I thought I have died and gone to heaven when I arrived into town a few days ago. Haarlem is the provincial capital of Noord Holland in the Netherlands. Yes, Netherlands… where weed and prostitution are legal and cycling is pretty much ingrained in the Dutch’s way of life. Yes, this is the country where Amsterdam is located and tulips are grown. For an avid cyclist, this is as close as I have gotten to heaven without actually dying.
You won’t find mountain bikes here and there are very few road bikes. Upright bikes are the norm. They have bikes with built in load carriers called bakfiets. Bakfiets is what you get when you cross a beach cruiser and a wheelbarrow. Bikes have built in wheel locks, front and rear running lights and bells. Forget about those 23c skinny tires (which is a bad idea) as brick laden bike paths and roads are everywhere. Ubiquitous are the bike parking stands and establishments are wise to ensure that they have ample parking for their customers.
Crime is low, however unlocked bikes do get stolen, and so I heard. As a Dutch colleague jokingly remarked “Why walk when there is a bike?”
If jeepneys are Manila’s king of the road, bikes are Netherlands’. As a local remarked: “With bikes, there are no rules.” which I have taken to mean that bike traffic infractions are rarely punished. One can also get away with “Sorry, I don’t know, I am a tourist.” Of course that can only work if you’re a foreigner and don’t have a Dutch accent.
If you think biking here is easy, the answer is both a yes and a no. It is easy with all the cycling infrastructure built in; bike paths, traffic signals, physical lane separators, and drivers’ courtesy towards cyclists. A local would tend to disagree with the driver courtesy remark but for someone who has cycled in Manila, Singapore and London, the drivers here are pretty courteous. It is also relatively easy as the country is somewhat flat. However, if it gets windy, which is often the case in open spaces such as inter city roads/highways and you’re working against a headwind or a crosswind, it gets pretty hard as I found out. It was 11 degrees cold and I was sweating bullets. By the way, if you think that is cold, that’s considered warm by the locals.
Cycling attire is pretty much what you would wear normally if you are not cycling. For someone from the island tropics, a jacket, gloves, a cap and thermal underwear is a good combo. Helmets are rarely used; although kids and those who ride roadies on their team kits seem to wear them, as I have noticed.
It is a humbling experience being able to cycle in this place. When young men and boys pass me, that seems normal as I expect them to be fitter than me. But, when older folks pass me, in a headwind where I was gasping for air and they were seemingly pedaling effortlessly i.e. mouth closed with a bored look on their faces, that just puts me in my place which is a weakling by Dutch standards.
My business trip ends in a few days and I will be heading back to Singapore. But until that time, I’m enjoying my temporary stay in this cyclists’ heaven.
08 January 2014
written by Nonong “King of the Mountain” Nobleza