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In the City of Bikes

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For the first two decades of the 20th century, bicycles in the Netherlands were a luxury item. After World War I, hyperinflation made German bike producers eager to sell their bikes in exchange for the stable Dutch currency. Soon Holland was flooded with incredibly cheap bicycles. As fewer people rode the trams, fares rose, and even more people rode bicycles.

The social range of bicyclists shocked early visitors. They saw members of parliament, nuns, pregnant women, soldiers, doctors, and delivery boys on bikes. Almost a century later, Jordan reports a similarly broad range of riders. He is also dazzled by the number of activities the Dutch perform while cycling: everything from talking on cellphones to eating full meals, holding babies, and smoking marijuana.

In some of the book’s most gripping chapters, Jordan dwells on the importance of cycling during World War II. The clashes between the 5,600 troops of the two cyclist regiments and German tanks went just as you would expect, but bicycling also served subtler functions in the Dutch resistance. When the Germans tried to regulate the anarchic behavior of Dutch cyclists, flouting minor traffic rules became a charged means of defiance.

As the Germans became increasingly desperate for raw materials, they began seizing bikes at gunpoint and sending the frames to Germany to be melted for scrap metal. Even when all rubber imports for tires had stopped, the Dutch kept riding on wooden tires, flat tires, or the metal rims of the wheels. Couriers disguised as Red Cross nurses served as bike messengers for the resistance, and civilians learned to warn each other when the Germans were roaming the streets and seizing bikes. The phrase “Give back my bike” became a symbol of postwar Dutch resentment that is still used today.

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