Monday, August 12, 2013

Bicycling in the Netherlands: an Amazing Experience

We've now cycled 6 weeks since entering the Netherlands, travelling 1250 km there and 150 km in adjacent parts of Belgium, visiting 9 of the 12 provinces of the Netherlands plus 1 (Antwerpen) of Belgium.  Since Holland is roughly 310 km N-S and 265 km E-W, we've had a fairly good look at the place.

And this is an amazing place to bike.  It is attractive and historic and friendly, and the bike facilities are beyond belief.  Even some of the public art is bike-oriented!  Where else could you find twin drawbridges where one span is for cars and a separate one dedicated solely to bicycles and pedestrians?  Or a ferry primarily, sometimes even exclusively, for cyclists?

There are a lot of bicycles and a lot of cyclists in Holland and Belgium.  We rarely biked anywhere without seeing others on their bikes going to work, school or shopping, almost never with lycra or helmets to be seen.  A remarkably large percentage appeared to be in thier 60s and older -- in fact, a dream start to retirement in Holland is considered a long bike trip!

Almost every day we saw long-distance cyclists like ourselves, with tell-tale bulging panniers, and on weekends the 20- and 30-something crowd, usually in bunches, usually single-sex and often but not always male, almost always in what we think of as full cycling regalia of helmet and bright-colored bike clothes.

And everywhere a bike could be parked, they are parked.  In amazing numbers.  Sometimes even underground, where our tandem rested awhile under the Groningen Public Library (this is just one of three lanes of parked bikes there), or double-stacked at train stations.


Lodging has been easy to find and book, and only once have we stayed somewhere where there wasn't a restaurant on the premises or a few doors down the street.  This was a small town where we rolde all of 2.5 km to the adjoining small town, which had a Chinese-Indonesian restaurant.  We al;so found universally comfortable lodging at an average cost of  €85 ($115) per night.  With only one or two exceptions, this included and all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet that always had meat and cheese, almost always eggs and fruit, plus much more.  No "continental" breakfasts here!

Now, let's share our observations about the biking.
Bike Paths

Almost 2/3 of our miles in Holland have been on bike paths, virtually all the rest on relatively quiet country roads.  Trails come in two main flavors, either next to a road, or not.  A large percentage of the faster roads connecting towns and cities have bike paths adjacent to the roadway, often on one side of the roadway but occasionally on both.  Bike traffic is two-way regardless of which side of the road you are on.  Since roads don't usually dilly-dally about getting from Point A to Point B, neither do these bike paths, so they are a relatively fast way of getting about, with the caveat that one does have to slow down at roundabouts (which have their own bike paths) and roads that cross the path to enter the road you are following.  Then there are other riders.  If there are two of them, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of them being side by side.  If they're a group of four, they'll ride in box formation, making it even harder to pass.  In short, one rarely gets to hammer away at a fast clip without interruption as one would going down the shoulder of a highway in, say, Montana.

Most trails are asphalt, but maybe 1 km in 20 has been on pavers such as in the next photo.  Only about 10 km of our 1250 km have been unpaved, and these were comparable to the "packed limestone" trails that are common in the U.S., especially in Wisconsin.  The second photo shows the most difficult km of the summer, since the trail had soft spots wherever a farmer crossed it from the sandy road on the right to his fields on the left, requiring us to dismount to be sure we didn't sink in and have a tumble off the bike.  The third and fourth photos are of dirt roads with paved bike paths next to them, something we encountered half a dozen times.  Only in Holland!


Most of the bike paths that we rode, however, followed canals and dikes and sometimes perhaps only an old cow path.  They often wander, but make up for it with scenery.  As in East Friesland, Germany, sheep take care of lawn maintenance on many of the dikes.  Those sheep guards are a little easier to bike across than cattle guards we've encountered in the U.S., but we've never had animal traffic jams in the States.


Country Roads

The large majority of country roads we've been on so far have trees lining one or both sides.  Very attractive, and some help on a windy day though dense vegetation alongside the road does a better job.  When it finally warmed up (for the first 3 weeks in Holland it never got above 18 C/ 65 F), these tree-lined roads were also a welcome bit of cool shade.  Dike roads, by contrast, never have shade.  In some areas, especially along the North Sea and along the IJsselmeer, the dike roads ran at the base of the dike, on the inner side.  More than once, this proved helpful as it helped shade us a bit from a strong cross wind.

While generally quiet, these roads do have car and truck traffic in both directions, even when they are nothing more than a narrow dike road.  When motor vehicles meet, they slow a bit and drive off their respective sides of the road.  It sometimes felt a bit close when they passed us, but we always somehow fit.

It seems like about 90% of the country roads have been smooth asphalt, about 10% brick or pavers or, in a very few places, rough cobblestones.  In small towns and cities both, the percentages reverse.  Pavers and bricks are bumpy and therefore slower -- partly because of greater road friction, mostly because it's not comfortable otherwise.  But then, we want to slow down and appreciate all that great Dutch architecture, so no problem.

Towns and cities frequently have one-way streets, but we have yet to find a single one that did not have a "Fietsers Uitgezonderd" ("Bicycles Excepted") sign, no matter how narrow or busy the street.  Again, this is not for the faint of heart, but the Dutch are used to squeezing past each other.  Just follow the British maxim, " keep calm and carry on," and you'll be fine.

Hills and Wind

Cyclists have a love-hate relationship with hills.  They can be hard to climb and they slow you down, for a hilly route is always slower than a flat route of the same distance.  On the other hand, they change your cadence and speed, now slow, now fast, and can make a ride more interesting for that reason alone, particularly when the hills are gently rolling.  Then there are those who enjoy the challenge of besting a steep hill, or hurtling down the other side.  And nothing beats the top of a hill for views.

If for any of these reasons you like biking where there are hills, you will be disappointed in Holland.  Only in the sand dune areas along the west coast and in the Veluwe, in the eastern part of Gelderland Province, did we find anything that looked like a hill.  You can do a 100 km / 62 mi. ride on a bike with an altimeter and record maybe 10 m / 30' of climbing for the day, all of that from bridges over highways or train tracks.  There are supposed to be hills in Limburg Province, in the SE corner of the Netherlands, but that is one of the 3 provinces we did not get to.  It was also quite flat in the small part of Antwerpen Province of Belgium that we explored.

We worried before coming to the Netherlands that the wind would be a big problem.  It turned out to be less of a problem than we expected.  For one thing, we had a lot of luck.  When we were headed west from Germany to the IJsselmeer and southwest from the Veluwe to Antwerp, we had about the same number of headwinds as tailwinds.  In our big push eastward from the west coast to the Veluwe, we had tailwinds every day.  Now 'headwind' and 'tailwind' are relative terms, since in Holland you rarely go very far in a straight line with a bike, nor with the wind straight at or straight behind you, but all in all, there were only a few days where we truly felt we had to battle the wind most of the day, or had it as a major ally.

And when you do have to battle the wind, you simply work a little harder, and go a bit slower.  One day with a strong headwind (~ 28 kph / 18 mph) while we were on top of a dike, we were down to a ground speed of 18 kph / 11 mph.  But not long after, we got off the dike, and frequent stands of trees broke the wind up, and our speed improved.  In still air we generally did 25 kph / 16 mph, and only hit 32 kph / 20 mph with a stiff tailwind.  But with many reasons to slow down -- to safely make a sharp turn, to look for road signs, to cross busy highways, to pass other cyclists, to ride on a brick-paved street, or even just to sight-see -- we rarely had the throttle full open for long. 

In short, wind was occasionally an annoyance, but not the obstacle we thought it might become, and it did vary our pace as we turned with or at angles to the wind, much like hills sometimes do.

Route Finding

How did we find our way about?  Primarily with the "Knooppunt" system.  It's designed primarily for the recreational cyclist and has its frustrations, but it did get us around the country quite safely and scenically.

"Knooppunt" literally means "knot point," and a knooppunt map looks something like a macramé design.  The idea is that you start at, let's say, Knooppunt 36 and want to head to the town of Stadskanaal on the map to the right.  At Knooppunt 36 you look for an arrow telling you which way to head to #37.  When there you look for the arrow to 38, then on to 45 and finally to 77.  The second photo is of a suggested round trip (Knooppunten 86 and 84 are actually a few blocks apart in the same starting town).  Just follow the numbered signs.

It's often not the shortest or fastest way, but it is effective in delivering you to the destination so long as you succeed in always finding and following the signs.  That's the rub.  There may have been one day in those three weeks when we found every sign that marked a turn, but we can't actually recall such a day.  Twice we rode an extra 10 km thanks to missed turns.  Writing down the distance between knooppunten did help ensure we didn't go too far out of the way.  Nonetheless, two or three times either our map or the sign was dead wrong, or a sign was unquestionably missing.  One day we had a nice tail wind, so our bike computer recorded our average speed after 24 km of riding as 24 kph / 15 mph.  But it calculates speed only when the wheel is moving, and we had actually taken 1 hr. 20 min. to do those 24 km.  The extra time had been spent in 5 or 6 stops to look at our map or to go back and look again at an intersection where we thought we might have missed a knooppunt sign!
The payoff was greater than the frustrations, however.  When the route seemed to wander, it was almost always to good purpose, such as to route us past a medieval church or down a quiet lane.  We never worried about biking into large cities, so confident did we get that the Knooppunt system would find us a safe and interesting route in and out.  We rode in quiet paces we never could have found otherwise.

Although most knooppunten have signs showing the system in that area, we needed more help than that so we purchased 4 maps at 5 ($6.50) per map to cover where we expected to ride in Holland, and found a similar map for the Antwerp area when we entered Belgium.  Jeff also looked at the next day's route the night before on, a web site that has amazingly detailed bike maps of the whole country.  About halfway through our time in Holland he started making screen shots of these more detailed maps on our iPad, to be consulted during the day if and when we got lost.  We continued to get lost, of course, just not as badly or for as long.

There are, by the way, two alternative ways of getting about.  One is "mushrooms," little mushroom-shaped markers at intersections frequented by cyclists.  However the writing on them is small, the mushrooms sometimes a challenge to find even when they're there, and they are often not there at all.   There are also white signs with red lettering pointing to nearby cities, generally routing you to cycle paths alongside larger roads.  We followed these a few times when the knooppunten wandered too much, and thus struck a balance between fast and scenic ways of getting about.

And, last but not least, there is yet another option, the LF (long-distance bike route) system, which mostly strings together knooppunten into routes that go sometimes hundreds of kilometers, such as LF 10, which follows the North Sea from Germany to Belgium.  We liked to follow LF routes, since that gave us two signs to look for at each intersection, also using the green-on-white color scheme of the knooppunt signs.

Where to Go

We believe in guidebooks, at least as starting points for finding interesting places to see.  We relied heavily on a Lonely Planet guide, and were only disappointed once when it told us to see a museum that had closed for renovations a year earlier.  Otherwise it gave excelent advice, and we never regretted any of our choices of destination based on its advice.

We also found that the routes the Knooppunten directed us to also gave us a good cross-section of the Netherlands, a mix of farms, nature preserves, small towns, large cities, and canals, canals, canals.  Our "budget" was 200-300 km/wk., so we would rough out where that might take us, where we might want an extra day or two, and then actually did the booking of hotels 1-3 days ahead of time, depending on the weather forecast.  For us it was just the right pace, with only one 80 km/50 mi. day and one other that was slightly over 72 km/45 miles.  Our ideal was 35-50 km in a day.

This is less than we typically have ridden in the States.  In part it's that we found more interesting places to visit and/or photograph along the way, but also because it's virtually impossible to crank out miles the way you do in the U.S.  You slow to look for and read Knooppunt signs, to get around roundabouts, to cross busy roads crossing your bike path.  You slow for cars coming at you on a narrow road, for slow cyclists you want to pass, for brick roadways as you enter a town.  You get lost, you pull out a map, you get really lost and pull out the iPad with screen shots of the more detailed map.  In short, you slow down or stop more often than when you leave an American town by bike and see that the next town is a straight shot of 15 miles down the shoulder of the highway.  But it's all great fun.  No complaints, it's just a different style of biking.


We rarely met a Dutch person who was not fluent in English.  It was written language we struggled with.  Signs in museums and at popular tourist destinations were rarely in any language but Dutch, while traffic signs and everything in supermarkets were uniformly monolingual.  More than once we pulled out our iPad in a supermarket or in a restaurant to use the Dutch-English dictionary we had loaded.  "What's 'Franse Uiensoep' again . . .?"  (btw, it's French Onion Soup).  We quickly learned what "Geen Fietsen Plaatsen" ("place no bikes here") meant and acquired a vocabulary of maybe 100 words, 90 of them food items.  Jeff also could sometimes figure out a word from its similarity to German.  In short, it was a challenge, and we did emerge from some museums with a little less insight than we'd hoped to acquire, but we survived, and mostly were able to laugh about our guesses as to what various signs were trying to tell us.

All in all, we loved our cycling adventure in Holland, and found the small part of Belgium we saw to be equally interesting, equally bike-friendly, even equally flat.  What's the biggest problem we've discovered?  That it will be hard to plan bike trips in the U.S., knowing that there is this wonderful place beckoning us to return and to explore even more of it.

Now off to England for our 19-day adventure there!

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