“Are you up for a little bike ride? To start the real Dutch experience?” My friend Lisa’s text reads. I see it while riding the train from Schipol Airport to Utrecht, the start of a week with two close friends. I love real travel experiences, but I had just arrived from the US. With luggage. And it was freezing outside, an unseasonably cold winter in the Netherlands. My gloves and jacket were more San Francisco “layers” – thin enough to pile on over each other and remove without bulk – but certainly not for freezing bike rides.
I met Lisa at the train station and questioned the bike riding. Really? You want to take a bike, now? “Oh yes, it’s fine, we’re just going home,” she assures me. The “parking” lots around the Utrecht train station are ringed with bikes, not cars. Jungles of bikes, each chained together with vines of metal and spokes. I seemed to be the only one who thought that in the middle of winter, with luggage, biking may not be an option. Joe, Lisa’s boyfriend, was waiting near their bikes, they had brought an extra bike for me. How, I wonder?
The bike was a sturdy cruiser with a high seat and open handlebars. On the front, there were brackets to hold something where a basket would be and then saddle bags strapped over the back wheel. Joe had a similar set up and strapped my carryon suitcase to the front of the bike. My weekend bag fit into one of the saddle bags. I was about to joke that this was absurd, but just then a man with a room-sized carpet roll strapped to his bike, passed by. The Dutch bike is not only transport, but also for moving apartments.
We got on our bikes in “go position” – straddling the pedals and bums touching the seats and waited for the bike traffic to clear. Cars shared every road knowingly and politely with bikes – how could they not, the bikes far outnumber the cards. I joked that I hadn’t ridden a bike in San Francisco for about seven months. Lisa looked worried, this thought did not comfort her. It was true, but really, isn’t riding a bike after a long time, like, well, riding a bike?
Joe left first, seamlessly edging into the flow of bike traffic and then Lisa followed. I lifted off and wobbled. The bike was shaking like my confidence. The cars are smaller in Europe and used to the multitude of bikers, they slow down and glide by, so really I had nothing to worry about – except falling on those cute cobblestone streets and wiping out in front of these biking experts.
We pedaled past the modern train station and into Utrecht’s city center – an old Dutch city that stayed structurally whole during the World War II. The rows of thin, tall buildings were built wall upon wall next to each other and looked shoulder to shoulder. Wealth was determined by the number of windows, so the large wealthy houses had thin, tall windows that looked out to the canals. All were framed by shutters – painted to contrast and match that home, but not the ones next door. The building tops were curved like colonial hats and featured a jutting beam and hook – the method of getting goods and furniture to the top floor.
We navigated towards the canals, which were fed by the nearby Rhine River. Canalside, the houses joined the river with arched cellars, the place where goods were loaded from barges and boats. Now, there were no boats on the river, the Dutch were waiting for the canals to freeze for ice skating. Lisa shared that in summertime, large floating bikes were available for rent. The Dutch combine their canals with biking, I guess one cannot escape the two wheeled passion.
Along Zadelstraat, we passed designer boutiques, luggage shops, furniture stores, and the ubiquitous H&M. The Utrecht stores were colorful and clean and, at this time of year, had signs that shouted end of the season sales. I was gaining more confidence with each wheel revolution and hopped off my seat at each stoplight, which have separate lights for pedestrians and the bikes.
At the bridge where Zadelstraat turns into Servestraat, and the massive and ornate tower of the Dom Kerk rose above Utrecht with history and time, we parked our bikes. I had made it that far, now we would walk to find a café for a coffee or beer. Jet lag was catching up with me.
“No, I don’t think I can have a beer.” I protested
“Aaa of course you can!” Joe said as we walked into a beautiful Café Orloff, right at the T-intersection of two busy-with-bikes cobblestone streets.
He was right, I could. In the fading sun of the wintry afternoon, we sat outside under heat lamps and watched the street traffic, cooled and then warmed a little more by blonde beer. The passing bikers sat straight up, hands out on smooth low handlebars, rumps on large seats. There were baskets on the front and on the back, made for hauling groceries, books, sundries, or anything.
Cheeks blushed rose from the cold. Mittens covered gripping hands. Jackets swooped in the wind with the breeze brought on by slight traffic speeds. Long hair on both genders followed like flags. The Dutch gazed ahead, poised upright on their seats and with heavy loads, and do not waiver. They are confident of their course and mode of transport.
After two beers and a round of hot, then savory bitterballen, we walked back to our bikes. Café Orloff had a drowsy effect. I straightened up before getting on my ride. I don’t need to ruin Lisa’s bike or crash into another. God knows how many unpracticed Americans the Dutch have seen on their bike-perfect path.
We ride past the Dom Kerk into the cool night. The sky had lost the cold bright and dusk’s glow was speeding faster than us.
A BOOM erupted with echos on cold stone houses. Lisa stopped, her tire popped. She looked down, inspected the damage. Joe stopped slightly ahead. I worried, what now? Would we dare walk? No, not to be, Lisa parked herself sidesaddle on the back rack of Joe’s ride and held the damaged bike out to the side. We pedaled on the two kilometers home. They became a joined caravan still leading my newly arrived and properly biked self home for a week in Utrecht.