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Bicycling Amsterdam


“Hi.  I think I want to rent a bike,” I said.

 “You think?”  The younger, cockier-looking of the three workers smirked.

“Yeah, well…” I laughed self-consciously, “I haven’t quite figured out this whole high speed traffic with random bike lanes thing.

“Aw, it’s nothing.”  He sauntered over.  “Besides, the way the law works here, even if you get run over it won’t be your fault.”


I’m in Amsterdam and my father has given me a homework assignment. Perhaps I should clarify that I’m 27 years old and in Amsterdam for business.  But my father, a professor to boot, had no qualms about handing over my assignment: to ride a bike in Amsterdam.  

To many this may seem like an odd charge, but to my dad, an avid cyclist and general knowledge hound, it seemed perfectly rational.  As a major proponent of bicycle commuting, he was curious about how well the Dutch system of bicycle lanes worked.  More importantly, he was continuing his life’s work of raising me properly - as someone with a sense of curiosity who, when in a foreign country, tastes the food, chats up the locals, and, well, rides the bikes. 

I had originally intended to blow off this little homework project.  After all I was there on business – I had no time to frolic about on two wheels!  And more to the point, I was still baffled as to how these blue jean-clad road warriors managed to avoid being run over; as a pedestrian, I still felt in danger of annihilation every time I crossed a street. 

But then the guilt began to gnaw at me.  I was right here in Amsterdam, Centraal Station’s rental agency a mere jaunt from my hotel – when would my father be able to experience this for himself?  It would be the least I could do.  And then the defiance hit: I’d bicycled across the United States!  I should be able to tackle one little foreign city!  The breaking point came when, run out by a shortage of internet-enabled workstations at my company’s European headquarters, I opted to spend one of my last mornings working from my hotel room.

Exhilarated by the unexpected freedom, I threw on the warmest combination of clothes I had with me, and headed toward the Station.  Centraal Station is a rat’s nest of fast-moving traffic, train lines, tram lines, bike lanes, bus routes, and sidewalks.  In my view, it was as impenetrable to a cyclist as Fort Knox is to a potential thief. 

As I walked over, I analyzed every intersection, every turning lane, every bike lane and train track to plot out my attack.  I began to feel confident that I could make it out of the disaster zone through a carefully calculated blend of riding, walking (I’d happily look like a chicken to stay alive), and a final Hail-Mary across a particularly nasty looking set of tracks.  With this plot in place, I threw back my shoulders and headed into the warmth of the bike garage.

The elderly man behind the counter sized me up and before I’d said a word he was pointing me a quarter-mile down the road to the other end of Centraal Station.  I didn’t know why he couldn’t rent me a bicycle; all I knew was that all of my calculating had been for naught.

Once in the correct garage, I forked over my deposit and signed a waiver (assuring them that I would not sue after being run over by a train) and received in return a small yellow bike.  It was a cruiser in every sense of the word, nothing like my Terry road bike back home.  Being the deluxe model, it came equipped with  coaster brakes and hand brakes, a wide, soft seat, thick tires, and more locks than gears.

Rather than tempt fate, I walked my new companion completely out of the danger zone and across the river to a side street.  I swung my leg over the frame, took a deep breath, pushed off, and very nearly fell over.  Nothing was where it should be; the seat was too low, the handlebars too high.  The pedals, as a result of the coaster brakes, didn’t go backwards – a feature that got me into trouble more than once.

Mr. Personality at the rental shop had advised me to stay out of the center and had even provided me with a map, marking with a big, ominous X the areas I should avoid.  He had also helpfully circled the Botanical Gardens, which I had chosen as my destination.  I had studied the map carefully, working out a route, and now as the wind bit my ears, I chanted “first left, second right, over the bridge, left, left” in time with my pedals.

In his Amsterdam guidebook, Rick Steves describes bicycles as “the smart way to travel” about Amsterdam.  He’s right about their “wonderful mobility” – you zip around the city far faster than on foot.  What he neglects to mention, however, is that while you’re zipping around, you rarely have enough time to read the street signs.  And so you choose a street that looks like it’s probably heading in the right direction; only that street will dead-end into a canal or hit a roundabout, veering you off in an unexpected direction.

I never did find the Botanical Gardens that day, despite consulting my map a solid six times and asking directions three.  (And as much as I’d like to blame it on the language barrier, I cannot.  In Amsterdam when you inquire whether someone speaks English they’re likely to reply “a very little” before popping out with a phrase like, and I am not making this up, “In principle, you should be able to follow this road here straight down all the way until you see the Gardens.”) 

What I found instead was that I soon didn’t care.  Instead I settled into my one-speed and swooped through the narrow alleyways and over arched canal bridges.  A young Dutchman grinned at me as I zoomed past and left me feeling pretty and plucky and continental.  I quickly became aware that bicycles do rule the road in Amsterdam and as I grew more brazen I glared at cars that encroached my space and rang my bell at oblivious pedestrians.  In short, I felt like a local. 

 My hour drawing to a close, I wound my way through the red light district to a café I’d been frequenting.  Double-locking my bicycle outside the front window, I opened the door to the warm smells of espresso and bread baking.  The woman behind the counter, recognizing me from my visits throughout the week, smiled and we chatted as she put together my order.  

Moments later I waved goodbye. With my notenbrood and walnut tart secured safely on the rear rack I hopped on my yellow bike, whispered “thanks Dad”, and pedaled away.

-          Heather Krygowski




Heather Krygowski Roszczyk


Bicycling Amsterdam


Laura Domela's Amsterdam photos


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