This is Part Two of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Click here for Part One.
I gingerly lowered myself onto Challenge Bikes’ ‘Hurricane’ recumbent touring bike, lay back against the full-size padded seat, and swung the pivoting handlebar assembly towards me from its resting position.
For a vehicle that looked like a deck-chair on wheels, it absolutely felt like sitting on a deck-chair on wheels.
(I don’t know about you, but I’d choose a deck chair over a bicycle saddle any day. Yep, even over a Brooks.)
Menno was wheeling his ‘Quest’ velomobile out of the garage. If ever there was a contender for the prize of Most Eccentric Road-Legal Pedal-Powered Vehicle, it’d not be the latest addition to my bicycle fleet but instead this: a three-wheeled chassis with a carbon-fibre shell, enough electrics to put Johnny Five to shame, and a price tag that would make even an SUV buyer shudder.
This description, however, risks belying the Quest’s strange and elegant beauty: a miniature Bullet Train lookalike gliding silently, even unobtrusively, along the cycleway in front of me, pinpoints of LED light dazzling me with every application of the brakes and indicators, and a comedy imitation car-horn for scattering unsuspecting pedestrians.
Similar to, yet at the same time nothing like, the contraption that broke the human-powered world land speed record just last month. (With a Dutchman at the helm, naturally.)
“But! What if you can’t ride it?”
This, of course, was the predictable refrain of almost everyone back home when I’d mentioned that I was flying to the continent to pick up a recumbent bike and then ride it back to the UK. Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you’ll know that when it comes to adventures, my first question is:
“What’s (really) the worst that could happen?”
Too much of our decision-making — or indecision — these days is fear-driven. While fear exists for a good reason (it kept us from getting eaten by tigers), we as a society are veering worryingly towards paranoia, and are increasingly out of touch with the difference between real and imagined fears.
I had never ridden a recumbent bike. I’d never met the man who’d offered it to me, and knew neither where he lived nor anything else about him. I’d planned the trip and booked my flight to Amsterdam just a couple of days before leaving, and bought a ferry ticket from the Hook of Holland back to Harwich that had given me a time window of one and a half days to ride the new bike a hundred miles across the Netherlands to catch it. And I’d no idea where I would sleep, nor what route I’d take, which meant that precisely nobody would know where I was for the duration of the trip. A risk assessment officer would have a field day.
My point is that none of this was remotely worrying. In fact, these were the very things that made the idea attractive. Spontaneity is fun; an antidote to life in the over-informed, over-scheduled Information Age. If a complete stranger had got in touch to say he wanted to gift me a bicycle, the most likely explanation was because he was a generous well-meaning individual. Learning to ride a new kind of bicycle would be fun; if I fell off, I would pick myself up off the dedicated bicycle path (this would be in the Netherlands, remember?) and try again.
Given no recent training whatsoever, the hundred miles would be a silly challenge, and a motivator to keep moving rather than dawdling in cafes watching hot Dutch chicks go by. And as for route-finding and unplanned stealth-camping? A chance to use my wits for a bit of problem-solving in the name of boyish adventure, rather than using a smartphone to have myself guided to the nearest hostel, turn by turn, like a robot on remote control. Life’s not about that.
Balancing on a recumbent was initially rather strange, for reasons that weren’t immediately obvious. But as the kilometres went by on the first day, the weather mild, still clinging to the warmth of summer, I soon realised why.
On a traditional upright diamond-framed bicycle, the act of balancing is largely an exercise in adjusting the position of a top-heavy counterweight — that’s your torso I’m talking about — in order to counterbalance the yaw and roll of the machine beneath you. Now imagine, if you will, sitting in that deck-chair again. Your upper body is pretty firmly planted. Not much wiggle room, right? And so the principle lesson in recumbent riding was that my balance had to come from somewhere other than the subconscious shifts of upper body weight that I’d relied upon since the moment my parents took off my stabilisers.
Trials (read ‘stunt’) bikers of the Danny MacAskill ilk will often be seen riding bikes along impossibly narrow walls and handrails and things, and you’ll sometimes see them adjusting their balance by sticking a leg out to one side in a clown-like fashion or using their knees for similar leverage. Funnily enough, said Menno, this is a big part of how balancing on a recumbent works. Since your upper body is locked in place, the next greatest weight that can be shifted about is your legs, particularly those thunderous cyclist-thighs you’ve got going on. Since you’re using them to pedal, however, it’s a case of adjusting the angle at which your knees stick out to the sides whilst your feet remain on the pedals. The same is true to a much lesser extent with your elbows. Once used to this new way of maintaining one’s balance, the result is just as inconspicuous and effortless as upright cycling.
So I had quite a bit of getting used to, and there was much in the way of flailing limbs while the relevant parts of my brain attempted to reconfigure themselves after a lifetime of perfectly content upright cycling. And yes — there were a couple of grazed elbows. But the falls actually served to highlight one of the other distinctive features of recumbent cycling, which depending on your perspective could be its greatest attraction or its most immediate shortcoming.
This thing was low. Seriously low. Which meant that falling off was more akin to rolling out of bed than a calamitous over-the-handlebars tumble. The world looked very different down here — the very opposite of road cycling and the tucked position in which one cranes one’s neck upwards to see beyond the next few metres of asphalt. I found that I could actually see much more of the world, and in more comfort, from my deckchair-bound position of extreme and uncompromising leisure, because I was positioned uniquely to take in the view at all times and thus to worry much less about what was going on with the mechanicals beneath me.
In England, I would also come to know far more intimately the perspective from which the wheels and tyres of motor vehicles experienced their journeys. Though this is perhaps the greatest fear expressed by those who’ve never tried recumbent cycling — proximity to the lethal undersides of cars and trucks — I ended up feeling significantly safer sharing British roads with motorised traffic on a recumbent than I did on my road bike. But that’s a story for the next article.
Seventy kilometres came and went along canal-side towpaths, through leafy green and damp-smelling forests, along dykes and via old roads repurposed for pedal-powered traffic: the world’s most comprehensive system of bicycle paths easily and luxuriantly taking me where I wanted to go with barely a car in sight. Menno told me that there exists a Dutch pressure group who campaign for better cycling infrastructure. I wanted to laugh. So I did. Loudly. In fact, I hooted. If the Netherlands needs a pressure group, it’s for the pedestrians, poor buggers, who’re frequently left with nowhere to walk because there are too many bloody bicycle paths everywhere.
On my way back up through England UK in 2010, having spent the previous couple of years travelling and living in the Middle East and Africa, I wrote an open letter to Sustrans, congratulating them on having done such a great job with the National Cycle Network, given that most of the world didn’t know such things existed.
I stand by that letter, but it is all relative, because placed next to the Dutch system Britain’s is still stone-age in comparison. When the nation’s biggest sustainable transport organisation is a charity, not a government department, there’s a pretty clear indication that a priority shift is overdue.
And then I was alone. A fifty-kilometre morning ride would be on the cards tomorrow, but I’d made the progress I’d needed to make today with surprising ease.
The afternoon was drawing into dusk as I pulled off the cycleway near Boskoop and into a large area of recreational parkland beside a reservoir. Expansive lawns were studded with stands of tall trees, litter bins, and the occasional toilet block. The last walkers were drifting towards the car park as darkness continued to fall and the distant lights of the town began to twinkle across the water. I conducted a quick risk assessment — public land, no people, distant from roads and cars, low chance of night-watchmen, sufficiently far from the town for drunks or prowlers — but it was my gut that told me I’d found my camping spot for the night. And my gut was always right.
And so — as I’d done on literally hundreds of nights before — I chucked on my fleece, got some dinner on the go, wandered around in the darkness to reassure my paranoid brain of the expertise of my gut, and then stopped — to experience the joy of sudden stillness and solitude in this brand new temporary home I’d found.
And then I slung up my hammock between two trees and slept until dawn.
What do you make of these strange contraptions? Why wouldn’t you take a recumbent bike on tour?