Amsterdam is synonomous with many things: canals, coffeeshops*, architecture, red light districts, and bikes. If you’re a first timer in Amsterdam, you might get a little overwhelmed with all the traffic on the streets: cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles take over the streets, and one step in the wrong lane may have you running back to the airport (or at least to the safety of your hotel).
The first time I visited Amsterdam I stepped in a few bike lanes, and realised that bikes will not stop for you. Oh no, you better jump out of the way, or be with someone with the sense to pull you out of the way. If you hear that ringing bell of a bicycle then it’s almost too late!
Even though I was terrified of the bike traffic, I still wanted to rent a bike there! You know, ‘do things that scare you’ and all that. But Jay didn’t ever want to! No matter where we are, he refuses – does he think the helmet will mess up his hair?
I finally convinced Jay to rent bikes on this visit. When you’re there, you just have to – surrounded by beautiful people on vintage-looking** bikes, with girls in dresses and high heels on bicycles – it’s more than a little inspiring. Half-way through our trip, Jay & I walked a couple of blocks to a seedy looking “Rooms for Rent” place that rented out bikes for €10 a day.
And thankfully, these bikes were not the yellow and red bikes people rent that scream toeristische! These were the real deal: old, rusty, squeaky. When choosing a bike, the man there looks you up and down, hands you bike, and asks you to sit. If, when sitting on the bike, you can just barely touch the ground on your tip-toes, that’s the bike for you!
These bikes were tall! I’m 5’8″ and I could barely touch the ground. I tried to get a shorter bike, the man said “No! You touch the ground, you take bike!” Very reminiscent of a soup purveyor we might all know. They also throw you a tiny piece of paper with the “rules of the bike lanes”, and send you on your way.
I strapped my purse to the back of the bike, got on and immediately hit a parked Mercedes Benz.
Know Where to Ride!
I quickly learned that if riding on the sidewalk, pedestrians will not move out of the way! Stay in the bike lane and be aware of huge cars that will zoom by you without honking or giving you any notice.
Directions and Signals
To let traffic know where you’re going, you simply point your hand in the direction you wish to go. There are also light signals created specifically for bikes. If someone tells you that all traffic gives the right of way to the bike: don’t believe them! A bike in Amsterdam does not have the right of way in all instances. I almost got hit by a car trying to cross a busy street because I didn’t look at the lights.
Every biking guidebook stresses the point of not getting your tires stuck in the tram tracks. I preached this to Jay constantly (who also made fun of my directional hand gestures and incessant bell ringing), and lo and behold, I, the by-the-books biker, got my back bike tire stuck in a track in the Dam Square. Also, don’t go in front of a tram because they have the loudest honk ever, and it causes people to look at you.
Pedestrians (or Keep Ringing Your Bell!)
Residents of Amsterdam know that when they hear a ringing bell it means there is an oncoming bicycle behind them. Tourists are seemingly unaware until you are directly behind them, hitting their feet with your tires while still ringing your bell. Even residents can mess up sometimes! Going down the Rokin Street, I was in my bike lane with my right of way and a Dutch woman steps out to cross the street and I hit her. In this case, she apologized profusely, but it still shook me up. And made Jay laugh, of course.
Why Amsterdam Hates Tourists on Bikes
Because we’re slow. We’re taking in the sights and getting lost and stopping to take pictures. Dutch people on bikes are usually going somewhere, hence their impressive speed. So if you’re on a bike and hear someone else ringing their bell almost as crazily as you, it means they’re trying to get by you, which will also overwhelm you and cause you to panic and probably fall. Example: me.
Amsterdam may not be known as a theiving city, but people living there know quite well that theft is high. We were lectured by everyone to lock up our bikes, which has this crazy double lock system, and this is where Jay got lazy and decided we should only use one lock (mine!) and left his bike unguarded in front of our houseboat. Thirty minutes went by, we came back outside and his lock was stolen. Not only was the lock stolen, he had left the key in the bike lock (when the key is removed, the back tire doesn’t move) and had to return that bike and get another one. The bike locks (those heavy duty crazy ones) are €35.
Don’t Ever Stop!
If you feel like you’re going the wrong way, or aren’t sure if you should go or not – just go! Trust your instinct, because honestly, you never know who’s right on your tail and I’ve seen a few accidents happen that way.
Other things that can happen while on a bicycle:
Falling. I fell twice, one time was very, very embarassing and left a crazy black double bruise on my thigh.
Hitting other bikes.
Riding into construction fences.
Getting yelled at.
Riding a bike in Amsterdam is different than anywhere else you’ve ever been. People don’t ever where helmets (even kids), there are at times three or four people on one bike, and it might seem intimidating, but if you stop second guessing yourself, and just GO, you’ll be fine!
ps. Have you been on a bicycle in a foreign country?
*coffeeshops are places where you can purchase and smoke marijuana; as if you didn’t know….
**vintage-looking bikes: many brand new bikes look exactly like old ones