Biking in Amsterdam : The Locals Make It Chic and Easy
AMSTERDAM (AP) - Nearly everyone in Amsterdam rides a bicycle.
No one sweats.
As a longtime cyclist in New York City, and a sweaty guy who can raise a few droplets going to the end of the walk to retrieve the newspaper in January, that’s how it seemed to me when I was there. I was prepared for the ubiquity of cyclists. But the refinement was a surprise.
Who knew that urban cycling - which I find mostly exhilarating and joyous, but occasionally a grim struggle for a sliver of pavement - could also be elegant?
This is how I saw the Dutch cyclists.
I ride to news assignments, sometimes in jacket and tie, feeling overdressed. I saw well-dressed men riding to work in Amsterdam, and they didn’t seem remotely uncomfortable.
And the women! Granted that riding a bike is like playing the cello - one of those things that makes men look dorky and women look hot - but women bikers in Amsterdam seem to cut no fashion corners. High heels and skirts are not uncommon, whether they are headed to the office or carting a crateful of kids to school on one of those cargo bikes with a big box up front.
Part of staying fashionable is that no one wears a helmet. Not the riders; not the kids sitting up front or on the luggage rack. Either cycling is extraordinarily safe in Amsterdam or the lawyers aren’t in charge yet.
I came back to New York determined to apply the lessons of Amsterdam cycling to my own life. Some I couldn’t. The helmet, for instance is non-negotiable. But could I ride elegantly in an aggressive city like New York?
Mainly, it meant slowing down. This is harder than it sounds. New York moves faster than Amsterdam. Plus the bikes we ride here were mostly built to race on the road, in the mountains or on a track.
Once I started slowing down, I became a more polite rider. Not that I was rude before. I always at least paused for red lights. But I rolled through the crosswalk, waiting to be ready for an opening to cross. Now I find myself stopping short of the crosswalk, waiting for foot traffic to clear before I go on.
Of course, I can’t keep up this ride slow attitude all the time. My city bike is built for speed, even if I am not. I sometimes find myself succumbing to it. And I’m not interested in getting a Dutch bike. The Amsterdammers ride these single-speed or at most three-speed bikes that are both monstrously heavy and in New York, at least, frightfully expensive. Though I have started to look longingly at some of the lightweight three-speeds that in my long ago childhood we called English racers.
I have said for years that if you can stand to do it, bicycling is a good way to get around New York, but not a good way to see the city. It requires too much concentration on traffic and pavement conditions to do anything in the way of sightseeing. But I do find I can almost do it under this ride slow regime.
Now, cyclists in Amsterdam routinely ignore traffic signals, just like in New York. And pity the pedestrian who wanders onto the wrong side of the line between the sidewalk and the bike lane, which is often worn away to a shadow. But the slower speeds made them seem nice to me, in the way a foreign language sounds exotic until you realize everyone’s just talking about the high cost of eggs or where to find a reliable plumber. And in the days after my return, I tried to repress my New York Aggressive in favor of Amsterdam Nice.
But sometimes it was too much. I found myself less tolerant of rule-breaking. I encountered a pedestrian walking toward me in the bike lane the other day, instead of using the perfectly good sidewalk just a few feet away. I rode right at him. New York style, not Amsterdam style. Not close enough to hit him, but close enough to make him think I might. As I breezed my, I got my reward.
"Jerk!" I heard him mutter. Ordinarily, I don’t like being called names, but I was pleased that he noticed.
So Amsterdam elegance is still something I have to strive for.
Plus I’m still sweating like a pig.