Amsterdam bicycle survival guide

posted in: Tips | 7

The Scenario


You rent a car. The seat adjustment cannot be altered the way you want, making your driving experience less pleasant. You reach the center of a large foreign city where you have never been. Once you enter the city, the traffic is so intense and the traffic rules are so different from what you are used to that it almost freaks you out. If you are unlucky you even have to drive on the other side of the road! Because of all of this you don’t know where to look and without even knowing it you almost cause a collision and could just avoid hitting a local scooter. In short, a disaster waiting to happen… If you want to prevent this sort of scenario, but than on a bike in Amsterdam, read on.

The intro:

Since cycling is my hobby I commute a total of 30km daily to the office in the heart of Amsterdam. A large part of my trip is through the easy countryside and only a small part is in Amsterdam itself where traffic intensifies massively. In the past years I have had my fair share of near misses, close encounters, bodychecks and even faceplants caused by fellow bikers who simply become unguided missiles as soon as they (try to) propel a bicycle. I must admit that mainly in the morning this is due to locals but most of the above happenings occur in the afternoon. This is when I start my survival adventure (it’s never dull) trying to get out of the center on the streets which are by then invested by rainbow colored bicycles with people sitting on them having a hard time to keep the thing in a straight line. Now don’t get me wrong. As a bicycle fanatic (I own a total of 7 bikes with a combined worth of a reasonable priced car) I applaud human powered transportation in a city but with some tips/tricks the streets can be a little safer.

The Basics:

First of all if you have never (or almost never) been on a bicycle before: think if you really are up for this challenge. Amsterdam is a busy city, and yes there are dedicated bike lanes but if you don’t feel secure on your bike – why take risk? If you are insecure always test if you can at least control the bicycle. Ask if you can ride a bit to see if you can keep it in a straight line and properly know how to brake. These are the minimum basic essentials you need!

The Renting:

Amsterdam rent a bike
Amsterdam rent a bike

A lot of rental places have the option to rent a bike in bright red, yellow, blue and yes even orange. This is not only for marketing reasons but it also lets the locals know that you are a tourist and therefore a potential hazard! Seeing one (or packs) of these bikes always triggers all my alarm bells to go round it in a large curve. Often the pilots of these bicycles make sudden unwanted (or wanted?!) direction changes which make me have to deploy evasive maneuvers at the speed of light. This can then trigger the same reaction with hind coming cars/trams with in the worst case scenario serious carnage as an end result. Me don’t like… Therefore thinking ahead when you see these bikes has become a basic rule for most locals. Its a win/win situation.

Since Amsterdam is so flat that even snooker tables get jealous you don’t need to rent a geared bicycle! More gears means more tech means more possible issues. In addition, many tourists don’t know how to change gear properly and therefore end up with a bike in such a high gear Lance Armstrong will call you master or such a low one you can “slipstream” behind pedestrians.

While in The Netherlands the wearing of a helmet is not required it is of course safe. Yes the Dutch will laugh at you but know that most of them should wear a helmet as well and they are just being ignorant. As long as you feel safer its always a good thing!

The pre-ride check:

Perfect Saddle Height Bicycle
Perfect Saddle Height Bicycle

Setting up the bike before you leave is a wise thing to do. Make sure the tires are pumped up! Pressing it hard with your thumb should dent it only a little (few mm’s). Riding a bicycle with low pressure tires causes tire punctures and will drain energy faster than the average workout. Save yourself from both by checking upfront. Another important thing to check is the saddle height. From experience I can say that over 70% of people ride their bike with a too low saddle height. Too high is often easily detected – I see people riding their bike thinking they are a ballet dancer. While riding a bicycle with a saddle too low you don’t use the full reach of your leg and therefore it’s unnecessarily heavy. Take this small test: Go and sit on the saddle and with the pedal in the lowest position (closest to the ground) you must be able to reach the pedal with an extended leg with the heel of your foot. If your leg is not fully extended, put the saddle a little higher until you reach the desired height. Now you can ride the bicycle in an optimal way with the front end of your foot.

Savely Locked Bicycle
Savely Locked Bicycle

While the next tip is probably a certainty when you hire a bike but make sure it has a lock! Preferably one with a chain so that you can lock it to an unmovable object. Bicycles are an easy target in Amsterdam. Everybody is busy with it so it doesn’t stand out if someone is hammering on a lock or simply walks away with a locked bike. My nice her bike was stolen when she went to the groceries. On her walk home she bumped into a streetbum offering her to buy a bike for 20euros. It was her own bike!!

Traffic Rules:

Amsterdam Bike Lane
Amsterdam Bike Lane

Since The Netherlands is 1 of the few countries in the world where we have actual bike lanes: USE THEM!! Many tourists are not used to bike lanes and end up on the car lanes and even on highways! Bike lanes are easy recognized by signs on both the lanes itself and on poles. Most of them are red colored, or they have bikes drawn on the lane. Once you enter a bikelane ALWAYS watch to your left if there isn’t closing in another fellow biker at a higher speed. When you enter the highway with your car you always look, right? Well do the same here… If i would get a euro for every time I see people not looking I could replace my bikefleet almost weekly. To go into a little more detail: If another cyclist would ride into you in a situation like this you would end up probably with only some scratches. There are however some darker machines on the prowl… Scooters! In the Netherlands we have a breed of scooters that are officially tuned down, allowing them to ride without helmets on bike lanes. The problem is that most (read everybody) tune up these machines to much higher speeds. This makes a collision with one of these battering rams a possible life ender. This same theory goes for when you want to change direction, when you want to pass a slower fellow bicyclist or cross the street. ALWAYS WATCH OVER YOUR SHOULDER. A little twitch in the neck is less of a problem than a broken neck.

You will also see locals holding up their arms sometimes. This is known as a human powered  indicator for changing directions. Especially if cars are involved this is an easy way of showing them you will change direction. Most local bicyclist also find it a normality to ignore traffic lights. Don’t try to follow the same principle. <sarcasm on>It’s common practice to leave home at the last second and put your life at risk by ignoring traffic lights because they prevent you from reaching work on time isn’t it?<sarcasm off> Please don’t think its safe to do the same because it’s not. You are not in a hurry so just wait until the light turns green.

Tram Tracks Bicycle Warning
Tram Tracks Bicycle Warning

The last tip is to not use your phone while biking. The obvious explanation of this tip is of course that you cannot do two things at once (paying attention to traffic and calling) but with that I will upset some readers who will say they can do 2 things at once so here is another reason. A bike has best control with 2 hands. Yes the Dutch roads are quite good but I have seen people smacking their heads against the tarmac because they were on the phone. Tram rails especially are very dangerous, luring unaware bicycle wheels into them from people not holding on well enough to their bars.

Key take aways:



  • Always test if you can control a bicycle.
  • If a little insecure rent a colored bike for better recognition.
  • Don’t rent geared bicycles.
  • Wear a helmet if insecure.
  • Check tire pressure before leaving rental.
  • Check saddle height before leaving rental.
  • Make sure it has a good lock.
  • Stay on bike lanes.
  • Always watch over your shoulder when changing direction/entering the road.
  • Watch out for scooters.
  • Never ignore traffic lights even when you see locals not doing it.
  • Use your arm to point out a direction change.
  • Dont call and bike at once.
  • Watch out for tram rails.

The end:

To end I want to wish you all happy/safe biking time in Amsterdam. If you see a dude in black on a black bike rush by on his very fancy bike,  just shout “Thanks for the tips!”  – Could very well be that it’s not me but in case it is, thanks!


7 Responses

  1. Adam

    Wow, very informative rundow for the first timer! I never ended up renting a bicycle last time I went, but I will be sure to this time! The only question I have is this: If I have turned into a bike lane and someone is about to pass me, do I move to the right and let them pass me on the left, or is it the other way around?

  2. Ide

    Hi Adam, thanks for the compliment. For sure rent a bicycle in Amsterdam when you come over again.
    If you turn into a bikelane and you know someone is about to pass indeed just move over to the right and let them pass. Same goes when you do not see them, often you will hear a nice bell ringing letting you know someone would like to pass.

  3. Lorna Bartlett

    We are doing a couple of tours-bike helmets are required, but we don’t want to have to carry ours over from the USA. Can we buy bike helmets in Amsterdam? And, would you make a recommendation as to where? Your post was very helpful! We are very excited. Thanks, Lorna

  4. Roberto Derichi

    Hi all.
    I am Dutch, i live in Amsterdam.
    I have something more to say: Many locals think the tourists on the bike are quite annoying.
    This is because some of the things described by Ide above;

    When changing direction; always use your hands to tell others where you are going. Left hand means you’re going left, right hand.. indeed. you’re going right.

    If you are a tourist and you are on a bike-lane; don’t drive with 2 people next to eachother. Always stay behind / in front of your mate. Reason: The Dutch are in a rush, they don’t want to have to stay behind you going just 12 km/p/h.. People in a rush go 20 / 25 km/p/h easily.

    About traffic lights: 100% true.. As a tourist you are not as fast as the locals; never try to ‘catch’ an orange light. Just stop.

    One last thing; when you have stopped and you want to get going on your bike again; always check behind you if there are other bicycles coming; if there are; wait. Only get on your bike again when behind you is free; you are not as stable on a bike as the local Dutch are so when getting on you will wobble from left to right a bit, using all of the bicycle-lane. You don’t want the locals having to brake for you..

    Light.. If you’re going in the winter-time or in the evening; always use lights! White / Yellow light in front. Red light in the back. Other users of the road can get very pissed if you do not have proper lights on the bike; remember, you are vunerable on a bike; when it’s raining .. dark and you do not have lights; you are close to invisible for car-users / trams / taxi’s.

    That’s all! When keeping to the rules it’s quite safe to bicycle in Amsterdam… The people who use the road are used that there’s bikes coming from all directions at the same time. When a car wants to go right, and you want to go straight forward; and the bike-lane is on the same road as the car-lane; you can always go first.. just make sure the driver saw you.


  5. resources

    e-cigar Amsterdam bicycle survival guide – Blog

  6. sapna

    “The man alongside studies the fingernails of his right hand…In time he begins making the sound either or both of them make when troubled by anxiety, critical choices, nameless dread…It’s a prolonged hum, the speech sound m.”

  7. Wietske

    You can plan your trip very easy with this free routeplanner website, URL: in Dutch, Frysian, English, French and German language The “Fietsersbond” (Cyclists’ Union) is an organisation which represents the interests of cyclists in the Netherlands. see Wikipedia. The main office is in Utrecht, the address in Amsterdam is: Fietsersbond, Wg-Plein 84, 1054 RC Amsterdam the Netherlands
    telephone 0031(0)20 685 4794

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