How Dutch Biking Changed the Way I Ride

It took just one bike ride after I returned home from a three-week cycling course in the Netherlands to realize that I have been deeply and forever changed by the experience of Dutch biking.

The difference was startling as I mounted by 24-speed hybrid-style bike, feeling awkward and bent-over, on a bike catered much more to sport riding than urban cycling. As I proceeded to bike to work, I realized I’d forgotten my helmet – a strange concept after experiencing a cycling culture where less than 1% of riders wear helmets. Proceeding through the streets of downtown Toronto, another feeling crept up – loneliness. I realized I’d also gotten used to being constantly surrounded by other cyclists, and experiencing the constant negotiations and exchanges that go along with it.

Reflecting a bit later now, after two months of riding back home in Toronto (has it been that long already?), I’ve since been able to fully digest the changes that riding in the Netherlands has had on my cycling habits.

Perhaps the biggest change is my sense of urgency when I bike. It seemed like before Amsterdam, my bike ride to work was always a race against time. I even experimented with different routes, trying to find the one which minimized my commute time, even if it meant riding on unsafe roads. I would ask myself: should I grapple with aggressive drivers and cabs on the urban highway of University Avenue to shave a few minutes, or should I grumble slowly along Simcoe, pausing at each of the 13 traffic lights?

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The Dutch know how to “enjoy the ride”, and yes sometimes even wearing flip-flops!

My Dutch cycling experience has taught me to enjoy the experience of the ride itself, and to take in my surroundings. As a result, I’m more patient and relaxed – I even measured my average commuting speed to be a full 4 km/h slower than previously (20 km/h before, 16 km/h after). This also means I exert myself less when I ride, which in turn means I sweat less – so it’s much easier to maintain a professional appearance!

Riding slower has not only made my cycling experience more satisfying, it’s also improved my sense of safety, so much so that I no longer feel the need to wear a helmet on my bike commute to work. Riding without a helmet contradicts almost everything we’ve been taught in North America on safe cycling, but I’ll be the first to confess – removing my helmet was a truly liberating experience.

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Toronto cyclists riding without helmets – gasp!

Prior to cycling in Amsterdam, like most North Americans, I saw cycling without a helmet as irresponsible and dangerous. But after noticing that almost no one in Amsterdam rides with a helmet, I realize that helmets are not a means to an end, if we are truly in pursuit of safe cycling for everyone. Helmets are more of a temporary solution, that protect the early adopters of cycling while cities continue to build out safer infrastructure. And when people feel safe while riding, as I do on my commute, they may choose to exercise their freedom to forego wearing a helmet. Thinking about it this way, perhaps the goal of a true “cycling city” should be to create streets where no one feels the need to ride with a helmet!

Finally, the Dutch don’t just ride bikes, they ride bikes together, and to this extent I’ve also been able to share my Dutch experience with others. I immediately noticed when biking with friends in Toronto that they naturally ride single-file behind me, making conversations really challenging. In response, I now slow down and encourage them to ride next to me, so that the journey itself becomes a social experience. As the Cycling Professor Marco te Brommelstroet says,

“Mobility in part influences the sense of being connected to people and places through which an individual travels”.

To this end, I’ve begun initiating lunchtime bike rides with coworkers and friends, volunteered as a mentor teaching Toronto newcomers how to ride in the city, and I’m helping my roommate work up the confidence to bike to work – all through the power of social cycling!

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Cycling with my group of Toronto newcomers at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto

In Toronto, the experience of travelling can often feel incredibly competitive. The perceived war on the car has drivers in outrage, congested streetcars lead to bursts of frustration from riders, and pedestrians feel underserved as they scramble around each other on painfully narrow stretches of sidewalks. My final learning from Amsterdam is that it doesn’t have to be this way. When you make human forms of travel, especially cycling, a more attractive way to get around, you allow our natural humanity and empathy to dominate the mobility landscape, rather than the alienated frustration that accompanies driving a car in traffic. The Dutch are fluent in the language of cycling, while Torontonians are just learning to speak it.

14 Comments

  1. I went through a similar personal change after returning home from my first trip to both Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 2011. I haven’t worn a bike helmet since; before then, I had two to choose from depending on how I felt about styles that day.

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  2. The bike to work experience in Utrecht, Netherlands influenced where we choose to live when we moved back to the states. Close enough for at least one of us to commute by bike and we also became a one car family. There are no downsides to these decisions. Love that you are guiding others on this lifestyle.

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  3. Good to read you enjoyed your cycling in Holland. As a native Dutch lady I also enjoyed riding where ever I lived.. China, Australia, Korea, France and now in Thailand. I recently did a 1 month cycle trip through Southern Holland and part of Belgium totally loaded with all our baggage. We did wear a helmet. After my bad fall in China where somebody walked right into my handlebars I now feel more comfortable wearing a helmet. Yes in Holland people obey the rules and makes cycling safer, but now with the many E-bikes I am suprised the government hasn’t implemented the use of helmets when the speed has definitely increased. Maybe in Amsterdam people ride slow or slower but even when I push pretty hard do I have people on bikes passing me by and it always amazes me how fast the Dutch ride! The opposite is the riding in China. I sometimes wonder how they stay on their bikes with the slow speed they move!
    Cycling in Holland is a treat since they have these ” Knooppunten” which are number signs on the side of the road you follow to get from one city to another or ride a set course. So never to get lost and see all the pretty spots of every village or city! Very much recommended !!

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  4. Yes, I absolutely relate to this! You must come over next time you’re in Hamilton – we brought home a straight up Dutch Gazelle, and it’s such a joy to ride. Single speed, back-peddle brake, and it inadvertently drops you in that upright, yet laid back zone of riding. It’s such a cruiser – you’ll love it! Great article!

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  5. Visiting family in Utrecht, we bike everywhere. I’ll get my rickety opafiets out of storage and gather stories to tell back in the states. Witnessing bike traffic jams near the university or watching my grandson progress from his balance bike to a big boy bike at age 4 (without training wheels or helmet) is a truly Dutch experience.
    Do yourself a favor; bike at home more often or when visiting the NL rent, borrow or buy a fiets and join in!

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  6. I had friend that was riding slowly hit by a car which ran the stop sign hit and knocked him into the windshield and if was not for the helmet he would have brain damage. His head went through the windshield. With helmet on he received no injuries the helmet company gave him a new helmet.

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    1. Hi Geo, thanks for your comment. You’re correct that reckless behaviour of road users can never truly be eliminated. No matter how safely streets are designed, there will always be a risk of injury. I support the freedom of all people who ride bikes to make a personal judgement call on whether they find cycling safe enough in their context to wear a helmet. This does require weighing personal safety against other factors like esthetics and convenience. Research has shown that drivers wearing helmets reduce their risk of head injury as well, but the driving culture has clearly made a conscious decision that the benefits of wearing a helmet do not outweigh the disadvantages.

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