DUTCH DAY AND A HALF
Is there much to say about cycling in the Netherlands? Stephen Dyster hopes so. Some notes on a near century from Europort to Arnhem. Please accept that this is his personal reaction on brief acquaintance - be great to hear others experience of cycle-touring in the Netherlands.
Europort, where the ferry from Hull docks, is only Rotterdam (as designated on the P&O website) in a sense that regular Ryan Air flyers once understood the geography of many European cities. A ride of some 27 kilometres is required to reach the modern heart of the Netherland’s second city.
No sooner is one past the booths of the police, customs and other functionaries, than one is on a wide cycle-path alongside a major road. Truly, one feels that this will be the cycling paradise we all hear about. “Thou shalt covet they neighbours cycling infrastructure,” seemed a fair sentiment, though much of the way from Europort runs through an industrial landscape with a sulphurous hint on the breeze.
Though largely industrial, the waterways are magnificent; ships ply the channels amidst vast arrangements of slice gates and flood barriers. But do keep your eyes on the cycle path. There re lots of others about.
Causing initial annoyance to one local when hesitating at a junction where I had right-of-way - this is most of them, but not all (though many drivers just cede passage anyway) - he quickly grasped that I was fresh off the boat and, having cycled in England, understood that it might be hard to believe that cyclists went first. The trick, as things got busier as Rotterdam’s spectacular modern centre approached, was to tag on to the wheel of a local on a sit up and beg, swallow one’s pride and look and learn.
As an excuse for being overtaken by a wiry gentleman with greyer hair than mine, a student with a pile of books in the front basket, and a lady of mature years carting what looked like a month’s worth of vegetables fore and aft, the above may seem pretty puny, but it as a tutorial in how to cycle in the Netherlands it was most informative.
For the last forty years or so spending on cycling in the Netherlands has been at around £40 per head of the population. Motor vehicles are not banned; there are lots of them but they have their place. There is no Dutch cycling gene, though the lack of any significant gradients in much of the country may help; successive governments have recognised how important cycling and walking are and that they have a status only dreamed of in some other countries one could name.
The result - and this is based on limited experience - is that the whole atmosphere on the roads is more relaxed. Any one in a motor vehicle knows that they will have to take their time and that there is no point getting irate. Cyclists know that as there is high-quality infrastructure, they are expected to use it; the mass of cyclists processing along may frustrate some speedsters, but are respected. The tenor of travel is gentler with fewer points of conflict.
There are, it has been said, a few thousand cyclists in the Netherlands; everyone else rides a bike. Fair enough, but almost everyone has ridden a bike. It makes a difference. In the evenings there were racers training on the empty stretches of cycle path; mid-week we spotted a group of club riders akin to our local Wednesday Wrinklies (sinewy rather than wrinkled, and their own description, not mine); alongside were utility and leisure riders. Somehow they all mixed safely, though not speaking Dutch, I can not state categorically that relations were always amiable. They appeared to be.
Out of Rotterdam and onto cycle tracks alongside more-or-less busy roads, there is no deterioration in standards of surface or signage. It is pretty clear when you should be on the track or on the carriageway. There were some sections of signed route that had distinctly bucolic sandy surfaces, but these, on examination of the map and signs, were designated as leisure routes. there were alternatives, should one wish.
Law and expectations of drivers of motor vehicles also support cycling. One dangerous manoeuvre was undertaken in our vicinity in the ninety-eight miles to Arnhem; two vehicles were parked in rural cycle lanes. We attempted to muster a cry of “They must hate cyclists in this country.” It just failed on our lips, emerging as a an aspirant, a last-gasp attempt to find something to disapprove of. In fact, we had already seen the “attitude” lacking in the UK within a few kilometres of Europort. A swing-bridge was under repair requiring a diversion for cyclists. An approach road had been closed and turned into a temporary cycle diversion. On the bridge a lane of the road had been closed to motor vehicles for cyclists to use and for repairs to be undertaken; there were no road signs plonked in the middle of the cycle track; instead clear diversion signs at the side of the track. Sums things up really.
Amongst the benefits to the Dutch economy that accrue from cycling are the numerous groups of people of retirement age cruising on tours or day rides, clearly with coffee and cake in mind and often equipped with a power-assist motor. Not just Dutch folk off for a day out, but numerous Germans on tour on their sit up and begs or oma-fiets or trekking bikes.
Storms in Central Europe had filled the branches of the Rhine brimful - we occasionally wondered how much higher the level would get before we saw sluices opening and closing. The Dutch are pretty expert at this, after all, most of their country would be submerged were they not. It is the rivers and navigations that made the ride through the Netherlands. Away from them, the countryside is attractive enough and the small towns generally charming, but by eighty miles I was longing for a hill and absolutely delighted when a few undulations emerged as we drew nigh to Arnhem. But it isn’t only the hills one might miss; there are other less pleasant experiences you won’t encounter (photo taken in England).
Schoonhoven and Zelhem were the little town where we had a sandwich and drinks whilst crossing the Netherlands. The Blue Dove cafe, Schoonhoven, amidst a little collection of cafes at one end of the old town-centre harbour, was a vantage point to observe cycling. On group of heavily-laden tourers heading back to the ferry, a couple of racers pausing for a coffee, several trekking bikes lined-up in a row, and a horde of school-children cycling to school or home or wherever they were going. Their bicycles were fascinating. Few could be described as status symbols, unless one is a fan of the “junker” at the most rattly extreme. Some were ancient, with immense baskets to carry books, others were newer, but had clearly been owned by an older family member; function stood head and shoulders above style and did not wear a helmet. The Dutch don’t have a cycling gene, they have a cycling habit.
And so, off we went. the next day, we crossed the border into Germany. The Netherlands is wonderful for cycling and is easily accessible from much of the UK. Everyone, especially non-cycling road engineers and politicians, should go there. But we’d be foolish to draw too many comparisons between the Netherlands and the UK. We will only get depressed and lose any sense of realism. Rather see it as what can be done with consistent investment and political-will.
By the way, the renowned Knooppunten, 'junction points' or 'cycling by numbers' works, but do watch out for the occassional sign obscured by unergrowth. keeping an idea of ditance helps when watching out for the expected sign
I see a family trip coming-up. Probably taking in some of the Rhine Delta and some the coastline. Don’t think we will head for the hills, just relax and enjoy rolling along with the cycling flow. For now, a final question. Would UK cyclists and people who ride bikes unite to accept that use of cycle tracks as the legal norm if the infrastructure was of high quality and gave the continuity and priority that one finds in the Netherlands? Pretty hypothetical at present.
PUBLISHED JULY 2016