Fresh from our cycling trip around The Netherlands, Rachael and I are realizing that we’ll have to re-adjust to riding back home.
Call it “bike culture shock.” After fourteen days spinning along dedicated bike paths, surrounded by a population for whom riding everywhere is just a matter of course, returning home meant breaking some new-and cherished-habits. Our helmets came out of closet. Our defensive posturing in traffic returned. And the streets of Portland, whose bike-friendly reputation we were happy to crow about just a few weeks ago, seemed to belong more in L.A. than the next great cycling metropolis.
On reflection, what quickly becomes clear is that while Portland has a vibrant bike culture, The Netherlands is a country in which bikes are just a part of the culture. And that distinction highlights real differences in how we approach buying bikes, riding bikes and building bike infrastructure.
Back home in Portland (and in some comments here on The Thought Kitchen), conversations about bicycling often revolve around the sport’s many sub-divisions: road vs. mountain, custom vs. mass produced, fixie vs. commuter. And while these cliques create a lot of texture for American cycling, they’re limiting in their conception of what cycling can be. What’s more, it can be intimidating when fitting in requires spandex or elbow pads, skinny jeans or a team jersey.
In The Netherlands, where everybody rides, these subcultures do exist. But they’re swallowed up by the larger mass culture of the comfortable, understated steel bikes that serve one, utilitarian purpose: transportation. Sure, there are hipsters with short-billed caps and spandex-clad roadies on their race-fietsen. But take a stroll around the three-story bike-only parking garage outside Amsterdam’s central station, or pedal along with the rush-hour traffic in Maastricht, and you’ll see the markers of a bike culture that’s all-inclusive.
As communities search for solutions to their environmental, transportation and public health challenges, there’s a chance to begin reshaping our society and our infrastructure to give cycling more of an everyday role. Thinking this way requires recognizing that there’s room for all the different styles of riding we see on our streets-and many styles we don’t see yet. Fixies and cruisers, customs and mass-produced: we’ll need them all, along with upright steel bikes that your grandmother will love. More bikes means more riders, and that’s what will drive change.