Coming to Utrecht and unable to ride a bike: mission impossible?

Lucia, Master Student Education Sciences

During the application process as an international student you will probably hear the following comment at least once:

“And of course, the bike. You can’t survive in Utrecht or the Netherlands without riding a bike.”

While delighted laughter and nodding from the audience generally ensues, for the minority who don’t know how to ride a bike, this is a definite downer. But the amazing thing is that it is absolutely not true. After all, there are bus companies in the Netherlands, and, contrary to what you may imagine whilst still living in your non-Dutch country, buses are quite full during peak hours (although the definition of “full” does vary between countries and might be related to the expectation of personal space, which I (as per my home culture) seem to have little).  

So, yes, it is possible to survive in Utrecht without knowing how to ride a bike. The next question is, though, should you come to Utrecht and remain ignorant of the two-wheeled experience? My answer to this question, is a resounding no. It so happens that Utrecht is one of the best places for learning to cycle, and I should know, because that’s what I did during my first month here. There were some pros and cons to the experience, and because I want you to enjoy Utrecht as much as I do, I will share them with you.

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Cons of learning to ride a bike here:

Babies and small children are everywhere. If small enough, they will be sitting on their parents’ bikes. If old enough (more than 4 years old – yes, four!) they will probably be already practicing on small bikes of their own (with no pedals). This was especially difficult for me whilst I learnt. I felt like at every corner I was at the risk of endangering a youngster’s life. Until I realized that as a student, I could practice at times when children were at school or already safe in their homes (this may all sound hilarious to you – especially if you do know how to ride, in which case you are reading this only for the sake of laughing, which is not nice!)

This leads to my second con: Dutch people are extremely good at riding bikes. I asked some Dutch acquaintances and some of them did not even have memories of when they learned how to ride one! The Dutch often say ‘we are born on bikes’, it’s an alternative to walking for them. So yes, riding in crowded places in the midst of these world bike experts can indeed be intimidating, BUT… Ok, there’s no but here. You just have to get over it.

Non-bike riders see learning to ride a bike as an all-or-none process. One day, you just magically jump on the bike and ride into the horizon. I hate to break it to you, but learning to do it is gradual. Balance is the first step, but once you master that, other challenges appear, such as turning, stopping at traffic lights, and getting your hands out to signal what you are going to do to unaware victims. However, can you think of something you learned that was not gradual? In this matter, it comes down to being realistic, and not giving up.

So enough about cons.

Pros of learning to ride a bike here:

Riding a bike is one of the many ways in which you can feel you are integrated to society. I remember when I didn’t know how to ride, I walked through the streets watching people swooshing by, and sad tunes played in my head (specifically, “My Heart Will Go On”). Now I still walk through the streets (because I still like walking) but with the knowledge that if I wanted to jump on my bike, I could.

This one I almost do not need to mention: cycling is great for your physical and mental health. Plus, if you’re not going too fast and the terrain is relatively flat (which in Utrecht, it is), it’s exercise that requires virtually no conscious effort.

Achieving such a challenge at an older age is a great self-esteem lifter. If you come here to study, you expect intellectual and social challenges, and those are great, but why not add one that brings up the kind of thrills you only felt as a child? There’s nothing like the wind (and rain, and occasionally, snow) hitting your face while you ride through a path full of trees in one of the many beautiful parks Utrecht has. And rain (oh, did I mention that one already?).

And finally, riding a bike is environmentally-friendly. It is the transport of the future. I feel like I don’t need to go into details with this one.

Small confession time before I leave you: I don’t ride to and from the university. I mostly use it for recreational purposes, exercising and having good times. So I am still not quite there, but I plan to be. And I invite you to join me in the challenge!