Day 66 – In Which we Run the Gauntlet in a Two Wheeled Maelstrom

It would be impossible to describe Amsterdam without mentioning the bicycles. Hundreds of thousands of them crowd every road, alleyway and footpath. When they are not being ridden they are chained up to every possible secure anchor point.

It is a startling sight and quite intimidating for the visitor to be thrust into this unfamiliar environment. I read yesterday that there are actually many more bicycles in Amsterdam than there are people. I wondered at first how could this be possible ? Do some of the bikes ride themselves ? Of course there are several reasons for this.

Firstly I suspect that many residents have multiple bikes and keep them chained up at several convenient locations around the city. That way a bike is always close by when they need one.

Secondly it is worth noting the type of bikes that are used here. They are certainly NOT the carbon fibre racers that we see on Beach Rd in Melbourne. Almost all of the bikes here are heavy, steel framed, single speed city bikes, often covered with a liberal layer of rust from being kept outdoors in all types of weather. They usually also have partially flat tyres, a heavy cargo rack for carrying groceries or children (or just about anything else), front and rear mudguards, assorted rattles and squeaks and a massive chain for locking the bike. Actually it is illegal to park an unchained bike in the city.

Judging by the decrepit nature of many of the bikes, I suspect that many are chained up somewhere and then simply forgotten. In this ocean of bikes who would ever have any idea of which ones are ridden regularly and which ones are just castaways?

The riders themselves always wear their everyday clothes. We have not seen a single “lycra wearer” anywhere. They never wear helmets, gloves or high visibility clothes. In fact at night it is apparently compulsory for everyone to dress completely in black, presumably to complement their lack of lights.

Another, apparently compulsory, accessory for every rider is a large smartphone. This should be held in front of your face with both hands (leaving the handlebars free) so that you can update your Facebook status and send a few tweets while you are riding at top speed through a pedestrian walkway.

This love affair with the bicycle has gone back for many decades. Apparently over the years many leaders have proclaimed that the “end of the bicycle” was near, but every one failed. The bikes triumphed and now reign supreme throughout the city. They are here to stay.

The bikes are such an integral part of life in Amsterdam that the law states that, in any altercation between a bike and a motor vehicle, the car driver is always at fault ! This has resulted in a situation where the drivers drive in abject fear of the cyclists while the cyclists ride with a casual indifference, knowing that they are the protected species here. While motorists must obey the normal road rules, the cyclists are free to do basically anything they want – ride the wrong way up one way streets, ride on footpaths, through red lights, fly through intersections without slowing down, etc. In our first hour in this place we had numerous near death experiences where we came perilously close to being skittled by a flying cyclist. It is sort of like being caught in a silent tsunami of potential crazed kamikaze killers, all coming at you from every direction. To the outsider it really does seem like a kind of bike madness.

With all this bike mania, does that mean that Amsterdam is free from problems ? Certainly not. The locals agree that the bikes have gotten a little out of hand, the bike parking is a real problem with thousands of chained bikes clustered alongside every beautiful canal like blowflies around a honeypot. On the other hand the people certainly seem happy and healthy. The regular exercise must be doing them good. It was also very evident that the incidence of smoking in the city was much less than we had seen everywhere in France. Perhaps cycling is a good deterrent to clagging up your lungs with a toxic tar and nicotine cocktail.

Another thing I noticed in this city was the high number of tall men and women. And I am talking really tall men and women. I have never seen so many tall people in the streets, so much so that I began to feel a bit like a midget. Perhaps it was due to the time that we had recently spent in our Parisian Hobbit Hole, that we both now felt like two Lilliputians surrounded by a nation of Gullivers. Maybe the constant cycling and breathing fresh air, instead of tobacco smoke, makes the Dutch kids grow taller than the rest of the European kids.

It is also worth noting that, unlike in France, here almost everyone speaks perfect English. In fact many of the younger ones have obviously spoken so much English that they don’t even have a discernible accent. When you turn on the TV around half of the channels are in English. They don’t use the dreadful dubbed voiceovers that are used on every French movie and TV show. This must give the youth a huge advantage when it comes to communication, international travel and seeking job opportunities, when compared to the French.

Another obvious difference between Amsterdam and Paris is the absence of urine stains and dog poo on the footpaths. In fact the footpaths looked pristine compared with the veritable minefields of Paris. We were glad that we were able to walk without having to jump and dodge over foul booby traps every couple of metres.

I had considered going to visit the Anne Frank Museum, which is only 10 minutes walk from our hotel, however when I found that the queue stretched right around the block I quickly lost interest. I was certainly not going to waste half of my day lined up with hundreds of camera toting tourists, just to have a look inside. I was also disappointed to see that the entire site had been developed into a full tourist mecca, complete with huge kiosk. There are many other things to see in this city without first having to wait hours for the privilege. We set off to wander the city and see what unexpected discoveries we might make. We even bumped into Johnny Depp (but that’s another story).

Finally I would like to make a comment on the style of houses you find here in Amsterdam. All of the numerous canals are closely lined on both sides by a continuous collection of multi storied buildings. Almost all of these are constructed of brick and vary from 4 to 7 stories tall. Because of the unstable foundations, it is also common to see many of them titling at quite alarming angles as they gradually subside into the wet mud. Inside the buildings you find narrow staircases that rise at a vertiginous angle. Each time we climb to our hotel room it is almost like walking up a ladder. I have become paranoid about one (or both) of us taking a tumble and joining the growing list of Ghostriders with broken legs.

Because it would be physically impossible to get any item of furniture up such a staircase, every building is equipped with a protruding girder and hook at the highest point. This enables the owners to lift any large items with a block and tackle and then maneuver them inside through an upper story window. I have included some images of buildings with these anchor points.

After a full day of walking, the sun sank below the horizon and we gazed at the dozens of bright jet trails that crisscrossed the dusk skies. This is a phenomenon we do not see in Australia and it never ceases to fascinate me when I am in Europe.

A little later again we watched the almost full moon rise above the roofs of the houses on the opposite side of the canal. The last time we had seen the full moon was near the end of our France ride at Le Croisic. This was another reminder that our trip was inevitably drawing to a close.

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