Cycling across the world with dogs was never something I had put any thought into, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The last time I had owned a bicycle it was the late 80’s in suburban Australia. A time and a place where it was cool to have multi-coloured plastic pieces on your spokes, to match multi coloured fluroescent t-shirts. For a brief time my pride and joy was an overwhelmingly red ‘Duster’ BMX. Red frame, red grips, and red tyres. No extra fluff like gears, just pedal forward to start and pedal backwards to stop. It would be my preferred way to venture into the neighbourhood, pushing the boundaries of my small world. The place to be, and the number one destination was the ‘milk bar’, where adults bought boring things like milk and newspapers, ignoring the glittering array of lollies selling for 1c each at the front counter. (I say ‘boring things like milk’, but I was furious when my mum revealed to my friends that it was my favourite drink, thinking that coca cola would have been a much cooler answer).
At other times curiosity and courage would see Duster venturing into more exotic, unchartered territory. Occasionally weekend scouting expeditions would take us, beyond our years, into the labrynth of my local high school. Rows of grey portable buildings enclosed rows of grey poles, supporting walkways over grey concrete paths. Every blind corner was full of menace, and I would imagine taller, hairier boys and lumpy chested girls lurking under doorways, cigarettes in hand, waiting to cause mischief. Other more routine days would see us exploring the finer details, the courts and cul-de-sacs of the neighbourhood , sometimes even passing The Blue House.The Blue House, is where it was rumoured a madman lived his days painting everything he saw blue. I knew he would not like such a red bike, and I always sped up, or crossed the road entirely.
But before long Duster, (I like to think by destiny, not neglect), ended up in a dark, musty, tin shed in the back corner of the garden gathering dust. Kept company by the lawnmower, rusting tins of paint and petrol, tools and long legged spiders, it patiently waited for another adventure, listening to my new fascinations. Depending on the season it would hear about epic games of cricket and Aussie rules football being played out in the backyard. Balls would be flying off the brick wall, smashing into my mother’s prized flowers, while I skidded divots into the grass on tight turns and to make lunging catches. Duster endured countless thrilling climaxes, and unlikely last second victories, which I commentated with an unrelenting hyperbole learnt from TV. Playing as both teams by myself, I was in the fortunate position of being able to control the match, making sure that England, India, or Collingwood never won. Occassionally, while snapping a goalbound kick before tackling myself into the shrubs (I like to think of myself now as a precocious Tyler Durdan from Fight Club) the commentary would be cut short by a call to dinner, or worse still, with the ball sailing high over the shrubs, between the trees, and over the 6ft wood paling fence. Still Duster waited.
One day the idea of a friend of mine changed all that. He was an annoying creature called Luke, with a freckle face that asked to be punched, but he had some good computer games, so we hung out a fair bit. He had been given a fancy, odd looking ‘racing’ bike for Christmas, and wanted to test it out by cycling into completely different suburbs of the city. I was suspicious, but it sounded possible. So I went to the back shed, cleared the metal slide door jammed up with lemon scented leaf litter, and forced it open with a godawful squeal. After a preliminary check for spiders, and taking a moment to inhale the delicious smell of petrol deeply into my lungs, I wheeled out trusty red Duster. It was far too small for me now, full of cobwebs, and faded, but it was up for one last adventure. With the sunshine and breeze on our backs we passed through new fields, parks and neighbourhoods with even more milk bars and high schools than I thought possible. Like an ant overlooking a forest of grass, my world view expanded. We pedalled on until we reached a big mound of dirt that looked dangerous enough to be fun. After going up and down a few times at increasingly fast speed, Luke fell over and hurt his knee, so we headed back. The next time I talked of going for a ride, Luke was bored with his bike, so we went back to playing computer games.
From then on Duster became a distant memory, and I became oblivious to bicycles, in the way that I was oblivious to the stockmarket and the latest trends in knitting. They were there, but not worth taking notice of. In my teens I would occasionally flick the TV across to SBS, the foreign TV station, catching a glimpse of the Tour de France. Muscled up guys in tight outfits on bicycles. Not exactly the raunchy French film I was hoping for, so I’d quickly flick back. It wouldn’t be until many years later, on my first foreign foray, that my attention to bicycles would refocus through the window of a train.
Now, travelling as a young Australian is certainly nothing new, and quite frankly bordering on expected. The idea of a ‘gap year’ for travel is as much of a cultural phenomenon as vegemite on toast. It may be a gap year in a well worn path to higher education, serious jobs and mortgages. A chance to indulge in as much travel and debauchery as your paycheck allows. A chance to leave Australia’s tyranny of distance behind , and experience the world from different angles. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted for myself, that was the best part. Perhaps an exclamation mark in a series of commas and full stops.
So it was like a child on the first day of primary school, I stood weighed down equally by a cumbersome, shamefully new backpack, and the fear of the unknown. There I stood in the aisle feeling an untouchable buzz in the air, soaking up everything while focusing on nothing as the train glided into the station. Then I saw it. Rows upon rows of bicycles, tiered story upon story. Thousands upon thousands of bicycles glowing in the late afternoon sun. Amsterdam Centraal train station, bicycle mecca. Stepping out onto the streets showed that just as many bikes were on the road as in parking. Elegant sweeping handlebars, beat up rusting frames, carried young and old down lanes all to themselves. Bikes given the same power as cars, if not more. The only thing more mesmerizing than the bikes, was the women on the bikes. Elegantly dressed Dutch women flying past in all directions, hair, skirts, and scarves blowing in the breeze. Exotic unknown creatures. Like Sirens, they were fatal distractions. Every now and then, the blast of a horn from an onrushing car would snap me out of my stupour and I would quickly jump back onto the kerb. Crazy European drivers on the wrong side of the road, every last one of them.
As chance would have it, 2 years later an Icelandic love story would bring me back to the cycling hub of Europe. By cycling hub, I refer to the giant flat pancake of land that spreads around the North Sea, from Denmark, through the Netherlands, to the Flemish north of Belgium. A land where beaten up bikes rule the city streets, and the countrysides are covered in networks of bike routes. Places where if you are going uphill the chances are you are crossing the bridge of a canal. I found myself living by one of these canals in Leuven, Belgium, with Zoa and her two dogs Jack and Paco. It was here that we planned our cycling adventure and where I would find the successor to Duster’s red throne.
Want some more Amsterdam cycling inspiration but can’t get there yourself? Check out Amsterdamize…