Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Dutch aren't cyclists

No, I'm not talking about Lars Boom (Dutch cyclo-cross champion every year since he was about 3 years old, and possibly the best named rider at professional levels, ever) or any of the Rabobank squad. I'm talking about your average Hertz Van Rental (sorry, couldn't help myself) in the street in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague.

If I remember the 5 minutes I was both present & awake (that would be an interesting Venn diagram) when I was supposed to be studying Sociology, we all belong to various sub-cultural groups, depending on things like race, religion, occupation, interests, and so on.

I identify myself, among other things, as being part of the sub cultural group called "cyclists". I'm also part of various minor groups within this very broad categorisation, such as road cyclists, sometimes racers, fixed wheel riders (but I'm not part of the track sub category of fixed wheeler), and so on.

Does it annoy you when someone travels overseas and comes back seeming to know "everything" about the places they've just visited? Drives me mad.

Like the idiot who spends a week in Phuket, can say "please & thank you" in Thai and thinks they know the culture backwards? Just done a fortnight staying at a Villa in the Italian countryside? You might know a bit about the village you spent some time in, but you don't know "everything Italy".

So, I'm not going to pretend that 2 nights in Rotterdam makes me an expert on everything Holland. Far from it, but one thing I can tell you is: the Dutch aren't cyclists.

Oh, they might use their bikes to get places, but they don't see themselves as cyclists. Any more than all those people stuck in traffic tonight on the Ring Road think of themselves as "motorists". OK, they're driving their cars, and some might be interested in "motoring" but the car is just the means of getting to wherever.

As it seems to be with the residents of The Netherlands and their bicycles - they're just using them for nothing more complicated than getting places.

I saw kids on bikes, I saw families on bikes, I saw grandmothers (they looked old enough) doing their Saturday morning shopping on bikes, I saw people dressed up & heading for a night out on their bikes, and I saw them again, later that night & perhaps a little wobbly, heading for home.

But none of them seemed to have that "I'm a cyclist, keep away from me you pedestrian / car / bus" look that we have on our faces when we ride in Melbourne.

I can understand why they ride as much as they do (more on that in a minute) but there were plenty of things I found odd .... like scooters (up to 50cc? anyone want to confirm that?) in the bike lanes, and no helmets; like police on those STUPID Segway things. I hate them, but that's for another post.

Like a country of apparently healthy people (they all ride bikes, don't they?) who all seem to smoke. Smoking aside, lots of bike riding seems to mean lots of well shaped legs.

And the very strange interaction I had at the hotel ... I asked for directions to a restaurant that was "typical of Rotterdam" (not an unusual request, I would have thought). "There is an Italian place on the corner" was the reply. "No, I don't want Italian" "OK, there is a nice French place a few minutes walk from here" was the next suggestion. Realising that I was on the losing side of this conversation, I said that sounded grand and asked how to get there. All I had to do was turn right as I left the hotel, then turn left at "the cubist buildings on the next corner". OK, I'm not a total architectural idiot, but doesn't that imply a level of education that perhaps not everyone has achieved?

I had tapas for dinner. Delicious, thanks for asking.

So early the next morning, with a few hours before the Prologue, I headed to the central train station in Rotterdam to rent a bike and see what riding in Holland was all about.

There was a huge (1,000 bike? more) secure parking facility there, which also has a mechanic, a bike bits & pieces shop, and a bike rental facility. I was lucky enough to get the last rental bike that day. €8 for the day. And they close at 2:30 am.

In a country that is flat as a billiard table, they rented me a 21 speed mountain bike. 21 speed was probably 20 more than it needed, maybe 19. So I chose a gear, and off I went.

In London people use folding bikes so they don't have to park on their bikes on the street, or they use 2 locks and take the saddle with them, to make their bikes less appealing to thieves. More than 700,000 bikes stolen each year in the UK. I don't have the stats for Holland, but I'm guessing the number is a little less. They all had the sort of locks that would take about 4 seconds to snap - if they'd bothered to use them.

It's flat (did I mention that yet?). There are bike lanes all around Rotterdam, and streets that don't have bike lanes are so quiet you could ride up the middle of them and not worry about hitting anything.

This is not the land of carbon fibre seat posts and 72° down tubes.

This is the country of heavy steel tubes & lazy, relaxed geometry. Stable bikes. Easy to ride bikes. Bikes with dynamo lights (haven't seem them for years!).

Bikes with big luggage racks - perfect for transporting beer & groceries, or giving your side saddle sitting girlfriend a lift home after a night of drinking.

But I still don't think they're cyclists.


  1. They're not "cyclists" in the "all lycra'd up on a carbon frame" sense. They're just people on bikes, and (if they're anything like Mikael Colville-Andersen of copenhagenize.com) they're probably *proud* to be so. That's if they even think about it - it's just a form of transport, which is how I wish more places treated the bike.

    I can't work out if you're disdainful of the Dutch relationship with the bike, or just punch-drunk from seeing a different culture :)

  2. Seriously, you need to get out of the basement more.

  3. "All I had to do was turn right as I left the hotel, then turn left at "the cubist buildings on the next corner". OK, I'm not a total architectural idiot, but doesn't that imply a level of education that perhaps not everyone has achieved?"

    Architecture is taught during compulsory education in a lot of European countries, a great idea, don't you think, seeing as buildings are something with spend a lot of our life in and around?

    They're not all necessarily 'cyclists', but isn't that something to be celebrated? We need more 'people on bikes', casually enjoying cycling, not more cyclists.

  4. An equal number of bikes are stolen here (in NL) on a regular basis. Bikes also have right of way over pedestrian and automobile, so there's no need for cyclists to have the same fear of motorists as they do in other countries.

  5. "But none of them seemed to have that "I'm a cyclist, keep away from me you pedestrian / car / bus" look that we have on our faces when we ride in Melbourne"

    This 'look' is something I really noticed on my 6 days cycling (hired great bike from the Humble Vintage) whilst in Melbourne, March this year - a very aggressive & very exclusive experience!!! In fact one completely different to Sydney, whose fast-growing & eclectic group of cyclists has created a very inclusive mode of transport.

    It's hard to define 'cyclist' and it's probably a pitfall best avoided because cycling truly isn't the domain of the male, young, & sporty - in fact your post has provided evidence for why Australia finds itself in such a dire 'cycling' position today - sadly we allowed the sport of cycling to hi-jack cycling some 20 years ago...

    ...basically cycling is for 'everyone & anyone' who wants to grab a set of wheels to 'mosey-on' down 'wherever'!!! - even if they don't possess a certain 'I'm a cyclist' look!!