“There are people and there are bicycle bells”. This is a ‘Dutch saying’. This is in quotes because I only know one Dutch person who says this. I have absolutely no idea what it means, but it seems strangely perfect in describing an incident that happened last night on the bike path.
For those unfamiliar with The Netherlands and Dutch people let me provide a little background info. Bikes rule in holland. There are hundreds of miles of bike paths and an intricate and efficient system for governing bicycle traffic, including bike traffic lights. Hand signals are used to indicate turns, and their use is expected, not considered bonus information. And since the bike paths themselves are fairly narrow-comfortably fitting 2 bikes side-by-side, but allowing for 3 if those riders are fairly skilled and, needless to say, sober-bicycle bells play an important role in Dutch bicycle transit.
The general rule is this: If you hear the sweet chime of a bicycle bell, get the hell out of the way. I first learned this in the same way most non-Dutch people learn it, back in 2003 on my first trip to Holland. That is to say, I was almost run down by a biking dutchy, completely unaware that, A. The red path I was strolling along was not a guiding walkway for tourists, but in fact a super highway for man-powered vehicles or B. the pleasant chime I had been hearing was not a ‘welcome to the country, have a nice stay’ message, but, as mentioned above, more of a ‘this is your warning, move or be run down by two wheels’ message.
When I moved to The Netherlands for the 2010 softball season, I was given a bike by the team and thrust headlong into possibly the most efficient biking transit system in the world. Now legally traveling on the bike path, that is to say on a bike rather than on foot, I learned that the ‘get out of my way’ bell also applied to other bikers and not just clueless tourists. Remember my earlier mention of the width, or lack there of, of the path. At first I thought it rude when 2 (or 3, if highly skilled) dutchies would ride side-by-side, blocking the entire path. Often when this is the case, there is some pleasant chatting going on, which generally slows the biking pace. I found this very frustrating until I learned that ‘belling’ someone ahead of you is not considered rude like a car horn often is, but simply a message that says ‘please move, I’d like to pass’. It is one of the keys that makes the entire system work.
Fast-forward to last night.
My team (the same team that brought me to Holland back in 2010) opened our season with 2 big wins. A couple of us headed to ‘de stad’ (the city center) for a couple celebratory drinks. I rode my bike there. The night’s rain could not dampen my mood. After a fun and fairly tame evening, I responsibly departed for home and bed in order to get an adequate amount of sleep before my 9am alarm and 8 hour workday. Early in my ride I came upon a couple of bikers blocking the path ahead of me. 3 years ago I would have found this annoying, but not now, as an experienced Dutch biker. I belled. They did not respond. I slowed down so as not to collide with them. I belled again. And again. No acknowledgment. That is to say, no movement whatsoever to create space for my locamotief. Now I’m annoyed. I’m not going to ride along at their Sunday stroll pace in the rain, and I have exhausted all of my tools to make them move, so I’m left with no choice but to find a way around them. I steer the locamotief to the left where a small curb separates the bike path from a very small swath of sidewalk. My margin of error in this maneuver was already small as the sidewalk is lined down the center with small trees. The combination of rain and the small curb was too much for my biking skills. When my front tire hit the curb, my back one slid out from under me and sent me sprawling onto the hard, wet ground.
As I layed there, doing a quick bodily inventory, I heard a couple concerned bystanders, “gaat het?!”-“are you ok?!” I raised an arm and offered a “ja, dankejewel” to let them know I was fine and thank them for their concern. It might seem obvious that the concerned questions came from the couple in front of me who essentially caused this, but no. I saw them stop in front of me, look back, and then recommence their casual pedaling. The concern came from two guys across the street, on foot.
My experience last night has not made me understand my friend’s saying any better, but it has shown very clearly that the world simply works better when the people listen to the bicycle bells.