Whether you're new to Amsterdam, new to cycling, or both, these handy tips will help make your transition into a true Amsterdammer a smooth ride!
Learning to cycle in Amsterdam traffic can be quite a challenge if you are not used to the local system. After living in the city for three years, I wanted to share my recently acquired "insider knowledge" with a wider audience.
Here is a summary of crucial cycling advice for newcomers:
1) Familiarise yourself with traffic regulations
In a crowded city, a basic understanding of traffic rules is essential. Learn to tell whether you have the right of way: when do you need to stop, and when can you continue?
Pay attention to signs and road markings. If you do not understand the meaning of a symbol or a piece of Dutch text, you could be missing out on important information. Knowing what is permissible and what is not gives you confidence, and allows you to make decisions quickly and efficiently, whereas uncertainty and hesitation will slow you down.
In the event that something goes awry, it is good to be able to pinpoint whether that was due to a mistake on your part (which you can subsequently learn from), or whether it was someone else’s fault.
2) Get up to speed on road etiquette
If every scenario was perfectly addressed by a system of logical, comprehensive traffic regulations, and every road user followed these regulations all the time, then cycling would probably be easy. Given the sheer variety and complexity of traffic situations that occur in reality, that is just not possible.
Many aspects of cycling are governed instead by unwritten rules – guidelines that are not explicitly described in written regulations, but have evolved over time to become part of the collective consciousness. Such rules are specific to a particular culture and location, and typically have to be acquired through experience, observation, and common sense. Learn how to strike the right balance between being a polite cyclist, and being over-accommodating.
3) Use spatial awareness
Observe the traffic around you and learn to identify patterns of movement from various road users. At what speed are other people moving? How experienced are they? Can you trust them to maintain control over their actions, or are they behaving unpredictably and uncontrollably?
Communicate through body language: turn your head, look around, make eye contact, and use your hand to signal if you are planning to turn or stop. Use the bell or call out if necessary.
Develop your sense of balance so that you can stop, slow down, or speed up at a moment's notice. Practise going at a snail’s pace or remaining in the same spot while keeping your feet off the ground. Try standing on the pedals and adjusting your body position to maintain your balance. Practise navigating sharp corners, bridges, barriers, diversions, and traffic junctions – all of which require good motor skills.
4) Cycle with friends
It can be very helpful to have a buddy to guide you through the city and act as a buffer against vehicular traffic. Make sure that your friend communicates clearly with you, letting you know in advance if you need to make a turn, or giving you a heads up for approaching objects.
Remember though, that even the most empathetic and thoughtful of friends may not always be aware of your needs, pace, or skill level on a bike – particularly if they are much more experienced in heavy traffic than you are. Which brings me to the next point …
5) Go at your own pace
Be careful not to follow people blindly – whether they are good friends or strangers. For example: if the cyclists in front of you decide to dart across a traffic light that is just turning red, or they inch past other road users without leaving sufficient room for you to do the same, remain calm and assess the situation.
You do not have to rush to keep up – stop and wait for the traffic light to turn green again, or make way for other road users if it is appropriate. You are in charge of your bike, and you need to make your own decisions independently.
Similarly, if you have a bad experience (we all do), take it easy, breathe, and give yourself time to recover – and then get back on your bike again as soon as you can!
6) Familiarise yourself with the technicalities of cycling
When buying a bicycle and accessories, you can search through online classifieds, such as Marktplaats.nl, or visit bicycle stores. Numerous stores also provide rental bike services, usually coming along with a sturdy lock. Read up on how to prevent your bike from getting stolen. Keep your bike well-maintained: check the sides of the tires to identify the right tyre pressure, and keep the pressure within the recommended range.
Get to know the difference between hand brakes and foot brakes (also known as "coaster brakes"). Foot brakes are operated by pedalling backwards, hence the pedals cannot be spun backwards freely. When you come to a temporary stop, such as at a traffic light, keep one pedal at a high position so that you can easily push off again.
When it gets cold and wet, consider wearing a waterproof jacket, trousers and gloves. If it gets really chilly, you can insert hand warmers into your gloves for extra warmth. For longer journeys, you can pay a fee to take your bicycle with you on the Metro and train during restricted hours. Alternatively, NS International (the train provider in the Netherlands) provides an OV-fiets rental service, making it easier for commuters to get to their final destination.
Xing Chen is a neuroscientist who has lived in the US, the UK, and Singapore. In 2014, she moved to the Netherlands to work on the development of brain implants for sight restoration. On the very first day of her arrival in Amsterdam, she bought a secondhand bicycle, and gradually mastered the art of cycling through the crowded city streets. Xing now covers a distance of over 20 km per day, by bike. For more information on her book, click here.
photo credits: Header: Tim Bleeker. Other pics: Xing Chen