Tag Archives: bikes

Biking at Making Light

I’ve been trying to write about my life as a bicycle commuter for a couple of years now. I’ve touched on specific aspects, both here and on Making Light.

But a lot of the ways that biking to work matters to me really are not verbal, so I’ve struggled to phrase things in any useful or meaningful way. I knew what I wanted to say in the middle of the post (what routes, how far, how long it took) and at the end (thinking as I ride). But how to begin?

My sordid history as a Rush fan came to the rescue. The immediacy of the lyrics of Red Barchetta was exactly the tone I was looking for to pull the reader into the experience.

The result: My own personal Rota Fortunae.

M’n Fiets (my bike)

Martin has written about the new car, which forms part of our fleet of transport mechanisms. But Turty is mostly intended for the movement of children (plus sundry light haulage). I’d like to spend a little time talking about my commute vehicle.


I’ve always had blue bikes, for some reason, since the first banana-seat cycle with the coaster brakes. Since the age of 10, I’ve always had multi-speed bikes with rams-horn handlebars; this is my third and best of the line: a Dawes Horizon bottom of the line touring bike (heavier and stronger than a road bike or racing bike). It’s a nervy, responsive thing, though maybe just a little short in the frame for me.

I bought it in Edinburgh, about a year ago, in the hopes that I would be able to ride it during the brief Caledonian summer. I used it about five times before fear of the homicidal Scottish drivers caused me to stop.

It was quirky and bizzare in Scotland, where pseudo moutain bikes are all the rage. It’s even more outré here, where the classic Dutch granny bike rules the roads, with its upright riding position and its near-immortal construction.

Unfortunately, it’s also a target for theft, since it’s what the bike shops here call a “sport bike”. And bike theft is a national phenomenon – all my colleagues have stolen bike stories. I’ve guarded against thieves with a few strategies. First off, those large and ugly silver panniers really do ruin its sleek lines, so it doesn’t look so appealing.


(They also hold a rain jacket, trouser clips and a few other useful items.)

Also, I’ve added a Dutch wheel lock. These things are practically indestructible, and it’s positioned so even cutting the cable ties won’t allow you to get the back wheel off while it’s present.


But most importantly, though I always double lock it (with a cable through the front wheel and frame and through something fixed; the Dutch have bike racks everywhere) or treble-lock it (another wheel lock, loose, through the back spokes and the frame), my main defense is geography. It does not go into high-theft areas such as central Amsterdam. And where possible, I park it among many bikes, because the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.

Because I ride it in street clothes, I had to change the pedals on the bike. It comes with toe clips, and usually I love toe clips. But I can’t use them with all my shoes, so I went for some non-slip pedals instead. I considered a chain guard as well, but the sprocket is too large for most of the aftermarket guards I have seen. So I still use a trouser clip when I wear trousers. (I also cycle in skirts. There is nothing so pleasant as riding in a long, flowing skirt.)

Naturally, I also have reflectors, lights and a bell. I keep a spare inner tube and a set of tyre tools in the bags, and have already done one roadside swap. This weekend, I’m going to buy tyres with reflective stripes around them – both because they are required by Dutch law, and because they really are safer.

I’ve really enjoyed my commutes by cycle, even in the rain. The endorphins mean that I arrive at my destination glowing a little, no matter how challenging the day. And if I have a little extra time (25 minutes instead of 15), I take the route that runs through the Twiske, the local recreation area.


(It even has its own windmill!)

In short, I love my bike. I love working on it, commuting with it, shopping on it (the panniers can hold a lot of groceries). I might start calling it Vera.

Wednesday Nights Are Update Nights

Probably because I keep them free due to the need to pack for the weekend at home, I seem to be falling into a pattern that includes blogging on a Wednesday. So how has it been, this last week?

Things really divide into separate timeframes, based on the two cities I’m living in at the moment.


Returning home on Thursday was exhausting. It was the end of a draining week, and I had been with my colleagues at the drinks before a company dinner (I had to leave afterward to get my flight). It meant I got to meet company founder Thijs Chanowski, known to most of my Dutch contemporaries as the producer of the children’s show De Fabeltjeskrant (British readers: it would be like meeting Oliver Postgate. American readers: think of one of the early founders of The Children’s Television Workshop). He’s a perfectly delightful gentleman, with a gift for telling stories, and I was sorry not to be able to stay for the meal (though I wouldn’t have understood the speeches anyway).


Friday was a very pleasant day with the kids. Both had the charm going full blast, and we did a lot of playing while the washing machine repairman came and replaced a couple of parts. Then we went to the Gilmerton crossroads to pick up Alex’s friend Murray, and I had a funny moment. We were going into the small supermarket on the corner, and I caught myself mustering my Dutch to deal with the transaction before I remembered that here, I speak the language! It was almost a disappointment, like a challenge balked at.

Martin and I did a lot of packing and arranging on the weekend, and even managed a bit of garden work. I’d like to get the back garden weeded and mulched before we go, because otherwise the dock and the dandelions will eat the place alive.

I got the chance to admire the gap in Alex’s teeth, and to have a number of very pleasant conversations with both kids. There was some cuddling, too. And a bit of grunching, toward the end of the weekend, because they are human, and they miss me.


Coming into Schiphol, taking the train to Amsterdam Centraal, and taking the tram to the flat in the Oud West was almost routine. It was certainly easy – Dutch public transport is well thought out and pleasant to use. And the flat I’m borrowing, which seemed strange and foreign when I first moved in, seemed much more homelike.

Monday morning, I started a different commute. I work north of the river Ij, which used to be the northern border of the city, but has now been surrounded on both banks. There are two ferries that go to the appropriate section of the city, one from Centraal station, one from a less well-known area. And the knowledgeable at the office had pointed out that if I could bike, I could take the lesser known ferry, which would be faster and more fun than the tram.

My landlord was willing to lend me his bike (on the condition that I lock it well – Amsterdam is bike theft central!). It’s a classic “omafiets” – a black banger of a bike, with no gears and coaster brakes. These bikes are ubiquitous in the Netherlands, primarily because they are virtually indestructible. They also weigh a ton and are not very fast unless you pedal like a maniac (like the colleague I commute with on occasion.)

So I’ve been commuting by bike. And it’s been wonderful, even on rainy mornings. How can you beat riding along a canal on an omafiets?

The only thing that takes some getting used to about this method of commuting is the other cyclists. They scare me. In the Netherlands, if a car hits a cyclist, no matter what, it’s the driver’s fault. And in Amsterdam, the cyclists know this, and ride accordingly. Red lights are really for other people. It’s unsporting to indicate where you’re going next – just veer over and let the other traffic figure it out after the fact. The only thing a cyclist will get out of the way for is a tram.

But it’s kind of fun, once you accept that the fiets conveys immortality. It also seems to grant exceptions to any consideration of practicality – I have seen a woman cycling in three inch spike heels and a tight miniskirt*. I have seen children in wee baskets on the fronts of their parents’ cycles. I have seen kids with bikes and training wheels being pushed along by an accompanying parent’s hand on their backs. I have seen a window cleaner who used a bike to transport the tools of his trade, including the ladder (carried in one hand, parallel to but longer than the bike). I have seen a man riding slowly while his dog trotted along beside him on a leash. And that was just this morning.

And work has improved as well. I got further into the system this week, and got the chance to do some testing (you know, what they hired me for). I’ve even found an interesting bug or two, though I’m not sure the guys looking at them are as pleased as all that. And I feel more at home around the office, less concerned that I’m going to violate some invisible norm or offend people unwittingly (now I violate visible norms and offend people on purpose. But I am a tester.)

One high point this week was dinner with Dave and Liz, the couple who let me use their flat the first weekend in Amsterdam, and hooked me up with the place I’m in now. Every conversation with them these days is really a set of markers for much longer conversations we want to have over time. It’s really something to look forward to.

And the other high point was that Martin flew over today and we signed the lease for the house. Both of us had been worried that something would fall through…the product of the previous experience is a slight nervous twitch. But the paper is signed and things are committed. With luck, we can move on to the other challenges: getting school and childcare places for the kids, getting the move done, changing a lot of addresses and defaults.

All in all, though, we have been lucky. Nice house, nice jobs, and enough resources to see us through the unexpected. I feel much more optimistic than I did this time last week.

(So you can all stop worrying now.)

* I’ve cycled in a skirt one day this week, but it was long and loose. Dutch bikes tend to enclose the whole chain, so things don’t catch in the gears.

Biking on the Beach

Friday, though cold, was a bright and sunny day – perfect for a family expedition. We took Alex’s bike to the John Muir pathway along the Firth of Forth, just outside of Musselburgh. It’s time for Alex to get more confidence in his bike and himself on it. He needs to ride faster if we’re going to take his stabilisers off.

It was a good ride – he started slow and hesitant, but I started challenging him to races. As the trip went on, I found myself striding less and running more to keep up with him. He was thrilled to be pushing me, but insisted after a time that we were “a team” and should cross every minor finishing line at the same time.

At the midpoint of the ride, we all stopped on the beach. The kids threw rocks into the water. I found a couple of old bikes on the stony shore, slowly rusting in the salt and being buried by the tides.

The first bike, frame and cables


Taken 14 April 2006

Cables round the stem of the bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Pedal mount on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Rust replaces chrome on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Handlebar mount on the second bike


Taken 14 April 2006

Sprockets in stone, bike 1


Taken 14 April 2006

Stone in sprockets, bike 2


Taken 14 April 2006

Wheel mount, bike 2


Taken 14 April 2006

Not just a bike, but the headphones for a walkman too!


Taken 14 April 2006

Handrail hardware by the firth


Taken 14 April 2006