How (Not) to Ride a Bike in Amsterdam

I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was 17. I used to have a tricycle and a Razor scooter, which were fine when I was a child. But for my birthday that year, I bought myself a bicycle because it occurred to me that I was missing out on one of the great joys of life. So I practiced tirelessly in my Manhattan neighborhood in Inwood Hill Park, enduring numerous falls and near-collisions with small children on scooters, until I could successfully propel myself forward.

This skill came in handy when I arrived in Amsterdam. Two days in, and I had already purchased my first Dutch bike. I paid €65 for him — as cheap as it gets — on a rainy afternoon in the wondrous Waterlooplein flea market after a wobbly test drive. I named him Maxwell, from a moniker on his crossbar.

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Maxwell, my ill-fated first bike.

On my maiden ride home along Amstel street, a pedestrian shouted “Lights!” at me. He must have heard me shouting in English to my friends, who had also just bought their first bikes, and who also didn’t have adequate bike lights in the dark. Little did I know that I was in danger of getting stopped by the police and fined for my mistake. The Dutch take their cycling seriously (except for helmets — they don’t bother with those).

The Dutch don’t bother with helmets because their bike lanes, stoplights, and cautious drivers and pedestrians keep the cyclists safe. For the last century, bikes have been central to Dutch transport and culture, and today they’re more important than ever in the face of wasteful, impractical automobiles and mopeds. And they’re damn fun to ride. That first trip home, through wind and rain, without a front light in the dark, unsure of how to get there exactly, was magnificent. Even morning rush hour on my way to the university was magnificent. I was part of a great artery coursing through the city, a quiet, open-air artery that only let in two wheels at a time.

Despite my joy, I soon learned how difficult it was to ride like the Dutch. Old ladies flew by me for a good four weeks before I could keep up with them. During the first week with Maxwell, I got lost on one of the many brick-paved, narrow streets near Rembrandtplein. I hadn’t yet learned to ride with one hand and check my phone’s map with the other, so I wasn’t sure if I was heading the right way. The street had tram tracks built into the bricks and it was dark. I was told the day before by another foreigner to watch out for the shiny tracks, because if a wheel gets stuck in there, the bike and its rider would topple over.

I was speeding down the street, desperately trying to avoid the tracks, when I heard the familiar ding (gentle, yet menacing) of a tram from behind. I quickly veered right, across the tracks and into the sidewalk, where I accidentally slammed into the curb. The bike immediately fell sideways. Somehow I jumped from my seat and landed on my feet at a trot. I turned around and Maxwell was on his side, wheels spinning and chain hanging loose. As I reached to pick him up, the tram passed — from the other direction across the street.

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A submerged bike in Ringvaart canal spotted from Nobelweg overpass.

But just as easily as I had purchased Maxwell, I lost him. To be precise, he was stolen from me. It’s estimated that 100,000 bicycles are stolen each year out of the 881,000 bicycles in Amsterdam. (We’ll never know the exact number, because many go unreported and nearly 15,000 bikes are fished out of canals annually.)

Why did my Maxwell have to be one of those 100,000? Because I’d locked him in the dingy garage of a friend’s apartment building near Waterlooplein, the very place Maxwell was bought. When I came to retrieve him, a lock from an adjacent bike had attached itself to Maxwell. My friends and I walked to the nearest police station, where we were greeted by a charming middle-aged Dutch policeman who told us that a common tactic to steal bikes was to chain them to the thief’s bike. Because theft was so pervasive, the policeman said, it was no longer criminalized. I still have trouble seeing the logic in this. He gave us a wry smile and suggested we find someone with a lock cutter. I never asked him why people get fined for not having bicycle lights, but not for stealing bicycles.

So we found a guy who advertised his services online. He arrived half an hour later and, with a blinding flash of sparks, cut the lock and freed Maxwell.

I then parked around the corner, near a bar where I was late for a dinner engagement, and locked his front wheel to a pole. When my friends and I checked up on Maxwell, he was gone, this time for good. Perhaps the very salesman I’d gotten Maxwell from took him back. After all, I was around the corner from Waterlooplein. Or maybe it was someone else entirely. The joke was on the thief, however: his chain was so loose and prone to falling off that I’d already purchased a better bike. I was only saving Maxwell for when my dad was to visit me.

Before Maxwell was stolen, I’d been living in Amsterdam for two months thinking that nothing ever went wrong. But of course it did, and of course things get stolen. I’d practically bought him on the black market. I learned that no amount of locks would prevent a bike from disappearing, and that there would always be another bike for sale somewhere. If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, you’re doing yourself a disservice by taking a canal cruise instead of renting a bike (a New Yorker friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, is guilty of this). While the tram and the metro are fantastic when the weather is unbearable, and walking is wonderful for enjoying the city slowly, cycling means taking in the entire city, rushing by, all at once.

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My trusty second bike, Jack.

My next bike was named Jack, because the moniker on his crossbar read “Union Jack.” I decided not to buy a bike outdoors ever again, so I went straight to the nearest bicycle shop, Fietswinkel, in Heinekenplein, where I was met with an assortment of reputable two-wheeled vehicles. The salesman was a Serb named Ivan, just like me, and hailed from Zaječar, the town my grandfather grew up in. He gave me the routine €20 Serb discount, leaving me to pay only €100. Needless to say, Jack was never stolen. And his chain never came off.

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