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Sep 22, 2013

Cycling in Amsterdam

Amsterdam, City of bikes!

Owning a transportation-focused bike shop means that every so often someone asks "Have you been to Amsterdam? Copenhagen? Gronigen?" to which, until recently, I'd have to admit "No, not yet."  (Nadia has been here before)  Well, I can finally cross one of the worlds bike cities off my list and start making plans to see the next.

Amsterdam was amazing.  Yes, there are bikes and bike lanes everywhere.  It was quite chaotic when you first step out of the Central Station, especially for this Canadian lad.  One of the first sights you are greeted by is the massive bicycle parking garage adjacent to the train station which is quickly followed by people on bikes, on foot, in cars, and on trams, going in every direction all at the same time.  You very quickly realize that it's best to put your head on a swivel and look both ways before you do anything lest you be run over by a bicycle or motor scooter (more on scooters later).

The view from our AirBnB apartment.
We hopped in a taxi for the short trip over to our AirBnB flat where we were warmly greeted by Clive, the apartment owner.  After the steep trip up the "stairs" (I think many N.Americans would classify these stairs as a ladder) to the 3rd floor apartment we quickly unpacked and headed back out for a late afternoon ride.

So many painted cargobikes, artwork, and otherwise.
Straight away you cannot help but notice 1) the sheer numbers of bikes locked up to everything 2) most of the bikes look like junk 3) and so many bakfiets in various states of abuse and use. 

Right out our front door was a separated bike lane that went straight into the downtown and within minutes we were in bicycle heaven, surrounded by people zipping every which way. 

With no agenda, we just rolled, turning down this cobbled road or that cobbled road, following the canals that makes this place so famous, and just cruising along enjoying the feeling of being the "king of the road" - so to speak.

Cycling in the "Centrum" area was so fun!  Cobbled streets everywhere, beautiful little roads, narrow as can be, and old buildings seemingly leaning this way and that, all sitting atop little shops and cafes.  So many people walking around and canals filled with boat tours and locals in their own boats enjoying the sights.  It was impossibly easy to get turned around in this area, at least for us, and eventually we had no idea where we were, nor did we really care.  As Dorrie in Finding Nemo says, "just keeping swimming!".

After a few hours of that, and with the sun fading fast, we figured out where we were and headed back towards the flat, with a quick stop at the grocery store for some supplies.  A note to foreign travellers, grocery stores here won't take your credit card or debit card so come armed with cash.  Also, don't doddle in the checkout or you'll incur the wrath of the cashier!  Giddy up pardner!

3 of WorkCycles beautiful family bikes.
The next morning we were decided to cruise around to some of the bike shops in town.  With 300+ bike shops in Amsterdam you can't really go more than a few blocks before you pass one.  Interesting (at least to us) was that most of the shops felt more like an old shoe repair store or vacuum cleaner shop.  Dark, cramped, crammed with bikes, and most carrying almost exactly the same stuff it was a really one dimensional experience.  Keep in mind, we didn't bother stopping into many shops with racing bikes, we were looking around to see what bikes and equipment were being offered for daily riding, so we often passed by the stores showing carbon-whizz-bang in the window.

There was one store we enjoyed a lot - WorkCycles - the shop (Jordaan location) was bright, spacious, and had some amazing utility bikes (shown above).  We had a nice coffee and chat with Henry and I was able to take a spin on 3 of his bikes - the Fr8, Gr8, and new Kr8 modular bakfiets.  All of them were fantastic to ride, incredibly stable, and super comfy - and more importantly, have created a desire to perhaps offer them in the future.  Time will tell.

We left WorkCycles inspired and continued our random meander around to more shops, spotting these brutes at a Mac Bike location.  We ventured inside, on the hunt for seat covers for our Bromptons, and were greeted with happy hellos and Black Sabbath blasting on the radio.  Fun! 

Heavy haulers at Mac Bike.
Riding in Amsterdam is incredible, to be sure.  But it does have its issues and one of them we found tweaked us a lot was the motor scooters on the bike paths.  Full on 50cc Vespas etc with windscreens and the like, sometimes flying along too fast (IMO) and passing really closely.  We were surprised that "the city of bikes" lets this happen but from what Henry at WorkCycles said it sounds like some rule is being exploited by these "scooteratti" to the detriment of safety on the pathways.  Don't get us wrong though - we'd rather take our chances with these guys then a big pickup any day.

There is a menace on Amsterdam's bike infrastructure, motor scooters.
After a nice lunch we found ourselves quite close to Vondelpark and decided to check it out.  We were also trying to find some shelter from a fairly heavy rainstorm and eventually found a very large tree with great coverage near an intersection.  A seemingly never ending stream of bikes was coming and going and with the rain starting to come down hard the umbrellas started to appear prompting me to do the tourist thing and start snapping photos.  It wasn't hard to notice the compete lack of technical clothing and even more important, most everyone just took the weather in stride and just got on with it.  One fellow was even singing a reggae tune (well!) with a big smile too as he pedalled through the rain with his umbrella up. 

When the rain starts just pop the umbrella and keep on pedaling!
The next day we set off for a little exploring in North Amsterdam, specifically out towards Durgerdam, and the farmland in Waterland.  Getting there was super easy, with a quick ferry ride (free of charge) accessed from behind Central Station.  After getting a little bit lost we eventually found our way and ended up out in Durgerdam and Waterland.  The view of Amsterdam proper was nice from this side.
Durgerdam, North Amsterdam
We finally saw spandex while riding our here!  Seems that this area is very popular with the racer types.

Riding in Waterland.
Nadia digging the quiet roads and beautiful scenery.

Of note - don't pull over to stop as you'll more than likely end up taking a dip in the sloughs that ran through all the farm land.

No room for error, swerve and you're going for a swim!
After looping around in the country we slowly made our way back toward North Amsterdam proper along the Nieuwendammerdijk - which was really beautiful!  We stopped at this cafe for a beverage and then started to make our way back to Amsterdam proper.

However, along the way, we spotted some bikes down a little side road and found this cute little bike shop with a tree growing inside it!  It was so humid in there is was literally raining!  Needless to say, this treehugger loved it!

Yes, that's a 150 year old tree in this bike shop.

Where else would you find this? :)

More heavy haulers.
Living the carfree lifestyle in Amsterdam for almost a week was super fun.  We'd definitely like to go back again.  There were bike lanes fanning out in every direction making getting around easy and safe (except for those blasted scooters!).  The area we stayed in had some great restaurants and 2 grocery stores within walking distance.  It seemed like a normal working class neighbourhood with children playing and riding bikes everywhere. 

But one thing really struck me while we were there - it felt wholly unremarkable and completely normal.  Why?  The way we were living there was exactly the way we live here in Calgary.  The grocery stores there were about the same distance away as they are from our homes in Calgary and getting to the "Centrum" area took us about the same time as riding from Westbrook Mall to 17th Ave shopping area.  We already do most of our shopping and errand running by bike and we live close to all the places that matter to us.

The bicycle lifestyle can be yours in Calgary too.  You just have to decide to do it and make the choices required to live that way.  Park your car as often as you can.  Choose to live closer to the amenities that are important to you.  Get a sturdy bike capable of carrying your groceries and children.  Don't worry about the weather, plan for it. 

What are you waiting for? :)

Sep 17, 2013

Cycling in Paris

Paris, the city of lights, the city of lovers, and the city of crazy bike infrastructure!

We arrived in Paris via the Paris East train station. Emerging from the station you are immediately greeted with a huge Velib kiosk, as well as plenty of noisy scooter and car traffic.  Bike lanes are not that easy to spot but there are bikes everywhere mixed in with the chaos on the roads.  Travelling to the hotel by taxi we were both more than a little concerned what cycling in Paris might be like.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry.

Large Velib kiosk outside our hotel.
First thing the next morning a set about digging through the internet trying to find a map of the bike routes through the city and was defeated at every turn.  No matter how many ways I tried to find the info online it seemed that there was no maps to use.  Info found online mentioned there was a paper map available at the Hotel de Ville (aka, city hall) but we were never able to source one from there.  I did eventually find an app that routed you along their bike network, however, it required roaming to keep you on track so when we used it we usually loaded the route at the hotel (free wifi) and tried to follow it as best we could with the roaming off.

This led us into some very exciting places!  Like giant roundabouts, like the Bastille below...

Take a deep breath and don't look behind you!
Upon rolling up to this intersection Nadia looked at me with that wide-eyed "we have to go into that!" look, causing us to pause for a few moments to watch other cyclists so we could see how they handled it.  To say they handled it rather casually really doesn't describe it.

Perhaps the old lady on an equally old Gazelle, riding quite slowly, and munching on a baguette (for real!) who just rolled right past us and into the chaos without any hesitation helps illuminate how Parisien cyclists handle traffic.  That is to say, cyclists ride where they want and automobiles simply navigate around them with ease.  No honking horns.  No yelling out windows.  Just get on with it.

Painted sharrows on skinny roads is the norm.
With our newfound courage and more than a little hope that the drivers would continue to avoid our wobbling selves we pressed on with our "no real destination" tour of the neighbourhoods of Paris.

The streets above and below are perfect examples of what a lot of the Paris bike network looks like.  Roads so skinny only one vehicle can use it at a time.  When cars approached from behind, the Calgarian in me instantly tensed up waiting for the revving engine or a honking horn - which never came.  It took more than a couple instances of this happening before I relaxed, realizing that drivers were ok with slowly following us until an opportunity to pass presented itself.  When riding "the wrong way" down one-ways in Paris, which was encouraged with sharrows you see below and with signage indicating bikes were allowed, approaching cars would slow, sometimes stop, and pull over a little so we could keep our momentum.

How civilized!
Would you feel comfortable on bike infrastructure like this? Note the approaching van too.
Below is another example of bike routes on one-ways, in this case, placed right up against the parked cars.
Bike bowling for shoppers!
There were quite a few curb-separated bike lanes in Paris although I neglected to take a photo of one.  They were generally one-way in nature and often separated by parked cars too.  Also quite extensively used was a curb-separated bus lane (forgot to photogragh that too) that was shared with bikes and taxis.  On the face of it, sharing those lanes with city buses seemed scary but the reality was much different.  Buses would give you a little "dingding" when approaching from behind and the lanes were wide enough to accomodate the bus and a comfortable amount of room for bikes too.  Taxis would also use them but they would also dart in and out of them depending on whether traffic was backed up in the normal travel lanes.  They would sometimes give you a freindly honk too, but only if you were excessively wobbling about in the middle of the bus lane.

Sharrows, sharrows everywhere.
And the cobblestones.  So many cobbled roads both of us were getting a little bit sore from banging around on those little Brompton wheels over bumpy, skitchy roads.  Having said that, we were quite surprised to see so many Brompton's in Paris.  Makes lots of sense though, considering the extensive subway network in Paris.

Cobbles, cobbles, everywhere!
Paris was an incredible place to cycle in.  Why?  The main reason was simple - respect. 

Motorists (including the neverending swarms of scooterati), bus drivers, and taxi operators all offered up more respect than I have ever experienced astride a bike anywhere in Canada.  The traffic chaos was overwhelming to be sure but never really felt dangerous.  No one ever "buzzed" us intentionally, no one ever honked aggresively, and no one ever made us feel like we were in danger.  Honestly, I feel more scared riding along 17th Ave SW than I did anywhere in Paris.

Also quite interesting to experience was bike infrastructure that was basically squeezed into every nook and cranny of Paris.  Much of it was narrow, lots of it was just sharrows, but it worked. I've come away with the impression that "lack of space" - often cited as a reason why we can't put a bikelane here or there - is a bullshit excuse to not install more bike infrastructure in Calgary.  Our roads are so big this excuse simply does not pass the stink test anymore.

So, City of Calgary Transportation department, the City bike office, and all you Alderfolk - what are you waiting for?  Calgarians deserve more than traffic jams and 5-lane one-way roads. Calgarians need safe places to cycle, free from aggressive, anti-social motorists.  Calgarians deserve transportation options that are cheap, easy, and fast.

Stop dithering.  Get on with it.

Chainguards of Paris

One cannot help notice the vast number of old, rusting city bikes still in daily use when cycling around Paris. While most of the bikes would probably be considered junkers over here, over there, they are trusty daily transportation for hundreds of thousands of Parisiens.

Most of those rustbuckets also have chainguards on them and I had to snap a few photos of some of the more interesting models we saw while exploring Paris.


(kinda makes you want to put one on your bike too I bet)