In the City of Bikes

How biking mania put down deep roots in the Netherlands.

By , Contributor

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

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.

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.

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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.

In some of the book’s most gripping chapters, Jordan dwells on the importance of cycling during World War II. The clashes between the 5,600 troops of the two cyclist regiments and German tanks went just as you would expect, but bicycling also served subtler functions in the Dutch resistance. When the Germans tried to regulate the anarchic behavior of Dutch cyclists, flouting minor traffic rules became a charged means of defiance.

As the Germans became increasingly desperate for raw materials, they began seizing bikes at gunpoint and sending the frames to Germany to be melted for scrap metal. Even when all rubber imports for tires had stopped, the Dutch kept riding on wooden tires, flat tires, or the metal rims of the wheels. Couriers disguised as Red Cross nurses served as bike messengers for the resistance, and civilians learned to warn each other when the Germans were roaming the streets and seizing bikes. The phrase “Give back my bike” became a symbol of postwar Dutch resentment that is still used today.

The number of cars increased in the 1950s, but by the 1970s various anarchist and pro-cycling groups fought back with demonstrations and vandalism. The oil embargo in the 1970s further decreased car use. Today, the Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where it means something for a politician to identify as a pro-cycling candidate. Such candidates have successfully lobbied for restricted vehicular traffic, better bike paths, and more bike parking throughout the city.

Jordan resists the impulse to paint Amsterdam as a utopia for bicyclists. Rates of bike theft are astonishingly high; it’s not uncommon to have a bike stolen annually. Jordan also realizes that the cycling culture of Amsterdam isn’t something that can simply be exported to American or European cities. Many of the forces that allowed cycling to become so dominant – from a pedaling queen to inflation between the World Wars to simple geography – are impossible to legislate or re-create. Still, dwindling oil supplies could promote a cycling renaissance in many urban centers in the next few generations, and Jordan’s portrait of bicycle culture in Amsterdam gives a fascinating account of a viable alternative to dependence on cars.

Even in her old age, Queen Wilhelmina retained a love of cycling. In the 1950s, she shocked various VIPs who were attending a conference on the future of Europe. They arrived at her palace in a fleet of black Cadillacs, but the queen simply rode up on her bike, hopped off, and leaned it against a tree.

Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.

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