“Look out for the bikes” my friends warned as I left for Holland, little did they know that I was the real danger, not the Dutch! Fortunately for me other cyclists were tolerant when I erred to the wrong side of the path and cars had no option other to avoid me. In Holland, bikes rule.
The Dutch and their long term love affair with cycling has been long known but I had not anticipated the depth of use. Within days of arriving we had seen every make, model and adaptation possible; singles, tandems, trikes and tandem trikes. Babies on the front, babies on the back, mothers with babies on the front AND on the back. Dogs in baskets, flowers in baskets and flowers around baskets. Paniers and carriers carrying cargo, bikes towing trailers, pushing trailers and carrying kids in trailers. Electric powered or pedal-powered you cannot miss them. They are an intrigal part of the Dutch way of life. For leisure, pleasure, transport and sport, every age, size and shape are pedaling their way somewhere.
To cater for the masses the government has constructed more than 32,000 kilometers of bike tracks. They run alongside but separated from main roads or as cleverly signposted routes. Amsterdam alone has more bikes than citizens (population 811,000). More than 800,000 bikes are stolen in Holland every year so we are careful to lock them rather than loose them.
The bike is more than a mode of transport, it is a way of life and the trails, tracks and roads are built to accommodate them, even having bike traffic lights on some pathways.
My Dutch partner Dirk, comes from the east, a predominantly rural area. Perfectly grassed fields are carefully mowed and the grass fed to cows housed in long cow sheds. This is the farmer’s way of maximizing grass growth in a country with little spare arable land, and in keeping with the tradition of keeping the cows inside, especially during the long harsh winters. Large thatched farmhouses beside the sheds make the area one of “chocolate box” images.
A short distance away is the Veluwe National Park. An area perfect for trying out our new bikes. The riding is easy, choosing a route was difficult. Do we follow the orange signs for the Royal Route, sunflowers for artistic inspiration, clogs for farmland ? Or do we follow the river some distance, crossing the John Frost Bridge also known as The Bridge too Far and passing airborne landing sites where thousands of paratroopers dropped from the sky in September 1944? The myriads of routes are numbered with a system which also allows you to create your own itinerary taking in watermills in the Veluwezoom region, a Taste of Van Gogh at various cafes and historic Hanseatic architecture. We choose to “pick and mix” making sure we have lots of coffee and apple cake (a Dutch favourite) on the way.
If this all sounds a bit sedate cyclists can ride more difficult trails, following three of the stages of the 2016 Giro Italia or go mountain biking, although bear in mind that with a country one metre below sea level the hills are not what we would experience in New Zealand.
One of the best things is….NO helmets! This is a country where bikes rule and cars giving way to cyclists. So, dangers aside, I was soon freewheeling passed heathlands, marshlands, woodlands, farmlands, and sampling enough Dutch product along the way to make me a roly poly cheese look-a-like! Hopefully all the cycling will counteract the calories. And, if I have a few speed wobbles…so be it.