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Helmets Off: This is the Netherlands.

The Dutch like their bikes.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s hard to overstate, even coming from a place where biking is relatively common – Austin, Texas, USA

But our bike scene is nothing compared to that of the Netherlands. In fact, I wouldn’t even describe their way as a “scene” — it’s more like a way of life. And after spending two weeks in both urban and rural parts of the country, it was refreshing to see this as the norm. It wasn’t a trendy hipster thing. It wasn’t an activity for the wealthy to show off their 30-speed-carbon-whatever rides. It’s just what people do.

Bike hipster — Image from http://fyeahhipbikes.tumblr.com

It may seem like a subtle difference, but the effect on daily life is profound.

Just walk anywhere in downtown Austin, and you will be surrounded by an invisible cloud of smoggy c02 stuff, pouring from the mufflers of car herds. Even with your eyes closed, their presence is loud and clear — honks blazing and tires screeching, Texas-sized trucks revving engines, and loud motorcycles blasting out to everyone, “PAUSE ALL CONVERSATIONS! I’M HERE!”

From Racing Extinction, 2015

But if you close your eyes in downtown Amsterdam, it often sounds more like a lively city park than a bustling traffic jam. And if you look around, you will probably count more bikes than cars. In Amsterdam, 63% of locals ride a bike on a daily basis. Only 22% ride a car on a daily basis.

Bikes clearly rule the road.

That would explain why so many locals urged us again and again: look out for bikes! In fact, it was the only piece of advice our Airbnb host had for us.

It’s a common mistake made by us outsiders who see a path beside the road and assume it’s for walking. Nope, in the Netherlands bike paths are like high-speed highways, and if you aren’t careful, you will get hit — either by a bike, or by the elbow of an angry biker.

Our tour guide in Amsterdam explained, “I don’t know what it is, but the Dutch become ferocious once they get on their bikes.”


I’m guessing it has to do with all the non-biking cultures crammed in a city of bikers. More than 15 million of us visit Amsterdam each year, and most of us mindlessly walk along those bike paths. I’m trying to imagine how Americans would react if millions of tourists poured in and just walked down the middle of our highways like it was normal.

The other thing that amazed me about the bike scene was how connected everything was. After World War II, the Netherlands started rebuilding its cities and built a vast network of roads. When bike deaths started to skyrocket, the people protested, insisting that the country accommodate bikers in a safer manner. And so they built a vast network of bike paths alongside those roads. Bike deaths plummeted, and the Netherlands is now considered among the safest countries in the world to ride a bike. (That’s a pretty simplified version of the story, but you can check out this video if you’re curious for more).


When we stayed near a mid-sized city called Breda, we rented bikes from a rental shop downtown. And when we asked for helmets, the shop owners laughed. Turns out, that’s not a thing in the Netherlands. It would probably look as silly as someone driving a car while wearing a helmet. In fact, our entire time there, we saw thousands of bikers and not a single helmet — well, until the last day when we saw a baby wearing one. It’s not uncommon to even see a mom riding along with one kid in the front, one in the back, and a basket full of groceries on top of that. Impressive.


From Breda, we jumped onto the bike paths, and I immediately sympathized with every bad city driver who ever made me lose my patience. Bikers/commuters zoomed past us and others were forced to swerve.

Luckily, no elbows.

It’s easy to forget about the diversity on the roads. Some people just have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re likely terrified. So hey, be patient. Someday you might be that outsider.

After ten minutes or so, the narrow streets and Dutch fronts opened up to the flat, green countryside. It was a such a joy to ride along the winding path, to see all the birds along the river beside us, the tiny canals separating each plot of land, the steady stream of other bikers commuting from town to town, and — before we knew it — the border of Belgium.

That’s where we stopped by an old monastery to throw back some beers the Belgian way (and no helmets meant moderation, of course).

After that, back on our bikes the Dutch way.

I love this place.

 

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