Amsterdam: Two Wheels Good

I first learned to ride a bicycle in the bazaar in Udaipur when I was nearly 30, and frankly it’s lucky we all got out of there in one coherent chunk.

We rented our steel-girder Hero bikes from a nearby stand, choosing carefully from the two size selections available at the time, Vast and Towering. I don’t recall gears; I think the bikes had back-pedal brakes, and I know the seats adjusted only with the deft intervention of a machine shop, which we did not have handy.

I’m low-slung, myself, but the guys would not rent me a woman’s bike, explaining that the high central strut was specially placed for the masculine physique, the better to make soup of nuts, if you take my meaning. Americans in India are fragile, phthisic creatures, pale of habit, drenched in gadgetry, pills, lotions, purifiers, money, and foolish custom. The thought of a white man clattering down the market on the wrong gender bicycle was apparently too much to bear. I might have no good sense myself, but they would cheerfully turn me out on the proper machine for my sex. They obliged; they insisted; it was inevitable. Thinking lovely thoughts I hopped up toward the seat and mounted the thing, which promptly lurched off toward the nearest cliff edge at speed. You’ll want to remember that my only way to stop was to come flying off to one side or the other, in a sort of controlled apocalypse.

If you’ve never been in an Indian bazaar, picture the SoHo branch of Old Navy, say a week before Christmas. Now imagine that they’re giving away free iPods to everyone who stays in the store for an hour or more. Now imagine that everyone in there is shouting irrelevant instructions at everyone else, waving wildly to bring their points home. Now imagine that it’s 90 degrees and parched, with a few elephants wandering around. Now imagine no one is picking up after the elephants.

Why the bike rental stand was at the top of the bazaar and not the bottom of the bazaar is a whole nother issue for a whole nother day. Anyway, when we pushed off the first thing I did was terrorize a few near-miss pedestrians and then smack into the side of a passing cow. I’m not making the cow thing up, either. The cow was nonplussed, the crowd appalled.

The Netherlands has more bikes than people, and if you line up every bicycle in Amsterdam end to end, well, that’s pretty much what traffic is like most of the time. Our Gracious Host rounded up enough rides for all four of us, and in our test drive to the butcher shop we hardly hit anything of consequence. So off we wheeled across town to the Brouwerij ‘t Ij (Ij is pronounced “eye,” and for a web site with actual content check the Shelton Brothers profile), a quaint and scenic independent brewery quartered in a converted bathhouse next to a stately greying windmill.

After a few beers and a spate of sun we were in no shape to go riding anywhere, so we mounted up and rode off to another bar, where we contemplated our folly over another round and then wobbled off homeward again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Our Brouwerei ‘t Ij favorite was the deep, strong Columbus; a few days later we passed an afternoon in the wide warm embrace of their Struis (Ostrich), an eccentric take on the barleywine style that was simply delicious.

And not a cow in sight on the trek home. Lucky thing, too.

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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