Reverse Pedalling

Glen Newey

I was walking along the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam’s inner canal belt when a woman whizzed past on a bike. She was perhaps in her fifties, and presumably, like most English visitors, on the chuckle-gum trail. I knew she was English because of the way she screamed at nobody in particular as she zipped by: ‘They’ve given me a bike with no fucking brakes!’

This is unlikely. Dutch bikes do have brakes: it’s just that Dutch cyclists don’t use them much. Many cycles have no hand-operated brakes, which can alarm the uninitiated. They brake by reverse-pedalling. The major danger cycling poses is not to cyclists, but by them, to the poor bastards shambling by on the sidewalk. And ‘sidewalk’ is the word, since pedestrians find themselves squeezed between the wall, or abandoned bikes, and the fat riband of roseate tarmac reserved to cyclists.

Outside Amsterdam’s Centraal Station the three-storey bike park is always jammed to the gunwales; most towns have fietsenkelder, subterranean sarcophagi housing rows of bikes like dead souls awaiting judgment. Parents cart their offspring around in plywood mini-boats bolted to the front of their Batavuses. There are prone bikes, supine bikes, tandems configured in series and in parallel, wacky two-wheel bolides like outsize cigar tubes, and eight-seater charabanc pedalos, aimed at sloshed stag and hen partiers, who sit side-on to their trajectory. Schiphol airport even has pedal-powered phone rechargers so that cyclists, bereft of their mounts, can OCD-ishly pump away when there’s nobody to run over.

Like any aggressive raptor species, cyclists colonise the surrounding space. Unlike cars or scooters (which are also allowed to use the cycle lanes), they bring pedestrians a whispering death whose advent is heralded only by the shriek of their back-pedalling brakes. One night in Rotterdam I was nearly chopped in two, vertically, by a speeding, lightless roadster; he seemed to think it was my fault. It’s a mentality thing. The Dutch media harp on constantly about cyclists’ rights, as though they’re downtrodden rather than top dogs. Greenwashing panders to their self-image as crusaders in the cause of planetary salvation, and justifies them in maiming anyone who errs onto their preserve.

There is an upside. Since cycling is central to life here rather than an escape from it, no one dons special regalia. Netherlanders are thus spared the eyesores that disfigure Britain’s weekend roads, where pelotons of paunchy mouse-botherers live the dream shrink-wrapped from neck to kneecap in lycra, maillot jaune and all, as if Bradley Wiggins had donated his wardrobe to the Michelin man.


  • 31 October 2014 at 4:03pm
    JDK says:
    You’ve perhaps been learning Dutch for too long. UK pavements are narrow too, but the tarmac isn’t roseate, nor reserved. Death roars. Stepping (or cycling) in the wrong place won’t see you nearly sliced, but rollered.

  • 31 October 2014 at 8:57pm
    Locus says:
    I sort of get "mouse-botherer," sort of. But "chuckle-gum"?

  • 31 October 2014 at 9:49pm
    Bob Beck says:
    I'm guessing "hash," myself -- since it's by way of being a gum (resin).

    I certainly got a chuckle -- from the coinage, I mean.

  • 1 November 2014 at 10:43am
    Harry Stopes says:
    "One night in Rotterdam I was nearly chopped in two, vertically, by a speeding, lightless roadster; he seemed to think it was my fault."
    Don't be coy, what happened? In the absence of information to the contrary I'm going to speculate that you stepped into the road without looking. So it was your fault. Have you used your increasing dutch skills to ask locals what they think of cyclists? You'd probably find that they're used to looking out for bikes and that they think your cyclist hatred is a bit boring.

    "Greenwashing panders to their self-image as crusaders in the cause of planetary salvation, and justifies them in maiming anyone who errs onto their preserve."

    What's your evidence for believing that cyclists (in the Netherlands or elsewhere) see themselves in this way? And do you have statistics on how many "maiming" incidents they cause?

    • 3 November 2014 at 9:20pm
      Bad Bart says: @ Harry Stopes
      Oh Jesus Christ! I highly doubt Mr. Newey's personal anecdotes in a quick note requires that each of his generalizations be girded by statistics. Far from being a hero, or even a voice of reason, you come off badgering and, worst of all, boring. I'm a bike rider myself and I hate cars, but I don't agree with your methodology of hectoring someone who might hold a different opinion. Maybe instead of a leading question, perhaps you could have attempted to persuade?

    • 6 November 2014 at 9:36am
      semitone says: @ Bad Bart
      In the last election campaign, Tony Abbott (now Australia's Prime Minister, god help us) was caught "mis-speaking" so many times he told the country on live television not to trust anything he said, as it was only true if he wrote it down - spoken commitments or promises were just in the heat of the moment and not to be taken seriously. In a similar vein, are you suggesting that Glen's generalizations and arguments need only be justified if he writes them slowly? Is this the future of blogging, a kind of collective suspension of belief?

      If Glen cares to share with us his view that "Greenwashing [by the Dutch media] panders to [Dutch cyclists'] self-image as crusaders in the cause of planetary salvation, and justifies them in maiming anyone who errs onto their preserve", it's only fair to ask for analysis and evidence, rather than anecdote - especially when the anecdote was a bit sketchy.

      Have a safe journey.

  • 1 November 2014 at 1:24pm
    Glen Newey says:
    I'm only tickling. I don't hate cyclists really – in fact, I cycled to work when I first moved to the Netherlands, and in general I'd favour a ban on private motor vehicles from town centres, leaving them to public and delivery transport and bikes. Since you ask, in the Rotterdam incident I erred from the pavement not onto the road but a strip of paving contiguous and continuous with it, whose use as a cycle track may have been more obvious in daylight than at 10pm. Cyclists do colonise the pavement – have just seen one doing so outside the window of Den Haag public library; one rode into me yesterday at work when I was walking round a blind corner, on foot, right next to the wall. And a lot, like the Rotterdam geezer, do without a headlight or bell.

    • 1 November 2014 at 2:24pm
      B says: @ Glen Newey
      As an avowed pavement colonizer, my advice to pedestrians is never be in the way

    • 2 November 2014 at 9:31am
      Alex Drace-Francis says: @ Glen Newey
      Glad you have taken on board Harry Stopes's point. What looks like aggressive ideological crusading from the outside is just ingrained everyday practice here. I think there's a tendency to get personal about cyclists because of the basic fact that they are on the outside of their vehicle, whereas car drivers, who actually cause much more fatal injury, pollution, congestion, noise and other social evils, hide away on the inside.
      For the record, the plywood boxes you refer to are not generally associated with the 'Batavus' brand, which is better known for standard personal bikes, rather as Raleigh used to be in the UK. The box bikes are promoted mainly by

    • 11 November 2014 at 2:37pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Glen Newey
      Having lived in Den Haag for rather a long time (27 years), I have seen a lot of reprehensible cyclist behaviour. While Dutch cycling is a fabulous safety success story (largely because as far as possible those on two wheels occupy completely separate paths rather than just a strip along the side of the road), the attitude of many cyclists (and others on two wheels) often leaves much to be desired. Many Dutch cyclists think it is perfectly all right to: cycle at speed on footpaths; ignore specifically constructed cycle lights at red on controlled crossings; ride (usually at speed) the wrong way down one-way streets where it is specifically prohibited because the street is too narrow (in most one-way streets two-wheelers are explicitly allowed to cycle the wrong way); cycle at excessive speed (usually the lycra and helmet brigade, who disdain bells) on congested cycle paths which are shared by pedestrians (an elderly man was killed by a cyclist in this way last year). Attempting to remonstrate with wayward cyclists will usually get you an earful of abuse or threats of fisticuffs. And god help you if one runs into you: even if (as it often is) it is entirely their fault, you will end up paying for your damage and theirs.

  • 1 November 2014 at 6:50pm
    David Gordon says:
    When you are used to using the wheel brake you find it a lot more convenient than UK-style handbrakes. Then it is difficult to re-adjust when hiring a bike in the UK. Earlier this year, I could easily have been heard shouting ‘They’ve given me a bike with no fucking wheel brake!’ as I tried to work out how to slow down when descending a hill.

    My mainland Europe cycling is in Copenhagen, a kind of well-mannered Amsterdam when it comes to the bike culture. The Danes are truly skilful – phone calls are readily made and answered while rolling along (I do it too), a beer in one hand and a fag in the other can be seen in the summer months, and children, or shopping, or dogs or girlfriends can be pushed around in Christiania-style cargo bikes.

    I asked if the Rector of the University of Copenhagen had an official car, like a UK Vice-Chancellor. “No” came the answer. “Why does he need one? He’s got a bike.”

    • 2 November 2014 at 5:01am
      Bob Beck says: @ David Gordon
      Wheel brakes are all very well, but they're incompatible -- so far as I know -- with anything but single-gear rear hubs. (I stand to be corrected, having a vague memory of a three-speed rear hub where you shifted up or down by a sort of rapid brake-then-resume-pedalling motion. I have the equally vague memory it didn't work very well).

      Such bikes in turn are incompatible -- so far as I'm concerned -- with anything but flat or near-flat terrain.

      I live in Vancouver, which is not as hilly as you'd think from the pictures (at least not my bit of it -- North Vancouver, a separate municipality which has most of the mountains, is another story). But it has enough relief to be getting on with. As it happens, I have a Dutch bike, which I bought for the comfortable upright stance; but, being made for export, it has a 7-speed rear hub, and hence hand-operated brakes (which are also enclosed in the hubs, and hence rainproof. Vancouver is at least as rainy as you'd think, and I won't even start on North Van).

      Some of the younger followers of fashion hereabouts ("hipsters," some call them: a term of pointless derision, for my money) ride single-gear bikes ("fixies"), like their counterparts in Brooklyn, which I'm told is nearly as flat as Amsterdam. I usually have little to say about fashion -- it's (almost) all the same to me -- but this one, I'd describe as just silly.

    • 2 November 2014 at 5:09pm
      David Gordon says: @ Bob Beck
      I have a wheel brake and three gears, and they work.

    • 3 November 2014 at 5:03pm
      Bob Beck says: @ David Gordon
      Fair enough -- like I said, a vague memory, and from decades back. I don't think such bikes are widely available in Canada.

  • 2 November 2014 at 11:31am
    Gunnar says:
    As someone who tends to hide away in my car (there’s no other way of driving it) I don’t hate cyclists either, not even London ones. But I do fear them sometimes, especially the Suicide Cyclists, the ones who are clearly determined to die for the cause, bombing through roundabouts without even slowing down, overtaking on the inside when you’re indicating a left turn, and so on.
    I believe the basic problem with cyclists is that they are the only major road users who are uninsured, and therefore (mostly) lack any training whatsoever. Yes, I think there should be cycling licences, issued at about age 12-14 after obligatory training throughout one’s school years. I think helmets should be made compulsory and earphones banned. And unless you’re six years old or younger, get off the effing pavement.

  • 2 November 2014 at 10:14pm
    Sean Whitton says:
    Here in South Korea, the pavements alongside the big four lane roads are nominally divided in half between a bike lane and area for pedestrians. However, bus stops take up the entire pedestrian part (which is closer to the road) and shops will often set up stalls taking up the entire bike lane. Things like this mean that the division is totally ignored and pedestrians and bikes just weave in and out of each other all over the total sidewalk. This can be pretty scary when you're walking up hill and the bikes of several hundred high schoolers are pelting down it at around 10pm when they go home.

    Worse though is the fact that delivery drivers on their scooters and motorbikes often use the sidewalks, rather than driving on the road. I don't know if it's actually any more dangerous to be hit by one of these rather than a push bike, since at least on the sidewalk the motorised ones probably go slower. But it's certainly scarier to round a corner and find yourself fairly narrowly missing one at least every other day.

  • 6 November 2014 at 10:26pm
    steve kay says:
    As one of the, probably not very many, LRB subscribers who are also members of the Veteran-Cycle Club, I shall ignore the bits of Glen's piece that seem to have escaped from the Daily Mail and challenge his views on cyclist's costume. If the weekend's machines are 50's lightweights then period jerseys would accompany black cotton shorts, if it's prewar black bikes or serious twenties tourers being ridden, tweed plus fours would be worn. Being the LRB blog detailed response to some gearing misunderstandings should be avoided. Brakes however should be back pedalled, reverse pedalling describes how some circus bikes work. Round here there is a reverse steering bike that emerges for village fetes, causing people to fall off or carrer into the hedge very quickly. Next time Glen is in South Wales he should come and have a go.

  • 9 November 2014 at 1:17pm
    flannob says:
    The international perspective is always interesting, but there have been deaths and serious injuries in England, barely punished. The only charity to object is that for guide dogs, the others presumably terrified of upsetting the lobby and its trolls. Orthopedic surgeons and car rental firms are aware of the problem, but most pedestrians will realise that it's safer to drive than to walk.

    • 9 November 2014 at 2:56pm
      Bob Beck says: @ flannob
      You're suggesting that cyclists have organized themselves into powerful and intimidating lobby -- an NRA for the UK? It's coming some time, maybe, but if it were here now I wouldn't expect to hear much about cyclists themselves dying in road accidents. Can you expand on this?

  • 9 November 2014 at 3:02pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    The phobia pedestrians have for cyclists is odd, since in any collision the cyclist is likely to fall and so come off worse. Which may explain why, like horses, cyclists try to avoid colliding with people.
    One might equally ask how many cyclist injuries or fatalities are due to pedestrians. And then go on to demand that pedestrians be required to have insurance and take a test to have their feet licensed. Not quite so stupid as it may sound -- pedestrians are unpredictable because, unlike any vehicle with momentum, they can take it into their heads to stop dead, make complete change in direction and even go into reverse.
    The one pedestrian fatality attributed to a cyclist that I know of occurred in Aylesbury about five years ago. A girl fell over and hit her head on the curb. It was quite a cause celebre, because anti-cyclist comment in the media (and there was a lot) took up the cyclist's warning call before the accident, "I'm not going to stop", as typical cyclist arrogance. I would have thought it showed rather that the girl and her friends were 'playing chicken' with the cyclist. So too the police may have thought -- they did not prosecute.

  • 12 November 2014 at 11:28pm
    Julius Beezer says:
    Of course, "nearly" and "almost" are the key words in this post, for as Michael Taylor rightly points out, every cyclist has a deeply vested interest in the avoidance of collisions, as in the event of one, they'll likely come off worst.

    This is not to say that walking in the vicinity of fast-moving cyclists is pleasant: it is not, and it is worth asking why cyclists and pedestrians should find themselves in such proximity, and especially in the Netherlands.

    Although often cited as a model for the rest of the world to follow with respect to promoting cycling, the Netherlands cycle network comes at a heavy price: cyclists are by default banned from roads with a cycle path alongside, however unsatisfactory that path may be. Try riding on the road there (I have) and you'll quickly attract the ire of passing motorists, expressed in prolonged bursts of the klaxon and gutteral threats.

    No, as the cyclist, you must wend the pavé as it twines around every bus-stop and garage, while the motorists enjoy conventionally bituminous first class travel a couple of metres to your left. What misery! No wonder the cyclists of the Netherlands are in such ill-humour, and so ready to vent their anger on the weakest victims they can find.

    The system in the Netherlands is a Fordist triumph, which sets pedestrians and cyclists in conflict with each other, while ignoring the plank in the eye that is motor domination of public space.

    NB: a rear wheel brake operated by reverse pedalling is usually denominated "a coaster brake" in English.

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