Tuesday, July 5, 2016

With Tailwinds Across the Top of Holland

The Netherlands literally means "the low lands," and in fact over 1/4 of the nation is below sea level.  Its symbol should be the beaver, since the Dutch have changed the landscape more than any other people, just as beavers have been the animal kingdom's most prolific landscape engineers. 

On this leg we passed two major engineering projects.  The first was the North Sea Canal, dug in the 1860s and 1870s, connecting Amsterdam with the ocean.  Because the land is so low, the canal is roughly at mean low tide.  When we took the Holland America Eurodam out of Amsterdam in 2013, it had to be raised  to exit the river to the ocean!  This time we merely biked across.  The ever-practical Dutch have made it car- as well as bike-friendly, though both bikes and cars do have to wait their turns to cross.  So much nicer than the Ballard Locks in Seattle, where bikes have a tough time squeezing past the tourists watching the boats lock through.

The second even grander reshaping of the earth was the building of the Afsluitdijk and creation of the IJsselmeer, but that was a few days later so let's first return to biking along the North Sea, with some more "road furniture" to be gotten around.

The scenery here in North Holland was even wilder and more open than in the sand dune areas of South Holland, with only the occasional stand of pine trees.  Luckily we again had a SW wind of about 12 mph as we headed north, a decent tailwind.  Note the brick surface, however.  While pretty good as brick goes, it's still bumpy on the bike seats, and the wheels didn't like it too much either.  At the end of our third day of mostly brick paths, we had two spokes break, one on the front and one on the back.  We have spares, the correct tools and the know-how to replace them, but each one took 30 minutes to fix.

The bike route here is mostly behind the main dunes, probably making it much easier to keep them from having to be swept of sand every other day.  We did come out to several towns on the ocean, where we could observe people doing sports other than cycling.  At last, after about 160 km / 100 miles of scenic riding through the North Sea dunes, we headed inland to a small city, Schagen.

We knew almost nothing about Schagen.  It's not mentioned in the standard tour books and even virtualtourist.com, a good source of info on relatively obscure places, didn't say much.  But by happenstance we needed to stay an extra day to avoid a bad rainstorm moving through, and thus stumbled into Market Day.  Now market day occurs all year on Thursdays in Schagen, but for 10 of those Thursdays from the end of June to the start of September, it's also the occasion for a celebration of West Frisian culture.  And what a celebration!  It took 15 minutes for all the folks in traditional costumes to parade by! 

We then climbed the church tower, only open on these 10 lucky days, and saw the parade come looping back into the main square below us!  Then as the parade ended, the performances began with these girls doing a dance in their wooden shoes. 

Oh, yes, we also got a good look around.  It's pretty flat up here in North Holland.  By the way, those stairs going up and down are only about 2/3 of the climb, and the climb only takes you about 2/3 of the way to the top of the main spire.  Perhaps because it's such a flat country, the Dutch build their church towers very tall indeed.

Back on the ground we went past the sorts of mobile cheese stores and clog shops one sees on market day in almost any city in the Netherlands.  Because of our festival, however, the people watching was far above average.

It was now time to head to the greatest civil engineering feat in Dutch history, which is saying a lot.  First, though, you need to understand polders.  These are areas of low land that are made dry and kept that way by pumping water out, more or less continuously.  In the old days it was with windmills that were on a sort of autopilot, pivoting into the wind on their own and pumping whenever it blew.  Nowadays they use powered pumps almost exclusively.

By the end of the 19th century, a very large amount of land had been reclaimed, but the Dutch dream big dreams, and decided to take a giant step in the 1920s when they started building the Afsluitdijk, or "Closure Dike."  The Zuiderzee was a large saltwater bay that gave ocean access to many Dutch cities during the heyday of Dutch trade, but it was too shallow for the sorts of ships used in the 20th century, and it was a source of major flooding every few decades.  The Dutch decided to close it off at the mouth.  Here is a map of the area in the Middle Ages, with Schagen and Wieringerwef, the next town we stayed in, in green.  Then check out the map of today, with those two cities in pink.  Schagen used to be a coastal town, and our entire 20 km  route between the two cities was below sea level, on land that had been ocean bottom 80 years ago!  The three areas reclaimed in later years from the eastern shore of the former Zuiderzee were so big that the Dutch turned them into a brand new province, Flevoland.

 We only went 20 km because there were storms coming in the afternoon so we couldn't do a long ride, and if you go much beyond where we stopped, you are going for a very long ride.  Since we were entirely on a polder, it was flat as a Dutch pancake, and easy with that strong headwind Louise is graphically illustrating.

The nexty day arrived with a great weather forecast -- low chance of rain, and the wind at 30-32 kph (19-20 mph) out of the WSW.  Since our route across the Afsluitdijk was almost exactly ENE, this was the day a cyclist dreams of and never gets.

The dike closed off the Zuiderzee forever in 1932, though it was a few years more before it was truly finished and ready for use.  This being the Netherlands, of course it has a terrific bike path as well as a 4-lane highway.  From shore to shore it is 30 km / 19 mi., and that tailwind meant that we were able to cross it at an average speed of 35 kph, with occasional bursts of up to 50 kph when we had a slight rise followed by a small downhill we could accelerate on.

The bike path stays on the north side of the road the entire way, and for about 95% of the time tucked below the dike, though at a few points it comes up and rides on top of the dike itself.  Since the wind was right behind us and not from the side, this turned out to not matter, but on days with north winds those stretches must be challenging for cyclists.

Incidentally, it made no sense to call all that water to the south of the dike the Zuiderzee, or "South Sea," once it began its conversion into Europe's largest freshwater lake.  Its new name is the IJsselmeer, "Lake IJssel," after the largest river that feeds it.   In 1976 it was divided in two by yet another dike almost as long as the Afsluitdijk, and the southern end is now called the Markermeer.

So what does it look like on the dike?  We'll let the photos tell the story first, starting with the view from the handlebars, then with a walk to the top of the dike looking back west, and finally from a sightseeing tower near the west end looking east.

Yeah, not too exciting a view other than from the tower.  But with a tailwind like that -- no complaints.  We did see some unhappy cyclists, however.  These 3 went by while we were on the tower, but another 15-20 joined them in battling that 30-32 kph headwind.

Thanks to our own tailwind, we had our longest ride yet in Europe, 81 km.  It ended in Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland.  We put a few photos of the place in the blog in 2013 when we stopped by for a look around at lunchtime, so the only image we'll add today is Leeuwarden's most famous (and simultaneously infamous) building, the leaning church.  It was designed to have a much taller tower, but the authorities decided to leave well enough alone when it started to tilt, and apparently it hasn't gotten any worse in the succeeding centuries.

Part of us wanted to spend an extra night in Leeuwarden, but fair weather and another strong tailwind persuaded us to mount the bike again.  It was only a little less perfect, averaging 24-28 kph.  We did have a few km of less than perfect trail, but it was in the end a fairly easy 62 km to Groningen, our destination.  And we got to pass not one but two of Holland's great trash basket targets, where cyclists can have fun getting rid of their empty pop bottles.

We have now cycled almost 600 km in the Netherlands, and our next day's riding will take us to the German border.  Time to start learning a whole new set of words for menu items!  We'll write  next from Deutschland.

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