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Peter Kuitenbrouwer's son Frits rides ahead as father and son make their way to Utrecht.COURTESY PETER KUITENBROUWER

Journalist Peter Kuitenbrouwer, a registered professional forester, teaches at the University of Toronto.

When I told one of my Dutch family members I planned a cycling trip of the Netherlands she asked, “Why?”

“I hate riding a bike,” said my cousin, born and raised in the northern city of Groningen. The Dutch ride to the grocery store or the dentist; bikes are ordinary – even mundane.

Yet for North American cyclists, accustomed to a daily fight for space on car-clogged streets, Holland’s red fietspads (bike paths) come as a balm to the spirit. One suddenly feels welcome.

More than two years ago, to fête our son’s high-school graduation, we conceived a father-son bike trip to the Netherlands. Then the pandemic hit. Finally, this month, we set out, renting bicycles in Amsterdam. Our Gouda and pilsner-fuelled adventure on bikes, which we sometimes put on trains, proved a revelation.

Anywhere you ride in the Netherlands you get your own lane, often your own road. Most cyclists dress for their destination, not the journey. It’s the ordinariness of it all that’s so extraordinary. During midday many cyclists were seniors, often couples. Bikes have their own traffic lights, so a car turning right can’t sideswipe you. Biking is so safe that almost no one wears a helmet.

Only once did a car honk at us: because we rode in the wrong spot, not expecting that a two-lane road along a marsh would have a separate two-way bike path.

Yes, it is possible to take cars off roads and contribute to the climate solution: get everyone from schoolchildren to grandmas onto a bike.

Frits checks the map near Meppel, Overijssel province, the Netherlands.COURTESY PETER KUITENBROUWER

In the Netherlands, the bicycle is king of the road. In any collision between a car and a bike, the driver is automatically liable. As a result, where the United States has more guns than people, in Holland there are more bikes than Dutch. A nice problem to have.

On a route through a forest, we rode a paved path; cars got a dirt road. We used bike off-ramps and bike-only tunnels. Entering the medieval island fortress city of Zwolle in central Holland, we stored our bikes in a big, guarded bike parking lot. We walked farther to find car-free streets packed with visitors.

We found shade under the gargantuan umbrella of a café and ordered beer, and I thought of Ontario, my home, where most mid-sized towns struggle with hollowed-out centres. Malls with lots of space for cars have sucked away all the life. In Holland the lowly bicycle has solved this problem. Even Meppel (which I bet you haven’t heard of) boasted lively shop-lined streets at its heart, filled with people going quietly and cleanly about their bike-fuelled business.

Still, biking in the Netherlands has its perils.

Riding out of the village of Netersel one morning in the southernly Dutch province of Brabant, our hybrid bicycles bounced a bit on the red brick pavers. Our tires crunched acorns from oaks that shade the bike paths. The morning sun sparkled on droplets from rotating sprayers that watered fields of zealous corn. A faint aroma of pig manure hung in the air. We passed carefully clipped hedges and Catholic statues; a rooster crowed. It was an idyllic scene, with few cars. But then, bearing down on us came packs of racing bikes powered by what a Scottish-Dutch friend calls MAMILs – Middle-Aged Men in Lycra. They prove to be harmless – as long as you watch out for them.

You had to figure that so much space for bikes would cause a problem: too many bikes. A cousin (both my parents grew up in Holland, yielding plenty of cousins, who offered us beds) said pitched battles for bike-lane real estate pit e-bikes, bikes, mopeds and scooters (banned from bike lanes but using them anyway) against MAMILs.

Weather, too, is a factor. We visited in summer; in winter, wind and rain can make a bike ride less pleasant.

I have to wonder, can we replicate this success in Canada? Given climate, Medicine Hat (or even Kitchener, Ont.) is unlikely to fully replace cars with bikes. Our vast distances between cities make much bike travel impractical.

Some cities in Canada have begun to embrace bike culture. Toronto expanded bike lanes during the pandemic; Toronto mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa, a sustainable-cities pioneer, wants to greatly improve bike infrastructure. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante won re-election last year on a pro-bike platform. But Kingston, where my son studies, has scant bike lanes.

Blasé Dutch bike riders may sometimes forget the battles their forefathers fought for safe cycling. In 1971, as more people bought cars, 3,300 people died in accidents on Dutch roads, including 400 children under the age of 14. Cyclists clogged streets with massive protests, ushering in modern Dutch bike infrastructure. My son and I enjoyed the result.

Riding into ‘s-Hertogenbosch, we stopped at a café a few hundred metres from the train station. On a car-free cobblestone street, we locked our bikes and ordered Hertog Jan (a local beer), kroketten (Dutch croquettes) and fries with mayonnaise. And we raised a toast to a very sensible means of transportation.

Peter Kuitenbrouwer and his son Frits at the train station in Zwolle, the NetherlandsCOURTESY PETER KUITENBROUWER

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