On cycling like a native in Amsterdam

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At the weekend, DS1 (age 3) and I went for a jolly to see some friends in Amsterdam. It was supposed to have been a long weekend en masse with the rest of the family but financial, time and health considerations eventually meant that DH stayed at home with DS2 and a bout of pneumonia – so bad that he had to call in my mother as a reinforcement on Sunday afternoon – while DS1 and I took the overnight ferry there, coming back 36 hours later.

On Sunday we were taken to the beach, which of course for a 3 year old was the most exciting thing ever, regardless of the fact that it was November and the North Sea was on the nippy side (I didn’t go in the water myself but I ascertained this fact after DS1 paddled for an hour and then went blue when he had an icecream).

The best aspect of Sunday for me, however, was not the water, but the fact that it did not require us to Get on a Bicycle.

I have had a bike for most of my life, and have indeed cycled quite happily round various university towns without much mishap apart from hippy floaty skirts getting stuck in the chain, and one occasion where the heel of my boot fell off half way down the Woodstock Road. However it has been a while since I’ve cycled on a regular basis. DH is going midlife cycle mad (clear victim of the Bradley Wiggins Effect) and the garage is filled with his (what I would call) ‘racer’ bikes – all of them with crossbars too high and saddles too hard for me to see any pleasure at all in trying to go anywhere on them. I also have a fundamental fear of speed, and of being out of control, so I do approach bicycling on random machines in unknown places with a degree of trepidation.

So imagine my delight when we met our lovely Dutch Friend (DF) outside the railway station, and she said she had thought we should hire a bike with a bucket at the front for DS to sit in. At this point I thought that was a fine idea, because I was under the impression that they were three-wheeled. Suited me. However when we got to the bike shop it turned out to be a two-wheeler, with the front wheel about the size of a saucepan lid and a lonnng way away from the rest of the machine. I didn’t fance wobbling that around Amsterdam with my first born and my luggage in the front, so went for the least worst option which was to ride DF’s bike.

Down side #1 of this was that DF was about a foot taller than me, and her bike was such an old rusty boneshaker the bike guy could only lower the saddle a couple of inches. So I had to jump down from the seat to touch the ground.

Down side #2 was that it was reverse-pedal braking. This is frankly a total nightmare, not least because I like to kick off pedalling with my right foot on a high pedal. But when I braked to stop and jumped forward off the seat to put my feet on the ground, the right pedal was invariably down. You couldn’t whizz it back up to starting position (as you would on a NORMAL bike) when you were ready to go, so to start again I had to stagger forward by foot until I got to the top of a bridge (of which there were many, thank goodness) and freewheel down it until my pedals got back into the correct position.

If DH had been there he would have noticed the alarm in my eyes and perhaps kindly suggested I take a taxi, but instead I just had to bite the bullet and go for it. We then spent the next two hours on a ‘scenic’ bike rid round a freezing Amsterdam, me with my eyes glued firmly on the back of DF, running through red lights in a desperate attempt to keep up and not to have to stop. At one point she turned round to find me and I tried to wave but my sleeve got caught on the handle which lurched the bike to the right; at another point, when she and several other cyclists actually had stopped at a red light after all, I somehow couldn’t get my wobbly legs to manoeuvre correctly and sailed straight towards her and a right-turning car, yelling ‘Fuuuuuuuu….’ – a disaster which DF calmly averted by just jamming her left arm out across my chest.

When we finally got to her flat I was a gibbering wreck, and had seen none of the sights at all she’d been trying to point out.

Her (British) boyfriend was thankfully a bit more sympathetic, and when we set out with him in the afternoon to see the Van Gogh exhibition (which, despite priding myself on my knowledge of linguistics AND art history, I’d failed to realise we were going to, thinking we were going somewhere unknown involving something called Ven <guttural cough > Hoch), no one suggested I got back on that bike.

Instead I was challenged to take a ride in the bucket at the front of the rental cycle, which was equally horrendous, but thankfully DS was desperate to go back into it so I was relieved from that position. Instead, after trying various people/bike configurations, it was decided that DF took DS in the bucket cycle, and her boyfriend took her bike … giving me a backie on the back.

I have never had a backie in my life. It has always seemed to me to be totally unnecessary. However the combined assumptions of everyone else that I was capable of this meant that I had to go along with things, or feign madness and fall in a dribbling heap in the middle of the street. So for the rest of the afternoon we mosied around Amsterdam, with me side-saddle on the back of the bike, on a metal structure apparently built for people to sit on. I can assure you that the state of the bruises on my bum do not regard that as true.

The most astonishing thing of the whole experience, however – and one which I still can’t quite get my head round – is the process for mounting. The boyfriend had to start pedalling to get some steam up, with me beetling behind him, and then when he gave me the nod, I had to somehow propel myself forward with my right hip in the lead, fast enough to keep up with him, and land accurately with my right buttock on this metal bit. Then I’d wriggle around until most of my bottom was in the right place, cross my legs at the side, shove my right hand round his waist (cunningly hiding it in his puffa jacket pocket to keep warm), and with my left holding for dear life onto the bike. And we had to do this every time he stopped, which as he is British, was at every red light, and sometimes at the bottom of slopes where our combined weight was defeating him.

Despite all of this, it was Not Too Bad. I couldn’t see where we were going, so just gazed left at lovely Dutch houses lit up in the gloaming, and fairy-lit bridges shining over canals. My bum got numb after a while, so to speak – though I can still feel the aches 3 days later – and before we knew it, I was leaping on and off that bike like a native.

Though when it came to going out for dinner later that day, we took the tram. What would they have proposed otherwise? 3 men on a bike? And alcohol? I knew not to push a good thing.

And thus endeth my observation on backies by a 41 year old woman. Wear padded pants. And look before you leap.

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