Exploring Amsterdam and Dutch culture on a bike

By CECILIA VORFELD | September 27, 2018

bWlrZQ==/ CC BY 2.0 Amsterdam has an estimated 881,000 bikes, more than its population.

As anyone who knows anything about the Dutch will know, they are obsessed with cycling. It’s not too surprising though, when you think of how small the Netherlands is (around 42,000 square kilometers or twice the size of New Jersey) and how flat. When the steepest incline you have to ascend is just a canal bridge, you quickly realize that cycling seems like the most logical mode of transport. Tour guides always like to ask the trick question to tourists about how many bikes they think there are in Amsterdam. They might give a hint that the population is a little over 830,000. Can you guess? 

By looking at the number of bikes chained up to every single possible post, seeing the bike racks around town always full to the brim or counting the many times you’ve almost been run over by a local on their bike, you might be able to guess that there are a whopping 881,000 bikes estimated to be in Amsterdam. Pretty crazy. I’m told there are more bikes than there are people because lots of people have different bikes for different purposes. You may own a sports bike, another bike to transport yourself and your children in their variety of sitting positions, and an everyday bike for errands and riding to work. Many Dutch parents like having their ”mum” or “dad” bike, with all its shopping and children-carrying capacities. However, they also have their “going-out” bike when they go clubbing and join the other party-goers in the streets of Amsterdam for a fun night out. Having a baby seat on the front of your bike might slightly cramp your style, just a little. 

These parent bikers are the most fearsome of the Amsterdam bikers. You know how you were always taught as a child not to go near animals when they were caring for their newborns or young? That’s how I feel about these cyclists. One wrong move, getting a little too close on the narrow cycle paths, breaking a little too late behind them or, even worse, breaking in front of them too soon, and you are guaranteed a talking-to.

The Dutch have no problem expressing their opinions, be they good or bad, in any situation, especially if it’s not wholly necessary. These parent bikers certainly feel it is very necessary to educate you about what you were doing wrong, how wrong it was and most of all, the danger you were putting them and their children, their precious cargo, in. They’ll automatically go into English for you, assuming such a mistake on a bike must have been made by a tourist. If it were a local making this disgraceful mistake, the parent biker would swiftly get a snarky comeback in the same harsh sounding Dutch.

The locals are not afraid to have their opinions be heard, as I said earlier, but this is a two-way street, all happening while still cycling of course. I, on the other hand, complete the touristic stereotype of simply apologizing profusely. I am still working on trying to act like a local in that respect. Having a sparkling new bike with its bright blue front tire, showing I’ve just rented it and therefore am not a long-term resident does rather help identify me as just another newcomer who’s biking skills are subpar to Amsterdam’s standards.

I am sure that as I continue to cycle the streets of Amsterdam and learn its ways, instead of always pulling out my phone to check on Google Maps which direction I am going in, I will blend in more. It is certainly quite a skill, one that I have yet to attain, to multitask on these bikes. I already find that trying to bike, check my phone, look where I am going, and not crash into anything or anyone is quite a hefty task. Even Dutch people I met warned me of the treacherous cycling that occurs in the city center. It’s the worst in the whole of the Netherlands, or so I’ve heard. Us international students are still getting used to it, so any visiting family or friends are a good excuse to use public transport. 

The trams, metros, buses and trains do work splendidly here in Amsterdam, but the city was made to be seen by bike, so I am not giving up quite yet. Soon I’ll get better, become more confident, begin to recognize the landmarks around me and slowly make Amsterdam feel more like home.

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