Independent travelers avoid organized tours because we hate other people. Okay, I’m mostly joking, but tours make us feel restricted, like captives. The self-determination of independent travel allows us to make choices about the direction we take, our mode of travel and how long to stay in a locale according to our mood, wallet or a simply a hankering for something new. It’s empowering! It can also be lonely or isolating if we aren’t making personal connections. So, on a trip to the Netherlands I decided to get outside my comfort zone and take an Amsterdam bicycle tour, in the cycling capital of the Universe. A city with more bikes than humans. Who knows what adventures might befall me and who I might meet?
Amsterdam Bicycle Tour: Getting Started
Arranging a spot online for an Amsterdam bicycle tour with Yellow Bike (YB) is seamless. YB emails a confirmation with the option of paying in cash or by card when you arrive. Tours are in your preferred language: Dutch or English. I chose what YB calls a Countryside tour, where we dip our cycling toes into a Municipality northeast of central Amsterdam called Waterland. Located in Noord Holland, just half of Waterland’s area is land, mostly devoted to farming, with an occasional village.
Tour leader Pauline Ignacio, fluent in English as well as Dutch and Spanish, gives our group of 12 cyclists basic instructions: Pay attention to traffic signals, listen for bicycle bells signaling that someone is coming from behind, and especially relevant, stay to the right on pathways and roads to allow faster cyclists (which is everybody else in the entire city) to pass. Simple enough. Helmets are optional (I saw one in 3 weeks of travel in the Netherlands, in a trash bin) and we all opt to ride without. Our backsides perched in the saddles of our bright yellow bicycles, Pauline laughs and asks, “Everyone here knows how to ride a bike…right?” and we’re off on our Amsterdam bicycle tour, following her like ducklings.
Pauline leads our group on a winding route through crowds around Centraal Station to catch one of the free ferries carrying pedestrians and cyclists across the IJ, a body of water separating central Amsterdam from Waterland. I get familiar with my bike, adjusting seat height at a traffic light and testing the coaster brakes. It’s a far cry from my multi-speed road bike back in Austin, but is comfortable and quaint, and the upright stance allows for great visibility. It’s like being a kid again, out on an adventure, just me and my 12 friends.
Once we disembark the ferry we’ve immediately left the hustle of central Amsterdam behind, entering a slower-paced world of bird song, farm animals and the intermittent ringing of bicycle bells. Riding atop dykes through villages, past fields of cows and sheep, Pauline stops the group now and then to give historical context on windmills and churches, and talk about the Netherlands’ world-famous water management feats as we stand beside a monstrous pump capable of moving 40,000 liters per minute in the event of storm flooding. I snap a few photos and we’re back on the bikes.
As we ride along, our group of cyclists shape-changes from the one-behind-another, right-side-hugging troop Pauline has requested, to an amorphous chaotic cluster and back to single-file. I meet my tour mates, drifting in and out of random conversations.
Meet my Tour Mates
There is Bikram, an accountant from India, taking a break from his work-related trip to see a bit of the Netherlands outside an office, whose riding style is a balancing act of proving he’s in command of an unfamiliar bicycle and operating a selfie-stick. He mostly manages it and I mostly manage to not plow into him as I ride with my own phone in hand snapping shots as we push on.
I meet Sue, a historian from the Pacific Northwest. As our bikes weave in and out of the group, I learn about her study of French colonialism and slavery. She mentions a research trip to Mauritius. I tell her that friends moved there last year.
“Are they smugglers?” she asks. I laugh.
“Bankers,” I offer.
“That’d be my second guess,” Sue says.
Conversation pauses as we negotiate a village of brick homes, cafés and kids. I wave and say, “Goedemorgen!” to folks sitting on stoops.
I spend a few moments chatting with Scott, an award-winning newspaper reporter. He talks about writing and the decline of the newspaper business. As we drift apart, I wish him luck.
Rather less interesting, a group of 5 American students ride in a clot of perfect ponytails and skinny jeans, forgetting or refusing to stay to the right out of way of cars and other cyclists. They veer or brake suddenly and squeal in response. Pauline’s expert bicycle tour leadership and ambassadorial skills are tested as she works to get her ducklings on yellow bikes back in line. Passing Dutch cyclists show their impatience only through the briii-i-i-i-i-i-ing of bells to warn they’re coming up on our left.
Mobile Shopping, Lunch and a Creekside Tuba Player
Pauline pauses on a narrow bridge before leading us into a small village. A rider maneuvers his horse through the mass of bicycles on the bridge just as I hear the muffled ooom-pa-pa, ooom-pa-pa of a tuba. Peering over the bridge rail, I spot a bicycle on its side on the creek bank. Beside it is the tuba player sitting on an upturned bucket, cheeks puffed, wearing a pair of Beats headphones.
In the village of Ransdorp I spot a mobile grocery store, sides rolled up to reveal beer, produce and a weighing scale. The group stops to have lunch at the village’s only restaurant. The college girls go inside, while I join Sue, Bikram, Scott and Pauline at a terrace table outdoors.
Over bowls of tomato soup and Belgian beer, we explore topics from American politics to the Netherlands’ bicycle culture. While I share a plate of liverwurst and pickles with Sue, she offers a taste of fruity beer. Bikram gives a few details about his job and his wife. Pauline tells us she is majoring in Spanish, hoping to study in Sevilla. She’s working to raise the money with two jobs, both of which involve her on a bike: guiding tours and making deliveries. We have a comfortable, give and take conversation around the table before Pauline rises to gather her ducklings for the ride back to Amsterdam.
I sleep soundly that night, dreaming in newspaper-style reports of smugglers and coaster brakes, of Spain and a journey to India. I may have heard the far-off quaaack of ducklings along with the ooom-pa-pa of a tuba.
Amsterdam Bicycle Tour: Final Thoughts for Independent Travelers
Independent travel lets you stop on a whim and linger. Detours off the beaten track often yield travel treasure and on a tour, that rarely happens. I took fewer photographs on my Amsterdam bicycle tour than I would have if I’d been alone, which I considered a downside. On the other hand…
On that bike in Waterland, I focused more on the activity and what I saw with my eyes rather than peering through a camera lens. This made for a more immediate experience of sights, sounds and scents. Most of all, for this naturally curious (or nosy) traveler, the random conversations with tour members were engaging. Our lunch together was a delightful change from dining alone. Also, I plan to return to Amsterdam with my husband and what I learned on the Yellow Bike tour helped me decide to rent bicycles and head out on our own to explore and see where that leads us.
Come out of the periodic isolation of independent travel to join a tour now and then. Choose something you probably wouldn’t do on your own. Talk with your tour mates and you just might find them more interesting than you expect. Oh, and keep your ears open for bicycle bells.
Resources & Links:
- Yellow Bike offers Big and Small City bike tours in addition to the Countryside Waterland tour I took. Two to four hour trips, €22,50-32,50
- For another view of Biking in Waterland, read Daniel Gabriel’s piece.