Saturday, 7 May 2011

Amsterdamned - Terror in the Cycle Lanes

Never have I seen such a contrast between a nation and its capital. In rural Netherlands, things don't get much more laid back. Very little seems to get done. Some sizeable villages can't even be arsed to have shops. "What, you need food? Try the next town, mate." I'd spent the last three days enjoying a life of ultimate pootling: perfectly flat landscapes, a sun continuing to shine against all probability and, while not breathtaking views, damn pretty ones. And I shared the bike paths that criss-cross the country with a handful of others, many of whom cycled beside me and chatted, asking me what I was doing.

Then I hit Amsterdam and it's mental. The town is heaving. It's Friday afternoon rush hour. I've done another Brussels - turned up at a silly time. On this occasion there's no fish festival. It just happens to be a national holiday instead. The bike lanes are stuffed full of people trying to go in all directions, zipping this way and that, but now there are others to watch for. Mopeds are allowed in cycle lanes. And the pensioners' shopmobility machines turn the lanes into a geriatric Death Race 2000. I saw two accidents in the first couple of hours. Some old fella was sprawled on the floor, presumably a victim of a hit and run, or at least a hit and pedal. Or maybe he was just off his tits on space cake. Then a young lad came off his bike. Being considerably more handsome he got a lot more offers of help.

And they are an attractive lot. All of 'em. The women, the men, the young and the old. And cycling must be working for them because everybody is slim. I spotted a few morbidly cuddly types walking down the street but when I passed them they had either British or American accents.

For a city of this size, it's light on cars, but that shouldn't be a surprise when the bicycle is king. But what happens on a bike when you see a friend in the street and she's going your way? You have a bike, she doesn't? A simple backer system works. The second human climbs aboard the rack at the back. There are two popular seating arrangements - the normal one-leg-each-side or side-saddle. Occasional you see a more daredevil approach, with the passenger stood on the rack like some sort of motorcycle display team. They then cycle around town trying to find a ring of fire to jump through.

The bikes themselves all seem to have been made in the 1920s, black and built from iron. They clunk and creak but they usually have a comfy-looking saddle. No one has an expensive bike. Theft is a problem here. Each bike comes complete with a couple of feet of chain, not a normal bicycle lock, but the sort of stuff you would use if you were devising a live stage show that involved velociraptors.

So, I have another day here. There are things to do. I've been told to hunt out a Kroket, on account of its horsemeatiness, there's a Nina challenge in a Buddhist temple and then, to recalibrate the spirituality, there's the Red Light District to have a look around. But I'm doing it all on foot. I'll leave the cycle lanes for those looking for slightly more danger.

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