A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

Bikes: by no means a necessity

I don’t like bikes. There, I’ve said it. I don’t own one, nor do I want to.

My Dutch friends, needless to say, are incredulous. “How can you possibly manage without a bike?!” they exclaim, “It must be at least a 15 minute walk to the train station when you go to lectures!”

Well, I have my reasons. I am very suspicious of bikes, and fairly convinced that if I try to ride one, bad things will happen. This is a concern founded on experience:

  • After I had learned the basic principle of cycling, my dad’s approach to teaching me to use my brakes was to put me at the top of a steep hill, and shout “Press your brakes!” as I plummeted downwards. The handlebar shaped bruise I bore across my ribcage in subsequent weeks from where I crashed into the fence at the bottom of the hill was testament to the inefficacy of that particular learning technique.
  • Once, I was cycling round and round an old metal dustbin that was in my garden. I hadn’t realised my sister was hiding in there, and when she popped up and shouted “Boo!” I was so startled that I fell off my bike and sliced my cheek open on the edge of the bin. My abiding memory is of being bundled into the car and hurried to hospital, with my mum sitting in the back holding my cheek together while my dad, who was driving the car, gave an impressive impersonation of an ambulance siren.
  • I was cycling in the woods with some friends and one of them cut in front of me without warning. The force of impact propelled me forwards so that I did the splits on my crossbar, which was not only incredibly painful, but meant I had to take a cushion to school to sit on for the next week, for which I was the subject of much ridicule.

In short, I have good reason to be doubtful about the wisdom of mounting a bicycle, although my friends remain unconvinced. “You’ll wish you had a bike when the ice and snow arrive!” they assure me. I can safely say that this is not true, I am nervous enough about the idea of riding a bike in good weather, the thought of riding one when it gets icy is truly petrifying.

Even if I had a bike, I’d never be able to find it again once I’d parked it!

There is a point to my little rant. I want to reassure all you fellow bikeaphobes (there must be more than just me, right?) that having a bike is not a necessity for life in the Netherlands. It is undoubtedly useful, but especially in Leiden all the distances are walkable, and for longer trips the public transportation system is comprehensive and inexpensive, particularly once you’ve got your 40% train travel discount sorted out.

Having said that, I must warn you that being a pedestrian in the Netherlands will severely degrade the quality of your language. I would consider myself mildly spoken, but the close shaves with cyclists on pedestrian crossings – the cars almost always stop, the bicycles more often do not – or the shock as a bicycle suddenly whirs past out of nowhere, really bring out the purple shades of my linguistic spectrum.

Nevertheless, even for those of us fearful of actually getting on a bike, the sheer variety of bikes here is something one can’t help but admire.  Some are relatively conventional, if less common, in other countries. The foldable bike, ideal for taking on public transport, for example, or the sweet bike with the basket on the front, decorated with flower garlands.

Others I have never seen outside of the Netherlands.

There are what I call ‘wheelbarrow bikes’, bicycles with a cart on the front in which I’ve seen carried as many as four small children at a time. The more expensive versions even come with mod cons like rain covers and seatbelts (although not helmets – neither cyclists nor passengers wear helmets here, a fact which causes me permanent anxiety and is yet another reason why I don’t want a bike; I would be a laughing stock as the only cyclist who insisted on wearing appropriate headgear). These barrow bikes are a constant source of amazement to me as I simply don’t understand how they stay upright. Logic dictates that on turning around a sharp corner the precious kinder-cargo should be spilled all over the road, and yet it never happens.

A variant of the child-carrying bikes are the pizza delivery bikes, where the barrow is insulated and fitted with a lid so that the pizza arrives hot to its destination. This is a personal favourite of mine, as it’s just so wonderfully Dutch to deliver pizza by bicycle instead of motorbike, when the latter would serve the purpose just as well, indeed probably more efficiently in terms of time (if not environmentally).

In Delft I have seen a mobile pub bicycle, a bar on wheels whose users simultaneously drink and pedal while one of them steers… I realise the fact it has four wheels means that with this example I am stretching the definition of ‘bicycle’ quite severely, but in my defence they are all pedalling, and if you consider the wheel to rider ratio, they technically have less than one wheel each. If anything, it’s a unicycle.

I swear I even saw a dustbin man bike the other day, although I wasn’t quick enough to whip out my camera for photographic evidence.

Anyway, the long and short of this rather convoluted post is this: if you, like me, are fearful of bicycles and would much prefer not to have to get astride one, don’t be put off coming to Holland by the fact you’ve heard that cycling is a way of life here. It is, and the spectacle of bike diversity is a constant source of entertainment, but in spite of what all your Dutch friends will tell you, life in the Netherlands is perfectly liveable without a pair of wheels.

3 comments on “Bikes: by no means a necessity

  1. mandala56
    November 27, 2012

    Is that a double-decker bike rack in that first picture? Holymoley, I never expected that!!
    Nice post!

  2. Pingback: Why you NEED a bike « theleidener

  3. Max Mack
    June 23, 2013

    Thank you for making a case for non-cyclists to become cyclists.

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This entry was posted on November 21, 2012 by in Culture, Robyn and tagged , , , , , , .

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