Monday, 14 July 2014

The spirit of cycle touring: The Straight Story


“We saw castles, canals, cottages, boats, churches, Roman ruins, a steam train, ancient forests, smuggler’s towns, hedgerows, roses, butterflies and birds. We had rain, blue heat, storms and soft clouds over rolling meadows. We saw the ocean, walked beaches, headlands and woodlands. We cycled canal paths, train tracks, country lanes and hills. We met nice people, grumpy people, alien worshippers, fellow travelers, bakers, fisher folk, happy hotel keepers and cheerful folk on the side of the road wanting a chat. We freewheeled down and climbed agonizingly up. We cursed and sang and laughed and told stories. Finally, we arrived at Land’s End.”

Susan Brown who lives in Gland, Switzerland, truly has a talent to put into words what you can experience on a long-distance cycle touring journey. She cycled my London-Land’s End Cycle Route last summer and clearly had a great time. This year, I have more people on the road with my guidebooks and holiday packages than ever before. This fact fills me with feelings of joy and pride.

This mood makes me inviting you to watch a piece of art that in my opinion very well reflects the spirit of cycle touring. The film I want to write about really shows how it is to be out there on a bicycle, on your own, on the road, absorbed by the surrounding countryside.  In David Lynch's 1999 film The Straight Story, the main character Alvin Straight is on a long distance journey on a lawn-mower (!) and the are many parallels with cycling in this film... 

Although the speed of the lawn-mower (and the film itself) might be lower than the average speed of any cyclist, the film beautifully captures all issues long distance touring cyclists face. During the first half of the film, we see Alvin Straight struggling to get his long distance journey off the ground. It parallels the emotional process an individual has to go through before being mentally ready for a long distance bicycle ride. We also witness how Alvin builds his relationship with his means of transport. Don’t we all have a relationship with our bicycle too?

It is the second half of the film where the parallels with cycling really kick in. The beautiful photography and amazing soundtrack (featuring great music by composer Angelo Badalamenti) and "landscape" sound effects (by David Lynch himself) pull the viewer with great emotions into the beauty of "slow travel". The film magically shows how you can become part of your surroundings if you take the effort to t-r-a-v-e-l  s-l-o-w-l-y

The film also defines all inconveniences of being on the road. Alvin Straight and his lawn-mower have to deal with typical cyclist's issues such as  bad weather and overtaking fast moving traffic. Also that desperate desolate feeling a touring cyclist can have when his/her equipment has a serious break down is shown; Alvin's breakdowns are heartbreaking. 


The film also beautifully witnesses the daily routines of finding shelter for the night and food and drink to keep going. Last but not least, there are all those wonderful encounters with other people who either live en-route or who are on a journey too. It is all very much like how a real bike ride is. And yes, there is also an amusing scene with a stressed driver who "must drive the car to work and must drive the car home every day", as she says so to herself, oblivious to her surroundings...

Most magic moment of the film from a cycling point of view is the short scene in which Alvin and his lawn-mower are actually overtaken by a large group of cyclists 
(see also top picture of this article). This special scene with its unique sound effects and amazing imaginary should thrill every true touring cyclist, because it embraces so close the magic of cycling!

The scene of the "grand depart" (see below) gives a good idea of what The Straight Story has to offer (even when dubbed in Italian). A true touring cyclist should watch the film over its full length...



Copyright notice: this article intends to raise renewed interest for "The Straight Story". Copyright holders will hopefully excuse us for using "Straight Story" film captures and "You Tube embedding" in this article!

What about becoming a long-distance touring cyclist yourself  with one of our "Cycling Dutchman" guidebooks?

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also http://www.cyclinginholland.com.

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:




Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:

The 12 best bike rides of The Netherlands

Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom:

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Netherlands’ Top 12 Cycle Routes

The Netherlands is famous for its amazing cycling infrastructure, but what are the most amazing cycle routes which will really blow your mind and give you the very best cycling experience you can have in this world? I decided to treat you with a personal Top 12. Together, these routes represent the different types of cycle experiences you can have in The Netherlands. All listed routes are included in my Cycling in The Netherlands guidebook

1. North Sea Cycle Route: The Hague – Zandvoort

The 6000 km long North Sea Cycle Route is nowhere more splendid than on its traffic-free track across the extensive Dutch sand dune systems between The Hague and Zandvoort. On this 40 km (25 miles) stretch, cycling truly comes “home”. Whether you are on a Dutch shopper or on a racing bicycle with all the gears, this is truly one of the very best cycle paths in the world with fantastic scenery to take in. Every other mile, there is access to the beach for cyclists and pedestrians only; providing plenty of opportunities for the perfect seaside break!

2. Amsterdam Forest (Amsterdamse Bos)

With paths either dedicated to walking, cycling or horse-riding, the Amsterdam Forest (Amsterdamse Bos) is probably the best park for cycling in the world. Three times bigger than New York’s Central Park, it has 50 kms (30 miles) of smooth, wide, tarmac cycle paths, dedicated to cycling only. The routes take you through a mosaic of wooded areas, grassland, reed lands and open water. With a high density of things to see and do, it is the perfect playground for youngsters getting used to explore by bike!

3. Vecht River: Weesp – Utrecht

There are probably only a few places more tranquil in the world than the sleepy Vecht River. The merchants of the Dutch Golden Age built their country mansions on these Vecht riverbanks, in between the numerous dairy farms and windmills. The country lanes on both sides of the river are a cycling heaven, taking you through a leafy, green, Dutch landscape, with another peaceful view awaiting you every 100 metres or so. The 35 km route (22 miles) has its epic final stretch alongside Utrecht’s “Old Canal”, without doubt the most scenic canal of the country…

4. Oosterschelde Barrier

Fancying literally riding the waves on the most expensive cycle path of the world? The traffic-free cycle path on the Oosterschelde Estuary Storm Surge Barrier gives you premium sea views and a unique smell of fresh sea air while riding your bike! The average maintenance bill of this route is about 10 million Euros per year, so you better enjoy this thrill ride on the floodgates. The total length of the flood gates is about 2 miles. The experience is best the first hours after high tide, when over 800 billion litres of water squeeze through the dam, back into the North Sea…

Note: the second stage of the 2015 Tour de France will finish on the Oosterschelde Barrier!

5. Dutch cycling rush hour – Utrecht

To truly experience a Dutch cycling rush hour, you should get on the bike between 8 and 9 am on any main cycle route between a Dutch city centre and its suburbs.  To be truly amazed, head for a place where there are few alternative routes, for example the bottleneck bridge over the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal between Lombok and Terwijde in Utrecht. You’ll find yourself cycling in a fast moving cycling crowd on a truly Cycling Super Highway. Cycle route builders in London must take notice; this is what a Cycling Super Highway really looks like!

6. Waal Dyke, Nijmegen

For grant open vistas, where you can cycle high above the surrounding landscape, you should head for one of the Rhine branches in The Netherlands, such as Lek, Waal or Nederrijn. We favour the traffic-calmed dyke of the Waal River between Dodewaard and Nijmegen. On this 20 km (13 miles) dyke ride stretch, you look down on fruit orchards on one side and Europe’s busiest inland shipping lane on the other side. The views over the City of Nijmegen, with its stylish river bridges, are fabulous. The Snelbinder bridge is a truly unique way to enter a city entirely traffic-free!

7. Utrecht Ridge National Park: Hollandse Rading – Amerongen

Large parts of The Netherlands lie below sea level, but there are also a few distinctively higher lying areas, such as the Dutch Moors Veluwe and Utrecht Ridge (Utrechtse Heuvelrug). Heavily forested, both moors have an extensive network of cycle paths, well away from motorised traffic. I favour the 40 km (25 miles) section between Hollandse Rading and Amerongen. Where else can you eat as many pancakes as you like, play crazy golf on three full-size 18-hole golf courses, visit a Napoleon pyramid and ride your bike on a former NATO-airbase runway?

8. Lange Linschoten: Woerden – Gouda

The Dutch Green Heart may well be on its prettiest alongside the “Lange Linschoten” stream, on both sides lined with (knotted) weeping willows and old, scenic, dairy farms with their thatched roofs. Cows graze onto the horizon here. Buy authentic Dutch Gouda cheese straight from the barn, go for a canoe adventure on narrow countryside canals or check whether you are a witch at the old weighing table of Oudewater. Just having a pint on the medieval town square is very well possible as well. This 20 km (13 miles) stretch is a favourite among many cycling Dutchies.

9: Waterland “Sea Dyke” Amsterdam – Marken Island

A few places in this world are more wind-swept than the old man-made sea defenses alongside what is now “Lake Ijsselmeer”. Ensure only to embark on this route when winds are light or when tailwinds blow you strongly towards your destination. In direct reach from Amsterdam station, this 20 km (13 miles) route via a cycle path on the old sea defenses’ ridge provides splendid views over Lake Ijsselmeer. Marken Island, with its traditional wooden houses build on wooden pillars, represents the natural history of The Netherlands as no other…

10: Dyke Enkhuizen – Lelystad

Cycling on dams and dykes; it is a must in The Netherlands. There is one more which truly deserves a spot in our top 12. Not to be confused with the "Afsluitdijk" (between North-Holland and Friesland at the north end of Lake Ijsselmeer), the dyke Enkhuizen – Lelystad is the truly ultimate dyke ride for cyclists keen on a challenge. What makes the route special is that you’ll cycle away from the main road most of the way (which is on the other side of the dyke ridge), allowing you to feel truly on your own, cycling on a 27 km (16 miles) long cycle path in the middle of a sea

11: Windmills Rottemeren

Oops; I nearly forgot. Of course you’d like to cycle by some authentic Dutch windmills! To be honest, the best bike windmill ride is at Unesco World Heritage Kinderdijk, but this was a bit out of the way to include in my guidebook. Zaanse Schans, the second most important windmill location of The Netherlands, is in the book, but doesn’t provide much of a bike ride. In that respect, I feel the cycle path alongside the Windmills of Rottemeren does a better job! It is a popular route with Rotterdam folk and provides fantastic windmill scenery for 6 kms (4 miles) or so…

12: Vogelweg, Flevoland

If you enjoy cycling broad, empty stretches and like to experience cycling on the former seabed (over 4 metres below sea level), you should ride the Vogelweg in Flevoland. The scenery reminds me of grant, flat, open vistas in America’s Midwest; a crop farming landscape, interceded by long, straight roads and scattered with wind turbines. There is not much out there, large scale and very unusual. Where else can you experience such a landscape while cycling entirely traffic-free on a smooth cycle path? It can only be in the cyclist’s paradise of The Netherlands

All routes above feature in my book Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise. From June 2014, we also offer free GPS-tracks (for Outdoors Navigation devices such as Garmin or Smart Phone Apps) on all book orders via our websites www.cyclinginholland.com and www.eoscycling.com. If you bought the book somewhere else, you can also purchase the tracks separately via these two websites. Before you head out, also check our free route updates with the latest on route diversions, new accommodations on the way, etc, etc. 


For those keen on cycling beyond the routes in the book, also have a look at the brand new Green Heart Cycle Map, now available via our Cycling in Holland website. This overview map shows the central so called "Randstad" area of The Netherlands and displays 12 circular rides varying in distance from 70 to 125 kms (43-77 miles).

Remember the "Cycling Dutchman" has an excellent guidebook about cycling in England too: 

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 15.99, see also http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The missing link; Quality bicycles!

There are multiple "Cycling Dutchmen" in the United Kingdom campaigning for better cycling conditions. Berno Brosschot moved from The Netherlands to Wales in the mid eighties. He kept quiet about cycling for over 25 years, but now he sells Dutch hybrid bikes locally.

In the latest Get Britain Cycling Report, Berno points out that the Dutch not only have well designed cycling infrastructure, but that the Dutch have better bicycles too. In his view, this is a vital missing component in the drive to get the British people to use bicycles more often. Below a slightly edited version of Berno's article, as published in the report. To illustrate the article, we've put all pictures of British bikes on the left and Dutch bicycles on the right; enjoy! 

Going Dutch, All The Way: The missing link

I prefer the term "use bicycles" rather than cycle. There is no way to differentiate in English between different modes of using a bicycle, as there is in the Dutch language. Fietsen is the word for everyday bicycling, while anything involving speed is called wielrennen. Off-road cycling, as a recent addition, is left as mountain biking. The Dutch will use different bicycles for these activities and often own more than one type.

The lack of a proper word means cycling tends to be associated with sport and speed, and therefore in the minds of non-cycling people with sweat and hard workFor the British public to adopt the bicycle as an everyday means of transport it needs to be disassociated from cycling-as-a-sport. The need to de-lycrafy is paramount. Any reference to successes in the Olympics or in the Tour de France should be avoided as it can only put off non-cyclists. Getting a successful Tour cyclist to encourage more people to use their bicycle to travel to work would provoke derision in the Netherlands.
  
Over the past 30 years the British have either stuck to their drop handle tourers or adopted the mountain bike as a general bicycle. Meanwhile, the Dutch have been developing their bikes to a fantastic standard. How the UK has completely missed out on these developments remains a mystery to me. Most bicycles ridden in the Netherlands are designed and built there as well. About half a dozen manufacturers are competing for their share of a critical buying public, and this has driven them to excellence. 



Look at the picture above; which bicycle is fit for purpose for your child to cycle to school; the red BMX "British-style" or the blue Dutch bike immediately behind it?   

The Dutch take it for granted that their bicycles will come complete with adaptable steering, mudguards, chain guard, stand, lock, carrier and lights, and that they can choose between men’s, women’s or low-instep models, all in different sizes to suit their height. They expect their bicycles to last at least 15 or 20 years, even when left outside and without much maintenance. The picture on the right is the Dutch hybrid of "the other Cycling Dutchman"; Eric's bike lasted for 20 years and was even used to cycle coast to coast across both America and Australia!

Above all, the Dutch expect their bicycle to be comfortable. Any photograph of people on bikes in the Netherlands will testify to that: they look relaxed and happy. Conversely, pictures of British cyclists, helmeted, clad in lycra and crouched over their handlebars (as pictured left), somehow never convey the same feeling. The words pain and effort come to mind.

The bicycles you usually see in Dutch towns and villages are the traditional backpedal-braking variety, without gears and really only suited to that flat country. There is another variety that the Dutch use for longer distance commuting, leisure trips and camping holidays. To the original model they have added handbrakes, gears, suspension and lightweight components. However, this has retained the comfortable upright position. These modern, good looking bicycles are called sport hybride, or hybride for short. 

These bikes have no equivalent on the British market. There is not even a name for them, as they do not fit in the usual categories of road bike, tourer, mountain bike, city bike or hybrid (that is, the British variety). As the Dutch hybrid bike is equally suited to the hills and mountains as to the flat, windy countryside, the Dutch take their hybrids everywhere they go, for example when cycling the Dutch version of the London-Land's End Cycle Route (see picture). These Dutch hybrid bikes would serve as an ideal general bicycle for British people.

I have been importing used Dutch hybrides from the Netherlands since June 2012, to sell in my local neighbourhood in the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales. I take them to small local fairs and festivals, in schools and village halls, etc. The overwhelming response has been one of great surprise that a bicycle can be so comfortable, light rolling and easy on the hills, and there is also admiration that a 10-year-old bicycle can look as good as new

At these events about 200 people have tried out the bikes, and I’ve sold more than 20. That’s a good response in what is a relatively poor, sparsely populated area of west Wales with plenty of steep hills and hardly any regular cyclists! Now, if this could be translated to the rest of Britain. I firmly believe that British people must be provided with better bikes if they are to start using bicycles again in greater numbers. I have often heard the complaint that the bike bought last year has not been used much because its forward leaning position is uncomfortable, wouldn’t take them up the hills and is now rusting away in the garden shed.

There are too many bicycles on the market that are of poor quality, have the wrong shape or are ill-equipped for everyday cycling. Neither the public nor the bicycle shops know much about other types of bikes or bike-use other than mountain biking or racing.  Too often I have seen bikes sold that are unsuitable or too small for the rider. Adjustments are usually impossible or very limited.

The public needs to be better educated about the different types of bikes and what they should be used for.  It should be far easier to find suitable bikes for daily cycling. I know of only three shops in the UK that sell Dutch hybrids. The necessary equipment should be standard, not an accessory. It should also be easier for the public to find out about available bikes and to compare them with the help of an independent advisory and testing body.

There is a pressing need for the pro-cycling campaign to widen its agenda to include the bicycles themselves. I don’t have the wherewithal myself to introduce better bicycles into the UK on the scale needed, but I sense a golden opportunity for someone, somewhere. It would improve the situation in Britain in various, important ways. 

Let’s imagine that the Dutch type hybrid did become widely available, allowing bicycling that did not involve sport and speed. Lots of people cycling in a stable, upright position while having a good view of their surroundings would result in friendlier, safer environment. 

Cycling traffic in towns would not be as frantic as it currently is. It would lessen hostilities between cyclists and car drivers because cyclists would not be travelling at the greatest speed possible, and their position would enable them to make better eye-contact with drivers. The gentler general pace would make it easier for beginner cyclists or elderly people to join in the traffic. With their good range of gears, hills could be tackled in comfort.Because of the stability of these bikes there is no need for helmets, as you are unlikely to fall off. For the less able there are low-instep models that make getting on and off the bike easier. The presence of chain- and mudguards, together with the relaxed pace makes it possible to travel in everyday or work-clothes.

From an early age, and on through all stages in life, children in the Netherlands get properly fitting bicycles, which are safe to ride on the roads. The wobbly affairs that are sold as children’s bikes in the UK should be treated as toys, not as a means of transport. See how the boy on the left is struggling to get his pedal ready on his cramped bike during a Bikeability course.   

Again, we should be looking at the Dutch models: stylish enough while giving a stable and upright positionDutch children are also fortunate in not having to depend on school buses. Just suppose that every child in Britain, say from the age of 14, was provided with a real adult Dutch type hybride? In the space of a decade the number of non-cyclists would plummet. The bicycles would easily outlast their school days and take them into adulthood.

The cycling community needs to be persuaded that the Dutch hybrid is the perfect bicycle for the modern British public. Some change of perception is necessary, as obsolete and fixed ideas about bicycles are widespread. For a start, there is the typical British obsession with the weight of a bike, and the disbelief that a fully-equipped bicycle which is a few kilos heavier than their trusty steed can be a delight to ride, even uphill. By now I’m getting used to people lifting one of my bikes before even trying it, and then expressing surprise when they do give it a go!

Again and again, upright bicycles appear in magazines photographed in sepia colours and described variously as traditional, vintage, and old-fashioned, only suitable for summer frocks and tweeds. Even the manufacturers themselves give their upright bicycles a nostalgic golden-oldie look with names like ClassicSomehow, the upright bicycle is not seen as the real thing, or at most only suitable for level city use, like in Cambridge or Amsterdam

This shows a total lack of understanding of what makes a proper bicycle. The fact is that well-designed upright bicycles can be kitted out with all the modern technology that is nowadays available and, fitted with a good range of gears, would serve very nicely as a multipurpose bicycle.

Publications and campaigns that aim to normalize bicycle use should use pictures of upright bicycles and not of drop handle racers like British Cycling does in it’s 10 point plan ‘Time to Choose Cycling’. Although Get Britain Cycling’s magazines contain some pictures of good examples (especially those taken in the Netherlands and Denmark!), they are otherwise full of pictures of unsuitable, ill-fitting or sportive bicycles.  

Efforts should be made to replace the ubiquitous bare mountain bike with the upright bicycle as the notion of a normal bike in the public’s mind. The awful latest tv advert by the biggest bicycle retailer Halfords, trying to portray family cycling as a Wild West adventure, is a case in point. In the very popular Haynes Bike Book the chapter about how to choose a bike urgently needs rewriting.

It is vital that the bicycle itself is included in any discussion about cycling in the UK. I am not suggesting that providing high quality, comfortable bikes to the British public is all that is required. But I am convinced that all the fantastic improvements in infrastructure everyone is fighting for will fail to entice the public to make regular use of bicycles if they can’t enjoy the ride.

Berno Brosschot, "Cycling Dutchman" in Llŷn, Wales. Find Berno on Facebook or send him an email to find out more about Dutch hybrid bikes

Berno is not the only "Cycling Dutchman" who noticed the lack of Dutch-style hybrid bikes in other countries. Cycling Dutchman Meindert Wolfraad lives in Australia and developed his own Lekker Bikes brand. His bike designs bring a a fresh twist to the Dutch-style hybrids, getting popular in Australia and New Zealand!

Some comments from readers on this blog article (email address known to the author of this page):

Hello,
I've never had a comfortable bike, can you help? I'm 6 feet tall which is
unusual in the UK, and in the past retailers have always tried to sell me
mens bikes ( I HATE crossbars, I often wear a skirt when cycling short
distances) or ones with the handlebars so far away I can barely reach them.
Surely there must be someone who makes a good all round bike for a tall woman
that doesn't cost the earth? 

I'd appreciate your advice, Catherine Wood.

What about going for a ride on a Dutch hybrid with one of our "Cycling Dutchman" guidebooks?

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 13,99, see also http://www.cyclinginholland.com.

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 15.99, see also http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:




Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:


Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom: