Gambrels of the Sky

Rider on the Storm

I’m learning to ride a bike: a big old black clattery one-speeder, with foot brakes and a seat set so high I can barely touch on tiptoe. It’s a “Ranger,” which is a brand Dave said he didn’t trust for some reason when we saw it at the bike store. But the price was right, and what do we know anyway. Everybody here rides ugly used bikes, supposedly because they’re less attractive to thieves. I can get behind this line of reasoning. My requirements for bikes and cars are the same: to blend in with their surroundings, to never break down, and certainly never to be stolen. Dave’s bike—a grey-green “Gazelle” from the 80”s—has a fancy three speeds. But the biggest hills in Amsterdam are the canal bridges, and I’ve never fully mastered shifting gears anyway, so the Ranger suits me fine. I quite like my new bike.

But I hate riding it. When I was six, I learned how to ride on an old-fashioned midnight-blue tank of a bike. It definitely had a foot break, and it definitely rattled over cracks. Riding the Ranger feels a lot like riding that old bike. Back then, I mostly went back and forth between the garage door and a crack in the asphalt that indicated I was getting too close to the street. Come adolescence, I basically gave up the habit altogether. Now I’m back—but, whoa baby, gone are the simple days of my parents’ driveway.

Amsterdam is a city where there are more bikes than there are residents. Everyone rides, old and young, rich and poor. All the time. About 600,000 riders take to the compact city streets for at least one trip daily. Elementary schools teach road safety, and, by the time an Amsterdamer is 10 years old, she can navigate one-handed through winding allies and thickets of tourists no problem. People here use their bikes for everything, and you see the wildest things: a guy balancing a birdcage on top of his head, a lady cradling the skull of her helmet-less, baby-bjorned newborn in one hand while steering with the other, an entire community of retirees balanced circus-style on a unicycle.

Surprisingly, even with nary a helmet in sight, there are only few bicycle deaths each year, probably due to the good infrastructure. Bikers are treated with respect here. Every street with a speed limit over 30K/H (19mph) has separated bike lanes—and, man, can those lanes get crowded.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is all wonderful. Amsterdam is a city of relatively few cars and a population that burns calories instead of fossil fuels. I much prefer the locust-like piles of chained up bikes everywhere to the sprawl of parking lots.

It’s just that I can’t quite hack it.

Intersections, with their tangle of tram tracks and myriad painted instructions, require thinking much more quickly than I’m able. When the light turns green, I almost always waver and swerve weakly in front of other riders. I’m still learning to hold steady when a faster biker (all bikers) zip past. Plus, the bike lane is home to my new nemesia: scooters. I can live with the rare motorized wheelchair. Only rarely do these overtake me on the left. But scooters. They are fast, noisy, smelly, and wide. They are guaranteed to pass during my weakest moments and leave me quaking in their wake. I hate them.

To try to improve my abilities—and toughen up my butt bones—I recently set myself a goal of riding my bike for at least 15 minutes per day. Let’s just say I’ve found a lot of excuses to walk. And really, walking is my forte anyway. Even in Milwaukee, I braved the unfriendly climes and long distances to walk here there and everywhere. But there I did have a car when speed was necessary. Here, it’s just me my feet and the Ranger (and the bus, I guess).

Amsterdam streets are also home to droves of biking tourists. These poor souls are recognizable by their bright red bikes, their pack-like affiliations with other foreign speakers, their general incompetence on the road, and their expressions of bafflement. They are also quite likely to be stoned. A great deal has been written about how utterly annoying the tourists are to native bikers trying to get somewhere quickly. I can certainly understand why. The tourists are horrible. Also, they are me. I hope that in a few years, I will have the luxury of rolling my eyes at the hopeless hordes of unskilled riders, but right now, these are my people. My tottering, clattering ubiquitous outsider posse.

(Left) The proud Ranger. (Right) Me at the Haarlem train station with the Ranger and mild trauma after a long ride to get there.

Bikes around Amsterdam.