BSNYC Field Trip: The Tail of Two Cities

As you may have surmised from my Tweetering account, I spent my time away from this blog traveling abroad and getting a few more stamps put into my "passing port." At some point in the future my thoughts and observations regarding this trip may find their way into some larger work of prose, but in the meantime I'd like to share just a few of them with you. First though, as a citizen of the United States of America, I am legally obligated to display the following disclaimer, and if you're also an American you're legally obligated to read it:

WARNING: Do not attempt international travel. Leaving the United States may provoke thought and result in reflection, dissatisfaction with the quality of your social services, and acute Arby's withdrawal. The US Department of State shall not be held responsible for your imprisonment or death at the hands of a godless socialist foreign power. If you must visit another country, be sure to wear latex gloves at all times to avoid foreign currency-borne illness. Have a great trip!

With that out of the way, I spent the bulk of my time in two (2) non-American cities, one of which was Amsterdam. When one thinks of Amsterdam, one thinks of the heady aroma of "Wednesday weed" wafting out of the coffee shops, the even headier aroma of human genitalia wafting out of the red light district, and of course the notorious feral cats that have taken to the canals over the centuries and evolved into strange flesh-eating otter-like creatures that have been known to bite off at the wrist the hands of unsuspecting tourists. But let's leave all that aside for the moment and look at that other hallmark of "the big A," which is bikes:

Simply put, in Amsterdam people ride bikes to go places. More than this, though, they ride bikes to go places without making any sort of fuss about it. Consider the woman above, who is "portaging" not only an entire human child but also a full-sized stroller as well as whatever she's got in those big red bags:

This is not to say that we don't "portage" stuff by bike here in the United States of Canada's Undercarriage--it's just that we're unable to do so without making an incredibly big deal about it. I myself am unable to carry so much as a single smallish box on my Surly Big Dummy without issuing forth multiple "tweets" as well as at least one verbose blog post. Meanwhile, here's a woman carrying much more than that simply as a matter of course, and incredibly she's seeking no attention or approbation whatsoever. If she lived in Portland she'd have an entire child-portaging blog called "Stroller Lady" and would already be the subject of an epic-length interview as well as a two-hour documentary at the Bicycle Film Festival.

By the way, I'm not sure the child seat is in fact telescoping, but it would be awesome if it was. I imagine it shooting Inspector Gadget-like 20 feet into the air with the simple push of a button so that your child can report to you on the traffic conditions.

Similarly, the recreational cyclists I observed in Amsterdam were equally prosaic. Whereas the typical recreational cyclist in America is generally a corpulent middle-aged man on a precious $6,000 crabon Colnago that is buckling under his weight, his Dutch counterpart is perfectly happy to make do with a humble Polnago:

Yes, Polnago:

Purists may scoff at the LAY-oh-pard kit, but he'd probably ride effortlessly away from the typical Cat 3 without so much as interrupting his texting as a stiff crosswind blew you into a canal.

As for crabon, that would appear to be the domain of the younger set, who are more than capable of acting as their own mechanics:

Yes, in Amsterdam, recreational cycling and practical cycling exist side-by-side, and practitioners of both appear to be uniquely free from self-delusion. Also, it should go without saying that in such a permissive and bicycle-centric city, a sight like this is so common as to hardly warrant mentioning:

In any case, during my time in Amsterdam I rode neither a Polnago nor a recumbent; instead, I transported myself and my progeny by means of a "bake feets:"

Oh yes, I baked feets, and I liked it.

Henry Cutler of WorkCycles was kind enough to furnish me with this rowboat on wheels during my stay, and I can say without irony or sarcasm that the effortless portaging of humans and supplies that it allowed was an absolute pleasure. By the way, here's the WorkCycles shop in the Jordaan district:

Where the typical bicycle on the workstand lift is not only eminently practical but also weighs upwards of 400 pounds:

Had I been alone I might have opted for a sober, gentlemanly number such as this:

Or this, which I also found myself admiring:

But since I was visiting with my family the Wagon Queen Family Truckster was the clear choice.

To say that Henry Cutler also showed us around Amsterdam is to understate his good company and ability as a cultural ambassador, and to say that riding around a city where cycling is a completely normal mode of transportation is to understate how pleasant it is to be someplace where you can simply get on a bike with your family without giving a shit. Here are people riding bikes without giving a shit:

Ironically, while I was in Amsterdam a bit of a kerfuffle arose on Bikeportland about how Fred Armisen of "Portlandia" is too much of a "woosie" to ride in the most cycling-friendly city in America. In particular, he's afraid of the streetcar tracks:

"Armisen is young and healthy. If he's too afraid to bike in the Pearl, what does that say about our city?"

To me it says that the city of Portland should remove an entire mode of public transportation to make it easier for someone who probably hasn't been on a bicycle since he was 9 to move there and ridicule them. I wonder if anything will ever be enough for the people of Portland--who, were they to be liberated from their hated streetcar tracks, would probably find some other cycling injustice to rail against, such as the high cost of Stumptown coffee or an overabundance of low-hanging tree branches. It seems to me that focussing on streetcar tracks as an obstacle to cycling is like saying the problem with living in Antarctica is that there aren't enough Whole Foods. Anyway, Amsterdam is completely covered in tram tracks and it doesn't seem to pose much of a problem:

Then again, no Portander should ever have to run the risk of crashing his or her $5,000 Beloved "commuter" bicycle.

Anyway, if you do tire of the tram tracks in Amsterdam, it's pretty easy to escape the city and disappear into a Van Gogh painting:

As for the other city I visited, it was a place called "London," and as a New Yorker I found sights like this all too familiar:

Also as in New York, some people in London wear helments, other people don't, and some just split the difference by wearing helments but not fastening them:

And you seem equally likely in both New York and London to be cut off by a douchebag in a very expensive German motorcar:

However, there are also crucial differences between these two great cities. For example, bicycle commuters in London appear to take so-called "Cat 6" racing far more seriously than New Yorkers and would probably trounce us in a city-vs-city commuting competition. In fact, I'm reasonably sure the top riders in London actually get call-ups at the red lights:

(London Cat 6 starting grid.)

Also, safety vests are clearly very popular in London:

And to stand at the curb is to witness a constant procession of Day-Glo streaks:

Anecdotally, I'd also say that folding bicycles are more popular in London than they are in New York (along with the ubiquitous safety vest):

By the way, I'm not sure if I've mentioned it, but Londoners also like to wear safety vests:

And here's someone riding a folding bike and wearing a safety vest, just to make sure they've got all their London style cues covered:

Of course, if you don't wear a safety vest in London, the law requires that you instead don a pair of baggy shorts:

They really do like their baggy shorts over there:

As for the fixed-gear riders, Londoners can pull off a pink-cuff-and-purple-sock combo in a way that New Yorkers simply cannot:

That's because the London gentleman knows something that the loutish New Yorker doesn't--which is that the only way to pull them both together successfully is with a stripey mime shirt.

It should not surprise you then to learn that, as a New Yorker myself, I was not even remotely stylish and instead dressed poorly and transported myself by means of the so-called "Boris Bikes:"

Just go to one of the many docking stations:

Skip the 35(!) pages of terms and conditions that presumably say your family won't sue Barclay's if you die:

And then take to the impossibly confusing London streets! Just remember, the brakes are "reversed," but they're so vague and the bike is so heavy it doesn't really matter:

Also, according to page 26 of the terms and conditions, if you grab the wrong brake and fly headlong into the Thames, you have no legal recourse.

I was skeptical of the system at first, but it won me over very quickly. The docking stations were convenient, the bicycles were functional, and I even received swift and competent help from an actual English-speaking human when I called the help line at one point. Really, the only problem with it was that I had no idea where I was going, and every time I got on one of the "Boris Bikes" it basically turned into this.

I did also have one piece of actual "business" to attend to while I was in London, which was to be a guest on a BBC4 radio show called "Loose Ends," which you can listen to here. Then, after the show, we all went to the pub, which looked like this:

In all, it was a wonderful trip, and when I got back to New York the first thing I did was go for a ride, during which I witnessed a car with a "God Bless America" sticker on the rear windshield "accidentally" drive onto the 59th Street bridge bike lane:

It's great to be back.
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