Learning to ride a bike in Amsterdam without terrorizing the locals
October 11, 2010 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Learning to ride a bike in Amsterdam - what are my options?

Hello everyone. I moved to Amsterdam about a month ago, and bought myself a bike three weeks ago. A big deal, as I'm 27 and have NEVER been on a bike in my life. My partner has done a great job teaching me in Vondelpark - I can now start, turn, stop etc. However, I'm now appreciating that learning how to ride is barely half the battle. I have next to no confidence on the bike, and I'm kind of despairing of developing the skills to ride in Amsterdam bike traffic, especially considering how often I've heard locals complain of clueless foreigners on the roads. I also nearly took out two joggers one night (!!) when I totally lost control of the bike.

So here's my question: I need to develop the skills and confidence to ride in traffic in Amsterdam without taking out any of the locals or myself. I understand there are courses for migrant women to learn to ride, but I have no Dutch at the moment*. Oh, and I'm here for two years, so learning to ride properly is a priority. What are my options? I already feel like enough of a nuisance puttering my way nervously around Vondelpark as robust-looking Nederlanders whizz past.

* I'm finishing my PhD this year, so learning Dutch is on the backburner 'til next year.
posted by nerdfish to Travel & Transportation around Amsterdam, The Netherlands (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My girlfriend just came to visit me in amsterdam ... first time for her on a bike in 25 years.

It was fun ... but we used it the "jump in the deep end" route ... which was interesting.

After a week of daily riding she was sort-of confident ... on Saturday we rode to Marken and back.

Advice ... take it slow, don't ride in peak hour to start, and just do it ... and ride with someone who can take charge of directions ... so you can concentrate on riding and not hitting stuff.

Good luck
posted by jannw at 11:18 AM on October 11, 2010

In the words of the immortal Eddy Merckx, "Ride Lots."

I don't mean this in a snarky way, the only way to get good at something is to do it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:41 AM on October 11, 2010

Learning road skills is all about time on the bike. Just keep riding, and put in the time as the newbie. You'll rapidly improve. When I started riding in college, I was pretty much a complete beginner. But all those 10-20 minute commutes 7 days a week really add up.

As for traffic, have someone ride around with you as much as possible. That way, you can learn the road rules and how bikes are supposed to act. The additional benefit is that when you're feeling overwhelmed, you can focus on handling the bike and just following behind. Make sure you find someone you trust who will take responsibility for you.

Also, I don't know what the riding culture is like there but wear a helmet and get some blinkers for riding at night.
posted by just.good.enough at 11:50 AM on October 11, 2010

You realize you're throwing yourself in at the deep end in any case, no? Amsterdam! Biking in this environment is a challenge for any foreigners' nerves, mostly because of how the other bikers bike, and how many there are.
Dutch car drivers face serious trouble if they get entangled with bikes (not that it matters greatly, but it does help); trams apparently less so, and other bikers even less. So watch out for the latter two, and don't get your wheels stuck in the tram rails. In the beginning I'd definitely stay on the larger roads with bike paths like the Wibautstraat, the main roads in Nieuw Zuid etc.; watch out for cars turning right and crossing your path, though.
If you get tired, it may be better to just step off and push and call it a day, but that's me (I biked in all sorts of places across Holland, but very rarely during my 5 years in Amsterdam).
Then there's the possibility of relatively relaxed weekend trips, such as along the Amstel past the Amstel-park towards Ouderkerk and stuff like that.
Be safe.
posted by Namlit at 11:52 AM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd second riding with a partner in town whenever possible, along with weekend trips along the various bike paths towards the outskirts of the city -- perhaps even taking your bike out on a train somewhere and riding back in at a fairly leisurely pace. It won't teach you the sixth-sense stuff of riding in central Amsterdam, but it'll get you to the point where you're not as worried about basic bike handling.

wear a helmet and get some blinkers for riding at night.

If it's a classic Dutch bike, it'll probably have dynamo light(s), though additional blinkers won't hurt. Helmets are trickier: in Amsterdam, wearing a helmet for everyday cycling is the equivalent of a large bike-mounted sign saying 'clueless foreigner', which won't help the acclimatisation process as it'll affect how others behave towards you on the road. As David Hembrow says, if it makes you feel safer, wear one, but your reasons for wearing it won't be based upon the statistical risk of injury you face.

Final thought: is your bike set up properly? Amsterdam cyclists get by just fine on setups that would give American bike shop types conniptions, but if your seat position is off, or the steering's a bit out of line or the wheels are buckled, it's not going to help you as a learner.
posted by holgate at 1:26 PM on October 11, 2010

what namit said. south of the a10, between the amstel and the a2 down to ouderkerk aan de amstel there are loads of paths that are usually not very busy. ( and its really beautiful )
posted by Spumante at 1:49 PM on October 11, 2010

Thirding namit and holgate's last thought - unlike the classic American mountain bike, you need an omafiets where you sit straight up with no bar between your, um, delicate parts and standing up quickly.

The reason for this is two fold: you can stop easier, but more importantly, learning to bike in A'dam is more about developing insanely good peripheral vision which will lead to that sixth sense of ohmygodatramsabouttokillme.

Also, some urban areas are easier to get that "urban" experience without the danger of sudden death that it de Liedseplein. Try biking around de Jordaan or the inner parts of de Oud Zuid on the edges of de Vondelpark.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:22 PM on October 11, 2010

I learned how to ride a bike around 3 years ago, at the age of 24. I remember the augh augh terror regarding everything that moved (or didn't), and the worry that I would hit it if I got within three feet of it. Possibly 6 feet.

I solved this problem by riding on low-traffic streets and trails, and going at my own pace and ignoring everyone else (at least ignoring the possible annoyance of everyone else). Now I'm in Japan and ride my bike at least a couple times a week when the weather isn't bad, and I can mostly comfortably ride past walking humans and through bollards with minimal leeway. It gets better, I promise!

I remember being terrified of cyclists as a pedestrian in Amsterdam, though, so I bet that adds some extra excitement. I would just suggest going out to ride a lot in parks and on low-traffic trails until passing by a car or post or tree does not make you feel like you are going to swerve into it. Take the minimally busy roads around. Practice turning your head but not turning the bike. I think it took me probably around 3-6 months of riding (maybe only one or two times a week) to feel relatively confident about riding, and I definitely remember the feeling of thinking that I'd never be as confident as the people who learned how to ride at age 6. And maybe I won't be as confident as them, but I think I am also less reckless and a safer rider.
posted by that girl at 6:49 PM on October 11, 2010

Cyclists here bother me more than anything else, as there seems to be no order to the chaos. I was lucky and found a very pretty omafiets - a Gazelle that everyone assures me is a treat for thieves.

Digitalprimate - I actually rode a little on the streets of Oud Zuid yesterday, just to get a feel for it. It was very quiet, which helped. Part of the reason I want to be able to bike places is because I'm already fed up with surly Amsterdam tram drivers. I didn't realise they had an anti-bike agenda, as well!

That girl - I will definitely practice turning my head without turning the bike. I'm not there quite yet right now!

Thanks for the responses, guys!
posted by nerdfish at 10:52 PM on October 11, 2010

Nerdfish - A'dam tram drivers don't have an anti-bike agenda. For them trying to crush you is....is....well, more than a competitive sport, really. If they could get away with murdering pedestrians and cars while they're at it, I'm pretty sure they would as well.
posted by MessageInABottle at 6:15 AM on October 12, 2010

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