Lifestyle & Culture

Lane Henry: Why bikes are the great equalizer in the Netherlands

When I moved to the Netherlands many years ago, I was embarrassed by the bike I rode around town.

It squeaked.

It rattled.

It grinded.

It had no gears, the chain guard was only barely connected and the chain was loose.

On the cobblestone road to the town center, it sounded like I had my own band.

But one day, a man passed me on that road. His bike was just as old and noisy, yet he was dressed to perfection in a sharp suit. He didn’t seem to be self-conscious of his old bike and the contrast between his suit and the run-down bike was eye-opening.

That’s the day I realized that no one cared how old my bike was but me.

Parking for bikes at the train station in Delft circa 2013 (Photo by Lane Henry)

Not about the flash, all about the funciton

The Netherlands is home to approximately 24 million bikes according to Statista for its almost 18 million people. That’s right, the Dutch have more bikes than people.

In my household alone, we now have five bikes for two adults, not counting kids’ bikes.

Back when I first landed in the Netherlands, my first order of business was to buy a bike. I needed it quickly and for a cheap price. All these years later, my enthusiasm for old bikes has not gone away. These days, I still transport myself and my two kids on a bike older than my age and I’m not embarrassed anymore by its old age or condition.

In the Netherlands, there is even a term for older bikes: station bikes. The term describes bikes you can leave at a train station with limited worry.

Because here in the Netherlands, your bike is not all about flash. It’s mainly about function.

After all, bikes get stolen, knocked over, and rained on. They are the best way to get around cities, but each year, tens of thousands of bikes are stolen. That’s why there is a huge secondhand market for bikes. Search for an omafiets, mamafiets, road bike, or electric bike and the volume of bikes for sale is overwhelming.

My first bike in the Netherlands (photo by Lane Henry)

Sooner or later, you’re going to get wet

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of new bikes cruising the Dutch cycle paths. I bike alongside electric bikes fresh from the store and other newer, sturdier bikes. My two kids and I get passed by expensive electric-powered cargo bikes carrying one to three kids.

But you know what?

No matter what bike you ride, you park in the same spots. When it rains, you still get wet. When it’s sunny, you still sweat. And all bikes have a chance of getting stolen.

Bikes are the great equalizer of Dutch society.

Besides walking, biking is the cheapest option for transport. You can pick up a cheap bike on a secondhand website; some people even give old bikes away for free. Bike parking is mainly free and there’s no need for insurance, a license, or registration, like for a car.

People are also not judged for the bicycle they ride because — perched on a bike — you as a person are much more noticeable. The bike is just a small part of the overall package. You’re not hidden away, like in a car.

A cross-section of society

Just watch rush hour on a street in Amsterdam. With 20 bikes lined up at the traffic light, you are sure to spot a whole cross-section of society. Young and old. Parents and children. Businessmen and women and construction workers.

People wear suits and dresses on bikes. Women ride in high heels. In the Netherlands, there is no specific bike clothing necessary.

People carry groceries and children on bikes. You see everything on bikes in the Netherlands. I’ve seen people lead along another empty bike, carry a suitcase, balance a small ladder, and walk a dog. No one needs to feel self-conscious because everything goes.

No matter what, everyone looks silly biking in the rain as they hunch over trying not to get wet. The rain protection options are numerous —  umbrella, rain poncho, rain pants, raincoats  — but none are pretty. And with enough rain, everyone gets wet.

Okay, I lied. There is one surefire way to not get wet on a bike … and that’s not to ride one. 

But, as much of Dutch life revolves around biking, it is the far more convenient option. So as almost all expats find out after they land in the Netherlands, buying a bike, no matter how cheap and old, can give you the freedom to explore from day one. 

And take it from me, no one cares if you rattle into town or cruise in silently with an electric bike.

Really … anything goes.

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Lane Henry is an accidental long-term expat. She is an American who came to the Netherlands for two years—or so she thought. She has now lived in the Netherlands and explored Europe for over a decade.

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