Book review: American pays tribute to Amsterdam cycling culture

BOOK REVIEW

LOS ANGELES TIMESMay 5, 2013 

  • 'IN THE CITY OF BIKES: THE STORY OF THE AMSTERDAM CYCLIST' by Pete Jordan; Harper Perennial ($15.99)

In bike-unfriendly cities such as Los Angeles, people who love cycling speak in wistful tones about a faraway place where the bike reigns supreme.

Go to Amsterdam, they say. In that mecca of the bike, you will find special roads set apart for cyclists, protected from the dangerous automobile by concrete barriers. But more than that, you will find a city where biking is part of everyday life. A city where executives, working stiffs and hand-holding lovers all pedal side by side.

Pete Jordan, a native Californian, went to Amsterdam several years ago on a biking pilgrimage. He's still there. And his new book, "In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist," is a funny, engaging and exhaustively researched tribute to Amsterdam's unique biking history.

But more than that, "In the City of Bikes" is a portrait of one man's obsession.

To live in biking heaven, Jordan, the author of the memoir "Dishwasher," takes a series of menial jobs in Amsterdam. He studies Dutch and rides from one end of Amsterdam to the other, day and night. When the locals ask him why, he gives this cryptic answer: "So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight."

Jordan is an honest, self-effacing narrator, and there's much that's lovably comic about his inauguration into Amsterdam cyclo-culture.

Not everything about the Dutch bike scene is rosy. He learns the swear words bikers shout at one another. Paying the bike tax is a pain. He discovers there's a brisk trade in stolen bikes. And hardly any cyclist bothers to obey the traffic laws.

None of this deters Jordan's rampant cyclophilia. Yet he can't find many books about Dutch biking history, so he starts to research the subject himself.

As he recounts this history, Jordan is relentless in his pursuit of Dutch biking trivia. It seems just about any and every famous person who ever rode a bike in Amsterdam or who wrote about the city's cycling scene earns a cameo, including Audrey Hepburn, Albert Camus and Virginia Woolf.

"In the City of Bikes" is an insightful book. And it's especially enjoyable for anyone who's ever thought the world would be a better place if more people rode bikes to work - and if they rode them to the hospital to deliver their babies, too.

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