I've been spending a lot of time in the Netherlands this year. In an attempt to keep up the training through winter I took my bike with me on most trips. Even though I'm usually only there for a few days it's been worth the hassle and expense because it's such a pleasure riding there.
The Dutch have a very different relationship with bikes compared to the UK. Pretty much every person owns and uses a bike regularly. Walk past any Dutch house and you'll see all the family's bikes in a row outside the front door, ready to jump on and cruise to school, down the shops or the pub. No special clothing, no helmet, no bulging pockets of pumps and tubes, no faff. Just hop on and go. Of course, this simplified approach to getting on your bike is possible mainly thanks to the incredible infrastructure that's in place. If you've never been it's difficult to explain just how thoroughly centred the transport system is on the bike. Couple this with a legal system that presumes liability of the driver in any accident and you have a country where over a third of ALL journeys are done by bike. We have much to learn if we are to increase our 1% figure for the U.K.!
Although the thirty five thousand kilometres of cycle paths are there mainly for the benefit of local residents going about their daily life, they create a unique environment for roadies like me to tour, explore or train. So unique in fact, that it took a while for me to get used to ‘not’ being on the road. I often found myself automatically riding on the road with a perfectly good cycle route running along the other side of the verge. This is something the dutch frown upon, particularly on busier routes. It took a bit of focus initially to use all this amazing infrastructure and follow the road markings and signage which is there specifically for cyclists.
If racking up the miles is your kind of thing then North Holland (which is almost completely pan flat) allows you to see a lot of the country in the space of a day. There are a number of web sites detailing longer challenge routes. The riding is all on cycle paths or makes use of well surfaced and deserted back roads. You can criss-cross hundreds of square miles of farms and canals and of course picturesque windmills. These longer rides can often take you across some of the larger dykes in the country which can be quite a unique experience.
On one century ride back in February, I crossed the 19 mile Lelystad Dyke north of Amsterdam without encountering a single other human being. To my left, the sea stretched to the horizon - dotted with wind turbines and the odd tanker or barge. To my right...... the sea stretched to the horizon - dotted with wind turbines and the odd tanker or barge. This bleak midwinter isolation could be a little bizarre for some, but I found it quite wonderful.
While the scenery can at times be boring or at least a bit repetitive, it is not without it’s rural charm. The equivalent of the chocolate box cottage here is an old windmill by a canal, usually lovingly restored and cared for by its occupants. Maybe a cliche, but a very pretty one nonetheless.
If you find yourself starting to go mad with the lack of climbing - head to the sea where you can find the closest thing to hills in North Holland - giant sand dunes. The cycling network extends into these and you can find people marvelling at the wondrous views afforded by being more than 4 metres above sea-level, or indeed, simply being above sea-level. In late April the fields explode with the colour of millions of tulips . It’s a spectacular sight although it doesn’t last long. Just as they come into bloom the farmers run their deadheading machines across and turn techni-colour wonders to fields of green stubble. They have no time for sentiment - the money you see, is in the bulbs.
The vast beaches behind the dunes have some of the best cafe options in this part of the world, although you’ll rarely see a road bike leaning against one. Compared to the U.K. there doesn't seem to be much of a road bike/cafe culture. I think there are a couple of reasons or this. Firstly, if the dutch want to ride to a cafe, they can just jump on their ‘dutch bikes’, cruise down and take their time enjoying stroopwaffles and coffee in jeans and t-shirt. Secondly, because the dutch are always riding bikes, a road bike tends to be used for training, rather than recreation. So if you see someone in lycra here, they tend to be out ‘training’ rather than just riding. Cafe stops seem much less common than on a usual group ride in the U.K.
Another interesting difference is the etiquette when passing fellow cyclists. I don't care what you’re riding or wearing, you’ll always get a friendly greeting, spoken or otherwise, from me. I find this to be the norm in the U.K. I suppose we feel a kinship with those willing to get out there and take pleasure in life on two wheels. In Holland the attitude is somewhat different. I quickly felt a bit like the village idiot, wandering the streets waving and shouting at everyone only to get no response or at best, weird looks. I now restrict myself to a half-wave, usually reserved for those on road bikes. Even then I never get more than a nod in return. I put this down to the everyday nature of bike riding in Holland rather than a fundamental lack of friendliness - I expect you simply can't say hello to that many people on every ride.
The wind is a particularly big factor for any ride here. Over the flat exposed farmland it can be brutally or wonderfully unrelenting, depending on your direction of travel. There’s also a tendency for the wind to have a cutting chill between October and April. It's either coming in straight off the North Sea or arriving from the cold continental mass. Even if the sun’s out I tend to take an extra layer compared to a similar forecast in the U.K. Luckily for me, at the start of the year the SVR race team got kitted out some new cold weather gear. I’ve given it a good test throughout winter in that icy dutch wind and it passed with flying colours of course! Toasty warm but still able to train without feeling bulky or sweaty.
It may surprise some to read that the almost complete lack of elevation in this part of Holland makes for an excellent training environment. With no gradient to help or hinder it’s possible to do long uninterrupted efforts with navigational ease. The simplified nature of the riding (long, arrow straight, perfectly surfaced routes, flowing junctions, dedicated cycle paths etc.) also means you can concentrate fully on your effort. Nowhere else have I been able to replicate turbo-training sessions on the road with such accuracy.
If you find that you’re going to be in Holland and not sure if you should go to the hassle of taking the bike, I’d highly recommend it. But wrap up warm and stick to the path!