dutch style, they weren’t mountain or racing bikes but city cruisers, meant to be ridden perfectly upright, your back as straight as a marching soldier’s. An employee had attached brightly colored milk crates to the back of each bike, so that we could carry baguettes, or whatever. I secured an agreement from the manager that he would buy back the bikes upon our departure, that July. I’d have been satisfied with a handshake, but the manager, being Dutch, had drafted a three-sentence contract, which we both signed in duplicate.

Alia took out her phone, opened Google Maps, and pointed to a lake just east of the city. “I thought we could ride out here and see what we see,” she said.

“Can we get a snack?” Harper asked.

“I am sure we will get a snack.”

And so we set off, with varying levels of feigned confidence, down the brick streets of Delft, the uneven surface making our wheels jostle. Every few turns of the pedals, I’d ride past a single brick that was painted the elegant blue-and-white of Delftware. As we crossed a canal on a high stone bridge, four boys zoomed past, each with a girlfriend perched sidesaddle atop his back wheel; they were followed, like a punch line, by a girl, pedalling hard, with a boyfriend sitting pertly atop hers.

We rode past the Oude Kerk, whose steeple, from the fourteenth century, leans at a pitch greater than that of Pisa’s tower. To our right was a wall of narrow three- and four-story apartment buildings, each with a business on the ground floor. To our left was the seven-hundred-year-old Oude Delft canal, its still surface covered with lily pads and floating trash. There was no protective guardrail or fence, not even a curb—just an unnerving, cliff-like drop. I kept imagining myself zooming off the edge, “Thelma & Louise”–style, and into the dark water…

Read the whole story here.

2 thoughts on “Cycling In The Land Of Cyclists

  1. Hello.

    Excellent post. I enjoyed it very much. In my country everyone bikes, but we do not talk about, because it is as natural as learning to swim. We bike in winter, in cold weather, in snow and on ice. Here is my latest winter biking post with links to two previous:

    Winter biking 3

    Welcome to have a winter biking experience!

    Happy and safe travels!

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