Wetenschap - 24 januari 2002

Freewheeling: travelling without pedalling

Freewheeling: travelling without pedalling

You don't need to be in this country long before you experience the terror of hearing a frantically rung bell, moments before you are forced to take evasive action. If statistics are to be believed you are more likely to see a bicycle in Holland than you are to see a resident, and let's not even think about puncture repair kits. The prominence of this humble machine has created its own culture, inseparable from everyday Dutch life.

Cycling seems particularly apt for the Lowlander character, not to mention the terrain, an environmentally friendly, healthy way to travel allowing both sociable interaction and personal freedom. Roads are well designed to slow cars and unfetter the fietser. It is a liberating experience to be so elevated in priority to other traffic. The classic 'sit up and beg' design of most pedal bikes enables a relaxed posture complementing the Netherlanders' laid-back demeanour.

Perhaps the most disturbing sight on a weekend is the middle-aged man clad from head to toe in Lycra, revealing far more than is acceptable in decent society. In amusing contrast to England, Dutch youngsters are dwarfed by their huge bikes whereas the fashion is for burly Brits to ride child-size BMXs. All age groups are included. You see babies strapped to customised frames, their tiny outstretched arms flailing in the breeze with pensioners burning past on partially motorised contraptions.

There's always that temptation to race other riders. Traffic lights become a very tense affair as you get poised for explosive acceleration. The most satisfying opportunity for competition has to be on the Wageningen 'Mountain' where you can overtake people fighting an epic struggle to inch their way to the top of the hill!

Few of the indigenous population limit themselves a single bicycle. There's almost certainly a battered and buckled one, easily replaceable in case of complete collapse or theft, but an old friend nonetheless. You can usually hear them long before you see them, wobbling towards you; they scream out, begging for oil to ease their snarling gears. Some have lurid paint jobs, perhaps for decoration or disguising rust but mostly to make them stand out. Ability to identify your own vehicle becomes especially important when you park because it negates the necessity of choosing a noteworthy resting-place and, more importantly, reduces the risk of spontaneous amnesia where you lose your fiets-sized needle in a stack of similar needles.

Your sturdy mount looks less so as time wears on and although parts can be repaired and replaced eventually every bike finds a resting-place from which it will never be ridden away. Seeing these corroding remains gives a poignant reminder of life's cruelty and finite nature.

David Hopkins

zen@mail2my.com

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