Going Dutch: The Art of Living on Two Wheels

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Cycling is integrated deeply into Dutch culture, and inspires the art of living, too. Photo by Maaike Bernstrom.

If the Dutch have mastered the art of integrating the bicycle into their lives and landscape, then there’s no better place to exercise this national rite of passage than the sylvan Kröller Müller Museum, home to an impressive collection of works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, and Mondrian, among scores of others, and, as it happens, some 1,700 white bicycles. The latter are the opportune means to behold the former.

Located on an estate in the town of Otterlo in the center of the country, the museum building is bordered by classical and contemporary sculpture gardens which, in turn, are surrounded by woodlands, grasslands, moors, and sand drifts covering some 60 acres, all within the Hoge Veluwe National Park.

The most invigorating and pleasurable access to the museum is by bicycle. Every one of those 1,700 bikes — each outfitted with a child’s seat – is available for visitors to use, and there are several bike paths to follow within the park. The longest routes, which begin at three different park entrances, are merely 4 kilometers (about 2 1/2 miles), and, being Holland, the paths are flat, firm, and friendly.

The bicycles, all one-speed workhorses with adjustable seats, are painted white and free to borrow. They are utilitarian, but also emblematic of the role of the ubiquitous bicycle in Dutch society and commerce. They also recall the era of the Provos, the 1960s counterculture movement in Amsterdam. Among the social initiatives the group spearheaded was an effort to alleviate transportation headaches in the compact city by making white bicycles available throughout Amsterdam; anyone could use one free then leave it for someone else to pedal. (For more historical perspective, try the book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan.) So it is at the Kröller Müller. Today, estimates of the number of bicycles in Holland — population 16.8 million — range from 13 to 18 million. One glance at the two-wheel jumble and clutter at any railroad station parking area for bicycles suffices for verification.

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The author’s family en route to Aalden, a village in Drenthe. Photo by Liesbeth Slosberg.

The defining quality of the Dutch landscape – flatness – affords the ease of effortless bicycling. That same flatness, however, also leaves the cyclist wide open to another primary facet of Dutch life: wind. During a recent mid-April bicycle outing through the small, thatched-roof villages of Drenthe, headwinds gusted to a punishing 25 miles per hour, and also unleashed several spells of hail stones. But that’s biking in Holland. The Dutch stoically deal with whatever the weather (and those jouncy cobblestone streets) deliver.

Bicycles come in a variety of adapted styles — trailers for hauling goods, wooden carts for securing children, baskets for food and flowers — making it easy to use them for all kinds of transport. The most common kind, though, is the three-gear touring bike (Gazelle and Batavus are popular makes), sturdy and sure. Helmets still are rare, though road and race bikers are likely to don them, with children starting to more frequently as well.

Bike paths, bike lanes, bike routes, bike tours, bike signs, bike crossings, bike rentals, bike shops … everything is designed to welcome cycling culture here. And just to remind the bicyclist how readily this country has adapted itself to two-wheelers, there are also rubbish bins — a net in the shape of a cone — mounted along biking paths at the elevation of the biker, for tossing refuse in while cycling by. For the Dutch, the bicycle is not only a fundamental way of life, but, as evidenced at the Kröller Müller, inspires the art of living, too.

Click on any image below to launch the gallery. Photos by Maaike Bernstrom, and, where noted, Liesbeth Slosberg.

Steven Slosberg worked as a journalist for Connecticut newspapers for 35 years, including more than two decades as a columnist for The Day in New London. He also has written book reviews for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant and has published freelance stories in The Times, the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, and Connecticut Explored, among other publications. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and lives in Stonington, CT with his wife, Liesbeth.

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