“Government must help to eliminate cars so that bicycles can help to eliminate government.” – Anarchist slogan from the Netherlands in the 1970s.
The 1970s were a turning point for cycling in Amsterdam. The rising affordability of cars after WWII caused a decline in cycling. Yet a gradual rise in automobile-related deaths culminated with widespread protests against automobiles. Resulting policy changes included the restriction of cars in city centers and the investment in alternative forms of transportation. Since then, the infrastructure in the Netherlands has made it safe and easy to cycle, making it far more likely that people will cycle there. What exactly makes it easy and safe?
- Cycling is considered at the very earliest stages of design. Interferences between cyclists and motorists are identified and eliminated whenever possible or at least abated. This includes such things as cyclist right-of-ways. Who finds it pleasant to have to stop and wait for traffic to clear at every other block? Or have you wondered where you’re supposed to ride after the bike path “ends”? Infrastructure that is designed with cyclists in mind can eliminate these problems.
- Cycle paths are physically separated from traffic whenever possible, often using routes completely separate from roads. If this isn’t possible, space for cyclists on shared roads is delineated with red pavement. Ever ridden white-knuckled in traffic with hurried drivers eager to get to get home, willing to cut you off and take over your space? There is a lot of comfort when cars can not physically enter your riding space.
- The paths are clean and well-maintained. Ever tried cycling on potholed “roads”, feeling the bike clamor and shake over every single bump? The smooth Dutch paths offer a pleasant riding experience.
Being an avid cyclist, Amsterdam was a must-visit destination. Of course I rode with the swarms of people down the canals in the capital, and I turned the cranks through Vondel Park. But it wasn’t until I took a ride through the countryside on a 400-km, three-day cycle tour through the provinces of North and South Holland that the pervasiveness of the bicycle in the lives of the Dutch sunk in.
I Cycle Holland (http://www.icycleholland.com/) set me up with a nice rental, and even designed a custom route for me. The guys there couldn’t have been more helpful, even arranging a van to drop off my bike rental at my lodging in the Jordaan. The bike came equipped with a GPS with the selected route preloaded. It couldn’t have been easier!
After an hour of riding to the north from Amsterdam, I found myself on the Uitdammerdijk, a dike between two lakes (the Kinselmeer and the IJmeer). There were lots of other cyclists in this undeveloped nature reserve.
After leaving the Uitdammerdijk, I entered the fishing village of Monnickendam. This is part of the quaint municipality of Waterland and it was pleasant to stroll amongst the families enjoying their weekend by the lake. From there, I started riding on country roads. Surprised that even there, in the middle of nothing but wide open spaces, I still saw hordes of cyclists on their way to work and to school. Forced to slow down by a sea of teen cyclists, backpacks slung in handlebar baskets, I listened to the group chitchat. As we reached cross-streets, a few of them waved and broke off from the train, riding down the street to their homes. The bicycle “school bus” was far more pleasant than being caught behind a regular school bus that stops traffic every 5 minutes and spews exhaust fumes in my face.
My destination for the night was Den Helder, at the northernmost tip of the North Holland peninsula. Den Helder is the home of the Netherland’s main naval base. I stayed at a homestay I found through Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends of Cyclists). The foundation offers homes to cycling enthusiasts on multi-day trips for a nominal fee (https://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/en/). The husband and wife offered me a beer and dazzled me with their stories of cycle touring around the world. I woke up to a steaming breakfast, and then, despite the morning rainfall, the husband hopped on his bike to escort me out of town. I wasn’t so keen to be out in the cold and the rain with completely soaked socks. But hearing him next to me giggling like a school boy was infectious. We laughed as we rode on side by side, splashing through the puddles and rolling from one hill to the next, through the sandy dunes near the North Sea.
On the way south toward Amsterdam, I rode through the one of the twenty national parks in the Netherlands, National Park Zuid-Kennemerland. Located on the North Sea, the park contains dunes, but also coastal forests. Unfortunately, my tight schedule left limited time to explore. Witnessing that the park drew recreational enthusiasts, I also wanted to learn more about the park’s primary function to preserve wildlife. I will add this to my list for the next trip.
As the long and rainy cycling day drew to a close, I was very happy to arrive at my second homestay. This home was located in Noordwijk san Zee, known for its bulb flower fields. My hosts were a retired flower farmer and his schoolteacher wife. She commented to me, “My friends ask me how I can have perfect strangers stay at her house.” Her response was that cyclists aren’t strangers, they are her friends. And I thought that pretty much summed it up.
Onward to Gouda. Yep, home of the cheese. But, more importantly for a cyclist, it is also home of the stroopwafel. This “cookie”, composed of two thin waffles with a carmel-like syrup in the middle, makes for an easily portable pick-me-up. These are quite popular now, I’ve seen them at Starbucks all over the world. But they were first made in Gouda around the late 18th century with leftovers from a bakery.
Utrect, my next destination, has the distinction of having the only inner-city wharfs in the world. Boats could unload their cargo from the canal directly to a flat embankment, where cellars were housed. These cellars are underneath the main street level and have been repurposed as restaurants and storefronts. Think Amersterdam, but with a downstairs terrace where you can dine al fresco next to the canals. It was a fantastic place to enjoy a beverage before the final push back to Amsterdam.
Although it ended too quickly, this worry-free cycling tour of the Netherlands rejuvenated me from the effects of noisy and congested city roads at home. Surely, cyclists throughout the Netherlands have benefited from investments in cycling infrastructure. What are your favorite memories of the Netherlands?