Netherlands on Two Wheels

In the Netherlands, there are more bicycles than people, and about three bikes for every passenger car. With the flat landscape, short distances between population centers, and gasoline prices of US$7 per gallon (€1.65 per liter), cycling is a logical transportation option for the parsimonious Dutch.

Joe Bike Rack

Parking in the double-decker bike rack at the Alkmaar train station

With their upright or “sit-up” construction, Dutch bikes are comfortable and a pleasure to ride. They are sturdy, easy to maintain, and built to endure the wet weather. They typically come equipped with chain covers and mud fenders, so you can ride while wearing regular clothes.

Bike Ferry

Crossing a North Holland canal on a free bicycle ferry

Even though helmets are usually only worn by children and racers, the Netherlands is the safest country for cycling in the world. They have developed an excellent bicycle infrastructure, including ubiquitous cycle paths, protected intersections, and intercity routes. Here, it is illegal to cycle under the influence or to ride at night without front and rear lights.

City Bike

Man on a City Bike, Amsterdam

The most common bike in the Netherlands is the simple “City Bike” with a single speed and foot brakes. Another familiar model is the “Granny Bike” (Omafiets), which is characteristically black, upright, and built with skirt guards and a step-through frame. With the evolution of electronic-assist capability, we are continually overtaken by gray-haired old ladies on their e-omafiets.

Bakfiets with kids

Bakfiets (Dutch station wagon)

Another smart and pragmatic bike is the beloved Bakfiets, which is a cargo or freight bike with a wheelbarrow-like bucket on the front. Although originally designed for commercial deliveries, it is now mostly used by parents to transport their young children.

Bike Shop

Esther negotiating at a local bike shop in Alkmaar

While planning our two-month stay in the Netherlands, we originally thought we would rent bikes for a month at a time. After looking around town for rental bikes, we determined that it would be more economical and convenient to purchase second-hand bikes, and try to re-sell them when it comes time to return home.

Our Bikes

Our new used bikes

The bicycles we bought are worn but fully functional and outfitted with all the standard features, including bells, lights, and locks. Esther’s bike has eight speeds and a useful pair of saddle bags for our trips to the grocery store. My bike only has three speeds but came with a handy mounted compass for this old-school navigator.

Es Texel lighthouse

Esther riding a rental bike on the Island of Texel, North Holland

With my low-tech compass and our cell phone mapping apps, we have successfully plotted our way around the province of North Holland. We now have several favorite routes into the flat green polder lands, hilly coastal dunes, or just down to our local ice cream joint.

Joe dune pain

An agonizing climb in the hilly dunes of North Holland

From the saddles of our new used Dutch bikes we are following the local way of life and enjoying the views. Free from traffic jams and parallel parking spaces, it has clearly been cheaper, healthier, and more relaxing finding our way around the Netherlands on two wheels.

Windmill and bike

Esther’s bike in the polder lands

 

Blogger’s Note: The Dutch word for bicycle is fiets (pronounced “feets”). Two or more bikes are “fietsen”.

22 thoughts on “Netherlands on Two Wheels

    • Thank you, Janis! I think cycling is one of those universal joys in life, especially when the terrain is flat and the wind is at your back. Because I was thinking of doing a biking post, we have been collecting cycling photos since we arrived. The fall weather reminds me a lot of the winter or early spring weather in northern California. There is a lot of rain, but it comes and goes. The air is cool and crisp, the clouds heavy but well-defined, and the landscape soggy and green.

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    • I totally agree, Jess. As you point out, the upright design makes the Dutch bikes very easy and enjoyable to ride. As the photo shows, the city bike is also simple and sturdy. The heavy-duty frame and components, and lack of hand brakes, multiple gears, and associated cables, make these bikes nearly indestructible.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Moira! Since you are an accomplished long-distance cyclist, you could probably cross the entire country of the Netherlands in a long weekend. For us slow pokes, it has taken a few weeks just to cover the small province of North Holland. As you know from your excursions in Belgium, the cycling in this part of the world is amazing!

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    • It is great to hear from you, JaNann! We hope you are well, and enjoying the change of seasons in Graeagle. We both have been having a blast in Holland, but Esther is especially thrilled to be back in the country of her birth. Take care, Joe & Es

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  1. I wish we had better bike trails where I live! (Although the hills would be a challenge.) I was amazed at all the bikes we saw in Amsterdam, and how we saw people using them to transport their small children and even dogs. It is a very good option for city dwellers, I think, and certainly good for the environment as well. Plus, let’s face it: biking is just plain fun! I’m glad you and Esther are having a great time biking around the northern Netherlands!

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    • Thank you, Ann! The first two things that I noticed after exiting the train station in Amsterdam were how tall the people were and how many bikes there were. Compared to the Netherlands, our bike path system in the USA is pathetic. Although it is getting better, riding across town in Reno would probably be a suicide mission. The dogs in the bike baskets are so cute. I wish I had been quick enough with my camera to include a bike dog in my post. There are so many positives to cycling. Helping the environment and just plain fun are two of my favorites.

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  2. The Netherlandas are leading the way in the environmentally friendly cycling revolution. I love their comfortable upright bikes, I would like one like that myself. I have a mountain bike that is so uncomfortable, I can’t ride it for a long time. Wonderful idea to buy second hand and sell it just before you go home. It is the perfect way to explore your surroundings. Great post!

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    • I totally agree, Gilda! Burning calories beats burning fossil fuels. Here in the Netherlands, it is the perfect way to explore. Yesterday, we went on our longest ride yet, about 40 miles roundtrip to Edam and Volendam. Now that I have ridden an upright style bike for a few weeks, I dread going home and riding my mountain bike. I think I will look into converting my low handle bars to the upright style. Esther likes her Dutch bike so much that she is considering shipping it home. It may look funny to the people back home, but we would be the cyclists with the biggest smiles on our faces.

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  3. My hunch is that obesity is less prevalent in the Netherlands with all that bike riding, too. Good for you two in jumping right in and “going local” as it were. Love seeing those windmills in your posts too, Joe. Are they as ubiquitous as I’d like to imagine they are? – Marty

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    • Thanks, Marty. Studies have shown that cycling leads to a longer, healthier, and happier life. Besides the obvious weight control, it significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Most people associate bike riding with joy and pleasure. As such, it is also proven that cycling reduces stress and improves mental health and well-being.

      Seeing windmills in Holland is still pretty common. On a recent day trip to Haarlem, we toured a working windmill and learned a lot about windmill history and how they work. The windmill we visited had been used to make concrete, grind grain, and convert tobacco into snuff. The majority of windmills in the Netherlands were used to pump water to drain the soggy polder lands. Today, there are still close to 1,000 windmills here. During the 19th century, before the invention of stream-powered pumps, there were over 100,000.

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    • Thanks, Christi. That guy in pic #4 does look comfy riding in his loose-fitting jeans and cashmere sweater. We too have been very pleasantly surprised by the comfort of our bikes. When planning our trip, we assumed that we would need to take the train or bus to many of our day trip destinations. Over the course of the month, we have grown more confident on the bikes, and have extended our range much more than we expected. Besides some saddle soreness, we are none the worse for wear.

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  4. Joe, the Netherands is the most bike-centric country in the world – no question. You’ll notice I didn’t say “bike-friendly” because there’s lots of places that encourage cycling, but there’s nowhere in the world that I know where the bicycle is so engrained in the culture and daily life. Americans in particular have no idea of how to make this concept work. It’s more than just lip service and a few bike lanes. It’s about the acknowlegement, at all levels, that pedestrians, bikes, and cars have a right to share the pathways and roads equally. As you can tell, this is one of my soapbox issues, and it’s always refreshing to visit the Netherlands to see how it can, and should, work. Hopefully, your post will make a few converts. ~James

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    • You are so correct, James. Thank you for sharing your informed ideas on the subject. I have found cycling here in the Netherlands to be an extremely practical and stress-free way to travel. As you are well aware, nearly every street has its own bike lane, including designated turn lanes and stop lights. Approaching a busy roundabout can be terrifying in most places, but here the bikes have the right-of-way. You just stick out your hand to indicated which way you are going, and the cars all stop to let you pass by. I am going to miss this when I get back to the relatively bike-unfriendly USA. ~Joe.

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  5. I used to ride all the time when I was younger, and my bike is still moldering away in the garage. Unfortunately, my wife is afraid of riding anywhere near traffic so I’ve gotten into the habit of driving and out of the habit of biking. Maybe if we were in the Netherlands she’d be more comfortable.

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    • At home, I have a bike just like yours, Dave. Riding in Reno, like most cities in the USA, is impractical and dangerous. As a result, most of us just drive everywhere. I read that half of all journeys in the Netherlands of 5 miles or less are still made on bicycles. With all the dedicated bike lanes and motorist’s genuine respect for bicyclists, I think you and your wife would really enjoy riding here, as we have.

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