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The International Writers Magazine: On Your Bike - From Our Archives

A Bike Tour of Amsterdam
• Tania Jachens
Despite my tour guide’s warning, I looked away from the bike in front of me for just a moment.  I had turned my head to admire the idyllic lane along which we peddled, recognizing the scene from a postcard I had purchased earlier – ornate brick houses with brightly painted shutters lined the street, lending their cheerful color to an otherwise cold and overcast day. 

Suddenly, I was torn from this quaint scene by the blaring of a loud, shrill horn.  Spiraling back to reality, I narrowly swerved back into my bike lane, but not before suffering several exclamations of, what I imagined to be, Dutch profanity.

Somehow during my split-second preoccupation, I had accidentally veered into the lane of oncoming traffic, which happened to include a very large bus and several other cyclists.  After composing myself, I braved a glance over my shoulder and saw the large, receding end of a bus; a head-on collision with this steel beast of burden would have made my flight back to London rather improbable.  My hands felt clammy as I tightly gripped the handlebars of my bike and willed myself to keep peddling, despite the tears that began to cloud my vision.  Just this once, such a scare was the result of my own carelessness, but it was neither the first nor the last white-knuckled incident I experienced as part of a bike tour through Amsterdam.

Amsterdam bikers Since we had done a fair amount of touring during our stay, my four friends and I decided to cap off our trip with a bike tour to see more of the city in the short amount of time we had left.  During one of our walking tours, we marveled at the sheer number of bikes chained along the city’s many canals; cycling, we learned, is one of the main forms of transportation throughout the Netherlands. 

When initially considering a bike tour, we vaguely wondered whether it was a good idea to risk bodily harm the afternoon before our flight back to London, but laughed off most of these concerns. 

We had previously taken a bike tour around London together with great success (and they drive on the opposite side of the road!), so we considered ourselves relatively seasoned.  This prior experience coupled with our hostel’s stellar recommendation of this particular bike tour company (which shall remain nameless) assured us that we would be fine.  

Yet nothing prepared me for this harrowing bike ride from hell.  The company’s website advertises its tours as “not the least bit strenuous…as long as you can ride a bike” – yeah, right.  Since Amsterdam is mostly flat, this trip became more a test of nerves than physical endurance due to the speed at which our guide fearlessly led us along Amsterdam’s busiest streets during the Dutch equivalent of rush hour.  Owing to her careless habit of speeding ahead through intersections and refusing to slow down for stragglers, I started to believe that she aimed to pick us off, one by one, so as not to have to lead a tour at all.  Having been given no previous instructions on the fundamentals of Dutch traffic laws, I witnessed, or became part of, several near collisions with vehicles and other cyclists as our line of thirty determined wheels repeatedly crossed in front of traffic in an order not to get separated from our guide who seemed determined to lose our group of cycling amateurs. 

To match our growing weariness and darkened moods, the weather abruptly changed from overcast and chilly to cold and extremely windy, with wind resistance that would have made Lance Armstrong pause.     

After being told during a walking tour that the total population of sixteen million Dutch own over eighteen million bikes and about half the population rides a bike at least once a day, I naively expected the cyclists I encountered to be friendly or at least understanding.  Instead, I learned to be equally wary of overly aggressive fellow cyclists who could tell we were all tourists (since we were the only ones wearing helmets) and therefore felt no need to do us any favors.  Men and women alike, some with children clinging to their backs, would peddle uncomfortably close or cut in front of us without the slightest word of courtesy, quite like cab drivers in New York City. 

After incidents like the earlier near-collision with a bus, my main focus changed from sight-seeing to surviving.  As a result, I remember little of what we saw during the tour, except for that which I managed to glimpse through my peripheral vision and later looking through my meager collection of photos from the day.  We raced along murky canals, past rustic houseboats and one of the country’s oldest windmills – a silent sentinel jutting out into the grey sky amid noisy highway intersections.  Later, we paused near a zoo where we observed anachronistic pink flamingos huddled for warmth in the chilly air. 

We then passed over a wooden draw bridge to the Heineken brewery, and I could almost taste the cool and crisp beer that awaited me in the nearest pub upon the completion of our death race.  Next was Museumsplein field, where the Rijks museum, sheltered at the time by stories of scaffolding, and the Van Gogh museum surround the famous “I amsterdam” letters.  Almost twice the size of an average human and standing erect in front of a large fountain, these bold, red and white letters were literally crawling with tourists.  I have a photo of myself sitting astride the eight foot tall, steel “t” in the word “amsterdam,” bracing myself as it rocked slightly in the wind. 

We also rode through Vondel Park, where we maneuvered around dog walkers, and the Jordaan factory district, whose old, narrow streets proved even more challenging in the fading daylight.  Normally, I would have stopped at each of these locations to take in the sights, but our ever-demanding leader was in such a rush that we barely ever got off our bikes.  Sensing our dejected spirits, she cheerily told us with a slight accent, “In the Netherlands, you are more likely to die by drowning than by cycling.”  As my frustration grew, I kept wondering: if I accidentally drove my bike into a canal, would that still count?

Once the tour finally ended, and we returned our bikes to the company’s garage, my four friends and I shared a sigh of relief.  As we slowly made our way back to the hostel, behinds sore and legs quivering, we each shared our own harrowing experiences during the past three hours. 

“I’m just really glad that we’re all OK,” Alexa, the most experienced cyclist in our group, said, seeming sincerely grateful and surprised that we survived in one piece.  In the distance, a brightly lit Heineken sign hung like a beacon over the tucked-away entrance to a pub. When I suggested we stop there to recover from our nerve-wracking sojourn, I was met with unanimous agreement.
© Tania Jachens   May 2012          

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