When locals know best – the Dutch and their bikes
Ask anyone to think of something typically Dutch and I guarantee the top four will be, in no particular order, tulips, windmills, clogs and bikes.
Bikes will always be on the list; every Dutch person owns at least one and 98% of them will be the old-fashioned omafiets (Grandma bike), with baskets of some description up front, panniers behind. These bikes are solid, reliable and basic in design; bulky buttock-supporting saddle of a seat, brakes (if you’re lucky), built-in bike-lock and three gears. They didn’t appeal to me at all and I dismissed their old fashioned cumbersome frames as archaic and odd.
Before moving to the Netherlands we equipped ourselves with two-wheeled transportation believing it would be the quickest and easiest way to acclimate to our new surroundings. We’d also heard rumours the cost of buying a bicycle once we got to the Netherlands would purchase a small car in the US, which did play a part in our decision.
With enthusiasm on the part of my husband and son and reluctance on mine, (I hadn’t ridden a bike since 1987) we bought three flashy, 27-gear mountain bikes with which to explore our soon-to-be home.
The Netherlands has miles and miles of bike paths snaking through glorious countryside, past fields adorned with the ubiquitous black and white cows, alongside canals flanked by windmills. I saw none of them. Between the pain in my butt and balancing the 27 gear changes with the right level of pedalling, the bike rides were miserable.
I hated that bike with a passion. There was no position where it didn’t cause excruciating discomfort to regions you hope never to experience pain, unless it involves giving birth.
I tried everything. Gel-filled undergarments (yes, really) were the weirdest experience; the idea being there would be a comforting layer of gel between you and the saddle. It was a unique sensation but a complete failure in decreasing pain levels.
We invested in various saddles; bigger to support what I assumed was my overly huge rear, smaller to reduce the area impacted by pain. Eventually we found a saddle designed for women, giving ultimate support to the bone structure of the pelvic area. It just looked a bit weird, rather like a three leaved clover, with three strategically placed mounds offering support to bones and the whole thing smaller than a side plate.
The saddle caused great amusement wherever I went looking as if had been purchased from an adult store rather than Halfords. Older house vrouws in particular would give me severe, disgusted looks when I parked my bike and I’d see groups of teens pointing at the saddle, doubled up with hysterical and obscene laughter.
The final straws in my love/hate relationship with the bike occurred within weeks of each other.
The first was a ride through the sand dunes to Katwijk, up the coast to the north. I’d forgotten the dunes are huge, several stories high in places, with the bike path snaking up and down and in between them.
“It’s a beautiful ride,” enthused my girlfriend, “it only takes twenty minutes, and we can have lunch on the beach when we get there.”
It took over an hour and involved more gears changes than a Top Gear special. We found a delightful eatery where I could ease myself into a cushioned chair and imbibe several fortified coffees and a glass or two of wine - for medicinal purposes - to anaesthetise my rear in preparation for the ride home.
The second involved crossing the dunes south to Scheveningen, the seaside suburb of The Hague. A bike ride for an Indian curry and a beer, followed by a steady amble home through the dusky twilight seemed a wonderful way of passing a summer’s evening with friends.
The reality was different. Pitch black, no lights and no stars. We’d been pedalling for five minutes when my wheel veered off the bike path and stopped dead as it ran into sand. The bike stopped, I didn't. That was the last time I rode that darn bike.
I decided there was a reason the Dutch ride the bikes they do and am now the proud owner of a battered second-hand, comfortable omafiets with three gears, brakes, built-in lock, wicker basket up front and panniers behind. You’ll often see me whizzing along, dog trotting alongside, with a beaming smile and a painless rear.
I absolutely love my bike.