Cycling in Amsterdam – taking your life into your own hands

EVERYONE cycles in Amsterdam. Everywhere you look there are people zooming around on bikes, weaving in and out of pedestrians and vehicles alike, seemingly without regard for their own or others’ safety. And everywhere you look – every bridge (there are 1,000 in Amsterdam), every railing – has bikes chained to it. There are no racing bikes, no mountain bikes, not even many geeky folding commuter bikes, they are all upright bikes with no gears and comfy saddles. A bit like cool people in London have these days.

Bike-cycling-Amsterdam-bridge-canal-silhouette

You don’t see kids under about 12 cycling. It’s not surprising. It’s the same as having a death wish. They don’t need to cycle anyway, because they’re usually dumped in a plastic crate on either the front or back of their parents’ bikes. Bike seats? They’re for wimps. I was particularly shocked impressed by the mum who had a 4 year old in a crate on the back of her bike with a 7 year old standing on the crossbar.

I thought it would be a nice idea to have a go at cycling around Amsterdam. What I didn’t know, is that I would be taking my life into my own hands.

As I picked up my slightly-too-big bike at the hire shop, I looked at it and I realised something was missing.

The brakes.

You brake by pedalling backwards slightly.

Cycling-bike-Amsterdam

At home, we all wear helmets to cycle, as do most people. Nobody in Amsterdam wears helmets.

So I got on my too big bike with no brakes to speak of and no helmet and I launched myself into the Amsterdam traffic. Where you drive on the right. I could cope with riding on the right myself, but couldn’t really get my head round OTHER people being on the right – and the fact that you (and they) behave very differently to when you turn left and right at home. It’s all too much to take in.

A couple of years ago there was uproar in Gloucester, near where I live, due to the introduction of ‘shared space’ – a short area of road where cars, bikes and pedestrians exist in safety and perfect harmony with no barriers.

Amsterdam is shared space taken to the nth degree. There’s bikes, pedestrians and mopeds. Because most people cycle, there aren’t actually that many cars. The main vehicles you are up against are therefore lorries and vans. Oh, and did I mention the trams?!

Every time I got moving another cyclist would pull out in front of me, or stop in front of me, or a van would start reversing or appear out of nowhere. And I would go to jam on my non-existent brakes. By the time I’d remembered there were no brakes, I would usually have put my feet down and stopped like a toddler on a balance bike. Only with slightly less balance.

My husband, a keen cyclist, would be ahead of me, blissfully unaware of me stuck behind the cyclist/ van. And then when I started to cycle again, the wheels were locked and I couldn’t move. And I’m dragging the bike across a busy junction as the lights change. Because the brakes are now on. My instinct when starting to cycle is always to move the pedals back slightly. Bad move when that’s the brakes.

There are cycle paths. Some are one-way and some are two-way. There is no discernible difference between them. You just have to pray hope you’ve got it right. Oh, and cyclists share the cycle paths with mopeds. Ridden by people with no helmets. Often two people – including elderly people and kids, weaving in and out of the cyclists at quite ridiculous speeds.

We saw a lot of Amsterdam by bike. When there was nothing in the way, it was amazing. But most of the time there was something in the way and I was, sh*tting myself. Any Dutch people who are good at lipreading and speaking English (that’s all of them) would have been treated to me endlessly mouthing sh*t and the f word as I wobbled out of control.

Cycling-Amsterdam-bike-canal-buildings-bridges

The good news is, against all odds, I made it back in one piece. Frankly I was grateful to still be alive.

Linking in with Magic Moments at The Olivers Madhouse – it was exhilirating and terrifying, but it was an unforgettable and magical experience.


Author: Sarah Mummy

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24 Comments

  1. I would be in exactly the same situation as you, I always pedal backwards slightly to get them in the right position, so I reckon I would probably end up pushing the bike around a lot with locked wheels :) sounds chaotic fun!

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  2. I have one of these bikes – complete with wicker basket on the front. And the brakes are odd but great of you have any illness that casues weakness in the hands – with fibromyalgia I struggle with handbrakes but the pedal-back type are great! Lovely post – very descriptive!

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  3. Very brave to hire a bike, but what a great way to see the city. The braking system sounds awkward.

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  4. We hired bikes a couple of years back when we went out to see the bulb fields – it was great although I know what you mean about the mopeds sharing the tracks! (Especially as we were cycling with the kids).

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  5. Sounds like it was a hairy experience but how brave of you and what an experience. Lovely post Sarah. Thank you for sharing with #whatsthestory

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  6. Remember the pedalling backwards to brake bit from Belize (whole lot safer than Amsterdam by sounds of it as no cars on the island we were on!). Heard about shared space, but not convinced it would work here given attitude of so many motorists. You are braver than me!

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  7. Sounds like you had a fun trip albeit somewhat scary with no brakes on a bike lol.

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  8. OMG i would of been absolutely terrified! well done you for giving it a go!

    thanks for linking up with #MagicMoments xx

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  9. I love love love Amsterdam and highly rate the bikes with pedal brakes (when learning to cycle) but not for a grown up as free wheeling takes on another dimension when you by mistake hit the pedal brake.

    You did well to navigate the trams & taxis and pedestrians coming from all angles x

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  10. What an experience. We went to Waasnear in Holland and EVERYONE cycled. Maybe the kids didn’t in Amsterdam because it was too manic. There were kids as young as 5 cycling with ease up huge steep hills with no gears. No helmets are better and road users are more aware.

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  11. Oh bless you – well done for having a go. I love that shot of the bicycle on the bridge x

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  12. It’s funny to read about people who’ve been to Amsterdam or another place in Holland. I’m Dutch and I don’t experience the same fear, because I’m so used to it..
    Though even (young) Dutch adults have trouble learning to cycle a pedal-back-brake bike. So you should be proud! ;)

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  13. It’s funny to read about people who’ve been to Amsterdam or another place in Holland. I’m Dutch and I don’t experience the same fear, because I’m so used to it..
    Though even (young) Dutch adults have trouble learning to cycle a pedal-back-brake bike. So you should be proud! ;)

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  14. Ha ha ha, this did make me laugh! So different from the UK eh?! They’re obviously not very health and safety conscious. Sounds like you had a laugh though (in between crying with fear!). Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall ;)

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  15. I’d have been terrified! I’m not particularly confident on a bike anyway. Sounds like fun though, if a little scary!

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  16. Oh honey, sounds like you were lucky to get out of there alive! I don’t think I would have survived that and I may have let a few expletives drop too!

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  17. That’s sounds pretty scary! I’m more of a cycle path, quiet country roads kind of cyclist! Sounds like you had a wonderful time though :)

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  18. Terrifying but great you had a go – the odd time I went to Amsterdam in the past I found crossing the road and at times working out which but the pavement was confusing enough I can’t imagine trying to negotiate it on wheels! x

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  19. Thanks very much, everyone. It really was great fun, whilst also being terrifying!
    Would definitely have been worth being a fly on the wall, Suzanne!
    Didn’t think about how the brakes could be useful, Afra – you make a very good point!
    I think Amsterdam was just too manic for kids to cycle, Pinkoddy!

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  20. Oh wow the bikes sound scary, haha i would be bricking it!! bet it was great to see all the sights on :0) thanks for sharing at the weekend hop…

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  21. It was a great experience, Claire, and good to see the sights when I dared to open my eyes and look! Always a pleasure to share at the weekend hop, thanks very much :)

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