I pedaled across the street, only to realize that a trolley was coming my way, the big structure foreign to my eyes. It was not something I was used to at all.
I sucked in a big gulp of air as I pushed my feet faster to avoid getting hit. Bells rang from every direction, the Dutch using the musical instrument on their bikes in a way that the Danish do not.
When I reached the opposite bike lane, my handle bars shifted as someone biked in the opposite direction as me, going the wrong way. You’re breaking the law, I thought as I squinted my eyes to try and show them that I was angry, and mostly terrified that they would hit me.
However, that distraction did cause me to almost get hit. I swerved to the side as a motorcyclist came zooming past me, blowing smoke in my face and filling my lungs with cloudy pollution.
I hit the sidewalk, turning the direction of my bike at the last possible second before I ran into a pole. My bike bounced onto some grass and I braked just in time before smashing into the side of a building. To say the least, biking in Amsterdam was not what I had expected.
The city of Amsterdam, known for its boisterous bicycling culture, infamous Red Light District, and colorful tulips, left an impression on me that will leave me marked forever.
I visited Amsterdam in the middle of April while I was on spring break. One of the first things I did was research renting bikes in Amsterdam, in order to submerge myself into the Dutch culture.
There are over 400 kilometers of biking lanes in Amsterdam, with their own traffic lights, signals, and lanes. I immediately knew I had to rent a bike. It was also quite convenient to not have to pay or rely on public transportation every where I went, which was something I wanted to avoid, being the “in-desperate-need-for-a-budget” college student that I was.
I stayed at an apartment about two miles west of the Red Light District (yes, it was the first thing I checked) that I found through airbnb, a website that enabled you to rent someone’s apartment while you are in their city. My apartment was quite spacious, there was a decent sized kitchen with yellow tiles, a ladder to an attic, a massive window overlooking the street, two bathrooms, and a bedroom.
The apartment was in a quiet neighborhood, with a school across the street and grocery store conveniently located down the road. Luckily, my host provided me with two bikes, five euros per day. My host’s name was Rasa, and as I found out, he had lived in Amsterdam all of his life, although he was born in Iran.
After a few awkward exchanges, I was able to have an interesting conversation with him. He explained to me that biking everywhere, just as in Copenhagen, is a much more practical way of getting around than a car. He said it was faster and cheaper than public transportation.
“I used to own a BMW,” he had mentioned to me.
“I traded it in for Volkswagen. It was impractical to have such, uh, how do you say, expensive car? It was fuel inefficient, and I use my bike mostly, anyway,” he said in broken English. The reason he initially had a car was because of his long commute to work and the fact that he hated being outside in the winter time.
A lot of the things he told us about biking in Amsterdam seemed very similar to Copenhagen, and I was excited when I had a few things to say to show my “extensive knowledge” about biking in a biking city.
“About 50 to 60 percent of people in Amsterdam cycle to commute to school and work,” he said, “it’s interesting to live in a place that’s, um, dominated by bikers. Whenever I’m driving on road, I have to look out for them, they sometimes take up whole street.”
Cycling in the Netherlands was quite popular before WWII, however, as cars became more popular, it became more dangerous to ride a bike. This caused a decline in the number of cyclists after WWII.
The plea to lower deaths from cycling accidents and the oil crisis in the Middle East in 1973 convinced the Dutch government to create safer bike lanes for people for an easier and more cost efficient mode of transportation. Nowadays, more people bike than ride public transportation, and many of the Dutch start learning how to cycle at a very early age.
Amsterdam is a biker friendly city, just like Copenhagen. My experience with biking, however, was completely different than in Copenhagen.
Cycling in Copenhagen is relaxing. It’s the time I am able to reflect on my day, take in the beautiful colored houses, the smell of hotdogs grilling in the street vendor stands, feel the cool air on my face, look at the beautiful canals near my dorm and the people running past it.
It’s almost like meditation, I don’t have to worry about crashing into everyone, I stay in the right lane and take my time as I absorb my surroundings.
The Danes are aggressive bikers but stay in the left lane, so they never come into contact with me. People bike to the law, and I feel safe when I hop on and pedal somewhere.
One time in Copenhagen, I biked for forty minutes to a park. It was quite easy to get there, and I actually barely remember the ride. It was along the coast of Denmark, and I was staring at the water the whole time, loving the feel of the sea and the reminder that home was not that far away. I was completely relaxed, which is how I am almost every time I bike in Copenhagen.
Coming to Amsterdam, I bragged to my friends how I was already a pro at cycling, and that they should follow me in the lane, since I knew how to do it. I was completely wrong.
Within the first thirty minutes, I had managed to crash into two people, run a few red lights, and almost get knocked over multiple times by a few of the seven motorcycles that zoomed past me (my immediate thought when they passed was to ring my bell at them in anger much like a car’s horn, but realized I would just sound like an idiot).
The biking lanes seemed narrower in Amsterdam, more convoluted. People were flying on their bikes every which way, from behind me, from the side of me, going in the opposite direction. Another time, I somehow ended up on the sidewalk, swerving to the side as a mother pushing her baby in a carriage stopped short and a small yelp escaped out of her mouth.
I hopped off, taking a deep breath as my feet were firmly planted on the ground. I had difficulty turning the handlebars back towards the direction I was originally going, and pursed my lips as my embarrassed self hopped back onto my bike and pedaled away.
I was totally incapable of biking in Amsterdam.
Around dinner time the next day, I decided to get schwarma, a cheap alternative to fancy restaurants that screamed, eat me, I may not be good for your body, but I’m perfect for your wallet! As I headed inside, I was greeted by an extremely friendly clerk who sold me my food.
“I see you have a bike?” He must have seen me from the window. I nodded.
“I’m trying to get the hang of it. What’s your experience been like, here?” I said.
“Well, it took me a while to get used to biking here. I used public transportation for a while, and when I got sick of that, I overcame my laziness and decided to rent a bike.”
I laughed, and I mentioned that it’s quite an adrenaline rush.
“Yeah, it’s pretty hard. But so many people here do it, that you can’t not engage in the biking culture. It’s a big symbol in Amsterdam. Most people don’t wear helmets. It’s pretty stupid actually, considering the fact that I’ve fallen off more than enough times. But, I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb with my helmet, so I still don’t wear it.”
I thought about how I don’t wear a helmet in Copenhagen, but am never scared that I am going to get hit or fall off. But, within the first ten minutes of being in Amsterdam, I was terrified of being flung off of my seat and catapulted onto the sidewalk. But, in Copenhagen, I see a helmet firmly planted on at least every third persons head, which is strange since it feels safer.
Besides that, I absolutely love the fact that people in Amsterdam bike so much. It seems convenient and far healthier both physically and mentally. Even though biking in Amsterdam is an adrenaline rush, I did love the change of pace. Instead of a relaxing ride, I had to become more alert and aware of the people around me.
Although I did not get to take in my surroundings as much, I still loved immersing myself in the Dutch culture. I am an adrenaline junkie, so doing something that was a bit terrifying was actually stimulating.
I even felt fresh and awake after being there only for a few days. It could have been the euphoria from traveling around Europe, but I am also convinced that it was the constant exercise and fresh air from biking every where.
In just a few days, I had ridden over thirty miles, having gone back and forth from my apartment to the city center, and just locally around the city. The feeling of the wind blowing in your face, and the ability to smell the grass and feel the sun on your body (I luckily had great weather the entire time I was there) is something that seems to be so positive for your body and mind.
Two different cultures are going to have different ways of life, and biking is not an exception to this. I smiled at the fact that I was able to experience both of the cities in Europe where biking is one of the dominant modes of transportation.
Even though the constant adrenaline and fear of getting knocked off my bike (this fear didn’t stop me from not wearing a helmet, though) rushed through by body for a couple of days, the change of pace from the calm, relaxing feel of biking I get in Copenhagen was quite refreshing.
By the end of my stay in Amsterdam, I was getting the hang of it. I had to be on hyper-alert the whole time, but if that’s how the Dutch ride, then I will too. It was still difficult, but by the end, I was ringing my bell, successfully swerving between people, and shifting to the side just in time for a motorcyclist to zoom past me.
For more information on biking in Amsterdam, travelers can visit www.iamsterdam.com, which provides insightful information and advice on cycling in Amsterdam. Additionally, airbnb.com is a website, similar to Couchsurfing, that travelers can use to book rooms in host’s apartments, that allow them to submerge themselves in the culture of a city.
For suggestions on what to eat in Amsterdam, check out my post!
There are many bike tours around Amsterdam that travelers can do as well, to further explore the city and learn how to bike alongside the Dutch.
Do you have any experience biking in a city with a biking culture?