Holland is the country of cheese, tulips and coffee shops. But more importantly than that, it is the country of 17 million people and 23 million bikes. Holland is a country where the average person cycles an astonishing 1000 km a year. Where even its coolest rappers sing about real-world problems like having to deal with frozen bike saddles on winter mornings. Where there are more bikes than cars on the road during rush hours.
In Holland, the group that considers itself a cyclist is incredibly diverse. They’re not just middle-aged men in Lycra. EVERYONE is a cyclist, even your great granny. You get taught how to ride when you are 3 years old and you’re cycling to school with your parents when you’re about 5 years old. Most kids are flying solo by age 9. By age 11 you’re possibly cycling 16 km round trips to secondary school, in organised hordes of classmates from the same area. And the love for cycling never leaves you. At least, in my case.
The art of cycling is taught as a primary school subject in every school in Holland. Every child receives weeks of cycling instruction to prepare them for a life on the road and the challenges they will face on their journeys. Whether you’re learning about traffic regulations, the dangers of bigger vehicles, handling the elements, or how to fix your bike when you get the inevitable flat tyre: the knowledge is learnt from a very young age.
Holland is a small country whose inhabitants have an intuitive sense of manoeuvring around the most chaotic of roads, because they’ve learnt to respect the unpredictable nature of traffic and can handle busy road situations. As long as most of us follow the simple traffic rules and act courteously along the way, we can all coexist together in tight spaces. This culture makes for people who think on their feet, respect each other and give each other space. If anything, that’s what Holland is all about.
Dutch cyclists are held as accountable for their actions as the average motorist. If the Dutch police catch you cycling through a red light at night-time while drunk, without lights on your bike, texting on a phone and not carrying your ID card, the cumulative fine can surpass 550 Euro. These fines force cyclists take their responsibility seriously. But not just cyclists are held accountable in Holland: If it comes to an altercation between a car and a bike, the motorist is ALWAYS at fault. This was written into Dutch law in 1994, in article 185, part 4. The direct result: most motorists are acutely aware of the cyclists around them. Besides this, most motorists in Holland are cyclists themselves and realise that we all benefit from looking out for each other. Intricate traffic junctions, like the ones in Amsterdam, only work because everyone is paying close attention.
As a cycling nation, the Dutch respect the elements. But they also know that they can brave them at any time. After all: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation. Everybody knows that when you go skiing or snowboarding, you dress warmly and protect your eyes from the sun. It’s the same with cycling. If you’re cycling in the rain, you put on an anorak. If it’s hailing and snowing, you dress like a Michelin man. Nobody will judge you or give you a funny look. In fact, it only adds to your street cred. Your self-esteem grows with every trip, as you receive little nods of recognition from your fellow diehards on the road. And when it’s a sunny day in Amsterdam, the electrifying smiles on our faces could power the entire city.
The Dutch love cycling so much they can’t get enough of it. This was never so obvious as during the pandemic. 27% of Dutchies stated that the pandemic made them cycle even more than they did before it started. It seems that the fear of impending doom, coupled with lockdown boredom, made a lot of people realise it was time for them to get outside, get healthy and enjoy themselves. The statistics prove it: 1.1 million bikes were sold in Holland in 2020 alone. And over half of them were electric bikes, a 30% increase from the previous year.
Cycling in holland is so easy, people do it every day. For many, it is their main method of transport, even when going by car is the easier option. The Dutch will cycle, even if they have 2 kids, a dog, and the shopping to haul across town. Some Dutch legends even cycle home from the hospital with their new-born babies strapped in. There is an intricate, highly developed network of bike lanes all over the country and throughout every city, making cycling as safe as walking, and even safer than driving. It’s quick, easy and cheap: parking costs are murderous in Amsterdam and who wants to buy petrol and pay for road taxes and vehicle insurance anyway? Ditching the car and going green has never been as popular as it is right now.
The number of cyclists on Dutch roads has become so vast, that the Dutch government and Royal Dutch Cyclist Union ‘ANWB’ have realised that the bike lane network is at its maximum capacity and even further expansion is necessary. The fact that this is happening in a country that already has such a comprehensive bike path infrastructure proves a delightful point: Cycling is incredible fun, and the Dutch are its ambassadors.
Riding a bike is a way of life. It keeps you healthy and happy and is a constant reminder that facing unpredictable challenges, such as the elements, is what life is all about. Like riding the waves when you’re surfing or judging the wind with your kite. Some days it will be a blissful ride, with your sunglasses on and your gaze on the sunset over the water. Other days, you will have to go outside looking like a woolly mammoth to combat the cold. But a little bit of bravery, combined with a good playlist, can go a long way into making even those rides worth it. Grabbing your bike on those days is a way of proving to yourself that you’re stronger than you think and that you’re the type of person that doesn’t take the easy way out. Mental fortitude and resilience are trainable skills after all and riding a bike is a great place to start a self-improvement journey. All the while saving the planet, one gram of CO2 at a time.
Having said of all of this, I realise that not every country in the world is like Holland. It’s no secret that the UK still has some way to go when it comes to cycling. But you’re not too far behind. The UK government has come leaps and bounds from where it started. Improvements have been promised, and new infrastructure for cyclists is being laid out. But the rest of the revolution must come from the bottom up, as it did in Holland. It was our sheer numbers and incessant pleas to local government, to make bike paths and the rights of cyclists a priority, that made the current culture possible. The true revolution didn’t come until the mid-nineties, when the bike got protected by law and car parking spaces in cities like Amsterdam made way for bike lanes. Life improved enormously as a result.
So, here’s to you, my English friends. May all of you do yourself the greatest favour I could wish on anybody: buy a bike or an e-bike. Learn to cycle and start to see all the joys that cycling has to offer. Be the person you want to be and be the change you wish to see in the world. Petition your local council to support you. You will not regret it. And I’ll be here to support you along your way, with inspiring stories about life on a bike in Amsterdam.
With all my love, and well wishes from the cyclists of Holland,
Nicole – Your RideOn Ambassador in The Netherlands