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Embracing the etiquette of cycling in the Netherlands

Embracing the etiquette of cycling in the Netherlands Cycling Responsible travel The Natural Adventure 1

If you haven’t had the opportunity to go cycling in the Netherlands before, and you come from a place where cars still see themselves as the stars, get ready for riding Dutch style. The transport infrastructure here has cycling as its beating heart, with cycling lanes at every turn. And ones where you suddenly have to jump off to give way to a bus either. It’s all thought out in a sustainable, exemplary way. So if you go for a cycling holiday in the Netherlands, get ready for a life-affirming experience, riding in a country where they treat cyclists as equal road users. No wonder there are more bikes than citizens in the Netherlands. However, there are some rules and tips to put in your pannier before careering off along the canals and cycle lanes. They’re not double Dutch though. They’re easy cheesy. 

Get in lane

If there’s a bike lane, and there almost always is, then always use it. In fact there are over 37,000km of bicycle paths in the Netherlands, compared with 8,400km of traffic-free paths in the UK, for example. When you’re in the lane, keep to the right hand side, and overtake on the left. You also can’t miss the bike lanes, as they are made with either red bricks or red asphalt, with on-road bike lanes delineated by a clear white line from cars. You get a chance to cycle on many of them on our cycling holidays or bike and boat tours in the Netherlands, including the Netherlands’ long-distance trails, or LF Routes. This stands for Landelijke Fietsroutes, which translates as countrywide cycling routes, of which there are over thirty. 

Cycle lanes are a recognisable red in the Netherlands.

Ding ding Dutch style 

If you’re cycling in the left lane and want to overtake people who are slower than you, it’s courteous to give a ding on the bell to let them know you want to pass. It’s compulsory to have a bell on your bike in the Netherlands, and they are a major instrument in most city’s soundscapes here. Most people hire bikes on our tours, which will have a bell, but if you are bringing your own bike, make sure you are able to ding ding a ding ding. Just as the Dutch give a lot of time and space to cyclists, they also get upset if you don’t stick to the rules, so on-the-spot fines do happen. 

Light up, light up

You will have the police patrol rather than Snow Patrol reminding you to light up if you don’t have the correct lights in the Netherlands. Or, at worst, fining you. It’s the law to have a white or yellow front light and red back light and they aren’t allowed to be flashing. If you’re wearing a light, they should be attached to your upper body, not your head or arms. You also need reflectors on the back, pedals and wheels.

Learn the signs

There are actually some roads where you’re not allowed to cycle in the Netherlands, and these are usually illustrated with a red ‘no entry’ circle, or a circle with a line through a bicycle. See here for more details. It’s important to note that when there is a cycle lane, which is illustrated by a blue sign, you are not allowed to cycle on the roads. 

Given that cycling in the Netherlands is so well catered for, it’s good to respect the law when they ask you not to.

Priority rules 

Priority rules in the Netherlands can almost be as tricky as the offside rules in football. Although it may feel like cyclists rule the roads, they don’t always have priority at all. In fact, trams take priority over cars, bikes and pedestrians, so always stop for them. Also be careful if you have to cross tram lines on a bike, and do so at an angle so that your tyres don’t get stuck. 

Many junctions are clearly marked with stop signs, which are like shark’s teeth on the ground where, more often than not, cyclists have priority. If a junction doesn’t have markings, the most important thing to remember is that if a car is turning left from the main road, they have to give priority to all oncoming cars or bikes on that same road. Also, if you approach a crossroads, and there are no markings, you always give priority to a bike or car coming from the right. If a car or bicycle is turning right from a main road onto a side road, they have to give way to bikes or pedestrians crossing the side road. It’s also vital that, as a cyclist, you always show your intention to turn left or right by using the usual arm signal. 

Don’t cross the sharks’ teeth without stopping and looking, or they can bite.

Riding across roundabouts

In built-up urban areas, cyclists have priority on roundabouts when there is a specified circular cycle paths, again in red asphalt. There are also ‘sharks-teeth’ markings on roads to show drivers leaving or entering the roundabout that they have to stop, giving priority to cyclists. Here is a good video demonstrating these magic roundabouts. In more rural areas, cars have priority over cyclists, and you should only enter the roundabout when you have a clear road to do so. 

The heads up on helmets

It’s not the law to wear a helmet in the Netherlands, perhaps because they have created such a safe instructure, and also because there aren’t any hills to go speeding down. So it’s your call, but we always recommend the wearing of helmets. Recent Dutch government statistics show that 190 cyclists die annually in road accidents, and over 9,000 are injured to the point where they need to go to hospital. 

Traffic lights 

The joy of an efficient bicycle lane system is that they also have their own traffic lights. Breaking the red is just as frowned upon in a bike lane as it is by cars on driving lanes. Although be warned, local cyclists in Amsterdam often do, but never follow suit! 

Don’t copy local people and always wait for the cycle lane green light to go.

Keeping things slow

There is no legal speed limit for bikes in the Netherlands, but we recommend keeping up the slow travel ethos as much as you can. The law is trying to keep up with e-bikes, however, and at present they are limited to 45km/h on roads, 40km/h on combined bicycle/moped paths in rural areas, and 30km/h on combined bicycle/moped tracks inside of cities. If you are tempted to go on the road in order to speed up, forget it. As mentioned above, if a cycle path exists, it’s compulsory to use it. 

Keeping things secure

Strangely, even though everyone seems to have a bicycle in the Netherlands, bike theft is still common. Most local people only lock the rear wheel with very cool locks that are a permanent feature on the wheel. However, we highly recommend using two locks if you are visiting, as these shiny bikes are often the perfect target for thieves. 

Hitching a ride

If you need any more reassurance that cycling is cool and legal in the Netherlands, then get this – carrying someone on the back or front of your bike is legal. Children under eight years old have to be in a child seat, however, and you will see lots of cargo bikes with children on board in the Netherlands. It’s also worth noting that children have to take a compulsory theory and practical cycling exam in the Netherlands, around the age of eight or nine. As we said, cycling is pretty much in the DNA here. 

Let’s go Dutch.

City cycle fever

In Amsterdam, in particular, it can be a little overwhelming the first time you cycle there as it’s bike central. If you haven’t cycled for a while, you may be best to avoid the very central areas, and especially around the canals, as the cycle routes cling to them. It’s not uncommon for visitors to career into the canals, especially if they think they can enjoy some Dutch beer and then cycle. This too is against the law, of course. You will also be frowned upon if you cycle on the footpath, and similarly you will not be met with a smile if you go for your daily run in a cycle lane. 

Watch your speed and your patience

Cycling is in the Dutch DNA and they are used to speeding along from A to B, with nothing to stop them except a bicycle lane traffic light. In Amsterdam, and some of the bigger cities, local people going about their daily routines, can get a little impatient with tourists who bumble around, get in their way and break the rules. Just as they need to be patient with newbies, you need to give them a break too, as this is their habitat, and they know how to ride freely here! So, keep in the slow lane and, if you haven’t been on a bike in a while, stay away from the busy spots. And try to ignore local people if they tut or ring their bell a bit.  

Forward and backward thinking

Although the Netherlands have always been very forward-thinking when it comes to cycling, it’s also backwards in one way – because, with many of their bikes, you have to pedal backwards to put the brakes on. The bikes that we rent out on our tours are traditional hybrid or e-bikes, with brakes on the handlebars. However, if you are spending time in one of the cities before or after your tour, you may want to hire one of the country’s brilliant OV-fiets shared bikes. And these have the brakes on the pedals. This sharing system is actually run by NS (Dutch Railways), and so you can always find them at stations and they cost under €5 per day. And of course there’s an app for that. 

Where are the brakes though? The Dutch take a different approach to life sometimes.

Double Dutch

It is legal to cycle side by side, but only if there are just two of you. However, just as cars respect cyclists in the Netherlands, you are also expected to move aside for other traffic if needed. 

No-phone fun

Although Dutch people wear their bikes like a second skin, and you may see people chatting on their phones on one. However, it is illegal and was banned in 2019, and this is policed. So no selfies while you cycle. You can, however, listen to music on headphones, but we don’t recommend it. 

Now that we’ve taken you around Dutch roundabouts, along their cycle paths and hopefully avoided all canals, you may like to navigate some of our other cycling blogs. These include Our favourite cycling cafes, Ten reasons to try a bike and boat tour and Our best coastal cycling tours. Read more about all our cycling holidays here, and don’t hesitate to contact any of our adventure specialists for more information.