Ask anyone to think of anything Dutch and I guarantee the top four will be, in no particular order, tulips, windmills, clogs and bikes.
Bikes will always be listed – they are such an ingrained part of Dutch life and wherever you go hundreds will be parked up in cycle racks. Every Dutch person owns at least one and 98% of them will be the same basic old-fashioned design known as an omafiets (Grandma bike), with baskets of some description up front, panniers behind.
Buttock-supporting saddle of a seat, brakes (if you’re lucky), built-in bike lock and three gears. These bikes are stately, solid, reliable and oh so comfortable and everybody rides them from grande dames to trendy teens. It’s just what you do.
Before we moved to the Netherlands we decided to equip ourselves with two-wheeled transportation; we’d heard rumours that the cost of buying a bicycle in the Netherlands would buy a small car in the US. With enthusiasm we headed off to purchase three flashy, 27-gear mountain bikes, with which to explore our soon-to-be new home. The three together, we subsequently discovered, costing less than one basic omafiets.
The purchase itself was a daunting task as neither the Captain nor I had been on a bike since our teens. Harry had been taught to ride from being young, using the tried-and-tested-over-several-generations family technique of attaching a cut down walking stick to the bike frame. In the days before safety helmets and knee pads this allowed some control over the wobbling learner by the biking instructor. No wussy stabilising wheels for us.
Harry peddled off round the store having grasped the concept of gear changing immediately, the Captain in hot pursuit. I stood looking at the gears wondering how hard it could be. Back in the day my old bike had three gears – uphill, flat and downhill. The combination in front of me was like looking like something off the bridge of the Enterprise. You had to engage first (I think) in one main gear then select one of eight gears within that combination. Bloody hell. I managed to manoeuvre forward although it was like pedalling up Everest towing Noah’s Ark.
‘Alright darling?’ breezed the Captain as he and Harry swooshed past on their third circuit of the store. Obviously not, but I’d figured it was a rhetorical question.
The boys were quite gleeful by this stage, making excited plans to undertake regular bike rides to acclimate to this new mode of personal transportation.
‘So, your bike’s okay too?’ asked my spouse brightly, having been transported back to his youth in a matter of minutes.
‘Yes thanks, it’s absolutely fine.’ That was the clue right there.
‘Sure you don’t want to check any more out, make sure that’s really The One?’ Was he insane?
‘No, this one’s absolutely fine. Really. Perfect. Honestly.’ I smiled enthusiastically to emphasize the point. Not that he was picking up any signals as he and Harry were already on the accessories aisle, looking for things they couldn’t live without.
Back at our house, with the Captain now in the Netherlands (this was all pre-relocation), Harry and siblings were spending time each day riding round our subdivision. Missy had taken over ownership of my bike and the three of them would set off – Bruce yelling older-brother advice, Missy looking gorgeous and Harry giggling and weaving all over the place.
There was no relationship at any point between my derrière and the seat of my bike.
Things didn’t improve when we arrived in the Netherlands, mid-summer. It was only in the soft days of the Fall that the bike was pulled from the garage and used. Lord I hated that bike. There was no position where it didn’t cause excruciating pain to regions you hope never to experience pain, unless it involves giving birth. It didn’t matter how short the distance, I’d dismount feeling more wretched than Roy Rodgers after a week or so in the saddle.
The situation with the gears was increasing my stress levels, spending more time figuring and factoring their delicate nuances than pedalling through, and relaxing in, glorious countryside.
The Netherlands is criss-crossed with miles and miles of bike paths through fields adorned with the ubiquitous black and white cows, alongside canals flanked by windmills. I saw none of it. Between the pain in my butt and balancing the gear changes with the right level of pedalling, the bike rides were miserable.
I tried everything – gel undergarments (yes, really) which my hairdresser recommended – the idea being the derrière would have a comforting layer of gel between it and the saddle. It was a unique sensation but a complete failure in decreasing pain levels.
We invested in various saddles – bigger to support what I assumed was my overly huge rear, but this was not helpful, it just spread the pain over a larger area, smaller to reduce the area impacted by pain, but that resulted in increased trauma in more intimate spots. In the end we found what I hoped would be my salvation. The blurb insisted this saddle was perfect for women, giving ultimate support to the bone structure of the pelvic area.
This was my Holy Grail. Life on a bike would be perfect.
It just looked a bit weird, rather like a three leaved clover. Two rounded mounds on the rear of the saddle, one on the front and the whole thing smaller than a side plate. Balancing on it was just one more thing to factor into a bike ride.
I have to say it did cause great amusement wherever I went, looking as if had been purchased from an adult store not Halfords. I have to admit to any normal person it did look odd and one could assume its main use was for insertion rather than support. (This is The Netherlands after all). Older house vrouws in particular would give me very severe looks, and I’d see groups of teens pointing at it, doubled up with hysterical and obscene laughter.
The two final straws in my love/ hate relationship with my bike occurred within weeks of each other. The first was a bike ride with two of my girlfriends through the dunes to Katwijk, just up the coast to the north.
‘It’s a beautiful ride,’ enthused my dear friend Susan, ‘it only takes twenty minutes, and we can have lunch on the beach when we get there.’
I’d forgotten the dunes are huge – several stories high in places, with the bike path snaking up and down and in between them.
It took over an hour to get there and I had more gears changes than Jeremy Clarkson on a Top Gear special. We found a delightful eatery where I could ease myself into a cushioned chair and the three of us imbibed several fortified coffees and a glass or two of wine – in my case for medicinal purposes to anaesthetise my rear in preparation for the ride home.
We emerged from lunch to find a group of holiday makers round my bike chatting animatedly and pointing at my bike saddle. The conversation stopped dead as I retrieved the bike – none would make eye contact.
The second incident involved a bike trip across the dunes south to Scheveningen, the seaside suburb of The Hague. Eight couples planned an evening bike ride for an Indian curry and a few beers, riding home on a bright evening speckled with twinkling stars. That was the plan.
I won’t go into details but the ride home was a nightmare. It was pitch black, no lights and no stars. The only decent bike light was the dynamo on Louise’s bike so she had to lead us home through the dunes. We’d only been riding for five minutes when my wheel veered off the bike path and was stopped dead as it ran into sand. The bike stopped, I didn’t. I’d been busy watching our lead light and it was impossible, in the dark, to differentiate between path and sandy sidewalk.
Two kilometres from home, whilst executing a tricky gear change I rode head on into a large prickly, very dense bush. By this time the Captain and I were alone, the others so far ahead they may as well have not been with us.
That was the last time I rode that bike.
I am now the proud owner of a second-hand omafiets with three gears, brakes, built-in lock, wicker basket up front and panniers behind. You’ll often see me whizzing along, dog trotting alongside, with a beaming smile and a painless rear.
I absolutely LOVE my bike.
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I feel your pain, Jane. We thought it was wonderful that our wonderful landlords had a bike I could use. I had learned to ride a bike at age 30 and that was over 20 years ago. I had no idea about pedal levels and gears. I thought the pedal levels were the gears. Finally worked it out. Needed to get a new seat too though not quiet like the one you described. My daughter loved her omafiets; there were times I looked on it enviously.
Gosh, it sounds as though you should have offered that saddle a cigarette 😉
You’d think that since everyone rides an Omafiets, the Dutch could come up with a cooler name for it!
(rolling with laughter here…) how I wish I could have seen that saddle!
Now every time I get on my bike I will remember your escapades and smile 🙂