The Netherlands is famous the world over for its cycling citizens. It is very cycling oriented. Slim, fit-looking 60 and 70 year olds on bikes is a common sight that my husband is not always graciously yielding to. Don’t get me wrong, he DOES yield…just not graciously. Infrastructure for bikes is better than for cars…separate “roads” under lanes of shade trees, marked with centre lanes, and lights. I don’t know why there are lights since the cyclist doesn’t seem to be required to do anything except believe in his/her supremacy. My 11 year old son found this out the hard way while he was blissfully unaware he was standing in the bike lane…not the pedestrian sidewalk. These lovely cycling roads are not limited to urban centres. In addition to the red margins on the country lanes, there are many separate bike roads that link town to town along small canals lined with large shade trees. It’s a cyclers’ paradise.
Plus Dutch 9-5ers can cycle to work and still look good. The common black (why?) Dutch cycle looks like it was built in 1939 and survived WW2, has no centre bar so women can, and do, ride their bikes in skirts and heels. There also appears to be no helmet laws so one can arrive at one’s destination without “hat head” hair. I reflect on the “no helmet” situation a lot because where I come from it is drilled into us, and legislated into us that cyclists must wear a helmet. That, combined with the style of bike, I think keeps me from riding my bike more (centre bar, low handlebars that hurt my neck and unfriendly hard seats). Yes, I hate to admit where my vanity shows up and although I have lots of bad hair days that are of my own creation, I just don’t need more that a helmet has created. Plus the style of Dutch bikes works too…the seats are wide and squishy and comfortable, and the handlebars are high so my neck and shoulders and butt could ride around in comfort.
So, thanks to a local Dutch associate of my husband’s we had the opportunity to hop on bikes one day in the small city of Leiden, about an hour from Amsterdam. He gave us a day-long personal tour of his home town and I have to say the perspective of the bike added immensely to our enjoyment. Leiden is overlooked by North Americans but it shouldn’t be. Built on the same model as Amsterdam, but not choked with tourists, Leiden is a model Dutch medieval city (Delft is another example). The original fortification and settlement was established at the fork of a river. The city built up around that in a circle and at one time was surrounded by a fortified wall and a series of canals, bridges and narrow streets to defend and support its citizens. Now remnants of the medieval wall house restaurants and shops. Leiden began as a wool trading centre and developed an educated and prosperous population. The University of Leiden is still famous today, having had Nobel prize winning professors such as Lorenz (who “helped” Einstein develop his theory of relativity) on faculty. The Dutch royal family still sends its offspring there to be educated and owns a house for them on one of the main canals. The university’s legendary botanic garden was where the tulip bulb was first introduced to the Netherlands four centuries ago. Other Leiden “claim to fame” is one of its churches which is where the founding fathers of America left on the Mayflower to establish the first settlement. The list of American presidents who have come to the church where the pilgrims worshiped includes every one you could think of. So it has a lot to offer, but have you ever heard of Leiden?
I see us doing more cycling in the Netherlands. The entire day in Leiden I didn’t worry about the traffic once. It couldn’t have been a more different experience than what I’ve had in North America! The way I’d describe it is that cyclists in the Netherlands are treated like we treat pedestrians. As a cyclist in my home town, I’m treated like traffic and am constantly watching around me and unable to enjoy it as I did here in Europe. And my husband loved it too, so perhaps he will be able to be a little more gracious about his one driving lane, speed bumps and speed limits…