Welcome to Amsterdam, Cycling Capital of the World!
Although Amsterdam is considered the world's cycling capital, there are actually other cities in the Netherlands that are considered more cycle-friendly and certainly have more cyclists per capita. However, that's a list for another blog post because for tourists and visitors to Amsterdam it's impossible to ignore bikes, cyclists and cycling.
Another way to put it is, if you played the word association game and you started with "Amsterdam" you would get to "bikes" within five words, at most.
Now after that slightly lengthy introduction I'm just going to get to the point. With this post, I want to help you enjoy cycling in Amsterdam... safely.
Cycling in Amsterdam is great, but it's not as easy an activity as the Dutch make it look. But hopefully these tips and information will get you rolling on those two wheels as quickly as possible.
How (and why) cycling "works" in Amsterdam
Cycling works in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, for a number of reasons. My personal opinion is that it's a combination of a number of things; laws, infrastructure and opinion. All of these things have been invested in by both the Dutch government (continuously over the years) and by the Dutch people. This a good introductory explanation of Dutch people's attitude to cycling and some cycling "rules".
There are cycle paths everywhere, some are on the road, some are set on the pavement but nearly all of them are clearly marked and all of them lead somewhere. I know that last comment sounds a bit bizarre, but in the UK, cycle paths often "disappear" suddenly, but in Amsterdam - and the whole of the Netherlands - cycle paths will take you somewhere, even if it's just to another cycle path.
Also in the Netherlands, cyclists have the right of way in many scenarios, including on roads and at roundabouts. Cars have to wait for bikes to turn and all drivers must check for cyclists before turning off a road. These road rules - and the introduction of strict liabilty (whereby in many scenarios the driver of a vehicle could take blame for any collision between an automobile and a bike) - have given cyclists a sense of "superiority" over not just vehicles but also pedestrians so don't be alarmed to see Dutch cyclists pumping on their pedals through red lights, across traffic and always ALWAYS across pedestrian crossings. Although I have to admit I don't always stop at zebra crossings when I see someone waiting for me to pass, I will if there's a red light or if I see young children. The problem now is that most Amsterdam pedestrians (and after a few days, tourists too) don't expect cyclists to stop so they wait for bikes. Sad, but true. (I recommend a quick perusal of this article about "strict liability" in Dutch cycling (including what it's not and why it's a myth that it's the reason cycling is so popular here).)
If you're interested in finding out why Dutch laws and opinion are so pro-cycling, I have previously written a short history of cycling in the Netherlands which will explain where this cycling culture comes from.
Tips and advice for easy(ish) cycling in Amsterdam
You can rent bikes almost anywhere...
In addition to the bigger bike rental companies (people visiting us have had a good experience with MacBike, who are definitely the best bet if you want a bike with a child seat or bikes for kids) most bike repair shops have a number of bikes to rent and prices will range from €10 - €20 a day. While we often use the corner shop near us to hire bikes, the quality of bikes varies considerably and most "fietsen" from local bike shops will have pedal brakes (see below) so you may be better off spending more to get a bike that is regularly maintained and has front brakes, a decent lock and a sturdier frame.
It's also not a bad thing to have one of the brightly coloured rental bikes so other cyclists know you aren't a local cyclist. You may find it embarrassing, but they will generally give you a wider berth and will be a bit kinder to you... most of the time.
Test yourself on pedal brakes before you hit the road... hopefully not literally
Many old Dutch bikes have pedal brakes, or back brakes, which means you pedal backwards to brake. There are no front bikes on these kind of bikes and they really do take some time to get used to. If you've never done them before, walk your bike to a quiet road or to a cycle-friendly park and go up and down until you're a bit more used to them. It took me a few hours before I felt confident and a few days before I stopped gripping at the air above my handlebars when I wanted to stop.
Stay right (and give way to the right)
The most obvious advice I can give you but the most useful is to stay right. Whether you're on a bike path or on a road stay as far right as you can in order to let other bikes, mopeds or cars pass you.
One thing many first-time cyclists in Amsterdam may be alarmed to see is the inclusion or scooters on bike paths. Only mopeds with blue plates are permitted to go in cycle lanes and legally they must travel under 20mph but it's very common to see them travelling much faster and to even see the occasional yellow-plated scooter in a cycle path. While most are considerate (due to that strict liability legislation) there are still more than enough who speed, get too close to bikes and drive aggressively. There are frequent discussions about changing the law to exclude these vehicles from cycle paths but by keeping right you will be keeping out of their way.
Also don't be alarmed to see skateboarders, rollerbladers, runners and even those mini electric cars in cycle lanes.
One of the most terrifying areas of Amsterdam to cycle in is in the Red Light District because it's so busy. I also hate cycling around the 9 Streets and Jordaan where you get to a crossroads and you have no idea who has right of way. In short, you should treat these like a roundabout and give way to the right. I can't promise everyone else will - especially those who don't seem to slow down as they approach - but this is what you should do.
You can ring your bell...
Another tip worth mentioning is don't be alarmed when people use their bell. More often than not the ringing of a bike bell behind you is just their way of letting you know they're coming up behind you and plan on overtaking, or they're asking you to keep right. Please take this into consideration when you start ringing your bell randomly (which all tourists seem to have a strong urge to do), you may be causing a lot of local cyclists to turn their heads.
Stop at red lights, even if no-one else does.
As mentioned above, many cyclists in Amsterdam think they're above such simple things as red lights. They're not. They're just silly. As a first time cyclist in Amsterdam you should always stop at red traffic lights... and STOP signs. Because many main roads have trams which have a different traffic light system, just because a road lookss clear, doesn't mean you have the right to go if the light is red.
In fact, the following slice of advice should be the one you memorise: When it comes to cycling, do not do as the Dutch do.
Always cross tram lines diagonally
My one and only fall off a bike in recent years was when I got my front wheel wedged in a tram line. Thankfully this happened in Berlin so I can still hold my head up high in Amsterdam, but it's incredibly easy to do and an incredibly impressive way to crash - you will literally fly off as your bike stops dead still in a heart beat. I still have a scar on my foot after dragging it along the tarmac when I fell off so please remember this advice.
"Uitgezonderd" means you can go...
When you see this sign with the picture of a bike under a stop sign with the word "uitgezondered", that means you can go down that road if you're on a bike. This will often mean you are facing on-coming traffic (if the road is one-way for vehicles), so don't be alarmed by this, just stay right.
Try to always lock your bike through something else.
Bike theft is prevalent in Amsterdam (we've had two bikes stolen in two years) and so keep this in mind when you lock up your bike. Avoid dark areas, try to always find something you can chain your bike too and wherever possible put your lock through the front wheel and frame of your bike. If you can't find something to lock it to, and you're with another cyclist, chain your bikes together. I'd hate for the theft of your rental bike to double the cost of your trip.
I may regret recommending this but... avoid eye contact with other cyclists.
One of the tricks NewMan and I have learned that when you have right of way and you notice a cyclist approaching or waiting to join your flow of traffic, if they notice that you have seen them, they will take advantage and go ahead/cut you off etc. While I'm definitely not recommending not looking around you, you shouldn't think that looking at somebody is giving them warning that you're coming, in fact, it often means the opposite.
ENJOY, ENJOY, ENJOY!
Cycling in Amsterdam isn't easy, but it's considerably safer than cycling in most of the world's other cities. By getting on a bike and exploring this fantastic city you are not only embracing a culture that millions of people are fighting for in their own countries, but you're likely to see more and to break away from the places most tourists never leave.
I recommend heading to one of Amsterdam's brilliant parks - yes, Vondelpark is lovely, but try cycling around Rembrandtpark, Beatrixpark, Westerpark or be brave and head out on your bike to Amsterdamse Bos, the city's woods. Alternatively cycle along the Amstel and in ten kilometres you'll find yourself in beautiful, sleepy Oudekerk aan de Amstel, or if you're feeling really brave, you could try and conquer the 35 kilometre cyle that will take you to the coast at Zandvoort, or go half of the way and hang out in Haarlem for the day.
By cycling, you'll also become more aware of how cycling is part of many Dutch people's routines. It's not a "I'm a cyclist, therefore I cycle" mentality, more of a "I need to get to my job, therefore I cycle" or "I need to pick up the kids from school, therefore I cycle". You'll also no doubt see some of the miraculous multi-tasking some Dutch cyclists do. I regularly see people have 30 minute long phone calls on their bikes, I've seen a guy carrying a bottle of wine and a briefcase at the same time (and not in the same hand!) and in December I'll see several people cycle along with a Christmas tree attached to their bike on the front, on the back or just balanced across the handlebars. BIkes are built to carry multiple children (three kids on one bike + Dad is my record sighting) and although they make hopping on the back of someone's bike and sitting there look easy, it's really, really not.
The best way to enjoy cycling in Amsterdam is to relax, take your time, don't worry too much about what other people are doing.
Oh and remember stay right and stop at red lights.
Additional photos by nanao wagatsuma
Frances M. Thompson
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