Spinning in Bike Town

Why, in a city with more bikes than residents, where 63% of people use their bike(s) daily, where there are 500km of cycling paths and no less than 157 bike shops, why, WHY would anyone take a spinning class?

This was the question I was asking myself last night as I headed (by bike!) to my first exercise class in Amsterdam. A friend invited me to join him and his wife at RoCycle, a relatively new spin/cycling studio in Amsterdam. Billed as a “killer workout for badass people”, I was curious.

As I may have mentioned, I love to bike. I contribute to the imbalance of bikes and people in Amsterdam; I have two bikes. My daily commute is on my city bike, with its coaster breaks and single gear. It is practical and functional and I have come to love it.

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This is my city bike. My racing bike is too fast to be photographed.

My weekend rides are on my beautiful road bike, a black Specialized Roubaix that is light and responsive and has more gears than I need. I did not have to learn to love it.

The biking culture of the Netherlands was one of the things that made moving here so attractive. Even my husband, who does not enjoy cycling, has converted to biking for most of our errands and outings. It’s just the best, fastest way to get around.

 

Still, I wondered, will people who spend so much time cycling for transport and practicality want to cycle for exercise? It seems that the answer is yes, although there were definitely some Americans and other non-Dutch folk in my first RoCycle class. And of course, most of us came and went by bike. (But wow, was the ride home a challenge!)

I had taken spinning classes before, so I knew my daily bike commute would have about as much in common with RoCycle as watching “Top Chef” does with cooking a 5-course meal for 20 people. Still, I wasn’t worried. Faced with a little anxiety before this new class, I called up a memory from one of the first spinning classes I took in Boston. It would have been in late February or early March of 2010. It was just days after my grandmother passed away, and a few weeks after my mom shared her cancer diagnosis with us. At a challenging moment in the class, probably a climb, the instructor was encouraging us to stay with it, keep going. And a very clear sequence of thoughts came into my head: Your grandmother has died. Your mother is sick, and dying. But you. You are here. You are alive. You are strong. You. Are. Not. Giving. Up.

I come from a line of remarkable women, now gone. In that moment, years ago, my health and fitness offered one way that I could keep the story going, keep the line alive. And I felt that again last night, as the instructor told us to “give it all we had”.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I had a reserve to draw from, that I could handle more work and more sweat and a little more pain. And I did not give up.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with any other sport. I’ll wimp out of running in a heartbeat. But on the bike, I am a badass.

 

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Falling down

Well, it was bound to happen. The life of a cyclist in the Netherlands is a delicate balance. You need enough caution and attention to get safely to your destination, but a healthy dash of assertiveness and daring doesn’t hurt. In the past months, I’ve gotten more comfortable on my city bike, learning how to navigate some tricky intersections and find my way around new neighborhoods. I’ve had a close call with a tram and a few near-misses with fellow commuters coming off the Centraal Station ferry. Nothing serious yet, although in some ways I’ve been holding my breath waiting for the inevitable to happen…

So who would have guessed that my first bike crash wouldn’t be in Amsterdam at all, but in Utrecht? We took a day trip on Saturday and rented bikes, which we knew from the get-go were not in the best of shape. The tires were a bit wobbly and the brakes were terrible, even though we had both hand brakes and coaster brakes. We managed as best as we could. For the most part we had no problems, since we were biking outside of the city center on new bike paths with little traffic.

But then. On our way back into the city, we were riding on a bike path in a relatively active neighborhood. Up ahead of me, I saw a woman and a dog coming towards the path from the left. My husband was in front of me and came to a hard stop to avoid hitting the dog, which had run into the bike path. And then I came to a hard stop, first into him, then down to the ground. Damn the rental bike and it’s crappy brakes! A very kind bystander helped us out and made sure I was ok, before assuring me that, “it happens to everyone!”.

Thankfully I survived with nothing more than a few bruises. The bike was no worse for wear, and I also managed to protect the jacket I had bought only hours before. I’m moving a little slower, but that didn’t stop me from biking again today – on my own bike, with brakes that I trust.

Oddly, there’s some measure of relief to having this first crash out of the way. Of course, it’s not as if we each only get ONE crash. I could have another one tomorrow. But I know now that I can survive a tumble. And, at least while the bruises are still fresh, I will be a little more alert to my surroundings, and pay more attention to what’s in front of me.

Knooppuntenroute

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.

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Best €6 I’ve spent yet.

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…”.

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Where will it take us next…?

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??