As a student at the University of Exeter I once joined an annual fundraising event known as the Amsterdam Hitch. Travelling in pairs or groups, participants would have 24 hours to hitchhike from southwest England to the Dutch capital, spend a couple of nights ‘recovering’, then take a prearranged bus ride home.
This, one of my first overseas adventures, did not gave me a particularly broad or revealing insight into modern Dutch culture.
For one thing, I and my hitching partner Natalia only got as far as a truck-stop on the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium, before giving up and jumping on the train.
But mainly it was because I wasn’t travelling by bicycle.
Because the Netherlands only really makes sense when you’re on two wheels. During the later decades of the twentieth century, this former imperial maritime power literally rebuilt itself around cycling. Entire city blocks were bulldozed to make way for new cycling infrastructure. There’s a fascinating short film on Youtube of how this all came to pass. (If you don’t have time to watch it, it can be summarised as the outcome of prioritising quality of life over economic efficiency.)
Today, there exist in the Netherlands more kilometres of cycleway than motorised carriageway, more bicycles than cars, and in many towns and cities a higher proportion of journeys by bike than any other means. Where a bike path crosses a road, the cyclist always – always – has the right of way. Many Dutch only consider driving (or other motorised transport) if cycling is impractical, which is rarely.
You hear about this a lot – it’s what the Netherlands is famous for – but it doesn’t hit home until you’ve been there. And it was four years after the Amsterdam Hitch that this unemployed graduate with dreams of cycling around the world discovered that the Dutch experience went much further than almost being hit by a tram while staggering along a canal in search of a hostel whose name he couldn’t remember.
I had cycled across England to Harwich and taken the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, rolling off the boat and onto the LF1 Dutch long-distance cycle route (also part of the EuroVelo 12 North Sea Cycle Route), riding through dunes and beaches and seaside towns on traffic-free paths – a luxurious change from sharing English country lanes with impatient van drivers.
I remember wondering when the cycle paths would run out, as they inevitably always did, and the tedium of road riding would begin.
Ninety kilometres later I arrived in Amsterdam. And I hadn’t left a cycle path.
Amsterdam wasn’t the obvious routing. My two friends and I were ultimately heading for Spain, where we planned to ride the Camino de Santiago before looping east and reaching Istanbul before winter.
There were, however, two good reasons for us going there.
The first was that I’d hitchhiked to Amsterdam four years ago and dimly remembered it being fun.
The second was that Mark had ordered a new saddlebag from the UK to be delivered poste restante, and we had to go and pick it up.
Now, if I’d bothered to read an article with a title like “Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In The Netherlands” before we’d done this, I might have learned that there was no shortage of very well-stocked bike shops in Amsterdam, and that one of them would probably have a saddlebag.
Given such a revelation, ordering bike parts to the Netherlands would have felt a bit like ordering tea to India.
I knew the visa requirements for crossing Central Asia, the options for passing the Darién Gap, and which border points between China and Mongolia were open to foreigners. Yet at no point while planning my round-the-world bike trip had I realised that the gear to do it could be bought along the way.
The relevance of this anecdote, dear reader, is simply to restate that the Netherlands is a country in which you can simply turn up and spontaneously begin a cycle tour. It is, by all accounts, one of the most convenient nations – if not the most convenient nation – in the world to explore on a bicycle, or tricycle, or tandem, or any other pedal powered machine you can imagine.
In fact, if you’re planning a long ride starting in Europe, you could do worse than begin from the Netherlands. Some of the most reputable expedition bike brands – Koga and Santos perhaps the best known – have Dutch origins, and their bikes can be found widespread. And because the Dutch are not just a nation of cyclists but of cycle tourists, you’ll find all the standard touring gear here too.
Gaining momentum across the country, we three young British lads on overloaded mountain bikes seemed to ignite a certain compassion in the hearts of the rural Dutch.
(This was in spite of having ceremoniously shaved our heads and inadvertently taken on an appearance normally associated with members of an outlawed brand of militant fascism.)
Friendly locals welcomed us to camp in the gardens of their family homes, to sleep on narrowboats, and to eat dinner with them, sharing with us – in perfect English – the simple stuff of life.
On one memorable occasion, a couple invited us to sleep on their garage floor, seeing as it was raining outside. The wife later revealed that her husband was a professional plumber and that he had installed the mother of all showers in their en-suite bathroom. Would we like to use it?
Pulling back the cubicle door revealed an extravagant control panel which not only allowed one to specify the water temperature to a tenth of a degree but also activated an array of coloured lights, music, horizontal water jets from multiple angles, and great blasts of steam from hidden orifices. I have been searching for a showering experience to match it ever since.
The rain continued, and we quickly realised that the Nederlanders’ love of cycling was not dependent upon perfect riding conditions. Yes, the thing about the country being completely flat is more or less true; the highest point on the mainland is a lowly 322m above sea level, and our biggest climbs were generally to the top of a dike or out of a subway tunnel.
But the wind – the wind was sometimes so relentless that simply inching forward felt like pedalling uphill in granny gear. And it was usually, of course, a headwind. Add horizontal rain to the mix and we quickly discarded the notion that cycling across the Netherlands wouldn’t be tough. As for sidewinds? Wearing ponchos? Forget it! Better to stop in a café and wait it out.
When it was nice, though, the Netherlands was really nice, with a lot more protected areas, forests and nature reserves than we’d expected, reachable only by off-highway cycle paths. And in general, the Netherlands was familiar enough that we could ease into the groove of long-term travel. Yet I was soon yearning to press eastward into less familiar territory – which of course says more about my 23-year-old self than it does about cycle touring in the Netherlands.
Six years later and no longer fixated on leaving the West behind, I returned to the Netherlands, this time to collect a recumbent bike from a kindly reader and ride it home to England. After many years of life-changing travel in places where bicycle infrastructure was unheard of, I was struck even more strongly by the sheer luxury of travelling through a country designed so ubiquitously for the bicycle rider.
I resurrected my wild-camping routine, this time with a hammock, though I never did find any of the Paalkamperen, a little-known but apparently wonderful network of designated free camping sites scattered across the country.
And if I’d stayed longer, I would doubtless have called upon one of the thousands of registered Warmshowers hosts in the country.
But all too soon I was riding down that very same LF route to the Hook of Holland and boarding that very same ferry to Harwich – this time able to afford the occasional coffee along the way.
Yes, it’s a trope often trotted out in travel literature, but the Netherlands really is a cycle touring utopia. And – as I discovered at both ends of a rambling world tour – that goes for total newbies and a hardened adventurers alike.
Landelijk Fietsplatform, the official Dutch organisation for recreational cycling, maintains a very informative website (in English) all about cycle touring in the Netherlands.