I like to ride my bicycle. That much is clear. After all, that’s why I started VeloBalls. I like using my single speed for transport around town and I like bimbling around the Suffolk countryside on my geared bike. But what I really like is cycling adventures.
Recently I’ve been getting a bit fed up with the whole going in a circle of local rides and I’ve been itching to cycle on roads I haven’t ridden a hundred times before. I quite like sportives, but paying good money to cycle the same roads I ride for free is losing it’s appeal.
Riding with large groups of people is great, but sportives can occasionally get a bit competitive and Critical Mass rides aren’t very easy for me to get to. So to summarise I think it’s fair to say my cycling had hit a rut. Albeit not a literal rut (thankfully).
Earlier this year my London-based cycling companion (and VeloBalls contributor) Sam asked if I fancied doing some cycling on the continent. I asked which one, he replied ‘Europe’ and I figured why the hell not. This wouldn’t be cycling for the sake of cycling, we would be attending a punk rock festival called Brakrock in Belgium.
I think most British cyclists know the tales of how the cycle paths in Holland are paved with gold, so I wanted to take a look for myself. Well not gold perhaps, that would be slippery, but certainly if the rumours were true they are paved to a gold standard.
There are many reasons that the Netherlands appears to be a haven for cyclists. Those reasons can partly be explained by facts. My favourite fact is that there are more bicycles in Holland than there are people. 17.1 million people live in the Netherlands, and there an estimated 22.5 million bikes. The people of Holland don’t just like their bikes, they are the N+1 personified.
The miles and the damage done.
It’s really easy to agree to a long bike ride when it’s set for a faraway date. The ride was shaping up to be 80 miles from the Hook of Holland to Antwerp, then another 8 or 9 miles from where we were staying to the festival. It may sound like a humblebrag, but I’m kinda okay with doing 80 miles on a bike. I’ll feel it, and it will be tough, but it’s just about inside my comfort zone.
I’ve done rides that were around the 150 mile mark, like the year I rode the Dunwich Dynamo and got lost. But the most hardcore rides I’ve done have had an element of external pressure on them. The Dunwich Dynamo is through the night and the last few sportives I’ve done have been beset by foul weather and too many hills in the last few miles (when my legs are blown). The last long ride I did (90 miles from London Liverpool Street to Ipswich) was spoiled to a certain extent by heavy motor traffic. This turned what should be a leisurely ride into what felt like a death race against too many impatient drivers. You know the type, they’ll patiently wait behind you for a hundred yards or so before getting frustrated and squeezing past you despite the oncoming traffic. No fun.
So the prospect of 80 miles on flat roads, with no hills, in a country where the population doesn’t just tolerate cyclists (because they are cyclists) was very appealing. But as the date of the adventure drew closer I started to get a bit anxious about whether I could hack not just one ride, but two long rides with a punk rock festival in the middle. I don’t ride as often as I would like, but then I guess that applies to all cyclists. After all, we need jobs to buy food and bike parts. But I wanted to not just survive this ride, I wanted to ace it. Unfortunately a series of mild injuries dented my preparation, but I was determined to ride in style. Well, as much style as a gentleman of my stature can muster while crammed into Italian lycra and balancing on a thin bike.
The original plan was for Sam to join me in at my home in Ipswich. We would then cycle ten miles to nearby Shotley, and then catch the foot ferry across the mouth of the River Stour and Orwell to the Port of Harwich. But unfortunately the foot ferry didn’t work out so we took the train to Harwich.
‘S’ is for Sam. Or Stena.
Getting onto the ferry was very simple. We tied up our bikes below deck, along with about fifty other cyclists, and headed to our tiny cabin for a good night’s sleep. The ferry left at 11pm and arrived at the Hook of Holland at 8am. I have no idea why the crossing took so long, it certainly doesn’t look very far on a map. But hey, you’re not reading this post for details on shipping.
Cycling in Holland, the reality.
You will probably get a strong feel for what cycling in Holland is like from the first thing I’m going to tell you about it. Out of the 80 miles we planned to travel only a small handful of miles would be on standard roads. I say ‘standard’ by way of explaining that these few miles would involved cycling on roads that also have motor vehicles on. This may seem like a strange point to make, but a lot of the cycle paths in Holland are as big as standard roads here in the UK.
The majority of cycle paths we used were smooth concrete or cheerfully coloured tarmac. But just as many of the routes were made up of brick paving, rough tiles or even cobbles.
It was great being so far away from motor traffic, but it only took a few miles to realise that I was probably on the wrong sort of bike for Holland. My 23mm tires and sportive geometry frame was quite uncomfortable for many of the rougher paths. We saw almost no road bikes during our time in either Holland or Belgium, almost everyone rides either mountain bikes or ‘sit up and beg’ style bikes.
Sam was riding a very tasty Titanium framed bike he had just built. I was riding a Bianchi frame I found on ebay for £30, surrounded by and mis-matched assortment of bits and bobs, some of which came from the spares boxes of the legendary Ipswich Bike Doctor (Kevin, to his friends).
Our bikes safely secured below decks on the ferry
I was glad I had some bombproof Mavic Askium wheels considering the beating my bike was taking. I’ve ridden Askium on both my bikes for years, partly due to their extreme toughness (in my experience). But the bike roads of Holland were too much for them. A few miles before the end of our weekend of cycling I got a pinch puncture that also thwacked away a fair chunk off my rear rim.
While the roads are not quite akin to the pavé of the Paris-Roubaix, they’re not far off. The biggest mistake I made for the first 80 miles of the weekend was not wearing chamois creme. I won’t go into details, not just to save your blushes, but also to save me from remembering the visceral sensation of my poor battered ring. For the record Sam’s Mavic Ksyrium remained unscathed throughout the whole trip.
Me, in Holland
The generous number of cycle routes through Holland wasn’t the biggest surprise to me. I was expecting them. What came as a pleasant shock was just how well thought out the routes are at places where they cross paths with motorised traffic. When a cycle route crosses a road junction the cyclists have priority and motorists are obliged to give way. This was great enough, but what really struck me was how cool the motorists were with this arrangement.
Perhaps it’s because so many motorists in the Netherlands are probably also cyclists. Therefore maybe they have a greater affinity and empathy with cyclists than some motorists in the UK have. In the Netherlands cycling is the norm. Here in the UK one would be forgiven for assuming the population assumes cycling is something only children do. Perhaps cycling is seen as a phase that everyone goes through before they can legally drive, at which point they abandon cycling for their cars.
The space given to us as cyclists in Holland extended beyond mere legal obligation on the part of the drivers. At one point I became separated from Sam when he crossed a dual carriageway. The driver of the car that came between us actually stopped and ushered me across so I could rejoin Sam. Not only was I very grateful (because Sam had the map), I was also forced to realise that I don’t think I’ve ever seen similar behaviour on British roads.
A lot of roundabouts that were shared with road users had an additional, segregated, ring around them just for cyclists. Where the cycling roundabout crossed the road, you guessed it; the drivers gave way.
Sam, somewhere in Holland
The cycling infrastructure in Holland appears to be set up to keep cyclists moving. Anyone who has experienced the relentless stop – start of cycling in London knows that here in the UK the opposite appear to be the case. Cyclists can be made to feel like they’re getting in the way, even though with a lot of urban cycling it is in fact motorists who impede the progress of cyclists, not the other way around. In Holland it appears that cycling is very much encouraged over driving. A theory perhaps shored up by the relatively high price of petrol and diesel in Dutch petrol stations.
The only downside to cycling in such a flat country is that the headwinds can be brutal. I’ve done a bit of cycling in the Fens of Cambridgeshire so thought I would be prepared for what the locals call ‘Dutch Mountains’. I was wrong. Holland makes the Fens look like the Alps.
Unrelenting headwinds are demoralising. They’re not so bad if you’re riding in a large group of cyclists, but if there’s only two of you they can crush your spirit. The winds got stronger, or were noticed more acutely, the more rural the route became.
By the time we reached the massive bridge over the River Haringvliet both Sam and I had passed the point of grinning and bearing it. We were in danger of being broken. I remember looking at the trees being whipped around and the grasses on the verge being thrashed and being grateful for their cover from the wind. When we shoved ourselves onto the Haringvliet bridge we had almost no protection at all. I rode as close as I could to the concrete wall that separated us and the motorway traffic. The noise and filth was terrible, but it was worth tolerating for just a tiny bit of respite from the winds that were pushing us backwards. Looking back at the footage from the Garmin Virb on my handlebars we were doing well if we reached 9mph.
The damage to my brakes doesn’t look too bad in this photo, but it was a pain in the ass to fix on the roadside.
By the time we had crossed the bridge I told Sam I desperately needed a rest, by shouting as many expletives as I could muster, which was a lot. He replied that he also would enjoy a few minutes of not pushing his face into what felt like a gale force wind. His language was also creative and possibly Anglo Saxon in origin.
I slowed down and gently bunny hopped over a kerb onto a grass verge. Unfortunately I bunny hopped right into a hole and promptly went over the handlebars. I was lucky to escape with just a bit of road (or rather grass) rash. I also managed to move one of my brakes. I knew I wasn’t badly hurt, but stayed half clipped in and under my bike for a few minutes. Bloodied but unbowed, and glad to be laying down.
If it wasn’t for the unrelenting and brutal headwinds in Holland the whole experience would have been a total joy. The best average speed I’ve ever managed on a 100 mile ride was 19.4mph. The average speed for the 92 miles (we got lost, which accounts for the extra 12) was a measly 12.59mph. But this wasn’t just caused by the headwinds, or the fact I’m older and fatter than when I did the speedy 100. A contributing factor to the low average speed was that a lot of the cycle paths through urban areas are quite tight and winding it’s just not possible to go so fast.
Cycling in Belgium – the reality.
There was very little indication that we had crossed the border from Holland to Belgium. We were hoping for a large sign, like the ones that you find when entering towns. A sign would have given us a neat photo opportunity. What we did notice was that the cycling infrastructure wasn’t quite as good. By UK standards it was still outstanding, but the surfaces weren’t quite as well maintained, and the junctions over main roads weren’t quite as smooth. In Holland we just rode over junctions. If there was occasion to stop and press a button in order to halt traffic it took no time at all. There were even tall poles for us to hold onto while we waited, so we didn’t need to unclip or dismount. But in Belgium we had to stop at most junctions, and wait just a little bit longer. A small inconvenience, but one worth noting. In urban areas a lot of the cycle paths were on pavements. They were clearly marked, and on the whole pedestrians stayed out of them. But they just didn’t feel as glorious as the entirely segregated cycle paths of Holland, which on the whole were nowhere near roads or sidewalks.
Sam greeting Antwerp
By the time we were deep into Belgium the constant bone rattling of the lumpy cycle paths started to take it’s toll on my ancient steed. The drive side crank shaft worked loose. This was particularly stressful because cycling on a loose crank kills it. In fact it not only marks the death of the crank, it can also destroy the bottom bracket. This kind of damage at this stage of the ride would have forced us to abandon.
I’m particularly fond of the drivetrain on my old bike. The crank and derailleur are Dura Ace. Admittedly they are very old Dura Ace, and on the rear only eight of the nine gears are accessible, but it’s something special. At least to me. The crank and BB are held in place by a single bolt, unlike modern systems, hence the severity of what was happening. By a stroke of luck we passed a big posh bike shop who were more than happy to tighten my crank at zero cost. When I told the nice chap that we had cycled from the Hook of Holland he stood back and looked my bike over. His response was to say ‘you came all that way on this? These parts are very old!’. Cheeky.
Everyone we were fortunate enough to interact with in Belgium was really friendly. At one point we had run out of water and it appeared that all the shops were shut. Sam had the bright idea of asking at the local ambulance station if we could use their taps. They had no problem with it. In fact I got the impression that it was fairly normal for cyclists to knock on their door and ask for water.
After a carefully measured number of Belgian beers we retired to a really nice Air BnB place (this one). The owner of the place offered us the use of his old tandem to make our way to the festival. Following some fairly disastrous attempts at riding it up and down the street we politely declined and borrowed a couple of sit up and beg bikes. After the pommeling my arse took the day before I was glad of the large cushioned seat. Sam wanted to borrow a very cool looking cruiser bike, until the owner pointed out that it was a little girls bike. To be fair to Sam that didn’t put him off, why would it. But in the end he decided on function over form and borrowed a sit up and beg bike.
The eleven kilometers to the festival was comfortable and uneventful. Like a lot of the cycle routes we took it was alongside a mainline railway. Once we’d gotten over the shock of express trains hammering past at incredible speeds we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The ride to and from the festival was the only cycling we did in ‘normal’ clothes, and it felt kinda cool fitting in with the locals.
The Brakrock EcoFest festival itself was brilliant. We locked our bikes up along with many other bikes that were scattered throughout the small wood that was the venue. Although thinking back I think ours may have been the only bikes that were locked. Because this is a cycling site, not a punk rock site I won’t write a full review of the festival, but watching the short video below will give you a good idea of what it was like.
Due to the fact we left the festival well past midnight we had some consternation about cycling home in the dark. I dearly love the Dunwich Dynamo but having done large chunks of it in near total darkness (after cheap lights have crapped out) I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of cycling back to Antwerp in the dark. We had also made ourselves fairly familiar with the wares of the beer tent. We needn’t have worried. Despite the fact a big chunk of the ride home was rural, the cycle paths were lit the entire way. Nice one Belgium.
By the end of the weekend we had cycled 192 miles. And if the ride from the Hook to Antwerp was one of the toughest I’d ridden, the ride back was one of the easiest. Apart from that pinch puncture.
If you’ve got even a passing interest in cycling in Holland I heartily recommend you give it a go. The ferry was reasonably priced and remarkably comfortable, the locals were friendly and the cycle routes were fantastic. The only issue I’ve returned home with is the burning desire to buy a proper Audax or touring bike for the next time I visit the continent.
Other things I learned cycling in Holland and Belgium.
- Mopeds are allowed to use most of the cycle paths, but the vast majority of riders are very considerate and careful when passing cyclists. Possible due to the fact that so few of them wear helmets.
- Almost nobody in Holland or Belgium wears either lycra or a helmet.
- SIS gels appear to be nicer than High5, but Clif bars are loverly. Clif shot bloks are bloody wonderful.
- As wonderful as the cycling rucksack I took was, 192 miles with something on your back sucks. Next time I want panniers.
If you want to study the route, or scoff at how slow we rode you can view the Strava records by clicking the links below.
A fake hill on the outskirts of Rotterdam
Sam watching me repair by bike after I went over the handlebars
The Egg-shaped Air BnB we stayed at in Antwerp
Belgian cyclists do it differently
Brakrock Ecofest main stage, complete with phantom feet
Just a field full of discarded bombs somewhere in Holland