Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Before I had persuaded her to take up regular cycling, Kathryn had said she would take a cycling vacation only in Saskatchewan or the Netherlands. That didn’t quite work out for her, since her first big two-wheeled adventure was cycling the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain, with a lot of hills! However, we finally got the chance to explore the land of windmills, tulips, canals and Van Gogh when we arranged a 3.5-week pet-sitting assignment in the southern Dutch city of Den Bosch.

My impressions of cycling in the Netherlands had been largely based on photos of Amsterdam: lots of bike lanes and people wheeling everywhere. Turns out that picture is also true in the rest of the country. However, our adventures there uncovered other surprises, revelations and deeper understandings.

Every village, town and city devotes a lot of public space to bike parking.

1 Very few helmets

First, very few people wear helmets. We wore ours and other people we saw with helmets were probably tourists too. Why is that? According to Yes Cycling, cycling is safe enough that no one feels the need. They feel safe for several reasons: 99 percent of the population are cyclists, there are dedicated bike lanes, and most bikes move fairly slowly.

The numbers back up this feeling of safety. For example, between 2000 and 2013, 274 road fatalities were recorded in Amsterdam, including 77 on bikes and 74 walking. But, you know what they say about statistics. Are the walkers injured by collisions with cyclists? How many cyclists are injured in crashes that don’t involve cars? We have a loved one who had a terrible concussion from a bike accident that did not involve a car, so we kept our helmets on.

A typical suburban road has red-clay-coloured bike paths on the left and right of the road, with sidewalks next to them.

2 Road bikes are not a thing; granny bikes rule

My second surprise was that, while cycling is part of everyone’s life, we saw very few people riding road bikes – just a few dozen over the 24 days we spent in the Netherlands. I visited two large bike stores and saw none for sale. Same with mountain bikes, which is not a surprise since there are no mountains!

Everyone rides the upright city bikes – aka omafiets, which translates as grandma bikes. You sit very upright, with elbows in close to your sides. Kathryn said it felt much wobblier than riding a road bike.

Statista says there are 23.4 million bikes and 17 million people in the Netherlands. This is the highest ratio in the world! The family home where we stayed had 11 bikes for five people, including one cargo bike and one road bike; the rest were upright granny bikes.

I guess when a bike replaces your car, it doesn’t need to be nimble and speedy but comfortable and able to carry two or three people. The Dutch use bikes for 27 percent of all trips and 25 percent of trips to work. In comparison, Americans make 0.9 percent of trips by bike.

City bikes were by far the most common bike for cycling in the Netherlands, followed by cargo bikes.

Granny bikes come loaded with fenders, luggage racks, maybe a basket out front, chain guard, kickstand, lights, and frame locks.

We couldn’t believe all the variations and methods for carrying stuff – including other people. Luggage racks over the rear wheel were often padded to allow another adult to sit there comfortably. Many bikes had a rear child seat, and some even had a second seat, for small babies, mounted right on the handlebars in front of the rider, with a windshield to protect the baby. We also saw many cargo bikes with a big bathtub-like compartment either in front of the rider or sometimes behind. The compartments had bench seats for young children and some even had racks for clipping in a baby carseat!

My grocery bike had a kid seat in front, shopping basket in front of that and a padded luggage rack (aka 3rd seat) out back.

The Dutch people I saw piloting the big cargo bikes made it look easy, but it is not. I tried riding one and let me just say, they take some getting used to because the front wheel, which turns, is a long way out in front.

Kathryn rode a bike, borrowed from our pet-sitting family, that had coaster brakes – where you pedal backwards to stop.

“I haven’t ridden a bike with coaster brakes since I was 12 years old!” she said.

Cargo bikes are often used for moving precious cargo around.
Our friend Hans took this photo of yet another special bike for precious cargo in the Netherlands.

3 Cycling popularity not that old

I was curious about how cycling became so big in the Netherlands. It was not always the case. In the 1970s, the oil crisis, a spike in car fatalities and the loss of historic downtown buildings to make way for wider roads all resulted in a push towards more cycling. Dutch cities began experimenting with car-free Sunday rides and started adding dedicated cycle lanes. Little by little it became more and more popular.

4 Feel like a local

Kathryn’s biggest surprise about cycling in the Netherlands was how much it made her feel like a local. We had taken our bikes on the train to Utrecht to cycle to Castle de Haar. While waiting with other cyclists at a traffic light, others pulled up behind us. We were surrounded by a big group of cyclists that moved off together when the little bike icon turned green.

“I feel like I’m part of the peloton!” Kathryn said. “That’s the closest I’ll ever get to the Tour de France.”

She concluded later that, if you want to feel like a local while travelling in the Netherlands, you must get on a bike.

Country roads often have room for just one car in the middle. If two opposing cars happen along, they edge into the bike path on either side but otherwise drive down the centre.

5 Just how extensive the bike infrastructure is

Cycling in the Netherlands is quite different from Canada and Portugal – the two places where we have the most experience. The biggest visible difference is the number of dedicated bicycle paths. They clearly make cycling safer and so more people cycle.

The Copenhagenize index measures 600 cities’ cycle friendliness and two Dutch cities ranked at the top: Amsterdam was #2 and Utrecht was #3 in the world in 2019. Surprisingly, Montreal and Vancouver in Canada made the top 20!

A Belgian road meets a Dutch road at the border. Guess which is which!

6 Protocol at intersections

Cyclists, not pedestrians, are kings of the road. In Portugal, if you stand anywhere near a crosswalk, cars come to a screeching halt to allow you to cross. Not so in the Netherlands. Drivers speed by pedestrians yet wait patiently for cyclists to cross at intersections because all the drivers are cyclists too at some point in their day.

Intersections that have traffic lights for cars also have separate, smaller traffic lights for pedestrians and cyclists. And each have their own lanes for crossing too.

A typical intersection has one lane for cyclists, one for pedestrians and one for cars, with separate traffic lights for all three as well.

7 More good infrastructure: route planning made easy

Poring over maps and asking other cyclists for recommended routes are common activities for me. Our Canadian friend Hans, who grew up in the Netherlands and regularly visits family there, told us about the knooppunt system for route planning for cycling in the Netherlands (and Belgium).

What a fantastic system! Each bike path intersection is numbered. In the online knooppunt planning tool, you pick start and end points and it gives you the list of numbers that make up your route. While you’re biking, you simply look for the knooppunt signs and numbers along the way. Even better, the planning tool provides a summary of your route numbers that you can print and tape to the top tube of your bike!

(Hans is an avid Ottawa cyclist. Have a look at his cycling blog called Hans on the Bike.)

We planned a ride from Den Bosch at knooppunt #90 to Rosmalen at #93 to see a windmill. Along the way we looked for numbers 91 and 92. The total distance was 5.1 kilometres. (Watch our video about the Rosmalen Windmill.) The “Print knooppunter” button prints all the numbers in a strip that you can tape to the top tube of your bike.
We found two styles of knooppunt signs. The one on the right shows that we are at #9; straight ahead to #40, right to #41 and left to #16.
We didn’t have a printer, so Kathryn wrote out the knooppunt numbers and taped them to her bike tube for handy reference when we cycled from Utrecht to Castle de Haar.
The whole country is covered by the knooppunt network!

8 Free bikes!

Both Kathryn and I are fans of impressionist and post-impressionist painting and, in particular, Van Gogh so a visit to the Kröller-Müller Museum was a must. The museum, which has the world’s second-largest collection of Van Gogh originals, is in the middle of a national park – the Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe. Surprisingly, the park provides free white bicycles at each of its three entrances. The 1,800 or so white bikes encourage you to park your car and explore the park’s trails by bike. Kids can borrow bikes too. We even saw a special cargo bike carrying a wheelchair!

Kathryn picked out her free white bike and strapped her bag into the child seat.
Van Gogh inspired an artist to construct this Starry Night bike path, laying phosphorescent gravel by hand for about 600 metres.

9 Proper bike racks

Bike racks for cars are much more serious here. Every rack I saw had a full set of brake lights and turn signals, plus a copy of the car’s license plate. In all Canadian provinces, the law says that when carrying bikes, your license plate cannot be obscured, but none of the bike racks sold in Canada have a place to install a license plate. Fines range from $50 to $500 CDN depending on province and driver’s and police’s attitude. I wish we could get Dutch racks like this in Canada.

Proper bike racks for cars should be made available in Canada!
We crossed a canal with our bikes on a hand-powered ferry.

10 Bike locks are so quick to use

Every bike I saw had a frame lock. In Portugal and Canada, I’ve seen these for sale but had never seen one in use. I was surprised at how handy these are and how quick to use. The key stays in the lock while you ride. When you stop, you can lock your bike in about two seconds: you turn the key, slide a button down, a metal pin moves between the spokes to stop the rear wheel from moving, and you remove the key. When you want to unlock your bike, you insert the key, turn it, and the metal pin swings out of the way.

I avoid adding things to my bike when I think of pedaling that weight up Portugal’s hills, but when roads are flat and your bike already has fenders, luggage rack, lights, kickstand and a child seat, what is one more pound for a lock?

The frame lock sure is handy! Red arrow points to the steel that slips between the spokes to immobilize the rear wheel.

11 Taking bikes on the train was easier and harder than we thought

The Netherlands has an awesome train network. Trains are frequent, run on time and go most places. (Check out to get an idea of cost.)

We had planned to take trains and rent bikes cheaply at train stations. However, we discovered that you must have a Dutch bank account to make use of the OV Fiets system. If you do, then you can get an OV card that gives you 40 percent off the fares and lets you rent a bike at the train station for just €4.50 for 24 hours.

Instead, we took our granny bikes on the train. The bike needs a €7.50 ticket for the day (in Portugal bikes ride the trains for free) and most trains have spots for three bikes in several of the cars. If these are full, you catch the next train. We did the train-bike combo twice during our visit. Other long-distance trips we made by a rental car since that was actually less expensive.

It’s pretty easy to load your bike onto the train. All stations have elevators to get your bike down to the train platform. As the train arrives, you watch for the bike icon on some of the doors – those are the cars that have space to store bikes. You roll your bike on, leave it in the space, and find a seat.

While it’s possible to take your bike on the train, most people do not. One Dutch lady even asked us how it worked because she had never taken her bike on the train before.

Train stations have lots of parking if you don’t want to take your bike on the train.
Train stations have elevators to get your bike down to the platform.

Watch our video that shows our day trip around Gouda by train and bicycle.

Funny postscript

So that is what surprised us about cycling in the Netherlands. Kathryn was right. The Netherlands is flat. Very flat, despite what Google bike navigation had to say. When we planned a ride to Utrecht, Google warned of “steep hills” with a 34-metre cumulative climb over 41 kilometres. In Portugal, on a 40-kilometre ride around Alcobaça, we would see about 500 metres of climbing. This tells me the Netherlands are flat! They are also a great place to explore by bike.


By Lala