Several people tell me, in jest I think, that there is a very easy way to get a free bike in Amsterdam.
All I have to do, they say, is approach a crowd of students standing around with their bicycles and shout: “Hey! That’s my bike!” As they run off in panic, you take your pick of those they abandon in guilt.
“I have two bikes: a smart one for weekends, an old one for the city,” says Margreet, a teacher and mother-of-two. “I have had three stolen. We blame drug addicts who then sell them cheaply. The first time it happens, you curse them. The third time, it is very tempting to go looking for them to buy one yourself, although I never did.”
Daphne, a writer for a local magazine and long time Amsterdam resident adds, “One day I caught the guy who stole my bike. That is my bike, I screamed, give it back. He bluntly refused. So I paid him 25 euros to get it back. What can you do?”
Bike theft is a serious problem, with up to 50,000 bikes reported stolen every year. “Reported” is the key word as most thefts are not recorded at police stations, so the real number is massive. “Bicycle theft is the second most popular sport here after speed skating,” jokes Egg of Mike's Bike Tours.
Not all are stolen, though, with as many as 15,000 a year pulled from the canals every year, many the victims of drunken vandalism. At Café Pieper, a typical canalside pub that the Dutch call "bruine kroeg" or brown café for their tobacco stained walls (although smoking inside is now banned), the barman tells me how he watched a man spend two hours dredging the canal outside with a grappling hook. When riding his expensive bike on the ice during a February freeze, it fell through and he had to wait weeks before he could retrieve it. Of course, it was ruined.
Bikes that are badly parked or appear abandoned will be removed by the city. They go to the Amsterdam Bicycle Center, AFAC, although the locals use a more obscene spelling in that face-slapping moment when they realize it has happened to them. Only 25 per cent are claimed by their owners: many just think they have been stolen. The worst bikes are melted down for scrap, the rest sold off or donated to good causes.
“One reason people do not report a bike theft,” says bike shop manager Arjen, “is that the real loss is often the broken lock. The lock often costs more than the bike. The bikes stay in circulation, so the people who really profit from bike theft are the lock makers.” He points out that the big lock is not just about losing the bike but also avoiding the disruption to your plans for the day or the evening when you lose your main means of transport.
The message for visitors is clear: always make sure you lock your bike to something more solid than the one next to you if you want to see it again.
Our local expert happens to know a great little hotel that offers you a bike to use during your stay. Lock included, of course... Check it out!