In May 2022 my wife Teresa and I set off for a cycling adventure in northern Europe. We knew it might be a good destination. We booked a bike and barge tour in southern Holland (this will be the subject of a future post) and also spent time cycling in the cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Denmark.
Within days we knew we were riding the best bike paths in the world!
That is a mighty grand claim to make, but others have said the same, and I echo their praise. For those of you thinking of going one day, I am going to share my observations here in a series of articles this summer.
In Holland, no matter where you want to go, there is likely an off-road bike path to get you there. And you can get there safely, on smooth, well-marked paved paths, with an abundance of signs and maps. And maintenance of these paths is excellent, with hardly a bump or crack anywhere!
Cobblestones are a different matter: there are plenty of paths with them in the city, but here again, they are in great shape. In the narrow old sections of town, routes are shared with cars or pedestrian paths. On wider streets, designated lanes exist—lots of them. Bikes get priority and everyone knows to look out for them. Even on one-way streets, cyclists are often allowed to ride the other way.
I can give almost as much praise to Copenhagen. Though paths are not as well defined and signage is not as clear as in Holland, this city is still certainly a worthy cyclist destination. (We did not have a chance to ride the Danish countryside.)
In both countries, we saw bicycles everywhere. Bikes piled against walls, bikes chained to poles, miles of bike racks and huge garages full of bikes. Cycling is king in these lands!
Dutch Cycling Psyche
Why does this extensive Dutch network of paths exist? One guess is because the country is FLAT, with no sizable hills (beyond the height of dikes). This makes cycling easy for everyone. Distances are short and winters are brief and milder than in Canada, though, to be fair, there is still plenty of seasonal rain and wind to contend with.
Most Dutch people ride a bike as a utility vehicle, not as a recreational pastime. These bicycles are made to commute, go to work or school, carry your kids, get groceries, make deliveries—in short, to do almost anything. And it’s a great way to get from A to B for many eco, monetary, and health reasons.
Increased bicycle use means reduced car use. Fewer cars on the road is a benifit when you truly need to drive. I noted there seems to be less traffic congestion in Holland than in Canada.
Not all cycling is for commuting or chores. On a Sunday morning in Rotterdam, we saw bike clubs out for a spin in club jerseys on race bikes. So they do ride bikes just for fun, too.
The odd thing was those groups wear helmets. Otherwise, no one does. Perhaps the public perception is they are not going fast enough to need one? Well, I perceived city cycling traffic during rush hour as an overwhelming, chaotic opportunity for mishaps. So we wore ours, and no one cared.
Another observation is when it rains, Dutch riders are as unprepared for wet weather as we seem to be back home. Students scurrying home from school, moms with kids, workers hastily trying to make it back to the office—none of them prepared with rain jackets or pants. We had brought some; you should, too.
What always works well in trail design is establishing a standard system of making a path, marking it with paint, and posting directional signage that is logical and placed where you expect directions to be. And Holland does all of this well, everywhere!
Actually, there are signs that tell cyclists they must use their own path and NOT use the road. This lets cars move along faster. Even mopeds have to use bike paths sometimes to get out of the way. And most of the time in the cities there is a separate third pedestrian only path. Does this not seem like a more harmonious means of getting everyone moving?
There are often three separate traffic lights at an intersection: one each for bicycles, motor traffic, and pedestrians. It’s amazing how they wired and synchronized this all up. And it works!
In much of Holland, the asphalt on bike paths is coloured pink, there is often a concrete barrier and/or raised curb to ride on, and plenty of painted road markings show the way. Denmark, not so much—my wife found the city paths in Copenhagen not so obvious for a tourist—but it’s still much better than Canada.
Different Bike Designs
Perhaps because of the lack of hills, locals use a different design from North American bikes. You sit more upright, there’s no crossbar or shocks, and there are only a few gears: perhaps 1 -3 to 7 gears in the rear wheel hub that help for climbing medium grades.
What almost every bike does have are fenders, chainguard, lights, a larger saddle, a carrier rack, and a key lock to stop the back wheel. Their bikes are a basic design, built to last, easy to repair (as a mechanic told me), and seemingly indestructible.
But after putting in 300+ km on these bikes, I was longing for my own trusty steed back home. Yup, they can keep them. I found the handling not nimble, and while the upright position in the saddle might be more relaxed, it is not the best for pedal power. And in a headwind, I was not at all streamlined.
These bikes are also made with a lot of iron. They’re so heavy you would die doing hills anywhere else in the world. Many now are eBikes, which helps with the weight issue.
Renting a Bicycle
We were supplied bikes for our bike and barge tour of Holland; more on that in my next article…
If you don’t bring your own wheels, there are many ways to rent one. In Amsterdam, we rented from our hotel, where their stock was awful. It took three tries to find a decent bicycle and that one only half worked. My thoughts are that when cycling in a new, foreign city, I don’t need mishaps to derail my holiday—thank you, no.
In Copenhagen, we figured we’d be smart and rent from a bike shop. But it was a national holiday. Bike shops were closed.
We decided to try the online bike rental companies with rental bicycles scattered in racks all over town. They’re a common sight in any large European city. But on this sunny, beautiful weekend, everyone else in Copenhagen also thought it was a fine day for a spin. Finding two rental bikes was challenging.
We installed the phone app for Donkey Republic, whose orange bikes we had seen parked on curbs and medians. Once we had set up an account, we looked over their location map and saw dots appearing and disappearing within a minute. Yikes! These rentals were going that fast.
We changed our plans, deciding to walk to a fort outside of the city core and hoping two bikes there would become available later in the day. Thankfully that worked out and we did not have to walk back another extra 10 km.
About online bike rentals, and for that matter using public transit. This modern age has made things easier and also more complicated. I would suggest before you even leave Ontario to find the services you might need, download the required phone apps, and set up your accounts with a password, confirmation, and credit card number… rather than doing all this during your holidays, which sucks. Also, to make it all work, expect to run data any day you plan to rent a bike or ride public transit.
A step up in renting is an eBike. These are very popular if you want to ride in style with little effort, but naturally the hourly rate for these deluxe machines is higher, than for standard pedal power.
It should be mentioned that in other cities we visited (Stockholm, Helsinki) variations of an electric scooter were available to rent. What we did not see much of on our trip, thankfully, were gas mopeds.
Consider riding bike trails beyond Ontario and see the world!
There are a lot of great bike-friendly destinations to explore, but I can’t think of two better countries than Holland and Denmark. In countries with such established bike-minded infrastructure, it’s a carefree joy to ride there, plus the scenery, food and people make the experience altogether so wonderful.
You Must GO – Dan Roitner