My bicycle, which goes by the name Cheeky Mango, does its best to embody the phrase, ‘cheap and cheerful’. Regrettably, a more appropriate adage might be, ‘not actually that cheap and a little bit shite, but it’ll do the job with a beaming smile on its mischievous face’.
Don’t get me wrong, I was instantly enamoured by the classic geometry and minimal, all-black look. But upon closer inspection, an experienced mechanic identified most components as non-branded Chinese imitations. And he declared the steel frame to be of such low quality he wouldn’t use it to plumb his house.
Pfft! Let’s leave the boring technicalities and professional opinions to one side, shall we? I love the little rascal. It’s light, simple, fun, and looks great. All of which makes me more inclined to ride it. And I have graced that devilishly uncomfortable yet handsome saddle more than I care to say.
I should also start by admitting something - I’m not a lifelong cyclist. I’m very new to the whole thing.
Since passing my driving test at 17 I’ve been a devotee of the car and rarely given bicycles a moment’s consideration.
Not long ago, I drove my 5 mile journey to work. Diesel was mercilessly burned so I could pop to the shops. Four years ago, you may have witnessed me driving to lectures at university along the busiest bus route in Europe!
I chided cyclists who dared to venture onto the roads and recoiled at the thought of sweating on my commute. The sealed, air-conditioned bubble of my car was where I wanted to be.
Not any more!
But why? I hear you asking. Well, I’d like to tell you a story about a place that put bicycles on my radar as a legitimate form of transport. When Cheeky Mango was but a twinkle in my eye.
Emerging from train stations in the middle of a city will usually plop you into a rather hectic scene. Plenty of hooting traffic, glaring advertisements, noisy crowds.
When I stepped out of Centraal Station in Amsterdam, nearly two years ago, I was struck by how serene it felt.
Bright sun and clear blue sky (which always helps). Fresh, crisp air. Boats bobbing on glinting water. Bustling pedestrians. Somehow peaceful.
I decided to sit down for a minute and get my bearings. The hostel was a fair hike and a clean looking patch of pavement had become available for me to stretch out on. I lay back against the bulk of my rucksack.
Streams of people headed into the station or hung around chatting. A group of students talked excitedly (in perfect English) about the imminent arrival of a couch surfer. Trams clanked and bicycle bells added jolly highs to the soundtrack. Not many cars around, I thought to myself.
After two hours of lounging in the sun I dragged myself up and started to stroll in the vague direction of my accommodation.
The next day I spent most of the afternoon scanning the shelves of a cavernous bookshop. The books were all Dutch, which made sense, so I didn’t buy anything. The romantic in me was tempted to buy a book of Dutch poetry as encouragement to learn some of the local language. Sounder thoughts prevailed.
I stepped outside to continue my haphazard tour of the city. Short pause to avoid a tram. Ever-present tinkle of bicycle bells. Cobbled streets. French fries with mayonnaise. Strangers idling by canals, lazy legs dangling over the edge.
As I walked along, exploring the nooks and crannies of Amsterdam, I was struck by a strange feeling of simultaneously being in a city from the past and the future.
A friend from university was living in Amsterdam at the time and he kindly agreed to esquire me round town.
He’s very good at climbing, so our first port of call was the indoor climbing club to do some bouldering. I’m not mad about climbing things, to be honest. But I was keen to show willing and let my friend show me the ropes. Alas, bouldering is all about climbing 20 foot walls without ropes - a foolish idea, if you ask me (and no-one did).
So I ended up clambering onto the pannier rack of my friend’s bicycle for a quick jaunt across town to the climbing club. I clung on as he navigated the streets and struggled up sharp inclines.
Quick hop aboard a ferry. Gawping at a double rainbow. Discussing the genetic superiority of Dutch people.
We arrived in a timely fashion and climbed some walls, which was actually a lot of fun. Nearly as fun as getting around Amsterdam by bicycle. Such a convenient and pleasant experience, as long as you know the laws of the bike lanes.
So, what made these snippets of my visit so pleasant? Bicycles, is what.
Upon returning to a city that worships the car, I longed for Amsterdam’s peaceful streets. It opened my eyes to the benefits of a city designed around bikes.
Fast forward to today and here I am, spending a great deal of my time pedalling away on two wheels.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...