Cycling (and Crashing) in Amsterdam :: A Numbers Game

I think about having accidents a lot as I cycle round Amsterdam, so it wasn't particularly remarkable that I'd been doing so earlier this evening, just before the car pulled out in front of me.

I think picturing disaster is part of keeping safe — you imagine the worst that could happen, constantly, instinctively, and try your best to avoid it. But sooner or later you are bound to hit something, or something's bound to hit you. It's a numbers game. You just hope that when it happens, you survive. 

The driver was stationary, the front half of his car blocking the roadside half of the bicycle lane. He had stopped, I presumed, to let the bicycles past, so I — being a bicycle — moved to pass in front of him. Then suddenly he was moving again, moving forward into my path and I was too fast and too close and despite my best efforts...

He stopped again as he heard me swearing and braking, then smacking hard into his front fender. My back wheel rose up in the air as my left hand got trapped between his vehicle and my handlebars and body. Then my back wheel came back down as I bounced back off his bastard 4x4 and managed, thankfully, to stay on the bike. Still I could hear myself shouting and cursing.

I rode around to the other side of his car, the driver's side. His window was open and I realised, incredulous, that he was actually shouting and swearing at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying and wasn't even sure what language he was speaking; I just heard him shouting and saw him gesturing to his eyes as if to imply that it was I who should have been paying more attention.

At this point, in the face of his towering audacity, my fury became so palpable, so terrifyingly pronounced that I had no recourse but to obey my instinct and instantly remove myself from the scene. So I rode off, and he drove off, and it was over.

But it wasn't over.

There was something wrong with my bike, and there was something wrong with my hand.

I pulled off the cycle lane and onto the deserted pavement. I looked down at the little finger of my left hand. It looked OK, a little red and shaky, but no real visible signs of the pain shooting through it.

God, I was angry.

My handlebars and front wheel were no longer aligned. More anger came. I'll have to pay to get this fixed, I thought. I'm going to lose money because of this fucking idiot. I should have got his details, I realised. Should I? Is that how it works? They say that in Holland when bikes and cars are involved in incidents, that legally and as far as insurance companies are concerned, bicycles are always in the right. Is that true? It was definitely true in this case. I should have got his details.

I imagined me demanding his insurance details, him swearing at me and driving off, me taking down his licence plate like I did that time in Italy when someone knocked me off my moped and then gave me a fake telephone number. I should have got his number. It's a numbers game. We hang by a thread. 

Now I was angry with myself.

I was an idiot. And my hand was hurting. And maybe it was all my fault anyway. I'd slowed down when I first saw him stalled on the cycle path but obviously not enough.

I could have prevented the accident altogther if I'd just assumed that he hadn't seen me, and slowed down accordingly ... but that's not how this city works. For me, one of the best things about Amsterdam is the assumption of intelligence that permeates the place. You see it everywhere — in the lack of railings and walls around the canals, in the lack of traffic lights on certain intersections, in the relaxed drug laws.  

There is an assumption of intelligence built into the very fabric of the city and the smooth running of the relationship between cars and bikes absolutely depends on it. You can't be slowing down every time you're faced with a car that could kill you if the driver happens to be distracted and forgets to obey the rules. You have to assume that everyone knows what they're doing.

And the vast majority of the time, they do. 

But not always. It's a numbers game. Life is a numbers game. 

My finger was very sore but I could still bend it.

I felt sick with anger.

Then a woman pulled up next to me and asked me if I was OK. She must have seen the incident, and watched me pull over.

I told her I was OK, but my bike was a little broken.

She told me there was a repair shop up ahead. I told her I should be able to do it myself, not adding but thinking, I should be able to but I'm probably not.

She smiled. She was concerned. She was about my age. She had a very kind face. She held my gaze for a second in silence as I thought, as I pretty much always do, could she be the one? Will we one day look back fondly on this chance encounter as the beginning of our lives together? These thoughts take a second and are quickly replaced with others. She is almost certainly married. People my age are always married. Except the weird ones, right? So they tell me.

Like a middle-aged mouse of a man, like a man in a Philip Larkin poem, I say nothing.

She smiled again. Of course she was married.

It's a shock, she says. Are you sure you're OK?

Yes. Thank you. I'm OK.

But then you wonder. And how do you know? 

When does a person actually stop being OK? Because it happens. It definitely happens. And how do you know when you've reached that point? Furthermore what happens when you do reach that point? I guess you look for help. If you're not crippled with shame.

I am OK though. Of course I'm OK.

My bike was OK too — I could still ride it; it just had a bit of a shopping trolley veer.

I thanked the woman again. She wished me a good evening. The rest of it, she added, and off she rode.

STOP! I shouted, but not out loud. ​

And she was gone. 

I should have got her number too.

Or I should have said, Look, I know it's a long shot but if you're not already in a relationship and you're not a knee-jerk anti-immigrant and you like reading books and going to the cinema and you're not repulsed by my receding gums or the liver spot creeping slowly across my face, what do you say? Shall we dance? I can't dance but you know, we could just hold each other; maybe eat a little soup.

I tried and failed to twist my bike back to full health, then continued on to the cinema, where I'd been heading when it happened. Then I rode straight past the cinema because I was too caught up to even see it, reliving the accident, reliving the anger, reliving the kind-faced woman and a sudden, crushing, overwhelming feeling of loneliness. And did I mention the anger? 

Anger frightens me, and I never know what to do with it. I know it's destructive. I know that if given free reign, it will come to no good. So I found myself recoiling in horror, fearing and fighting the violent, vengeful thoughts that for a moment would not stop.

My instinct at the scene of the accident had been to get away. I thought about my brother, whose instinct would have been to pull the man through his window by his face and then punch and kick him to death on the ground. I am not my brother. I am uncomfortable with anger to a fault. 

People need techniques to get beyond anger and I don't really have any at the moment. Except maybe writing.

I made it to the cinema, bought a ticket and got myself a little beer. Ik wil graag een glas Grolsch. Like a Welshman coughing up a German. The elderly woman behind the bar was nice to me and made me want to cry. Maybe I was in shock. The kind-faced woman had been right. I realised her face had already faded from my memory. I was sorry for my loss. 

I was early, so I found a seat and started writing what you're reading.

It's been a while since I wrote anything. Things have changed, however, in the meantime — big things — and I've been working up to getting back on the horse. (In the saddle, that is, not on heroin.) So I thought, in the absence of a beautiful relationship with a kindly woman, maybe — at least — this random collision will get me writing again.

It would if I really wanted it to. If I willed it.

I did. I do.

The film I watched was about a frustrated Israeli woman trapped in a passionless marriage to a wildly religious man. It made me feel better.

When it was finished, I rode home slowly and as I did so, I had another collision, this one with a tiny fly that found its way into my left eye and got itself stuck on a contact lens. I tried to fish it out, but couldn't. I had to wait. It took a few minutes of blinking and poking and weeping and wiping as I cycled through the park full of runners and lovers, and eventually, eventually I washed it out.

For me it was irritating, and momentarily inconvenient. For the fly, it was curtains.

I smiled at the metaphor. Was it a metaphor? Sure it was. So I smiled at it and found myself feeling grateful again. The anger had passed. I had won. Not only had I not been killed — which let's face it, I could so easily have been — but also, finally, I was writing again.

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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