Going Native in the Netherlands

Anna Holligan is the BBC’s correspondent in The Hague. She usually reports the events in the International Criminal Court, and broader Dutch events, but is occasionally seen on a bicycle in some of her reports.

Writing about cycling in the Netherlands is like trying to write about breathing in the UK; it's not really something you think about, it's something you just do.

I’d always been an off-roader: careering down rocky dirt tracks on my mountain bike up in the Scottish highlands or cruising serenely down the canal towpaths of Hackney on my Pashley. But I’d never venture on the British roads.

Lis, my brave Austrian ex-housemate, cycles to work in Knightsbridge every day. I would watch her after breakfast, wrapping up in full day-glow body armour ready to do battle. She would return with horrific anecdotes about run-ins with aggressive & dangerously disrespectful drivers.

Roger, a friend of a friend, has received compensation several times following incidents with drivers who seem to struggle to spot moving objects, even those in bright yellow cycling gear.

I moved to the Netherlands as the BBC's Hague correspondent in summer 2011. Since then my “Oma fiets” (grandma bike) has become my most preferred and most practical way to travel. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make cycling an everyday activity, but the infrastructure makes it the most obvious option.

This is a brief account of the system that transformed me from off-roader to everyday cyclist in about the time it took to cross the channel. I’m embarking on a mini-mission of meditative style mindfulness: a 10-minute ride to the beach at Scheveningen.

I collect my bike from the apartment lobby. Everyone here has at least one, some two. In fact bike over-crowding is often cited as one of the rare annoyances here – as anyone who has ever tried to park outside train stations in The Hague or Amsterdam will testify.

My bike keys are now attached to my house-keys to avoid the amateur oversight of leaving both the wheel lock and chain lock keys attached to the wheel-lock (the only time I’ve had a bike stolen, and clearly my own newbie fault). It’s a surprisingly easy mistake to make.

The route to the beach involves crossing a major intersection close to the World Forum, Europol and International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). But crossing is a breeze thanks to the bike traffic lights at most major crossings – “green bike means go” translates in most cultures.

Further down, the cycle path separates from the main road, becoming surrounded by dandelions and bluebells. I’m busy admiring the overhanging oaks - easy to do when your bike allows you to sit upright rather than slouched over the handlebars - when a woman with a baby on the front of her bike and a toddler on the back overtakes me.

She’s followed by an older couple, the woman with a spaniel in her basket. The dog looks at me inquisitively, perhaps wondering why I’m just cruising. For the natives, cycling isn’t really an end unto itself, but a functional, fun, way to reach where you want to be.

It's not all smooth cycling.  The back-pedal brakes can be tricky for foreigners. My mum, brother and numerous friends have fallen victim. Luckily neither they, nor the respective cars, were injured during the adaptation process. The brakes do eventually become more intuitive – plus they free up your hands to do things like indicating.

The Dutch are pretty tolerant of tourists on bikes, who are easily identifiable – they’re the only ones wearing helmets. But that's a whole new blog post.

That the Dutch don't wear helmets is testament neither to bravery or stupidity but rather to the infrastructure built up over decades. It gives people the ability to cycle free of fear and full of freedom. And that's a dream we all aspire to share.

 

 

Top five hazards of Dutch cycling

  • mopeds
  • tram tracks
  • bike-nappers
  • alcohol
  • winter

Top five hazards of British cycling

  • drivers
  • cars
  • lorries
  • roads
  • winter