The Dutch rely ever more on the humble bike for transport as pollution concerns and high petrol prices give new impetus to traditional pedal power in the only country with more bicycles than people.
The average Dutchman cycled 902 kilometres in 2006, up 16 kilometres from 15 years ago, according to official statistics.
Annual new bike sales rose by 80,000 in 2007 to 1.4 million as the Dutch, known for their thrift and pragmatism, shunned the comfort of gas-guzzling cars for the cheaper, greener alternative in a year marked by record oil prices.
"Bicycle manufacturers can look back on two successful years," states a report by Statistics Netherlands. "In 2006, turnover increased by no less than 15 percent relative to 2005. In 2007, a nine percent turnover growth was realised."
The spike was caused by higher sales figures, says the report, as prices have remained "fairly stable."
The flat-landscaped Netherlands, home to just over 16.3 million people, actually boasts some 18 million bicycles -- a ratio of 0.9 persons per cycle, or 1.1 bikes per person.
Its closest European competitors are Denmark and Germany, with respective figures of 1.2 and 1.3 citizens for each bike.
Hugo van der Steenhoven, head of the Cyclists' Union, said concern over pollution, oil prices and healthy living all contributed to the national rise in bicycle use.
"People are realising that they can truly make a difference and pollute less," he told AFP. "A recent study showed that once the oil price reaches 100 dollars a barrel, 10 percent of car drivers opt to use their bicycles more."
Being in good health was becoming increasingly important, and people were more committed to regular exercise, added Van der Steenhoven.
Not even the wet climate seems able to put a spoke in the wheels of the Dutch, who weave through city traffic shrouded in plastic on rainy days, transporting anything from pets and children to groceries, musical instruments and plants on their bikes.
Many a parent can be seen negotiating traffic with a child secured to each end of a bicycle with shopping bags and even a briefcase secured to the sides.
With traffic jams a major irritation, the Dutch cycled a combined 14.7 billion kilometres in 2006, compared to 22 billion kilometres travelled by public transport and 95.8 billion kilometres behind the wheel of a car.
Forty-six percent of bicycle use was for commuting between home, work and school, 40 percent recreational and 14 percent for other purposes like shopping, according to the RAI association of road transport manufacturers.
The bicycle has also become something of a fashion statement for the upwardly mobile, as illustrated by the growing popularity of the "bakfiets," a two-wheeler with a large cart attached to the front and selling at 1,400 euros (US$2,000) apiece.
"When we started six years ago, we sold about three a week," said Jan Rijkeboer, head of manufacturer Azor, which produces the "bakfiets" -- big enough to transport two or three small children. Now, we sell thousands per year... and we export a containerful to the United States every three months."
The average client was a young parent in the upper-middle income range.
"For some it is a display of wealth, but some, like my single-mother clients, don't have a choice -- it is still cheaper than a car," said Rijkeboer.
The traditional city bike on which the cyclist sits high and straight, still represents two-thirds of new purchases.
But sales of the electric bicycle, which has a small motor to relieve the need for pedalling, have been taking off in recent months.
"The models are becoming more attractive and the technology better... people wish to avoid traffic jams and save petrol," said the RAI. "Travelling a distance of 10 kilometres to work seems less scary with the electric bike."
The issue is becoming political, too, with an MP for the Christian Democratic party, Joop Atsma, set to propose to parliament this month a lowering of VAT on new bicycle purchases from 19 percent to six percent.
"Nothing is greener than the bicycle," he told AFP. "But politics doesn't care about that. It is a lost opportunity."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008