In my previous blog post, I described what it can be like to bike in Amsterdam, which can appear pretty intense, and explained that despite this biking is a part of daily life for Dutch people just as much as anything else. In this post, I will explain why biking is better, and some tips to get the most out of your biking experience.
Everyone in the Netherlands bikes—and so should you! Biking can be very social, especially if you’re meeting people somewhere. Biking is almost always the fastest way to get somewhere in Amsterdam, and, once you’re on your bike with other people, you can all easily travel together from café to museum to restaurant to night club. Using your bicycle as transport for a night on the town is totally normal, and often it really is the best option, as Amsterdam’s late night public transport is slim, if not nonexistent. Of course, if riding your bike after a night out proves to be unsafe, it’s never a bad idea to just call an Uber and get your bike another time. Despite single public transport rides being relatively cheap, they can add up quite quickly. In the long term, biking will probably save you something like 100 Euros. Plus, biking is healthy! My mother, who grew up in the Netherlands, biked to school in the strong wind every day as a child and still has the strong less muscles to show for it. So, despite the biking conditions being arduous sometimes (if not often), they are many benefits that, combined with the unique experience of truly immersing oneself in another culture, might just make it worth it.
Now, to make that experience as comfortable as possible. Firstly, tend to dress down when you bike, as you work up a sweat pretty quickly if you’re not used to it. In the first few weeks of the September, we had a heat wave, and every time I biked my shirt was completely soaked through—there’s not much you can do about this. And, come wintertime, despite how cold it may seem, whatever your base layer will always get a bit damp, especially with a backpack on. It's more important to cover your external layers than your core: wear a hat, scarf, and wind-proof gloves, and you’ll be plenty warm with just a sweater and leather jacket or lightweight raincoat. You can tie your scarf around your head to make a balaclava, which is quite popular here and also a perfect way to keep warm. Another way to regulate temperature is to simply not bike so fast. Especially when it was warm out, it was wonderful to pop my bike into seventh gear and race along the bike paths while pedaling slow but forcefully. However, this ends up being quite an intense workout.
As far as rain goes, you can only prepare so well, as rain comes and goes when it pleases, and it’s not always practical to tote around full rain gear with you wherever you go. That being said, a rain jacket is a necessity, and you can purchase rain paints at the Hema, which is essentially the Dutch version of Target, and I think they’re actually kind of stylish. Anything that helps to keep the rain out of your eyes will also make your bike ride infinitely more manageable. The unfortunate truth is that it is often too dark for sunglasses, so a pair of glasses with clear or slightly colored lenses are a light saver, and you’ll also look awesome.
In terms of traffic, just be predictable and aware and you shouldn’t have any problems. Because they are just so many people on bicycles, cars, busses, and trams are aware of them and give right of way. There are a lot of clueless tourists in Amsterdam who cross bike paths without looking, or simply walk in them, and this can be immensely frustrating as well as dangerous. In this case, just use your bell! It’s very socially acceptable and it’s also kind of fun. It can seem stressful biking in such close proximity to other people, but everyone on a bike is aware of one another, and they tend to behave as a group. Simply use your hands to signal where you’re turning, and otherwise just go with the flow of traffic: if people are stopping to let a pedestrian cross, you should stop as well, but if they’re not, then you’re good to go too. Biking with one hand is really easy to learn and kind of a necessity for signaling. Biking with no hands is, though not necessary, way cooler and can be quite practical. It’s also not as hard as it seems; once you’re comfortable on the bike, all it takes is sitting upright to get good balance, making sure to pedal up and down and not let your knees flay out, and then a little bit of courage and commitment. It is so nice to be able to adjust your zipper or your bag, or to put on a pair of gloves, while moving on the bike. It also really makes you feel like a local.
In sum, embrace the biking culture in Amsterdam with open arms, as it is a fundamental part of daily life for all Dutch people. It is also cheaper than public transport and healthier for you. And most importantly, while practicing safe and aware cycling, don’t take it too seriously. You don’t have to bike too fast or be overly anxious at an intersection—you are where you’re meant to be when on a bike in the Netherlands.
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Despite being a history major and studying history at the UvA this year, I am a passionate musician. I have been playing piano for over a decade, focusing largely on jazz, but I love to play guitar, banjo, and mandolin in my free time!