Not two minutes after I stepped off the bus from the airport, my girlfriend yanked me back up onto a curb. Before I had time to be startled, a bike whizzed past in a blur, missing me by less than an inch. “You have to be careful of the bicycles in Amsterdam. We cycle everywhere.” She pointed out dedicated lanes paved with red brick in the streets and on the sidewalks, cautioning me to look both ways for bikes, even before considering motor vehicle traffic.
Indeed, everywhere I went for the next ten days I was surrounded by two-wheeled demons. Men in suits, strangled by wind-driven skinny ties, pedaled furiously to offices with messenger bags strapped across their chests. Businesswomen cycled in skirts and spiked heels. Workmen carried supplies in wheelbarrow-shaped bins mounted to the front of the bicycles and, sometimes, benches added inside these same bins were used by mothers to deliver children to school. Lovers cycled to parks, grandmas and grandpas cycled to the market, brave tourists wobbled around on tandem bikes, and everyone cycled to the bars for a beer at the end of the day.
Crossing the street in Amsterdam was a nervous affair. I never quite got used to looking both ways before stepping off a curb into the red-brick bike lane, then looking both ways again for vehicle traffic. Inevitably, upon reaching the far side, I would forget to look both ways a third time before crossing the bike lane going in the opposite direction. Only by the grace of God – and the dexterity of the cyclists – did I manage to avoid a major collision.
A few days into my trip I was flipping through the information packet provided by Amsterdam Tourism and learned that there are 881,000 bicycles in the city, and that 58% of residents cycle daily. Considering that the city’s population, including those too young to ride a bike, is only about 811,000, that number is remarkable. It certainly explained why it was impossible to safely look up, unless I was standing well away from any hint of red bricks.
And in Amsterdam, one must look up! Charming bridges over narrow canals and intricate gabled roofs demand upward gazes. Without glancing skyward, I never would have realized that many of the houses intentionally lean forward. Built narrow and high to minimize taxes (which were based on the amount of street frontage a building occupied), many of the the houses are too narrow to allow furniture to be hauled up interior staircases. Instead, a hook and cable attached to the peak of the roof are used to winch larger items up and through windows. The forward tilt insures that furniture does not crash into the front of the building.
Near the end of my stay, I was blissfully floating down a canal on one of Amsterdam’s many tour boats when our guide broached the subject of cyclists. “It’s said that the bricks of our bike lanes are stained red with the blood of tourists.” I didn’t doubt him for a moment. Thankfully, not one drop of it was mine.
Author’s note: If you’re planning a visit to this “city of bicycles,” I strongly suggest you check out this list of Amsterdam travel tips on the 33 Travel Tips blog.