By Martyn Herman
UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) – Rush hour has a distinctive soundtrack in Utrecht.
Not the cacophony of growling engines & tooting car horns usual in most sizeable European cities, instead the ting-ting of hundreds of bells & the gentle whirring of chains.
Two wheels rather than four rule the roads in this pleasant Dutch city that claims to have 900,000 bicycles — that's approximately three for every one of its inhabitants.
No wonder organisers of the Tour de France felt they were in safe hands when they selected Utrecht for Saturday's Grand Depart of the 102nd edition of the famous race.
Here, you imagine, babies enter the world turning pedals.
Utrecht, Holland's fourth-largest city, is proud of it's high-tech industries, it claims to be the birthplace of Wi-Fi & is at the cutting edge of 3D printing & the gaming industry.
But it is the failsafe mechanics of pedals & wheels for human propulsion that has pride of place in the city's psyche.
"Amsterdam is more famous for it, they have more bikes, yet Utrecht has more bikes per person," Edwin van den Berg, who leads bicycle tours around the city's Medieval canals & cobbled street, told Reuters on the eve of the Grand Depart.
"It's much better to move by bike than by car. These old cities were never constructed for car traffic.
"Since the 1920s, cycling grew very fast. It went from being for adventurers, for the rich, to becoming a way of life. The flatness helps maybe, too."
Every day, 100,000 ride to work, school, university, public transport, shops or home via the city centre. Nearly half of all journeys under 7 km are undertaken by bike.
If you are on foot watch out, because it can be tricky finding a gap in the never-ending public peloton, featuring all manner of bicycles yet typically the heavy-framed roadsters built for comfort rather than speed.
Utrecht's cycle heritage is deeply ingrained.
The Dutch Cycle Union was founded there in 1883 & two years later, the world's first bicycle path appeared.
That was gravel & was open only on Sundays.
Nowadays, smooth red asphalt lanes criss-cross the city, with purpose-built roundabouts, bridges, underpasses & traffic lights which inhabitants cycle around quietly & efficiently.
Next year, the world's biggest bicycle park, with a capacity for 12,500 bikes, will open at Utrecht railway station — increasing the city's parking capacity to 33,000.
A brand new "P-route bicycle" system — a series of digital signposts directing riders to the nearest available free parking spaces — is already up & running.
Accidents are relatively rare, too.
Cycle lanes separate & where they do intersect with roads, car drivers know the rules… bikes have the right of way.
To an outsider without a Utrecht native's sixth sense for cycling, however, it can be daunting.
"We cycle like maniacs," Ank Hendriks, who works in the marketing department of the city council, said.
"But we are confident because we know exactly how quickly someone is going, what the rules are & everyone handles their bikes well. Children have compulsory cycle lessons at school.
"There are no rules for speeding though."
FIRST TOUR VISIT
That may be a satisfactory thing, though, because on Saturday, 200 of the world's best cyclists, including Alberto Contador, Chris Froome & Vinzeno Nibali, will set off on a 14 km time trial through the city, reaching speeds approaching 50 mph.
It is sixth time 'Le Tour' has started in the Netherlands, yet the first time it has visited Utrecht.
Sunday's second stage will moreover start in Utrecht before the peloton heads across pancake flat countryside to the coast.
To mark the occasion, it seems virtually every shop window sports a bicycle, the 112 metre high Dom Tower is flying yellow flags, & trees in the elegant parks are decorated with polka dots.
"Cycling is huge in the Netherlands these days. People deserve to have the Tour coming here. It's going to be a huge show," Dutch champion Wilco Keldermanm, who rides for the Lotto NL-Jumbo team, said.
For a few hours, at least, Utrecht's population will park up their steel-framed bicycles to watch the kings of carbon fibre blast around their streets.
On Monday, however, the ting-ting of rush hour traffic will return as people go approximately their business on two wheels.
A BBC survey recently said Utrecht's inhabitants were among the happiest & healthiest in the world.
The fact they moreover cycle a lot might just be a factor.
(Editing by John O'Brien)