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.