The Dutch bike stands outside the bike store just off the Frederik Hendrikplein in The Hague. Solid. Sturdy. Immovable. It is unclear if the bike is resting against the wall or the wall against the bike.
The bike has seen better days. Scratched and scraped, it has certainly never heard of the featherlight promise of carbon-fiber tubing, or the latest advances in aerodynamic streamlining, or the notion of multi-gears timed for going up and down hills. What’s a hill in Holland anyway? That slight bump of the bridge over a canal would not even count as a warmup in Dubuque.
“Bob,” the bike man, has rebuilt the important bits of this old bike and left the beat-up exterior in a gentle acknowledgement of the inevitability of age. And there is of course the in-your-face fact that the bike is so heavy that if it fell over, the rider and anyone close to the rider would certainly be crushed. Such flaws, however, are like a puppy in the window to us.
“The cost is 395 euro,” Bob says in excellent English.
“How about 350?” I say in honor of my carny roots.
“How about 400?” Bob says with a smile and a wink.
And with that wink, my wife is the proud owner of a Dutch bike. Black. Upright. Heavy. Baskets on the back. Light on the front. Handbrakes for quick stops. Lock attached to the wheel to thwart those pesky thieves. Chain guard to keep the oil off your dress or pants. Mud flaps to stop the wet and rain from landing on your back. And options galore if you so desire: umbrella attachment, musical instrument carrier, braces to haul lumber for that remodel project, and every kind of child carrier for the growing family.
It all gets a little crazy, of course. For example, you have three kids? Here’s the Dutch bike for you.
Oh, you need a rack to haul your surfboard? Here you go.
These are all good options, of course, but not for us. And straight off the lot we pedal, as is.
Bikes are everywhere in the Netherlands. In fact, the number of bicycles exceeds the number of people, according to the Fietsersbond, a Dutch biking institution. And in The Hague, where we are living, the BBC reports that 70% of all trips out the door are made by bike. I think 70% is too low when I pass by this parking lot outside a grocery store. Just imagine if each of those bikes was a vehicle. Now imagine the size of the space needed to park all these vehicles, including your RAM 3500 pickup. Yup, a lot of space.
So, why are there so many bikes in this Dutch world? Certainly, the high density population, the flat terrain, the tremendous infrastructure that supports biking, and legislation shifting liability against cars in a car/bike accident, is all at play. But I don’t think these are the only reasons.
There is just a Dutch culture of biking. A sense that human power is stronger than machine power. Like skating on the canals. A notion of communal toughness. Strength against the elements. I wonder at bottom whether biking is one more manifestation by the Dutch that they must keep strong in order to be able to shore up the dike when the ocean tries again to take back what is rightfully hers. Who knows?
For whatever the reason, my Dutch friends say with pride when they see me on my bike: “Now you are Dutch.” Particularly if I am biking in the rain. Which I try to avoid. Especially in front of a tram — the silent killer of the unwary biker.
But it makes you wonder about the Iowa House killing a Senate bill that would have forced cars to pass bikes just like cars pass cars, one lane over. Not to be this year, it seems. We don’t want to infringe on our cars or slow down our busy schedules.
But the writing is on the wall. As more people bike in Iowa, the more those same people when driving will move over to the next lane, law or not. As more people bike in Iowa, the more we will see designated bikeways for increased safety. As more people bike in Iowa, we’ll rightfully see a pridefulness about people riding their bikes to the grocery store, or picking up the kids, or going to a concert. And we will say to a visitor when we see them riding a bike, “Now you are an Iowan.”
But not today. Today my wife buys flowers from the flower stand on Frederik Heindriklaan. Tulips, of course. She carefully puts them in her new bike bag, flashes me a smile, hops up on her saddle, and rides her old Dutch bike home. And I pedal slowly behind.