Netherlands: The Bicycle

Though Amsterdam is often associated with its sexual promiscuity and liberal policies regarding recreational drug use, adventurer Nick Martens discovers that the city’s most stimulating feature is its bicycle culture.

My abiding memory of my ten-day stay in Amsterdam during the summer of 2005 has nothing to do with sex or drugs. It’s not a restaurant or a museum, and it’s not even seeing both Beck and Broken Social Scene in concert. No, what I remember, and savor, most about that trip is languorously exploring the city by bicycle–gliding up and down canal-side streets, popping into interesting little shops, and becoming effortlessly lost without a hint of panic. It dawned on me, after I had confirmed my place in an Amsterdam-bound study abroad program, that I had primarily chosen this city because it’s good for bikes, and I’m not exactly what you might call a cyclist.

(A note to those who doubt my sincerity vis-a-vis drugs: I assure you that marijuana is not any less common at an American liberal arts college than it is in Amsterdam. A student does not need to travel across a fucking ocean to get it.)

Obviously there was more to my reasoning than wanting to ride a bike around. It seemed to me that a society structured around the concept of cheap, human-powered individual transportation had figured something out. It was as if Amsterdam had a resonant frequency, tuned to the sound of pedaling, that hummed throughout its every citizen’s way of life. After riding around the city every day for a couple of weeks, I think I’ve come closer to pinpointing what makes this sound so enlivening.

I purchased my bicycle, as Consumer Reports generally advises, on the basis of a meaningless coincidence. I walked into a shop called Used Products, one of Amsterdam’s wonderfully literal businesses aimed at English-speaking tourists, and told the nearest employee that I was looking to spend less than 100 euros on a bicycle. Without moving or thinking, he shrugged towards the nearest bike.

“This one’s nice,” he said. I studied its rusty, charmingly retro finish while he elaborated his pitch. The rear tire was new, but it was equipped with an inadequate disc brake system. But I wasn’t listening. I’d just noticed the bike’s name: the Gazelle. Serendipity! That’s the same as my beloved Adidas sneakers! And, to put it over the top, the bike kind of matches the shoes.

I walked out the door with my glamourous Gazelle and a hefty chain lock for a grand total of 85 euros. Well, glamourous might not be the best word here. Aside from the aforementioned rust, the bike is at least 30 years old; the brakes are dangerously anemic; it won’t shift down while pedaling, the light generator, which draws power from the front wheel, is pathetic; the rear wheel lock fucking suc… you get the point. It’s not the best bike ever constructed.

The thing is, none of the legions of bikes in this city are much better. (Apocryphal statistic: there are more bikes in Amsterdam than people.) In fact, having any gears at all is considered a luxury. This is the first aspect of why I love the bicycle culture in Amsterdam and, more to the point, why I love Amsterdam because of its bicycle culture. Your bike is not a coveted and sacred object. It’s not a status symbol. It is, God bless it, a bike. The hip kids never buzz by on glistening wheels, lawyers never pass on imported frames with lacquered handlebars, and young graphic designers do not leap from overpasses in tight shorts and aerodynamic headgear. Everyone rides the same essentially crummy cruiser-style bikes because they’re cheap and they work. Even in bike-friendly communities stateside, enthusiasts become obsessed with the meaningless minutia of cycling equipment. Here, where the bicycle is simply a transportation mode–not an exercise device or an environmentalist statement–pragmatism rules.

Also, because transit is so dependent upon the bike, the entire city is designed to accommodate it. As a thought experiment, I decided one lazy Sunday to ride as far I could go before I lost the bike path. (Hat tip to Jeff for making me reconsider Eluvium’s Copia, an album I’d previously dismissed because its creator nearly crushed my and Kevin’s skulls with volume at a concert. It’s actually a beautiful record, perfect riding music.)

I ended up riding to the beach, to land’s end. I crossed two major bridges, a vast stretch of bafflingly empty land, and a developing town that may not have been Amsterdam anymore, and the whole way, I never left an official bike path. From my admittedly limited experience, it seems that anywhere a person could want to go in or around Amsterdam, she could get there on a bike. The city is completely flat, and even the notoriously dense city center is rife with bike lanes.

I can barely wrap my head around how obvious it is to consistently provide bikers with their own space on every major road. Drivers hate cyclists in other major cities because they compete for the same space on the road, a conflict in which everyone loses. Clearly not every city is as perfect a match for the bike as Amsterdam, but I decline to accept that Americans would shun such an efficient means of transportation if it was more convenient and less dangerous.

Finally, to slather some icing on the cake, the bike is also the fastest way to get around Amsterdam. Any time I’m involved in a group of bikers meeting a group of bus-riders, the bikers inevitably end up waiting around at our destination. But biking isn’t just faster than waiting for public transport, it’s also faster than a car.

Any car.

As I pull into the Athenaeum Bookstore on my Gazelle, I spot the back of a gleaming, piano-black Maserati. Desperately hoping it’s the flabbergastingly gorgeous new Gran Turismo, I hurry over to take a look. Before I can get out front though, the car takes off. I put aside my thirst for the latest New Yorker and engage pursuit. The Maz winds a disjointed path through deserted side-streets, never encountering traffic, but I stay close. I charge over speed bumps while the Maz must be especially wary of scraping its low nose. Though I occasionally breach speed-etiquette considerations, I stay on target, even after what feels like a few good minutes of hunting. The Maz is finally forced to wait to turn onto a main road, and I creep past.

It’s just the Coupe. Fuck.

At least I answered what, to me, had been until that point a burning question: Yes, in Amsterdam, it’s better to own a bike than a Maserati.

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Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.