Friday, October 16, 2009

Blog #5 You know the old saying: "It's just like riding a bike."

Foreigner Bike Riding in Holland 101. Ken's Tips

I ride my bike to school about 20 minutes each way. This is what I think, how I prepare what I do and experience when I go for a bike ride through Central Den Haag. Me, who has not ridden a bike in 10 years, through a major city IN THE NETHERLANDS where bike riding is something the Dutch learn at birth, DURING RUSH HOUR AND on the way back IN THE DARK, AND....... IT IS RAINING!

TIP #1 When it is raining in Holland and you have to ride a bike here is what you do: You get wet. 

TIP #2 Visualize where you need to go.

Now it should take about 20 minutes for me to bike ride to mijn klas in nederland (my Dutch class, damn I am getting goed (good)) BUT since I am a newbie to riding a bike in Holland I give myself 45 minutes to get there. So I visualize the route I need to take. I do not MapQuest this because there is no way I will be able to remember words like cross over Veechstraat, left on Dordrecht, quick right on Meerwaardeen then another quick right on Tijdschrift etc etc. I tried it once and first off I never seemed to find out where the names of the streets were and then the map (aka post it note) flew out of my hand while I was in the middle of a pack of Dutch Bike commuters (which to me is the equivalent of a herd of stampeding Wildebeests). 

TIP #3 Dress appropriately.

I tend to over dress so far for each of my bike rides. I am worried I will be cold so I wear a t-shirt, sweater, a coat, scarf, pants and long knee high socks. At first this is great but if you are going to be riding a bit of a distance on a bike and keeping up with the Dutch Commuter pace (which you are kind of forced to) you can work up a sweat. Each time I have shown up for my Dutch class I have been a bit sweaty and dehydrated. 

TIP #3 Addendum - Dress appropriately (or carry deodorant and a bottle of water).

TIP #4 Check the light bulbs.

SO on the first day of class and my first bike ride, just before I was getting ready to leave, I realized I should check the head light on my bike. It didn't work. I panicked. I called Jur. "My light bulb doesn't work. Is that okay? Will I be able to see? What is someone doesn't see me and hits me with their car? Should I wear something bright? Yellow? Neon? What do I do? I need to ride my bike and I do not want to be late on my first day of class! Should I take a taxi?" Secretly I was kind of thinking this is a legitimate excuse for not having to go to school. Jur, calm as always, said "it is okay. But you are supposed to have the light. It is the law and you can get a 24 Euro ticket but just be careful and you should be fine" Well I was already stressed as it is but now I was a paranoid law breaking bike rider, freaked out that I was gonna get busted by the Dutch Coppers. I decide to try to carry a mini flash light that I saw in a tool box a few days before, but being an inexperienced wobbly bike rider (with a book bag over my shoulder making it harder), while trying to look for foreign Dutch street signs, the cops and a now a flash light is not a good combination. Within the first block from my house I dropped the flashlight and chased it, screaming as it began to roll down the street toward a canal. I thought I broke it but it came on. Then on the way back from class, when I really needed the flash light, it started to fade.

TIP #4 (a) If you are stupid enough to have to use a flashlight as a replacement headlight for your bike, check the batteries.

TIP #5 Be aware of your surroundings.

You just have to ride the bike to truly know this but I will give you a short list of things to be aware of that can be a physical danger to you on a bike in Holland.

Other Bicyclists (they are everywhere and fast), Motorcyclists (which really should have their own designated lane if you ask me), Skateboarders (they are dangerous, aggressive and irresponsible), People on Wheelchairs (they feel entitled and will not acknowledge you), Rollerbladers (come out of nowhere and too fast), Parents with strollers! Flocks of pigeons, Ducks, Dog Poop, Puddles, Trolleys (this is a major one and they seem to come from every direction), Buses and of course the Cars. All of the above share the road but we are all sort of separated by little painted lines on the streets. It is terrifying. Truly terrifying. I try to follow the dotted lines but there are so many and I get confused. Plus the cars and buses are so close to me and I wobble.


There is no room to wobble. I try to stay as far to the right since I am so slow and wobbly but if I wobble to the right I will hit the curb. Which I have several times.

TIP #7 Don't be ashamed if you fall. Get up, wipe yourself off and act like it never happened. If someone notices just smile and say "I am new."

I do not like being on the left side of the bike lane because that is where all the buses and the motorcyclist come whizzing by you. What if they were to hit my elbow or snag on to my scarf or book bag. I could die. Several times I have screamed out of fear from speeders passing by me on the left so I avoid the left side of the bike lane. Plus the faster bicyclist pass you on the left (show offs!)

The Final Tip
TIP #8 Do Not Be Intimidated!

Sure I feel stupid struggling on my bike, Sure I have ruined a pair of shoes jumping off my bike so many times because I thought cars were close to me and I'm wobbly. Sure whenever I approach an intersection and there are a bunch of bicyclists waiting at the light I jump off and wait several yards behind them to avoid being part of their pack, sure I feel bad not knowing how to shift the gears on my bike yet (Jur says I have to peddle backwards or something like that to shift gears. Oh HELL no!) so, yes, I have to peddle harder then everyone else. It is tiresome to see everyone riding around me so leisurely and I'm panting from peddling so hard like I am in the mountain stage of the Tour de France. Yes, it is degrading to have EVERY other biker whiz by me, especially the couples holding hands that lift their arms over my head to pass me, or those three elderly ladies, one of which threatened me with her cane and snapped something rude to me in Dutch as she circled me before she sped off or even worse are the ones that speed past me carrying two kids, a sack a groceries, on the cell phone, with a bouquet of fresh flowers and a cup of coffee, yeah that one stings a bit. AND yes it is humiliating to have everyone ring their little bike bells as they approach me. What do I have a sign on my back that says DANGER out of control idiot!?!

Well I don't care. I just peddle on. Of course I have snapped on occasion, "ahh shut up. I'm new" or "Go around." And of course I have said countless times "sorry". Once when I jumped off because a car scared me and almost plowed into a pack of passing cyclists I was so panicked that I said something like “I didn't know, I’m American, this is hard!" I am not sure what that was about. The POINT is....... just keep peddling and have fun. I am not sure why but I have found that singing out loud the Witches Bicycle melody from The Wizard of Oz and "saying I'll get you my pretty and your little dog too!", calms my nerves and makes me laugh as I ride. Who cares if all the Dutch people stare at me. 

My next goal is to put a mint in my coat pocket and as I ride to try and take the mint out and put it in my mouth. Maybe one day I will be able to hold a cup of coffee. Big dreams.

Oh, one more thing. Apparently, you are supposed to give signals when you are going to turn right or left. But I have found that when I raise my right hand to indicate turning right my bike veers left. I think my bike has bad alignment but I have been told that is not possible and since sudden veering is not good in any direction I just do not use hand signals......yet.


  1. You'll get the hang of it Ken! I'm sure you will.

    Seriously, I'm convinced that those Dutch bikes have a mind of their own. The last time I was on one (actually, the last time I was on a bike PERIOD) was when I was riding in the Achterhoek at night with a Dutch friend. Of course, he had a light on his and I didn't. Long story short, he took a quick turn and I went straight... directly into a nasty, muddy canal!

    Yes, it was the Dutch bike, I tell you. Those two huge Belgian beers that I had beforehand had nothing to do with it!

  2. Oh My Gosh make me laugh every time I read one of your blogs. I feel like I'm right there watching it all unfold. Keep up the wonderful descriptions of your life in Holland.

    "If at first you don't succeed, try...try AGAIN!!!"

    Happy cycling to you :)

  3. At least you have an omafiets! I haven't ridden a bike in 20 years and now the only one we currently have has that awful bar across the top. I don't even know how to get on that style! ;)

    I loved this post. It was hilarious and so absolutely based on fact! Well done! Succes!

  4. Ken, I think you need to raise the seat up a bit on the bike...your knees look like they are bent too much, but hey, you look very European! I bet if you didn't tell everyone that you are American, they wouldn't know the difference! :)

    Keep up the good cycling! You've got guts, man!


  5. I laughed so hard my face hurts! Keep on riding, and keep on writing. Someday, all this is going to be a NY Times Best-Seller called "In Dutch".