The Netherlands Gets on its Bike

If you had to take one photo that summed up the Netherlands as the average foreigner sees it, what would it show? Queen Beatrix in clogs, cycling past a row of windmills, with the glassy eyes of dozens of cows staring at her in astonishment – this would probably qualify.

It is not very likely that Her Majesty would offer her services for this Dutch promotional spot, but the fact is that she does cycle. In 2001 she was even immortalised in bronze on her bike. Whereas her male predecessors had been frozen into statues as proud generals on horseback, she will forever be trying to keep her rather shaky balance on two narrow tyres at the Posbank nature reserve near Arnhem. And so far with great success.

Her mother and grandmother cycled too, as do most of her subjects. There are as many bikes as people in the Netherlands: sixteen million. If the Flemish are born with a brick in their hands, with which to build their own home as soon as they get the chance, the Dutchman finds a tricycle in his cradle so that he will master the art of cycling as soon as possible. The Netherlands has 20,000 kilometres of cycle paths (which means 1.2 metres per inhabitant) and the Dutch language area is the only one to have a word for the bicycle whose etymology remains unknown: fiets. Virtually every Dutch linguist of any reputation has agonized in vain over the origins of this word. The one certain thing is that it was initially spelt with a v (viets), and that it dates from the late nineteenth century. How a small country can achieve greatness!

The fact that people cycle so much in the Netherlands is not so much a result of the displays of modesty (‘look how ordinary we are’) of which one might suspect successive monarchs. No, apart from the informal nature of Dutch culture, it is of course also a matter of our fairly unique geographical condition. To quote the Rotterdam writer and keen cyclist Bob den Uyl in his ironically toned study What Cycles There? (Wat fietst daar?, 1980), the Netherlands are ‘a large park, filled from top to bottom with winding paths and roads, small streams and broad rivers. The land might have been made for top-notch cycle trips. The distances are not too long, there are no mountains to block the view or be climbed, the landscape is peaceful, still and, to the connoisseur, varied’. And as if this evocation of such a paradise were not enough to make the most obdurate driver leap straight onto their bike, he goes on, ‘It is also larded with old towns whose streets you can wander contentedly’. Den Uyl does portray the marshy Dutch delta a little too idyllically, as if the Netherlands were one vast Arcadia, but it cannot be denied that the country’s highest ‘mountain’, 321 metres high, lies in the deep south, at a great distance from most Dutch people. Nor do the Dutch have to endure a scorching sun in a barren landscape, and every couple of kilometres the pasture is interrupted by ‘a patch of wood the size of a newspaper’. And one gets used to wind. An additional advantage is that, unlike Belgium, all these cycle paths mean you will not so soon be knocked down and end up in hospital.

No, in the Netherlands you can cycle to your heart’s content with greater ease than in almost any other country. Our former Prime Minister Wim Kok must have thought the same when, at the European summit in Amsterdam in 1997, he succeeded in persuading his colleagues to – cautiously – try out a bicycle. One cannot blame him for failing, as far as I am aware, to convert them into avid cyclists in their own countries. Those are after all less suited to this form of transport than the ‘endless low country’ of the Netherlands, where, to encourage cycling, one has since 2002 been able to rent a bike for only 2.5 euros a day from an increasing number of railway stations and where the Best Cycling Town is chosen from five nominees every two years. In 2000, this honour went to Veenendaal in Gelderland: it was one of the first places in the country to have free secure cycle-racks at the station and in the centre of town. This is an initiative worth repeating: nothing is stolen so easily and with so few qualms as a bicycle, locked or not, and especially where there are students. In a medium-sized university town like Tilburg more than 7,000 bikes change hands unlawfully every year. Twenty a day.

The bicycle is the perfect means of transport for the individualist. Tandems are for eccentrics. And everyone has memories of bikes, just as they do of a mother, even if it was no more than the resigned endurance of painfully jolting along on a children’s saddle or the luggage carrier. Perhaps this is why the bicycle and cycling are so often praised in poetry. It started as early as the late nineteenth century, when Herman Gorter portrayed two competing racing cyclists in sight of the finishing line in his classic epic poem ‘May’ (‘Mei’, 1889):

… they peer at each other’s wheels
And pedal resolutely, their souls
Full of spite and hatred, approaching the end one is ahead,
But the other overtakes and dashes past
Blinded by despair. Pedalling over the finish
He draws cheers and applause from the spectators.

Since then, writing poetry on the nation’s favourite form of transport has never ceased. In 1980 an anthology was published, entitled simply The Bike (De Fiets), in which Wim J. Simons collected fifty bicycle poems. He could have chosen three times as many. Strikingly enough, it was in the seventies that the praises of the bicycle were most abundantly sung. I shall not venture to explain this boom. Simons simply says that the bicycle gained enormously in popularity at that time. But since when have poets let their inspiration be guided by such banalities? Of course the true cyclists among them may well do so. Cycling is after all a fairly earthly occupation. In any case, of the following collection of ten bicycle poems, eight were published about thirty years ago. After an ode to the bicycle (C. Buddingh’) you will encounter them all one after the other: the toddler on the children’s seat at the front (Jan Kuijper), the seven-year-old boy on his first bike (Gerrit Komrij), the urban cyclist (Gerry van der Linden), the man who cycles to avoid the boredom of a Sunday (Kees Ouwens), the cyclist who actually wants to fly (Ad Zuiderent), the conqueror of the Mont Ventoux (Jan Kal), the noble cyclist (H. Van Teylingen), the man who is ashamed as he anticipates the elderly, struggling pensioner he will later become (T. Van Deel) and to close, the cyclist as a metaphor for contemporary humankind.

As for myself, I am entirely ‘self-propelling’, in the sense that I am addicted to moving myself about. Preferably by bike, but if that’s not possible, on foot. This urge must have something to do with a powerful yearning for autarky for only ever having myself to thank for everything. I distrust everything I cannot achieve under my own steam and therefore go through life carless. You have to earn your destination by making an effort. Even death. I have tried to express this conviction in the ‘Ode to the Bicycle’ (‘Ode aan de fiets’) below, which is from my latest collection, While Whistling (Al fluitend, 2001):

As motionless as possible in movement;
it’s best with mist in the meadow
it’s light, but there’s nothing that
must already be something, no cow
nor gate nor city in the distance;
what there is, is just a bike
with circling legs each side.

Even if, however far from home
and however dark the night, you pedal
your own kindly light with ease.
And even if your front light is broken,
the dynamo still sings its song,
which itself brings peace to the mind.

But above all, on arrival, it is
entirely you that arrives –
empty, cheery, dead tired.

And so, later, it should be you
that comes to a halt and no other.

In my more melancholy moments I fear that I even subscribe to Pascal’s declaration that all the world’s misery is the consequence of the fact that man is not capable of sitting quietly at home – implicitly an argument against every form of mobility. But if one has to move, then as far as I am concerned it’s by bike. Because, as one of the greatest post-war Dutch poets, Rutger Kopland, once wrote in a collection with the eloquent title of Everything by Bike (Alles op de fiets, 1981): ‘On the bike everything goes slowly / but still fairly fast.’ And that is precisely the speed I like. Every day for almost a quarter of a century I have covered the distance from my home in Leiden to my place of work in The Hague by bike – 35 kilometres there and back. The little bonus I like most is to come across the same cyclists at the same place every day. This ideal cannot be fully achieved but one comes close, at least when I leave home at the same time, take the same route and keep to the same speed, and when the others, always the same ones, do this too. As if we were not moving ourselves forward, but were being moved forward, fixed on two conveyor belts moving in opposite directions.

And as a telling Dutch saying points out, one which perfectly expresses the thrift in our national character, on the bicycle you will get where you want virtually free of charge (‘Op de fiets geniet je voor niets’ – ‘Enjoy the bike at a price you like’), which is of course an added bonus.

To conclude: to the poet, unlike the ordinary earthly mortal, cycling, or the movement the legs make while doing it, has one great advantage over every other means of movement, including running. The cycling movement is… cyclical: your legs turn, you pump something up. Cycling draws up water, brings things to the surface, like the dredger. Without cycling there are no thoughts, or at least far fewer thoughts, and without thoughts there are no poems.

By Anton Korteweg
Translated by Gregory Ball

First published in The Low Countries, 2004

 

Ten Cycling Poems

Ode to the Bicycle

for Wim de Vries

You too, you realise, began your days as a conveyance
for the rich: stylishly moustachioed
gentlemen in stylish, pricey tweed
with their downy ladies free-wheeling along
narrow rustic roads, where not even a farmer
would dare sully the pristine scene.

And now: so proletarian that you’re in danger
of once more becoming a status symbol for overweight
managers now overexposed
in their Jag or MG: no problem: should their
thigh muscles give them some evening twinges
you’ll probably go to their chauffeur.

No, you are and will stay what you’ve been for about
half a century: the extension of poor people’s legs:
just look in the morning, around seven
‘o clock, when the first factory hooters sound:
in their tens of thousands they come swarming
past still shut garage doors.

That’s why it is fine to live in a town or a village
with plenty of cyclists: and what’s more, there’s
no smell and no sound – well alright, you squeak
and you creak just a bit, but the gears
that send your wheels spinning for next to nothing
are that much more eroded by rust.

Today or tomorrow, you’ll hear the smack: already
here and there Lancias, Studebakers and Bentleys
are swarming like lemmings along the roads.
Although a Mercedes can go at a lick,
on a bike we can catch it, for we are that quick
and then we will laugh in its face!

Ode aan de fiets

Ook jij bent, weet je nog wel, als vervoermiddel voor
de rijken begonnen: deftig besnorde
heren in deftig, duur tweed
met hun donzige dames freewheelend over
rustieke weggetjes, waar zelfs geen boer
het landschapsschoon durfde bezoedelen.

En nu: zo proletarisch dat je weer
een statussymbool dreigt te worden voor dikke
managers die op hun Jag
of MG uitgekeken geraakt zijn: geen nood:
als ze een paar keer ‘s avonds hun dijspieren voelen
ga jij wel naar hun chauffeur.

Nee, jij bent en je blijft wat je nu al zo’n halve eeuw
mocht zijn: het verlengstuk van armeluisbenen:
kijk ‘s morgens maar eens, om zo’n uur
of zeven, als de eerste fabrieksfluiten gaan:
langs nog dichte garagedeuren zwermen ze
dan bij tienduizenden aan.

Daarom is het goed in een stad of een dorp te wonen
waar veel fietsers zijn: bovendien ben je reuken
geluidloos — nu goed ja, je piept
en kraakt soms een beetje, maar ‘t raderwerk
dat voor een grijpstuiver jouw wielen laat draaien
is nog veel meer door roest aangevreten.

Vandaag of morgen hoor je de klap: nu al zwermen
hier en daar Lancia’s, Studebakers en Bentley’s
als lemmingen over de wegen.
Al is de Mercedes ook nog zo snel,
wij op de fiets achterhalen hem wel
en dan wordt het lachen geblazen!

From It Stops Raining Softly (Het houdt op met zachtjes regenen, 1976)
By C. Buddingh’
Translated by John Irons

Calamity

I had a crossbar saddle of my own.
where I would rather sit than at the back,
in front I had a view, behind a lack,
apart from father’s coat, which, feeling prone
to falling, I would cling to. But no need
of all that when up front. Though sad to tell
it didn’t take that long before I fell:
My father lost control, he failed to heed

that Marathon Road was hit by a gale.
I was bowled over cobblestones: and I’d
soon gained before I knew the other side.
No traffic took that long, straight windswept trail
that February morning. Yet I wailed
(I can still hear it): that’s my last school ride.

Ramp

Ik had een eigen zadel, op de stang.
‘k Zat liever daar dan achterop de fiets,
want voor kon ‘k uitkijken, achter zag ‘k niets,
behalve vaders jas, waaraan ‘k me, bang
te vallen, met twee handen vasthield; iets
wat voor niet hoefde. — ‘k Zat voorop, maar lang
duurde het niet, of ‘k viel toch: het bedwang
van ‘t stuur was vader even kwijt, er blies

een stormwind over de Marathonweg.
‘k Rolde over de kinderhoofdjes, en eer
‘k het wist was ‘k aan de overkant. ‘t Verkeer
was weggebleven van die lange, rechte
weg, die februariochtend. ‘k Zeg
(ik hoor het nog): naar school wil ‘k nu niet meer.

From Sonnets (Sonnetten, 1973)
By Jan Kuijper
Translated by John Irons

The Cycle Pump

You learnt to ride a bike when you were seven.
A ‘bicycle’ that is – it seemed at first, well,
Strange, to have a name like that one given
To just a bike. The best part was the bell.

Which when you rounded corners you could give a
Ring, though that came later. ‘Keep to the street.
And put your coat on – it’s too cold.’ I’d shiver,
But what cared I upon my noble steed?

Since when from accident to total loss
I’ve worn iron horses out from first to last;
I’ve done with riding, for my bell’s worked loose,
And my poor pump’s inflating days are past.

’t Fietspompje

Je zou gaan fietsen als een kind van zeven.
Een ‘rijwiel’ heette ‘t, dat vond je eerst wel
Vreemd, om een andere naam te geven
Aan wat een fiets is. ‘t Mooiste was de bel,

Die tingelen kon, als je een hoek omwilde.
Maar dat mocht later pas. ‘Blijf in de straat,
En trek je jas aan, ‘t is te koud.’ Ik rilde,
Maar wat gaf dat in mijn rijdersstaat?

Ik heb nadien, van accident tot total loss,
Zo menig stalen paard versleten; er zullen
Er niet meer volgen; want mijn bel zit los
En mijn pompje kan geen band meer vullen.

From All Flesh is Grass or The Charnel-House on God’s Acre
(Alle vlees is als gras of Het knekelhuis op de dodenakker, 1969)
By Gerrit Komrij
Translated by John Irons

Forwards!

I choose
my fearsome face

while
riding my bike
through narrow strips of streets
where freight stands stacked
the docker takes his time

the automobile strains its wheel
against the current called time

I show
the back of my legs
the tip of my coat
to errant americans
day-trippers one-weekers death-seekers
citizens from without canalside dwellers

I trounce
the last ounce from my wheel
take aim
take aim
forwards!

Voorwaarts!

Ik kies
mijn grimmige gezicht

terwijl
ik de fiets rijd
door nauwe stukken straat
waar vrachten staan gestapeld
de sjouwer zijn tijd neemt

het automobiel wrikt zijn wiel
tegen de stroom die tijd heet

ik toon
mijn achterste benen
de punt in mijn jas
voor dolende amerikanen
dagbraaiers doordraaiers doodzoekers
burgers van buiten bewoners aan grachten

ik haal
de krachten uit mijn wiel
stuur aan
stuur aan
voorwaarts!

From The Note (De aantekening, 1979)
By Gerry van der Linden
Translated by John Irons

Ode to the City of Utrecht and Environs

It was Sunday. At six ‘o clock in the morning I left these
premises.
After I had mounted my bike, my dog Ares came and stood
next to me.
Nobody had left their houses. The city of Utrecht was grey.
A sleepy stillness lay over all of creation. This must be
Jehovah’s eternal and unfathomable silence. I hurried along
the canal, through the streets, out of the city.
Nobody followed me, I was sure. It was chilly. There was also
a striking absence of wind. A grey daylight made my field of
vision dejected and ugly. My head unceasingly sat between my
hunched-up shoulders.
I was neither happy nor sad. My job was to go for a cycle ride
with the dog, in order to lighten the daily grind with a little
variety.
Very soon I had the city behind me. There too inhospitable
greyness.
A ditch, actually a river, allowed its sewage water to meander
with muddy sluggishness through flat meadows. Whole woods
of trees stood next to each other, pointing with dull-witted
intransigence at the sky.
I tried to escape this senseless intractability by turning away
my head.
There too though my eye was struck by this same glut of
sameness
There was no salvation.

Ode aan de stad Utrecht en omgeving

Het was zondag. Om zes uur in de ochtend verliet ik dit
pand.
Nadat ik mijn fiets beklommen had, kwam mijn hond Ares
naast me.
Niemand had zijn huis verlaten. De stad Utrecht was grijs.
Een slaperige stilte dekte alle leven af. Dit moest Jehova’s eeuwige
enondoorgrondelijke zwijgen zijn. Ik haastte mij langs de gracht, de
straten door, naar buiten.
Niemand volgde me, wist ik. Het was kil. Eveneens was er een
opvallende afwezigheid van wind. Een grijs daglicht maakte mijn
gezichtsveld mistroostig en lelijk. Onophoudelijk zat mijn hoofd
tussen mijn opgetrokken schouders.
Ik was blij noch droevig. Mijn taak was met de hond fietsen,
teneinde de moeizaamheid van alle dag met enige afwisseling te
verlichten.
Al gauw had ik de stad achter me. Ook daar onherbergzame
grijsheid.
Een sloot, eigenlijk een rivier, kronkelde met modderige traagheid
zijn rioolwater door platte weilanden. Bomen stonden in hele bossen
bij elkaar met stompzinnige onverzettelijkheid in de richting van de
hemel.
Ik probeerde deze redeloze eigenzinnigheid te ontlopen door mijn
hoofd af te wenden.
Maar daar werd mijn oog ter plaatse getroffen door ditzelfde teveel
van hetzelfde.
Er was geen verlossing.

From Intimate Acts (Intieme handelingen, 1973)
By Kees Ouwens
Translated by John Irons

On the Bike

A sober cyclist on the canal: what
falls is an autumn leaf – light ascends.
Still no feeling of the shortest day.

But if the light turns, the cyclist too will
turn his back on the town, choose river for canal,
snow on country roads for urban mush.

What still feeds his memory: the smell
of moisture when you shed your raingear?
Did Sebastian ever go to Duivendrecht?
Come spring, the loneliness dissolves
into those he meets along the Amstel’s banks:
the cyclists with their hands aloft like friends.

So one who left seclusion behind,
threatened by fumes of fast traffic, feels at home
beyond the meadows at his desk.

But one summer’s day beyond the bridge
he turns left, wants to explore the river’s end:
coming from Ouderkerk he heads citywards again.

It’s quiet, once cemetery and windmill have gone by:
‘To ride for ever like this!’ the thought goes through him, and
no one sees that his bike is straining to fly.

Op de fiets

Een nuchter fietser op de gracht: wat valt
dat is een herfstblad — licht stijgt op.
Nóg is er geen gevoel van kortste dag.

Maar keert het licht, dan keert de fietser ook
de stad de rug toe, kiest rivier voor gracht,
sneeuw op de buitenweg voor stadse prak.

Wat voedt nog zijn herinnering: de damp
die geurt bij ‘t uitdoen van een regenpak?
Ging ooit Sebastiaan naar Duivendrecht?
Komt lente, lost de eenzaamheid zich op
in wie hij tegenkomt de Amstel langs:
de fietsers met hun hand omhoog als vrienden.

Zo voelt wie de beslotenheid verliet,
bedreigd door damp van snelverkeer, zich thuis
voorbij de weiden achter zijn bureau.

Maar op een zomerdag slaat hij voorbij
de brug linksaf, wil de rivier ten einde:
komend van Ouderkerk zoekt hij weer stad.

Na molen en begraafplaats wordt het stil:
‘Zo eeuwig fietsen!’ gaat het door hem, en
geen mens ziet dan zijn fiets de lucht in wil.

From Memory for Landscape (Geheugen voor landschap, 1979)
By Ad Zuiderent
Translated by Paul Vincent

Mont Ventoux

Writing verse is cycling up Mont Ventoux,
where Tommy Simpson met his tragic end,
before he ever made the final bend
the once world champion collapsed from view.

here riders all try shaking off the pack,
a category one col, now taboo.
it has a pinewood scent, Sunsilk Shampoo,
which you could need to use when you get back.

it’s so exhausting you run out of fuel,
cycling up Mont Ventoux’s a bitter pill,
so ‘look before you leap’ applies, you’ll find.

despite all this, although the heat is cruel,
I reach the summit of this windswept hill:
vanity and the hot pursuit of wind.

Mont Ventoux, 1 Aug. 1971

Mont Ventoux

dichten is fietsen op de Mont Ventoux,
waar Tommy Simpson nog is overleden.
onder zo tragiere omstandigheden
werd hier de wereldkampioen doodmoe.

op deze col zijn velen losgereden,
eerste categorie, sindsdien tabu.
het ruikt naar dennegeur, Sunsilk Shampoo,
die je wel nodig hebt, eenmaal beneden.

alles is onuitsprekelijk vermoeiend,
de Mont Ventoux opfietsen wel heel erg,
waarvoor ook geldt: bezint eer gij begint.

toch haal ik, ook al is de hitte schroeiend,
de top van deze winderige berg:
ijdelheid en het najagen van wind.

Mont Ventoux, 1 aug. 1971

From Cycling on the Mont Ventoux (Fietsen op de Mont Ventoux, 1974)
By Jan Kal
Translated by John Irons

Famille

The baron cycles round.
From his bell with monogram
madrigals ring out.

His mother on the lawn
with silver fir and sundial
waters the livery of her bees.

Father dozes in the ground.

Famille

De baron fietst rond.
Uit zijn bel met monogram
klinken madrigalen.

Zijn moeder op het gazon
met zilverspar en zonnewijzer
begiet de livrei harer bijen.

Vader dommelt in de grond.

From The Baron Cycles Round (De baron fietst rond, 1966)
By H. van Teylingen
Translated by Tanis Guest

Identification

For the cyclist in earflaps,
with clips around his trousers,
muffs on his handlebars,
that I now so nearly am
I’ve been ashamed since way back when.

Vereenzelviging

Voor de fietser met oorkleppen,
met knijpers in zijn pijpen,
kappen aan zijn stuur,
die ik nu haast geworden ben,
schaamde ik me vroeger al.

From Right Among the Blackbirds (Recht onder de merels, 1971)
By T. van Deel
Translated by Tanis Guest

The Windblowntrousered Man

That there should always be that fount
that reaches to the sky.
It is the man who on the desert
camel having dragged us on
ever more erect
from water-well to evening dress
forsakes us now for what he thinks
to be up on the high-diked dike:

the windblowntrousered man!

Who now turns round and climbs down
to get a baggage carrier
(and cycle clip)
saying: all
banners psalms binoculars
and songs with the wind behind them
to be handed in at the windmill
which grinds death down
into a violent presence
to maintain fear and dread.

Jump up behind that man!

De broekbewapperde mens

Dat er altijd maar die bron zou zijn
die reikt tot in de hemel.
Het is de mens die op de kemel
des woestijns ons doortrokken hebbend
steeds rechtop
van waterput tot avondkleding
ons nu verlaat voor wat hij denkt
te zijn op de bedijkte dijk:

de broekbewapperde mens!

Die nu omkeert en afdaalt
voor een bagagedrager
(en een broekklem)
zeggende:
vlaggen psalmen verrekijkers
en voordewindse liederen
inleveren bij de windmolen
die de dood vermaalt
tot hevige aanwezigheid
angst en vreze te behouden.

Spring maar achterop bij de mens!

From The Windblowntrousered Man (De broekbewapperde mens, 2002)
By Robert Anker
Translated by Tanis Guest

Poems first published in The Low Countries, 2004