Ah, Amsterdam. Cycling utopia, land of the free, an orange canvas of criss-crossed canals and segregated safe cycle lanes where everyone and their dog (literally) cycles in an airy manner reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Erm. It doesn't necessarily help to paint such a picture before you visit a place, but it's safe to say that I'd managed to do that before going to Amsterdam, and found myself brought back to earth with a bump.
I have to admit that a bitingly cold March weekend, with temperatures starting in the minus side of the celsius scale, probably isn't the best time to try cycling in a new city for the first time, but when in 'Dam... And so it was, the first morning after arriving in the city, we visited the local bike hire emporium (with a chap behind the counter who was half 'dammer, half Whitby, and spoke with a fabulous Dutch/Yorkshire crossover, I kid you not). 'Granny' bikes procured, a segregated canalside lane opposite, we pushed off into the upright 'normal clothed' world of cycling.
I can recall perfectly my first impressions which were, in order, this is so flat, superb!; my fixed wheel has a bigger gear than this; and bugger, who has priority at this junction coming up...?
The segregation had ended and we were thrust onto the mean streets. This was the first surprise realisation. Segregation of cyclists in Amsterdam is not quite as widespread as we might be lead to believe whenever a debate springs up in the UK about how other countries do things, and more pertinently, how they do things 'better'. The second surprise was just how closely the motorised traffic would follow you, and pass you, when you weren't in your segregated haven. This was becoming more stressful than I had ever imagined, and my better half, who cycles infrequently back home primarily because of traffic fears, but who loved a jaunt around Copenhagen, and even Paris, on a bike was looking decidedly uncertain about our choice to cycle for the day.