When my husband and I ‘get away from it all,’ we usually turn from the car to the bike for transportation. When we go to Toronto Island, we ferry the bikes along with us. In Montreal, we leave the van in the parking garage and head to the Bixi bike share stations. There’s something freeing about seeing the sights from the seat of your bicycle as opposed to the cabin of a car.
While biking isn’t something that we do every day at home, we’re both comfortable biking in an urban environment and were looking forward to our normal relaxed vacation biking routine, but this time in the Netherlands! If there’s one place that would make for good biking, it’d be the Netherlands….right?? Turns out…. not so much. I mean, the cycling infrastructure there is amazing, and there is nary a hill to be found! However, cycling is a serious mode of transportation in the Netherlands and it can be dangerous (not to mention stressful) if you don’t know how the rules of the road.
1. Red roads / paths = biking route
This is an important one for cyclists and pedestrians to know – we made the mistake, when we first arrived in Amsterdam, of walking on a bike path! Can you imagine? The locals sure didn’t like it, I’ll tell you that!
Once you figure this one out, it’s handy because you realize that you almost never have to share a major road with cars. However, if you don’t use it correctly, the locals will be sure to let you know….
2. NEVER stop on the bike path to figure out where you’re going or to chat with someone else.
This is what we did. We stopped to check our map ON the red bike path. Whoops. These Dutch cyclists aren’t out for a pleasant Sunday Afternoon bike ride, they’re heading home from work, picking up groceries, trying to catch a train. The bikes are the main mode of transportation in Amsterdam, and these red paths are their roads. Pull your bike up onto the sidewalk for a few minutes if you need to stop, then get back on the bike bath only when you’re ready to get moving again!
3. White triangles painted on the road don’t show you which way traffic is moving – they tell you who needs to yield.
I did not know this one until I left the busy cycling city of Amsterdam and I’m sure that this was the cause of some of the irritated passing remarks sent our way. Whether you’re in a car, on foot, or on bike, white painted triangles will tell you if you need to yield or if someone else does. When the triangles are directly in your path, pointing at you, it’s your job to yield to the other mode of transportation or the folks coming from another route.
4. No one will understand your crazy North American hand signals for turning & stopping.
Seriously, no one will know what you mean when you signal to turn right, and don’t even bother telling people that you’re stopping (they’ll figure that one out when you start to slow down). Just point the way that you intend to go. That’s it. If you’re turning left, point left! If you’re going right, point right! Not really complicated.
5. If you’re on a rental bike, you’ll be treated like an idiot.
I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. In Amsterdam, the rental bikes are bright red, so people keep their distance from the moment they spot you in front of them and will pass you at the earliest possible moment. Tourists are generally unpredictable on bikes, and that makes them (*cough* us) very unsafe to cycle around – so I totally get it. The Dutch – especially Amsterdammers – are not shy, though – they will let you know when you’ve made a faux-pax!
6. ALWAYS lock your bike when you’re not on it!
Bike theft is a bit of a problem here – my husband’s cousin has had more than 5 bikes stolen while living in Amsterdam in the last 10 years. Most Dutch folk carry around large metal chains for locking, and many bikes come with combined tire-lock / chain lock. Bike rental shops will make sure that you’ve got a lock on your bike, but have them show you how to use it and where to place it before you take off. Helpful tip: Don’t forget WHERE you parked your bike – it’s not hard to lose it in the sea of metal!
7. Bike traffic jams exist. Be assertive but careful.
If I didn’t experience it, I wouldn’t have believed it, but tempers in bike traffic jams can get just as heated as in car traffic jams in downtown Toronto! Too many cars / buses / trams head into the intersection and can’t clear it before the light turns; they block the bike path, and the 40 cyclists lined up on either side of the road yell at bus drivers and hit the hoods of the cars with their hands as they inch through the gaps. I don’t mean that you should be assertive by yelling at drivers or hitting their cars, I just mean that you should purposefully move forward between the cars (don’t get in front of those buses or trams, though, they don’t yield well to cyclists) until you make it through the jam and clear the intersection as soon as possible.
8. Bike paths have their own traffic lights.
Every bike path I’ve been on thus far has it’s own little traffic light at the intersection. Make sure that those are the signals you watch, because when the cars get the go-ahead, the bikes don’t necessarily, and vice-versa. Cars generally get an advanced right turn so that they can clear the lane before the swath of cyclists start ahead.
9. Check your blind spots when turning a corner or moving over in the lane.
Even the busiest cycling cities in North America don’t have the kind of traffic that bike paths in the Netherlands get. Always give a quick glance over your shoulder before you turn or move over in the lane so that you’re not cutting off another cyclist – it’s their responsibility to watch out for you since they’re coming from behind, but this isn’t Canada: there will be no apologies from them if you collide, and once they hear your English, they’ll probably try to pin the whole thing on you. Also: small motor bikes (“brommer fiets”) are allowed to drive on the bike paths (for some completely idiotic reason), so watch your back – they move quickly.
Don’t let this scare you off of cycling in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is certainly one of the trickiest cities for a tourist to bike around because A) it’s so busy and B) they tend to be more uptight in the bigger cities in Holland. If you want a great cycling experience in a big city in the Netherlands, head up north to Groningen, the “World Cycling City.” 57% of all trips within the city are made by bike, and, probably because there are 28,000 university students in the city, the cyclists are remarkably laid back.
The Netherlands is a beautiful place to tour on a bike. Even the largest cities aren’t far removed from the country – a 10 minute cycle away from the city centre in Rotterdam brings you to the middle of sheep pastures and windmills. On any given street, you might glance up and see markings on a building from 1654 or 1782. Along the canals are house boats and swing bridges, hints of how the country operated 200 years ago. This is a country that must be experienced not from the comfort of an air conditioned car, but on the seat of a large dutch bike.
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