The key to the national mode of transport in The Netherlands is not to worry about anyone else – selfish, right? No, sensible and SAFE! My South African mind-set had to make a radical shift if I were to embrace the bicycle culture and survive!
Step one is to buy a bicycle and the best advice is to look on Marktplaats (the national online shopping site for absolutely anything and everything!) Obviously, if one is a bike-guru one would go directly to a bicycle shop and make an informed, costly investment in the best of the best however, if you’re a novice like I am, then Marktplaats is the place to begin!
I was most amused by some of the descriptions of the bicycles on offer, my favourite being: “a good bike which has a very quiet ride” – what on earth they meant by that, I was soon to find out about…. A rattle or a squeak can be most tiresome when pedaling for a length of time on a straight stretch of road in the wind and the rain, hence a quiet ride is desirable! I have heard many bicycles approach from a good distance away by their characteristic shake, rattle and roll!
Apart from the obvious descriptions of gender, wheel diameter or size (so I have learned) and then the general condition of the bike, one needs to consider the cost which varies dramatically.
The other best description of a bicycle, from a cost point of view, was a “station bike”.
Again I had no idea what this referred to but the price was attractive and so I made the appointment to view and test ride. It turns out that a “good station bike” is the best bike to start with as it is one that one would not feel too badly about leaving at the station for a day and returning to it having been knocked over by other less careful citizens or blown over by the wind, rained on, or even stolen! It is still the same trusty two-wheeled steel steed that will get you from A to B, no matter how tattered and battered it might be and can easily be traded up for a better model when one is more familiar with the lifestyle.
The next things to consider are the accessories that either come with the bargain purchase or need to be added, as and when the need and budget allow. A basket or crate being the first port of call as without somewhere to pack shoppings into, one is reliant on balancing carrier bags on the handlebars – neither sensible nor safe as they tend to swing around making one somewhat unstable!
The steel frame that attaches to the front of the bicycle is necessary for a basket, or the more common and cost effective plastic crates, to be attached to. Opting for stability, I attached my fairly heavy wicker basket to the back carrier as when fully loaded with shopping, it made the handling of the bike ungainly when on the front. (My basket was purchased for it’s aesthetics more than it’s practicality – lesson learned!)
However, attaching a basket or crate to the back of the bike means that one is more susceptible to having sneaky fingers snatch items out of it at traffic lights (more prevalent in bigger cities) so one needs a cover which serves as a “security blanket” and weather cover in one.
What I have found refreshingly reassuring here in NL is the fact that I can park my bicycle on the pavement, fully loaded with shoppings, packages covered by my basket cover and walk into the bakery for a stokbrood, leaving everything SAFELY outside under only a flimsy cover, much like closing the boot of a car – wonderful as it beats the heck out of lugging bags in and out of shops!
I do know that the pannier bags are more sensible as they are a good balance on either side of the back wheel instead of being perched on top of the back carrier, rendering the bicycle a little top heavy. These bags also free up the back carrier for giving a lift to a friend – an art of another sort in pulling that one off!
The bell is essential but, if one wants to pass as a “local” then only ever ding the bell ONCE to pass, more ringing and you’ll instantly be identified as an “interloper”!
The same goes for hand signals. Essential for happy road users and quite a challenge to get used to in the beginning when all one is trying to do is stay atop the bike!!! A couple of tumbles I took at the start of this bicycle-culture-adventure – eeek!