Everyone rides bikes in the Netherlands, as you probably know. This means that people also ride something called a bakfiets (literally translated to something like “bucket bike”) with a large bucket/wheel barrel attached to the front that is meant to hold precious cargo: often (and certainly in my case) this cargo is small children. Bikes make me a bit nervous to begin with, and riding bikes in a busy, rainy city through heavy car, tram, bus and other bike traffic makes these nerves run a little higher. So you can imagine how riding a big gigantic bike through such conditions while two small boys bounce around in the front might worry me.
My relationship with bicycles over the years has been complicated, a bumpy road of love and hate. Though I learned to ride as early as the next kid, I spent most of elementary school on either roller blades or a skip-it (when I wasn’t in a hurry). I was comfortable on a bike, but only when it was up to speed and easiest to balance. It was the stopping, going, and maneuvering difficult turns – or any turns at all – that made me wimper in panic and squirm on my banana seat. The likelihood of steering right into a bush or a curb or – my absolute greatest fear – another moving bicycle was, I thought, far too great to take the risk. Plus you can avoid the stupid helmet.
I managed to hide my aversion and ineptitude from people for the most part, and got along just fine with my little secret. Just fine, that is, except for one day of the year: Safety Day at school. I remember the dread as the day approached, the careful, anxious plotting to get out of it. For part of Safety Day, the school made students take turns putting on some awful helmet and riding a bike through some kind of obstacle course laid out on the asphalt. I think it was just meant to be a fun way to teach kids about wearing helmets, but I saw it as the ultimate test, with the fat, grinning faces of yard duties suffocating you as you completed the challenge before hundreds of judgmental, 3rd-grade eyes. Any slight wobble, any grazing of the orange plastic, meant doom, a life of shame.
I was too shy to ask them to lower the bike seat when it was my turn, and the helmets were always enormous on my tiny head, like an eggshell on a toothpick, so really I could see no good reason to participate. I wonder now if my mother suspected anything when I tried it once, clearly had some sort of negative experience, and then was conveniently ill every year that same time.
While the panic and terror of Safety Day remains very real for me, my fear of riding a bike has fortunately dissolved since then…almost. Mastering my regular Dutch bike was trying enough – with the tall seat (here’s where the fear makes itself known again), and the required maneuvering through many difficult turns and very tight spaces, usually between two other moving vehicles that are either larger or more pushy than me.
But I did that, and now it’s no big deal. Next on the list was the bakfiets. I was quite terrified to try this monster out, but as it so happens it’s even easier than my regular bike. I do have to jump off to push it up hills on foot, but the seat is nice and low and it balances on it’s own. Apparently, though, I have to be careful when I turn because it does tip. And that’s when little skulls meet concrete. Or cars. Or both.
But I’ve now taken the boys on two rides to the Vondelpark without any injuries or mishaps whatsoever, and attracted some attention doing it! On my first ride, I was asked to pose for a photo with a group of tourists from LA, and an Englishman standing at a red light asked if he could get a shot of me in action. I gave him a thumbs up.
It’s been a long road from Safety Day to the bakfiets, but now that I can pedal that giant yellow machine around town, I feel like I can do just about anything. I’m just glad I don’t have to wear a helmet.