Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cycling in Amsterdam: Part 2 - My new SUV

That's right … my new Sport-Ute, a single-speed 50-pound contraption without a sliver of titanium, without a strip of carbon fiber, and without even a hint of aerodynamic design. What it doesn't have in weight-saving or go-fast properties, it makes up for in raw, unadulterated practicality. Practicality so practical and so Dutch that most Dutch would think it nuts to devote this much text, much less the rest of this posting, to describing it. "It's just a bike" they would say … "full stop."

The first step in buying a Dutch bike is to make it through the advice-receiving phase. This phase starts the moment you mention to a local that you have recently moved to the Netherlands. "Are you planning to buy a bike? Don't buy a new bike as it will surely be stolen. Buy an old second-hand bike – spend no more than 20 Euros and buy 237 locks for it."

Next, you visit the local bike shops, which appear on every other street corner. You first learn though that 20 Euro second-hand bikes only exist in memories of 20-years ago OR in the alleyways beyond the train station under the cloaks of darkness and guilt as you buy someone else’s recently liberated ride. It's during the bike shopping phase that you really start to notice what other people are riding. Hand-brakes or coaster brakes? Single-speed or gears? Basket in the front? Panniers in the back? Straps, locks, saddle types, etc. After I spent a week of searching the shops and analyzing the pros and cons of my endless options, I set off to buy a model designed for commuting, hauling loads, and not looking as new or fancy as it will likely turn out to be.

"Is this going to be your only vehicle?" the shop owner asks. Absolutely, I respond. "Are you planning to use it to go shopping for food and other items?" Indeed. "Ok, you'll want heavy-duty racks, heavy-duty spokes, a reinforced top-tube, etc." As you can imagine, I've signaled to him at this point that I'll take any and every heavy-duty item that he can dream up and throw my way. "You'll also want sturdy, fat tires with extra-sturdy spokes, and of course lights in the front and back. Now, gears or single-speed?" Thinking that I have enough gears on my other bikes to power an 18-wheeler and also that Amsterdam is crazy-flat, I opt for single-speed with coaster brakes. He finds a model that meets my criteria and hands it over, saying "You really should ride it first though. Never buy a bike before you ride it."

I hop on for my test drive and set off down a busy street only a foot from a set of tram tracks. Moments into my ride, I realize that 1) this is a very large and very heavy bike and 2) the saddle height is a good 4 inches too high. Sitting on the top tube to ride back to the shop, I ride against traffic and somehow avoid being hit by the endless stream of bikes rushing my way. I ask the owner to lower the saddle. Instead of dropping it a little or actually doing some sort of measurement or even looking at me on the bike, he simply lowers it all the way until the saddle bottoms out on the frame. Take-two of my test drive and I manage to circle the block, but with my seat height much too low and my knees hitting my elbows on each pedal stroke. I ask one more time for an adjustment and he responds by … you guessed it … raising the saddle height right back to its original setting.

After determining that this bike would do the trick, we discuss theft prevention. He suggests the two-lock approach. Lock 1 is a traditional New York City bike messenger-style chain lock. It has huge links that supposedly cannot be cut with standard bolt cutters, but only with jaws-of-life type devices that are solely in the tool kits of emergency crews and professional Russian mafia-affiliated bike thieves. The chain links are covered in a sheath of blue nylon, which protects your ears from the clang of metal each time you haphazardly toss the chain around a lamp post. The chain is connected by a funky German-made locking mechanism that works flawlessly at times and requires a few minutes of key-jiggling and concrete-banging whenever it's raining or I'm running late for something. You use the chain lock by passing it through the front wheel and frame and then wrapping it around any stationary object that you can find. Lampposts work particularly well, as do rails on canal bridges, and groups of Japanese tourists huddled around guidebooks and maps in front of museums. Lock 2 is bolted onto the bike behind the saddle. It includes a hoop device that wraps around the wheel and through the spokes to make the bike impossible to ride or roll on two wheels. With this lock by itself though, the only thing that prevents a thief from carting the bike away by lifting the rear and rolling the front is the bike's heavy weight and boxy nature. Most good bike thieves seem to have strong arms and a tolerance for boxiness though. When you put a key in this lock to unlock it and ride, your key stays in the lock. That is, when you're riding your bike, your key stays put in the opened lock, dangling from the locking mechanism under your saddle. This is mildly annoying as the bike lock key is typically accompanied by the rest of your keys. Anyway, if you use both locks together, there's a good chance that your bike will be around when you need it next.

After my lesson in locks, the owner states "And you'll want insurance." Insurance? "Yes, you can insure your bike for something like 60 euros for 3 years. When, ok … IF, it's stolen, you get a full reimbursement of the purchase price." Being convinced by many locals that my bike will be stolen before I even leave the bike shop, I opt for the insurance.

A few more feature descriptions for those of you hanging onto your seats wishing to know every detail of Dutch city bikes …

The chain is completely covered by a plastic housing – which makes it much easier to ride the bike in a business suit and also virtually impossible for me to perform chain maintenance. Nice.

Then there are the lights. The front and rear lights are required by law for night-riding. In the winter here, night-riding begins at 4:30 in the afternoon and they actually have police check-points to inspect lighting. The lights are self-powered (with me being "self" in this case) by a device that you can flip down onto the front wheel. It makes a pleasant little hum and creates a little extra resistance, which you notice especially on rainy nights when you have a bag of groceries in the front basket and your rain clothing is no where nearby.

Speaking of the basket and back to the bike shop, I ask where to buy the large plastic crates I've seen on many of the other bikes buzzing by. "Oh, you mean a milk crate." Sure. He points me to a local corner market. Four euros later and I have a plastic crate, which we zip-tie to the front rack.

And so begins my city bike journey. I bought the bike and shortly thereafter I carted home a box of wine and then stocked the front basket with a kitchen full of groceries. And then there was the espresso machine ... which forms the perfect segue to a future posting on crazy things I've carted home on my bike!

Oh yeah, more bike photos here -- includes photos of Becky's new bike as well!

Cheers from a surprisingly warm November night in Amsterdam,


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