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In the City of Bikes

How biking mania put down deep roots in the Netherlands.

By Nick RomeoContributor / April 17, 2013

In The City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan Harper Perennial 448 pages

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When Princess Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was 16, she tried to ride a bike around the grounds of the royal palace. Her mother, the queen regent, was appalled: Cycling was hardly a suitable pastime for a future monarch.

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Wilhelmina, undeterred, pleaded her case to the Raad van State, a body of statesmen that settled issues concerning the crown. The council ruled against the princess, and soon the American press got wind of the story. “For what right-thinking girl of seventeen would hesitate between a throne and a bicycle?” the New York Tribune quipped. 

But Wilhelmina did not have to wait long to have her way. After she took the throne on her 18th birthday in 1898, one of her first acts as queen was to learn to ride a bike.

The Dutch mania for cycling is the subject of Pete Jordan’s new book, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist. Jordan went to Amsterdam for a semester to study how American cities could learn from its bicycle-friendly urban planning. He became so enamored of the Dutch capital that he spent a decade researching and experiencing its bicycle culture. He has now written a charming and quirky book that mixes memoir and history to explain the unparalleled flourishing of bicycles in Amsterdam.

In the 1920s, when Americans owned one car for every six people, the Dutch owned only one car for every 185 people. The largest car manufacturer in the Netherlands produced fewer cars per year than a Ford plant made in an hour. Visitors to the Netherlands often marveled at the country’s epidemic of cyclists. Virginia Woolf, visiting in 1935, compared the bicyclists to “flocks of starlings, gathering together, skimming in and out.” 

For the first two decades of the 20th century, bicycles in the Netherlands were a luxury item. After World War I, hyperinflation made German bike producers eager to sell their bikes in exchange for the stable Dutch currency. Soon Holland was flooded with incredibly cheap bicycles. As fewer people rode the trams, fares rose, and even more people rode bicycles.

The social range of bicyclists shocked early visitors. They saw members of parliament, nuns, pregnant women, soldiers, doctors, and delivery boys on bikes. Almost a century later, Jordan reports a similarly broad range of riders. He is also dazzled by the number of activities the Dutch perform while cycling: everything from talking on cellphones to eating full meals, holding babies, and smoking marijuana.

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