From the moment my plane lowered altitude, I could see the vast green landscape of Holland stretching before me: Water-filled countryside filled in with strips of land where people lived, man-made land along the coast dotted with windmills (the energy producing variety), fields dotted with white sheep and Amsterdam looming in the distance, canals etched between buildings.
I looked closer and saw a mini person riding a typical Dutch bike with a black, heavy step over frame. Red lanes contrasted the green countryside. I imagined they stretched beyond the horizon. It was like bicycle Christmas.
The first time I took to the bike lanes, it felt like a dream. A dizzying array of windmills stretched before me as I aimed not to get lost in the bike path matrix that is Holland. Red paint designates many of the cyclepaths in metro areas and those bike superhighways can lead you anywhere you want to go in the entire country.
Red fades into black pavement in the countryside, yet you can still anticipate dedicated bike infrastructure like bike paths on one or both sides of the road, or, at the very least, a bike lane on the road. Bicycles are given priority so much so that some low-traffic roads have one lane for vehicles and a lane on each side for bicycles. Cars are expected to share the road and the way this specific piece of road was designed tells the user how to act. Cars must yield to bikes and yield to one another. The signage helps you stay on track, but, as a visitor, I still found myself checking my map. In America, usually I have only one choice for which way to go.
When you have been riding a bike all your life, you get good at it. Dutch people ride surprisingly fast, using their bikes mostly for transportation. The rush of bikes in a city can be exhilierating, but it can also be a bit scary for tourists who accidentally step into a bike lane. Bells chime. Cyclists are on their phones chatting or texting. Oh, and nobody wears helmets unless they are road cyclists out for a fast ride. It is the first time I have ever felt comfortable not wearing a helmet in an urban area. I hesitated too much at intersections when I first took to the road, unsure who yields to whom as there are not always yield signs to indicate. I bet the locals could tell I wasn’t from around here as they flew through intersections. Later, I was told to look down and see if the arrows on the road point to you or to the auto traffic. Pointing at you means yield.
By 14:30 (2:30 pm), most children are done with school and are riding their bikes as transportation. The small children often get picked up by bike too and their parents, a mix of mom and dad, grab the kids from school and stick them in their bakfiets, or on little seats attached to their bike’s downtube. The kids peek over the handlebars or fiddle around in the bakfiets basket while their parents pedal.
By 16:00 (4 pm), The roads swell with adult cyclists returning home from work or meeting with friends at cafes or visiting the grocery store for ingredients for dinner. Bike traffic excellerates between 16:00 and 18:00 and continues into the remainder of the evening with pedal-powered lights immuminating the cycle paths.
Despite the sheer number of bikes, there is always bike parking nearby, albeit not always a spot available. The whimsy of a McDonalds outside of the city of Utrecht with 30 bike parking spots made me cringe as we would hope for that many spaces on an urban block or two in the USA, especially where I am from in Milwaukee.
I keep getting asked why I came to Holland on holiday. “I came here to bike!”, I reply enthusiactically. But bikes never seem to be enough of an answer. [I also did come to visit Belgium as well, mostly for the beer, frites and waffles]. However, when you have lived your entire life cycling on protected bike lanes and dedicated bike infrastructure, it becomes normal. Slowly I am finding things beyond biking to love in Holland: Cheese, warm welcomes from locals, craft beer, parks…the list will continue until my plane leaves end of April. I could live here my whole life, but for now, a month is enough.