Stage one of the Eurovelo 15: Netherlands, from the Hook of Holland to the border with Germany
Shamefully, I have seldomly picked up a (virtual) pen and paper yet on this trip, so I am writing this entry with a lot of hindsight. However, this gives me the opportunity to introduce the Netherlands not through my over-awed first impressions and delighted cyclist selfies, but through recalling one particular conversation which I had a month later, in a little hut in the Swiss Alps.
I stayed in this hut for two days, along with an Australian, and Egyptian, and Susanne, a Dutch woman. We had no electricity, no internet, tremendous views, and naturally flowing conversation. Speaking to Susanne about starting my trip in the Netherlands, I said I had found not just the cycle paths, but also the respect and awareness of cyclists from drivers, stunning. She was unsurprised. “We grow up on bicycles”, she shrugged.
For a moment I smiled, remembering learning to cycle. I think I had ben about 6 then. I remember the stabilisers either side of the bike, progressing to a wobbly few metres through a rural Irish back garden, pushed by my father and once by my uncle. Finally, I took to the road. Although long-distance cycling touring has only been a part of my life in the past few years, I thought that I, too, could count myself as growing up on a bicycle.
That view was soon corrected.
“As soon as we’re born, the bicycle has a baby seat. As soon as we can sit up, we are in it. Out on the front with our parents. We are dropped off at nursery on bike. By the time we start school, we should be able to ride independently. So, we are on a bike as we are learning how to think. We learn to think as a car driver a lot later. When we drive, we don’t think about bicycles… we think as bicycles.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of biking through the Netherlands. I started at the Hook of Holland, having got the overnight ferry. It was a smooth crossing throughout which I slept soundly. Disembarking the ferry was similarly smooth – none of this waiting for two hours to go through security. A simple passport check and a smile at the ferry terminal and I was free to cycle all over Europe. And then the thunderstorm hit.
Great start. Of all places, I sheltered in a small fish shop which happened to have a coffee dispenser. Five minutes in the Netherlands, thunder rolling in across the harbour, I wondered what on earth I was doing.
Half an hour of fishy mooching later, the thunderstorm has cleared to drizzle, and I started cycling in to Rotterdam for my first camp stop. I typed Rotterdam into my borrowed Garmin, checked Google Maps on my phone… and then realised there was a sign directly outside the fish shop with “Rotterdam: 45” written on it in small red letters. Hmm, better check the Garmin anyway, I thought. How could I be sure that the route was suitable for bicycles?
Ah. Yes. The fact that “45” had a little red bicycle next to it. Right.
I’ve always been a little suspicious of cycling signs. I followed the blue cycling signposts from Dundee to Edinburgh on one of my earliest long cycles. It should be about 70 miles… unless you follow the little blue signs. Keen to show off every village, church, sheep and (notably, when on a bicycle) HILL in the county, these signs are great if you want to do a 10-mile cycling trip. Not, however, if you have an element of getting-to-a-place-before-dark on your itinerary. 95 miles, including heading over the Forth Road Bridge after sunset, isn’t so fun.
But the Dutch do not think of cycling as a site-seeing pastime. No, they think as bicycles. And a bicycle, it seems, is a natural extension of yourself to allow you to get from A to B as comfortably and as conveniently as possible. The signs led me straight to Rotterdam without a hill to speak of.
Because of this, though, Susanne told me, you don’t get many long-distance cycle tourists from Holland. Of course, people cycle as a hobby and a past-time, but going outside of the country is intimidating. It’s an adjustment to come to a country where you have hills to deal with, and where you might have to share a road with cars. Most people, she laughed, don’t know how to change gears and have crap bicycles, because there’s no need to invest in one with gears they’ll never use.
Of course, she was exaggerating. I saw plenty of expensive bicycles and cyclists who considered themselves too athletic for the cycle paths, so joined the main traffic. But from the Hook of Holland to Nijmegen on the Dutch-German border, my wheels didn’t touch a ‘mainstream’ road. I was on purpose-designed cycle paths the whole way – not, as in the UK, indicated by a white painted line on the road which cars can choose to ignore, but with at the least a strip of grass separating it from the road. The cycle paths are often two-way, with clearly marked lanes and bicycle traffic lights. Don’t indicate or filter properly? Expect to be angrily ding-dinged at. And throughout the country, my Garmin told me I had gone from altitude -2 metres below sea level, up to +15 only. And that was over a bridge…
And although I was only in the Netherlands for five days, I definitely got used to these perfect cycling conditions. After day 1, the weather Gods decided they’d had their fun with me, and although it was early September it was as if cycling through summer – too hot at times. I was sad to leave the Netherlands, but I took some important lessons with me. Always keep your rain gear handy. Cycle in the correct lane at all times. Wear your helmet only if you want it to be painfully obvious that you’re a tourist. And don’t think about bicycling. Think as a bicycle.