By Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty
In the Netherlands, everyone, from businessmen in suits, teenagers, mothers shopping with their kids, and stylish careerwomen in mini skirts and stilettos, rides the humble, eco-friendly bicycle, says Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty
What struck me when I reached Den Haag after our flight from Mumbai to Amsterdam and the cab ride from the airport to the new city which was to become our home, was the number of bicycles on the road: men and women in business formals riding away merrily with ties flying, suits flapping, teenagers pedalling away and parents dropping their children sitting snugly in the front and/or behind on their baby seats…
Within a few days of being here we (my husband and I) got used to the rows of bicycles parked, toppled over, chained to trees and fences and the Dutch riding them like circus men/women, mostly using one hand, the other busy with breakfast, texting into the ubiquitous cell phone or hanging on to a fresh suit from the cleaners or a bulky suitcase for a trip, or with shopping bags or holding up the inevitable umbrella against the unpredictable Dutch showers. Their ability to balance on the bicycle never ceases to amaze us and when we mentioned it to a friend he said that the Dutch are proud of it, and a popular joke is that if a Dutchman doesn’t get a job, he can always join the circus.
In the traffic pecking order the Dutch cyclists take precedence over everything and everybody including pedestrians. Ambling through cycling lanes or crossing them without looking will win you, ‘these tourists have no idea about cycling’, looks from the long-suffering cyclists. We were told by our trusted etiquette book (provided to help us understand the Dutch and their culture) that policemen who try to penalise or stop cyclists for traffic offenses, are sometimes ticked off by the offenders who tell them to “go catch some real thieves”.
There is never a time of the year that cycles can’t or will not be used, be it during the rains or the snow or on those windy days where people pedal valiantly against the wind blowing in the opposite direction and chilling you to the bone. During December 2010, our first winter here, supposedly the worst in 25 years, the indefatigable Dutch braved the snows, with their cycle tires flattened to prevent slipping, and vigorously pumped the pedals. The stylish Dutch women can cycle with their stillettos, miniskirts, dresses, boots, tights, ferrying a couple of children or handful of bags. Just watching them go sailing past makes me envious and joyous. Clearly fashion and cycling can go handle in hand. Another remarkable sight is that of very old people on their bicycles, braving the young and rash and the Dutch weather.
However, what I enjoy most is the sight of the Dutch mother on her bicycle with her young ones on their little bicycles of different sizes, herding them all through the streets, sometimes bringing all other traffic to a standstill, like the ducks with their ducklings in the Dutch canals. Of course these enterprising mothers also have cycles with little carts attached to the front equipped to hold babies, canopy and all, in addition to the one or two cycle seats attached to the front bar or the carrier behind. Obviously cycles are equipped to handle all life stages. Bicycling is romantic as well, couples of all ages pedal side by side, chatting, sharing laughter, holding hands, or sharing a companionable silence while on their way to a party in their finery or for a visit to friends, or the beach, or running errands.
It almost seems like Dutch children are born with ‘cycle balance’. They start young. At the age of two the Dutch child begins riding her ‘push bike’ on the pavement with her parent walking beside. These are tiny bikes with no pedals; the children push the ground with their feet and move ahead. From these they graduate pretty quickly to bicycling besides their parents – short circuiting the tricycles and trainer-wheels!
Busy with settling down and then the tough winter, we didn’t get our cycles the first few months. However, living here one can’t resist cycles or overlook the ease of going places on a cycle. Of course, the flat as a pancake landscape of the country, 30 per cent of which is below sea level and the roads with separate cycle lanes and signals, invite you to use this non-motorized, non energy consuming simple vehicle which is many a time the fastest mode to get from one place to another.
Keeping in mind my ‘small size’, we bought a rather small and tame cycle for my use. We didn’t dare buy the traditional tall Dutch bicycles which have no hand brakes and have to be stopped by pedal brakes. I began on a timid note, intimidated by the master cyclists on the roads. A year into cycling I am fairly comfortable and have graduated to a taller cycle. Now I cycle to the library, social outings and errands. During weekends or warm evenings we do our bit of hand holding and cycling among the Dutch!
I hope that we in India will re-discover and re-adopt bicycles which were ubiquitous till a few years back when they were unceremoniously set aside for our new found love for mopeds, scooters, motor bikes and now cars that we nor the environment can ill-afford!
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