Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Amsterdam: City of Bikes

The next day was had the ‘breakfast’ offered by the hostel: two slices of bread, a tab of jelly and two hard-boiled eggs. Thrilling.

We took a walking tour of the city. I realized that I don’t walk much in Chicago – my hip flexor felt weird. Plus, my steel-toed boots each weigh almost a pound and don’t necessarily make walking easier.

Most of the streets in Amsterdam and the rest of the Europe cities we visited were laid with bricks, as were the plazas and sidewalks. Instead of a clear delination between street, bikepath, plaza and sidewalk that Americans are used to, these facilities were amorphous and fluid, without curbs in most places to separate them. The best way to identify a sidewalk was by the massive amounts of dirty gum pounded into its surface. Peds, bikers and cars seemed to use each others space as needed – but not in a selfish or aggressive manner.

While in Europe I rarely felt that I was ‘in the way’ of cars when I was riding or on foot. There seemed to be an understanding that we all were entitled to the streets. Cars stopped when they saw pedestrians wishing to cross and rode patiently behind bicycles. We probably heard less than one car horn per day.

Even given this attitude, I never felt completely comfortable riding my bike. There was so much to pay attention to – the masses of other bicyclists, pedestrians (including other confused tourists), cars and the numerous trams (street cars/light rail/electric trains..). The potential for hitting something or getting hit loomed. Frick rides less cautiously than I do, so that also wasn’t particularly fun as he blasted through a vehicle’s right-of-way, but I stopped and waited my turn. It wasn’t a big deal, though.

The bikes that nearly everyone rode were single speed, coaster brake, old cruisers with step through frames. Bikes were omnipresent in Amsterdam. They were locked everywhere in huge rows and parking structures, free-locked on sidewalks, and covering every post or fence. Like barnacles on ships or invasive species without predators, bikes have definitely taken over Amsterdam. It is beautiful, amazing and out-of-control.

These bikes are heavy and meant for commuting: integral generator lights, built in fenders, chain guards, super-strong racks and wheel locks (attached to the frame, a lock that goes through the rear wheel to quickly free-lock a bicycle when parking isn’t available). People ride these bikes in their ‘everyday’ clothes. The morning & evening commutes are awesome to behold as business people of all ages ride to work in their suits and nice clothing. Children are also transported on bikes: on rear child seats, top-tube seats, handlebar seats, backpacks and tag-alongs. It was very common to see a parent biking with a child perched in front and behind them. Every bike store had a large selection of different child-seats.

Parents take their young children to school this way as part of their everyday routine. Older children sit astride the rear rack. Adults do this too. People of all ages eagerly hop on their friends’ rack to catch a lift. It is really quite charming.

People also aren’t shy about carrying large things in their hands; briefcases, groceries, large luggage. Things that looked awkward were biked with easily–even by elderly people. Bikes were definitely equipped to haul packages, too. There were cargo bikes and bikes with front racks. Tons of bikes had waterproof paniers that were left on the bikes. Many bikes also had ‘skirt guards’ to keep skirts and long coats out of the spokes.

A lot of the bikes were ‘art bikes’ and decorated or strangely painted. This actually was more than just whimsy – finding your bike is difficult considering there are so many of them and so many of them were styled the same. The Julep would have been awesome and easy to find with her drop bars, color combination and streamers.

There were two accessories that I was insanely jealous of: reflective tires and spoke reflectors. The sidewalls of all of the new tires were made of hyper-reflective material – very noticeable. Many bikes also had reflectors in the spokes, a few inches from the rim and about a ½" wide that made almost a complete circle – except for a gap above the valve stem. I began fantasizing about jerry-rigging several of these into a spiral for the Julep. She wore similar mylar and crepe paper strips woven through her spokes in a spiral in the summer and it looked awesome. I’d love for her to be super-flashy and visible from side at night.

Alas, the tires don’t come in the 23mm that I wanted and the smallest size they come in is 28mm. Sniff. I foolishly thought that the spoke reflectors would be available everywhere, so I didn’t begin my search until we were leaving Amsterdam. Our bike rental/bike shop didn’t sell them. In Belgium the bike shops informed us that those reflectors weren’t used in Belgium, but where a Netherlands item. Drat and double drat. This discovery has lead to fruitless internet searches and my recognition that I will probably have to make these myself. I also found the 3M product that bonds the Scotchlite to rubber tires – Unfortunately it is applied with high heat. Locating or recreating these awesome accessories will be a nice winter project once my life calms down again.

As much as I know now that putting bike tires in the oven isn't wise, I fear I might be tempted to try. Maybe the next time John goes out of town......


At 6:54 AM, Blogger nollij said...

Though they're not exactly what you're looking for, Hokey Spokes are a fun way to dress up your bike at night, and they also make it harder for cars to hit you... at least they can't claim they didn't "see" you... Check em out. I have 8 of them on my Burning Man bike, and I have them programmed to say the name of my camp (at Burning Man). They're a lot of fun!


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