Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Redneck Goes to a Garden Party

Not to be awesome or anything, but I just got back from a totally kickass vacation in the Netherlands and Germany.  Let's just say it's been a long time coming. However, biking in the imminently civilized biking world was what you could call a tad jarring for those of us from the equivalent of the wild west of alternative transportation.

I spent a little less than a week in the Netherlands where most of my biking happened.  I rocked two different bikes during my trip, an OV Fiets (read: rental bike from the public transport system):

This thing was a tank.

And a bike borrowed from a friend:

Note the awesome tulips!

My impressions both of cycling in the Netherlands and the stark difference between what I know and how they do things left me sitting a tad dumbfounded.  First things first - the bikes.

As we all know, I have a bit of a fetish for city bikes, and I think the Dutch do it better than just about everyone else.  Easy to ride, insanely durable, mostly step-through bikes are the order of the day, and both these bikes definitely fit that bill.  But that's where the similarities end.  The OV Fiets was a singlespeed with a coaster brake.  For me this was the equivalent of trying to learn Linux - I know how to ride a bike but the interface totally changed.  Stopping, for instance.  And then starting again.  It took about a day before I figured out how the hell to both achieve a stop AND have the pedals in a position I could use to effectively start moving again. The OV Fiets was a total tank and not overly maneuverable, so scooching around town was a tad comical.  But that said, it's my first experience using any sort of bike share program and the fact the entire thing exists in the first place was pretty magical.  Using my friend's subscription, the cost of rental came out to a whopping €3 for the day.  

The other bike I used was borrowed and I rode it for both longer distances and more days.  This bike was superficially similar - fenders, rack, lighting, step-through frame, pants guard.  But from there the similarities ended, as this bike had an aluminum frame, 7-speed hub gearing, and (praise be to all that is good and right) hand brakes.  This "interface" is pretty close to my mom's Electra Townie and as a result is fairly familiar.  

But enough about the bikes.  It's like cooking a gourmet meal and wondering what pan the chef used.  Where the Netherlands comes together isn't really the TYPE of bikes they use - the majority of what people actually ride are insanely beat up clunkers with rusted out chains and dinged paint.  What truly blew me away was simply the infrastructure.  I don't speak Dutch, I'd never been to Europe, and had no idea what the rules were of right-of-way and so on until explicitly told.  But even still, the system is so easy to use even a Texan can do it.  For the most part, you're completely separated from the cars.  COMPLETELY!  

But for me this was almost a problem - I'm not actually accustomed to receiving the right of way from cars.  So I had a bit of a hard time letting go of the idea that at all times drivers were about to try and kill me and take the appropriate right of way through things like roundabouts.  I'm sorry, citizens of the Netherlands, from that girl who probably held up traffic.  I felt like my entire life I'd been fighting for a spot at the table and all of a sudden was given access to an elegant soirée for which I was grossly underprepared.  

However, in the end my impressions are of being deeply impressed and insanely jealous.  I saw tiny children and old grandmas pedaling like they'd been doing it their whole lives - because they had.  I rode 30 miles one day, between three cities primarily on bike paths. I never felt threatened, even on the roads that had simpler non-separated bike lanes. 

Further, I'm re-inspired to ride my bike here at home (I have never truly appreciated our weather the majority of the year until now).  I have a good idea of what we should do here in the U.S. to bring real cycling culture.  I'm inspired, I'm impressed, I'm jealous.  I'm a lot of things.  But holy shit, Netherlands - well done.

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