In Utrecht, the “bicycle capital of the world,” we took booked a cycling tour of the city. Why not join the stream of local residents whose preferred method of transportation was a sturdy Dutch bicycle?
We rented our bikes at the tourist office in Utrecht ‘s medieval square. Here we met our guide Jitte, a middle-age man with sandy brown hair, high cheekbones and smiling eyes. Since it was pouring rain, we asked if we might delay the ride for a while. He agreed, although he commented it wasn’t raining that hard. (Rain apparently means nothing to Utrecht’s estimated 100,000 commuters, who typically steer with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other.)
Our plan was to explore an early 20th-century working class neighborhood that had become gentrified over the last century. We’d finish up at the Rietveld Schröderhuis, a colorful, modern residence that caps a line of traditional row houses like a Mondrian-inspired caboose. Designed in 1924 by renowned architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld, the 2-story apartment is an outstanding example of De Stijl, a Dutch art movement that blended functionality with strong geometric lines and primary color accents. In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Holland, drivers respect cyclists and are required to steer clear of designated bike paths. But cyclists—especially in a busy city like Utrecht—have their own rules. As Jitte pedaled ahead, guiding us into a stream of 2-wheeled commuters, he called out some advice: “Always keep to the right … go single file … signal your turns … DON’T stop pedaling!
For someone like myself, accustomed to a lightweight racing bike, the stodgy Dutch variety presented a challenge. It was heavy, and its upright handlebars made me feel as if I was driving a wheelbarrow. I adjusted my seat several inches lower than I usually do, so I could quickly put my foot down in Utrecht’s stop-and-go traffic.
In half an hour, we were comfortable enough to focus our attention on the sea of cyclists around us. What couldn’t the Dutch carry on a bicycle?! Nearly everyone had a basket or rack weighed down with groceries or books. Some cyclists steered with one hand and balanced a cell phone or umbrella in the other. Many cradled babies, perched in little seats in front of them. Oddly, no one —not even the babies—wore a helmet. The stream of cyclists pedaled forward, intent on their destination. It seemed they had not a care in the world. With a little more practice, we hoped we might be just as relaxed.