In Lisbon I lasted only three hours before I crashed over a raised tram line, went over the bike, broke my left arm, and ended up in the hospital (a real education, but that’s another story). I may be tempting fate, but I’ve now been in Amsterdam a month, cycling every day out to a fantastically wide canal with the largest barges I’ve ever seen, and a lovely bridge where I can gaze at the ducks and swans, pick blackberries, and even – so two handsome ladies on bikes told me – see a ringed snake in the bushes and water.
Here is my cycling survival guide:
- It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but, except on the canals, stick to the cycle lanes. They are everywhere and easy to use. Some canals have dedicated cycle lanes, but in general cycles have priority over both cars and pedestrians.
- Be confident and get up a head of steam. The most confident rider pursuing a determined trajectory wins – other cyclists and pedestrians get out the way. Cars give way (except when you go onto main ring roads). Wear a steely glare and look other riders in the eye. It’s a game of chicken and you must be minded to win.
- Ring your bell when you approach canal junctions three or four times to warn people. It reinforces the “I’m coming through regardless” message.
- Watch pedestrians react when you ring the bell. Locals will take note, but a minority of tourists are oblivious. If they don’t react you have to steer round them.
- Watch when fellow cyclists glance over their left shoulder. Even a small incline of the head warns you that someone is about to turn left, so you have to pass them on the right, instead – as is usual – on the left.
- Accelerate when approaching high humped bridges. If you don’t approach at speed, you’ll be left struggling to mount the incline. If there is traffic in the way, either go past it on the left if there is plenty of room, or hang back and then accelerate.
- Accelerate past slow cyclists – otherwise they will slow you down and probably make you stop. Each stop is a potential danger. Warn the cyclist before you overtake (on the left) by ringing the bell vigorously. If they are wobbling take special care and give a wide berth.
- Stop for people on mobility bikes or vehicles. The Dutch are very considerate to people who lack mobility or have other clear problems. If you don’t stop, you may run into someone ahead, and even if you get away with it, they will think you are a prat.
- Find a minor route with few major junctions. Other cyclists and motor cyclists are the danger so avoid junctions with masses of them.
- Obey cycle traffic lights. I’m a notorious jaywalker but I don’t take any chances with the cycle traffic lights. Traffic can come from unexpected directions at high speed and turning traffic is particularly dangerous if you ignore the cycle signals.
- Watch for the traffic light indicators telling you the number of seconds before the light will turn green. Slow down if you can to avoid having to stop, and then accelerate once the lights are green. The signals go from 5 seconds to green in one second. If the numbers start flashing – usually on ten seconds – that means that something untoward has happened and the lights will stay against you for an undefined time.
- Look to see that the way is clear before you start off from a traffic light when it goes green. Don’t assume it is clear – quite often cyclists or other road users will jump the lights just after they change, and it is very dangerous not to check that the path is clear.
- Get a ‘mixed’ or ‘women’s’ bike so you can put your feet on the ground at traffic lights or when you want to stop. Swinging off a bike rodeo style is dangerous because other people and vehicles may well be in close proximity.
- Get a bike with brakes at the front, normal-style. Normal, that is, except in Holland, where bikes typically have brakes where you cycle backwards to stop. Hard to get used to before you get killed.
- Respect the trams. They will always warn of their approach with a pleasant but loud “dring”. But if you collide with a tram you will probably die.
- Beware also of tram lines. Unlike in Lisbon, the iron lines are well maintained, but cross them at an angle to avoid getting the wheels stuck. Most bikes you hire have narrow wheels.
- Be careful where you park. Park only in designated spaces, as bikes may be removed from railings if they shouldn’t be there. This is necessary to avoid the whole city becoming a bike park. The parking-control people are many and vigilant, and quite ruthless – they have to be. I like to stop and park only when I’m in the countryside, and I also prefer not to go through the rigmarole of double-locking. In the country it is rare to get a bike stolen. In the city I will walk most places rather than have to bike and lock.
Cycling is a beautiful, democratic dance in the Netherlands
There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam and several other Dutch cities – everyone bikes, and they have special bikes with a wheelbarrow appearance at the front where small kids sit and enjoy their transport of delight.
When you stop to think about it, Amsterdam would grind to a halt without biking. There are surprisingly few traffic jams, simply because everyone bikes. Cycling is economical and ecological, and incredibly good for one’s health. It’s great, enjoyable exercise – you don’t need a gym. Young kids and elderly people bike. It may be fanciful, but I imagine that the Dutch are so tall and healthy, with nicely rounded and muscled buttocks, because they cycle so much. It’s also possible to meet people on a bike, especially when stopping at traffic lights next to them, and a fair amount of eye contact seems to me to be cruising.
Cycling is also a parable of a well-ordered, individualistic, yet collaborative and co-operative society. The dance of cycling has well-established conventions:
- Cyclists should give way to other cyclists on the major paths/roads unless they can pass through ahead of them without causing them to brake
- Cyclists should warn pedestrians by ringing a bell, but pedestrians should wait, even at a crossing, unless they are of low mobility, in which case cyclists should stop
- Cars should give way to cyclists except on major roads where the cyclist has to cross the road
- Cyclists and pedestrians must have eyes in the back of their heads and pay close attention at all times
- Everyone should move as fast as they reasonably can, but be polite and good-tempered.
The combination of speed, efficiency, low cost, low congestion, zero pollution, and health benefits of mass cycling is overwhelmingly impressive. It’s the mark of a civilized society able to pursue effective low-tech options in a high-tech world. I give the Dutch high marks for almost everything, but the highest award goes to them for top cycling prowess in the wealthy world.