Sunday, 23 August 2009

Ride on, dear friend

We Dutch love our bicycles. Everybody in the family has one. On Sundays we take them out for a ride. Father in the front, leading the way. Mother in the back, picnic basket hanging from the handlebars. The children in between, careering from one side of the road to the other in carefree abandon. Cross country bikes for the boys, pink lady bikes for the girls, tricycles for the little ones. Every school day gangs of children on bicycles terrorize local roads. They ride five abreast so that no one can pass, they make sudden movements and run red lights, and generally ignore every single traffic rule in existence. We curse at them but we've all done it ourselves when we were young.

We pride ourselves on the fact that we can carry out small repairs to our bicycles. For instance, identifying a leak in a tire by submerging it in a bucket of water and looking for the escaping bubbles of air. Or resetting a chain that's come off its cogs. Such skills are part of the standard curriculum for children, necessary for survival out there in the big wide world. A bit like learning how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. Only we don't start fires, we look for bubbles.

Owning a bicycle is a given in this country. It's ingrained in our souls. If it hadn't been for the fact that for a very long time the marshy ground made the use of bicycles impractical, I'm sure that the knights of medieval times would have tilted their lances at each other riding bikes instead of horses. Indeed, when at the outbreak of World War II every modern army already made heavy use of fast, armoured, and capacious motorized transport, Dutch patrols still preferred to take to the road on a self propelled single occupancy vehicle consisting of nothing more than an iron frame supported by two thin rubber wheels.

So you see we are very serious about the bicycle as a viable personal transport alternative. For instance, a road isn't considered a real road unless it has a bicycle lane. And by bicycle lane I don't mean those thirty odd meters long burgundy red coloured strips of road with white outlines of bicycles painted over them that you can sometimes find in English towns, and that some local MP has ordered put in so he can prove to his constituents that he's conscious of the environment. To a Dutch person, those odd strips make no sense at all. They seem to start and end arbitrarily at various points on the road. What are they for? Do they mark no fly zones for bicycles? Are you supposed to land your bike at one end, taxi along the bicycle strip, and then take off again at the other end? All silliness aside, though, over the years conditions have definitely improved for cyclists over in Blighty. At least there are bicycle lanes now. This wasn't the case a few years ago. Allow me to pedal down the bicycle strip of memory lane for a bit.

When I went on a cycling holiday to England about fifteen years ago - at that time an expedition considered hardly less challenging than going on safari in a shopping cart - there were so few roads suitable to cyclists that one day we found ourselves hauling along our bikes by hand on the hard shoulder of a motorway, simply because there was no alternative route. At other times we were riding laboriously up a steep hill, hoping that at the top there wouldn't suddenly appear a car from the opposite direction whose driver would be so surprised at the soundless two-wheeled apparitions coming towards him that he'd simply run us over. Looking back on it now, I think we must have been insane.

What seems insane to most non-Dutch people, is the sheer number of bikes in this country. The Netherlands has the largest number of bicycles per capita in the world. Most of these sit snug in garage boxes and garden sheds, or line streets and fill squares. Many can also be found in more unusual places, such as the thousands of bicycles that sleep with the fishes at the bottom of canals. Come to think of it, there are probably more bikes in those canals than actual fish.

"No bikes please" - A Dutch shopping window

Canals are not the only threat to our beloved bicycles. Unfortunately - and strangely enough, come to think of it - thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's bicycle is not in the Dutch Bible. It is in the law books, in a way, but who reads those? In any case, if we don't continually protect our prized mode of transport, some perhaps God fearing but certainly not law abiding miscreant will steal it. In this cat and mouse game between current and prospective owner, the chain lock plays a central role. Used abroad to secure fences and lock doors, its main use over here is to chain your bike to whatever immovable object is at hand, be it a tree, a bridge railing, a street lantern, or a park bench. The bicycle thus anchored, the task now falls to the soon-to-be-offender to dislodge it. And thus the game begins.

A keen observer walking through the streets of a medium sized city will soon spot the victims of this game. Broken chain locks hang from bridge railings, patches of rust accenting the dull metal like dried blood on lifeless skin. Lone front wheels still clamped to bicycle racks, silent witness to the mutilation that enabled their predators to run off with the kill. Sometimes the victim is not even taken, but simply vandalized where it stands, its frame and wheels bent every which way. For what is more fun to do after a night out with the boys than a bit of trampolining on some bicycles, right?

The lives of both bicycle and its rider are fraught with danger. However, challenges faced together strengthen the bonds of companionship, and so maybe that's why we're so fond of our bikes.

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