Just about everyone—from the folks at iAmsterdam (the city’s marketing arm) to countless bloggers, journalists and guidebook writers—urges you to rent a bike in Amsterdam. “See the city like a local,” they enthuse, somehow assuming tourists are both skilled on two wheels and knowledgeable about the medieval cobblestones, narrow alleyways, tram tracks and teeming bike paths they’re about to navigate as they tool around a foreign city.
Amsterdam is, after all, a city of bikes, where everyone from toddlers to seniors and high-power executives commutes on two wheels. Among the rolling throng are businessmen with briefcases, students with backpacks, moms (and dads) with onboard babies, prostitutes on their way to Red Light District windows and omas toting flower-filled satchels. For more than a century, Amsterdammers have worshipped their bikes or fietsen—“probably because that’s what powers them,” the authors of The UnDutchables surmise. In this small, flat country, riding a bike is like breathing.
A Bike Culture Like No Other
According to Dutch research group Fietsbaraad, Holland’s bike culture is fueled by “accepting the cyclist as a ‘normal’ traffic participant with equal rights…(and) the realization of a motor car infrastructure (that) is not at the expense of the cyclist.” Fietspads or bike paths—many built with taxes paid by bike owners to the Dutch government between 1924 and 1940—lace the Netherlands, which boasts one of the highest densities of carbon-free transport in the world. In bicycles per capita, only China can compete with this tiny elf-land, where bike shops are as common as 7-Elevens in Chiang Mai.
By some estimates, there are now more than 13 million bicycles in Holland, a nation of 16.5 million people—nearly one per person. Some 880,000 can be found creaking around Amsterdam (population 840,000) alone, a city in which 63% of residents use a bike as their primary mode of transport. Behind the Ibis Hotel near Amsterdam Central Station, a four-story bicycle parking structure attests to Amsterdam’s rank as the world’s most bike-friendly city. Indeed, you can get anywhere in the Dutch capital on two wheels, rolling over some of its 500 kilometres of bike paths.
Two Feet or Two Wheels?
Watching the well-choreographed interplay and rhythmic cadence of bikes, cars, trams, taxis and pedestrians on Amsterdam’s byways, you may be tempted to join the rolling parade. So you head for one of the city’s 35 rental shops for a pristine red MacBike that stamps you as a tourist. My best advice? DON’T! While two wheels may be your best choice for visiting the quaint villages, castles, tulip fields, windmills and dykes in Holland’s green, unrolling countryside, here are 10 reasons NOT to ride a rental bike in the center of Amsterdam:
- Inexperience: Let’s face it: you’re a tourist. Chances are, you haven’t ridden a bike since grade school. In contrast, most Dutchies ride along in utero and learn to power their own steeds as soon as they can walk—often by their second birthdays. In elementary school, students go through weeks of classroom and hands-on study about safe bike riding and receive a certificate from the Dutch police when they pass muster. Do you really want to roll with such an experienced throng?
- Unfamiliarity: Unless you’ve visited Amsterdam many times or can commit a map to memory, you don’t know your way around. Even in a city the size of a postage stamp, you’re gonna get lost in the maze of canals, bridges and Golden Age mansions, where places can look very similar, even if you’re sober. Add beer or weed to the mix and you’re a rolling target.
- Rules of the road: Did you know a white triangle on a fietspad points to the rider who’s supposed to stop or yield? Or that you’re expected to stay to the right so faster bikes and mopeds (measuring twice the width of your bike) can whiz by on the left? Welcome to the city where only trams take precedence over bikes in the pecking order of forward progress. If you don’t know the rules of the road, you’ll be playing a game of human versus metal dodge ball. While locals may run red lights, make phone calls, send text messages, ride on sidewalks, and daringly weave in and out of traffic on their bikes, following their lead can turn YOU into road kill.
- Other clueless tourists: If you rent a bike in Amsterdam, you won’t be the only tourist on the road. Chances are, you’ll be surrounded by them, many clutching maps, umbrellas, cameras and selfie sticks—riding alongside Dutchies who’ve become experts at dodging tram tracks, cars and other road hazards. If you’re not so skilled or quick-witted, you’ll be safer on your feet or riding the city’s fine GVB trams, metros and buses.
- Getting the shot: You’ve come to one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, rich with history and culture you’ll want to capture in pictures. Unless you’re wearing a GoPro mounted on a helmet that brands you as an un-cool alien, you’ll need to stop, lock your bike and proceed with your photographic mission. Why bother riding a bike when picture-taking is so much easier on your feet?
- Beer: Holland is known for its fine brews, so it’s only right to raise a glass in the city where Amstel and Heineken had their humble beginnings. Beyond the touristy Heineken Experience, you’ll want to sample the offerings at such fine local breweries as Brouwerij de Prael in the Red Light District and Brouwerij ‘t IJ, marked by a windmill on the city’s east side. Getting back on your bike afterwards may be more challenging than hefting that pint.
- Weed: Beyond its historic attractions, you’ve come to a city known for edgy sex, drugs, ‘n’ rock & roll. Which you may want to partake of because sheesh…they’re part of the local culture. But smoking weed doesn’t combine well with riding a bike, especially if you’re a novice at one or both activities.
- Tram tracks: Amsterdam’s excellent GVB public transit has grown from a horse-drawn tramway opened in 1875 that linked Plantage with Leidseplein to a 15-route system with a 200-tram fleet that cruises along tracks just as wide as a bike tire—perfect for getting your wheel stuck. Cross them at an angle or you’ll be flying over your handlebars.
- Theft: Thousands of bicycles—indeed, more than there are in the city—are stolen annually in Amsterdam. Many wind up in the canals or on the black market. According to one local, bike theft is the second most popular sport in Holland after speed skating. It’s certainly more lucrative, as the resale of rusty rigs can provide an attractive income for talented thieves.
If you insist on renting a bike in Amsterdam, be sure to secure it to a solid object or edifice with multiple locks, including at least one massive, industrial-grade chain that could secure an army tank, when you arrive at your destination. As one Amsterdammer advises, “It’s an arms race. If you want to keep your bike, all you have to do is use a better lock than your neighbor.” Some Dutchies have installed microchips and barcodes in their two-wheeled steeds, presumably to locate them when they are stolen.
10. Pace: Your feet are your best ally in a foreign city, especially one that’s as flat and compact as Amsterdam. Why peddle along at a snail’s pace, trying to see the sights while clutching map, phone and/or selfie stick when you can wander aimlessly through crooked alleys and cobblestoned squares, going at your own pace and snapping photos along the way? You’ll see more on your feet than on a bike, and you’ll be safer finding your way around unfamiliar territory, especially if you’re stoned or tipsy. It will be SO much easier to navigate because you can hold your map or phone in your hand and not have to worry about steering, crashing or keeping the rubber side down. Happy trails!