Amsterdam By Bike

Brecht Evens

The unwritten rules of the city's favored means of transportation.

On the Dutch capital’s nearly 250 miles of bike paths, locals don’t hesitate to bare their teeth to the uninitiated or shout them out of the way: “Doorfietsen! Klootzak!” Biking in Amsterdam is not for the weak-willed. “We maneuver, we navigate, we meander,” says Ruth Oldenziel, a professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology who’s working on a history of biking in the Netherlands. “It’s about accelerating at the right moment, anticipating when the red light is coming,” she says. “You see it becoming green and you get your pedal up, so that at the very moment it’s green, you’re out of the gate.”

Learning the rules of Dutch cycling and blending smoothly into the traffic is the surest way to feel the beat of the city.

1. Cyclists in Amsterdam are like pedestrians in New York: They think they always have the right of way, unless cars are rushing through a green light. Red lights are a suggestion at best. Cyclists are welcome to take and cut across any space that’s open to them. Confidence is key.

2. The cyclists interact like cars on the highway: Pass on the left; follow on the right. Use hand signals if someone needs to know, but don’t be gratuitous. This isn’t Copenhagen.

3. They don’t put their feet down, even when balancing in place briefly while waiting for a light to change or more space to become available. Their bikes have pedal brakes, which make graceful pauses easier. So does a bit of core strength.

4. Locking the bike is an art. Not on a bridge. Not in the way of a shop window. Bike thieves are like lions in the wild looking for the slowest gazelle. Make sure your bike is locked just better than the next.

5. The locals will ring their bell at the hint of a mistake. Don’t take this as an invitation to ring your bell whenever you feel like it. It’s the equivalent of someone driving down your street honking—bad style.