At the end of a successful but very focused first season on the TT bike it was an absolute bliss to enjoy a week of nice slow rides along the Dutch bike lanes watching the landscape and feeling the sun and the wind on my skin. Quite a contrast with dripping in sweat on the turbo trainer and staring at my Garmin. Instead being happily oblivious to what power or speed I might be riding at and really feeding my soul with this amazing sense of adventure cycle touring (especially solo cycle touring) can give.
The last time I toured on my bike was back in 2011. In March that year I rode the Lon Las Cymru (see link for more info), a 250 mile long-distance cycle route along the length of Wales from Holyhead to Cardiff. In late summer of that same year I did the 135 mile Coast to Coast ride from Whitehaven to Sunderland and returning along the 174 mile Hadrian’s Cycleway from South Shields to Whitehaven. All of the above routes run through stunning landscapes and form part of the National Cycle Network maintained by SUSTRANS, the charity that supports travel by foot, bike or public transport.
During both trips I was travelling solo, still on my Eddy Merckx with a triple that came in handy in the Welsh hills … (and on occasion wasn’t even enough so I had to walk and push my bike…) I had a little luggage rack on the back that was shaking like an excited toddler on each descend and getting the blame for my inability to get up a few hills too. I didn’t have a Garmin yet, so was following the National Cycle Network signs along the route and checking my paper map often (yet still managing to get lost or cover certain climbs twice as I accidentally held the map upside down etc..)
I had thoroughly enjoyed those trips but as I got more tied up in riding my bike competitively since 2012 and filling my holiday time with other things, I hadn’t been able to do a similar touring trip since then. I love long rides and LEJOG, the ultimate 900 odd mile cycle touring trip from Land’s End to John o Groats is definitely still on my bucket list…but I”ll have to find a little more time to do that.
As I recently had one week to spare in between two jobs, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for long rides and cycle touring with visiting some friends and family in the Netherlands. My sister and her husband had announced their third (!) wedding party in a year to be held in Amsterdam on the Saturday night. So a plan was made where I would cycle on Monday from home to Harwich (circa 100 mile) and cross on the ferry to Hoek van Holland together with Chris (my husband) who would drive to Harwich. Chris would then spent the week working and travelling between Holland and Germany and I would start my Dutch cycling adventure on Tuesday by covering the 160 mile to my grandma who lives in the east of the country. Then have a rest day at her place on Wednesday, continue my journey on Thursday by cycling circa 75 mile to my dad’s and finally enjoying a leisurely 65 mile bike ride from there to Amsterdam on Friday to be re-united with my husband and do some kayaking on Saturday with friends in Amsterdam before the big party in the evening and travelling home on Sunday by car and ferry.
This time I made sure to travel a light as possible with just a little backpack, a medium-sized saddle bag and a small triangular-shaped bag for on the frame so as to avoid steering issues handle bar bags can give or experience that ‘wobbly toddler’ feeling again from a rack. Haha, I shouldn’t have worried though because of course Holland is flat as a pancake and I did very little descending or climbing. As one of my former colleagues commented, just getting out of Sheffield on her commute involves more climbing than during my whole 161 mile journey to my grandma and perhaps even my whole week of cycling in the Netherlands!
Navigating was a lot easier than during my cycle touring in 2011 as I had some good routes uploaded in my Garmin. The Dutch ‘Fietsersbond‘ has a pretty cool website for planning your routes which also gives you the option what sort of roads you want to be on. Contrary to cycling in the UK most route options are on bike lanes, but in addition you can for example specify that you want a ‘nature route’ (which takes you through the best parks, areas of outstanding beauty etc) or a ‘race bike route’ (which skirts around all towns and cities so you have a care-free ride with as little traffic as possible, very few traffic lights and guaranteed surfaced roads). I chose the race bike routes. They don’t follow the most direct way from A to B, but certainly the most enjoyable and that is what is most important during cycle touring. See links below for my routes:
The first 40 or 50 mile of my route from Hampton to Harwich weren’t so much fun, including getting through and out of London and a fast boring stretch along the A414 I should really have found an alternative for. The second part of the ride that day was a lot more pleasant, riding on smaller lanes with less traffic and taking in some nice Essex scenery. I arrived in Harwich about an hour before sunset and watched the most beautiful sunset whilst waiting for Chris. The sky looked so nice it even made the port area of Harwich look pretty.
After a quiet sailing on the night ferry and a good night sleep in (for ferry standards) quite a luxury cabin, I rolled off the ferry by 08:30 the next morning and could start my cycle ride pretty much straight away on nicely segregated bike lanes along dikes and through the greenhouse area ‘Westland’ (the area between The Hague, Rotterdam and Delft). By the time I had passed just south of Amsterdam I was pleasantly surprised by having to hand operate my own ferry crossing over the river the Holendrecht for just me and my bike. The route then continued by crossing the length of the ‘”Flevopolder”‘ , the largest artificial island in the world which is joined to the mainland by bridges (I entered over the bridge by Muiderberg and left over the bridge by Kampen).
I don’t think I had ever really visited the Flevopolder before and I definitely never saw so much of it. It quickly become apparent that other than the main cities of Almere, Lelystad and Dronten, there isn’t much happening on the island other than miles and miles of flat agricultural land, endless rows of modern wind mills and beautiful vistas of sailing boats and surfers enjoying the waves on the vast lake which used to be a sea. As a cyclist you also quickly get reminded of how battling the wind on the flat lands for miles and miles on end can be equally exhausting as cycling uphill. Boudewijn de Groot’s song text of “hoe sterk is de eenzame fietser die kromgebogen over zijn stuur tegen de wind zichzelf een weg baant” certainly came to mind (this roughly translates as “How strong is the lonely cyclist who battles his way against the wind bent over his handlebars”).
The last part of that day’s route skirted the edges of Kampen, Hasselt and Dedemsvaart to arrive at my grandma’s who lives in Lutten (near Ponypark Slagharen which is probably only known by Dutch readers but is one of Holland’s larger theme parks). Everything started to look a bit similar by now (wide flat farm land and very few houses) and each time my mind was tricked into thinking I recognised something and hoping I was nearly there.
Although the routes I had chosen were great, my method of saving them had not been so clever. They were saved onto the Garmin as a track of ‘bread crumbs’ connected as the crow flies rather than following the bike paths. On quite a few occasions I had got myself lost or had to stop to double check the route. Because the Garmin screen had been in map mode more often than planned and it had taken me longer than anticipated (both because I was slow, had stopped more often and added accidental extra miles), the Garmin battery was dead after about 10 hours or so. It was getting darker and I still had quite a while to go… Luckily I had also printed out the route and turn by turn instructions and brought my lights.. So eventually I arrived in the pitch black around 20:30 at my grandma’s. She was very happy to see me but definitely sent me straight to the showers 🙂
I won’t bore you with too much more detail of my cycling routes for the next few days but again I passed some stunning scenery including forests, heather lands, estuaries and quaint little Dutch villages. About 80% of the time I was riding on segregated bike paths, often even nowhere near a main road and with few other cyclists in view either (note that this would be quite different during the weekends). The rest of the time I was riding on on-road bike paths but generally on a service road that would run parallel to larger more busy roads.
I realised not only how pretty my flat country is but also how relaxing cycling can be when you can literally cover the length of the country without even having to think about cars! The car drivers that I encountered gave me lots of space and on quite a few occasions I actually had to keep insisting and waving them on to please keep going when they stopped at places where the road markings clearly indicated that they had right of way. Amazing. I better cherish these memories, because the UK is still decades behind in terms of cycling infrastructure, legislation and mentality.
The trip ended with some very enjoyable hours kayaking on the canals of Amsterdam (and the Sloterplas, a lake just west of Amsterdam), catching up with family and dancing the night away at my sister’s wedding party at the Tolhuistuin (an idyllic garden and cultural hot spot in Amsterdam North).
Seeing my family and some good friends combined with those nice slow miles on the bike, taking in the landscape, refreshing my soul and emptying my mind was especially good to do at the end of a long cycling season. I now feel full of energy to really throw myself into an exciting new job (have a look at www.fourth-street.com if you are interested what I do when I am not on my bike) and put in some good autumn/winter training as a base for hopefully an even more successful 2015 cycling season.
Finally, let’s hope it won’t take me another three years before I go on my next cycle touring adventure. I am already dreaming of an adventure that includes crossing by ferry to Saint Malo, visiting my mum in the south of Brittany (near Quimper) and returning by ferry to Southampton and cycling back to London from there ….