American Learns How to Bike in the Netherlands

Some of you may read this title and think I’m talking about learning to bike in the Netherlands specifically. That’s the beauty of an ambiguous title like this—it means what you want it to mean.

In the early days when I would visit the Netherlands as a tourist, I refrained from biking here. At the time, my biking skills comprised solely of being able to haphazardly mount my bike and not fall off. For the lack of balance I possess, I considered this fairly impressive. I hadn’t gotten as far as traffic rules. In Philadelphia where I lived, the rule was “don’t die”. Pretty straightforward if you ask me.

There’s also the difference between typical Dutch bikes and American bikes, which is that the American ones by default have front brakes. The Dutch default has back brakes. That’s why Dutch bikes look so clean and picturesque: no wires.

Given my less-than-expert biking abilities, I advised my girlfriend in the early days that I shouldn’t even bother biking in the Netherlands during our trips. We were also staying in Amsterdam where the bike traffic can get pretty crazy. I had seen the crazy traffic, and had nearly been run over by that crazy traffic as a pedestrian. Several times. No thanks, I’ll pass.

So it came to my surprise when a year into our relationship, in the summer of 2017, Sara proclaimed that it was time I got a bike in Amsterdam. I didn’t know how to respond. I had never biked on a bike with back brakes and could barely bike on one with front brakes. I had also barely taken my bike out in Philadelphia traffic.

The things is, I had never learned how to bike properly growing up. She knew this.

So why was she doing this to me?

“It’s going to be fine,” she said with the confidence of someone who couldn’t remember whether she learned to bike or walk first.

So then, one faithful evening, I rented a bike at Amsterdam Centraal Station. I got on it, barely. This bike was taller than any bike I had ever been on (but that’s not saying much since I’ve been on a total of two bikes in my entire lifetime). I pedaled gently, which was my first mistake. These heavy bikes require you to PUSH.

The first ten seconds on the bike were wobbly, but hey, there I was, biking in Amsterdam! On an omafiets! The happiness was short-lived.

No sooner as I biked away from Centraal Station, I went up a little bridge, and then down it, and I realized I couldn’t actually brake because, hey, I had never actually used back brakes before. I also wasn’t quite sure how to maneuver the handles of this majestic, heavy bike. So then it happened, I went down the bridge and straight into a wall.

You had to have seen this coming.

Fast-forward two and a half years later in early 2020 when I had been living in the Netherlands for a few months. I immediately saw that the biking was the best way to get around Dutch cities. I was sick of having to wait for late night buses after visiting friends, sick of walking thirty minutes to somewhere when others around me would get there in five.

“It’s time.” I tell Sara. Let’s do this.

I knew I wanted an omafiets. Even though it would be more difficult for me to bike on one, that’s just what I wanted. I wanted to bike on a beautiful sleek black bike, where you can sit up straight and look effortless when biking. I didn’t move to the Netherlands to not be uncomfortable and to not bike on an omafiets! I wanted the Dutch experience.

But let’s take a moment to talk about this “omafiets”. Translated to English, it means “grandma bike”. It only terrifies me a little that grandmas are supposed to ride this thing and I can barely walk with it in tow. Also, why is it called a grandma bike when I’ve only really seen young hip ladies on this thing? A question for another blog post.

So sparked by annoyance after living in the Netherlands for a while, I went out, and with Sara’s help, bought myself a sleek, black second-hand omafiets. I was happy.

A couple of months went by, and my poor omafiets simply stood outside, unused. I felt guilty, but I also felt scared. I had to admit, Dutch traffic scared me a bit.

But when the weather got better, I had no excuse, and that’s when I was able to practice, and that’s when I learned the tenants of Dutch biking culture.

#1. If it’s more than a ten minute walk, you’re better off biking that distance. That way you can practice!

#2. Don’t bike slowly. Go with the flow of traffic at all times.

#3. If you bike steadily on the right, people will leave you alone and pass you on the left if they want to.

#4. Pretend like you’re relaxed on this heavy but beautiful mechanical thing. It will make your biking more relaxed as well.

#5. If you’re ever unsure about what you need to be doing, or if you’re ever uncomfortable when on your bike, you can get off it!

That last point’s mind-blowing, isn’t it?

I started out biking short distances about twice a week. I decided that in the beginning it was best to bike with Sara. After the incident of 2017, she also thought it was best we biked together. I was proud to see how far she had come.

Or how far I had come. In my biking.

Several weeks later, Sara and I spent a few days on the Dutch island of Terschelling. That’s when I really had no choice. To get anywhere on the island, you had to bike. And so we did. 3 and a half days of biking later, I suddenly felt like I was getting the hang of this thing.

Who’d have guessed that biking without crazy city traffic all around you would actually help?

Me. I guessed that.

So here’s the thing, I know of many internationals (read: non-Dutch) who don’t bike because they’re afraid of Dutch bike traffic or aren’t that confident in their biking skills. And I totally get it. It’s hard to overcome this barrier of feeling vulnerable as an adult.

But if the Dutch way of biking has taught me anything, it is to go for it and don’t hesitate. Hesitating doesn’t do anyone any good.

This week I was biking with Sara on our way back from a Bagels and Beans (Dutch chain that sells bagels and coffee, but you got that from the name, didn’t you?). It was windy and my hair was all over my face. Without thinking, I spent a full minute trying to get my hair, which has a life of its own, to stay out of the way.

I had spent a full minute biking with one hand! In Dutch traffic in the middle of Utrecht. And no one got hurt! New level unlocked.

10 thoughts on “American Learns How to Bike in the Netherlands

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  1. Kudos! Only now do I begin to realise that riding a bike can be fraught with all sorts of difficulties if you’re not brought up in the Netherlands as a kid. Love your blog and Youtube channel, really great to see things from your perspective. Enjoy your day! -Wil


  2. It is indeed very good to practice biking in quiet spaces to get confident with your bike and biking.
    The next level will be riding your bike without any hands on the bike 😉 (but your bike has to be in good balance for that. And most bikes are).
    I have once did a bike ride of 9km without any hands on the bike, expect when starting at the begin and stopping at the end.
    If you are able to do that, you’ll be a very good biker in the Netherlands.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Who knew there are so many levels before getting it right on a Dutch bike. I’m happy for you that you are getting there. The best thing about biking here is how easy it is to go in relax mode, get lost, and find your way back again because you can bike everywhere! Thank you for sharing your perspective on life.

    Any specific biking achievements you’re looking forward to gaining?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooo, great question! Not sure if I’ll ever get there, but I consider being able to bike with a suitcase a real achievement. I’ve seen people do it and I’m always so impressed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your experience of of confidently cycling only using one hand for the first time feels so familiar. For me I had been trying to learn the art of single-handed cycling for a while, but the moment I got it was, eh, when I had an itchy nose and scratched it without a thought.

    No-hand cycling took a bit longer, and will never be 100% confident.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. There is a joke about this: “Kijk eens mama zonder handjes! Kijk eens mama zonder tandjes!” => “Look mama without hands! Look mama without teeth!” The moral of the joke being that it can be dangerous or being a bit more optimistic something best learned before getting your adult teeth!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Utrecht is a busy place bike-wise, but not quite as nasty as Amsterdam. Biking is a status symbol when going to meetings in city centre Amsterdam: It says you live close enough to bike and don’t need the GVB (Amsterdam public transport). Personally I prefer handremmen over a terugtraprem, and switching always confuses me for a bit. It used to be that on multi-lane crossings you had to pick your lane (voorsorteren) just like, and mingling with, motorised traffic. But most of those have been reorganised into separate bike lane and either having to wait twice, or having a “free for all bikes from all directions at once” moment in the traffic lights’ cycle. That last one can get tricky if you’re slow to start.

    Here is a challenge: Learn to look back while biking without zwabberen (swerving).


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