Seven. Seven days in Utrecht, Netherlands. Seven bicycles slamming into various parts of my body.
Bicycles are ubiquitous in the bustling city centre. As a Canadian who is not accustomed to checking for cyclists at a cross a street, I have become a virtual magnet.
As Quebec pedestrians know, crossing the street is a hazard because of our famous driving skills and an open interpretation of street signs as suggestions. So, on my first day in the Netherlands I did the customary check for vehicles before crossing the straat. However, I did not think to check for the silent killers: bicycles.
One step onto what I thought was part of the street and WHAM! One angry Dutchman, one bruised Canadian.
Similar incidents occurred throughout my first week, including even being hit by two bicycles at once as I walked on what I thought was the sidewalk but was in fact was a cyclist’s lane.
Cycling is a phenomenon in the Netherlands. Everyone from the smallest child in a baby’s bicycle seat to the suave Dutch business men are on two wheels. Cars are even prohibited on certain streets in the historic centre to make way for the horde of ten-speeds.
In the middle of it all, one Montrealer who, with a rusty old bike in hand, is ready to try the Dutch way of life instead of the traffic congested streets of her homeland.
“Cycling is a phenomenon in the Netherlands. Everyone from the smallest child in a baby’s bicycle seat to the suave Dutch business men are on two wheels.”
As any Montrealer knows cyclists are those rare breeds who have the combination of courage, endurance and eyes in the back of their heads. These people must have Dutch blood in them because the Dutch make cycling look natural. The bike is merely a metal extension of their bodies and cycling is as ordinary as breathing or blinking.
I learned how to ride a bike at the age of eight but haven’t ridden since the tender age of sixteen when I got my first driver’s license. Thus comes obstacle number one: remembering how to bicycle. Contrary to the popular cliché, it wasn’t as easy as remembering how to ride a bike.
After a couple of wobbly attempts and some close encounters with the pavement I had the hang of it – in an empty parking lot.
Riding a bicycle in the Netherlands is a bit like being in a pinball machine. Sudden turns and braking becomes a natural reflex as you bob and weave through pedestrians, other cyclists, cars, buses and trams. It seems that at any instant some sort of obstacle is ready to jump out from behind a tree and force you to swerve, brake or close your eyes and hope for the best.
In many cases option three was used.
Another challenge is one that I was familiar with in Montreal: parking. Parking is an art form. Cyclists in the Netherlands can and will attach their bicycles to any stationary piece of metal. Bridges, parking meters and gates are the most popular target but I have also seen bikes attached to cars, other bikes and even once through a door handle.
There are even double-decker bike parking lots in high-traffic areas such as the central station. Reminiscent of a vending machine, a metal rack slides down to allow a rider to lift their bike on and stow it away neatly.
Cycling works here for many reasons. There are real bike paths out of town and away from the perils of downtown traffic, the country is flat and distances short. Also the people are equipped to face the weather, but to be fair, a Dutch winter seems like late March to any Montrealer.
I think the most decisive factor in forming the Dutch bike culture is the willingness to be active. Other methods of transportation are faster but cycling has health benefits that public transportation or cars cannot match. When this mentality is ingrained in people from childhood it becomes part of their lifestyle that spills over into areas outside transportation.
A focus on health and well being as part of daily life are central aspects of a Dutch lifestyle. The cycle culture is helping to shape my view of a healthy lifestyle. Staying fit doesn’t mean slaving at a gym anymore; it can become part of daily life. This adjustment came as a shock when after the first few weeks I wasn’t huffing and puffing to make it across town.
So with my re-shaped outlook on transportation and well being, I’ll ride confidently through the streets of the Netherlands holding my head high – until that is, I run into something new.