Life in the Bike Lane

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The bicycle is synonymous with Dutch culture. In the Netherlands, you’ll notice an impressive bike infrastructure that supports this lifestyle and transportation necessity. Bike lanes really are streets of their own, with separate traffic lights and room for biking two-people wide, as is the norm in Holland.

Rain or shine, the Dutch people take to their bikes for just about anything. You can expect a packed bike lane during rush hour traffic and a slew of teenagers – some biking 3 people to one bicycle – when bars close for the evening. If you’re visiting the country, you’d be well advised to rent a bike and experience the culture and streets like a true Dutch patriot.

With relatives in the Netherlands, I’ve been visiting the country for years. One thing is always mentioned when we pull onto their car-packed street: It wasn’t like this a few years ago. Only in recent years have families in small towns and cities taken to the idea of the family car. In years past, biking between cities and biking to pick up the week’s groceries was commonplace.

Though cars are more common these days, the Dutch would do well to maintain the bike culture of their country. After all, they have seriously benefited from this frugal and healthy transportation method. For example, through their health conscious lifestyles, Dutch people have shot up in height over the last 50 years. Their people are the tallest on earth, with the men standing at an average of 6 foot and the women at 5 foot and 7 inches. As you can imagine, Dutch women have luxuriously long and lean legs thanks to bicycling, and men are generally lean and muscular as well. Compared to North Americans, you’ll notice a huge difference in the average weight.

If you decide to make the trip to Holland – and I recommend you do – here are some tips to get you on that bicycle with confidence.

Ride on the back. This is a common Dutch practice that I’ve gotten used to over the years. Initially uncomfortable and unnerving, it’s a great way to get around when there are fewer bikes than people.

Women typically ride in a side-saddle fashion on the back rack of a bicycle, while men straddle it. It involves a lot of balance from both parties, as the cyclist has to get a bit of momentum before the back rider jumps on. To start, hold on to the waist of the person that’s biking. You’ll notice women texting and smoking cigarettes on the back of bikes. Don’t be intimidated! Dutch people have been riding this way since they were old enough to hold their heads upright.

Some great results from riding on the back:

  • Tight abs. Hold yourself steady using your core muscles. The best way to stay upright is to be constantly engaged while you’re riding on the back of a bicycle. You’ll feel the workout in your core the next day.
  • Toned legs. In addition to engaged abs, you’ll have statuesque legs while riding on the back of a bicycle. By squeezing your thighs together, you’ll maintain balance and ensure that your legs aren’t flying around like spaghetti with every bump in the road.

But, beware. There is one negative aspect of riding like this for the first time: bruises. Sitting directly on the bike rack may bruise your butt and upper thighs, but some bikes have cushions on them specifically for back riding. Ask when renting if they have cushions that you can use.

Hold hands or chat with your bike mate. This is a particularly sweet and social aspect of bike riding in the Netherlands. You’ll always see travel mates biking side by side, and lovers often hold hands in the bike lane.

Of course, this is made possible because of the fabulous Dutch biking infrastructure. If you try this in a major city like Toronto or New York, you may wind up with your face in the pavement and you’ll certainly get your share of heckles. The dutch like to enjoy their bike ride – since they do it so often – so you’ll find the pace isn’t very hurried and cyclists are usually chatting with one another.

Watch for your lights. And for other cyclists in all directions. The Dutch biking infrastructure makes it easy to identify who has the right-of-way, but that doesn’t mean everyone is abiding by the rules.

A green bicycle means you’ll be safe to pass through, while anything else means you have to wait your turn. If you approach a street without bicycle traffic lights, follow the traffic lights assigned for cars and stay out of the way of oncoming cyclists.

At roundabouts, pay attention to the “shark teeth” on the road. When I first visited the Netherlands, my boyfriend was quick to warn me that shark teeth facing my direction meant I had to wait my turn. If the shark teeth aren’t pointed at you, it’s your right-of-way.

Make use of that bell! Because Holland is a biking culture, people are very confident with their biking abilities. That means you’ll be passed by a hair in bike lanes and residents won’t expect you to be cautious when approaching.

If you’re approaching a crowd of tourists or a group of people standing around, put that bell to work. If you’re on a busy street, it may be dangerous for you to stop flat and disrupt the bike traffic behind you. People expect you to make yourself known with your bell, so don’t be shy. Lay into that bell and pass through as people move out of your way.

Similarly, if you’re coming up to pass a slower cyclist and they’re not giving you enough space, give them a ding of the bell. They’ll stick to one side of the lane, giving you enough space to pass.

It’s important to experience the cultural norms of any nation when traveling, and biking in Amsterdam will certainly give you an authentic taste for the city. This lifestyle choice has made the Dutch people tall, sturdy and healthy folk with a great infrastructure to boot. Try it yourself and you might find that, upon your arrival home, you’re a little more inclined to get out your own bicycle and go for a spin.

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