Cycling in a city like Amsterdam can be quite daunting at first. In her new book Learn to cycle in Amsterdam Xing Chen gives lots of practical information, tips and advice to help cyclists navigate safely through the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam traffic. She shares the story behind her book with us.
Xing Chen shares the story behind her book Learn to cycle in Amsterdam
What is your book about? And who did you write it for?
Learn to Cycle in Amsterdam is a practical guide on learning how to ride a bicycle safely in the dynamic, bustling, densely packed city of Amsterdam. It comprises 160 full-colour pages, which are packed full of information and tips, and richly illustrated with pictures of cyclists, bicycles, and various traffic situations, covering topics such as road etiquette, traffic regulations, cycling technique, and the weather. This guide is aimed primarily at readers who already know how to ride a bike, but who are not used to local traffic regulations and cycling conventions. This includes newcomers to the Netherlands, such as expats and students living in Amsterdam or other Dutch cities.
It also constitutes a valuable resource for city planners and cycling enthusiasts who are based outside the Netherlands, as it offers an impression of the local cycling culture, from the perspective of a cyclist. If, for example, you are working on the development of cycling infrastructure in your own country or city, Learn to Cycle in Amsterdam provides a comprehensive introduction to the codes and conventions that have been adopted by cyclists in the Netherlands, and could serve as a reference for the ways in which the cycling culture in your city might evolve over time.
What was your first impression of cycling in the Netherlands?
I moved to the Netherlands in 2014, after having lived in Singapore, the US, and the UK. I had cycled in each of these countries, while commuting to school or to work, as well as in cities in various parts of the world, such as China and Brazil, for leisure. In the Netherlands, bicycles are an integral part of life, for the vast majority of people. Cycling is not an activity that is confined solely to the park, or to the weekend. If you need to get somewhere, you do it on a bike. Hence, people take cycling seriously.
As with many other visitors and newcomers, I was deeply impressed by the amount of cycling infrastructure that has been carefully designed and built into the streets; by the fact that people of all ages stay active and keep cycling under a wide variety of weather conditions; and particularly by the parents who are able to balance several children on one bike.
What makes cycling in Amsterdam different from cycling anywhere else?
When I arrived in Amsterdam, the thing that struck me was the sheer number and density of cyclists, and the speed at which they moved. This means that instead of reacting to, say, a single motorist or a pedestrian every ten seconds, you are reacting to the movements of, perhaps, three to five different vehicles or traffic elements from one second to the next - whether that is other road users, traffic lights, or bends and bumps in the cycle path.
I realized that there was little room for error - a collision could send you flying or under a car. Since space on the street is so limited, people abide by a complex code of etiquette, to ensure that they do not inconvenience or endanger others. Weaving across the cycle path, blocking someone's way, or fooling around on your bike are not appreciated - neither in the parks nor on the streets.
What inspired you to write your book?
Over the past few years, as I grew adept at navigating the traffic, I started to be consciously aware of the new insights that I had acquired - three years ago, I wouldn't have known precisely what to do in a certain situation, but I now know how to react, and it comes more or less intuitively. I spend a lot of time on my bicycle, so I was noticing these things multiple times a day, and started to form lists in my head, of what I had learnt.
I realized that this information would be useful for others - specifically for newcomers to the Netherlands. Hence, I decided to compile it in the form of a book. I want my readers to be better equipped with practical and contextual information than I was when I started. I also know people who have lived in the Netherlands as expats for several years, but are leery of getting onto a bike and cycling through the city, because it seems chaotic and dangerous. I hope that in addition to the practical and detailed information that I include in my book, the personal experiences that I describe in the early chapters will help to lower that barrier.
You titled your book ‘Learn to cycle in Amsterdam’. But I wonder, can one learn to cycle from a book?
One certainly cannot learn to cycle from a book alone. But just as there are guidebooks for cooking, running, painting, and scuba diving, there are plenty of instructional guidebooks and tutorials to teach people how to ride a bike from scratch, or how to improve your cycling skills - on a racing bike or a mountain bike, for example. I actually address this point in my book, in which I make an analogy to the practical and theory handbooks that are published for those who are learning to drive a car: in theory, one could learn to drive an automobile without ever passing a driving exam or reading a handbook (and some people do in fact skip these steps).
In practice, however, people overwhelmingly choose to take formal lessons, instead of learning slowly and painfully, through trial and error. This is because there are many things (such as rules and techniques) that can be taught or mentally rehearsed through theory lessons, which then accelerate the learning process when one actually puts this knowledge into practice.
Furthermore, in addition to legally enforced road regulations, there are numerous unwritten rules that are specific to a particular place or culture, and these are rarely explained in explicit detail, or if they are, they are scattered across numerous sources, and may only be available in Dutch. For example, while researching my book, I came across a lot of valuable information on the website of the Fietsersbond (the Dutch Cycling Organisation), and the Rijksoverheid (the Dutch government), but it was nearly all in Dutch. I speak Dutch at an intermediate level, so I could understand quite a bit of it, but this information would be almost inaccessible to non-Dutch speakers. My book fills this gap, providing readers with a comprehensive, detailed reference in English.
When and where did you learn to cycle?
I grew up in Singapore and learnt to cycle in a very green, peaceful, residential area, with gently curving roads and hills, and broad streets that had very minimal vehicular traffic. It was a very safe, relaxed environment for kids to play in, and I used to go running and cycling around the neighbourhood with my friends all the time.
To be honest, I don't remember exactly how old I was when I first got a bike, but I must have been around 9 or 10. I started with training wheels, and eventually removed them - a pretty standard experience for most of my readers, I suspect. My parents helped me to keep my balance initially, and then the rest came naturally as I practiced on my own. Throughout my childhood in Singapore, I never needed to ride my bike alongside dense vehicular traffic, make sharp turns quickly, or indeed, even to keep close to one side of the road for sustained periods of time. If I saw a car, it would give me a wide berth, or I could just stop and wait for it to pass.
When I moved to the US, the situation was similar, as I commuted by bike through quiet residential areas around my university campus. I lived in Los Angeles, where cars dominate the streets, and there are relatively few pedestrians. Hence, bicycles are allowed on the sidewalks, and that, in combination with the good weather, makes cycling pretty relaxed as well. Some years thereafter, I moved to the UK, and occasionally commuted to work by bicycle. Again, I avoided busy streets and cycled through quiet residential neighbourhoods, so while I became more accustomed to cycling next to lanes of cars, I still found it discomfiting when they came too close. And when the weather was bad, I took public transport.
As you can see, I had a decent amount of cycling experience in terms of time spent on a bike, but mostly under relatively calm, stress-free conditions. When you take someone who is used to such conditions, and place them in the middle of a hectic street in Amsterdam, it feels dangerous- every minute that you spend on the bicycle is a minute of palpable risk. My goal is to equip readers with knowledge that allows them to react more quickly and appropriately, and thereby minimise that risk.
How did you learn the Dutch cycling rules and conventions?
The very first day of my arrival, in 2014, a local friend brought a classified advertisement on Marktplaats.nl to my attention, and I bought a second hand bicycle that same evening. I picked up the rules and conventions of cycling bit by bit, observing what others did in various situations. The fact that all of my friends cycle helped a lot, as I was able to relax more when cycling together, and follow their lead. Their confidence and ability to react coolly to situations that I initially thought were stressful gave me a more positive outlook, and shifted my perception of what I thought was ‘dangerous.’
I found that by building up accurate expectations of other road users’ behaviour, I could predict what they were about to do, and hence trust them more. My cycling skills and sense of balance developed simultaneously, giving me greatly improved control over my location and speed. For example, I initially found it unnerving when cars passed close by, or when cyclists approached from the opposite direction along a narrow cycle lane at high speed, but now these events do not absorb much of my attention or energy, because now I know what to expect, how to cycle along a specific trajectory without deviating from it, and how to slow down or speed up as needed.
I am now at the sweet spot in terms of my cycling skills - I have learnt enough to be able to pass useful knowledge on to others, but still remember how it felt when I was starting out. I have not yet reached the point where I am so comfortable on a bike that I have forgotten the details of the learning process and am unable to articulate the underlying steps because they have become so intuitive. If you ask a Dutch person to read through my book - someone who learnt to cycle at the age of 4 or 5, and has continued to do so throughout his or her life - they are likely to laugh at the level of detail I provide and the types of things that I cover, because these concepts seem childishly obvious to them.
Speaking from experience, however, I know that although such skills may seem 'innate' to some people, they do need to be learnt and practiced. I occasionally still need to concentrate hard while cycling - when going through snow and ice, or crossing a frozen bridge, for example. It is at these moments, when I am gripping the handlebars and every distraction in my environment seems overwhelming (from cars approaching, to people talking loudly or shouting, to clumps of ice or frozen pools of water across the path), that I remember how it was to feel challenged and daunted on a bike.
In your book you describe how unsure you were when you first cycled in Amsterdam. How long did it take you to become a confident cyclist?
I went through many different levels of competency (and confidence). As time goes on, I keep moving the goal posts and learning and trying new things. The first year, I used my bike primarily for short trips within the city, to get groceries or to the metro station. I picked up the basic concepts quite quickly, out of necessity. You could say that I was already fairly confident then, because I was able to use my bike to accomplish whatever I needed. However, as my workplace was 11 kilometres from home, and that seemed a rather long distance in the beginning, I rarely commute to work by bike.
It was during the second year, over the summer, when the metro line that I used to take to work was closed for maintenance, that I started to cycle to work each day, and that took a bit over half an hour each way. The time and distance that I spent daily on the bicycle developed my cycling skills further - strengthening my muscles, improving my balance, and sharpening my reflexes. After the metro reopened, I continued to cycle to work, because I was used to it and enjoyed it. Now, with my winter attire, consisting of a waterproof jacket and pants, a pair of good gloves, and sometimes hand warmers when the temperature drops below zero and booties when it is wet, I am able to cycle to work throughout the year - except when it really gets too icy.
In terms of all the concepts that I write about in the book, I would say that I became confident only recently - after around two years - because it simply took that much time for me to gain exposure to a wide range of situations on the road. If you experience something for the first time, it may take several tries before you work out what best to do. Naturally, the time required to reach this level differs for everyone. Importantly, I want to shorten this learning process for my readers (regardless of their existing skill set), by giving them a heads up on what to expect, and preparing them for various scenarios. If they encounter a situation that I describe in my book, and have better control over their actions as a result, then that is the most satisfying outcome I could wish for.
Now, my next goal is to go on long cycle trips through other parts of the country. Over the past summer, I went on several relatively long cycle rides (sometimes up to 80 or 100 km per day, on an ordinary 'city bike'), which was not too demanding technically, but required stamina. After having lived in Amsterdam for more than three years, I have recently bought myself a race bike to celebrate the publication of my book, and allow myself to go on longer-distance rides.
Do you have any tips for tourists that want to explore Amsterdam or the surrounding areas by bike?
Yes! Besides the well-known sites in the city centre, such as the parks and tourist attractions, there are plenty of quieter and less-frequently-visited places, which give you a glimpse of life outside the bustling centre. For example, one could take a trip along the Amstel river (the gently winding river which drains into the larger river IJ, and gives Amsterdam its name), and visit the lovely old town of Oude Kerk. If you follow the IJ river, heading towards the east, you will reach the town of Muiden, with a castle, and could take a boat to visit the old fort island, Pampus. If you take the IJ ferry across to the north of Amsterdam, there are numerous scenic cycle routes through the countryside, with charming villages such as Holysloot, or Broek in Waterland, which are suitable for an excursion outside the city. [Editor's note: For cycle routes, go to our Amsterdam Day trips pages.]
How can people get hold of your book?
My book is available online, through several retailers, including hollandbooks.nl, bol.com, and amazon.com, as well as at all major Dutch bookstores, including the American Book Center and various museum bookstores.
Learn to cycle in Amsterdam
You already know how to ride a bicycle. Now, you want to become one of the locals - a confident, competent, courteous cyclist, in control and ready to roll. Learn to Cycle in Amsterdam will ease you through the process of learning to cycle amidst the hustle and bustle of this small but dynamic city, covering topics such as road etiquette, traffic regulations, cycling technique, and the weather. Whether you are a newcomer or have lived here for decades, if you aspire to cycle safely and smoothly in ‘the city of bicycles’, then this guide is for you. Enjoy the ride!
Xing Chen is a neuroscientist who has lived in the US, the UK, and Singapore. In 2014, she moved to the Netherlands to work on the development of brain implants for sight restoration. On the very first day of her arrival in Amsterdam, she bought a secondhand bicycle, and gradually mastered the art of cycling through the crowded city streets. Xing now covers a distance of over 20 km per day, by bike.
Learn to cycle in Amsterdam
ISBN 978 94 6319 076 3
Price: € 9.99