In the City of Bikes
How biking mania put down deep roots in the Netherlands.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.