Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Positive Thoughts About the Netherlands: On Yer Bike

My next positive thought about life in The Netherlands is that it must be one of the easiest countries in the world to cycle around. Unlike the British who have made a half-hearted attempt in some places to build cycle paths, the Dutch have really given cycling some thought to make getting out and about on a two-wheeler as easy as.. riding a bike!

The cycle path network in the Netherlands is extensive, stretching from one side of the country to the other in all directions. Cycle paths are well maintained, serviced by bike traffic lights and street lighting for a spot of night time riding (which is how many Dutch get home after a good night out - or in some cases how they end up spending the night in a hedge) and the signposting is excellent. Parking is also widely available for bikes, some paid and manned, other facilities are free to use, but it is better if you are of an optimistic disposition and emotionally unattached to your bike to use the latter.

Quite how the Dutch came to be such prolific cyclists is probably because the country is flat and cycling is free; we know how much the Dutch love "gratis".

And when I say prolific, I mean they ride their bikes on any and every occasion. My dad bought a pair of bikes back last year back in England because there was a special offer on - buy one, get one free - but they never actually made it out of his garage. This would never happen in the Netherlands. Firstly, I can't see an offer of "buy one, get one free" on bikes becoming reality here, and secondly the Dutch don't buy bikes to leave them in their sheds, garages or basements. They ride them.

They ride them to school, to do the groceries, to get to a play date, to visit family, to pick the kids up from nursery school, to walk the dog (beware - this is not for the faint-hearted and injury can occur) or just to get to a friend's place. They also use them for recreation - for sightseeing, exercise, or just because they can.

Bikes in the Netherlands are also used as a kind of shopping trolley-removal truck-car boot-beer carrier, which means everything can be transported on the front, back and side of a two-wheeler.
Two children fit easily on a bike; one in a special baby seat at the front and an older child in their own seat behind the saddle, and for good measure one may also be propped on the bag carrier at the very rear of the bike. None of them wear safety helmets. If you see a child (or adult for that matter) wearing a helmet whilst on a bike, you know they are not Dutch. They are an expat.

Sometimes the bag carrier is used for actually holding bags, usually filled with shopping. Beer crates are also common items to find on a Dutch bike, along with bunches of flowers and DIY items. Hoards of cyclists leave Praxis or Gamma (both popular DIY stores) with a mountain of wood, paint or tools, throw it all on their bike and cycle off to spruce up their home.

Not only do Dutch bikes carry anything and everything, they carry everyone: women who are 9 months pregnant , pensioners, small kids, fathers, mothers, suit wearing business men with briefcase, lovers (on two bikes but hand in hand) and teenagers.

Cycling for us expats however, is not so easy. Most of us were not born attached to a bike. Buying my first ‘Dutch” bike was in itself a lesson in local culture. I had not ridden a bike for more than a decade so trying the bikes out in front of the bike shop provided plenty of "gratis" entertainment for the shop owner. In a very typical Dutch display of bluntness, he made no attempt to hold his laughter at my shaky (and potentially life threatening) pedalling and steering. When my partner explained it had been a long time since my behind had met with a bike saddle, there was an audible gasp. Most Dutch children learn to cycle before they can walk and the aged Dutch pedal their way into the next life.

A couple of useful cycling links:
Cycle routes in the Netherlands
Get confident on a bike at Bike College and check out the expat program
Traffic rules for bikes (in Dutch)

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