Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Stuff students do: acquire a bike
September 10, 2009, 21:24
Filed under: Amsterdam, Cycling

I say ‘acquire’ because it connotes the possibility of multiple ways in which to take possession of a pushbike in Amsterdam.

Owning one is like a right of passage in this town. Even the current adult princes and princesses of the Dutch royal family pedalled to school just like the commoners. There is at least 1 bike for every man, woman and child across the country. That equates to almost 20 million.


There are multi-story bike parking stations at major transport hubs: commuters ride to the station from outlying areas where they connect with buses or trains to complete their very ‘green’ journey to work.  In fact, 30% of all weekday commuter travel is pedal powered. This compares to less than 2% in the UK and I’d guess even less in Australia.

The Dutch parliament house in The Hague even has its own bike repair workshop and there once was a Professor of Bicycling at a Dutch university.

This cycling culture is helped by the fact that the entire country is as flat as a snooker table. The only stretch of elevated land is the continually topped up system of dykes that stop rising sea levels from swamping most of the country. Oh, and the little bridge on the corner of Brouwersgracht and Prisengracht canals has a deceptive incline that sometimes forces elderly and laden cyclists to dismount and push their bike over the crest.

So, ‘when in Rome’, so to speak, one of the first things expats or international students do is get a bike. Several retailers offer deals whereby you enjoy a 10% discount for a second hand bike with the promise by the retailer to buy back the bike for up to 50% of the purchase price. There is also a guerrilla army of ‘Robin Hood’ types who find abandoned bikes, return in the dead of night with bolt cutters or an oxy torch and recycle these unwanted goods at very competitive prices. Their services are posted on university notice boards, the back of toilet doors and light posts.

No matter what method you employ to acquire a bike, the uninitiated will always have a few questions:

  • “What’s the right size and colour for me?”
  • “Does my bum look big on this?”
  • “Where does the bidon fit?

Fortunately, the Dutch have overcome these quandaries. Every bike is the same size and shape; you just adjust the seat and handlebar height. And no one carries a bidon on their bike – if you must have water, pack a bottle in your saddle bags. Or stop at a café. As for colours, there’s only one: the Dutch bicycle is black. This way it goes with whatever you’re wearing. It is an upright conveyance with raised handlebars. The eponymous ‘Gazelle’ brand name is a misnomer; these cast-iron machines are as solid as a Sherman tank. The little tweeting ping of the bell to indicate you’re overtaking is just part of the city’s signature soundtrack.

This homogenisation of the Dutch bicycle therefore takes a lot of the guesswork out of the buying quandary for expats and international students. Conversely, it becomes quite a guessing game when you go to retrieve your bike from the hundreds littered around campus or on the pavement  looking like clumped nests of metal ants. That’s why you see some ingenious and creative identification solutions. Plastic ivy wound around handlebars and the frame is particular popular at the moment. Unless you plan on having to resit multiple subjects or marry a local, this is to be avoided by international students as recognising your ivy from the next takes years of training.

Once you’ve selected your bike the next challenge is getting your confidence on the road. Again, the Dutch have sorted this out too. Apart from the massive infrastructure budget to develop and maintain a vast network of cycle ways, the first rule of the road here is that there isn’t any. Even when riding without a light, in the middle of the night in the wrong direction up a one-way street with a blood alcohol limit matching your metric shoe size, the cyclist is always ‘in the right’. Motorists are aware of this and take necessary measures.

I cannot tell you how liberating it is to run your first red light or plough right through an intersection at speed without so much as a sideways glance. You feel as free as a, well, a gazelle! Every one else on a bike does it, so you may as well too. And yet there are never any accidents. Whatever!

Finally, depending on your length of stay in Amsterdam, there are unwritten levels of rider proficiency to aspire too. Cycling with no hands, talking on your phone, even texting can all be achieved on two wheels. But the gold medal goes to those who can perform all three simultaneously while also smoking and bopping to the beat of whatever’s echoing through their headphones. I’ve seen it done. It is multi-tasking symmetry in motion. It is a joy to behold.

Notes and further reading

Rodney Bolt, Xenophobe’s guide to the Dutch, Oval Books, 2008.

Article from the New York Times

The Undutchables
Dutch Bureau of Statistics (CBS)


1 Comment so far
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This all sounds very good and exciting but what about the “Does my bum look big on this?” quandary? Or would the gazelle-free feeling take care of this?

Great photos!

Comment by bluestork

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