I didn’t need another reason to love the Netherlands. Between the public art, the amazing events, and the opportunities to learn new things in a beautiful setting, this country (and Amsterdam in particular) won my heart a long time ago. But then, as if in an attempt to secure my love, the Netherlands offers up the knooppuntenroute, a nation-wide network of marked cycling paths.
Even people who know little about the Netherlands could probably tell you that there are a lot of bicycles. Bicycles, pot, and prostitution are the most common associations foreigners and visitors have with our fair city. But it is true that bikes rule the roads here, and with good reason. Cycling is the best way to get around Amsterdam, and although some areas are a bit congested (and others just plain terrifying), it is usually the quickest way from Point A to Point B. The history of the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is fascinating and involves some significant social activism. I was surprised to learn how recently the switch to bicycles happened, since it seems like the city had always been designed with cyclists in mind.
While most Amsterdammers cycle daily, there’s a smaller group of cyclists who zip through the city on lightweight racing bikes, fully kitted out in pro team gear, riding not just for practical reasons but for fun and fitness. I am happy to say that I am one of these cyclists, although I have resisted the urge to buy a team kit. The culture of cycling was one of the things that was most attractive to me in considering a move here. And once I got my racing bike here back in June, the cycling adventure started.
The first few months were a little slow. Coworkers suggested a route or two, and I mostly just rode out-and-back routes north or south. I usually rode alone, early on Sunday mornings. Nothing too adventurous, given my terrible sense of direction. To be honest, it was getting a little boring. Then, two things happened that changed everything.
First, at the end of a lovely dinner at a local Portuguese restaurant, the couple sitting next to us struck up a conversation. Dutch husband, American wife, living in the US for 20+ years and in Amsterdam for a year-long sabbatical. And, she’s a cyclist!! We were both thrilled to find someone to ride with. Contact information was exchanged and plans made.
Then, in preparation for our first ride, I stopped in to my local bike shop and asked about route maps. Jackpot. For only €6, I suddenly had an endless array of ride options. And this map only covers a small part of the country! The system of cycle junctions on this map – the fietsknooppunten – extend throughout the Netherlands. It is a beautifully simple system. You look at the map, figure out where you are and where you want to go, and then follow (and in our case, write down) the numbered routes. And you’re off! Signposts along the cycle routes point you to the next junction. No need for the map, or Google, or any apps. Just a scrap of paper that says, “52 46 47 79…”.
Yesterday’s ride with my new friend, on a cool, grey day, took us north out of the city, across the IJ and ultimately to the Uitdammerdijk. We rode on the narrow bike path along the dijk, buffeted by the wind but loving the moody scenery and temperamental sky. We stopped for tea and a rest at De Blauwe Tuin, (the Blue Garden), which the owner runs “just for fun”, serving drinks and sweets to cyclists, trekkers, and anyone who wanders by. After a delicious pot of tea, we pulled out the map and plotted our way home via an inland route: 77 75 76 42 43…
I learned long ago, when I was young and car-less living in Massachusetts, that a bicycle is a great way to explore; to see things that you can’t get to by train or even by car. Our ride yesterday, which took us less than 25km out of Amsterdam, allowed us to see a completely different landscape, and gave us a new perspective on this beautiful country. Cycling slows you down, lets you turn down side roads and into gardens. It allows for conversation between new friends, and shared adventure. It has been an important part of my life for a long time, and I’m grateful for the many ways that my cycling habit is enriching my experience abroad.
Now…where to next??