Scars tell stories about a person’s life. They may remind you of a particular childhood adventure, a sport you love, or a challenging day in the kitchen. Scars may bring back painful memories about a disease that required surgery or an injury sustained decades ago while serving as a soldier in an unfamiliar jungle. A certain scar may remind you of the person who was with you when you got the scar—or the person who gave you the scar. Sometimes we hide our scars, but we also know that they are reminders of who we are, where we have been, and what we have endured. When we love someone we know the stories behind the scars on their body.
Bikes in Amsterdam have character. Some have been brightly repainted in a Jackson Pollack style and others are jet black with no frills.
Many bikes have plastic milk crates or wood fruit boxes attached on the front or back to serve as a basket. Bikes here have rusty chains, squeaky breaks, and worn leather seats with whiny springs below that absorb the impact of a heavy steel bike going over a small curb—but nothing more. Bikes here are utilitarian objects; they have jobs to do.
When I went to meet with Roos Stallinga and Henry Cutler at WorkCycles, a bike shop in western Amsterdam, one of the first things they told me was that they needed to get me on the right bike so I could properly enjoy Amsterdam. Henry, a former Phillips product design specialist turned bike designer/entrepreneur, took one look at my Kona and said, “Your bike is too nice.” My Kona isn’t a racing bike by any means, but it is built for speed. It’s designed so that you lean your upper body forward to reduce wind resistance; it has clip-in pedals which require special bike shoes; and it doesn’t have a huge basket were I can effortlessly access my purse, extra jacket, and Belgium waffle cookies. Henry founded WorkCycles because he wanted to design the most comfortable, practical, beautiful, and affordable bikes possible that would help individuals, families, and businesses easily incorporate cycling into their everyday lives.
Henry grew up in the States and you can tell he’s spent a lot of time thinking about and contrasting American bike culture and Dutch bike culture during the ten years he’s lived in Amsterdam. He told me that, “Americans ride bikes that are like race cars.” In other words, the bikes we ride in the States are designed for sport—not utility. WorkCycles makes the mini-vans and SUVs of bikes.
These are truly what the soccer moms of Amsterdam haul kids, toys, and juice boxes around in.
Most of the kids nestled into these cargo bikes look pretty content. Their parents may work a little harder pushing the extra weight, but at least they are getting their 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Cargo bikes with kids in them were also very common in Copenhagen; Copenhageners joke that if you want to know how many kids a dad has, you just have to look at his calves.
Henry generously offered me a simple, one-person WorkCycles bike to borrow for the week and I gladly took him up on the offer.
The first thing I noticed was how upright my whole upper body was and how high the handle bars were. I felt like I was sitting on a chair—a pretty comfortable chair too. Sitting in such an upright position made me feel like I had more control and a wider field of vision. Utility bikes—as opposed to recreation bikes—are built to endure. They have fat, thick tires that rarely get flats or even need air; the front wheels are welded on so they can’t be stolen; and the gearing has a protective cover so you can park it outside on the street all winter and the chain won’t get too rusty.
Roos Stallinga works for Henry part time and is also an author and artist. She recently published, Ride with Me NYC. What I really like about Roos is that she isn’t interested in policy debates or critiquing government. She isn’t a bike snob or a true activist. She is a woman who loves to bike. She sees and captures beauty in the everyday urban environment. She believes that cycling creates visceral and real experiences that make you appreciate and enjoy the city you’re in to a greater degree. Roos grew up biking in Amsterdam and then lived in New York City for several years where she rode all over the city (back before they had any good bike lanes). Roos and I talked a lot about the feelings we have when we bike through a city. We talked a little bit about fear. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m incredibly cautious when I bike in Seattle, but I no longer feel afraid of city biking the way I did before I had actually tried it. Like most things in life, anticipating how difficult or scary something is going to be is often the hardest part of the experience.
Sometimes bike commuting is hard, but overcoming challenges—big or small—gives most people a sense of accomplishment, confidence, the motivation to conquer other challenges. Roos and I laughed about those times when you initially don’t feel like biking home after a party or a dinner out with friends. You climb on to your bike a little unwillingly at first and then ten minutes later you realize how peaceful the night is, how it really isn’t that cold, and how good a little movement feels after a full night of food and drinks. Roos said that some of her best memories from New York were of riding her bike across the Brooklyn Bridge late at night with friends after a party, slowly pedaling their way home together while enjoying the lights of Manhattan. When we start incorporating these little physical challenges into our day-to-day lives, we realize that our bodies have far more strength than we sometimes give them credit. We also realize that these challenges don’t feel like “working out,” they just feel like normal life.
Roos and I share a common disinterest in bike maintenance. I felt that it was prudent for me to take a few bike maintenance classes before this trip, but—I’ll be honest—I don’t find the mechanics of a bike all that captivating. I just want to ride the bike. There seems to be this attitude in the US that if you ride a bike you should know how to maintain your bike. Let me disabuse everyone of this myth. You do not need to know what a sprocket, a derailer, or a spoke nipple is to ride a bike. Most Americans know nothing about how cars work and that doesn’t stop us from driving them. Part of the reason Americans have a hard time thinking about using bikes as transportation is because—as Henry said—most of us have been riding race cars when we should be riding Honda Civics. If you don’t already have a bike and you want to start riding around the city, the most important thing is to find a comfortable bike. Don’t worry about whether the bike is built for speed; your legs mostly determine how fast you go, not your bike. Try to get something that requires almost no maintenance and put some sort of crate or basket on your bike. Riding a bike with a backpack is OK if you have a light load, but having a basket opens your cycling world up to exciting new possibilities—like going to the grocery store, bringing a dish to a potluck dinner, or having a small dog accompany you. If you already have a road or a racing bike, you might want to think about whether you’d do more city riding if you had a bike that was built to handle city life. A lot of bike stores in the US are currently more focused on recreation than utility. If you’re interested in riding a true utility bike, the Dutch Bike Shop is one of the six dealers in the US of WorkCycles bikes. Dutch bikes are a little pricey in the US because they haven’t become mainstream yet, but these bikes last for a very long time and could provide years of utility, fun, and exercise. Just remember, Americans spend more on gym memberships than any other country in the world—$19 billion USD annually.1 Instead of paying to go to the gym, why not just start biking?
Finally, Roos and I discussed how in Amsterdam it’s a little bit cool to have a really beat-up bike. She told me that, “just like people, bikes get scars.” We accept that our own bodies will collect scars over the years. We even abuse our own bodies. Accept that your bike will get scars. Leave your bike out in the rain. Be careless with your bike sometimes. Ride around on tires that might need a little more air in them. If you’re really getting the most out of your bike it will get beat-up, rusty, and sometimes it will make funny noises. Don’t worry. Just like a human body, there is a lot a bike can endure.