A cycling trip to Holland: the land of the bicycle

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3 – Deventer to Rotterdam

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The Nijmegen road bridge

From Nijmegen station we cycled to a park and phoned our next B&B to ask if we could leave our panniers there while we spent the day in the town. Tom said fine and my Garmin led us over the bridge to his place on the north bank of the River Waal. Then we cycled back over. I'm fond of this bridge. My father helped defend it in 1944 as part of the Allied Advance into Germany. Read more on page 8 of his war diary, also page 9. Another fine photo of the bridge.

The National Bicycle Museum is interesting enough, with lots of old bicycles with wooden wheels, and an even older one invented by Leonardo da Vinci (surprise surprise). Unfortunately for Nijmegen the town was flattened during WW2, as was Arnhem a little to the north. The town that was used in 'A Bridge Too Far' was actually Deventer, as it still had some old buildings left standing. There are very few nice ones in Nijmegen. Tom's B&B on the other hand was superb (photo) and he was a most charming host. He was especially proud of the Dutch breakfast he served us, which in fact was pretty much the same idea as a Danish or German breakfast. Very nice. In the evening there we'd dined 'at home' on Albert Heijn ready-to-eat salads and read our books.

We travelled to Dordrecht on the train – day eight. This is one of several towns that claims to be the oldest in Holland (1220). As in Deventer we were staying in a B&B selected from our Vrienden op de Fiets book 2010 and which never cost more than 18.5 Euros per person. So it was up in the attic again (photo) but this house had kitchen and living/dining on the middle floor – and other guests.

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Canal, Dordrecht

Friedel, whom we'd stayed with in Den Haag on our first night, had recommended the Waterbus from Dordrecht to Rotterdam, so we cycled along to the jetty to suss it out for the next day. There's no train from Dordrecht to Europoort so the Waterbus would save us several miles. Waiting at the jetty for the rain to stop were a couple of British cycle tourists distinguishable by their Dawes/Thorn bikes and Carradice bags. We had a quick chat. They were about to set off to their hotel, which they were looking forward to because it had a swimming pool. As we looked around the town's various canals we wondered which posh establishment was theirs. We ate some fine burgers at Macdonald's.

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Our pleasant B&B in Dordrecht was in this street on the right hand side

Dordrecht is another of those pretty Dutch towns on the water and it was by water that we left the following morning. On the way to the Waterbus I noticed my Garmin showed our altitude as minus 35 feet (photo). Our last day in Holland was bright and sunny and we arrived in Rotterdam ready for a pleasant few miles cycling west up the river to the Maassluis crossing and then to Europoort.

The Garmin began to lead us north through Rotterdam, towards the freeway I guessed, so I reset it to pretend it was a bicycle instead of a delivery van and we retraced our path slightly until we were back en route to Maassluis. Urban cycle paths in Holland are often block-paved and the wheel vibration was uncomfortable for Sandra with her injured chest and shoulders. There wasn't much we could do about this, except press on and hope for tarmac. In the event, the riverside path was mostly nice and smooth, and after apple pie and coffee at Maassluis we were soon on the boat.

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Dyke path to Maassluis – the land on the right is lower than the river (to the left)

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The cyclist's windy approach to Europoort

Cycling in Holland: a few thoughts

In Nijmegen I took this photo of bicycles at the station. This is actually a multi-storey bike park. There's another level below (photo) with the bicycles stacked two-high. Note some of the bikes in the second photo: one has a metal seat over the front wheel and another has a child seat behind the handlebars.

On websites like Amsterdamize and Copenhagenize one reads that mass cycling can be achieved anywhere, including the UK, if only there is enlightenment and a public and political will to make it happen. This is complete nonsense. Dutch-style mass cycling and the infrastructure that goes with it will never happen in the UK. There is one simple reason: Holland is flat, the UK is not. Nothing can be done about it.

Look at the classic Dutch bicycle. It tells you everything. They are ridden in a vertical position that is effortless only on flat terrain, they are more or less maintenance free with enclosed chains and hub brakes and gears (when they actually have gears), and they lend themselves to carrying luggage or even other people. And they haven't changed for a very long time. The 100 year old Dutch bicycles in the National Bicycle Museum in Nijmegen are much the same as they are today.

The physical separation of bicycles from motor vehicles in the streets and the countryside of Holland is not the result of a modern movement to make us healthy and save the planet but is the consequence of natural evolution over a hundred years or more, in which it is perfectly natural to choose to ride a bike instead of driving a car; elderly grannies cycling in coats and makeup with their shopping in the basket, well-dressed husbands with their wives on the pannier rack, mothers cycling with one child on the handlebars and the other on a small bicycle at her side, students cycling in the rain beneath a big umbrella, cyclists towing trailers loaded with boxes, pretty girls cycling in groups, chatting nonchalantly as they whizz along.

There might be the occasional British city where some of this can be replicated – Cambridge for example – but Granny is never going to mess with derailleur gears or pant uphill. Mass cycling works only where it's flat; flat across the whole nation so that national standards and utility cycling evolve as the unquestioned norm. We're just playing at it in the UK, even Boris.

Our one regret on our cycle tour of Holland (apart from Sandra's crash) is planning too much cycling and too little time to enjoy its lovely towns. We thank Chris and Mrs Bailey for storing our car at their home near Hull, Friedel and Andrew Grant for their hospitality at Den Haag, the mechanics at Leo Smit bike shop in Medemblik, or Mendenbike as we now call it, and Coby Dijkstra and her husband for their kind assistance when we struggled to reach them in Oppenhuizen.

More photos on Flickr

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25 comments on “A cycling trip to Holland: the land of the bicycle”

  1. Garry wrote:

    I'm glad I've read this, Patrick, and looked at all the photos. I'd put off going there for years, because I thought it was too flat, and I'm definitely not going there now! It is not only too flat, but three flat and four flat!

  2. Patrick wrote:

    LOL – There's a hill near Maastricht apparently, down in the south. But seriously, Holland is beautiful, flat though it may be. We can't wait to go again.

  3. John wrote:

    Garry, If you don't go to Holland to meet the Dutch you will be missing out.

    Great write-up Patrick.

    Thankyou

  4. Mary wrote:

    Patrick, what a star your Sandra is. THere is NO way I could of cycled after that injury. No way what so ever... Im far too much of a drama queen, and crikey she had a dislocated shoulder not to mention broken ribs! She reminded me of Mad Max where the injured hero stitched up his own arm, and carried on regardless.

    Glad the pair of you had such a good tour considering Sandra's crash. I do hope she is on the mend and will not suffer too much lasting injury.

    Great story as always and fabulous photos. I too, reckon us tourers often end up doing too much cycling and not enough exploring of towns and hamlets.

    Holland is on my list to do one day... I think it would be a good spot to try as part of my cycling into Europe plans (these are 'one day Ill do it ' plans).

  5. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Mary (and John). I'm sure you'd enjoy Holland, despite what Garry said. It's so different from cycling in the UK, which in itself is a reason to go and see. But it's also very interesting, geographically and historically – much more so than Denmark IMO. Denmark is a lovely place for physical cycling and we'll go again, but every Dutch town is interesting in a different way, which is why we'll plan more stops on the next trip.

    Holland is easier to get to as well.

    Sandra's arm is now in a sling and she's due a shoulder operation next week to repair the ligaments and put the bone back in place. It's sticking out a bit. The surgeon said her arm is now held on only by muscle – I think he was impressed. Sometimes there's little choice but to carry on regardless. How do you get your bike and luggage back to the UK, for example, unless you ride it back?

  6. Chris wrote:

    Thanks for sharing the story and photographs. I suspect Holland will be the destination for our next tour (Mrs Bailey doesn't do hills – or camping), especially as we're fairly close to the port.

    I hope Sandra gets some relief from the evident pain she was feeling. I was reminded of Karen Briggs, a judoka from Hull, who regained her world title in 1989 despite dislocating her shoulder in doing so. Ouch.

  7. Hilary wrote:

    Great write up. I hope Sandra is on the mend, she did really well to finish the trip. I know exactly how it feels to see your partner spreadeagled and it really is the most horrible, sickening feeling. Stange how accidents always seem to happen in the most inoccuous places!

  8. Kern wrote:

    Great ride, great writeup. Condolences to Sandra and hopes for a speedy mend.

    Someone needs to buy Garry "ANWB Routegids Mountainbike Nederland" for Christmas.

  9. Alan wrote:

    Gosh, what a great story! I trust you are rebuilding Sandra's strength with chocolate cheesecake or her favourite comfort food. She was a total heroine.

    Interesting final thoughts, too, on Dutch cycling. Photos and videos I've seen had only had sit-up-and-beg styles, but I wondered how representative that was.

  10. Aidan Gloe wrote:

    I've just come back from a similar trip cycling in Holland. It's fantastic! No really, it's fantastic!

    I rode up the coast, over the dunes in the photo, to Haarlem, then stayed in Heemskerk. Then rode to Edam, then across to Naarden. Then caught the train to Gouda.
    Next day I rode Gouda back to Hoek van Holland. Had a brilliant time, and am already planning my next trip.

  11. Tim Beadle wrote:

    I see you've been reading Copenhagenize. But have you been paying attention? :p

    "If we're debunking flat myths, have a look at the list of the Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the world that we compiled here at Copenhagenize.com, based on trips by bike / modal share. Many flat cities feature on the list but there are cities that have a hilly topography. Gothenburg, Aarhus, Tokyo, Stockholm, Bern AND a high modal share for bicycles."

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2007/11/debunking-flat-countrybike-country-myth.html

  12. Patrick wrote:

    I paid attention during my tours in Denmark and Holland but I didn't have time to measure anything like the %-age of trips. I stand by my comments. I agree there may be a cultural dimension but it springs from the basic geography: flat terrain, with maybe a few hilly pockets.

    The north of England where I live is hilly – not Alpine but rolling hills and valleys, and very few towns that are flat. No-one cycles here on a Dutch bike because they won't work in this landscape, and no-one cycles up hills with their friend on the rack or towing trailers full of luggage.

  13. Tim Beadle wrote:

    It's not (just) about the type of bike! Proper infrastructure is the key, not how flat or hilly it is! If you need more gears, fine, but the infra will help you go up hills without feeling like you need to be Andy Schleck so you don't "hold up the traffic". Conflict-removal in this way is even more important when speed differences are higher, e.g. on hills.

    Britain had a bike culture until the 1950s, when cars started being catered for in a big way, as they were in the Netherlands and Denmark. Except in NL/DK, they turned things around when the 1970s oil crisis hit and they realised they were throwing something away of value. Thus they re-established the bike as the best way of getting around, and between, places.

    David Hembrow's blog for more:
    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2010/06/attitude-towards-cycling-infrastructure.html

  14. Patrick wrote:

    Mark Wagenbuur's post (on David Hembrow's blog) explains how protected cycle paths in Holland go back to 1905. Then: "What has been a growing tradition in the Netherlands for over a hundred years can be adopted by other countries too." It's just ludicrous. Is the UK going to start a 100-year programme of ripping up streets and trees and push buildings back to accommodate cyclists? I don't think so.

    Flat ground and Dutch bikes go together. Riding a bike on a level path is effortless so more people choose one to get from A to B. It's even easier than walking and the bikes are simple with almost no maintenance and an easy riding position – hop on and go – all with luggage racks. Flatness has to be a factor, then policy follows because the audience is already there.

    Now there's a whole cottage industry of cycle bloggers making wicker baskets and writing how they're setting such a wonderful example for the rest of the world. It's all a bit tiresome.

  15. Kern wrote:

    I had not previously considered terrain as an "enabler" for mass cycling but it makes perfect sense. Another factor is population density. The Canadian prairies may be flatter than a pancake, but you won't have a problem finding a spot in a bike rack.

  16. john wrote:

    I too had a great family trip to Holland this year near Leiden. We took our two boys aged 6 and 11 and over 10 days road 345 miles, on a variety of day trips. We enjoyed it so much that we are to return next Spring to youth hostel.
    So what if the country is flat. For me it is about being on my bike, touring some great countryside and not having to go to work! Sure if hills take your fancy go to the alps, but dont knock Holland for being flat. The people were great, I enjoyed the cafes and whilst the food is not as famous as the French or Italian cuisine, it certainly went down well!
    The towns are very pretty, and it was refreshing not to have to worry about ignorant motorists. I look forward to revisiting the Scottish Isles on my bike and touring other parts of Europe in the future, but I cannot help feeling that I will always want to return to Holland because the culture is so bike freindly. I am envious of that way of life, and there are many reasons why we cannnot hope to emulate that. Hills are a factor of course, but I suspect there is a far deeper cultural attitude that many in Europe share, and sadly we seem to lack.

  17. Tim Beadle wrote:

    Wow – who would have thought one expat Brit was a "cottage industry"? I rather like David's tell-it-like-it-is approach, because it shows us what's possible, if only we'd look across the North Sea for inspiration. And I don't know how many times I have to say it: bike use is higher in many other places than the UK, some of which are hilly, because they've made protected space for bikes.

    Yes, Dutch and wider European culture is more civilised than the UK on many levels, but it's still something to aim for. Sharing the road with motor vehicles isn't exactly going so well at the moment. Adopting the European 5th Motoring Directive (strict liability for the heavier party in collisions) would help.

  18. Patrick wrote:

    David Hembrow is just one of the many -izer cycle bloggers blowing the trumpet and poking fun at the UK, not to mention several others actually in the UK who spend their time posting photos of poor bike facilities everyone already knows about.

    Your suggestion for the Motoring Directive is more constructive and I agree with it. It's affordable too. Where I don't agree is that Dutch and Danish-style bike paths completely separate from the roads and with their own sets of lights etc is realistic for us, except as an occasional token gesture.

    One thing the UK can be proud of is bridleways. I'm not aware of another country with anything like it. Not much use for utility cyclists but wonderful all the same.

    @john... that's an outstanding performance by your two boys! You're right: great countryside, pretty towns, and very nice people. We'll be returning next year too.

  19. WestfieldWanderer wrote:

    Flat country does not necessarily make good cycling country. Try riding for hours into a relentless headwind (quite common in that part of Europe). Plenty of hilly parts of Europe have a much higher modal share for cycling than Britain: Gothenburg, Aarhus, Stockholm, Bern, Helsinki. No, the lazy British are very good at making excuses. That's why they find people who repeatedly and conclusively debunk those excuses "tiresome".

  20. Patrick wrote:

    WestfieldWanderer wrote: Try riding for hours into a relentless headwind.

    LOL

    Try it with a dislocated shoulder and two broken ribs. That is tiresome!

  21. Thanks for the nice peace you wrote on our Shop in Medemblik.
    I found it by Google, hope the brake of Sandra still is ok.

    See you next time in our Shop.

  22. alan oldfield wrote:

    Great report, even read your Dad's diary [bit of a war buff]. Saw some of the places we visited on our Holland tour last year, especially Leiden. Ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland really good, both new ships. get off ferry, turn left, and up the L1!
    We off to Eastern Holland for two weeks in June, like the look of your b+b's through 'guest' book site, will consider joining that this year.
    Hope Sandra now recovered and back cycling.

  23. Patrick wrote:

    Sandra is fine now, thanks, and I'm pleased you enjoyed the war diary. I hope you have a nice trip. If you go to Nijmegen, De Lentehof B&B (Tom) is top notch.

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