A two-wheeled show rolls through Amsterdam

In the Netherlands, everyone rides bikes - from pet dogs to tourists

Bicycles, bicycles.... They're everywhere.

They whiz along special bicycle lanes on busy streets. They stand chained to street signs, lampposts, and bridges, their tangled pedals and handlebars creating a charming street sculpture. And they lean against buildings in jaunty defiance of signs warning, "Verboden hier fietsen te plaatsen"- Do not leave bicycles here.

No wonder bike-watching offers some of the best impromptu entertainment in Amsterdam, the bicycle capital of Europe. This spectator sport costs nothing and is found everywhere, opening a window on the world of two-wheeled transport.

In a city with an estimated 400,000 bicycles, pedal power ranks as the most egalitarian form of transit. Shiny new bikes are rare here - not surprising, since bicycles remain the city's most-stolen item.

Instead, riders settle for stripped-down models. Who needs more than one speed on this flat terrain? For that matter, who even needs fenders? Status and sleekness are irrelevant when the purpose is simply to get from point A to point B.

Alas, some bikes also end up in point C - canals. As many as 10,000 bicycles a year land in these watery graves, tossed there by thieves, drunken students, and owners themselves.

To retrieve them, orange barges ply the canals, their giant metal jaws scooping up twisted frames. Cyclists whose wheels meet this ignominious end have a consolation: They can buy a used replacement for as little as $10.

Every year in May, Hollanders celebrate Fietstag, or National Bicycling Day. The event coincides with National Windmill Day, a tandem observance designed to encourage people to visit windmills - on bicycles, of course.

Bike-watching also offers insight into the bonds cycling can forge. What must it be like for Dutch children, from their earliest years, to experience the closeness and trust fostered by riding on the back of a parent's bike, weaving through city traffic or skimming along country paths? What a contrast to the automobile-centered lives of American children, transported everywhere in the family car.

Even dogs give new meaning to the phrase "bicycle built for two" as they perch in wicker or wire baskets, fur ruffling in the breeze. Other canines turn into four-legged joggers, running alongside owners' bikes tethered to a leash.

Baskets, along with satchels slung over fenders, convert bikes into mini moving vans. Cyclists tote everything from food and flowers to musical instruments and furniture. A Chinese restaurant runs a two-wheeled delivery service called "Chopstick Express." Elsewhere, a young man clutches a small table as he maneuvers through streets.

An aptitude for single-handed steering opens up other possibilities as well. One love-struck couple pedals quietly along a canal, holding hands while riding separate bikes. Other cyclists deftly clamp cellphones to their ears with one hand and navigate with the other.

That may be the best sign yet that the low-tech bike still has a rosy future in a high-tech world.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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