Monday, June 9, 2008

Word of the Day

Fietser, fietspad, fietsenstallen, fietsroute, fietsnetwerk . . . fiets, fiets, fiets! Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle!

I was so confident that I'd find one of the legendary bikepaths to take me to my first hostel that I exited Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport with my bike ready to ride. I saw a signpost with that lovely word, the only one I knew in Dutch: "fietspad". I took off on the wide red pavement, feeling special wheeling along on my own cycling road. After a little while, it occurred to me that I didn't actually have a clue where the fietspad was leading. I returned to the airport and eventually found a cyclist to redirect me on the correct bike path, which was in the opposite direction.

You'd think that I'd fit right in here, but in fact I don't. I'd be more inconspicuous on my shopping bike, a ladies' ten speed with upright handlebars and a chronic chain noise. However, my tires would have to be half flat. I'd be wearing a flowing dress and stylish sandals. And my shopping panniers--they'd be the big flowered square ones, probably in red or pink. What really sets me apart, though, is that I wear a helmet. It's not that the Dutch are not keen on safe cycling. I cycled through an intersection in Utrecht where there were three beefy policemen ("Politie"), handing out tickets to cyclists for traffic infractions. I met a fellow from Belfast who told me he was cycling home from the pub on his fiets one night and got pulled over for not having lights. Next he told them to f#@! off, and they realized he was drunk cycling. He spent half a night in a cell at the police station. The fine for the lights was 20 euros, and 60 for the drunk cycling.

Helmet wearing is very uncommon. I've seen a few racing men wearing them, but they're also wearing multicoloured lycra. I've seen only two women wearing helmets (also riding fast), and not a single child. I have cycled without mine, but I was conscious of my head being as fragile as the watermelon in the ICBC seatbelt ads.

Is the Netherlands a cyclist's paradise? Almost. . . Where else would you find, as I did in a small town, a road wide enough for two lanes for cars; instead, there was a single track for the cars, and a red cycle lane on each side of the road for the cyclists. Still, there are a lot of cars in the Netherlands. I am never far from heavy duty highway traffic. At least cars and pedestrians stay off the bike paths. On my way out of Utrecht I had to stop as a car was blocking the fietspad, waiting to turn left on the main road. He saw me and backed up very suddenly to get out of my way. He hadn't seen the woman walking behind his car and she just about went under.

I've heard from many sources that bicycle theft is rampant, and the people at my first hostel lent me a second lock to use when I went into the city. While I was strolling around Amsterdam on my first day, I saw two rough looking guys sitting in a public square in two plastic chairs. One was sawing at a bicycle chain, which was still attached to a bicycle. He and the buddy were talking. Then he stopped and put the saw in his backpack, laughing. The next day I bought another bike lock, almost as heavy as the chain I lug around at home. In Utrecht, I came across a major bike theft awareness event. A minister of the Dutch government was there to be photographed by dozens of journalists while she had her bike registered and locked correctly to a bike rack.
The police had brought thousands of found but unclaimed bicycles to put on display. The campaign ( was to promote bike registration and correct locking techniques, but as the minister was giving her speech, I was thinking how ironic it was that the bike racks provided there for the hundreds of bikes parked were those useless ones that you insert your front wheel into, and to which it is impossible to lock your frame. I had just spent a bit of time finding an open end of a rack where I could lock my frame. On my first, most nervous day in Amsterdam, I took my bike to the central train station's fietsenstallen (bike parking) where for a euro and 15 cents, a guard watches closed circuit TV at the gate. Anyway, I'm not surprised bikes get stolen--very few of them are properly locked, and the bike racks can get so full that it can be difficult to get your bike in at all. (Every bike rack has at least one bike with a flat tire--does Holland have a problem of abandoned fietsen?)

Anyway, it's been a daily wonder to travel on the fietspaden; my only desire is for information on the routes in English. There are dozens of maps and guide books available at the ANWB (General Dutch Cycling Association, which is equivalent to our automobile association and serves car drivers as well), but they are all written in Dutch, which make them inaccessible to me. I even found an atlas which I could use with my GPS, if I could read the explanations. Knowing "fietspad" and "u staat hier" ("you are here", another favourite of mine when seen on the map at a fietspad intersection), is not enough Dutch for foreign fietsers.

The Hague, 471 km

Next post: How it is that I've cycled almost 500 km, yet I'm only at The Hague?


A Sander said...

Hi Catherine

So wonderful to hear from you. Your blog looks great and you write so well. I'm looking forward to an overview of your cycling plans as I know many of your plans changed as you were in preparation mode. Where will you be and when? I would like to follow your travels in my head. I am very busy shopping for mortgages and a home. So I need to experience travel vicariously.
Anne :-)

Christine Hop said...


I am so gald you are on the road and I can "escape" to Europe when I recieve your posting.

My grandmother had an expression which was "to be scared of your own courage". This might be you!

The most stressful part of travelling is getting on that darn plane. And you are SO right about that LIST than only seems to grow longer the closer it is to blast off.

All the best!

Alice Pletcher said...

Hi Catherine,
Glad you are enjoying my ancestral country. Yes, I was amazed at the number of bikes and bike paths in Holland. When there last year I pedalled around on my cousin's utility bike (aka station bike) where everyone's bike looks like everyone else's bike. One day I pedalled the neighbour's Mercedes-type bike which would never be left at the station!
I have cousins who live in Utrecht -- did you like the city?
Keep smiling,
PS, Is the country dressed up in orange with the Euro Cup (soccer) being played