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The Netherlands - A Cycling Utopia?

After spending five years living in the Netherlands I thought I’d reminisce a little and hopefully give an insight into my cycling experiences while living in the land of the windmills, clogs, cheese and canals. Now as you all know, they have in the Netherlands (I’m using the country’s full name as I was continually reminded by my Dutch friends that Holland is in fact just two of the provinces within the Netherlands, not the whole country - unless you’re talking football that is!) a lot of bikes and I mean a lot! Over 18 million at the last count, a large percentage of which can be seen left daily in huge cycle parks outside of train stations throughout the country. An example of this is a three storey cycle parking garage just outside the Centraal Station in Amsterdam which is said to cram in over 4,000 bikes every day. The Netherlands has the best cycle infrastructure I’ve seen, every major and most minor roads have their own cycle path next to it, complete with traffic lights for cyclists for crossing over a main road, junction or bus lane. I spent a lot of time riding through the countryside, towns and cities alongside some beautiful architecture and very scenic canals and rivers. Very pleasant on a nice sunny day! They also have a wonderful system of national cycle routes, clearly signposted throughout and many of which are specially built tracks through fields, sand dunes and large nature reserves. I used to live in Haarlem and was lucky enough to have two of these beautiful areas close to where I lived. My favourite journey, especially during the summer, was a 10km jaunt through a lovely park to the long sandy beach and the cornucopia of ice cream shops & beach bars in Zandvoort. I could, and often did, spend a day riding from Haarlem to Alkmaar and back (40km each way) only having to use roads very briefly. The ride would take me via numbered cycle routes along gravel paths through the woods, past lakes and dunes and also included a couple of short ferry trips over the North Sea Canal. Another favourite was Haarlem to The Hague (again around 40km each way) also through a nature reserve along a path skirting through the dunes, past the colour of the bulb fields in springtime and small seaside towns until finally reaching the promenade leading to the beach at Scheveningen. Both of the longer distance rides were reasonably easy even for a tall, rather rotund person like myself as both were very flat routes. These trips were always a lot busier during the summer with what seemed like a mass exodus from Haarlem and further away, of people en route to the beach especially at weekends. I soon found out the Dutch are most definitely a sun worshipping nation with the bike being their transport of choice to get to the sunbeds, beach and bars! Personally I used to prefer a cold crisp frosty morning cycling through a deserted park with only the birds, deer, wild ponies and the odd herd of highland cattle to keep you company.  No, I’ve no idea how or why the highland cattle are there either, a great photo opportunity though especially when they decide to take up residence on the cycle path! If you fancy testing yourself climbing some hills then Northern Holland won’t be for you, they are the atypical flatlands associated with the country, you’ll have to journey to the south of the Netherlands before you see any sign of a rolling landscape. You’ve probably seen the undulations around Valkenburg including the famous Cauberg during the Amstel Gold race but you also have Maastricht and a lot of pretty little towns and villages to explore. The hills there can be quite testing (well they were for me anyway!) and it’s also where you’ll find groups of club cyclists from all over the country as well as many people touring from abroad, all resplendent in their colourful lycra outfits, shades and very expensive road bikes! This is also a great area for the more leisurely cyclist as you have the joys of slipping across the border into Belgium and Germany close by (again both countries having a superb cycle path infrastructure). Sometimes if I had a few days off I would take the long train journey down south either taking my trusty bike or hiring one on arrival from one of the plethora of cycle shops while down there. The Dutch train system is certainly more cycle friendly than its equivalent in the UK with several carriages having plenty of space for bikes although I will say that things here do seem to be changing for the better, albeit slowly. It really is a superb way to spend those all too infrequent long hot summer days. All ages from teens to octogenarians cycle and it seems everyone in the Netherlands has at least one bike; many have two, three or even four. Most have two, a decent bike for longer rides and an “oma fiets” (translation: granny bike) for trips to the shops or leaving it locked up outside a train station. The “oma fiets” is nothing like any other bike I’d ever ridden before; it’s like a step back in time to the 19th century. A very upright position, I think the term here is a sit up & beg bike, with most have just the one gear although the luxury models can have three, and both have an encased chain and mechanical back wheel brakes which you activate by cycling the pedals backwards. Not easy to remember when someone pulls out in front of you! All of these have a luggage rack over the back wheel which are more often than not utilised as a second seat for giving a friend a lift. They also have a very creative way of transporting small children around, often having custom made cargo bikes (bakfiets) with usually two smaller wheels on the front with various sizes and designs of large wooden crate type carriers in between, more than enough room for 2-6 kids and perfect for the morning school run. I’ve only seen one similar style of bike in the UK and that was a mobile bike mechanic using this design as a way to transport his full tool kit around! Bike shops are, as you would expect, rife in the Netherlands in Haarlem alone there were 24 to serve a city of 150,000. I now live in a town in Berkshire with a population of just over 110,000 and we have…..one.  One thing I will say is cycling isn’t a cheap pastime in Holland. Bikes are very expensive to buy and there are none of the cheap mountain bikes you find in Halfords, Tesco’s or the like over here. Even a new basic granny bike will set you back anything from €400-800. Second-hand granny bikes usually cost anything from €150-350. Mountain bikes and any expensive bikes are definitely not the norm and become targets for the thieves in towns and cities which is why most ride their old rusty bikes if they’re on a short journey or leaving the bike at a train station, town or city centre. Unfortunately I had first-hand experience of this too, I lost two good bikes, one of which was in the city centre, I was only away from one for 10 minutes and it had a D lock and a separate thick chain lock on it! I was gutted and ended up doing what most other people do in the same situation, not believing it really was gone walking around the bike racks for ages thinking I must have been mistaken about where exactly I’d left it. I probably raised a few eyebrows with the locals that day thinking about it, wandering backwards and forwards looking at all the locked bikes, it was lucky I wasn’t arrested myself! Be very careful if you’re cycling in Holland and decide to leave your bike locked up even in a seemingly “safe” place. There’s no such thing as a safe place in city centres unless you use one of the many bike parking garages you have to pay to use. One quite interesting point about cycling in Holland is if you have a collision with a motor vehicle then, according to Dutch law, it’s automatically the drivers fault. The driver is deemed responsible for any collision between a vehicle and a cyclist and I understand drivers are trained for interaction with cyclists as part of learning to drive, something we could well do with here. It also helps that most car drivers in Holland are also cyclists so are possibly more aware of the potential hazards involved. More of a problem for cyclists (well, more like an annoyance especially to me) are “brommers” which are the equivalent of our mopeds. These can legally use the cycle paths and its normal to see them weaving in and out between the cyclists, lawnmower engine screaming, often only missing you by inches. Brommers are very popular with the 15-25 age group especially during the summer and are mainly ridden without a helmet. Talking of helmets, interestingly most cyclists in the Netherlands don’t wear them at all. I’ve cycled throughout the country; the parks, villages, small towns, larger towns all the way to city cycling in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague & Maastricht and I could count the number of people I saw wearing helmets on the fingers of one hand. In fact the few that were wearing them turned out to be expats or tourists. Light years away from the furore and cyclist bashing currently raging in the media and government in the UK at the moment. It has to be said it is much, much safer to cycle on the purpose built cycle paths you find alongside every road in the Netherlands. One last example of just how much their system differs from ours. I remember leaving my house one cold dark winter morning for the long journey into work only to find it had snowed quite heavily overnight. The roads and footpaths were covered in a couple of inches of snow and the cars were crawling along at a snail’s pace yet the cycle paths were clear. I was a tad confused and after struggling on for around ten minutes found the answer, as I turned a corner I saw a mini snow plough diligently clearing all the cycle paths but no sign of one to clear the roads! It always amuses me just thinking about it and certainly shows where the priorities lie in the Netherlands! To sum up, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to spend a lot of time cycling around the whole of the Netherlands and would encourage anyone thinking of a holiday there to give it a go. The people are very welcoming and most hotels, guest houses cycle friendly and everyone will enjoy the cycling infrastructure they have in the Netherlands including several new initiatives recently added that I’ve not had the opportunity to try yet. Well, thanks for bearing with me as I took a trip down memory lane reminiscing about my former life and I hope it was at least a little informative and didn’t bore you too much!   Dave Read
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