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City of Bikes

I loved reading this book.  And were it not for my daily BookBub e-mail of discounted e-books, I may never have discovered it.  When I opened my e-mail that day and scanned down the listed titles, this cover featuring the streets of Amsterdam immediately caught my eye and it was with no more than a moment’s hesitation before I pushed the purchase button.

I lamented earlier this year about my lost trip to Amsterdam, my first missed annual visit in almost 25 years.  So, this loss probably heightened my awareness to react when I came across this title and prompted me to think this might be one way to get back to that city I love.  On my very first visit to Amsterdam almost 30 years ago, I too was amazed by the huge number of bicycles and bicyclers.  Stepping out of Central Station on my first day there, it was a sea of parked bikes next to the station that captured my eye and one of the first photos I took.

In this book by Pete Jordan, In the City of Bikes:  The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, he tells the story of how he fell in love with Amsterdam just for its tremendous cycling culture and as a result, moved there in 2002.  He well researched cycling history in Amsterdam while living there and into why there was such a contrast between how the US developed into a car-centric culture and how Holland conversely developed into a cycling-centric culture.  He offered many convincing arguments to me not the least of which is sheer size of the country.  

The total land mass of Holland is less than the one half the size of South Carolina and the 48 contiguous US states are almost 200 times the size of Holland.  In Holland with the distance between major cities of less than 50 miles, no one would think twice about biking the distance.  But who in America would consider driving coast to coast on a bicycle?

What was so enjoyable for me about the book was reading all of the places he went that I could easily envision from my multitude of trips to Amsterdam.  And if I couldn’t picture a certain location in my mind, I would Google it to see if I remembered it.  It provided a virtual visit for me as I turned the pages.  And learning how the biking culture grew during the 20th century also answered many questions I had pondered over my many visits about biking etiquette and rules.

Just as he describes in the first chapter upon his first day there, he like me was initially confused by the three different paths to follow along a thoroughfare and did not recognize the difference between the sidewalk for pedestrians and the bike path for bikes and scooters (e.g., Vespas).  

Fortunately for me, I did not have his same experience of having a biker plow into him when he suddenly stopped to admire a 17th century façade (although I have had very many close calls over my years).  And I like him, was amazed at the variety of bikers of all ages in all variety of attire and shocked at toddlers perched on a board wired to the front of the bike (and all with no helmets).

It wasn’t until last year on my annual trip that I experienced for the first time biking the streets and parks of Amsterdam.  And I encountered the very same issues Pete had on his early biking excursions, even almost being run down by a Vespa.

Upon describing his first day there, it was after traversing Vondelpark from one end to the other on foot, that he entered his first bike shop and purchased a bike.  He then goes on to describe many of his early biking experiences before returning to the story of what brought him to Amsterdam in the first place.

Pete relays how growing up in San Francisco, he became a biking enthusiast at a very early age.  Even before he could afford a bicycle, he would borrow his friend’s bikes for exhilarating rides.  Once he could finally purchase his own bike, he thoroughly enjoyed trekking through Golden Gate Park and over to Fisherman’s Wharf with his friends.

After graduating from high school, Pete wandered the country experiencing biking in many US cities. But after 10 years of endless ramblings, he decided to enter UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) studying urban planning with a focus on how to design cities that limited car usage.  Not long after enrolling, it was a photo of 60 bikers in Amsterdam that prompted him to apply to study abroad at the University of Amsterdam.

After moving there, it wasn’t long before he experienced two of the problems that Amsterdam cyclists often encountered: theft and traffic.

Amsterdam is certainly known as a city of bikers, but it is also well known as a city of bike thieves. The bike he purchased for his wife before her arrival was stolen soon after (as was a second one).  He learned from his college friends that the bridge at Grimburgwal Canal was well-known where bikes could be bought cheaply that had been previously stolen.  He hoped to buy back his bike but never did see it again.

For most of the 20th century, cars as they became more prevalent, competed with cyclists.  Bikes have always outnumbered cars and more slowly moving bikes often caused traffic jams.  During the occupation, the Germans didn’t know how to deal with a culture where bikers blatantly demonstrated they had the right of way.  That was until the Germans began to confiscate bikes supposedly for their own war effort.

Pete went on to describe a very enjoyable history of the bicycle in Amsterdam and its competition with other forms of transportation interspersed with his some of his modern-day experiences.  

Between his telling of the researched history and his own biking excursions, I now feel much less intimidated and more qualified to once again bike in Amsterdam once I have the opportunity to travel there again.

2 thoughts on “City of Bikes Leave a comment

  1. Enjoyed the story and the pictures of Amsterdam. Even though I’ve not traveled there as often as you, I really love the city and had fun taking the virtual visit with you. Happy biking on your next trip over!

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