The last time I saw Holland was a day in late June more than half a decade ago. I saw Holland, disappearing in my rear-view mirror, the Belgian border drifting beneath my bicycle wheels as I crossed a river somewhere south of Maastricht.
(I didn’t actually spot the border crossing itself, E.U. Freedom of Movement being the luxury that it is.)
That was the last time I saw Holland.
Until last week.
Circling Amsterdam as the plane came into land, industrial-scale greenhouses and irrigated crop fields spanning the flatlands as far as even my elevated eye could see, I could not suppress an audible cackle over the circumstances of my return visit. Fellow passengers eyed me suspiciously before returning to whatever in-flight delights their iPhones were serving up. Crikey – the iPhone didn’t even exist last time I was here…
Because the next few days would entertain a whim I’ve held for years. The seed was sown by a German lady I met near the Hungarian-Slovakian border whose name I immediately forgot and whom I have always since referred to as ‘Duvet’. It seemed at the time a similar-sounding name to the one I’d already lost in the blur of new experiences and chance meetings with friendly strangers that characterised my new life as a full-time traveller.
Duvet’s first appearance in my rear-view mirror caused me to slam on the brakes rather abruptly. For she had eased into view on a low-slung contraption resembling a pedal-powered deck-chair with saddlebags attached.
“What the hell is that?” I wanted to say as she pulled up alongside me, but out of politeness I asked instead: “What kind of a bike is that?”
“This”, she said, “is a recumbent bike!”
Duvet was riding her recumbent to India, alone, and – even though wearing traditional Bavarian costume – was riding a hell of a lot faster than the inexperienced little trio of me, Andy and Mark, who had just about managed to muddle through to the far end of Western Europe and were about to suffer the worst case of food poisoning in living memory. And so she left as quickly as she’d arrived.
But the impression of that bizarre and strangely alluring contraption somehow remained, and would return to tickle my curiosity for years to come. It just looked so damn comfortable – even if cycling recumbent did make you look like you were trying to swim backwards in a strait-jacket. And there was something about the bike’s sheer eccentricity and novelty that appealed to my non-conformist side; the side that (for better or worse) found a childish thrill in defying convention and causing the occasional harmless stir amongst the fair people of this world.
The Netherlands, which we Brits often refer to mistakenly as Holland (distinction here), is nowadays the world capital of recumbent cycling. So it should not have come as a surprise that when a fellow long-distance bicycle traveller wrote in with the generous and humbling offer of the recumbent bike he no longer required, it came with the condition that I come and pick it up from his place in the Netherlands.
Now, I’m a staunch supporter of saying “yes” more, and when an opportunity like that comes along it’s the only excuse I need to bunk off work for a few days (that’s why I’m my own boss, after all) and scratch the itch of wanderlust that I know I’ll never shake off (nor, by the way, do I ever want to).
And so a simple plan was devised…
— Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) September 21, 2013
…and four days later, there I was in Amsterdam Schipol, looking at the empty baggage reclaim hall, wondering exactly how one of my two bags had made it here from Heathrow Terminal 5 yet the other had not. Some things will always remain a mystery.
(Quick aside: I flew by British Airways, with 2 checked bags, in Business Class, and used the members-only Executive Lounges (i.e. free grub) in both airports. This cost a total of £25 – a third of the price of the cheapest Easyjet flight I could find, and less than a single train ticket to the airport. I managed this through what’s become known as ‘travel hacking’, which is an interesting topic in itself. In a forthcoming article I’ll explain exactly how this works, and how a bicycle traveller can use the techniques to his or her advantage.)
Menno lived in Ede, an hour’s train ride east, and came to meet me in the airport. I felt a kinship with him immediately – here was another guy who had found the conventional life to be missing some inexplicable but utterly crucial component, and, as a result of a restless and questioning nature, had sought to find out exactly what it was by setting forth into the world on a bicycle – the search, rather than the answer itself, being the main point.
The difference was that he’d first done this 30 years ago and had been on countless long journeys since then, reminding me that I was a mere spring chicken in the world of bicycle travel (heck, my grandma and granddad took off on a tandem for their honeymoon in the 1940s, and let’s not forget Thomas Stevens’ world tour by penny farthing in 1896, lest we be thinking that adventurous bicycle travel is anything new).
As well as accumulating no less than 11 bicycles in the process – including 2 recumbent bikes and a Velomobile – he’d found a way of combining his yearning for adventure with a professional medical career and life as a family man. Menno had made arrangements with his employer to accumulate paid leave through small, regular contributions of overtime, meaning that every 5 years he could disappear for a full 6 months – whilst remaining on the payroll, and without sacrificing any additional statutory leave. That sounded like an enviable position. How many people could strike a similar deal with their long-term employers? (The answer, I’m willing to bet, is “more than you’d think, if only they’d ask”.)
You’ve probably guessed that the ‘itch of wanderlust’ I mentioned earlier wasn’t going to be scratched by a posh flight to Amsterdam, even if the airline lounge did serve a quite wonderful mature Stilton at room temperature with a panoramic view of planes, landing.
No. It was going to be scratched by riding the recumbent bike all the way back from whence I’d come.
* * *
There’s something absurd and fascinating about pedalling (or walking) a route that you have just flown (or driven). It serves as a reminder that the word ‘travel’ is a poor descriptor indeed if it encompasses both the fibreglass-bound teleportation of air travel and the act of rolling bodily across the earthly landscape beneath those same clouds, inhaling and absorbing all that it contains for the brief second in which you inhabit each and every inch of that space. The two experiences are are unlike each other as climbing a tree and boarding a space-rocket.
Of course I was nervous. I’d never ridden a recumbent in my life, and now here I was, wheeling the wobbly thing to a quiet stretch of road behind Menno’s house for a crash-course in not crashing or veering off course, and I was due to set off for the Hook of Holland tomorrow morning. But hey, I was supposed to be doing this bicycle travel thing for a living, now, right?
And that was another curious element of the ride ahead: it wouldn’t quite be the first time I’d ridden this route. I would, in fact, be tracing more or less exactly the path that I’d taken six years previously, as my two friends and I gingerly nosed our way out of familiar England and into the world of permanent bike-mounted vagabonding that has since taken me across four continents. For me at least, it was a journey that had always felt unfinished, even if only in an abstract sense, things having moved so far past those youthful, heady days. Would this return trip somehow put a symbolic full-stop at the end of a half-finished sentence?
(Does anyone reading this remember ‘Ride Earth’?)
There was a time when I’d had a mission and it was as clear as glass: cycle round the world, return a hero, die happy. The journey I ended up making instead, which began on these very roads and bike paths ahead of me, was in many ways about unpacking that myth, and continues to this day.
And so, as I stuffed a hammock and some food into the saddlebags and prepared to depart on my brand new pedal-powered deckchair, I wasn’t sure what I’d feel; what or how much I’d remember, even, as I retraced a ride I’d undertaken long ago now – with so much having happened in the six years since that I can barely remember the person I’d been when I’d done it.