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What Delhi is to rickshaws and suburban Maryland is to sport utility vehicles, the Netherlands is to bicycles. If you’ve been to Amsterdam or almost any city in Holland, you know that there are almost as many bikes littering the country’s railings and lampposts as there are glassy-eyed backpackers in Amsterdam’s ubiquitous “coffee” shops that don’t actually sell coffee. Of course, the Netherlands has been known for lots of things in its history: For a time in the 17th century, Dutch businessmen decided that tulip bulbs were better investments than boring old commodities like chests of gold. Then at some point, the Dutch decided to legalize marijuana, immediately after which somebody who clearly spent one too many long afternoons in a “coffee” shop decided that what the world really needed were nice, comfy shoes made out of wood. One modern adaptation the Dutch have really gotten right, however, is the bicycle. In fact, as the visitor quickly becomes aware, in order to understand the Dutch people, you must first understand their bikes. First off, as a tourist, you should know that Dutch bikes can hurt you. On our first day visiting, my wife and I were strolling about Amsterdam admiring the canals and progressive lifestyle when WHUMP! — a fashionably dressed Dutch woman on a bike plowed right into my wife’s behind. Of course, as any marriage counselor will tell you, the only thing to do in such a situation is to stamp your feet, point at your spouse, and laugh. Unfortunately for me, my pointing hand was nearly torn from my body when the Dutch woman’s ultra-chic husband came skidding by me on his bike. So-called objective observers might suggest that we were at fault for this intercultural collision, since technically, my wife and I were hunched over our camera in a blind spot on a bicycle path. To this I would reply: at least I don’t wear wood on my feet. The point I’m trying to make is that Dutch bike paths are sacred things. They interconnect virtually the entire country, and are equipped with their own traffic lights and dapper bicycle cops who will politely stop you for speeding or riding without a light. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to stroll on a bike path. The Dutch may be better drivers than Washington, D.C.’s bike messengers, but they still like to do all the same things on their paths that Americans do in the car: scold their children, eat lunch, check their hair in the mirror, and shout obscenities at pedestrians. The second thing you need to know about Dutch bikes is that they’re different from American bikes. Americans like bikes made of top-secret steel alloys used for constructing things like Stealth bombers. Then, so everyone will see that we’re rich enough to afford a bike that weighs just 3 ounces and is invisible to radar, our bikes are painted in fluorescent shades of yellow, purple, or green, or some combination of all three. Not so in the Netherlands, where virtually everyone drives a retro-looking, three-speed coaster straight out of a Degas painting. Like the Model T, Dutch bikes seem to come in any color you want so long as it’s black. Naturally, having identical-looking cycles causes trouble for the Dutch, who often park their bikes in vast, four-story bike garages like the one outside of Amsterdam’s Central Train Station. In fact, if you visit that garage you’ll see dozens of Dutch men and women slowly circling from bike to bike, trying their key in each lock, attempting to find which of the thousands is theirs. Some of them have been at it for weeks. This isn’t to say that the Netherlands’ sturdy bikes don’t have practical advantages. For example, the Dutch have solved that bane of cold-weather bike commuters: runny noses. Many of us Americans ride our fighter-jet bikes hunched over the handlebars with our noses lower to the ground than our chests. In the wintertime, of course, this can lead to a constant stream of nasal mucus trickling over the upper lip. But Dutch bikes are designed so the rider is sitting straight up, ostrichlike, such that anything runny stays safely lodged in the rider’s sinuses. The upright bikes also solve another body-fluid problem: sweat. American bike commuters, particularly in a swamp like Washington, must shower and change their clothes at the office so as not to be ostracized. But the Dutch rarely perspire. In part, this is because their classy-looking upright bikes are designed for a more leisurely pace. To Americans, of course, designing something to go slow rather than fast is as revolting as the thought of lighting a cigarette in a restaurant. But in a city crowded with bikes like Amsterdam, going slow is a necessity, not least because the bike lanes are clogged with clueless tourists crouched over their cameras. OFF TO WORK To learn more about the Dutch and their alarming habit of bicycling to places where they could very easily drive their cars, I spoke with Hendrikje Crebolder, an attorney in the Amsterdam office of Baker & McKenzie. Each morning before work, Crebolder puts on her high heels and her power lawyer suit, grabs her big black briefcase and her two children, and loads everything on her bicycle. Her 2-year-old sits on a special seat perched just between her and the handlebars. In America, this sort of set-up would trigger the deaths of dozens of trial lawyers in stampedes to file product liability suits. Not so in the Netherlands. With her 4-year-old settled on another seat in back, she pedals the kids off to preschool, on the way to her office in central Amsterdam. If her family grows, Crebolder can upgrade to a popular three-wheeled bike with a special box attached to the front of the bike that holds up to four smallish kids. In Washington, where a black, chauffeured Lincoln marks you as a Very Important Person, this behavior is out of the ordinary. But it’s not unheard of. Just ask Walter Dellinger, 64, the former acting solicitor general who used to ride his bicycle from the Justice Department to the Clinton White House in the 1990s. Today, Dellinger still pedals from his pad in Dupont Circle to his law office at O’Melveny & Myers on I Street Northwest. “It’s a shame so many government office holders think it’s odd to ride a bike,” Dellinger says. Unlike the ever-practical Dutch, however, Dellinger does not have a chain guard on his bike. As a result, “I have a couple of nice suits that have a pant leg that’s all chewed up,” he says. But so far, only one of his clients has taken issue with the torn cuffs. Who? “Martha Stewart,” Dellinger says. In Amsterdam, however, Dellinger would be mainstream. “Most of the judges in the Netherlands ride bicycles to court,” Crebolder says. Of the 280 people in her office, she estimates that half are bike commuters (in Amsterdam, some reports have shown that 30 percent of workers commute this way). The firm even has a special parking garage for bicycles under the building. Given that the Dutch will casually strap the whole family to a single bike, it comes as no surprise that they shun helmets. What this means is that in addition to being free of sweat and chain grease, Dutch bikers arrive with their hair looking like they just stepped out of a Clairol advertisement. Obviously this is no longer the case in America, though at one time only accident-prone kids who got beat up for wearing pocket-protectors or orthodontic headgear donned helmets. This isn’t to say all things bike-related are perfect in the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s double-car trolleys do occasionally crack into unhelmeted cyclists with gruesomely predictable results. The Dutch also seem to be fond of filching each other’s bikes: roughly 50,000 are stolen annually in Amsterdam. Crebolder says she’s lost two this year alone. For some reason, many of the stolen bikes wind up getting tossed in the city’s canals. If a bike doesn’t wind up in the drink, there’s a good chance it can be bought back from a junkie in Amsterdam’s Red Light District for as little as 15 euros. In spite of the drawbacks, by my last day in the Netherlands I had a creeping feeling that the Dutch were on to something of cultural import. With few cars, Amsterdam retains an almost serene quiet — save for the whoosh of rosy-cheeked cyclists zipping along the cobblestones and the cold clanging of church bells. There seem to be fewer overweight people, those who drink and drive tend only to harm themselves, and, of course, by biking so much the Dutch are leaving a little more oil in the ground for the rest of us. Admittedly, the sheer virtue of it all is almost nauseating. Surely there’s some sort of hidden flaw to designing your country around bicycles. How, I asked Crebolder, do the elderly get around? “My grandmother, who is 87, still rides her bike through the countryside with her girlfriends,” she says. “And with no helmet, of course.”
Jed Payne in Amsterdam contributed to this article. Jason McLure wears his helmet when he rides to work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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