Gone Dutch, and why more people should

April means Amsterdam. Over the last 6 or so years, my spring highlight has been travelling to the wonderful Dutch capital for an annual conference, and every time I’ve regretted not exploring the city beyond conference rooms and the odd restaurant and bar. The canals, boats, bustling streets, the charming streetscape. Oh, and don’t forget the bicycles.

Along with a handful of other European cities, Amsterdam has a decades long reputation as a cycle friendly city, and for that reason the envy of many. Indeed, when you stand still anywhere at any time, a colourful variety of bikes whoosh by, like red blood cells flowing through vessels, each on their way somewhere important. A chaos which somehow works.

This year I decided to rent a bicycle from my hotel, with a view to using it as an alternative to a taxi or public transport. A few minutes later, I was presented with my companion for the next two days – a black steel Dutch bike, complete with a wicker basket.

My steed for two days.

Two days later and with about 30 km in my legs, I am convinced that the Dutch bike is the perfect city bike. Here’s why.

A Dutch bike is designed to be ridden upright. Not in an aero position, not in an endurance position – upright. Complete with a wide and comfy saddle, this makes for a slow and sedate riding pace. This is ideal for rides wearing normal clothes, be it jeans and a shirt, a dress, or a suit. This makes it easy just to walk to your bike, hop on, ride a bit, then and hop off. No special clothing (except maybe a raincoat), no preparation, it just integrates into your day.

Handy basket up front, making it the perfect shopping machine.

The bicycle is robustly built, designed to be reliable and easy to maintain. It is heavy (more on that later), the tyres wide, sturdy and puncture resistant, it has an internal hub gearbox (mine had 3 gears) meaning no fumbling adjusting gears, and it has mudguards and chain guard to protect your clothing. It can have a basket, and a rear and/or front rack, which means you can carry heavy and bulky goods, as well as other people – sometimes you see a parent with three children roll past!

Lights are powered by a hub dynamo, which shine quite brightly when pedalling. Mine went out when I stopped, but this can be remedied by either having an in-built capacitor or simply not stopping, the latter being a trait many Amsterdam cyclists seem to share.

Riding at night, most streets are ruled by bicycles, cars are often merely guests.

Pedalling is easy, although finding the right gear is sometimes challenging (but what do you expect with three?). Gears are easily selected by a grip shift, and braking can be done either by hand brakes (linked to hub brakes) or backpedalling. Don’t expect disc brake power though, pulling the brake lever is more a suggestion for the bike to slow down at some point in the near future.

The ride is surprisingly smooth, with the wide tyres cushioning out the bumps in the street. Even braking isn‘t an issue, as the Amsterdam bike traffic essentially has right of way in many situations (except for trams), which means emergency braking is rare.

Because of the excellent Dutch bicycle infrastructure, many people ride bikes as cars are simply inconvenient. It takes effort to ride very a Dutch bike very quickly, which means that bike traffic is essentially the same speed (between 10-20km/h), comfortable to ride in, and – most importantly – predictable for other road users.

Life going by, where one is simply swept along.

For me, the most intriguing aspect of a Dutch bike is parking it. Even if a bike rack isn’t available, its kick stand allows you to leave it essentially anywhere (within reason!) – most bikes come with a bolted on rear-wheel lock. Just stop your bike, twist the key, and engage the rear-wheel lock. For extra security, these locks often come with a built-in chain, meaning you can attach it anywhere.

Typical wheel lock mounted to the frame, which can be simply locked. The key remains in the keyhole when it’s not locked, so no fumbling for lost keys. The lock also has a built in chain lock, so you can lock it up to street furniture.

Parking and locking the bike is therefore done in a matter of seconds. No more lugging around a D lock, hunting for your keys, looking for a bike rack or street sign. The bike’s weight makes it unattractive for thieves, and lets be honest, with so many dark coloured and slightly rusty Dutch bikes on the street, what’s the chance that yours gets pinched?

As a foreigner in Amsterdam, the Dutch bike appears a novelty and seems like elegant perfection. Ask any Dutchman or woman though, and they won’t give it a second thought. It’s just a bike, a mundane tool to get from A to B.

True, any city outside the Netherlands would need more than three gears, and the weight might be a struggle uphill, but that doesn’t take anything away from the other merits. However, even Amsterdam is seeing an increase of e-bikes, which may make the issue of riding up hills a moot point.

Turn into any Amsterdam street, and you will see piles of bikes. Something which is just accepted as another tool. And yet, compared to many other European cities, few parked cars can be seen.

Boiled down to its core, the magic of a Dutch bike is that it is essentially a relic which has shunned a century’s worth of bicycle innovation. No disc brakes, suspension forks, or carbon frames. But do the basic needs of people really change so much over a century?

And therein lies the beauty – the Dutch bike is so simple and perfect that it has become a mere tool. Not unlike an washing machine, iron or pencil. Just an object doing its job without complaint or fanfare.

I own a racing bike, a time trial bike, and a mountain bike, but a part of me also really wants a beautiful black steel Dutch bike, complete with a wicker basket. You should try one if you can, I’m certain you’ll enjoy it!

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