Last year when I lived in Utrecht, I had a great bike. It was an extension of my body. Everywhere I went, it went with me. I loved the freedom and independence it gave me. When I sold it on my final day, I was absolutely devastated. I felt as if I was giving my child up for adoption! It wasn’t expensive; it had working front and back lights, gears and most importantly, it had handbrakes! On Tuesday, I decided it was time to invest in some new wheels to (a) fit in with the rest of the Amsterdammers, and because (b) quite frankly I was a little tired of walking everywhere!
So off I went on Tuesday morning to become the proud owner of a fiets once more. Because I had such an amazing bicycle and cycling experience last year, I wanted to make sure I had that again so I asked friends and did my research into the best bike shops in town. De Stadsfiets in de Pijp was the fietswinkel that popped up again and again. Their level of customer service was apparently out of this world. And I have to agree. The man who sold me my bike couldn’t have been more helpful. I got a 6 month guarantee, four free service checks, a free back wheel lock and he gave me information on a free language exchange evening where I could practice my Dutch, all for a very reasonable price!
You’d think that because I was a seasoned biker in Utrecht, that cycling would be second nature to me by now. Wrong! Cycling is scary in Amsterdam. More specifically, cycling without handbrakes can be absolutely terrifying. Let me explain to those of you who don’t understand the concept of no handbrakes. In order to slow down and ultimately stop, one must put pressure on the pedals backwards. The more pressure you place on the pedals, the slower you will move. Sounds easy, right? Again… wrong! Foot breaks are common in the Netherlands because those bikes are cheaper to maintain, and the Dutch love anything that won’t cost them more than is necessary! Before I purchased my new two-wheeler, I tried out the bike on a quiet residential street, and found I could brake, turn and come to a hault without any real difficulty. Success! I could totally do the whole no-handbrake thing. The real test, however, was cycling from the bike shop back into the centre of Amsterdam where I was meeting my friends for coffee.
Here’s where things got a little bit terrifying. Not having to worry about handbrakes meant that my hands were free for other uses, such as using my phone as a GPS so I could navigate my way with ease. Note to self: just because the test-drive went well, doesn’t mean you’re a pro yet. Your hand-eye-feet-break coordination is still very much in the early stages of development! Cycling on straight main Amsterdam roads is easy but the streets around the canals are a whole other story. Here you are contending with both car & bike traffic as well as tourists! That first day of cycling sans handbrakes, I almost knocked down several pedestrians AND almost got hit myself by several cars.
Picture this. When cycling over a bridge, there is a natural descent on the other side, so you automatically brake in order to slow your speed and come to a complete stop. Generally speaking, you would place one foot on the ground while still seated on the bike, ready to push off again once safe to do so. However, sometimes when you are a small human your feet don’t reach the ground while sitting on the saddle, and it is necessary for you to jump off in order to stop. Sometimes you don’t realise that you will keep rolling down the hill once you take your feet off the brake pedals. Sometimes this can be scary for you and pedestrians, and you can do nothing but ring your bell and hope they jump out of the way. Sometimes this can anger Dutch car drivers (who’s concept of slowly taking off is going from 0-40kmph in 2 seconds by the way!) and make them beep their horn rather loudly as you swerve manically to avoid them hitting you!
I’ve been successfully cycling in Amsterdam for six days now, and can honestly say that I’m not the biggest fan! I much prefer Utrecht as a city for many reasons, and cycling is definitely one of them. But I do love having a bike as a method of transporting myself around the city. One thing is for sure, it’s a lot quicker than walking!