The sky is contoured, like a topographical map suspended in an ancient cosmic dome. Puffy white mountains move at the rate of eons, roiling slowly, imperceptibly, across a great ocean of sapphire crystal blue, adamantly driven by condensation-drenched forests of darkening matte gray.
As you step onto the streets of Amsterdam, a bit of sun peeks out from a corner, a brilliant shot in the eye. Wisps of skunky-sweet smoke trail after you as the glass door, which is labeled in green decal with the word “Koffiehuis”, swings shut behind you and flares with a streaking diagonal reflection.
From the sidewalk you step around a jam-packed bike rack filled with Dutch city cruisers, toward the separated fietspad(bikepath). You stop to let a spandexed roadie pass; he’s bringing his Merlin inside, up his steep Dutch staircase after a comfy training ride. With one foot off the curb in front of the fietswinkel(bikeshop), distracted by the plastic rainbow flowers decorating a nearby bike, you hear an urgent “Ding!” from the other side and are nearly run down by a huge bakfiets(cargobike) – a mom dressed for a business meeting leaves a trail of shampoo aroma, carting four cozy kids under the rainshield in front of her. Their momentum blows your hair back and spins you on your heel, and you’re confronted with an impatient mail-delivery bike waiting for you to move out of its way. A woven handlebar basket full of purple tulips, a one-handed cellphone conversation in Dutch, and a pair of rattly fenders with loose mudguards, all zoom by in quick succession. You cross the train tracks in the middle of the street in a bike-induced fugue, only peripherally aware of the tram’s gently ringing warning bell. You’re mesmerized by the sheer scope of the fietstalling(bikeparking) on the other side – a three-story stone fortress, a parking garage for bikes, surrounded by a village of bike racks; columns and crowded rows of glittering handlebars and rain-weathered saddles. They’re mostly single speeds and Sturmey Archer three speeds, with wheel locks and reverse hand brakes or child carriers and Dunlop valves; rusty, repainted, and in every state of disrepair, from dredged-out-of-the-canal to seatless-with-twisted-stem to tacoed-wheel and stripped-for-parts. Riders mount up and start pushing down on pedals, or coast in throwing their leg over, and come to a stop in front of an empty spot.
You’re on your bike now, pondering a strange sensation: you’re going up a hill, which is quite abnormal in Holland…. Ah, that’s it, you’re crossing a bridge, over a canal, a man-made hill. Every available centimeter on either side is bristling with bikes locked to the railing, like it’s a bicycle magnet. One poor bike has been lifted over, and hangs upside down above the water, patiently suspended by its U-lock. Below you, a pedal-paddle boat trundles through the calm brown surface of the water. Down the little slope now, and there’s some bike cops smiling at you; even they don’t wear helmets…. A man rides by coming from the station-centraal, with one hand towing his suitcase on tiny plastic wheels over the uneven cobbles… low air pressure in his rear tire.
You’re waiting for the light to change amidst a dozen other cyclists bottlenecked at the intersection, when two babies in a row crawl through your view, legs spinning at high cadence: miniature folding bikes with tiny wheels, looking like they came from the circus, not the train. An old white-haired lady in a fur coat pedals past, jaw set and eyes sharp, followed by a slightly frustrated child with a high heart rate, who’s standing up on the pedals of a huge Dutch person’s bike, unable to reach the saddle but huffing to keep up with grandma.
You’re there now at the little roundabout, made just for bike traffic. It’s the meeting spot for a lover’s tryst, and you’re right on time, even though you don’t have a clock. Your date’s outfit matches their bike. A stylish European kiss with ringing bike bells all around, and you ride blissfully away, holding hands across the bike path.
You turn off onto a bike path through the park, where you notice a bike locked in the branches of a tree and wonder, “Now how did they get it all the way up there?” A group of tourists on identical cherry-red rental bikes crowds around a girl with a map in her hand.
Another bike rattles by, a student on a “junkie” – not that it’s a piece of junk, but it’s stolen and sold off again in brisk economy for €15 by the heroin junkies down at the University. You stop and stare in front of the museum window, where instead of a traffic barrier to protect the display, ingeniously they’ve installed another sturdy bike rack.
The traffic lights at the intersection all flash green bicycle symbols, and you liesurely pedal onward. As you pull over to smell the first daffodil of spring, a happy-looking dreadlocked dude labors by, pedaling a bakfiets full of drum kit and speakers. You pass a guy riding no-handed the wrong way – he keeps his chainguard loose so people can hear him coming. He’s texting his boss with one hand, a cigarette in the other. The bus driver at the corner reflexively slows down, and waits for him to cross the intersection illegally. You’re admiring the colorful line of fenders outside another fietswinkel as a rosy-cheeked youngster rides by, carrying a classmate side-saddle on his rear rack, Dutch style and running a tire-rubbing generator for full front and rear safety lighting.
You breathe a deep sigh of contentment, and feel the muscles in your legs working, the wind in your hair… the quiet hum of the chain pushing you onward….
You cross over on the bike path, changing lanes where your view widens out considerably, and another bike path joins it, and several different paths all leave the car traffic behind. And as you smile and wave to a fella parking his bike by a pole, he smiles back, and greets you with “Fietsen! It’s the only way!”