When in Amsterdam, Find a Bike

The whirr of spokes and squeak of pedals keep pedestrians jumping and cycling alive

`IS there anyone in Amsterdam who does not own a bicycle?'' The taxi driver laughed. ``I don't think so,'' he said. He had just surged threateningly up behind a cyclist careering along the equatorial line of the street bordering the Herengracht (canal). He had approached about as close as a shovelhead shark might to a seahorse it intends to swallow.

``You know,'' he went on, ``I live from driving a taxi, but I think bicycles are best. Amsterdam's a small city. It's very easy by bicycle.'' And very airy, I thought, and exercising, and non-polluting, and inexpensive ... and dangerous.

``But, you know,'' continued my cabby, barely missing three more cyclists, ``they do just what they like. They don't stay on the bicycle paths. They don't have lights at night.'' And - I could have added - they terrorize pedestrians by weaving in and out of them as if they were lampposts. Or they appear from nowhere, especially from the rear, at break-neck speed, with little more warning than a breezy whirr of the wheel spokes and a dusty peddle squeak.

``I just bought a new one myself,'' the taxi driver added.

``A new one?'' I exclaimed, bemused. Most of the bikes you encounter - either ridden or chained with various degrees of solicitude or abandon to railings - look ancient and, I had thought, were merely utilitarian modes of getting around. ``You must be the only Amsterdammer with a new bicycle!''

``It's beautiful - like that one there, look.'' The one he pointed out looked to me like any old bike.

His remark gave me a new insight into the Bicycle in Amsterdam. Perhaps all Amsterdammers think their bicycles beautiful, whatever their vintage, however buckled and scraped, however heavy and practical. Perhaps they are in love with bicycles. Perhaps Amsterdam is to be experienced as one of the last glorious habitats of a threatened species. Perhaps here the original, primitive adventure of cycling is still being kept alive.

I've never been in a city so bristling with cycle riders. They are like flying swallows in summer, exulting in the sheer freedom of movement itself as they sweep and dart after insects - in their essential element, their own unearthly dimension. The bicycling Amsterdammers fly and dart and swerve, like natural things, along narrow streets, water edges, over bridges. And this, while elsewhere - in Europe at least - the bicycle is decidedly on the wane....

ONE of the advantages of having a 1958 set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is that you can note subtle mode changes between that comparatively recent period and ours. The bicycle entry for instance. My 32-year-old edition calls bicycles ``the most numerous class of vehicle on the roads of England, France, Holland, North America, and elsewhere.'' Not so today. The modified 1989 version reads: ``the most numerous road machines in many countries.''

Certainly at home in Glasgow, to every two or three thousand cars and trucks you see on a trip into the city center, you see only three or four bicycles. Cyclists - apart from the determined groups of Spidermen enthusiasts - generally look, in this place, forlorn, endangered, and peripheral.

I've just paid a visit to my own bicycle. It resides, dirty, rusting, flat tired, in the basement. It hasn't been in fresh air for five or six years. A sorry sight, indeed, this unwanted symbol of changing habits, sacrificed to the urgency and slightly increased affluence (or extravagance?) of today. Its faded elegance, though, can still remind me of the fierce pride and pleasure the buying of this ``Raleigh Trent Sports'' bike, with its drop handlebars, its three-speed gears, its metallic-blue paintwork, its superbly manufactured, minimal structure gave me when at last my savings accrued sufficiently to match its challenging price. I can't remember - but I seem to think I bought it (at about the same time my set of encyclopedias happens to have been published) for 17 pounds, 10 shillings. I was still a teenager. It was the culmination, the peak, of all my childhood's enthusiasm for cycling.

Cycling for us as children was a primitive liberation of feeling and action; in dreams I actually confused it with a fantasized ability to fly. Balancing on two wheels is still, when you think of it, a sort of marvel state that is entirely unlikely for mere humans....

That primitive feeling, I'm sure, still tingles down the backbone of youngsters given a BMX for Christmas or their first adult-sized bike for a 12th birthday. Just how blas'e are we really in the age of computers, videos, and satellites? Not very, I suspect, and bicycles make for a good measure of our sense of the wonderful. The 1989 Britannica has this to say about bikes: ``...said to be the most efficient means yet devised to convert human energy into propulsion.'' Quite a claim.

Perhaps children - and Amsterdammers - still know what it must have felt like in the 19th century, particulary about 1894 or so, when cycle mania gripped the civilized world as its ``safety'' increased and its cost began to decrease. Perhaps they can guess a little what those Victorian-age women in their astonishingly modern ``rational'' cycling dress and their mustachio'd male equivalents felt when suddenly they could, by themselves, pedal at furious speeds into the distant landscape and have breathless, unexpected, and futuristically romantic adventures unknown to walkers and horse riders and coach passengers.

VARIOUS books, jaunty with the fresh comic possibilities of cycle mania, hint at that rapidly developing new-found freedom for the individual. Jerome K. Jerome in ``Three Men on the Bummel'' came up with some splendid bicycle lore. So did H.G. Wells in ``Kipps'' and ``The History of Mr. Polly'' and, most of all, in ``The Wheels of Chance'' of 1898. The hero of that novel is called ``Hoopdriver.'' He undergoes marvelous wobblings, intrepidations, and collisions. Cycling was not just new, it was terribly full of enchantment, pride of accomplishment, and downright terror. People were forever undecided about how to mount; how to dismount; how to brake; how not to fall off; and how to repair devastated machines.

Wells observes: ``To ride a bicycle properly is very like a love affair; chiefly it is a matter of faith. Believe you do it, and the thing is done; doubt, and for the life of you, you cannot.'' And he con trives for Hoopdriver several telling cyclists' predicaments. This one moment is a brief example, a moment that is also profoundly symbolic:

``A man on horseback appeared; Hoopdriver, in a tumult of soul at his own temerity, passed him.''

There is observation in that. Wells was a cyclist himself. I suspect he had once passed a man on horseback too.

Make no mistake! This fantastic machine, the bicycle, was, everyone felt, about to make the horse completely redundant. And the cycling fraternity were already perceiving that the motorcar would make their two-wheeled steeds as redundant as the horse - would put them, in their turn, out to grass.

In Glasgow, by 1997, it looks as though the prophesies will be fulfilled. In the city's exceptional Museum of Transport, there is not only what claims to be the earliest model of bicycle ever built (in Scotland, of course) but also, come the late 1950s, a bicycle uncannily similar to the one languishing in our basement. It was ever thus: Nothing in the last 100 years has become obsolete as rapidly as modes of transport. Even in 1897 the new cyclists looked back with tender nostalgia to the days of the ``penny farthing'' - the ``ordinary'' - with its high saddle and gigantic front wheel. Those were days! - ``the palmy days'' of cycling. Cartoons were full of jokes about ``old-fashioned'' bicycles owned by ``amateurs.'' But their machines can hardly have been a decade old. Already they were for the scrap heap, or the museum.

In the Glasgow museum there are ``museum specimens'' of even more recent vintage than my own bicycle. Today the ``past'' has more or less become last week. No wonder we want to keep the past going a little longer!

Which is why, next time I visit Amsterdam, I believe I may hire a bicycle. It might be pleasant to be old-fashioned for a while again, or at least make a gesture of solidarity with the conservationists - or should I say ``re-cyclists?'' - of that fine Dutch city.

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