Thursday, 20 February 2014

Being A Bicycle Passenger

If the Dutch have one thing down really well, it's riding bicycles. They seem to learn to walk, swim, and ride a bike all before the age of five. It is incredible to see a small child riding alongside their mum or dad in the bicycle lane on a road. (Incredible and heart stopping - the roads aren't exactly quiet country lanes!). I've mentioned previously the hordes of mad cyclists who seem able to race along bicycle paths while texting, carrying their three children of different sizes, the shopping, and any other numerous endeavours. It is extremely intimidating. I don't think the Dutch walk anywhere either (walking, that's so last year...) because I keep getting a fright as cyclists will continue popping out of small alleyways, side streets, zebra crossings, behind buses...buildings (true!). Really, now.

Today, I experienced it all as a bicycle passenger. And I don't mean on a bicycle made for two...It is quite common to see a person sitting on the back of bike, ankles crossed, hanging on to the person pedalling. I've wondered at this from afar, marvelling at the apparent ease. It makes sense: bicycles are used more than cars, buses, and trains (and possibly even legs...), they have the right of way in most situations (which, if you don't know the rules, can make crossing the road an adventure...). So, for example if a young man comes to pick up his lady friend, where does she go? On the back of the bike, happy as can be, even when dressed up in high heels!

Well, it isn't easy, however it may look, and it is TERRIFYING. I think if you've been doing it since age dot, then it isn't, but to a newcomer, it is a type of thrill seeking. Move over roller coasters! Like many Dutch people, I have long legs, and I thought there was no way I would be able to sit on the back of the bike and avoid a) dragging my legs along the road or b) killing us both by getting my feet caught in the spokes.

And this was all before I even hopped on. Here is how it works: the pedaller, whom we will call Person A, sets off. The passenger, Person B, trots along behind and then jumps on, holding on to Person A. (White knuckled, in my case). Person B must cross their ankles and balance, trusting that Person A will not run them into any other cyclists, cars, lorries, buses, small children, dogs, trees, and/or signposts.

The other Dutch cyclists don't just cruise leisurely past either. None of this, "oh it's a beautiful day, let's take the bikes out" - no. It's a mad rush of hither and thithering, bicycle bells and squealing brakes. There should be speed limits, honestly.

A quiet crossing on my street
I live beside two schools; at 3.30 about a million thirteen year olds retrieve their bikes and begin to make their way home. I learnt very quickly not to go out at this time of the day if I cared to see the next morning. Cycling is a good thing, I know - great for the environment, health, traffic, and so on. But rush hour cycling is something to behold. I think there is "City Cycling" too (like city driving but without the safety of windows and a roof.) The aggressive, "I had to be somewhere five minutes ago, don't you know where you are going, you idiot", bell ringing, tutting, kind of cycling. And it isn't like in Cambridge, where I used to live, which is also a cycling town. There, people signal with their hands, wear helmets and reflective gear, and are generally fairly well behaved. Here, it's a free-for-all; organised ruddy chaos, that strangely seems to work efficiently. 

Anyway, I think it didn't help that my pedaller had never had a passenger before, so it was a very wobbly ride in which a lot of small screams kept erupting (and not just from me). It isn't particular comfortable either - a lot of balancing is going on, and each bump leaves you rather sore.

This is just as a passenger. Tomorrow, I'm taking the bull by the horns and going to see a possibly suitable bike. (Do you know, I'm rather hoping it is awful so I can prolong this "not having a bicycle" thing.) I've put it off for two weeks fairly successfully, but now I'm getting strange looks.

Someone said to me today, "How long have you been in Groningen?"
Er, two weeks or so.
"And you haven't got a bicycle yet?"
Um, well, no, I, er...
Wish me luck.