“I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.” -Frances Willard
I grew up on a mountain before mountain biking was a thing. I had more over-the-handlebar moments than I can count. My school and all shops were an hour away from our home and to get to the neighbors we had to cross a few streams and some fallen pine giants. All this is to say my bicycle, adorned with my prized sunshine yellow banana seat, gathered dust most of the year.
This summer we moved to The Netherlands for six weeks and the home we rented came with a few bikes for us to use. What came next changed my life, not in one big moment, but rather magic that builds as the days run into one another. Eventually, I woke up completely transformed. I owe it all to the bicycle and the many fietsers (cyclists in Dutch) who patiently gave me the space to wobble my way into freedom on the open road.
The Dutch ride bikes as seamlessly and stylishly as the Italians drive. It is like watching a dance full of mesmerizing, intuitive movements that others seem to be born with but I was not. There is also a graciousness in the Dutch cyclists as they move through the streets full of awareness of others yet seemingly free of judgment. Trust me when I say, I deserved to be judged for a good month in the saddle as I meandered the roads, often going the wrong way, fully expecting to be reprimanded. It never happened, not even once. On the day of my worst offense, a gentleman rang his tinker-like bell that somehow inspired me to realize I was heading down a one-way going against traffic.
Day after day, I persevered, spurred on by the window into Dutch culture I felt riding alongside them. People passed me carrying pizza and flowers in one hand. Parents with two or three children in front packs, back seats, and baby trailers whizzed by on the way to school. Boys with their girlfriends’ sidesaddle bumped over cobbled streets with eyes only for each other. Travelers rolled their carry-on luggage beside them as they cycled to the train station for a weekend away. Mostly what I learned is that the Dutch make decisions based on what is best for the community and the flow of the whole versus simply acting on behalf of their own agenda. In my experience, this altruism was evident both on and off the bike and will always be what makes me smile ear to ear for the rest of my days whenever I think of living in The Netherlands.
Through researching the bicycle culture in The Netherlands, I learned about the “forgiving infrastructure” system that gives cyclists confidence and a leadership role that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. With no helmets and mostly utilitarian bicycles, (the Dutch are very sensible and the nice bikes get stolen more often so for the most part, the bikes are not for showing off to your friends), the infrastructure flow is such that users can make errors without causing a collision. Not only that, but in our experience living in Delft, The Hague, and Wassenaar, Dutch cities are designed to favor bikes and driving is challenging. A local told us research shows that if a cyclist is hit by a car going more than 30 KM per hour, the chance of death is greater. So, the maximum speed in every livable area in The Netherlands is 30 KM per hour (around 18 MPH).
The bicycle fatality rate in the USA is six times greater than in The Netherlands. Bicycles rule the road in traffic patterns and lane dominance and that makes winding the narrow canal-lined streets seemingly impossible in a car. Parking a car is expensive and often far from the center of town and we found ourselves riding bikes everywhere including to the movies, Ikea, the hospital, and dinner parties. There are more than twenty-two million bicycles in a country of eighteen million residents. This tells me that almost every driver on the road is a cyclist themselves and therefore graciously grants the right of way to bicycles, wheelchairs, scooters, and pedestrians. Because of the cycling culture, accessibility for individuals requiring wheels for mobility is also greatly enhanced.
Bike journeys account for just five percent of daily trips worldwide. Euronews in a study published in August of this year, found, “Dutch people cycle an average of 2.6 kilometers each per day. If this pattern was replicated worldwide … annual global carbon emissions would drop by 686 million tonnes.” The benefits are truly astounding and include and go so far beyond our personal health and wellbeing.
Dank u wel (thank you), to The Netherlands for showing me your world by allowing me to fumble my way through your streets. I will dream about cycling to the Markt (Farmer’s Market) in Delft on Saturday mornings. I will dream about cycling through the dunes on the way to the beach in Wassenaar. I will dream about cycling nervously near the canals in Amsterdam almost closing my eyes at times because I was so fretful. I felt each day that I was growing wings. Thank you to every Dutch person I met when I was lost that helped me find my way, didn’t laugh when I fell, offered me advice on where to eat, work, and sit leisurely at a café to celebrate my ability to get there on two wheels! I am forever changed by seeing the world through your eyes.
As the wind whipped through my hair, the sun and the rain bringing me to life in each alternating moment, I was reminded of so many things I knew before riding a bicycle but somehow forget at times. I remembered I can only stay upright by moving forward, nature breathes new life into everything, tentative hesitation equals chaos, and I must keep my eyes on the horizon with complete presence in the moment if I am ever to arrive at my destination.