I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks cycling in Holland and Germany.
What a different world! Sometimes in Holland, bikes outnumber cars and everywhere there are cycle routes. Not just skinny, gutter-hugging cycle routes, either. Proper roadways for bicycles, with traffic lights and signage, integrated with the rest of the traffic system.
You can feel safe and secure for about 99 percent of your journeys. You still get the odd hairy moment – perhaps caused mainly by the profusion of options for cyclists. Almost every junction seems to offer a number of possibilities and when trying to decide, travelling slowly, with loaded (wobbly) panniers, it is easy to get confused and make errors.
The very first people we met when we exited the boat at Hook of Holland were two tall and strong-looking Germans. They told us that they were going back to Holland as cycling in England was just too scary for them! They had come over to the UK via Dover and by the time they had reached Essex they wanted nothing more than to head back over the water. Naturally, we sympathised and agreed that cycling in the UK was a rotten experience compared to elsewhere on the continent. I wonder how many others leave our shores early because of our sub-standard roads?
The bike routes in Germany were almost as good as Dutch ones – but far less used. Many of them are made from small paving stones, which makes the surface a bit bone-shaking and there are more tree roots, causing further bumps. The small towns and villages were full of cars and occasionally there was no cycleway – thought I’d landed up in Capel St Mary at times! The terrain was rather similar to Holland – lots of big dairy farms on a flat landscape with outcrops of trees. We ran out of time to get to the Hanseatic coast or even Hamburg, so we headed back to the Netherlands by train.
Back in Holland again, we went to Groeningen, which has a reputation for being perhaps the most bicycle-friendly town in Europe. On Sunday morning the streets were deserted except for a growing number of bicycles of all descriptions, including recliners and tag-alongs, trailers and bicycle-handcarts. The only motorised transport in town – apart from the odd bus – appeared to be the motor-trike taxi – which proclaimed itself to be the first of its kind in the world. For 7 1/2 euros you can roar around the town at break-neck speed.
I have never see so large a town so devoid of cars. The previous day a huge market dominated the two squares and bikes and pedestrians were everywhere. Groeningen is a town of about about 180,000 strong and the place was packed with day visitors. And yet, the streets were relatively quiet away from the central throng.
Later on Sunday we witnessed an outfit called StreetMachine provide parcourt and BMX ramps for the local youth. There were also people demonstrating martial arts and bike tricks. It reminded me of the kind of thing laid on in the centre of Bogota in the summer months.
We took the train down to Rotterdam. The bike ramps at the stations are pretty hard work with full panniers (some stations have lifts) so next day we decided to cycle to the ferry – a mere 30 kilometers or so. This was where the Dutch idyll came unstuck a bit. We did not have a cycle map for this part – but we had seen signs.
The reality was that as soon as we left Rotterdam, the signs for the Hook disappeared – so we ended up in a circuitous dash across the rose farms of south Holland. We made the ferry with about 20 minutes to spare – and a knowledge that even brilliant cycle routes sometimes have their limitations. As usual the Dutch cyclists we asked were helpful and knowledgeable – and incredibly friendly.