If you had asked me a year ago what I thought about tourists using bikes in Amsterdam, I would have been unequivocally in support of the idea. When Trenton and I first moved here, I hadn’t ridden a bike since college, and even then my skills were pretty sub-par.
I was (am?) a fiercely stubborn kid and refused to allow anyone to teach me to ride a bike when I was growing up. There was a vacation with my aunt and uncle when I first got going on a two-wheeler and I could kind of manage in grippy sand on the beach. But it didn’t stick and when I returned home, my skills didn’t translate to the pavement. I taught myself how to ride for good when I was about nine, walking my bike up a hill and coasting down it dozens of times until I could stay more or less upright.
I still struggle around tight turns and can only manage the tiniest of bunny hops onto curbs (and even then only about 60% of the time). That being said, my cycling skills now are a billion times better than they were a year ago, particularly when it comes to cycling in the city. Even if you are a regular cyclist back in the States, navigating the stop lights, intersections and pedestrians around Amsterdam is a whole new sport.
According to an old article I found online, Dutch policemen report that tourists are no more dangerous (perhaps even less so) than locals on bikes. According to those locals, though, tourists on bikes are hell-bent on killing themselves and taking out as many people as possible on the way.
Here’s the thing: traveling around Amsterdam by bike is AMAZING. Don’t let our bored, dour expressions fool you – zipping from one side of town to the other on your own steam is joyful and fun. We only look blasé because we’re trying to convince the other cyclists that we were all born with bikes between our legs. (Granted, some of the Dutchies actually were.) Suffice it to say, I understand the appeal, and I have to agree when the tour guides recommend cycling as the best way to see the city.
While cycling may be the best way to see Amsterdam, it’s far from the easiest. Too many newbies think that just because they can cycle in a straight-ish line, they’re prepared for the fietspad. Cycling in Amsterdam requires a unique set of skills and, at the risk of sounding like a bitter, entitled oma, these oblivious youngsters don’t know what they’re doing and keep getting in my way.
I would love for everyone to be able to experience the bliss of cycling at speed through the city – especially at night – and, sadly, I don’t think my dream of requiring tourists to pass a cycling test before they’re let loose is realistic. You don’t have to go fully native (read: suicidal) to stay out of trouble on a bike, you just need a little practice and situational awareness. It’s this latter point that gets the tourists in trouble, on foot as often as on bikes. How many times have you been cut off by some wandering passerby who stops in the middle of traffic to look at a map or up at the sky like they’re trying to navigate by the north star? Ditto for the herds of tour groups who just follow the person in front of them with zero regard for anyone or anything else. Don’t be that guy.
You can read a stack of books and articles about how to cycle in Amsterdam, but all the top tips and rules of the road essentially boil down to the same two cardinal rules of travel: be respectful and pay attention.
Some mishaps on the road are unavoidable, but so many problems with tourists on bikes could be resolved if everyone – tourist and local alike – were just a little more courteous and considerate of the fact that other people exist. Amsterdam thrives on tourism and most of the locals are genuinely warm, welcoming and friendly. If you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, I hope you have the opportunity to do a little exploring by bike. Take some time to practice on a quieter road and get to know the rhythm of the flow.
Oh, and give me a heads-up before you head out, so I can stay far, far away…