Thursday, 3 April 2014

Taking the Plunge: Cycling in Groningen

I've finally succumbed and bought a bicycle. It seemed a bit silly to be living in a country known for bicycles without actually partaking. I've been putting it off because Groningen has a rampant bike theft problem (not unlike most other Dutch cities), I can easily walk everywhere, and the cycle lanes are terrifying. But, let's face it: cycling is quicker.

My new mode of transportation is a second (third?) hand Batavus, blue, with two luggage racks (front and back). I've got two locks, a loop lock attached to the rear wheel, and a loose, German made lock to attach the bike to things so it doesn't get carried off (I hope).  The lights don't work and are slightly skew whiff as if someone rather heavy sat on them... The gears work...ish...first is useless pedalling, second grates like a blender, and third is impossible. And the brakes! The rear brake when applied moans like a dying cat and the front brake is so touchy it is a miracle I haven't already gone over the handlebars. So, as with most second hand bikes: situation normal! I am rather chuffed with it: it has got character. I am taking suggestions for a name, by the way...

New mode of transport
Yesterday, I used the bike to go get my shopping. It's very handy because I don't have to lug it myself, but I found I bought more than usual... I regretted it once I had to carry it all up the stairs of death...

Also, I haven't ridden since living in Cambridge and I'm very out of shape. Certain bits of me are rather sore now. The poor old bike takes a few clunking pedals to get going properly, so setting off from the traffic lights is slightly terrifying because everyone else starts whizzing past me and cars roar around me.

Even when I do get going, people still zip past. (Texting, carrying their three children, and hidden under mountains of shopping...I really must get with the programme!) I nearly had my left elbow taken off by one chap overtaking me. People don't seem to use their bicycle bells here, unless it is to get a friend's attention on the pavement. Brilliant. Don't even get me started on signalling... I think I've got to learn the Dutch rules of cycling. In Cambridge it was all rather orderly; people wore helmets and vivid green, signalled properly, and knew to keep out of the way the Lycra clad crowd (they used to tut very loudly if I got in their way during the morning rush hour...). Here, from what I've seen, is that cyclists have the right of way, always, and they can go anywhere (ie: no one actually follows the rules!). 

I'm very aware that I'm riding without a helmet, I must say. I keep sending up little prayers each time a bus comes near me. To make matters even more eventful, here in Groningen there are quite a lot of one way roads next to the canals. Quite early on I found myself on the wrong side of the canal (and thus the wrong side of the road), so I decided that following other people to get a feel for the roads would be a good idea. Alas, my journeys have been fairly circuitous.

Oh, and I have had the bicycle less than a week and already it has been wantonly vandalised. In front of my own home no less. No one ever tells you owning a bicycle in the Netherlands is going to be such a stressful thing. You've now been warned.

On the plus side, I must say however, it has been nice to be on the back of a bike again. When the roads are quiet and empty, it is fun to soar along feeling the fresh air in my face.  It is also nice being able to arrive most places within ten minutes. I'm still a tentative cycler, but with the onset of warmer weather I'm sure I will be out there more often in amongst the madding crowd, running down pedestrians.