Living the Dream: Cycling in Utrecht

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.

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Matthew Danish introduces us to a couple who are keen to share their slice of Dutch paradise.

Shortly after retirement, my friends Rebecca and Paul packed up their lives after spending 44 years in the Boston area (USA) where they had raised two children, and moved to the Netherlands in June 2017. What inspired them to leave behind their old life, many friends, a large house filled with memories and also over a hundred bicycles with many unique modifications? It was simple: to be in a place where it is easy to cycle, where you could go everywhere you possibly might want to by bike.

The planning began almost ten years earlier, after taking one of David and Judy Hembrow’s study tours, although arguably it was in the making from 1973, when the couple first met in a bicycle shop. A friend introduced Rebecca to Paul as someone who could help her pick out a bike (back then, a 10-speed). Rebecca has Dutch relatives and remembers visiting them and cycling around Amsterdam in 1975, a very different experience from today. In 2008, when she went on the Hembrows’ study tour, she found that the Netherlands was now a place where in most cities you could have a friendly and even relaxing cycling experience while going about your daily life.

To be a cyclist in Boston marks you as someone who is quirky, or different from the American norm. Rebecca worked as a bicycle messenger in her younger years so she is quite experienced with harsh conditions; however, the days of the 10-speed are long gone. In the past decade she has become the self-styled president of the ‘Slow Cyclists Club’ and she has an assortment of Dutch omafiets or step-through bikes, many of which were decorated for the monthly ‘Boston Bike Party’ ride. Since 2006 she has taken a strong interest in campaigning for good cycling infrastructure that lets you ride at your own pace.

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When they had their big family house in Brookline, just outside Boston, Paul could never resist taking on an old bike that was donated, tinkering with it, looking to put it back into use in some fashion. That might possibly be as an ‘art bike’ with decorations like the ‘Dino Bike’ or a custom bike like a chopper. The old house had some of the atmosphere of a bike repair shop, so it was natural that having moved to a new home in the Netherlands he took up the mantle of ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ as a small home business. It turns out that this is a great way to meet people in a Dutch community.

After moving to the Netherlands, Rebecca and Paul did some exploring to try and figure out where they might want to spend their retirement. On a friend’s suggestion they decided to start in Utrecht and venture out from there, but after several weeks came to realise that Utrecht was the best place to be after all. It’s conveniently located, at the centre of the Dutch railway network, only 25 minutes from Amsterdam, but much more relaxed. It’s also the most beautiful city, in Rebecca’s words, with the famous Dom tower in the centre, and most importantly it is one of the most cycling-friendly cities in the world. They bought a century-old terraced house on a very narrow and beautifully landscaped ‘play street’, where only a few slow-moving cars ever pass by in a typical hour: the kind of street where their neighbours’ kids can freely roam and even leave their toys out front.

They most enjoy riding on tree-lined country lanes and cycleways: there are so many options here. They also love riding along the canals, especially Utrecht’s Oudegracht with its characteristic lower level wharfs. In the summer time the streets get busy with festivals and there are regular markets to visit all year round, such as the Bloemenmarkt (flowers), Lapjesmarkt (fabrics) and Vredenburg general market.

Having spent two years getting settled and integrated into life in Utrecht, they have begun inviting friends to come and visit and get a taste of life in a premier cycling city. In fact, that offer is open to anyone who shares their interest in exploring good and pleasant infrastructure that enables everyday cycling for all people whether it be for work or leisure.