By William Lee Adams
Wednesday, Jan. 07, 2009
On a chilly Saturday in October, Mark Hitchcock and nine friends from New Zealand kick off a four-day bachelor party in Amsterdam with a bit of sightseeing. Rather than admiring the canals on a boat tour or sampling the wares at a coffee shop, however, the men opt for something more active — they mount a 17-ft.-long (5 m) bicycle decked out with a bar and karaoke machine. It takes just 10 minutes (and a couple of beers) before they remove their shirts, attracting the attention of female tourists. “How do we get on?” asks one young American woman. The group response? “Take off your underwear!”
Welcome aboard the Amsterdam beer bike. In recent years, the pedal-powered bar on wheels has become a popular draw for tourists who want to combine city-cruising with daytime boozing. “Riding a bike while having a beer is simply amazing,” says Ard Karsten, the Dutch founder of the company Beerbike.co.uk, one of three outfitters in the city. Not only that, he adds, but it is an environmentally friendly alternative to gas-guzzling bus and boat tours. “It’s a new and unique way to see Amsterdam,” he says.
But while visitors have embraced the service — nearly 10,000 foreigners rode Karsten’s bikes last year — locals remain ambivalent about it. Those in the tourism industry understand that the city makes a lot of money from the legions of tourists who come to Amsterdam to get drunk and stoned. But as opponents point out, most do so in bars or cafés — not on the street. “We look at it with horror,” says Ton Boon, a spokesman for the Centrum Borough, the quaint, canal-lined district in the heart of the city. “It brings in one kind of tourist and chases away another.”
Noise pollution is one problem. The bikes hold 10 to 22 people, and when the drinking starts, the riders’ shouts become increasingly difficult to ignore. Wanda Nikkels, who lives in the red-light district, says the more beer passengers consume, the more obnoxious they get and the slower they pedal. They also have a habit of trampling flowers, steering into pedestrian-only zones and blocking traffic. “Recently there was a group of guys who parked their bike in front of some hookers and the girls made a live show and the boys kept screaming,” she says. “It was just 12 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Last summer, there were also a couple of high-profile accidents that prompted concern among city officials. In one incident, 11 women crashed their beer bike into a viaduct, throwing several of them to the pavement. One was hospitalized with a concussion, another broke several ribs and a third lost the tip of a finger. “It’s an uncontrolled projectile,” says Karin Wolfs, an Amsterdam resident who broke a finger when a beer bike hit her motorcycle in June and sent her flying. “Who came up with the idea to drink beer while driving on public roads?”
Authorities are now contemplating whether to put the brakes on some parts of the booze-bike experience. New rules will be unveiled in the coming weeks that could force companies to cap alcohol consumption, provide designated drivers and follow pre-approved routes. Karsten, for one, supports such measures as a way of improving the image of the beer bike in Amsterdam. He sticks by the safety of his vehicles, noting that both accidents last year involved rival companies. And his bikes, which start at $680 for a two-hour tour with 8 gal. (30 L) beer, already come with a tour guide and designated driver, as well as insurance “against damages to participants and third parties.”
Karsten is also trying to limit disruptions to local residents. He requires his guides to stop their bikes near a restaurant or hotel every 20 minutes so passengers can relieve themselves indoors. “I hate when they pee on the street,” he says. “It looks unprofessional.” And, aware that drunken tourists sometimes block traffic when they struggle to pedal, he plans to add an electrical mechanism to the undercarriage this year to “help push the bike forward.” In a city known for its tolerance, these efforts may be enough to assuage angry residents — and keep the beer flowing, and the bike rolling, for years to come.