Netherlands Bike Culture

18 Comments 19 August 2010

Bikes parked everywhere

As soon as I stepped out of Amsterdam Centraal station from the airport, I saw what makes Amsterdam different from other cities I’ve visited…no, not the canals (Venice has canals!); it was the bikes. Seeing everyone flitting around on two wheels immediately struck me as a unique piece of culture.

I’m not sure why, but I love cities with strong cultural ties to a mode of transportation. Vietnam and motorbikes, NYC and the subway, Nepal and buses, Monogolia and Jeeps, Delhi and autorickshaws, Philippines and Jeepneys, and now…Netherlands and bikes. The moment I set foot in Amsterdam, I knew I would be exploring the city by two wheels. The first day I went and rented a bike for a week making me the happiest tourist ever; wandering around the canals and down the rivers, out into the non-touristsy areas where little English was spoken, riding into the countryside, and even going bar hopping with locals.

My trip out into the countryside was one of my highlights. Originally I was going to go out to Zaanse Schans a village outside of Amsterdam along the river which is home to windmills and other touristy type attractions such as clogs, cheese, and village homes. Quite honestly, my only interest was the windmills and the thought of the other uber tourist attractions really had no interest me. I had plotted my way to get there via train and foot, but at the last minute, Graham, my couchsurfing host, agreed to come with me and turn it into a bike adventure!

Colorful windmills

Clouds and Windmill

Our bike path


I was so happy to bike to the village instead of arriving the typical way with all of the other busloads of tourists. The ride took us about 2 ½ hrs and Graham was the perfect guide explaining the landscapes and allowing me to stop for pictures.I felt so lucky to have him lead me through the confusing bike trails and polders. The windmills were worth it, plus while there we decided to visit the clogs and cheese too…I seldom pass up free cheese tastings!

The great thing about the Netherlands is that it’s flat…very flat. The only real inclines are when you travel over the bridges in the canals. Because of this simple biking terrain, the Dutch use bikes that are sort of akin to a Cadillac…it’s a cruising, ‘out on a Sunday drive’ bike. The bikes looked old since they had no gears and sometimes no handbrakes (remember the old foot ‘backwards’ brake?), and they were normally just plain black in color and heavy. You had a big cushy seat and sat upright while riding it not caring about wind resistance or speed. Because of the bike design, it gave the whole country an even more laid back feel to me. The few times I did see mountain bikes or proper racing/road bikes, they felt out of place – and more importantly they stressed me out just looking at them all hunched over, face in the wind, and in a hurry.

One of my favorite things about the bike culture is the cool business it sparks which support the bike culture: Here were some of my favorites:

Seat Covers to protect your bottom from a wet seat!

Bike Seat Cover

Baskets to carry everything in!

Bike Basket

Special parking for bike only

Bike Ramp Parking

BMW type baby carriers

Baby Bike Carrier

However there was one BIG thing missing which baffled me – helmets.

I used to look down upon the Vietnamese because they sporadically use helmets and really only do so because it’s a law. But I was surprised to land in this modern, educated European city and find that no one, and I mean no one was wearing bike helmets.

The social culture was also built around the bike in Holland – people talked on cell phones as they peddled down the street; Oprah would be very unhappy with this + the lack of helmets. In fact I’m surprised that she hasn’t unleashed her wrath upon the Netherlands yet. I was most tickled by the couples on bikes – they would ride two on a bike sidesaddle. They even went on dates on bikes (I saw a couple biking and holding hands at 3AM on a Saturday night).

I enjoyed trying to fit into the bike culture during my time there. I’m already missing my bike in Brussels where just a short train ride away, the bike culture didn’t cross national borders.

More photos of the bike culture in the Netherlands

More photos of my trip to Zaanse Schans and Utrecht

Your Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. Maria Staal says:

    Great to read a post about what sort of impression our Dutch bikes make on visitors. I am glad you enjoyed your biking experience in Amsterdam!
    It’s true that bicycles are a big part of the Dutch culture. I go everywhere on my bike, without ever thinking about it.
    As for the helmets. No, we don’t wear them. It just seems a lot of fuss to put them on, and they are uncomfortable. It’s not compulsory to where bicycle helmets in the Netherlands, but obviously it would be a good idea. I just don’t think it will ever catch on…

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comments! I really loved your city and the bikes! The only way the helmets caught on in Vietnam was to make it a law! Granted – it was nice not wearing one in Amsterdam – but it felt really weird!

  2. Maartje says:

    Helmets… who needs them?

    The Dutch are absolutely convinced that the fuss of helmets is not outweighed by the extra security. And it looks silly. I don’t think Oprah would compromise her do with a helmet, do you?

    • admin says:

      I’m guessing Oprah would compromise her do, but have her assistant hair dresser bike behind her so that her hair could be ‘fixed’ when we arrived at her destination!

  3. Shannon says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful post. I feel like I learned a bit about the bike culture and kindof know what to expect, should my adventures bring me to Amsterdam. Love the photos!

  4. Mark H says:

    Saying the Netherlands ia flat always reminds me of that great line that you can stand on the Amsterdam phone book and see the whole country. The thing that struck me about cycling in the Netherlands is that the entire country exists for cycling with superb bike paths, places to park your bike in parks, practical bikes with places to store stuff and courtesy on the roads when cyclists are sharing with traffic. Superb photos as always….

  5. Anis Salvesen says:

    Nice! I love that riding the bike allowed you to hang out more with the locals. It sounds like it was a super fun trip. I wish more U.S. cities were bike-friendly!

  6. Matt says:

    Lovely photos. Hiring a bike in Amsterdam is a great way to see the city. Nice to get out of the city centre to see the nearby neighborhoods.

  7. Andrew says:

    Try also the bike loan schemes that are hitting cities around the world – eg Paris, London, Copenhagen, Montreal, Melbourne…etc. You can see things more like a local. Good post…

  8. Laura says:

    I’ve been itching to rent a bike for the past few days- that is until I realized we were about to go to Hanoi! I can barely cross the street here, let alone ride a bicycle through town 😉 I think the Netherlands is exactly where I need to be.

  9. Vincent says:

    As a Dutchman I’m used to the bikes. I work a lot in Amsterdam so I drive a lot in Amsterdam with my car (looking for a parking spot of € 5,- an hour).
    Dutch people on bikes are no problem…..the problem is American tourists who rent bikes just for fun…, is driving a bike in the states something unusual since all of them really seem to suck at it!!! (and yes, they also don’t wear these stupid looking helmets, I saved many american lives this summer alone…maybe I can get on Oprah!!!)…
    O yeah, so you know, it’s illegal to drink and drive on a bike in Holland, but everyone does hahaha!

  10. Anil says:

    I love the biking culture of the Netherlands. It gives such a flow to the city and love the simplicity and cleanliness of it. Just takes a while when strolling around the cities though, you’ve got to watch out for those bikes!

  11. Lia says:

    Absolutely beautiful photos, and I greatly enjoyed this piece. I’m a little obsessed with the Netherlands, and while I’ve found Zaanse Schans too touristy for my taste, I’m glad you could enjoy it by bike.

    Because I thought you might be interested, here’s a post I did last week about my daily commute–by bike, of course–while studying Dutch in the Netherlands this summer:

    Thanks again for a great post!

  12. Rita says:

    Cab you please tell all those Americans, that rent a bike in Amsterdam, that it is NOT allowed to ride on pedestrian walkways. And further: if you are not very good at riding a bike, please stay in the countryside!!

    • Esther says:

      All those Americans..on the walkways!? Maybe you should have told them right away, your English is fine I suppose.

      I am Dutch, from Amsterdam, and have extensive experience with fellow Dutch folks biking like maniacs. They don’t stop or pay attention to the rules. (Helmets are not going to help when you dismiss red lights)
      And when you cross them the wrong way, they just mumble and look angry.
      I have stayed in the US for a period of time, and people (I met) seemed much more polite out in public. No staring without greeting and so.

      Just a tip when you go bike in Amsterdam: Just make sure that you know traffic can come from different directions when the light goes green. (I have seen visitors almost get in accidents)

      And: Come see us! :) We can be friendly too. Just be safe!

  13. Femke says:

    Haha nice, its so normal for me to take my bike in Amsterdam! Nice to read youre blog!

  14. Canal Cook says:

    I miss cycling in the Netherlands so much. I was there for a year and a half and lived on my bike. I even cycled 16km to work every day in a suit because it was so easy on flat ground. The helmets thing is odd alright, you literally can’t buy them anywhere.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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