Cycling Holland: light, wind and water
Judging by an almost complete absence of cycle tourists, in May at least, Holland is not high on a list of European cycling destinations. The Dutch landscape is not as obviously impressive as the scenic grandeur of Switzerland or Austria but town and country are fascinating and people are as friendly as anywhere we’ve been.
We cycled 510 miles over fourteen days, usually from one pretty town to the next, or sometimes the next but one, although we stayed two nights in Gouda, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Alkmaar. Much of the time my GPS indicated that we were below sea level, at one point minus 44 feet (minus 4.4 metres). The lowest point in Holland is about minus 6 metres and everywhere is famously flat, so when the wind didn’t blow the cycling was easy and very pleasant on the dedicated bike paths.
May is a good time to cycle round Holland. It’s the sunniest month (August is the driest) and outside the holiday season, so campsites are quiet. With only a few weeks before the summer solstice the days are long and bright – especially bright in the Netherlands with its low horizon and vast open skies. May is not immmune to wind. It began to blow as we left Amsterdam on day 7.
We percolated northwards out of the city in the direction of Enkhuizen with a breeze blowing roughly from west south-west. In such flat country you see the weather coming from miles away and to the west it didn’t look promising. “Yes!” exclaimed Sandra as she put on her Páramo Quito jacket. Hers is green and mine is orange. If there are two items of equipment that can transform a cycling tour they are this jacket and a GPS device for navigation. Two days later, cycling into a rainswept gale would have been a misery had we not been warm and dry or had to mess with paper maps.
The weather had been lovely in Amsterdam. We’d left the bikes in a secure cycle garage below the oldest stock exchange in the world and walked across town to the Van Gogh Museum, breathing cannabis fumes wafting in the air as we went. The camping ground is on the north bank of the river IJ and as we crossed back over, a cruise liner sailed into view. We wondered how this big ship could have reached inland to Amsterdam; it could not have arrived from the east via the now enclosed former Zuiderzee.
We imagined the ship must somehow have come cross country via Rotterdam and the big canal you cross at Maasluis as you leave Europoort (we were wrong).
Not all Amsterdam sights are as lovely as the pink bicycle leaning against a tree (and the woman on the left).
The system of Dutch rivers and canals is not easy to understand. The river Rhine flows into the Netherlands as part of the larger Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta that also flows into Belgium. The Rhine itself splits into at least three rivers, with changes of name to the Waal and the Lek (flowing west to the North Sea) and the Ijssel (flowing north to the Ijsselmeer). Those parts must be above sea level. The IJ at Amsterdam becomes the Noordzeekanaal. It crosses Holland to the North Sea via locks at IJmuiden. This is how cruise liners now find their way to Amsterdam. At one time, before the Zuiderzee was closed off from the north by the Afsluitdijk (which we cycled across this year), Amsterdam was accessible by sea.
Going westwards, after the Rhine becomes the Waal it joins up with the Nieuwe Maas (New Meuse) and flows to Rotterdam. Much of Rotterdam (the Rotte river is there as well) is below sea level, protected by dikes. Many of the cycle routes in Holland are atop the dikes, which are everywhere, enclosing ‘polders’: large tracts of low lying land criss-crossed by water-filled ditches with a pea green surface and pretty lilies.
Canals appear as soon as you cycle away from Europoort, a big one alongside the cycle path leading inland, then a river to cross by ferry at Maassluis – the Nieuwe Maas I think. Anyway from then on it’s cycling along dikes, more canals, over bridges, along tree-lines avenues, another ferry or a railway crossing, with occasional stops for coffee and apple tart.
We stopped for two nights in four towns (or cities perhaps): Gouda, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Alkmaar. From Gouda we cycled into the Groene Hart (Green Heart) of Holland, a water-rich area of agricultural polders, and from Utrecht into an area of lakes and woods via the city centre and the ‘red zone’ (or Red Light District). The red zone is a line of drive-by houseboats next to the cycle path. Canals were a feature of every town we passed through but only in Utrecht was the red zone on water. As in Cambridge, the punters don’t hide their faces.
So. On the way from Amsterdam to Enhuizen a cool wind with spots of rain had begun to blow from west south-west. We were cycling generally northwards but the route would sometimes turn west through open fields (polders). Four loaded panniers on a bicycle are not only heavy but make cycling upwind hard work. “Are we turning right again soon?” Sandra would ask. “Just a bit further up here,” I’d reply (turns up ahead can be seen by zooming out the GPS map). In a perfectly flat landscape you can read distant clouds and judge the weather for the next few hours. Grey though it was, there were vague yellowy patches on the horizon and I guessed the day would brighten up. By early afternoon we were crossing railways in bright sunshine and soon on riding along a windy dike by the shore of the Markermeer.
On the camp site at Enkhuizen a young German windsurfer reckoned the wind would be even stronger tomorrow and would swing to the south-east. We did not want a headwind cycling south-east across the 20-mile Houtribdijk the next day. The wind actually swung to the north-west and blew us nicely along the dike. It became a nasty crosswind as we skirted eastwards along the southern side of the Markermeer towards Kampen.
After a B&B stop in Kampen our route turned northwest into the teeth of the wind. The next couple of days were a slog. On the coast at Lemmers we dived for the shelter of a woodland path as the dike-top route was uncyclable, lashed with horizontal spume from waves on the Ijsselmeer. After 58 miles we arrived at the camp site at Stavoren, pitched the tent in heavy rain, and didn’t cook anything because we’d run out of camping gas (to be more accurate, I’d brought the wrong type of replacement cartridge – we had just enough left to brew some tea the next morning). Then a ferry crossing back to Enkhuizen and an even stronger wind to Alkmaar. I don’t remember ever cycling in such a powerful wind as this. In places we were slowed to 4 mph and got off and pushed a few times to avoid being blown sideways into the roadside canal.
Alkmaar is a pleasant town with the usual canals, coffee and apple tart, and a camping shop selling screw-in gas cartidges (what we really needed was a Markhill gas adaptor). Our bike chains had rusted so we went to a Dutch Halfords to have them lubed. In the warm afternoon sunshine we cycled to the North Sea coast through the Schoorlse Duinen, a lovely area of natural dunes some five kilometres wide and wooded, with probably the highest ground in Holland. In the evening we had gas again and cooked pasta.
Approaching a new campsite you tend to wonder what you’ll find. We’d been advised in Amsterdam that they will always squeeze on a small tent but you still hope for a pleasant pitch, clean toilets, and not too far to travel into town. It’s always good when it actually happens, and Haarlem was perfect. The manager placed us amongst some empty caravans on a tiny piece of grass with a paved hardstanding next to it. The town was just 3 kilometres away along a bicycle superhighway. Our last night was in Leiden, a B&B right next to the church:
Our route from Haarlem to Leiden had taken us through a nature reserve of dunes along a coastal section of the LF1 North Sea Cycle Route south of Zandvoort then inland past windmills and a nice little ferry trip across a lake full of boats, before zig-zagging pleasantly into the town. If you are effortlessly overtaken by middle aged women sitting upright with loaded panniers on their bikes it may be they are power-assisted (but not always).
In last weekend’s Guardian newspaper was an article bemoaning the fact that very few trips in the UK (2%) are by bicycle compared to the Netherlands (25%). For all the time and money spent on promoting cycling and its benefits to the individual and to society, the British remain reluctant to think of the bicycle as a means of personal transport. In spite of a failure to demonstrate that piecemeal cycling infrastructure has the slightest effect on the number of utility cyclists in Britain, a view continues to prevail that Holland is a model for the rest of the world. There must be money in waffling uselessly about modal shifts.
Dutch cycling infrastructure is not piecemeal. A hundred years of planning and investment guarantees there is always a safe and convenient cycle path through urban road junctions, however large and complex. Except in residential streets where cyclists share the road with motorists who are presumed to be at fault in collisions between cars and bicycles, you have a protected cycle lane or path at your disposal, and through the country you can probably cycle to your destination on a two-lane road just for bicycles with all the suspension bridges and ferries you need. Not even once will you be left to your own devices with no option but to mix it with busy motorised traffic.
Arrive at a railway station and leave your bike securely amongst hundreds of others in the dedicated bicycle park – that’s if you don’t fancy taking your bike on the train where there’s plenty of space for it. Arrive in the city and lock your bike in one of the hundreds of stands on every street corner, or even better, leave it in the indoor bicycle garage where the attendant will not only watch over it but can service it too. Above all, enjoy cycling amongst thousands of other cyclists riding to work, to school, to the shops, or just for the pleasure of pedalling safely around the town or through the woods or along the canal. This is the reality of cycling in the Netherlands, and it’s so far removed from the British experience that any comparison is laughable. It’s laughable because Britain can never be Holland, which is why campaigning for Dutch style infrastructure is a waste of time*.
The photos above are not special examples. They were taken in passing and are what the Dutch take for granted as provision for bicycles everywhere. That such a high proportion of people cycle is not so much due to their greater wisdom or enlightenment as to the conduciveness of the Netherlands to bicycles as easy transport. I can’t back this up with academic study but it seems obvious that its inherent flatness, small size, and population living in or close to towns is the key. Public investment was bound to succeed (no-one will invest on this scale in the UK; it would lead to public outrage).
The final 35 miles of our tour were on a Dutch public holiday, 2nd June, and the cycle paths were filled with cyclists enjoying a sunny Sunday ride (although it was Thursday). From Leiden we cycled to Voorburg, then Delft, then Maassluis, then took the ferry over the canal and rode along by the water back to Europoort. I always allow time to mend two punctures and a broken chain so we arrived with three hours to spare.
We continued reading our books: One Hundred Years of Solitude (me), Danish detective thriller (Sandra). A special thanks to Chris and Kate for letting us park our car at their house on the English side of the North Sea ferry crossing.
The campsites in Holland are very good value. Except for Amsterdam which was a little more expensive, we paid 13-14 Euros per night for two people including tent. The sites are well kept and the toilets and showers are spotless – a shower might cost 0.5 Euros for 6 minutes. But there are no cooking facilities. In contrast, the campsites we’ve stayed at in Denmark have rows of stoves (free use), a lounge with TV, and a shop where you can order fresh rolls for breakfast. The Danish ones are significantly more expensive.
Bed & Breakfasts:
Gastenverblijf de Turfkamer, Turfmarkt 69, 2801 GW Gouda
B&B Vechtoever, Vechtoever 33, 3555 SX Utrecht
B&B PolderPoort, Henk Steenbeekhof 33, 8264 BZ Kampen
B&B Baden Beschuit, Beschuitsteeg 10-12a, 2312 JV Leiden
Once we’d decided which towns to visit Sandra downloaded suitable cycling routes from Fietserbond (Fiet is the strange Dutch word for ‘bicycle’). We’d adopted the same system touring Holland last September and the routes are excellent without exception. Someone with local knowledge has obviously planned them with care and they often lead off into open country or in towns percolate through narrow alleyways you would never pick off a map. Occasionally though, you turn in a different direction and you sense a scenic detour.
I transferred the route for each day onto my Garmin eTrex Legend HCx GPS device, and also a Waypoint for the location of each overnight stop. The GPS is mounted on the handlebars of my bike and we followed the wiggly line. On arrival at the destination town I used the Garmin’s ‘Go To’ feature to navigate to the front door (or gate) of where we’d arranged to stay. As we went, I also recorded our actual path. I’ve used this method three times now, and it works superbly well.
See also Cycle tour of Holland, 2010 »