In the City of Bikes
Even a Man from America Can See a Few Things: The Arrival
Welkom in Amsterdam,” the flight attendant said upon our landing. From the airport, a 20-minute train trip brought me to Central Station. Then, with my duffel bag slung over my left shoulder, I stepped onto the streets of continental Europe for the very first time. Two minutes later-and two blocks away on Spuistraat-I was busy gaping at 17th-century, gable-roofed buildings that leaned so severely they appeared ready to spill into the street, when suddenly a bike bell rang out:
Though I clearly heard the bell, I didn't react to it. Why should I? I was walking on the sidewalk.
Then, from behind, a bicycle slammed into me. Under the weight of my duffel bag, I stumbled a few steps forward before righting myself. I turned and saw a young brunette cyclist in a short skirt. She looked awfully cute. She also looked mighty pissed-at me. She scowled, then muttered “Klootzak!” and sped off.
Huh? Why was she upset? She was the one riding carelessly on the sidewalk. I was the injured party here!
I was still pondering this ignoble welcome to Amsterdam when I heard the frantic ringing of another bike bell:
Brringg! Brringg! Brringg!
I turned around. A sneering cyclist was barreling right toward me. Ack! My body clenched; I braced for a second collision. Fortunately, this time, no bike struck me. The sneerer had managed to skillfully swerve around me. As I watched him pedal on, I thought, This sidewalk is a dangerous place to walk! Then it dawned on me, this was no simple pedestrian sidewalk; it was a separated-from-the-street bike path. I had no idea such a thing even existed. A smile came over my face. This was brilliant! How civilized!
Seconds before a third cyclist could target me, I stepped off the asphalt path onto the brick-lined sidewalk and watched one bike after another zoom by. A window washer cycled by with a 15-foot ladder dangling over his shoulder as casually as if it was a purse. Another cyclist passed with a dining room table somehow perched behind him. Several young couples rode by on single bikes, the men pedaling and the women-sidesaddle on the rear racks-lounging languidly as if kicking back on recliners.
THE YEAR WAS 2002 and at the age of 35, I was already a bike nut who had lived and cycled in cities all over America. Just two years before, I'd convinced my sweetheart, Amy Joy, to move with me to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, telling her it was where I wanted to live for the rest of my life. I'd been lured there by the cheap housing prices and funky old neighborhoods, but I'd failed to consider one aspect of Pittsburgh living: cycling.
Soon after arriving in Pittsburgh, I began working as a dishwasher at a local café. It was autumn, and I regularly saw other people on bikes in traffic, jostling with cars. They weren't great in number but were numerous enough to help me believe I could comfortably settle forever in Pittsburgh. But as winter dawned, my daily 30-minute commutes to work grew chillier, more challenging and increasingly more lonely. I saw fewer and fewer fellow cyclists until, finally, several days passed during which I saw none. I grew despondent and, at the same time, became even more determined to spot other bikers.
Then, early one December morning, while riding to work, I saw them: in the snow, weaving back and forth across each other, lay two bicycle-tire tracks. My heart began thumping. Somewhere up ahead, just out of view, someone else was cycling. I wasn't alone after all!
As I sped to catch up to them, my hope for Pittsburgh surged. For minutes, I raced in the mystery cyclist's tracks across the shuttered Nabisco factory parking lot and through some alleyways. Remarkable! He or she was following my same route! Who could it be? A coworker? If so, then we could commute together. Maybe we could even...
Suddenly, mid-fantasy, I stopped pedaling.
My bike slowed to a halt.
My chin dropped.
Could I have been any more foolish? These weren't the tracks of someone up ahead. They were my tracks-the ones I'd made while riding home from work the night before.
I then questioned how I could possibly spend the rest of my life in a place inhospitable to cyclists. Hope for Pittsburgh ebbed.
Months later, Amy Joy and I left Pittsburgh for good and arrived back in Portland, Oregon-the place where we had met and the city widely praised as America's cycling capital. Early on my first morning back in town, while sitting on the front steps of our rental at NE 20th and Couch, I was pleased to watch a cyclist ride past. A minute later, another whizzed by. Soon they were zipping by from all directions. In a 30-minute span, I counted 19 people on bikes. Nineteen! After having searched in vain for evidence of fellow cycling life in Pittsburgh, I was now so elated I rushed inside to tell Amy Joy.
“Nineteen cyclists!” I said, shaking her awake.
“I just counted 19 cyclists in the past half hour!”
“Oh,” she responded before falling back to sleep.
Now, while standing in the middle of Amsterdam, I recalled that event from just one year earlier. And I had to laugh. Portland? Nineteen in 30 minutes? Ha! I was now seeing 19 cyclists just about every 30 seconds.
AS I TRUDGED along the streets of Amsterdam that buzzed with bike traffic, I couldn't take my eyes off the bikers. Later, I would find a passage from a 1933 guidebook to Amsterdam that perfectly described the type of captivation a newcomer like me was experiencing:
[T]he odd gaps between going from one place to the next may be profitably filled in by making first-hand studies of the noble art of trick bicycle-riding. Those who are not absolutely perfect, get killed off very young. The survivors thereupon develop a perfection in the difficult technique of balancing which will fill your soul with deep envy. Sit you down on the Leidse Plein or on the Rembrandt Plein and let the show pass by you while you are supposed to be writing postal cards to the dear family in Ithaca, NY. You won't write many, for you will be forever clutching your companion's hand and shouting, “Look at that girl carrying a potted palm on her shoulders!” or again, “Look at that family with five kids tucked away between the frame!” All very harmless and pleasant and the cost, again, is negligible.
That's exactly how I felt, except, I had no companion with me whose hand I could clutch to share my amazement. Amy Joy wouldn't be joining me in Amsterdam until a month and a half later.
What I really wanted her to see was the impressive number of kids riding as passengers. Many of them rode behind their parents in rear seats, the kind I'd seen used in the United States. Other kids rode in large wooden boxes on elongated cargo bikes, contraptions I'd never seen in America. Some infants rode in little seats between their parents and the handlebars, complete with little windshields. Babies rode in slings strapped to their parents' chests. One girl stood on the rear rack of her mother's bike while holding on to her mom's shoulders-like a little trick rodeo rider preening atop her horse. This was all new to me.
Despite all these crowds, I found the city startlingly quiet. The narrow streets and the roadways along the canals carried far less motorized traffic than their congested counterparts in American city centers. This tranquility, though, was compromised by an ever-present clamor created by the army of creaky bikes. Scraping fenders clunk-clunk-clunked. Loose chain guards continually kerchunked. And countless rusty chains-apparently last oiled when they'd exited the bike factory decades earlier-shrieked desperate pleas for grease.
These bikes were nothing like the sleek and polished mountain bikes and racing bikes and cruisers I was accustomed to seeing on the streets of America. Back home, I'd always felt like an outcast on my beloved fifth-hand clunkers. More than once, I'd been rudely dismissed by a bike shop mechanic who'd deemed an old two-wheeler of mine unworthy of repair. But now I found myself in a city inundated by kindred spirits on beat-up old bikes, many of which were held together in part by string, twine, yarn, wires, rubber bands, inner tubes, shoelaces, masking tape, duct tape, etc. The cyclists appeared utterly unconcerned with the status of their rides. Suit-and-tie-clad businessmen rode unabashedly on broken-down workhorses-women's models, no less. In fact, with so many well dressed Amsterdammers riding crappy wheels, it seemed that the chicer one's threads, the shabbier-and noisier-his or her bike.
Yet, no matter the condition of their bikes, every cyclist appeared happy and satisfied. They moved with fluidity and sophistication. They stepped on and off their moving bikes with the gracefulness of ballerinas. At busy intersections, columns of bikers threaded past one another effortlessly. Such universal comfort and elegance on such basic, crappy bikes: it seemed the basis of an egalitarian society.
FOR SEVERAL HOURS, as I wandered aimlessly, I scrutinized the bikers with a nervous longing. I walked the length of Vondelpark and then, beyond the far end of the park, I entered a tiny bike shop. A row of a dozen ratty-looking, secondhand bikes, each sporting a handwritten price tag, stood along one wall. Straightaway I located the cheapest bike: a single-speed, Union-brand men's model. It cost 80 euros-roughly a hundred dollars at the time, which was double the most I'd ever paid for a bike. Over the years, bikes had usually come into my possession as hand-me-downs or throwaways or as little unwanted street orphans in need of a home. But despite the cost, I was now desperate to join the action. I needed a bike, and this one appeared roadworthy; that was plenty enough for me.
The only other person in the shop was a mechanic who was busy replacing the brake pads on a three-speed. “I'll take this one,” I told him.
The mechanic wiped his greasy hands on a rag, walked over and asked, “You don't want to try it out first?”
Too impatient to hit the streets, I answered, “No.”
I quickly counted out the cash and handed it over.
“Do you want a lock, too?” the mechanic asked.
I patted my duffel bag and said, “I already have one.”
“And you're going to lock it outside at night?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“In Amsterdam, you're going to need more than one.”
He stressed that I should lock both wheels and that the frame should be locked to a fixed object. I took his advice and bought a second lock.
Before leaving the shop, I mentioned to the mechanic that someone had slammed into me that morning; I repeated as best I could the woman's utterance. “What's that mean?” I asked.
“You were walking in the bike lane?”
He laughed and said, “She called you an asshole.”
I walked the bike outside. Since the consensus color of the frame-drawing from the paint, rust and dirt-was brown, I wasted no time in christening it “Brownie.” I threw one leg over Brownie's top tube, plopped my butt on the seat and placed my right foot on the right pedal. My helmet remained buried in the bottom of my duffel bag. Of the thousands of cyclists I'd seen so far that day, I had yet to see one wearing a helmet. So I decided to go native by going helmet-less.
A couple of cyclists rode past. I didn't move. Then another rode by. Still I didn't budge. My heart, I realized, was racing.
I found myself too nervous to embark. I'd presumed that riding a bike in Amsterdam would come effortlessly. After all, I'd cycled in Los Angeles, New York and dozens of other cities in between, always riding as a second-class road user on streets dominated by cars. But here bicycles ruled the streets; yet I was intimidated. The Dutch cyclists rode with such poise and confidence, I doubted whether I could fit in or if I could avoid causing havoc. I didn't really know where in the city I was or even what some of the traffic signs meant. To help explain it all to me, I wished I had a guide-be it a person or a book.
Travel guides to Amsterdam and Holland-particularly those published in the 1940s and '50s-warned tourists of Dutch cyclists. “The visitor must ... be careful of the countless cyclists whose agility and speed are stupefying,” cautioned one guidebook. Another counseled: “You'll think the Lord has unloosed a plague of cycles upon Holland for some national sin.”
For the motorized tourist in Holland, a 1945 guide advised, “Don't be frightened of ... reckless cyclists.” Ten years later, another guidebook suggested, “You will need discipline in traffic, adroitness and a certain amount of courage ... to thread your way through a host of bicyclists.” More direct was the recommendation from a 1949 travel book on how motorists should handle biking Amsterdammers: “If you feel like cursing them, we hope you will manage to keep your temper.”
Even taxi passengers received tips. A 1950 guide titled All the Best in Holland stated:
Taxi drivers seem always able to weave an intricate pattern in and through the mad needling of bicycles. They plunge into seemingly impenetrable masses of them and, like the Red Sea before the wand of Moses, the cycles open up a miraculous path. Close your eyes. Don't look. You'll reach your destination safely, without leaving a trail of casualties.
This same book also strongly advised pedestrians to “steer a straight course” at traffic intersections in order to best cope with the cyclists. It explained:
When walking on or across streets in Holland never halt or change your pace abruptly! This caution is of utmost importance, since disregard of it may cause a severe bump with some cyclist. Holland's bike-pushers plot their swift and silent courses on the assumption that the pedestrian will keep going where he seems to be going, that he will not strike off at a sudden, whimsical tangent, that he will not stop in the middle of the street to see if he left his traveler's checks back in the room.
In 1959, one visitor to Amsterdam noted, “It is the daring ‘foreigner' who would board a bicycle and attempt to keep pace with these Hollanders who weave in and out of traffic at ‘breaking-the-sound-barrier' speeds.”
Seated on my new bike, I went ahead and dared myself-and then took off.
BROWNIE WAS LUMBERING and sluggish, a reluctant mule in need of prodding. (I wouldn't discover all the oily sand packed into the enclosed chain guard until weeks later.) But after about a hundred feet of riding, he proved manageable. When I pedaled, his wheels turned; when I braked, he slowed. That was more than could be said of some bikes I'd owned, so I was more than satisfied.
Having no destination, Brownie and I simply started following the guy who happened to be riding ahead of us in the bike lane. When he turned left, so did we. When he turned right, we did, too. And when absentminded tourists wandered onto the bike path, I followed my leader's example by aggressively ringing my bell and muttering at them the first word in my Dutch biking vocabulary: “Klootzak.”
All afternoon Brownie and I rode in the summer sunshine. Gradually, my confidence grew, especially when I realized Brownie must already have logged thousands of hours on these streets. Along canals, over bridges, though alleys and parks, we obediently pursued one cyclist after another. That is, when we could keep up. When three ten-year-old boys left us in their dust, I blamed the weight of my duffel bag. When an elderly woman left us for dead, I blamed jet lag. Ultimately, though, I was forced to suppress my machismo and admit that the tempo of many of the town's cyclists was simply faster than my own pedaling lollygag. My pace never hindered my progress, though, for each time one person pulled away, some other nearby laggard was on hand for me to trail instead. And slowly but surely, with each turn of the crank and with each new guide followed, I got into the groove of the city's cycling rhythm.
For some reason, many of these unwitting guides were women. And there were so many women-beauties made even more beautiful because they were on bikes. Unlike bike riders in America, who so often ride hunched over their handlebars, “The Amsterdammer sits upright on his bicycle as if he's sitting in an uncomfortable chair at home,” noted an English tourist in 1954. “In a busy street filled with traffic, it's as if all the cyclists are paying each other a visit, yet they're riding.” These Amsterdam women were riding so tall in the saddle, regally atop their thrones, that the tips of their shoes were barely able to touch the ground.
Without a doubt, on this lone July day in Amsterdam, I saw more stunning women on bicycles than I had seen in my entire 35 years in the United States. Some women were riding in long skirts hiked up to their knees. Others were riding in short skirts hiked up to their thighs. And a few rode in miniskirts hiked up so unbelievably far, one could hardly justify calling them skirts.
Dutifully, I gaped at them while not knowing my reaction was actually rather customary among American males. Almost a century earlier, in 1911, a tourist from Kansas had commented: “Perhaps it will be thought that I am going too far in my investigation, but the Dutch ladies ride bicycles so generally that even a man from America can see a few things, no matter how hard he tries to look the other way and comes near getting run over.” A Yank in Amsterdam in 1929 wrote: “There seem to be as many of the fair sex riding as there are men, and they wear short skirts-as short as they wear them anywhere-so it is a real sight to watch the bicycle parade.”
In 1965, a 50-year-old American marriage counselor, after spending time in the Netherlands, noted, “Nowhere else in the world have I seen so many women and girls with such shapely, truly feminine legs as in Holland. And the Dutch know that. They like to show their legs. It's due to the bikes. Massage can do a lot, but cycling makes the leg just perfect.”
Of his visit to Amsterdam, a New Yorker wrote in 1972: “At first you cannot refrain from looking out of the corners of your eyes at the rounded knees and shapely legs of those blond goddesses who quickly pedal past you, as though galloping on a winged Pegasus. Soon, however, the superabundance of thighs exposed by the breeze immunizes you to their effect.”
But here in my first hours in the city, I wasn't yet immunized. One American who might have been, though, was Walter H. Waggoner, the 39-year-old Holland bureau chief for the New York Times, who, in 1957, wrote:
The foreigner ... may have a picture of rain-soaked, frost-bitten squinting faces under a tangle of wind-whipped hair. This contributes to a notion abroad that Dutch girls are what one American resident has described as “not very appetizing.”
The description is untrue. They just do not look appetizing, because they always are fighting the weather on their bicycles in a way that produces, on the most comely, the leathery, the buffeted look of a veteran sea captain.
If these were sea captains I was seeing, then I was ready to sign up and ship out.
The sight of all these dreamboats on bikes made me eager to see among them my own belle, Amy Joy. Now I was already picturing her in Amsterdam riding in her flowery orange dress or in her flowery green dress or in her black polka-dot dress. Really, though, it wouldn't matter what she wore. In America, she'd always been ravishing on a bike. In Amsterdam, she'd be nothing less than a goddess.
ONE WOMAN I found myself trailing was dolled up in a tight, sleeveless gown and stilettos, looking as if she was heading to a ball. Even more enchanting than her outfit was the rattletrap bike she was riding. Its front wheel weaved somewhat, but the back wheel was out of control. It wobbled so severely, each revolution looked as if it could be its last before completely falling off. Watching the tail end of her bicycle sway from side to side made me loopy. Finally, when I could stand it no more, I veered off and commenced trailing a guy who was rolling a cigarette as he pedaled. Though I was now spared the nausea, I was left wondering if Miss Partygoer ever reached her festive destination before her bike collapsed.
A couple of blocks later, after my latest guide had finished rolling his cigarette and begun smoking it, I caught a glimpse of a woman biking through an intersection. At first I thought I'd noticed something unusual about her, something peculiar about her midsection. Then I quickly dismissed the notion. Impossible, I thought. Still, I wasn't sure. So I raced through the intersection, labored to catch up, then tucked in right behind her. From this vantage point, though, I still couldn't confirm what I thought I'd seen. So I pedaled yet harder and pulled alongside her.
Then I looked over.
Sheesh! I thought.
Either she was cycling to the beach with a beach ball stuffed under her shirt-or she was extremely pregnant. I dismissed the former as implausible. But the latter? Inconceivable.
So I looked over again. Now it was undeniable; that was no ball. Of all the various methods for transporting kids on bikes in Amsterdam that I'd witnessed so far, this woman was employing the most basic one of all: in her belly.
I continued staring at her ready-to-burst abdomen, wondering if she was leading me to the maternity ward. When the expectant mother caught me gawking, she shot me a look that seemed to say, What, you've never seen a pregnant woman on a bike before?
In reply, my expression hopefully conveyed, No, I never have!
Mother and fetus then accelerated, leaving me flabbergasted in their wake.
I'd already suspected that this place was magical. My lefty heart was already warmed by what little I knew about Dutch culture, like governmental toleration of soft-drug usage and legalized gay marriage (both of which were unknown in the United States at the time). But there was something about the sight of a pregnant woman cycling so casually that made me really swoon. In America I'd witnessed motorists verbally attack cyclists who had the temerity to ride with child passengers, calling them bad parents for endangering their children. And maybe those motorists had a point. In fact, I could not imagine allowing a child to roam the streets of an American city by bike the way I did as a kid in the 1970s. But here, children were everywhere on bikes-alone or with their parents. That conveyed to me a lot about this city. And that this society provided streets safe enough to cycle without helmets made a big impression. Yet the icing on the cake was a people who provided an environment secure enough for a pregnant woman to cycle. It seemed to me the pinnacle of a humane culture.
Before my introductory Amsterdam bike ride ended that day, I saw a second and then a third cycling preggers.
I'D COME TO Amsterdam knowing almost nothing about the city's-or country's-history or culture or society. If I'd been asked to point to Holland on a map of Europe, my finger probably would've landed somewhere on Scandinavia. What I knew about the country could have fit in a thimble. Dutch masters? Weren't those cigars or something? Famous Hollanders? I couldn't have named a single one-not a politician nor a monarch, not a sports figure nor a musician. If I'd been asked to name a Dutch painter, I couldn't even have come up with Van Gogh or Rembrandt. Anne Frank? I was vaguely familiar with her tragic story of hiding from the Nazis and her subsequent death, but if someone had told me she'd hidden in Brussels or Copenhagen, I'd have nodded in agreement, oblivious to the truth.
I had just spent the previous decade absorbed with exploring America and gave scant thought to what lay beyond its borders. About Holland, mostly I'd just heard that the Dutch loved bikes. So, as an older, returning college student, I'd come to Amsterdam to study Dutch urban planning for five months at the University of Amsterdam. That first night, I settled into the university-provided studio apartment on Spaarndammerstraat.
On my second morning in Europe, I began my intensive, monthlong, five-morning-a-week Dutch language course. When not in class, I explored the city by bike, day and night.
Though I was a newlywed, I was falling for a new sweetheart. I was fully enraptured with Amsterdam, but even more powerful was the prospect of sharing Amsterdam with Amy Joy. On my third afternoon in the city, I sat in the sun on a bench in Vondelpark and fantasized about cycling side by side with my wife while she held my wrist or forearm (the way I was seeing cycling lovers do in the park) or with her seated on the back of Brownie (another standard among the local couples). Also exciting was picturing her riding in this city with a big, round belly. Yet most thrilling of all was imagining Amy Joy cycling with our own future little tyke as a passenger.
As the endless line of cyclists streamed by, I sat on the bench and handwrote a letter to Amy Joy. I described my new perspective: how terribly stressed I now realized I'd been while cycling all those years in America compared to how incredibly relaxed I had become in Amsterdam. I described to her how comfortable this city felt and the utter “coziness” of my new surroundings. The letter concluded: “It's so absolutely amazing to ride a bike here. Maybe we should just live in Amsterdam forever. What do you think?”
This proposition was little more than wishful thinking, not unlike a kid at Disneyland asking her parents if she could stay and live in Sleeping Beauty's castle. But to Amy Joy, the thought of being at home in Amsterdam was already real. Her response to my letter was so enthusiastic that it couldn't wait for airmail. Just hours after receiving and reading my proposal, Amy Joy-the girl from Mississippi who'd never before set foot in Europe, much less Amsterdam-replied by e-mail: “Living there forever sounds wonderful! I've already started telling my friends, ‘Goodbye, I'm moving to Amsterdam. . . .' ”
Lucky Few: The 1890s
Nine months before I arrived in Amsterdam, in a used bookstore in San Francisco, I stumbled upon a 1963 book titled Cities by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The book contained hundreds of photos of engaging and interesting urban spaces from around the world. While I scanned these images of streets, plazas and waterfronts, one picture in particular struck me. The photographer had captured a swarm of cyclists moving as one through an intersection in Amsterdam. Sidewalk café patrons sit facing the street as the parade of cyclists breezes past, flanking a lone automobile. For more than ten years, I had roamed around the United States, exploring big cities and small towns seeking the place where I felt most comfortable, somewhere I could call home for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I'd never found a place that had ticked all the boxes. But now, while staring at this one photo, I was mesmerized.
I bought the book, took it home, ripped out the photo and taped it to the wall beside my bed. For the next few days, when going to sleep and upon awakening, I counted the cyclists. Each time, the tally ended with the same incredible total: 60. Sixty people on their bikes. They weren't radicals shouting slogans or Lance Armstrong wannabes on Treks. They weren't children playing on toy bikes or deadbeats on the only means of transport they could afford. Judging from their attire (coats and ties, purses dangling from handlebars) and their demeanors (matter-of-fact, not harried), they appeared to be just 60 individuals commuting home from work or school on a simple, yet effective, form of transportation.
While the photo portrayed my ideal locale, I had no idea if 21st-century Amsterdam resembled the Amsterdam of the photo. But even if that photographed street nowadays had only a fraction of the cyclists in the picture, I figured Amsterdam would still be a far greater bike town than anywhere in America. As an urban planning student, I needed to get there, to be there, to learn from the best how to build a city for bikes.
AS KIDS GROWING up in the post-hippie/pre-yuppie Haight-Ashbury district of 1970s San Francisco, none of my older brothers or sisters owned bikes. My parents simply couldn't afford such luxuries. Other kids on our block had their own wheels, though, and anytime I could cadge a spin on one of those, no matter how briefly, the moment was special. In fact, it was so special that when I was eight years old, I began delivering newspapers in order to earn the money to buy a bike of my own. After working two months as a paperboy, I saved exactly enough for a $45 bicycle I saw in a toy store advertisement.
My new bike was puke-green and had its name-“Dill Pickle”-written in script across the chain guard. Though I stood out as much as a guy on a hot-pink bike sporting the name “Princess,” when my bike and I took to the streets of my neighborhood, no eight-year-old could've ever worn a broader smile. My kooky-colored bike with its dopey name was the butt of endless razzing from friends and strangers alike. But none of that mattered. Despite its look and moniker, the Dill Pickle was my bike and it provided me the freedom to travel beyond my block and explore the city. I no longer had to wait for the bus or be chauffeured in my parents' station wagon; I could just go.
Countless hours were spent riding with my friends through Golden Gate Park out to Ocean Beach or up and over the hills to the video game and pinball parlors at Fisherman's Wharf. Sometimes we even cycled outside the city, down to a friend's cousin's house in suburban South San Francisco.
By the end of its first year, my Dill Pickle had aged considerably. Spokes were missing; the handlebars were bent from a collision with a wall; dents and scratches pitted the frame. Admittedly, I didn't take especially good care of the Pickle and, eventually, rode the poor thing into an early grave. We were unable to even celebrate a second anniversary together.
A long string of other low-budget bikes followed. Some I bought secondhand from friends. One I found abandoned and covered with ivy in Golden Gate Park. Another I found rusting on the rooftop of a neighboring apartment building. Unbothered by their homely looks, I always fell for junkers and granny bikes-ones that weren't embarrassed by their broken-in appearances. Maybe they didn't always have the keenest brakes or the best tread tires, but those bikes seemed to be glad just to be ridden at all-and I always happily obliged them.
During my senior year of high school, the driver's education teacher sought me out to inform me I was one of only two students from my class of 200 who hadn't taken his course. While my peers treated obtaining a driver's license as a vital-almost universal-rite of passage, I was uninterested in cars. My classmates eagerly became motorists, while I remained a devoted cyclist.
As I grew older, bike riding continued to fascinate me far more than car driving. Bikes were so much cheaper to own and operate, were far simpler to repair and maintain, and with no license or insurance required, they certainly required far less responsibility. Most important, no matter what clunky, crappy old bike I ever owned, each remained a delight to ride.
I cycled around towns and cities across the nation. Some places-Davis, California; Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin-were easy to ride in. Other places-Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta-were tougher. Yet no matter where in the nation I happened to be, I joyfully cycled, regardless of the place's bikeability.
AFTER MORE THAN a decade of incessant rambling, trying to see and experience as much of America as possible, I began studying urban planning at San Francisco State University in the fall of 2001. My interest focused on learning how cities could best be organized in ways that limited car usage, increased mass transit ridership and added facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.
At school, inspired by what I was learning, I'd leave class feeling extremely motivated. But then, just after stepping outside and unlocking my bike, I'd face an urban-planning nightmare: 19th Avenue, San Francisco's busiest-and one of its most dangerous-streets. On just about an annual basis, pedestrians had been killed at the four-way intersection in front of the campus.
A major reason why I liked to cycle was that I found it far less nerve-racking than driving. However, on the bike, I didn't yet realize how very stressed I really was. In fact, despite the fact that San Francisco was the birthplace of the Critical Mass bike activist movement, the city was often challenging for me to navigate by bike. The hills weren't the problem, though; the other road users were. Almost daily, on my commute to and from campus, I encountered some sort of altercation. Most were minor: motorists cutting me off, people thoughtlessly opening car doors in my path, etc. But other times the infractions were more severe: drivers blowing through stop signs or barreling along in the bike lanes.
Though the city's population was more or less the same as during my Dill Pickle days in the 1970s, the number of automobiles in the city had doubled in that time. And as a cyclist, I felt squeezed out, pushed to the margins, alone.
A COUPLE OF days after having discovered the 1950s Amsterdam cycling photo, I walked into my university's Study Abroad office. Applying to study urban planning-in English-at the University of Amsterdam turned out to be far easier than I'd expected. I was duly accepted into the program.
The plan was set: Amy Joy and I would marry in June 2002. I'd leave for Amsterdam in July. She'd follow me seven weeks later. I'd study Dutch urban planning through the fall semester and learn all I could about how to help make American cities more accommodating and less perilous for cyclists. Then, in December, we'd return to San Francisco.
At least, that had been the plan when I'd left the States.
ONCE I WAS in Amsterdam, all the papers I wrote in my urban planning courses focused on some aspect of Amsterdam cycling. I quickly learned that the level of cycling was much lower than it had been when the 1950s photo was snapped. This made me even more curious about the history of Amsterdam cycling, especially in the period from the 1920s to the 1970s. Unfortunately, there wasn't much readily available information on this subject in English or in Dutch. For example, the only book concerning Amsterdam cycling history, written in the 1970s, devoted a scant page and a half to the story of the city's bikers during the five years Amsterdam was occupied by the Nazis. So in order to learn the full story myself, I began digging through libraries and archives.
AT THE VERY beginning of the 1890s, bicycles-with their high mounts, giant front wheels and solid tires-were just the playthings of hard-core enthusiasts. But that changed quickly in both America and Europe with the advent of the “safety bike” and its low mount, diamond frame, two wheels of equal size and-most important-pneumatic tires. (As an Amsterdammer of that era testified: “The pneumatic tire came along, which made it possible-even alluring-for anyone to become a bicycle rider.”) In 1890, there were only about 150,000 bikes in all of the United States, but by the end of the decade, Americans were buying more than a million “safeties” annually. It was the bicycle's “golden age.”
In the decades-long development that resulted in the safety bike, the various innovations occurred primarily in France, Great Britain, Germany and the United States. Despite its later reputation as a “cycling nation,” the Netherlands actually contributed no major developments to the bicycle.
In the United States, due to the mass manufacture of bikes, cheap models flooded the market. At the same time, in Holland, while some Dutch bike manufacturers existed, they didn't mass-produce bikes on the American scale. Dutch bicycles, therefore, remained expensive. Also pricey were the many American bikes imported into the Netherlands. Comparing one Dutch bike to the American bikes, an American visitor in 1897 observed: “In Amsterdam . . . the ‘Wilhelmina,' called after Holland's Queen and of home manufacture, is ‘not in it,' as the boys say. Why? Because they are not as durable as the Yankee importation.”
AFTER AMSTERDAM GREATLY expanded in the 17th century, the new streets became the envy of foreigners. One Englishman visiting Amsterdam in 1641 remarked: “[T]he Streets so exactly straite, even, & uniforme that nothing can be more pleasing.” In 1691, another Englishman commented: “Certainly Amsterdam is one of the Beautifullest Cities in the World . . . their Streets . . . Paved so neatly, as is to be found no where else in any Country.”
The cobblestoned streets that had once marveled 17th century visitors greatly irritated bikers at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, one cyclist, riding from Central Station to Dam Square, claimed that the Damrak's wet cobblestones (or, as he called them, “the lumpy heads of little children”) caused the rider to “bob up and down and about like a rudderless ship.”
In 1898, another cyclist described the paving on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal as “nothing less than a mountainous landscape that a Lilliputian would regard as a delightful, undulating terrain. A bicycle wheel doesn't take up much space, but the cyclist on this street who finds a path wide enough to ride on without jolting is a trick-rider of the highest order.”
A woman in 1902 found Leidseplein to be particularly rough for cycling, saying, “Really, when I sit there shaking-bumpity, bumpity, bop! (with ‘bop!' I fly off my seat)-I'm left feeling completely foolish. I fancy that someone from the sixteenth century would think they were seeing a new sort of torture device.”
“Even the sturdiest bicycles are not equipped for such medieval conditions,” complained an Amsterdam cyclist in 1906. “The bicycle repairmen will attest to how great the damage is that is inflicted on bicycles due to poor paving.”
THE ONE PLACE in Amsterdam that provided the city's cyclists with solace was Vondelpark. In the 1860s and '70s, the lanes of the park had been laid out specifically to promote promenading, whether on foot, on horseback or in a buggy. By the 1890s, those same lanes became so enormously popular for cycling that various attempts to ban cycling in the park never stuck. In 1897, two pedestrians noted a typical spring Sunday morning in Vondelpark. “Wherever you look, you see bicycles, bicycles and yet more bicycles,” they wrote. “We also then heard a couple of little scalawags justifiably singing, ‘Everyone on the bike! Everyone on the bike!' ”
But because the safety bike was a rather recent phenomenon, Amsterdammers in the 1890s weren't accustomed to cycling since childhood (unlike the generations that followed). Lacking basic biking skills-like balance-many adults were far from proficient riders. The two aforementioned Vondelpark strollers reported seeing cyclists crash into each other and slam into pedestrians. Of the riders on rental bikes, they said, “We saw one of them lose his balance and land in the middle of the path and create a dam in the stream [of cyclists] that irresistibly pushed onward.”
Many of these neophytes came to Vondelpark specifically to learn to cycle. One Amsterdammer of the era later recalled:
In the streets and on the squares and especially in Vondelpark, very often you could see the most clownish feats executed by the giving and receiving of cycling instructions. The student-fearful and awkward, trying to master that difficult balance-was helped by the instructor who-panting and gasping-held on to the bike's seat post while trotting alongside and pushing. The student could ride independently for a bit but then, upon the realization that he or she was no longer being helped, fell over.
A teacher from an outdoor cycling school recounted how, first, he would hold on to the frame of the student's bike,
And then just run alongside until my tongue hung to my shoes. There were ladies who, at the slightest wobble or just when I'd let go, would begin to yell and others who, after a near-crash, would immediately throw in the towel. Conversely, there was also an “old young lady”-a little, slight, wilted type-that had not the least bit of fear, who insisted on riding “free,” took nasty spills and-laughing-tried again.
SUCH WAS THE demand for biking instruction that a number of impressive indoor cycling schools emerged around town. In 1895, for example, on Frederiksplein, within the great hall of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt (Palace of the People), a large cycling school and velodrome complex opened. In 1897, at the new Simplex bike factory on Overtoom, a bike-riding school opened up on the fourth floor of the complex (from which 237 students graduated within its first three months). Just a few blocks away, on Nassaukade, another bike manufacturer-Fongers-opened its own riding school.
The most conspicuous of these establishments, though, was the Velox. When it opened in July 1898 on Hobbemakade in a grand, new edifice that stood among the Museumplein's other grand, new buildings-the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Concertgebouw-a reporter wrote: “ ‘Cyclist School' is too modest a name. A better name for the large, sturdily-built and splendidly-furnished building would be: ‘Cyclist Palace.' ” Its main attraction-a 16,000-square-foot, wooden-floored riding hall-was purported to be the largest hall in the nation. Other amenities included a gallery overlooking the main hall, sitting rooms, changing rooms, a restaurant, a bike shop showroom and a basement repair shop. The facilities were said to be “extremely practical and pleasant. In such an enormous building, one feels immediately at ease and at home.”
The Velox could be used for “figure cycling” (akin to figure skating) and by cycling clubs or individuals who wished to bike in comfort during wet and/or cold weather. But the Velox's main function was cycling education. At its grand opening, the Velox's commissioner proclaimed it to be “a school for beginners but also an academy for trained cyclists.” Beginners first learned how to sit properly on a stationary bike. Then they progressed to wearing a harness that hung from above and kept them safely upright. Men learned how to steer with one hand while properly tipping their hats with the other. Women learned how to mount and dismount a bike in the utmost ladylike manner. One woman who had attended a cycling school in Amsterdam in the 1890s later recalled, “We practiced for weeks on end, just as if it was a horseback riding lesson. The first trip to Vondelpark was quite an event; we had purchased special cycling-gowns & our friends regarded us as heroes.”
SINCE BIKES WERE expensive, lessons costly, proper riding attire expected and leisure time required for riding-all of which the city's large working class typically couldn't afford-cycling in Amsterdam during the 1890s “golden age” was largely restricted to the “lucky few,” the affluent. Yet when it came to, arguably, the luckiest of them all-the wealthiest young woman in the country-cycling was strictly forbidden. Princess Wilhelmina was ten years old in 1890 when, upon the death of her father King Willem III, she became queen. But because Wilhelmina was still a minor, her mother, Emma, would rule as queen regent until Wilhelmina turned 18 in 1898.
In May 1897, while Emma and Wilhelmina were vacationing in Vienna, Austria, the 16-year-old girl became so captivated by the cycling she encountered there, she purchased an “excellent” bike and had it shipped back to Holland. Once home, Wilhelmina tried to take her new bike for a spin on the grounds of Het Loo Palace. When Emma discovered what her daughter was up to, she was aghast. The queen regent-who deemed bicycle riding highly inappropriate for a monarch-immediately forbade Wilhelmina from cycling.
Just as any parent's unpopular command could frustrate any teenager, the edict frustrated the teen queen. Wilhelmina, though, had a recourse unavailable to any other Dutch teenager: she pleaded her case before the Raad van State (Council of State), the body of statesmen that settled, among other things, disputes concerning the crown. In Wilhelmina's argument, she named other female European monarchs and royals who biked. They cycled, so why couldn't she? After deliberating, the council concluded that, for Wilhelmina, riding a bicycle was incompatible with reigning over more than 50 million subjects (90 percent of whom lived in the Dutch East Indies). In its ruling, the council's president stated:
The precedents cited in favor of the contrary opinion are not to the point. In no other case was the person who used the bicycle as a mode of locomotion so precious to her subjects, in no other instance was the life and health of the Royal bicyclist so necessary to the welfare of such a large number of subjects as in this. Therefore, we humbly implore your gracious Majesty not to expose your precious life to this danger, how so ever slight it may seem.
This decision, one duchess said, cost Wilhelmina “many a tear.” Even so, the young queen accepted it. “She sighed like a biker and obeyed like a Monarch,” is how one foreign news account of the affair put it. As a consolation, Emma presented Wilhelmina with a gift: a buggy drawn by four Shetland ponies.
Within weeks, the tale of the queen who'd been prohibited from cycling ran in newspapers from Australia to America. The New York Tribune joked that a conspiracy was at the root of this “savage persecution” of Wilhelmina:
The purport of it is, of course, entirely clear. It is to drive Her Majesty to abdicate her throne. And, indeed, no more potent measure could have been devised. For what right-thinking girl of seventeen would hesitate between a throne and a bicycle? But surely some milder course could have been pursued, some less atrocious proposition made. A simple revolution, with force of arms, would have been preferable to this.
Curiously, the Dutch press initially remained mum on the subject. It wasn't until after the foreign press had reported on the ruling that several Dutch periodicals finally published brief pieces about Wilhelmina's bike ban, the editors admitting they'd only learned of the matter through the foreign newspapers.
Despite the setback, Wilhelmina remained patient. After she finally ascended to the throne on her 18th birthday in August 1898, it was said that one of her first acts as a ruling monarch was to learn to ride her bike.
WHILE THE 1890s bicycling golden age had transpired on a much smaller scale in Holland than it had in the United States, unlike in America, bike riding didn't immediately become passé with the dawning of the automobile age (more about that in chapter 6). Even so, during the first two decades of the 20th century, the new transportation rage in Amsterdam wasn't the bicycle or the car; it was another relatively new mode of transit: the electric tram. During this period, the city's tram network greatly expanded and ridership shot through the roof.
But the modes of transport that continued to dominate the city's street traffic were not new. One was the pushcart, from which goods (fruit, vegetables, bread, clothes, etc.) were sold or transported. “Back then, it wasn't the cyclist who created chaos in traffic through his undisciplined driving,” stated an eyewitness to that era; “it was the man who pushed the pushcart!”
Another major component of Amsterdam traffic, one that-it was said at the time-formed “the principal traffic hindrance on the roadway” was the pedestrian. Read one account in 1906:
If there is one category of people who still need to be educated on matters of traffic, then those are the pedestrians. Not conscious that they are in a busy traffic corridor, nor taking into account all that is moving around them, they go on their way with their heads in the clouds. They ignore sidewalks, preferring the middle of the street. Yes, indeed! They cross without looking. . . . Entire families socialize in the streets.
One eyewitness of the era spoke of “that peculiarity that repeatedly surprises foreigners: Amsterdam's pedestrians prefer to walk in the roadway.” A visiting Englishwoman found this custom to be “so funny.”
The pedestrians had, for centuries, constituted the bulk of Amsterdam's street traffic, making traffic regulation largely unnecessary (however, one-way traffic for carts had been mandated in some of the city's alleys as early as 1595). But in the early years of the 20th century, when the older, slower modes of transport (pedestrians/pushcarts/horse-drawn vehicles) mixed with the modern, faster modes (trams/bikes/cars), disorder arose, particularly at the intersections.
In 1906, action was finally taken to bring order to the street traffic when Amsterdam mayor Wilhelmus Frederik van Leeuwen implemented a broad plan that prohibited bike riding and car driving on 49 streets in the city center. While some of the affected streets made the list for reasons obvious to all (for example, various narrow, medieval alleyways), the inclusion of streets that served as major cycling thoroughfares (for example, Haarlemmerdijk, Leidsestraat and Utrechtsestraat) infuriated cyclists. Of the mayor's plan, one skeptical bike rider wrote:
<Wonderful! But it won't work. In the genus Amsterdammers, there is a wretched spirit that opposes any type of regulation. The police have always encountered opposition to the implementation of what is now law. As much as possible, people try to slyly circumvent that which is not allowed.
Immediately after the ban went into effect, irate cyclists flooded the newspapers with letters that decried the rule as “ridiculous,” “repressive” and even “terrorism.” The letter-writing campaign succeeded; within three months, the ban was scuppered.
In 1912, another major attempt was made to tame the city's traffic. Assigned the unenviable task of serving as the very first agent in the police department's newly established traffic brigade was Gerrit Brinkman. At noon on his first day on the job-December 3, 1912-Brinkman positioned himself on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal at the spot between the Royal Palace, the main post office and the Nieuwe Kerk. His mission: disentangle the crush of traffic that squeezed through that irregular-shaped intersection. Brinkman commenced gesturing to the mob of pushcart pushers, trams drivers, horse-and-cart drivers, motorists, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians to keep them moving. This attempt, though, produced an unexpected result: the more Brinkman gesticulated, the more people puzzled over his intentions.
“The Amsterdammer enjoys watching his cops,” Brinkman later recalled, “so you'll understand the attention I got when I went and stood in the middle of the street.”
People stopped to gawk at the character waving his arms and pointing his fingers; they wondered why a policeman would involve himself with the traffic. The throng of curiosity-seekers became so great that eventually traffic ground to a standstill. After two frustrating-and entirely fruitless-hours, Brinkman finally concluded that the best way to unravel the traffic jam was to remove its biggest impediment: himself! So he abandoned his post and took refuge around the corner, in an alley.
At 4 p.m., the brave pioneer ventured back into the intersection, where he tried again to execute his duties. This time the result was even worse. “In less than no time,” Brinkman recalled, “the traffic was again completely blocked.”
The following day, Amsterdam's first traffic cop gave it one more shot by taking up a post around the corner on Dam Square. With this attempt, he had more success. “Maybe the people were wiser due to the newspapers, or their curiosity had been already satiated. In any event, it appeared that they understood that they shouldn't stand in the way of traffic.”
Though Amsterdammers would consistently be drawn to spectacles surrounding any new form of traffic regulation, they did slowly grow accustomed to the sight of policemen directing traffic. Within a year, it was said that the Amsterdam cyclist was surprised to see “his absolute independence truncated” by the new traffic cops. “Where the authorities provide good direction, in general, the traffic is noticeably well-organized,” reported one newspaper in 1918, before adding, “However, at places where the traffic is not controlled, absolute anarchy reigns.”
In the ensuing century (right up to the present day), the term “anarchy” would be often employed to describe traffic conditions in Amsterdam. But the author who used the term in 1918 probably had little idea what was in store for the street traffic. The city stood on the brink of an era of cycling that would far surpass that of the “golden age.”
Piggy Hunters: The Bike Thievery
Even though Amy Joy wouldn't be joining me till weeks later, within an hour of reading her letter that proclaimed she wanted to live in Amsterdam forever, I purchased a secondhand bike for her. It was a classic omafiets (granny bike): old, black, heavy and meant to be ridden upright. A more typically Dutch bike didn't exist. To personalize it and to save her the grief I'd already suffered when trying to locate my parked bike among hundreds of others, with a black Sharpie I inscribed her initials in bold letters on the white strip of the back fender-AJJ: Amy Joy Jordan.
A couple of nights later, I was riding AJJ while accompanying Jessica-a fellow San Franciscan/urban planning student/bike nut-to a late-night french fries stand that opened onto Damstraat. Right in front of the place, Jessica parked-but didn't lock-her bike. Likewise, I parked Amy Joy's bike and-for whatever reason (gullibility? stupidity?)-I followed Jessica's lead and didn't lock up.
Jessica got her frites and sat on a stool not ten feet from our bikes. I drifted over from the bikes and stood next to her. As Jessica ate and talked, I looked over at AJJ. It was still standing on the sidewalk. I glanced at Jessica, then back at AJJ. It was still there. Another glance at Jessica, then back at the bike. Still there. Glanced at Jessica, back at AJJ. Not there.
“Bike's gone!” I yelped.
Out on the sidewalk, we looked up and down the narrow street. The sidewalks were filled with pedestrians, the street with some bike traffic, but AJJ and the thief had already-somehow-disappeared.
Argh! How could I have been so naïve? How could I have been such an idiot? Ever since the bike mechanic had warned me, I'd been hypervigilant both with my own bike and with AJJ. I hadn't stepped away from either one without first securing it with two locks, one of the locks securing the bike to a fixed object: a rack, a bridge railing, something. That hypervigilance was all for naught now that I'd essentially placed a sign on AJJ that read: FREE BIKE.
“I bet if we go down to the bridge, we'll find the thief selling it,” Jessica said.
I sat on the rear rack of Jessica's bike and brooded while she sped us along a canal. A couple of blocks later, we came to a bridge alongside the Grimburgwal canal, just outside some university buildings.
This nondescript bridge-similar to dozens of other bridges in the city and with a span less than 25 feet long-stands where the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Grimburgwal canals meet. A bridge has spanned this spot since the 14th century; just a few steps away, Rembrandt once stood and sketched the Grimburgwal canal. While known in city records as the Gasthuisbrug (Hospital Bridge, in reference to the hospitals that had stood beside it for centuries), to many Amsterdammers it was notorious as “the Grimburgwal bridge,” “the bike bridge” or simply “the bridge,” for at the time, it was home to the city's main open-air stolen-bike bazaar.
I'd first learned about the bridge from the orientation paperwork I'd received from the university that cautioned students against purchasing stolen bikes there. This official warning, though, only served as a seductive advertisement: a number of my fellow foreign exchange classmates had already flocked to the bridge to buy incredibly inexpensive bikes. In her two weeks so far in Amsterdam, Jessica had already lost two bikes to thieves. After both thefts, she'd bought a replacement here.
On the bridge, we stepped off Jessica's bike. No one was in sight. At first it appeared that, at this late hour, no peddlers were on duty. But then, about thirty seconds after our arrival, out from the shadows, a figure appeared. As he pedaled slowly toward us on a black omafiets, my spirits lifted in hope that he was riding AJJ. The man was hunched, scruffy and of an indeterminate age. He looked like one of the stumbling, heroin-addicted zombies on the nearby Zeedijk that I'd slalomed through a few times on Brownie. Among the junkie population, bikes served essentially as a currency: steal a bike, sell it, score drugs. If a dope fiend was lucky, he could manage all three steps within a matter of blocks and minutes.
As the junkie on the junker bike neared, Jessica advised, “Be sure to haggle with him 'cause he's desperate to get any money.”
While slowly riding past us, he mumbled, “Fiets te koop.” Bike for sale.
The bike wasn't AJJ. I shook my head at him.
Paying a thief for returning a bike wasn't an unknown phenomenon-or a new one. In 1940, for example, one Amsterdammer observed: “The bicycle has . . . one disadvantage: on average, it's stolen once every five years. Then again, one generally has the opportunity of buying back his own bike. Although, by then, it's usually painted beyond recognition, or it's beat to hell. But that labor needs to be paid for as well.”
No sooner had the thief passed than, from the other direction, a second decrepit figure inched forward on a bike. My spirits lifted again. As he approached, he muttered, “Fiets kopen?” Wanna buy a bike?
This bike was also not AJJ. I shook my head again.
Then I thought, What the hell's the plan here? Pay some slimeball a reward for him returning the bike he just stole from me? Not likely. Fight the dirtbag to get the bike back? Even less probable. Go to the police? They'd only shrug. Actually, if anything, it could be me the cops might reprimand, since, in Amsterdam, it's illegal to not lock one's bike.
After only a few minutes of standing on the bridge, I felt scuzzy. Sure, here I could easily and cheaply buy a replacement for AJJ. But by doing so, I'd just be creating further incentive for the thief to steal another bike. Not wanting to contribute to the demand side of the bike thievery loop, I asked Jessica for a lift home.
The route from the bridge back to my apartment took us past the building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Nazis. Not even Amsterdam's-if not the world's-poster girl for innocence was immune to this issue. As described in her famous diary, one afternoon in April 1942, before she had gone into hiding, Anne discovered that, from in front of her apartment building, her bike had been pinched. When we reached my block, I was relieved to see Brownie standing right where I'd left him hours earlier: locked in the rack directly in front of my apartment building. Still shaken by the loss of AJJ, I unlocked Brownie and lugged him up the narrow, steep stairwell to my apartment, where he safely spent the night beside my bed.
AMSTERDAM'S BICYCLE THEFT problem dates to decades before Anne Frank lost her bike to a zwijntjesjager (piggy hunter-a century-old Amsterdam term for a bike thief). In fact, as early as 1904, bike thievery in Amsterdam was decried as a plague of the new, modern century. By the beginning of the 1920s, when the number of cyclists in Amsterdam began to rapidly escalate to the point where the city had become internationally recognized as a bicycle capital, the number of bike thefts also rapidly escalated, earning the city a corresponding reputation as a bicycle theft capital. Since many Amsterdammers at the time didn't bother to lock their two-wheelers, bike-thieving was hardly an arduous task. Such a crime disgusted one newspaper commentator who, in 1923, wrote:
To me it would be too effortless. Grabbing a bike left unattended, jumping on it and riding away is so easy, so innocently infantile, that you don't even need to be a thief to do it. A clever burglary I can appreciate. A bicycle thief is a sluggard in his profession. He'll never amount to much.
To combat the zwijntjesjagers, undercover detectives periodically took up posts in the area around the main post office on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, the vicinity of a number of banks and offices. Due to the high concentration of white-collar workers in the area, a “choice selection of bicycles” stood leaning against the walls of buildings. Detectives would act as if they were waiting for a tram or they would sit on a stoop, smoking a pipe, pretending to look jobless. All the while, they eyed the crowds, trying to spot a zwijntjesjager casing the bikes, which usually didn't take very long.
Despite the capture of bike thieves, though, bike thefts continued, which led Amsterdam's police to conclude that undercover stakeouts wasted manpower. They determined that this crime could better be combated if the bicycles were made more difficult to steal. So in 1928, Article 156A was added to the city's criminal code, which read: “It is forbidden to leave a bicycle unattended on or along a public street unless it is adequately secured by means of a reliable lock.” Many bike owners, though, blatantly ignored this new law. In 1933, for example, Amsterdam police cited 1,834 cyclists for not locking their bikes. The following year-in the midst of the Great Depression-the newspaper De Telegraaf denounced as “immoral” those who still left their bikes unlocked.
Because in times like these, there are many who could use a bike and “opportunity makes the thief.” One doesn't leave his wristwatch on his front steps or his wallet on the windowsill. Just the same, you shouldn't leave your bike unguarded. That can lead to great disappointment, creates lots of police work and has provided many a young man the chance to earn a prison sentence.
The piggy hunters' hunting grounds extended beyond the city limits. For example, around this time, officials in Haarlem-12 miles due west of Amsterdam-noticed that on days when a stiff westerly wind blew, bike thefts in their city increased. Haarlem's police determined that on such days, when a bike theft was reported right away, if they drove quickly enough out on the road to Amsterdam, they were oftentimes able to catch up to the culprit: a zwijntjesjager who had reached Haarlem earlier in the day by train and who now, with the wind at his back, was speeding home to the capital on the stolen bike.
In 1937 alone, more than 10,000 bikes-about 30 per day-were swiped in Amsterdam. But as alarming as the 1930s figures were, they would pale in comparison to those for the first half of the 1940s, when the Nazis occupied the city. In 1940, for example, it was estimated that thieves were stealing 50 to 60 bikes per day. That year, one newspaper reported:
There is no other city in the Netherlands where so many bicycles are stolen each day as in Amsterdam! Nowhere else in the world are people so careless with their two-wheeled property. Day and night, thousands of bikes stand on the public streets for the taking.
By early 1942, the problem had already become, as one account put it at the time, “a criminal epidemic of unprecedented proportions.” The situation became vastly more dire when, on a massive scale, the Germans began confiscating bikes-both officially and illicitly-from Amsterdammers. (See chapters 10 and 11.)
In the few years immediately after World War II, bike thieving in the city actually subsided, but by the 1950s, bikes were again being stolen in record numbers. An Amsterdam bike thief could sell a brand-new, 200-guilder one to a fence-the middleman between thieves and buyers-for 40 to 50 guilders. Or, instead, the zwijntjesjager could pedal it to outlying towns like Weesp or Zaandam, where a bike could fetch 100 guilders from a farmer. An Amsterdam policeman estimated that a typical bike thief could survive on stealing one bike per week.
According to the “code of honor” among Amsterdam thieves of the postwar years, the zwijntjesjager was disdained by his fellow robbers. Stealing a bike that some working stiff needed in order to get to work? “Could he honestly call himself a thief?” scoffed one disgusted burglar to a cop.
In the 1950s, the most popular spot in the city for bike thefts was the same as it had been in the 1920s, as one police detective professed: “Regardless of the day of the year, if I stand in front of the main post office on Nieuwenzijds Voorburgwal for an hour, I'll come upon at least one [thief] sizing up the bikes. I can fully guarantee that.” Likewise, the most popular spot for buying and selling of stolen bikes also remained the same: the Waterlooplein flea market. Even guides on tour boats in the mid-1950s described Waterlooplein to tourists as the place “where Amsterdammers are able to buy back their stolen bikes.”
The city's professional zwijntjesjagers were joined in the 1950s by a new breed of bike thief. Unlike the professional-whose incentive was, of course, quick cash-this new-fashioned thief, the “joyrider” (the Dutch used this English term), didn't seek financial gain. When in need of a bike, the joyrider simply grabbed the first bike he found that had either a flimsy lock or no lock at all. According to the police, the accomplices to the joyriders were the “”-those bicycle owners who (still) never bothered to lock their bikes, yet who would, in the words of one policeman, “weep and wail” if their bike was pinched. Of the bikes reported stolen in 1957, 58 percent of them hadn't been locked.
Many joyriders were youths seeking a thrill ride; others were adults in need of ad hoc transport. A late-night clubgoer heading home after the trams had stopped running or a sailor returning to his ship in the harbor would just hop on a random bike to make the journey. A single, dedicated joyrider could bedevil scads of bike owners. Police cited the case of an Amsterdam-West man who cycled every day to his city center job site-despite not owning a bike. Each morning this man just grabbed the first unlocked bike he found. After work, to get home, he did the same again.
By the 1970s, yet another strain of bike thievery had taken hold. Late at night, organized gangs moved through the city, plucking bikes not locked to fixed objects and tossing them into a delivery van or trailer. While this tactic was known to be employed in the 1930s and the 1950s, it was now more popular than ever. One Amsterdammer of the time noted, “Bicycle thieves . . . have reached such a degree of efficiency that . . . each night every street is inspected and swept clean.” After the bikes were hauled away, locks would be cut and removed and then, often, the cycles would be shipped out of the city and sold elsewhere in the Netherlands. “The entire northern part of [the Dutch province of] Overijssel rides on bikes that were stolen in Amsterdam,” claimed one Amsterdam cop in the mid-1970s.
The writer Gerben Hellinga, like many other Amsterdammers, was a repeat victim of bike pilfering. In 1972, he pondered the fate of his latest bike-a woman's model that was actually too small for him.
But when you lose around ten bikes a year to theft, the size of a bike no longer plays a role. If the tires are decent and the brakes work, then you're more than satisfied. . . .
If it gets swiped, I don't know what I'll do. A hundred feet away is a police station. . . . Not one complaint about the increasing bike thievery has ever been successfully lodged there. Their advice: You should just buy a better lock.
“I've done that, sir, but they come poaching here at night with large delivery vans. They throw the bikes in. They cut the locks with bolt cutters.”
“We're closed at night, so we can't do anything about it. You should just take your bike indoors.”
Closed at night? Here there's prostitution, a car crash almost every night and many drunken fights. But the [police] have no time for that at night. That's when they're taking a break from writing parking tickets.
Alas, at the time, despite the rash of bike thefts, the city's police department had no special unit to fight it. In fact, in 1976, Amsterdam's head police commissioner, Theo Sanders, acknowledged that his force simply couldn't “devote any attention” to bicycle thievery. “I'll admit, it's indeed depressing,” Sanders said. “But we just don't have the means to combat it. If we were to do so, then we'd lose our grasp on the major cases.” With such lax police enforcement, the stealing of bikes became so commonplace in the 1970s that one contemporary observer claimed: “Whoever lives in a city like Amsterdam who can say he's never had a bike stolen from him, is someone who's never had a bike.”
IN 1972, WHEN Amsterdam reigned as a mecca for countercultural youth, the Living Guide to Amsterdam-a guidebook written by and for American and British hippies (or, as the authors termed themselves, “foreign freaks”)-recommended renting or buying a bike while in town. That tip, though, was accompanied by a warning: “In Amsterdam there is an invisible subculture of bicycle liberators. . . . Even if you lock it you'll average to have one stolen, lock and all, every two or three months if you're around the center a lot.”
Such thefts were increasingly being committed by a certain segment of the “freak” population. Despite the exploits of the organized gangs in the 1970s, according to the police, those responsible for most of the bike thefts were yet another new type of bike thief, one that would beleaguer the city for decades to come: the junkie. The era of free love and soft-drug highs of the late 1960s and early 1970s gave way to a period of hard-drug lows as many young people and others became addicted to a drug that had recently been introduced in Amsterdam: heroin. The next fix for many a junkie was often just a bike theft away. He'd pinch a bike, then try to peddle it to a fence on Waterlooplein or to a student at the then-new hot bike hotspot: the Grimburgwal bridge. With cash in hand, the addict would go purchase the requisite drugs. When he needed to fund his next fix, he simply snatched another bike.
Like his predecessor-the 1950s joyrider-a single, committed junkie bike thief could wreak havoc on the city's residents. For example, in the 1980s, a 32-year-old Amsterdam addict named Piet told a reporter that in the previous eight years, to support his heroin habit, he had nabbed three bikes a day-for a total of nearly nine thousand bikes. Piet usually stole bikes from wherever there was a large congregation of them-Central Station, shops, schools, cafés-and he targeted newer ones that could bring in top dollar. “Often I'll nick bikes to order,” Piet said. “During the Tour de France, you can't find enough racing bikes, the demand is so great.”
Finding customers for his wares was never strenuous for Piet. By his calculation, 10 percent of the public didn't buy stolen bikes on principle, and 30 percent didn't buy them because they were “chicken-hearted.” But the rest of the populace-the majority-willingly bought hot bikes, especially if Piet fed them some yarn about his girlfriend no longer needing it because she had recently attained a driver's license. “It's a nothing story,” Piet admitted, “but people want to believe it.”
According to Piet, the business of bike filching was demand driven. “As soon as I can no longer unload bikes, of course I'll be done with stealing,” he said. “But I'm in no danger of that happening. People are hypocrites. They'll condemn theft, but they'll still buy a new bike for less than fifty dollars though it's obvious that the bike is hot.”
Another junkie bike thief who was very active in the 1980s, Chiel van Zelst, later recounted his experiences in his memoir 100,000 Bike Valves. When Van Zelst hunted for bikes, he traveled fully prepared with wrench, Phillips-head screwdriver, flathead screwdriver, bike lightbulbs, wire cutters, crowbar, inner tube patches and-last but not least-his most vital resource: bolt cutters. According to Van Zelst, to steal a bike, one couldn't dillydally.
There's only one way to do it: jacket open, bolt cutters out, apply and cut. With your right hand, smoothly slide the cut lock into your pocket and then slip the bolt cutters back into your jacket with your left hand. The chain goes around your neck and, in one sleek move, get on the bike. Out of the corner of your eye check your surroundings and then, without panicking, ride away. That's how it works.
Unlike the 1920s commentator who despised zwijntjesjagers for their lack of craftsmanship or the 1950s burglar who refused to even recognize them as proper thieves, Van Zelst expressed pride in his vocation. “It's a beautiful profession,” he wrote, “a noble profession that requires brains.”
After stealing a bike, Van Zelst would immediately attend to minor repairs: tightening a loose kickstand, fixing a flat tire, adjusting a seat to an average height or even screwing in a new lightbulb. “A light on your bike-that's nicer than a teddy bear.” Then it was time to sell the bike, which, for Van Zelst, often meant heading straight to the students on the Grimburgwal bridge.
They always stood waiting on the bridge like Indians with their hands forming a visor on their foreheads. You saw them waiting in little groups of three, the most eager one in front. “Is that bike for sale? Is that bike for sale?”
They stood there fighting over who had seen the bike first. If you didn't jump off the bike in time, they'd pull it out from under your ass.
A gang of wild chicks were clinging to your bike. A little pack of wolf girls. “I saw it first!” . . . I make a sale and then take . . . an order for later. “Great, then I'll see you here on the bridge at seven o'clock.” I split. I was selling them like hotcakes.
AS BAD AS it already had been, quite incredibly, Amsterdam's bike-thieving problem grew worse in the 1990s. Early in that decade, the standard price for a stolen bike sold on the street had stood at about $30. But by 1997, $30 was a price of the past, according to one bike thief with five years' experience in vending on the bridge. By then, the standard price had plummeted to about $15 a pop. And even so, sellers could be bargained down even further, depending on the shoddiness of the bike and/or the desperation of the junkie. (In an article advising incoming freshmen on bike-buying at Grimburgwal, a student newspaper noted, “A minimum price does not exist.”) According to the five-year-veteran thief, the prices had dropped because “there are too many sellers now. It's very competitive.” “It used to be enough to steal just one bike per day,” complained another junkie. “But now the market is completely spoiled and to earn enough money, I need to steal five bikes a day.” Yet another junkie said he typically sold three or four bikes a day on the bridge, which, if all went well for him, would bring in about $40, just enough cash to score a bit more than a gram of cocaine.
With the lower prices forcing addicts to steal more bikes in order to earn enough to score their drugs, by the late 1990s, police estimated that the number of bikes heisted annually in Amsterdam rose to around 180,000-more than 20 bikes an hour, every hour of the day, every day of the year. Of course, the exact figure (or even a credible estimate) was extremely difficult to calculate, since so few bike theft victims reported the crime to cops. (For example, police estimated that 1,000 bikes had been stolen in 1991 within the immediate vicinity of the Grimburgwal bridge, yet only eleven of those thefts were ever officially reported.) While the actual citywide bike theft total remained unknown, whatever the exact figure, it was undoubtedly astronomical. Joep Huffener, the bicycle coordinator within the city government at the time, felt the 180,000 figure was inaccurately high. “But even if it's a hundred and fifty thousand,” Huffener stated, “that's still far too many.”
Junkies in the 1990s sold hot bikes in other spots of the city as well (for example, on Spuistraat, in Vondelpark, in front of Central Station, on Koningsplein), but according to Henk Visser, a university employee who monitored the activities on the Grimburgwal bridge, “The market here is the best.” Visser noted that, on the bridge each day, hundreds of bikes were sold by a “hard core” of about 40 to 50 junkies. “In good weather,” he said, “they sprout from the ground like weeds.”
One person who probably prayed for bad weather was the 79-year-old resident of an apartment that faced the Grimburgwal bridge. According to a 1999 news report:
[He] seldom casually leans out the window of his living room. He prefers to go the whole day with the curtains closed. The reason: the junkies who sell bikes on the bridge in front of his apartment are driving him crazy. . . . [He] is thoroughly worried about it, but he no longer dares to ask the junkies to scram. The times when he's done just that, he's been verbally abused. So now he walks past quietly out of fear of getting a rock through his window.
On the bridge, college students provided a steady customer base for the thieves. August and September formed a traditional busy season as many students purchased their back-to-school bikes. Few, if any, students were unaware of what transpired on Grimburgwal; according to a poll, 97 percent of university students who attended classes in the buildings near the bridge reported having been offered a bike for sale there. Purchasing stolen goods was, of course, illegal, but by then, among students, buying a purloined bike had become an accepted form of criminality. Not only was it common, but it was said that for some students, it was mandatory: initiation rituals of some student organizations required hazed freshmen to each purchase a stolen bike.
In 1997, after purchasing a bike on the bridge, when a fourth-year psychology student was asked if she had any qualms about buying hot bikes, she replied, “No, not anymore. When my tenth bike was stolen, I was completely fed up.” Empathy was expressed by one Grimburgwal thief who said, “It's logical that people buy a bike here. They're tired of their bikes being constantly stolen.” Indeed, the stolen bike market was quite a peculiar economy, since each theft created a potential customer-a cyclist in need of a bike. With the increase in bike thefts in the 1990s, a broader group of (frustrated) cyclists also elected to buy stolen bikes. “It used to be only students,” noted one junkie thief. “Now, it's also middle-class types, you know, with regular jobs.”
Even tourists purchased bikes on the bridge, since they were cheaper than rentals. “How they know about it, I have no idea,” said one puzzled patrolman who worked the Grimburgwal beat, referring to some Portuguese tourists who'd turned up on the bridge looking to score bikes. (Actually, foreign visitors were tipped off by canal boat guides and sightseeing literature.)
Meanwhile, the bike in Amsterdam had become-in the words of one repeat customer of stolen bikes-a “disposable object.” If a bike broke down-a tire flattened, a chain snapped-many cyclists found it more convenient, cheaper and/or faster to just ditch the busted one and buy a stolen replacement. Jaap Molenaar, the owner of a bike shop near the Grimburgwal bridge, witnessed firsthand this glib attitude toward the value of bikes. Of those who walked into his shop with a bike in need of fixing, he said, “If a repair costs more than ten dollars, then six times a day, we hear: ‘Then I'll go buy a new one.' ” After once surveilling the action on the bridge, Molenaar commented, “It's a real market. They sell more bikes there in an evening than we do in a week.” He admitted, though, that his shop still profited from the trade; buyers of stolen bikes often turned up at his shop to buy-of all things-locks for their new bikes.
In 2000, Amsterdam's then mayor, Schelto Patijn, stated: “Let me be clear: bike thievery is an unsolvable problem. It's impossible for us to station an undercover policeman on every bridge.” In regard to this type of acceptance of bike thieving, a few months prior to AJJ's fateful night, the municipal official in charge of overseeing bike theft said, “The mentality of the Amsterdammer must change.” It was this municipal mentality that I'd faced-far too naïvely-the night I'd foolishly stepped away from an unlocked bike.
THE MORNING AFTER AJJ was stolen, at the beginning of my Dutch class, I told my classmates and our teacher about the events of the night before. The teacher chuckled at what he deemed the most stereotypical baptism to Amsterdam living. When I asked him how many bikes he'd lost to thieves, he estimated that, over the previous twenty years, it'd been about one bike a year. The statistic sounded extraordinary. In the weeks that followed, though, other Amsterdammers repeated to me roughly that same one-bike-per-year statistic.
I'd arrived in Amsterdam determined to not lose any bike to thieves. Now I was already well on track to being yet another bike-a-year dupe. If I could just get AJJ back, I figured I could roll back my stat to zero and become a hero to my wife for recapturing her bike (which she wasn't even yet aware had been stolen).
After class, I pedaled straight over to the bridge. There I squatted on the rear rack of Brownie and ate my lunch. Within a few minutes, first one junkie, then another-neither of them a dopehead from the night before-cruised slowly past on bikes. Each whispered a sales pitch at me. Neither dude had AJJ for sale, so when I finished my sandwich, I rode off.
That afternoon I cycled all over the city, scanning the rear fender of each bike I trailed and each parked bike I passed. I was desperate to see my wife's initials, but again I had no such luck.
After that, every day for weeks, any chance I had, I checked in at the Grimburgwal bridge or I browsed the rear fenders of thousands of bikes. If I hadn't already appreciated how many bikes inhabited Amsterdam, while trying to scrutinize each one, I now did. Looking for a needle in a haystack would have been much easier. A haystack might contain millions of stalks of straw, but it doesn't spread out over 50 square miles and its stalks aren't constantly fluctuating.
Nevertheless, I remained determined to rectify the theft. I kept looking.
King of the Street: The 1920s
If I wasn't hanging out by the Grimburgwal bridge or riding up, down and all about town, then I was usually sitting outside somewhere watching the cyclists and noting their rituals, customs, looks and features. Of all my cyclist-watching hangouts, my favorite came to be a bench at the Weteringcircuit intersection. There, I once saw two cyclists slam into each other and fall to the ground. Neither had been expressly at fault-or actually, maybe both had been entirely at fault. One guy had been riding against traffic; the other had ignored a red light. As they picked themselves up, neither uttered a word. Incredibly, no one muttered, “Sorry, dude” or screamed, “Klootzaak!” Each man-without looking at the other-simply mounted his respective bike and pedaled off.
At the beginning of the 1920s, when the number of cyclists in Amsterdam began to rapidly escalate, this new phenomenon was probably most noticeable at this very intersection. “That endless, unbroken row of three, four cyclists riding beside each other along the whole length of Weteringschans,” wrote an eyewitness in 1922, “makes crossing the street deadly!”
The year before, Ernst Polak, a portraitist who proudly claimed to “belong to the people who cross Amsterdam daily by bicycle,” noted a drawback to this new cycling sensation. “Raw and rough is how this riding occurs. And it degenerates into speeding, weaving and slipping through-perilous to pedestrians and fellow cyclists. Nowadays, the vast majority rides in Amsterdam in a manner that defies all description.” Weteringschans specifically, Polak claimed, was “a speedway during the hours when school lets out or at the end of the workday.”
A couple of blocks east, at Frederiksplein, Polak declared:
It's simply beastly the way people cycle there. Literally, not a day goes by that I don't hear or see someone crash to the asphalt, then stand up again, straighten his bike a bit, dust himself off a little, dispute with bystanders, tussle among the colliding parties sometimes and then ride off again, perhaps at a slower pace.
As a cyclist-watcher in the 21st century, I was witnessing scenes that, in many ways, differed little from those of the early 1920s. This shouldn't have been surprising, though; the Amsterdam cyclists' current reputation for being headstrong, careless, carefree and domineering became firmly established in the boom years of the early 1920s.
DURING MUCH OF the first two decades of the 20th century, the bicycle as a mode of everyday transport remained largely unaffordable to a great many Amsterdammers. But that changed immediately after the end of the First World War-a war that the Netherlands sat out as a neutral party. Not long after Holland's warring neighbors signed the armistice on November 11, 1918, an economic slump in defeated Germany led to hyperinflation of that country's currency, the mark. With Germans looking to earn stable Dutch guilders, German-made bikes-now incredible bargains when purchased with Dutch currency-quickly flooded Holland. In 1919, fearing that this new trend would adversely affect their own businesses, the organization representing Dutch bike manufacturers sent a letter to the German envoy in The Hague that protested what they felt were unfair trade practices and beseeched the German government to curtail the onslaught of cheap exports. The letter, in part, read:
In the past couple of months, along the entire eastern border of the Netherlands . . . German bicycles of all sorts of makes-Adler, Brennabor, Cito, Diamant, Excelsior, Göricke, Victoria, etc.-have been shipped from German border towns . . . into the Netherlands and sold here for a song. At the moment, this is so intense that dealers in hardwares, manufacturers, mailmen, fishmongers, affluents and other residents of Dutch border towns have spent all their spare cash on the purchase of German bicycles and have filled all available space-sheds, attics, basements and even living rooms and bedrooms-with them. Moreover, many of these so-called import/export houses that have shot up like mushrooms since the armistice have gotten involved in the sale of German bicycles. Some of these firms have received them by the truckload and sold them, in part, directly from the truck, one by one to the public.
It didn't take long before these cut-rate bikes reached Amsterdam. In 1920 and 1921, when most bikes sold in Holland were imports, more than 90 percent of the imports came from Germany. At the same time, the average price of a new bicycle in the Netherlands dropped steadily each year, from 129 guilders in 1919 to 61 guilders in 1925.
As one form of transportation dropped in price, the cost of alternative transportation skyrocketed. In 1919 and 1920, over the course of just a few months, the basic fare on Amsterdam's extensive tram network rose from 5 cents to 10 cents to 12½ cents to 15 cents. Each fare increase caused a reduction in ridership and income, which-in turn-led to another fare increase to cover the lost income. This caused a further reduction in ridership-and so the cycle went. Floor Wibaut-the government official who oversaw Amsterdam's public transit agency-blamed the drop in tram ridership on “the abnormal increase of bicycle traffic.” Indeed, for a commuter struggling to cough up a higher tram fare, an investment in a bike could pay for itself within a few years in terms of money saved on fares. One Amsterdammer reckoned that he had spent 450 hours annually commuting by tram. “But on the bike, I do it in a third of the time,” he said. “I save at least eighty guilders per year and gain [300 hours] in which to rest up and spend those eighty guilders.”
Throughout the 1920s, the average price of new bikes in the Netherlands continued to fall, which made them even more affordable to the masses. “The time that a bicycle was something only accessible to wealthy lads . . . is long gone,” one Dutch commentator noted in 1923. “Whether he spent ten guilders or two hundred guilders for it, to a Dutchman, the bicycle is a part of his life, something which has intertwined with his daily needs.” The bike was also no longer largely limited to sport or leisure usage, as it had been in the 1890s. As one local put it in the 1920s: “One now goes everywhere by bike: to the office, to school, to the factory, to college, to the tennis court, to the beach, to everyplace that one wants to reach quickly.”
This dramatic increase in bike riding occurred, of course, in a city-and nation-that was well suited for two-wheeled commuting. Built atop wetlands, Amsterdam was pancake flat and possessed no hindering inclines aside from those on little canal bridges or (former) dikes. Also, the city was compact; any destination within its limits was an easy trek. And while the relatively mild climate also accommodated cycling, in inclement weather-rain, snow or even heat-a cyclist could still, in a pinch, spring for a tram ride.
The lower classes weren't the only ones cycling more frequently; the well-heeled now used the bike for more than just promenading in Vondelpark in their Sunday best. “The bicycle no longer demands special clothing,” reported a handbook on proper female etiquette published in Amsterdam in the 1920s. “As long as it is not a formal gown, everything is suitable on the bike.” According to a companion handbook for men, societal mores also relaxed with respect to male cycling attire: “Presently, one bicycles in whatever suit he happens to be wearing.”
As for the fashion regarding the bicycles themselves, very little variation existed; at the time, about 95 percent of all bikes in Holland were painted solid black. This prompted one Dutchman, in 1924, to ask:
Why is that so? With our neighbors to the south, the Belgians, and their neighbors, the French, one sees all sorts of colors, from lilac to bright yellow, from stone gray to sky blue. Even white and entirely nickel-plated bicycles are to be seen there. There are even beautiful little bikes with colors that are too glaring. It's true! The prim-and-proper black bicycle, not striped or nickel-plated, seems to me too dull a color.
The bicycle's popularity grew to the point where, in 1928, one Dutchman could claim: “The Netherlands is preeminently a cycling nation.” And that cycling nation was headed by a cycling sovereign. In addition to a great passion for horseback riding, Queen Wilhelmina remained fond of cycling. And whereas Wilhelmina had been forbidden to cycle as a teenager, in early 1925, her only child, Princess Juliana, learned to ride a bike at the age of 15. During the next few summers, the queen and the teen princess cycled together regularly. Sometimes they'd be driven from Soestdijk Palace and dropped off in the countryside. From there, they'd cycle on local roads back to the palace. Or, from The Hague, the two would cycle on the hard sand of the North Sea coast up to the fishing village of Katwijk, where a waiting car and driver would return them to The Hague.
If indeed the Netherlands had become preeminently a cycling nation, then, in turn, its capital-Amsterdam-had become preeminently a cycling city. “The Amsterdam cyclist . . . feels he is the king of the street,” wrote one local in 1926. “The cyclist rules the streets of the capital. He is an attraction for the foreigners who must think that cycle and cyclist are cast from a single mold.”
Indeed, few, if any, foreign visitors to the city in the 1920s neglected to notice the new legion. An Italian, upon visiting Amsterdam, wrote: “On the brick-paved streets glide the automobiles, the carriages but, most of all, the bicycles, which are as numerous as the frogs in the canals.” An English visitor wrote: “While the traveler in Holland may run little risk from the deadly avalanche, . . . at any moment he may be crushed to pulp in the streets of Amsterdam beneath the relentless wheels of a hundred bicycles.” At the beginning of the decade, a bowled-over American declared Amsterdam to be “the city of a million bicycles.” Though his calculation was off by about 900,000 when he made his claim, his quote would be parroted with civic pride by the Amsterdam press throughout the decade.
NOT EVERYONE IN Amsterdam, though, was enchanted by this growth spurt of cyclists. One such dissenter was Social-Democrat Party city councilman Zeeger Gulden. At a city council meeting in November 1923, during a discussion about lifting the ban on dance halls, Gulden tried to steer the discourse toward his own pet peeve: the “misery” caused by reckless cycling. Gulden proposed an outright ban on cycling in the city center between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Though Gulden acknowledged that such a ban wouldn't be well received in some circles, he entreated the mayor and wethouders to deliberate his plan. Yet when Gulden concluded his speech, his appeal was met with resounding indifference; the council immediately resumed discussing the dance hall ban (which, one councilman argued, should be lifted because in the evenings Amsterdam offered few “public entertainments” for American and British tourists to enjoy).
The “traffic anarchism” that had so vexed Gulden was often blamed throughout the 1920s on one particular group of cyclists-high school girls-who “often ride very carelessly,” as one newspaperman put it. In 1921, another newspaper reporter wrote:
It happens repeatedly-perhaps 90 times out of 100-that at dangerous intersections, cyclists ride through despite the traffic policeman's signal for them to stop. . . .
According to our Mister Bakker, chief of the traffic police, most of the blame for accidents lies with the cyclists who often ride in the most inconsiderate ways. Cyclists aren't alert. They try to slip through every little opening and they don't bother to dismount when required.
Typically, it's mostly young ladies who are the worst violators of traffic regulations. They ride over the speed limits and ignore the traffic policemen's directions with an air of, “You won't dare ticket me.”
Actually, in May 1922, Amsterdam's traffic police did dare to ticket cyclists-even the young ladies among them-by setting a speed trap on Utrechtsestraat, one of the streets with a new, meager cycling speed limit of 12 kilometers (seven and a half miles) per hour. When a suspected speeding cyclist passed a stationed plainclothes policeman, the cop threw up his hand. A second plainclothes cop, 100 meters farther on, clicked a stopwatch and timed the cyclist (“as if it counted for a world record,” quipped one dissenter). If the cyclist crossed that hundred meters within 30 seconds, the second cop signaled to a third cop, standing farther up the street, who would stop and cite the cyclist. In this manner, more than 100 cyclists a day were ticketed.
The speed limit was widely regarded as far too low, even by 1922 standards. One newspaper called the speed trap “a ridiculous enterprise.” Another newspaper-which called this “scandal” an “unnecessary annoyance”-argued that cycling faster than this terribly low speed limit posed no threat to the public and that, besides, thorough enforcement was “absolutely impossible.”
In any case, over the course of a few months, the bike speed traps lost their effectiveness. Cyclists had quickly learned to look out for them-a gathered crowd watching the theatrics provided an obvious tip-off. “Every cyclist on Utrechtsestraat knows where the police trap is,” one policeman was forced to admit. “Once past it, he lets loose and speeds up again.”
IN THE 1920s, probably no street in Amsterdam was more affected by the increase in cyclists than Leidsestraat, the narrow shopping street that was home to many of the city's most “respectable establishments.” Because it served as the most direct route for a great many commuters between the city center and neighborhoods south and west of Vondelpark, Leidsestraat was also a hectic thoroughfare. Every day, like a performance whose audience was also its stars, a great mass of persons and vehicles-trams, pedestrians, autos, pushcarts, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts and bicycles-all squeezed into a street that had a building-to-building width narrower than some sidewalks in Paris. This startling spectacle was performed much to the frustration of many of its participants. With a scant 30-foot-wide roadway and narrow sidewalks, Leidsestraat simply couldn't safely and comfortably accommodate all who returned day after day for encore presentations.
Of the perils of Leidsestraat cycling, in 1928, one newspaper joked: “Leidsestraat is for cyclists what the English Channel is for swimmers: not all cyclists survive a trip through Leidsestraat-just as most Channel swimmers don't succeed.” Other users of the street swore the cyclists themselves were the menace. Pedestrians, for example, found it difficult and hazardous to cross against the constant stream of passing bikes. The head of a Leidsestraat pharmacy claimed that several times a week pedestrians injured by cyclists were helped into his shop. “What is more dangerous these days?” Het Volk newspaper asked in 1920. “Strolling through Leidsestraat or doing a loop-de-loop in a flying machine?” Motorists, too, felt thwarted by the cyclists. In 1926, De Telegraaf reported that one motorist (“red with rage”) complained that driving down Leidsestraat meant having “cyclists surround your car in front, behind and to the sides.”
Ultimately, imposing a speed limit on Leidsestraat did little to fix the street's congestion problem. “The Leidsestraat issue is a puzzle in the Amsterdam of these times,” wrote one newspaperman in 1927. “A very tricky puzzle.” To solve this conundrum, throughout the first half of the 20th century, a great many other ideas were floated, including widening the street, establishing a minimum speed on the street, constructing a parallel street just south of Leidsestraat and filling in various nearby canals for the use of trams and cyclists.
The most persistent idea, though-one that had been and would be floated for decades-was banning cyclists from Leidsestraat. Such bans actually already existed on other streets. For example, cyclists had long been forbidden from riding on the (even narrower) Nieuwendijk and Kalverstraat shopping streets. On the main street in the Jewish quarter, Jodenbreestraat (its name meaning “Jewish Broad Street”), cycling had been banned on Fridays after 3 p.m.-the hours just before and during the start of the Jewish Sabbath. And, of course, as mentioned in chapter 2, cycling had already been banned on Leidsestraat for several weeks in 1906.
In 1927, Mayor Willem de Vlugt claimed Leidsestraat's function as a traffic corridor threatened its character as a shopping street. “[The] cyclist has become a nightmare to the shopkeepers in the city center,” claimed De Telegraaf. The mayor asserted that the street's upscale businesses would be forced to either relocate or shut down, leaving the storefronts to become occupied by “fly-by-night stores and sinister shops.” De Vlugt therefore proposed a law to partially ban cyclists from Leidsestraat. Since it was argued that cyclists hindered women who came by car to shop on the street, and since, as one advocate of the ban put it, “Bicycle riders are generally not buyers,” the mayor's proposal was to ban cycling on the street between 2 and 5 p.m.-the hours when “most ladies go shopping.” This proposal was heartily endorsed by many of the street's tonier shops, led by the posh Metz & Co. department store.
Banning bike riders from one of the most heavily cycled streets just so the well-to-do could shop in peace? That thought struck a nerve with one cyclist who penned a fiery letter to the editor:
I have but one bit of advice for Amsterdam's cyclists: Unite before it's too late! . . .
The world has now turned upside down: many thousands of Amsterdammers-who seek out the cycling vivacity and the asphalt on Leidsestraat-are impeding the shopping of a couple dozen of their fellow female citizens. . . .
Despite all our democratic airs, a delusion is now developing in the heads of our authorities and of ourselves. And just as a swamp produces mosquitoes, this delusion will produce a nuisance: the idea that ten cyclists are less important than a single motorist. . . .
Therefore, cyclists of Amsterdam, unite. Apart from your other associations, unite into one union with a single purpose: to protect the traffic interests of Amsterdam's cycling citizens. It's about time! . . . If the cyclists don't do something about it, soon-as the pariahs of the roadway-they'll simply be consigned to the streets that are lifeless and poorly-paved. Then, as in no other city in the world, the masses will be impeded just because their large presence in certain parts of the city makes shopping less pleasurable for those who are the most well-off.
Ultimately, the cyclists did not rise up and organize. (Unfortunately for them, that wouldn't happen for another half century.) Nevertheless, on this occasion they were spared. Because no satisfactory alternative routes were shown to be available to the thousands of cyclists who would have been affected by the ban, and because the measure was viewed as little more than a Band-Aid for all that ailed the street, a majority of the city council voted against the afternoon bike ban. For the tens of thousands who cycled Leidsestraat each day, the show would go on.
BY 1925, SOME of Amsterdam's first bike lanes had been laid on Van Woustraat, Rijnstraat and Amsteldijk. This development, though, wasn't necessarily beneficial for cyclists, since-as they complained-slow-moving pushcarts and horse-drawn vehicles often clogged the new bike lanes. Since no law prohibited other road users from using these lanes, the traffic police were powerless to free them up for the cyclists.
By now, traffic police were familiar sights throughout the city. These officers, however, weren't always successful when using just their hand signals to indicate which road user was to stop and which was to proceed. While a traffic cop could halt traffic approaching from one direction, as soon as he turned his back, often some-if not many-of those he'd just stopped (particularly the cyclists) would begin creeping through the intersection.
One intersection in particular where this behavior was common was the very one that housed my favorite bike-viewing bench. As one journalist described in 1922: “Whoever takes a look at the Weteringschans/Nieuwe Vijzelgracht intersection between 5 and 6 p.m. will see that the vast majority of cyclists disregard the gestures of the traffic policeman.” The need to curtail such behavior led to what Gerrit Brinkman-the city's first traffic cop, who would once again witness history-called “the great event” of 1925. On September 28 of that year, in the middle of the Weteringschans/Nieuwe Vijzelgracht intersection, a traffic cop stood holding the city's first stop sign. The word “Stop” was written in white letters against a red background on a board perched atop a pole that the cop could swivel. This device allowed the officer to keep certain traffic at a standstill while gesturing for the cross traffic to advance.
The new contraption was an instant hit, if not as an instrument of traffic regulation, then certainly as a prop for street theater. “On Weteringschans, where the first sign is now displayed, dozens of people stand and stare. At what? They're not sure themselves,” reported Het Algemeen Handelsblad. “If fifteen of these signs appeared in the city, then in fifteen places the onlookers would be more curious than ducks in a ditch, staring at signs that always remain the same.”
Over the following weeks, as new stop signs materialized on Dam Square, Leidseplein, Stadhouderskade and elsewhere, the onlookers still had those ducks in a ditch beat in the curiosity department. A full month after the stop sign's debut in Amsterdam, a report on the unveiling of yet another one noted a great hindrance caused by “the crowds that constantly remained watching the turning of the stop sign.” Actually, the traffic police welcomed the crowds, which helped boost awareness of the new intersection regulation. Nevertheless, some road users remained ignorant of the fact that when stopping for a stop sign, they were expected to stay behind a certain orange-yellow line. So additional traffic cops had to be stationed at some intersections with orders to hold back the transgressors. “Naturally, these are mainly cyclists,” observed one reporter, “who behave like naughty, stubborn children.”
ANOTHER DEVELOPMENT ELICITED an even stronger reaction from cyclists. In 1923, De Kampioen magazine predicted, “A bicycle tax in the Netherlands would be the most unpopular tax ever levied.” Despite the premonition, the following year the Dutch parliament passed a bike tax law that took effect on August 1, 1924. A three-guilder-per-bike tax (later reduced to two and a half guilders) was to be paid annually. As forewarned, the added levy greatly irritated cyclists who-after having already purchased their bikes-were now required to remit an additional fee, year after year. Many cyclists were also irked because, unlike a previous bike tax (in effect from 1899 to 1919), which had been linked to the bike owner's income level, under this new flat tax, a dishwasher paid the same fee for his dilapidated third-hand bike as a bank director did for his lavish new one.
Bike owners paid the tax at the post office and, in return, received a small copper plate imprinted with the current tax year, to be affixed to the bike's head tube and replaced annually.
Immediately after the law took effect, Amsterdam's petty criminals began regarding this new source of state income as their own new source of personal income. Thieves pried tax plates from bikes and counterfeiters produced fakes. Amsterdam's bustling Waterlooplein flea market-already notorious as an open-air emporium for stolen bikes-became equally renowned as “the market for stolen tax plates.” In the 1930s, at the Zwanenburgwal canal end of Waterlooplein (just a few feet from Rembrandt's house), fences paid thieves 75 cents (“no more, no less”) for stolen tax plates and resold them to citizens at the fixed price of one and a half guilders.
A cyclist caught riding without a current tax plate was liable for a fine of at least three guilders and the cost of a new tax plate. Initially, to enforce the law, plainclothes tax agents stood along busier cycling routes during rush hours-Leidsestraat, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, the Rijksmuseum passageway, the ferry landings-hunting tax dodgers. These “eagle-eyed” officials were acclaimed for their ability to eyeball, from among the deluge of bikes, the lone one lacking a current tax plate. The tax agent was accompanied by a policeman, since, as one observer put it in 1926, “many an Amsterdammer on a bike-a bit perturbed to be summoned [to stop] by a non-uniformed civil servant-would want to ride on.” The sight of the assisting policeman usually, though not always, induced the scofflaw to stop.
The issuing of a citation to an offending cyclist became, according to one account at the time, “clearly an utmost and intriguing ‘amusement' for many along the street, with the exception of, naturally, the victim-the one who'd ‘been had.' ” Just as when traffic policemen enforced cycling speed limits or operated new stop signs, the onlookers themselves provided a tip-off. “In Amsterdam, it's not so difficult to know when [tax plates] are being inspected,” a columnist noted. “There's usually a crowd milling about and one would have to be very disoriented to not understand what's happening there.” One person who clearly did understand was a young man who, upon sighting the commotion ahead, quickly dismounted and with his unlicensed bike in hand (according to a witness standing beside the authorities) “crept slowly past us, like a thief in the night.”
An offender's bike could be confiscated and taken to East India House, the early 17th century building that had long served as the headquarters for the Dutch East India Company and that now housed the tax agency. The bikes stood in the building's interior courtyard waiting for their owners to pay the appropriate fees. So many confiscated two-wheelers filled the courtyard, it looked like-said one eyewitness-“a bicycle auction.”
Responsibility for enforcement of the bike tax law eventually transferred from tax agents to the traffic police. One Amsterdam traffic cop, who spent years upholding this law, would later admit, “Seldom did the police have to enforce a law that was more unpopular with the public.” Ultimately, this detested tax would be abolished by the unlikeliest of groups-one that possessed no love for Amsterdam's cyclists and which Amsterdam's cyclists, in turn, would abhor far more than the bike tax itself . . .
It Made My Head Swim: The Elephants, Centaurs, Punks and Nuns
On one warm summer night in 2002, a few weeks after my arrival in Amsterdam, I went to a party hosted by some fellow students. Upon entering the apartment, I grabbed a bottle of Heineken. But after a quick look at the other attendees, as a 35-year-old I immediately felt too old for the scene. So I left with the beer-and Brownie and I headed home. It was late; the streets were almost devoid of traffic. Three blocks from my apartment on Spaarndammerstraat, I rode into a small intersection. A cop car, approaching from my left, did the same. Just as we were about to collide, we both screeched to a halt.
Just nine seconds earlier, I'd looked up at the larger-than-life-size statue of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis-the father of Dutch anarchism. The image and proximity of Domela Nieuwenhuis, with his clenched fist raised defiantly, might have emboldened me.
“Hey!” I said. “I've got the right-of-way.” As proof, I pointed down at the shark's teeth-the three triangle-shaped tiles on the bike path whose tips pointed in the direction from which I'd just come.
The cop in the passenger seat leaned his head out of the window and said, “No, we have the right-of-way.”
Up to that moment, like a moron, I'd been reading the shark's teeth completely backward, thinking that when they pointed at me I had the right-of-way. It was remarkable that this was my first close call.
Now, though, I realized I was in a horrible position. Here, I had failed to yield to a squad car, had mouthed off about it, was holding a beer in my hand and had been cycling without lights. Obviously, I was screwed.
My mind flashed to a month earlier, to a night in Portland when I'd gone out biking with Amy Joy and three friends. All but our friend Jim had lights on his or her bike. Just minutes after we set out, while we were cycling west on North Killingsworth Street, a police cruiser flashed its lights and pulled us over. While the cop issued Jim a citation, the rest of us patiently waited. When the officer finished with Jim, he then walked over to me and asked to see my ID.
“I've got lights on my bike,” I told him. That didn't matter; he wanted my ID. Reluctantly, I handed it over. When the cop noticed my San Francisco address, he asked, “So what are you doing in Portland?” I was puzzled. A friend was cycling without lights; now I had to account for my interstate movements? The cop was putting me on the spot under the flimsiest of pretenses: for associating with a nonlighted cyclist.
Though, in the end, nothing came of the incident with the Portland cop (he called in my name and I “checked out”), that scenario raced through my mind as I faced these two Amsterdam police officers. These guys didn't need any flimsy pretenses; they had enough credible reasons to grill me or cite me or even-gulp-arrest me. Yet they did none of the above. In fact, they didn't even ask a single question. Instead, the nondriving cop just said to me, “Go home.” As they drove away, I was left stunned.
My initial ignorance of the correct way to read the shark's teeth stemmed from my having trailed behind too many cyclists who had failed to properly heed them by yielding to the cross traffic. Sometimes, though, when one is following cyclists, obeying the traffic laws could be hazardous. For example, one morning on my way to school, I was near the rear of a long line of cyclists as we all waited at a red light on Frederiksplein. When the light turned green, dozens of cyclists moved on through the intersection. As I pedaled forward, the light turned yellow. I slowed down, and when I stopped, a bike slammed into Brownie's back wheel. The rider muttered at me, “Mafkees!” Freak! Then, along with seven or eight other cyclists, he zipped past me, past the red light and through the intersection.
My curiosity piqued, I walked Brownie over to the sidewalk and-for the next 45 minutes-I watched. Each time the light turned red, a great snake of undeterred cyclists continued moving forward, almost as if they were pulled by those in front and-concurrently-pushed by others from behind. Meanwhile, the motorists in the cross traffic waited patiently until the bikers had cleared the intersection before proceeding. That morning, the record number of cyclists that entered the intersection during a single red signal was 27.
It became obvious to me that, for many Amsterdam bikers, green meant “go,” yellow also meant “go,” and while red didn't necessarily mean “go,” by no means did it mean “stop.”
IN THE 1990s, one of the few cyclists in the city who rigidly obeyed the traffic laws was Mayor Schelto Patijn. Patijn-who hailed from The Hague and had never lived in Amsterdam until his appointment as mayor of the city in 1994-would, within his first year in office, become renowned as “the cyclist who stops for red lights.” Throughout his six-and-a-half-year tenure, during which Patijn's strict adherence to traffic signals became a running theme of his mayoralty (and for which he said he was called an “idiot”), Patijn acknowledged that his behavior was uncommon. “Often, I stand like a nervous Nellie at a red light,” he said in 1998. “Even the people I'm cycling with ride right through. I find it extremely annoying.” Of the “age-old anarchy” of Amsterdam street traffic, Patijn said even cycling through a green light could be “really truly scary” since, from the cross street, red-light-running cyclists would “slam into you, . . . say, ‘Watch out!' and give you the finger.”
In January 2000, in the mayor's annual New Year's Day speech, Patijn complained about “the insane fact that ninety percent of cyclists in Amsterdam ride without lights or ride through red lights.” That same day, in his own speech, Police Chief Jelle Kuiper grumbled, “Cyclists behave like anarchists in traffic.” Of the ubiquity of red-light runners, a few weeks later a spokesperson for the police department commented, “It's not just the youth. Go stand by any traffic light. No one stops. Even mothers with children don't. They don't give a damn about anyone. It's downright antisocial.”
Not all authority figures were exemplary cyclists like Patijn, though. For example, in September 2002 (just a few weeks after my late-night encounter with the Amsterdam police), Piet Hein Donner-who was born in Amsterdam and had spent six years studying law in the city-was sworn in as the nation's minister of justice. For Donner, a Christian Democratic politician who regularly biked to work, his new position demanded of him new responsibilities. “Because I realize that I'm the minister,” the nation's top law official admitted, “I can no longer ride through red lights on my bike.” Years later, Amsterdam's retired head police commissioner, Joop van Riessen, bragged about the manner in which he cycled through the city. “I do everything that's not allowed,” Van Riessen said. “While others wait patiently for a red light, I tear right through.”
Such ambivalence toward the traffic laws had long been a well-known trademark of the city's cyclists. In 1932, for example, the chief of traffic police, Claas Bakker-the man in charge of enforcing the traffic laws on Amsterdam's streets-admitted that the city's average cyclist was “no pure, innocent angel.” In the mid-1970s, a sociologist who had tagged along with police officers noted: “An almost universal phenomenon in Amsterdam is the contempt that cyclists have for the law; many young people cycle without lights or consider themselves exempt from observing traffic lights. The policemen's attitude to this was usually one of weary indulgence.”
One 24-year-old police inspector in the city in the 1970s said:
A real Amsterdammer likes to joke around. For example, he'll call a policeman “chief.” But that same Amsterdammer can also be troublesome. In Haarlem, if you say, “Hey, get off and walk” to a cyclist without lights, he'll get off and walk. But in Amsterdam, they pretend not to hear you. And unless you chase them down, they won't cooperate.
One police official who was particularly bothered by the behavior of the cyclists was Amsterdam police chief Jelle Kuiper. Not long after he was sworn in as the top cop in 1997, due to his focus on “minor criminality” it was said of Kuiper: “He wants to go down in history as the man who got Amsterdammers to stop for red lights again.” But after six years at the helm of the police department, such history was still waiting to be written; in 2003, Kuiper complained about how the cyclists rode at night without lights on their bikes and with complete disregard for traffic signals. “I call them anarchists,” he said, “because, as a matter of principle, they rush to ignore all the rules that are there to protect them.” The way cyclists barged through the city without restraint, Kuiper claimed, made them “just like elephants.”
When Kuiper spat out this particular epithet, he was probably unaware that he'd just ensured his name would go down in history, after all-though probably not in the way he had envisioned. His name entered the history books (well, this one, anyway) for using a zoomorphic term to describe Amsterdam cyclists. By comparing them to elephants, Kuiper unwittingly contributed to the long list of members of the animal kingdom that the cyclists have been likened to, especially when being demonized.
Likening Amsterdam's cyclists to beasts has a long history. For example, when emphasizing the enormous number of bikers in the city, commentators have noted that they traveled “in droves like buffalo” (1932), formed “a splendid army of industrious worker ants” (1934) and yet still maintained their individuality when moving “like salmon going upstream” (1970). Two days after she had visited Amsterdam in 1935, the English author Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of how “the cyclists go in flocks like starlings, gathering together, skimming in & out.”
The Czech writer Karel Čapek (the man who introduced the word robot to the world) was captivated by the numerous cyclists he encountered in the Dutch capital. In 1933, he wrote:
And then those bicycles. I have seen various things in my time, but never have I seen so many bicycles as, for instance, in Amsterdam; they are no mere bicycles, but a sort of collective entity; shoals, droves, colonies of bicycles, which rather suggest teeming of bacteria or the swarming of infusoria or the eddying of flies. The best part of it is when a policeman holds up the stream of bicycles to let pedestrians get across the street, and then magnanimously leaves the road open once more; a regular swarm of cyclists dashes forward, headed by a number of speed champions, and away they pedal, with the queer unanimity of dancing gnats.
Observers also used such animal kingdom analogies when describing the talents of the cyclists. In 1938, one writer noted that the Amsterdam cyclist “shoots through the bustle of the big city with the smooth movements of a tropical fish.” In 1972, an Englishman who lived in Amsterdam lamented the decline in the number of cyclists:
They used to swarm everywhere, ridden with dash, initiative and terrible confidence. It was a dance of death and for the inexperienced motorist to be caught in Amsterdam's rush hour was the sternest of tests. They seemed to avoid cars as flies avoid a swat; it was as if air pressure forced them out of your way.
In 1972, an American wrote: “The Dutchman is a modern centaur who was born with half his body human and the other half a bicycle; he possesses two feet and two wheels, a mouth for talking and a horn for making his fellow beings move aside.”
Mostly, though, zoomorphic terms have been reserved for demonizing the cyclists. In 1931, for example, an Amsterdam professor decried them as the “bacteria of the street who prove themselves to be the least disciplined in the field of traffic.” In 1935, an Amsterdam newspaper writer wrote: “They don't belong in traffic. They are as bad as a plague. While other countries have their locusts, earthquakes and famines, the Netherlands has its cyclists.” In 1956, another Amsterdam news writer opined, “No, the black sheep of the street traffic isn't the scooter rider (though he does have some pretty dark spots); it's the cyclist.”
Often, such zoomorphic terms were used by pedestrians. In the 1890s, one Amsterdammer and his wife were walking on the Omval dike when a pack of thirty cyclists suddenly besieged them. “Like lurking hyenas,” the man wrote, “they came up on us from behind and forced us off the road.” In 1956, a visitor from Chicago wrote:
It is quite possible that all the bicycles in the world are not in Amsterdam, but you'll never be able to convince me. . . . To an American pedestrian accustomed to negotiating Michigan Ave. or State St. against traffic, this city is a fearsome thing. I'd rather breast rush hour on the Outer Drive than attempt to cross some intersections here. For the cycles take after you like hornets.
The most vicious remarks have come, naturally, from motorists. According to a 1934 news report, motorists dismissed Amsterdam's cyclists as little more than “street fleas,” while, in 1958, it was said that the motorists regarded them “as overgrown vermin that must die a natural death.” And in 1963, a local newspaper claimed: “In the jungle of Amsterdam traffic, the cyclist is the big game. . . . During rush hour, every cyclist sees each car as a large dangerous animal that's ready to pounce on him.” After dodging scooters and buses wore them down, the cyclists then “become easy prey for the cars.”
In Albert Camus' 1956 novel The Fall-set in a café on Amsterdam's Zeedijk-the book's narrator states that Holland is “a dream of gold and smoke-smokier by day, more gilded by night” in which the people were “dreamily riding their black bicycles with high handlebars, melancholy swans drifting restlessly through the land, by the seas, along the canals.”
While Police Chief Kuiper intended his elephant analogy to be an insult, I found it to be apt and inoffensive. I was no more insulted than if he'd called me a flea or a locust or a black sheep. In fact, after mulling it over, I began appreciating the elephant moniker and wore it with pride. Watch out! I'd think while whizzing through the city. Elephant stomping through!
Eventually, though, after studying Amsterdam's cyclists as intensively as any zoologist has ever studied animal life, I came to regard these creatures as a different sort of pest. Due to their resiliency and their tenacity, I viewed them as indestructible cockroaches. In spite of all they have endured over the past century, the city remains overridden with them.
AMSTERDAM ADDED ANOTHER cockroach, er, cyclist the day Amy Joy finally arrived. Since she'd requested that I not pick her up from the airport on bikes (my surprise foiled), we rode the train into town. Still, I was eager for her to experience the city in the way I already had for seven weeks. Outside our apartment building, I presented Amy Joy with AJJ's replacement. This one was also an old, black omafiets; its name-AJJ II-was written in black on the rear fender.
I gave Amy Joy the keys to her bike's two locks, a bike map of Amsterdam and a little 24-page booklet I'd written for her about cycling in the city. Each page covered a different topic and provided her with advice I'd gleaned from my head start as an Amsterdam cyclist, such as:
“Always keep right and always presume someone faster is going to overtake you because no matter how fast you're riding someone will overtake you.”
“In Portland, where it's the norm to greet others with a hello or a nod, in Amsterdam you should forego such niceties. Here, if you try greeting every cyclist you encounter, you'll be regarded the same way as someone walking through midtown Manhattan greeting each pedestrian: you'll be thought a kook.”
“Unlike in Portland, where bells are novelties that are rung in delight, here, they are essentials that are rung in alarm and/or anger.”
“If it starts to rain, just pull over and wait under an awning or a tree with other cyclists. It probably won't last long. Or you can go native and ride with an umbrella.”
“With so many bikes everywhere, always take careful note of where you park AJJ II. I wrote your initials on your bike to help facilitate this task for you.”
“If the bike racks seem crowded, don't be shy, shove on in. Unlike in America, it's not taboo for your bike to touch another parked bike.”
“When locking a bike to a bridge railing, ensure that the keys don't slip and fall into the water (as I've already witnessed).”
“Use hand signals so others can anticipate your intentions, but avoid using that dopey American-style crooked left arm signal. If you're turning right, just point right. Turning left? Point left. Stopping mid-block? Point down and to the side. These need not be grand gestures. Often the best signaling is done with little more than a faint flicker from a limp arm/hand/finger.”
“Since I've been in Amsterdam, I've been able to enjoy many aspects of cycling here. One thing I have not been able to do yet is bike with my sweetheart. But now that you're here, I'm so excited to ride around town with you among all the thousands of other cyclists while I hold your wrist or you hold mine.”
AFTER SPENDING A couple of hours resting up from her transatlantic flight and settling into (that is, reorganizing) our studio apartment, Amy Joy donned her flowery green dress and we went for a ride. Almost immediately, my wife noticed the numerous couples sharing single bikes by riding double or “dinking” (to use the Australian term introduced to us by an Australian pal of Amy Joy's). Such passengers almost always rode perched on the rear racks that are standard on Dutch bikes. In Dutch, these racks are called baggagedraggers-“baggage carriers.” Quite often, though, the baggage they carry is human.
In a study I conducted of 1,000 dinking pairs (teenaged and older), among male/female combos, 94 percent of the time the woman was the passenger. In other words, for every case of a woman dinking a man, there were seventeen men dinking women (and, for that matter, eleven women dinking women and four men dinking men).
While most male passengers (54 percent) rode astride the rack, almost all female passengers (93 percent) rode sidesaddle. And among those sidesaddlers, a vast majority of them (83 percent) sat facing left-that is, facing traffic. This is most likely due to right-footedness, since a similar percentage of the populace (81 percent) is right-footed. When boarding an embarking bike, the passenger typically performs a little dance: first, a couple of stutter steps, then a tiny leap with the butt landing on the rear rack. To get airborne, a right-footed passenger leads with her right foot and pushes off with her left foot. Right-footed riders end up facing left and left-footed riders facing right.
Like a lot of Amsterdam cycling practices, dinking, naturally, was nothing new. In 1954, one foreign observer noted the effectiveness of back racks serving as seats. “Many a young Dutchman uses this seat to give a ride to his girlfriend,” he wrote. “More likely than not she will seat herself sidewise, and will keep in excellent balance without holding to the bicycle or even touching the coat of the man who moves the pedals.” Another foreigner of the time noted: “Girls, in theater dress and high heels, sit side-saddle fashion as nonchalantly as you please on the narrow rear mudguard [sic] while their escorts pedal furiously to keep up with the rushing traffic.”
In 1958, an Englishman living in Amsterdam-who found dinking to be a “typical Dutch courtesy”-was particularly impressed when he saw one “very chivalrous young man” who was dinking two girlfriends: one on the back rack and one on the top tube. “Although this isn't fair to the innertube, not to mention to the one pedaling,” he commented, “it is permitted by law.”
The legality of dinking was (and is) notable to many foreigners because dinking was (and is) illegal in many other European countries. Because of this, in 1956 one Dutch newspaper felt compelled to warn its readers to not ride double when vacationing in antidinking lands such as Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
During World War II, when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, dinking played a vital role. The Dutch Resistance needed to shuttle to safety Allied soldiers-downed airmen or POW camp escapees. Transporting an American, British or Canadian soldier by bike, though, wasn't necessarily an easy feat, as one member of the Resistance recounted:
We were astonished to discover that many Allied soldiers could not ride a bike and we had to teach them how to before we could move them. . . . [I]t would be most unusual to see a Dutchman fall off his bicycle, and such an event would have aroused the suspicion of any German who happened to witness it. This was an extra problem we could have done without. . . . [T]hey were warned not to talk during the journey in case someone overheard them speaking English. They promised faithfully but, when they fell off, of course they automatically swore in English!
When there wasn't enough time to teach an Allied soldier how to ride a bike, Resistance couriers (almost always women since they sparked less suspicion from the Germans) would have to dink the soldier on the back of her bike. The sight of a woman dinking a man, of course, would have looked queer since, as a Resistance courier recalled, “A Dutchman would never let a girl do the work. It would have been unheard of.” To avoid arousing suspicion, a courier dinking an Allied soldier had to follow back roads through the countryside, which made the trip longer and more arduous than if the soldier had known how to cycle in the first place.
A few days after her arrival, Amy Joy-enamored of the romance she saw in dinking-asked me to dink her on the back of my bike. I told her it would be my honor. After some initial fumbling on both our parts, Amy Joy eventually settled sidesaddle on Brownie's rear rack. We cycled for a few blocks as she hugged me around my waist and rested her head against my back. But then on the Haarlemmersluis, I misjudged the distance between us and a pole in the middle of the bike path. Amy Joy's knee slammed into the pole. After many cries of pain from her and many pledges of apologies from me, from then on we stuck to riding side by side, each on his or her own bike.
Side-by-side riding, of course, has its own charms. Many Amsterdam couples ride hand in hand, or with a hand on the other's shoulder or pushing gently on the other's lower back. But most typical was one cyclist holding the wrist of the other, who had two hands on his or her own handlebars. I'd never seen such a gesture in the States and was quite flattered when the first time, while riding, Amy Joy took me by my wrist.
ONE DAY, ON Marnixstraat, Amy Joy and I were following a frail-looking elderly couple. They looked so terribly sweet riding together (the woman holding the man by the wrist); it made me picture Amy Joy and me still cycling together in Amsterdam when we were their age. I reached over and took hold of Amy Joy's forearm. She smiled at me. This idyllic little scene was disrupted when, in tandem, the older couple each looked back over a shoulder and then darted left. They narrowly missed a #10 tram coming from behind. The tram driver rang his bell: Dong! Dong! Approaching from the other direction, another tram also nearly ran them down: Dong! Dong!
After the two trams passed, we saw the couple still riding side by side as they crossed a bridge in the distance, the woman's hand still on the man's wrist. At first, I chalked up their moment of madness to senility. But then, noting that they seemed completely unfazed, I realized age may have actually favored them. It's possible that over the course of decades, they'd cycled that same route thousands of times. Maybe they'd done this very maneuver so often, they could do it flawlessly. If indeed one needs 10,000 hours of practice in his or her field before becoming an expert, it's possible this agile couple had already reached that threshold of expertise.
In 1972, a Portuguese man who had been living in Amsterdam for 16 years commented:
Whoever is not used to it-and I shall never get used to it-fears for the life of the elderly ladies who navigate through traffic on bikes dating from the First World War. At intersections or in dangerous situations, they come to a standstill by means of a remarkable maneuver in which they slide forward from the saddle and, at the same time, lean backwards to brace themselves as the friction of their shoes against the pavement functions as a brake. Unfortunately, no simple description can give an impression of the virtuosity, the astonishing steadiness and the steering ability with which these women propel themselves. What they-in their twilight years-exhibit in the middle of the street would, in any other country, be considered a circus act.
SEEING SO MANY old folks on bikes fueled my enthusiasm for our newfound plan to stay in Amsterdam forever. Elderly cyclists have long been notable to visitors, who often express amazement at the diversity of the city's cycling population. In countless guidebooks, travel articles, news reports, memoirs, etc., dating from 1920 to the present day, the most popular way for writers to describe the broadness of cycling in Amsterdam has been to create a list of a cross section of society they saw on bikes. In order to provide the most thorough overview of how all elements of Amsterdam society cycle, I culled scores of such lists to create a master list.
On bikes, in and around Amsterdam, visitors reported seeing in various combinations: mothers with babies in wicker baskets and fat grandmothers, toddlers and urchins; beer-bellied magistrates and town patriarchs; schoolgirls, schoolboys, shop girls, errand boys, peasant girls, butcher's boys, baker's boys; members of Parliament and cabinet ministers with bowler hats; soldiers, sailors, generals and veterans; pastors, priests, monks and nuns; delivery boys on three-wheelers and office boys eating their sandwiches; bank managers, bank directors and bank presidents; furriers and fur-coated women; mill hands and farmers in wooden shoes; lawyers and judges, doctors and nurses, veterinarians and pharmacists, engineers and scientists; preppies and punks; barber's assistants and cat litter boys; authorities and subordinates, millionaires and the unemployed, aristocrats and beggars, bosses in top hats and the most humble scrubwomen; teenage boys with girlfriends balancing sidesaddle on the back and teenage girls with boyfriends balancing splay-legged over the handlebars; courting couples and bridal pairs; the humblest citizens and average Joes; people eating snacks and people taking their dogs for a ride; tradesmen and dockworkers, sewer workers and chimney sweeps, policemen and hawkers, undertakers and railroad engineers, mechanics with their tools and painters carrying open buckets of paint; university students with their books and young men reading their newspapers or playing chess; movie theater ticket takers and funeral attendees in high hats; ladies on shopping expeditions and elegant gentlemen going for tea; tweedy dowagers and take-straight gents with their attaché cases; office clerks and city clerks, typists and stenographers; shy schoolteachers and retired high school headmasters; Orthodox Jewish boys in yarmulkes and Islamic women in chadors; businessmen politely tipping their hats to passersby and prominent directors of large concerns who own one or more cars; black boys in soccer jerseys and pretty lasses who could be models; dread-headed design consultants and melancholy cello players; pale Turkish grocers carrying full crates of bottled beer and coffee-colored Indonesian women carrying full sacks of market vegetables; tourists and prostitutes “and just about everyone else.”
Many of these lists were composed from a staple of four main categories of Amsterdam cyclists:
Businesspeople: with “their briefcases dangling from the handlebars” and “in pressed white shirts and ties.”
Females: in “plumed hats,” “woolen berets,” “long full skirts,” “frumpy dresses,” “a chic dress, silk stockings,” “low-cut cocktail dresses” and “miniskirts and four-inch platform shoes.”
The elderly: old ladies who “pedal like mad,” who “race along as skillfully as schoolboys,” “with long-stemmed gladiolas pinioned under one arm” and “with the sensible purse”; old men “with their wool trousers tucked into their socks,” “in a Prince Albert coat, wearing wooden shoes and a stovepipe hat of Lincoln vintage” and one who “straddles his bike as a horseman sits his mount, stately and dignified.”
Nuns: in a “black veil dangling to her waist,” “aged nuns,” “nuns with flowing habits,” “pedal[ing] to her hospital,” “troupes of nuns”-nuns, nuns and ever more nuns.
Indeed, within seconds of any bike excursion I made or cyclist-spotting I undertook, I saw no shortage of cycling businesspeople, women or elderly-sometimes all at once. (An older businesswoman? Check!) But the most-often cited type of cyclist listed, the nun, eluded me. Nuns were mentioned in so many testimonials, they would have seemed the easiest to spot. Yet as I rode around and cyclist-spotted around town, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how thoroughly I searched, every other sort of Amsterdammer was spotted on a bike except for nuns.
I mentioned my frustration about my lack of cycling-nun-spotting to Amy Joy a few weeks after her arrival. She casually replied, “I've seen nuns on bikes here.”
“Really?” I asked, with equal parts suspicion and jealousy. “Nun-zuh? Plural?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “A few different times.”
Her report made me even more frustrated-and determined to bag a cycling nun of my own.
ONE MORNING, DURING my first winter in Amsterdam, I left for class an hour earlier than necessary so Brownie and I could meander along the way. When it began to rain lightly, we sought shelter in the passageway of the Rijksmuseum-the national art museum-which is perhaps the most unique urban bike path on earth. The street-level tunnel, lined with columns and vaulted ceilings, led straight through the cathedral-like building and directly under the spot where Rembrandt's masterpiece The Night Watch hung. Due to its incredible acoustics, the tunnel had long served as a performance space for street musicians; sometimes I stopped to listen to Tuvan throat singers or Jamaican steel drummers. As early as the 1930s, harmonica players performed there. “This is the best place to play in Europe,” a Russian saxophonist once professed. “Covent Garden in London is also okay, but it's better here.” While I waited out the rain, several schoolchildren, riding as passengers on their parents' bikes, exploited the passageway's acoustics by joining their parents in hooting, hollering and singing as they passed by. I watched with envy, envisioning the day I could do the same with my own offspring as passenger.
After a couple of minutes, the rain began to let up. Brownie and I exited the passageway. A few feet farther on, we approached the Weteringschans/Spiegelgracht intersection. Here, glove- and scarf-clad cyclists were coming from and going in all directions. Watching the cyclists weave and zoom through each other's paths made me woozy. When I reached the intersection, instead of weaving and zooming myself, I pulled over and stopped. The horde of cyclists was so overwhelming-so mesmerizing-I had to count them.
When the hands on the Rijksmuseum clock tower struck 7:55, I began counting with the intention of continuing for half an hour. For each cyclist spotted, I scratched a single hash mark in my notebook. After only two minutes, though, this method proved inadequate. The cyclists were appearing faster than I could mark hashes. So, instead, I began tallying the bikers in batches of five; each fivesome earned one hash mark. While this method wasn't foolproof (some folks still slipped by untallied), it was much more efficient.
An American so overawed by the cyclists that he's driven to counting? This wasn't without precedent. In 1954, a Texan, after declaring “it seems impossible to count” the city's cyclists, nevertheless gave it a shot. In a four-minute span, during the afternoon rush hour along a “business street,” he counted 201 passing cyclists (and 21 cars). Four years before that, a tourist from Michigan had had a go at it. “I counted a hundred so fast,” he reported, “it made my head swim and I quit.”
My head was also swimming as I struggled to keep count, but I was determined not to quit. When the winter air began numbing my fingers, in between hash marks I blew into my cupped hands. When my toes started numbing, I danced back and forth from foot to foot-and kept counting. Eventually, though, the elements got the best of me. At exactly 8:15-ten minutes short of the intended half-hour mark-my blood needed to get circulating through my body again. I caved in, gave up, jumped on Brownie and pedaled through the intersection.
When I reached the warmth of my classroom, I tallied the hash marks. In just 20 minutes I had counted 927 cyclists.
A FEW DAYS later, Amy Joy and I attended a birthday party for one of my Dutch classmates in his apartment. We were the only foreigners in attendance. Throughout the evening, any Hollander I met eventually asked why I'd moved to Amsterdam. Each time, I recounted the tale of the dark, cold, wet morning when I'd ridden around town and through the Rijksmuseum and then had spontaneously counted 927 cyclists in just 20 minutes.
“Oh?” said the aunt of our host when it was her turn to hear my explanation. “Is that a lot or something?”
“A lot?” I said. “That's massive!”
The aunt looked puzzled. “You left America to live here because of that?”
“Yeah,” I said. What could be a more obvious reason?
The woman shook her head, then muttered, “I don't understand.”
She wasn't alone. That evening, several others reacted similarly to my 927-cyclists-in-20-minutes reason for emigrating. To the Dutch, the bike is so everyday, so normal, so deeply ingrained that trying to explain its remarkableness to a Hollander proved pointless.
That evening at the party, after receiving the umpteenth blank-stare response to my story, I realized how others saw me. I was like an immigrant to the United States who had pulled over on a freeway shoulder during rush-hour traffic; marveled at all the cars; and then later professed to Americans his love for their country on account of freeway traffic.
“All these cars!” he'd proclaim. “This is awesome! This is the country for me!”
If any immigrant had ever professed such a thing to me, I'd think he was nuts. Now, I realized, no matter how passionately I recited the 927 figure, a Hollander didn't understand me better; he or she only regarded me as nuttier.
After the party, Amy Joy and I cycled home. When we reached our apartment building, I left her at the front door. Then I went for a late-night ride while I ruminated about my inability to explain my passion for urban cycling to Amsterdammers. Thirty minutes later, while lost in thought on a bike path on Herengracht, I found myself riding behind a slow-moving pair of wrist-holding cyclists. I managed to maneuver around them, only to meet the tail end of another pack of slowpokes. I rang my bell and wormed my way through them till my path was again blocked. Looking ahead, I saw a long line of dawdling cyclists in front of me. I was stuck.
It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? Why were they all moving so unhurriedly? And why were they in my way?
That's when it struck me: It's the middle of winter; it's past midnight-and I'm stuck in a bicycle traffic jam.
My haste vanished. I decelerated, accepted the pace of the others and appreciated the rest of my ride home.
From then on, whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn't hesitate to reply: “So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.”