I knew it was something I wanted to do even before I moved to the Netherlands. It’s such a part of life there. Sure, people do in Canada too, but not nearly as much or as openly. It’s not nearly as easy to do in Canada. Once I finally arrived in the Netherlands, I was surrounded by people doing it; I was hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t. I waited a week before finally giving it a try. I was nervous, but thankfully I had a Dutch friend there to coach me through it. And after trying it once, I never looked back. I was addicted – to biking, that is.
This time last year I was in the midst of spending five months studying abroad in Utrecht, the Netherlands during which I transformed from a wobbly, timid biker into a full-fledged bike addict. And though I had always planned on getting a bike once I arrived in Holland, I never could have guessed how important those two wheels would become for me.
It’s no secret to the rest of the world that the Dutch love to bike, and that they bike a lot. But it’s not something you really grasp until you walk out of the Amsterdam train station and the first thing you see is a parking lot dedicated to bikes – hundreds of them. It’s an image I’ll never forget.
My bike was purple and green, so I named it Dragon. Dragon was a good bike: the right height, comfortable seat, and virtually no technical problems throughout the five months we shared together. Still, it had been about 10 years since I’d last been on a bike so I was beyond nervous to ride amongst the Dutch.
At first I was incredibly shaky. I had trouble starting to pedal and had major issues turning corners. Countless people passed me in the bike lane; it was embarrassing. While bikers around me were riding while texting with one hand and carrying a shopping bag in the other, I was wobbling along the edge of the lane, just happy to be upright.
For the Dutch, biking is as comfortable and casual as breathing. Kids learn to bike from an incredibly young age and it’s rare to find a Dutch person who doesn’t know how to ride (really – my Dutch classmate, Marijn Brok, said he has never met a Dutch person who can’t ride a bike. Brok learned to ride when he was about five-years-old). I saw couples biking holding hands, biking without using their handlebars, biking while talking on the phone or reading or eating; my roommate even saw one guy watching TV on a laptop he had taped to his handlebars. These bikers were serious – seriously cool, that is.
Before long, I got the hang of things. I became the one passing others in the bike lane. I was the one biking one handed, waving my arms, whipping around corners. It felt good, and beyond that, it felt natural. Riding Dragon to the grocery store or the city centre or even just down the street to a friend’s house became the norm – and I loved it.
I believe that everyone who visits the Netherlands should rent a bike, even just for a day. Biking allows you to experience Dutch culture first hand; you aren’t just a tourist, you’re part of the traffic, part of the city and part of the lifestyle.
It’s almost as if biking is such a part of Dutch culture that the Dutch themselves aren’t even aware of it anymore.
“At least, for me it’s just a way of transportation, because our infrastructure allows us to get around on bikes. It’s more a convenience,” Brok says in an email. “It affects us in the way that we think, ‘It’s not that far, let’s grab a bike.’ It helps us getting somewhere fast.”
But if you ask me, biking is more than just a mode of transportation and a means of exercise for the Dutch; it is a way of life, a defining factor of their society and their culture. Bike repair and rental shops are everywhere; there are even bike lanes on the highways between cities (I rode these lanes all the way from Utrecht to Amsterdam – a three hour trip).
Saying goodbye to Dragon, the little bike that stood loyally by my side through countless late nights and early mornings, was harder than I thought it would be. Biking him back to the shop that evening felt a little bit like a funeral procession. Still, I’m thankful for the time we had. And if I close my eyes, I can still picture the city of Utrecht that we’d ride through together: the gorgeous canals, green trees, bustling cafes, coffee shops, old windmills, and, of course, my fellow Dutch.