With a nod to Katie Melua and her hit song in 2008 “Nine million bicycles in Beijing”, the stats have changed somewhat and only a year later in 2009, Beijing with a population of 12 million people, had 13 million bicycles to their credit.
Fast forward to 2018 where The Netherlands registered 23 million bicycles and last year, in Amsterdam alone there were 881 000 bicycles – here in NL, it truly is ALL about the bicycle!
Coming from a rural, hilly area of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, bicycles were not something common to farm children, firstly from a gradient point of view and secondly from a dirt road aspect.
However, my first experience with a bicycle came when my older sister received a bicycle for her birthday way back before we turned double-digits in age. It was a basic bicycle without any gears or hand brakes, just the standard bicycle with back-pedal brakes which meant that it was sturdy enough for the three of us children to share and only a chain that needed to be repaired from time to time.
Since we lived on a very steep hill, close to the rocky district road that ran through our farm yard, we would take it in turns to push the fairly heavy bicycle up that stony, dusty hill and then the sheer joy of hurtling down again in order to hand the two wheeler over to the next sibling whilst we watched from the bank. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get Dad to pull us up the hill behind the farm truck – that doubled the delight!
I had the misfortune of being the sibling who misjudged the speed one gathered on that rocky hill and hit a speed-wobble that saw me scrape most of the skin off my legs, arms and hands when I came off onto that bony dirt road!
Our nearest neighbour’s youngest daughter and I used to play with one another and it was always best when I was able to persuade Dad to load the bike onto the truck and take me to her farmhouse as they also had a tennis court. Not only did we play tennis for hours, but the court provided the only flat, paved area to ride our bikes on too – her bike was a bright red one which I would challenge her to a game of tennis in order to have a turn on the colourful “fancy” bike!
Needless to say, my experience with bicycles was less than limited and I found cyclists in South Africa to be nothing short of crazy to take on the country roads without any verges and the manic drivers on those roads being none to tolerant of the bicycles – many a harsh word yelled between two and four wheel modes of transport!
The other more popular cycling option in SA is for fitness fanatics and sadomasochists – the mountain bikers! These are the insane people who take on single track trails through forests and treacherous mountain terrain in order to sweat and strain themselves into sinewed fitness condition – I was never one of those, not only because my anatomy was clearly not designed to sit comfortably on one of those ridiculous seats for hours on end, but neither was my neck for straining upwards from my downward stretched arms in order to see where I was going from under my crash helmet!
Understandably, I was seriously reluctant to ride a bicycle in our new home country and I figured that I would simply learn to master the public transport system (a novelty for many South Africans as there the public transport system is far more informal and totally different to anything in Europe). I was also secretly terrified of all the traffic that I would have to negotiate, along with pedestrians too – I figured that the locals would be safer if I were NOT to own a bicycle!
My Dutch bicycle adventure will unfold in the following post…!