A year ago, having traded in my Jeep Cherokee and a life in the sun for a new two-wheeled version and a much colder Den Haag, I signed up for a position as a volunteer cycling teacher.
A small but elegant city surrounded by coast and forest and completely flat, it is the perfect place for cycling. Now you might imagine, as I did, that everyone can ride a bicycle in the Netherlands and is indeed born cycling.
That’s not quite so.
Many other nationalities live in the Netherlands, 50.5% of The Hague’s 500,000 strong population are of foreign origin according to the 2012 census.
Image: By author
In order to fully integrate into the Dutch way of life, immigrants need to learn how to ride a bike. So one cold Monday morning of 2011, I found myself at the Julianakerk in the Transvaalkwartier teaching a group of Arabic speaking ladies how to start cycling. They had all moved to the Netherlands from places as far afield as Turkey or Morocco.
With a group of 6 Dutch volunteers, we organised the ladies into Beginners A and Beginners B. A mix of personal attention and running along holding onto the student’s bike were often instrumental in a student cycling for the first time. It is hard work, often cold but really good fun being a cycling teacher. The lessons are flexible and every volunteer is able to add their ideas to improve an exercise or design a new one to exercise of the key skills such as;
Balance, awareness of other road users, observation, signalling, turning, priority, and rules of the road.
Class starts around 9.15 with a lesson discussion amongst the tutors and of course a warming cup of coffee, then an arm strengthening exercise of hauling the bikes up from the cellar and then the ladies arrive at 9.45 to select a bike. The students all clamour for the bikes with hand brakes, as the bikes with back brakes are more difficult to learn on.
We race to the park to set out the exercises to get the class going as quick as possible. Exercises range from use of a roundabout and who has priority to giving way to traffic to the right to cycling next to someone.
Safety is of course a major concern so the classes take place on a tarmacked park and students need to get through Beginners A before they are allowed to go on the road. The road trip involves three to four students following a teacher for 10 minutes with another teacher cycling behind them to observe and signal to drivers to pass with caution.
Even with a few collisions during the classes, the students nevertheless continued on unabashed in their enthusiasm to learn cycling.
To start them cycling, I had to get the students to concentrate on these points;
- Get over the fear of falling off by learning to balance properly
- Learn how to start off by starting on the high pedal
- Don’t push back or those pesky back brakes are engaged
Sometimes Tamme, the main organiser even demonstrates “Spring maar achter op bij mij, achter op me fiets” after the popular Dutch song and crazy student cyclists around the country.
The position is a voluntary position and therefore unpaid but there is a yearly trip for volunteers which last year consisted of a day trip to Utrecht with guided tour with a difference, canal boat trip with coffee/cake, lunch and dinner included. Sun is optional but it made for a wonderful day of meeting new people who also volunteer, and a great introduction to life in The Hague and the cycling culture of the Netherlands.
Volunteering can be a great way to meet people, learn a new language or a new skill. I certainly learnt a lot about myself during the lessons. Cycling seems so easy to someone who has cycled since small so to try and teach it to someone slightly older who perhaps has more fear of falling takes a lot of patience, energy but also kindness. Knowing when to be encouraging, to keep quiet or when to leave a student alone to practise individually is something I learnt only after a few sessions.
With this article, a shout goes out for a new teacher/s as more is always merrier and the class can always use new hands. It would be useful if the new teacher could already speak some Dutch but as I did, you can pick it up as you go along. Some students speak only English but they are few and far between.
If you are interested in volunteering as a cycling teacher, please contact:
Mr. Tamme Hansma
Mobile: 06 1446 4182