Canals x Cycles

Cities that are spoken for by bicycles are a tireless whirr of cranks, creaks and circular motion, and when you round that up with canals, the scene becomes undulatingly more picturesque. A stream of people and pedals gliding over bridges at speeds a tricycle time trial faster than the sploshing beneath, a quayside campaign with a trail of swans bobbing along like a left-wing peloton, leaf-littered water making room for reflections of the city always going somewhere – more often than not, forward.

Wheels up on Amsterdam’s Keizergracht canal. © Desiree Koh

Within the last three months, I’ve straddled two European cities big on canals and cycles; now that I’m in Amsterdam, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two, like one might between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Breaking Away. In Copenhagen, gears are built into the Great Dane DNA, in which muscle fibers are juiced with an innate dedication to the outdoors and fueled by a ceaseless cadence which if stopped, would be defying a major law of physics. Copenhagen cyclists propel purposefully even when life-threatening wind chill and Scandinavian winters throw up stop lights all across town. The mechanics of motion are graceful, and their Nordically hardy steeds are pimped.

Park and ride in Copenhagen. © Desiree Koh

In Amsterdam, every other storefront is a café with cakes, tarts and pies that make your heart stop instantly (also eventually, if you heed the beckon of beautifully baked goods at each appearance; every other storefront in Copenhagen is a bike shop), which might explain huffs and puffs are sometimes audible as the city’s cyclists step on it up canal bridges. Despite the infamous Red Light District, Amsterdam bikes are not built to hustle – they are old-fashioned fat tires, occasionally rusting, often heavy, and a means to an end, rather than the start of a day that probably also includes marathon training and beer drinking, and all the other routines that ensure the Danish finish strong. In Amsterdam, they’re happy to pull their own weight, and that of a pillion rider on a bicycle built for one. They go down waterside lanes side by side, chatting and sometimes romantically linked by holding hands. In Copenhagen, they’ve turned cycling as a common commune into a science – bike lanes have their own traffic signals and off-ramps. Here, the lap of pleasure in taking the longer, slower route is an art and also, artful dodging is rampant in the face of abstract jay-cycling.

Gember koek, a tart filled with almond paste and piled with candied ginger, that Lansdroon Café has been baking since 1908, part of the fuel that powers Amsterdam cyclists. © Desiree Koh

After years of rebellion (the Eel Riot of 1886, student occupations in the 1960s, the abortion debate of the 1970s, and an anarchist named Bart Huges who drilled a hole in his forehead to show how open-minded he was), you can hardly hold it against Dammers for letting their bike chains hang loose. Brown cafés revolutionize friendships, the “I AmSterdam” welcome policy has almost 50 percent of the city’s population comprised of non-Dutch people (you hear accented English as often as you smell fresh frites – every street corner) and of course, you’ve heard about Amsterdam’s liberal arts (and I don’t mean Van Gogh and Rembrandt). Ramshackle, bare-bone houseboats drift on the waterfront next to millionaire houses on gilded canals such as Herengracht.

On Prinsengracht canal, Golden Age mansions loom over houseboats, who never feel like they have to keep up with the Johanns. © Desiree Koh

All this progressive thinking is part of the reason why Amsterdam and its bikes are on the right track. Two wheels are better than four – less pollution, more exercise, more fresh air, less stalling – a victorious cycle. Everything else is just water under the bridge, little of it troubled.

Like that story of the dog who waits patiently for his master to get off the train every evening, Amsterdam bikes faithfully take a brake as their owners take care of business in the city’s trademark brown cafés. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.