In The City Of Bikes, Pete Jordan (2013)

A compelling history of cycling in Amsterdam laced with the author’s own decade in the city

HarperPerennial 0061995207 448pp 20cm x 13cm £9.99

Few tales better illustrate how myth and misunderstanding can become accepted truths than the story of cycling in Amsterdam. ‘The cycling capital of the world’ appears to require little in the way of unpacking. In the Netherlands, the bicycle stands as transport of choice and national symbol: the Royal family attend their daily business on two wheels; segregated cycle routes criss-cross the countryside and, a municipal ‘white bike’ scheme provides both a free ride and a challenge to modern nostrums of ownership.

But as Pete Jordan, a long-time American resident of the Dutch capital shows, the truth is rather different – more complex and fascinating by far than that suggested by postcard images of jolly pedalling cloggies.

Jordan moved to Amsterdam in 2002, in his mid-thirties. A bike enthusiast from childhood, he was drawn to the city after becoming obsessed with a photographed street scene taken in the early 1960s that showed 60 cyclists at a traffic intersection. He was mesmerised by so many individuals ‘on a simple, yet effective form of transportation’.

His own story is woven through the book. He studied urban planning, his wife learned bicycle mechanics and ultimately ran a bicycle shop over which they lived. Meantime, he pursued his fascination with the city’s cycling culture, seeking out activists whose campaigning stretched back to the Provos (Dutch cycling activists rather than Irish republicans), immersed himself in newspaper archives, and endlessly pedalled around the city’s streets.

The stories he uncovers serve as a social history of Amsterdam in the twentieth century and uncover the surprising factors that shaped its residents’ unique enthusiasm for cycling. Economically-crippled Germany provided the first dramatic infusion of bicycles in the years after the first world war, for example. Desperate for foreign currency, German factories supplied the Dutch will millions of cheap bikes, in one stroke turning the Netherlands the most cycle-enthusiastic nation on earth.

Nazi occupiers would subsequently confiscate hundreds of thousands of Dutch bikes to facilitate troop movements. Even in recent years, Dutch football fans have occasionally chanted ‘give us back our bikes’ at rival fans from their northern neighbour. And in the winter of 1944/5, resourceful Amsterdammers, narrowly avoided starvation by riding into the countryside to scavenge for food on bikes that were on the verge of collapse.

Pedal-poweredt travel experienced a precipitate decline in the 1960s similar to that seen in other west-European nations. Happily, a combination of common sense and counter-cultural provocation forced bicycles back up the political agenda sufficient for their promotion to become a national transport priority. Plans to fill in the canals to provide car-parking spaces and attempts to ban cyclists from the Rijksmuseum tunnel were abandoned and bicycles returned to their position as national icons.

Jordan’s most extraordinary tale is of the fabled 1960s ‘white bikes’ scheme – free-to-use bikes that could be picked up and dropped off at each user’s convenience. It deserves to be read in the original – suffice to say the facts laid bare make a persuasive case that many prestigious news organisations must work on the principle that a good story should never be obscured by the truth.

Given Amsterdam’s iconic place as ‘the world’s most cycling city’, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a book before. That Jordan has simultaneously found a publisher in his adoptive as well as his native tongue would appear to verify his suggestion that this is a history hitherto unwritten.

What he has produced is not a treatise on bicycle promotion Netherlands-style, nor a guide to Dutch bicycle infrastructure planning – and just occaisionally some comparative statistics showing levels of bicycle useage elsewhere would have been intresting. Jordan does, however, draw on a great many contemporary sources (which are lavishly referenced) to give both enjoyable colour and authority to what he says. Indeed, there is so much to savour in this book that I suspect that there is a good deal more of the country’s cycling cultre that merits similar exploration.

TD Jun 13

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