In Coaster Brakes Country
“What are you doing down there?” Glen asked in alarm. We were just out the door of the train station where we had picked up our big, Dutch bicycles. “Looking for my hand brakes” I answered. Glen should have been happy that I sacrificed myself instead of plowing into his bike from the rear. Instead I chose to crash into a portable barricade that was now toppled onto my bike – now both laying on top of me right outside the entrance to the Central Train Station. The lovely Dutch people exiting the station sprang to my aid, clucking and looking extremely worried about my future on the bike paths of the Netherlands.
Back in Arizona it had seemed like a pretty simple plan. “Flat,” I told Glen. “Flat with bike paths all over the place. Along the canals, in the cities, from town to town. Windmills along the way, tulips growing wild in the fields, the occasional cows and tall, beautiful people who love to speak English and welcome travelers into their homes for B&B. And cheese. Delicious cheese.”
Our guidebook assured us that we were in bike friendly territory and that every train station in every town rents bikes for something like 6 Euro a day. We also checked out slick internet sites that boasted countless and beautiful 10- 20 mile loops that we could do as day trips. So we gave up on the advance details and rented bikes in historic Haarlem – “our town” in the Netherlands.
Glen and I love to ride our bikes at home. We ride them for fun, for transportation, and occasionally for shopping. We figured it would be no problem translating those basic skills in a flat, cool bike culture. The reality of things were somewhat startling however.
First off, the bikes are way different than our bikes at home. Dutch bikes are heavy and built to last. Our B&B host told us that her bike was over 30 years old and was her primary transportation. She doesn’t even own a car.
These bikes are also very big, tall and hardy. Black, mostly, or spray painted some crazy color. No gear shifts. Rust on the fenders. High handlbars with a large, colorful basket. Wide, fat tires. And here is the most important part – coaster brakes. The bicycle you learned to ride on felt like this. That is how I found myself tangled up “right out of the chute” as we say in Arizona. Searching for nonexistent hand brakes in a coaster brake culture.
Riding bikes in the Netherlands is not for the uninitiated. Americans with visions of canals and tulips and windmills in their heads need to take a couple days to figure it all out by carefully observing. The intersections have three sets of traffic signals: lighted spheres for the automobiles, lighted walking men for the pedestrians and lighted bicycles for you. On many streets you get your own lane, too, with its own yellow lane divider. This would make your inaugural bicycle ride quite charming and tranquil except for the motorcycles and the buses and the delivery trucks and the map-reading tourists and the honking Smart cars and the ambulances going eeee-ooo-eeee-ooo (like from the Ann Frank movie!) and the other bicycles silently bearing down on you from behind…. At times it was scary as hell.
While on our bikes we were commonly overtaken by the following type persons, all of whom pedaled aggressively and glided past us like we were standing still: leggy blond Amazon women in miniskirts and four-inch platform shoes; businessmen and women in suits; teenage boys with girlfriends balancing sidesaddle on the back; mothers carrying two small children in the front and another clinging from behind; shoppers carrying packages piled up in their front basket; women carrying full sacks of market vegetables; an elderly white-haired women with her small dog peering out of a covered crate; ……None of these people, by the way, were wearing a helmet.
For all our near – miss experiences on and around bicycles in the Netherlands we would do it again. Especially now that we have some training miles under our belts. Do we advise our friends and family to take off on two wheels in Holland. Yes, and we will again.
But here are some warnings:
– Most important to know is that you have to pedal furiously backwards to brake. The opportunity to clench your hand brakes in the face of an oncoming obstacle is sadly lost as I found out in my first five minutes.
– The bikes are generally built for long-legged, tall Dutch people. At 5’9″, Glen and I were at the very minimum of height for those huge bikes. Not to mention trying to pedal backwards.
– In cities, Dutch are often on the way to or from work and cycling for them is a serious means of getting from A to B as quickly as possible. Tourists in cities traveling at a snail’s pace and stopping to consult their maps can expect to be clanged at by a whole string of bell-ringing Dutch men and women. Best to stick to the countryside.
– Cyclists are forced to share their path with mopeds and scooters who weave in and out of the bike traffic at alarming speeds. You never seem to know that they are there until the last startling moment.
GO! Bike! Love it! If we can come out of it all in one piece so can you. But next time we’ll bring our helmets.