Bicycling around Amsterdam is easy and sometimes more efficient than public transportation or personal vehicle.
There is a wonderful wheeze and creak to Dutch bikes, those anachronistic two-wheelers that are the prevailing mode of transport in Amsterdam. Forget the hyper-engineered American models that sport fierce titanium bodies, seats like almond slivers and gear systems that require a playbook.
The average Dutch bike is built to carry a person from point A to point B with a minimum of complexity and a maximum of comfort: large padded seats, chain guards, fenders for the often wet streets, headlights and taillights, even a bell.
Biking, not as a means of exercise or competition but simple transportation, is a joy most of us left
in childhood. There is no better country in which to retrieve this joy than Holland. It is a country of 16 million people and 13 million bicycles. The Dutch are to be credited with two grand reclamation projects: their country from the sea, and the bicycle from a car-mad world.
Admittedly, I was a reluctant convert. I hadn’t been on a bike since age 12. To rejoin the habit in a strange European city after a 20-year hiatus seemed like prelude to disaster. Besides, Amsterdam abounds in excellent public transportation. Why bother? For starters, because biking beats the tyranny of tram schedules or swollen feet. There was also, for me, a small matter of ego. You need only be passed by so many pipe-smoking grandfathers, or young women in high heels and a skirt, cell phone in one hand and cigarette in the other, all of them pedaling as though the dikes have ruptured, before you begin to wonder: When did I become so fragile?
But the main reason I joined the cycling masses is simple: It’s fun.
, the city’s best-known bike rental chain, has a location just off the Leidseplein (pronounced LIED-za-plyne). Any tram numbered 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 or 10 will get you there. Maps are available at most hotels or at the “VVV” tourist offices located throughout the city. Because the names of most Dutch streets are a mouthful, it’s helpful to know some key suffixes: “gracht” means “canal”; “plein” means “square” (literally, “plain”); “straat” is, of course, “street.”
Renting a bike is cheap—around 8 euros for 24 hours, or as little as 4.25 euros per day for seven days. Even if you don’t plan on biking every day of your stay, it’s sensible to rent for the duration. Aside from the cost advantage, you’ll find gliding around this stunning city addictive. Also, choose a bike with handle brakes. In wet weather, handle brakes make for a quicker stop. Gears are at best unnecessary—sitting below sea level, Holland doesn’t offer much in the way of hills—and at worst a distraction from the road. Insurance is strictly optional. MacBike will provide you with a chain lock that would defeat Samson, and as long as you’re diligent in using it, bike thieves will look for easier targets.
Yes, your bike’s saucer-sized MacBike medallion will brand you a tourist, but there’s advantage in this: local riders will grant you the same wide berth Americans give to cars marked “Student Driver.”
Note that most bike paths here are like miniature streets, not the gestures toward paths (a 6-inch tightrope of pavement protected by only a narrow paint stripe) common to so many American cities. These are wide, smooth, and usually guarded by a proper curb. Be sure to ride with traffic—that is, in the right-hand path of whatever road you’re on. You’ll also see that most intersections are governed by separate bike traffic lights, which are to be obeyed no matter what the locals might do. When biking in the city’s oldest sections, you won’t find paths or traffic lights. The narrowness of the streets, however, limits both the quantity and speed of automobile traffic. Additionally, most Amsterdam drivers are conditioned to a city where the bike is king. When in doubt—approaching a blind corner or passing—trill your bell. You’ll find this polite trilling to be the music of the city.
This article has been adapted from the original, which was published by MSP Communications.