Lycra in the streets of the Netherlands

There is an interesting difference between English and Dutch when it comes to cycling. As many of my readers may know the Dutch word for bicycle is fiets. (Which is singular; the plural is fietsen, bicycles.) But fiets cannot be used for just any bicycle, it’s a specific type of bicycle . The ones the Dutch think are ‘ordinary’ and the type English could only describe with extra words: ‘sit-up bicycle’ or ‘utility bicycle’. If the Dutch need to describe what most native English speakers perceive as a ‘normal’ bike, they are the ones who need extra words: race fiets or wielrenfiets.

Fiets (sit-up bicycle) this is what almost all Dutch think of when they hear the Dutch equivalent of “bicycle”
Wielrenfiets (race bike) Dutch people hardly ever think of this when hearing the Dutch equivalent of the word ‘bicycle’.

This makes clear that what is perceived as the standard in both languages is reversed. And it also shows which type of cycling is the dominant type in the areas those languages are spoken.

Because the same goes for fietser or cyclist. To a Dutch person that can never be someone in specific clothes on a race fiets. The Dutch have a different word for those people, they call them: wielrenner (literally ‘wheel runner’ and it is pronounced almost like that). A fietser is someone in every day clothes on a sit-up bike and nothing else!

If a native Dutch speaker hears the word ‘cyclist’, this is the type they will normally think of.
For this type of cyclist the Dutch use different words, wielrenner (literally ‘wheel runner’) is what comes to a Dutch mind first, never cyclist.

Fietsen is not only a noun and the plural for bicycle, it is also the verb; to cycle. And that can also only be used for the utility type of cycling. When the Dutch talk about cycling as a race sport it is almost always translated with wielrennen (literally ‘wheel running’ ) or wielrensport (“wheel run sport”).

This phenomenon can lead to misunderstandings. In English the Dutch will say things like: “Cyclists in the Netherlands do not wear special clothes for cycling” (because in their minds only ‘racers’ do that). And “No cyclist in the Netherlands wears a helmet” (since only sports cyclists do). Forgetting that in English cyclist is a more generic term than fietser in Dutch is.

To show you that there really are some sports cyclists in the Netherlands I made a video. Two years of filming gave me this collection of images. You will probably see more lycra (spandex if you are from the US), more helmets and more race fietsen (sports bicycles) than in all my previous videos combined. So a very different look into cycling in the Netherlands, because yes, there is lycra in the streets of the Netherlands!

27 thoughts on “Lycra in the streets of the Netherlands

  1. Feel free to sit on an upwards facing dulled knife (I’m kidding a bit, of course you don’t, otherwise you’d be sawed in half.

    I still can’t figure out how the racers do that, riding so closely together. I’ve seen videos of them wiping out in chain reactions quite a bit. Not good results.

  2. Even wheelrunners in the Netherlands do not protest the fact they are also prohibited from the main carriageway when there is a mandatory cycle path or cycle lane. This is because the cycleways are designed to be much more efficient then the car areas. For example turning right on red. In most cases, this is allowed by bike. But never by car. Sometimes the cyclists get twice as much green as cars. They get shortcuts, and have all the room they need. David Hembrow had to cycle long and hard to find the only spot in the entire country he needed to take the car lane because the cycle track was so poor.

  3. I think it’s different in the uk cause we have a lot of hills. Most people I know who didn’t cycle seem to complain they don’t want to take them on.

  4. Very interesting post.

    If we look back in history we’ll see that there were once many more English words for cyclist or bicyclist, e.g.

    Scorcher (an Edwardian version of today’s ‘lycra lout’)

    In the US, Biker has become common parlance.

    Today, ‘cyclist’ commonly conjures up images of a marginal, law-breaking, possibly eccentric or obsessive person. Or a hobbyist. The ‘keen cyclist’.

    This is in marked contrast to ‘Motorist’ which is usually associated with ideas of ‘everyman’. The ‘hard pressed motorist’ facing rising costs of fuel. Or ‘Driver’. But it doesn’t convey an idea of emotional attachment to the car, in the way that ‘cyclist’ does in relation to the bicycle.

    Defining anyone in terms of their transport choices seems like a very basic way of denying a certain amount of their humanity. Pedestrian, cyclist, motorist. We’re all people.

  5. Cycling was one of my favourite hobbies. and during vacations and holidays i used to travel kilometers and kilometers on cycle. the difference between the words in dutch seems to be very interesting. thanks a lot for sharin such information. and the phots of cycling are very nice and its a great experince to come to know about such words diffrence in a foreignl anugae.

  6. I think many people actually exaggerate the difference between “utility cyclists” and “wheel runners”. In North America, many people who cycle for transport ride fast bicycles and wear and helmets simply because it’s the best way to deal with our car-oriented streets.
    I consider myself to be a “utility cyclist” because I’m just riding from A to B – including carrying lots of groceries on my bike. But I also ride a lightweight bicycle and wear a helmet. The fast bike makes it much easier to ride do merges and lane changes because I can simply accelerate to 50km/h and act like a car. That is the fastest way to travel by bike, because our streets are designed for them. I wear a helmet because the subjective safety of our streets is so low.
    For utility cyclists, their choice of bike is a practical one – even outside of the Netherlands. In areas where car speeds are very low, such as Downtown Toronto, people tend to choose upright utility bicycles and do not wear helmets. In areas where cars travel quickly, most people wear helmets, and they either ride off-road bicycles on the sidewalk, or fast bicycles on the street.

    1. I live in Los Angeles and I only ride a road race style bicycle that looks much like the bike in the second picture above, but I have attached a rack and put thick narrow Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on it.

      For Los Angeles, if you live in a apartment and frequently put your bike onto a front rack on a transit bus, then a lighter weight bike is much easier to lift, and what you need after you ride can then be carried on your back or detached from the bike and carried in your hands.

      A light weight bike is also more manueverable than a heavier one when riders of both style bikes weight the same and are carrying the same total amount of weight on them or on their bikes.

      If you park your light weight bike anywhere outside for a length of time, many battery powered lights needed for night time riding would probably have to be removed when you park to prevent them from being stolen. You would not need to do this with a generator powered bike.

      A lightweight racer bike usually has very thin tires and so to make sure that air pressure is kept in the tire you will probably need to carry some tools in order to be able to fix a flat and to keep them inflated when having to ride on busy streets that are likely to have all sorts of things like broken glass or bits of metal.

      Fixing a flat is not something most people like to do and would like to avoid if they can. There is much less need for to fix flats with bikes that have much thicker tires compared to racing tires, as any small object that gets stuck in your tire is much less likely to penetrate the tube. Thick narrow tires can create a very bumpy ride since there is much less air in the tires to cushion the ride, and so I would advise some sort of suspension on the front and back of the bike to compensate for this, which would make the bike a little heavier.

      More frequent flats can also make reliability problems going to work and employers tend to frown on workers that seem to have a problem with coming to work on time.

      Fenders are not needed for any but a few days out of the year in LA, but when it does rain, there will be mud all over your face after you ride without fenders and a noticeable streak will go up your backside. Brand new rim brake pads will also wear out within a few days of riding under rainy conditions in Los Angeles as the soil is very sandy here and the water makes the sand stick to the rims, creating a sandpaper effect.

      Since there is no salt applied to the roads in Los Angeles, drum brakes are not needed as much as climates that get a lot of snowfall. Because of this, cheaper and lighter weight options such as rim brakes or disk brakes are more practical here than much colder climates.

      Wearing jeans and riding a racing style bike will put a lot of pressure on the tender areas in between your legs due to leaning forward, which can create soreness, limiting the continuous amount of days you can ride. You don’t need padded pants if you sit upright on a bike. The pads on your butt and the seat cushioning is all that you need. This reduces the amouunt of times that you would have to change out of padded clothes when you get to your destination.

      Keeping the racing bike lightweight would require that you carry a lock on your body, which probably means that some sort of messenger bag or backpack must be with you at all times to transport the heavy lock. If you want to keep the tire tools safe from theft, then that could also require keeping them in one of these types of bags.

      I’ve never seen a bike using a deraileur with a chain guard, so you would have to either roll up your pant leg, or use something to keep the pant leg from flapping about. Even then, its still easy to accidently rub against the oily chain, creating noticeable marks on your pants.

      Toe clips or cleats give you the ability to pull the pedal up, which gives quicker acceleration. This is very little need for this outside of racing. Its also more difficult to start pedaling from a stop when you have toe clips or cleats that you have to get into on the pedals. The cleats can also wear out quickly from having to put your foot on the pavement when you stop or walk.

      I would say that there is quite a bit of difference between using a utility bike and a racing bike for everyday tasks.

      1. What you’re describing is the other end of the spectrum from a utility bike, which is a racing bike. Yes, of course that is very different. But most North American bikes fit somewhere between them and are not so easily classified into “fietser” or “wielrenner” as in the Netherlands.

        For instance, my main bicycle is aluminum with lightly treaded tires which are thicker than road bike tires, but thinner than mountain bike tires. It has a rack for saddle bags, and a seat bag where I keep my lock.

        I ride wearing everyday clothes, and I haven’t experienced any issue of soreness. It’s possible my mountain bike seat helps. I’ve never had an issue with my pants getting caught or oily because there is a fairly large plastic ring on the outside of the chainring. The bike doesn’t have fenders, but I have another bike (single-speed with fenders) which I use if it’s wet or below freezing.

        I don’t carry tools around when I ride because the tires are not fragile like you describe. I have only had a flat once, and I simply took my bike home on the bus (all buses in Toronto have bike racks). By the way, it wasn’t even a puncture – it was a valve failure.

        I don’t think reliability is an argument against cycling with any type of bike. The frequency of flat tires – even with a racing bike – would be far less than the unpredictable delays facing those who drive or take public transit.

        My point is that there is no clear distinction between the two types of cyclists in North America. Utility cyclists ride everything from racing bikes to Omafietsen. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy.

      2. For most adults in the USA, that have transportation choices, a bicycle would likely have to compete with the ease of use and travel time that a car is able to provide. That would probably mean a travel distance of two miles or less for the bike to be competitive form of transportation compared with an car in most cities in the U.S. The time that it would take to get somewhere on a bike must not only include the speed that the bike can obtain, but the amount of time it takes to get going on the bike and the amount of time required before you can step away from the bike.

        For ease of use you should have a bike with a lock permanently attached to it, which would enable you to simply insert a key to unlock the bike, then quickly drop or attach any bags you might have onto the bike for a quick trip to a store., Then when you get to your destination, you find a place to park the bike and simply get off, move the kickstand and turn the key on the lock. I know of no bike made for the USA market that comes with a lock permanently attached and the great majority of bikes sold do not have baskets or racks to drop a bag into or a attach a pannier. Bikes sold in the Netherlands do have a lock permanently attached and racks seem to be on the majority of the bikes there. For a typical bike rider in the U.S., when you get to the store, you would either have to find something to secure the bike to, then wrap a lock around it and the bike, or else bring the bike inside. Not nearly as convenient as having a easy to use lock permanently attached to the bike.

        For the most comfortable bicycling position you should be sitting upright or leaning against a back support. This type of bike is not commonly sold in the U.S.

        To compete with the convenience of a car, you would also need to have lights permanently affixed to the bike that require little or no upkeep for at least two years, in much the same way that car batteries last several years without maintenance. This requirement severely reduces the amount of new bicycle choices that you have in the US market. Battery powered or rechargeable lights for the US bike market are typically easily removed by both the owner and thieves. Some entrepreneurs have recently come up with very theft resistant battery powered bike light designs that may reduce the convenience differences between battery powered lights and the heavier, more expensive generator powered bike lights.

        Getting a bike tire used on the street to be competitive with the flat resistance of a car tire would require a much thicker tire than a road race bike tire or mountain bike tire. The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires that I use are almost a centimeter thick and I can ride a couple of thousand miles on the streets in Los Angeles without getting a flat.. Several other brands offer a similar thickness, but I have yet to see this thickness of tire as a standard feature on a new bike for the U.S.market.

        There are simply not many people in the USA routinely using a bicycle for a reliable and convenient way to get somewhere and the types of bikes sold in the greatest quantities here reflect that.

    2. I suggest thinking about why you wear a helmet? Does it make you feel that safe near a large truck with a mass of 25 tonnes (25000 kg in case of confusion)? I wouldn’t feel any safer, and you can’t let the wind run through your hair as easily, and get rid of sweat as you ride.

  7. “An Asperger’s Victim” writes:

    There was once a third verb for cycling, “wielrijden”, but that seems to have gone obsolete since the 1950s. It came about because the word for a penny-farthing bicycle in Dutch was a “rijwiel” (“ride-wheel”). The pre-1940 Dutch Army bicycle infantry regiments were known collectively as the Korps Wielrijders. They even had a regimental band which had mastered the art of playing while riding. Sadly, no original newsreel footage seems to have survived; but I did recently come across this YouTube clip of a group of improbably elderly and overweight military re-enactors doing a frighteningly accomplished reconstruction. Well mental!

    (NB. Do not try this at home).

  8. Thanks a lot for your work! Informed our French followers about this website with this time a little hinch towards the French attitude of “Wheel Runners” in urban area’s in France.

  9. It took me months of observing pictures and reading to figure out why bikes for utility riding in the Netherlands are designed this way. This information inspired me to not bring a complete change of clothes to work, but instead to ride at a slower pace and to get a rack in order to haul a lot more things than I could on my back.

    The person in the top photo is upright on the bike, as the body was designed to be comfortably sitting for extended periods of time. Compared that to the racing bike, which puts pressure on the hands, shoulders, neck and also in the soft area in between the legs.

    In the States, the most popular bikes sold went from the racing bike in the 70’s, to mountain bikes, then bmx for younger kids, and now, inspired by urban bike messengers, teenagers, especially in the Los Angeles area, are frequently seen riding colorful fixie or track style bikes that have no brakes, reflectors, kickstands, racks, lights or gears. In other words, lifestyle drives a lot of bike sales in the U.S.

    It is also against the law to ride a bike, like a fixie, that it not equipped with a brake in Los Angeles, along with not having a tailight, headlight, or reflectors on the streets at night. Its also unlawful to ride with earphones on both ears, but its a common sight to see someone doing that.

    LA has had a noticeable surge in bicycling in the last few years, so when I walked into a REI store last month–a national chain that has a unusally large variety of bikes–I was curious to see if they had one of their most expensive urban style bikes that seemed to be well equiped for utility cycling in Los Angeles. They didn’t have any and I was told that those types of bikes did not sell in that store. I mentioned that I had seen a few bikes similar and less expensive in this store the previous year and the salesperson stated they had to mark those bikes down in price to clear them out, after not selling any for months. The salesperson also said that a lot of people walking into the store are shocked to find out that bicycles are priced at $400 or more and so the bike I saw online would be very unlikely to ever appear in the store.

    The bike designs sold is yet another barometer of how far Los Angeles has to go before everyday bicycling goes from almost extinction to mainstream.

  10. If 1:12 is any indication, you may also find people in chicken costumes on the streets of the Netherlands. Are they made of Lycra,too? 😉

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