More Thoughts from the Netherlands

July 1, 2014

So much has already been said about cycling in Amsterdam in various blogs that there’s not much more I can add to the general amazement at all the bikes and all the people on bikes and all the different kinds of bikes and the little kids on bikes with stabilisers cycling right in the middle of a big city and, well, just, you know, bikes. Everywhere. However, now that the general amazement has worn off, a few points have occurred to me thinking back over our weekend trip:

1. It’s actually quite stressful to cycle in Amsterdam, due to all the bikes. We’re not really used to sharing our cycle paths with anything other than the odd dog walker and maybe another cyclist coming the other way. Trying to insert yourself into a flow of bike-borne traffic,* especially when you’re still instinctively looking the wrong way at junctions, can lead to you learning some interesting new Dutch swear words. And once in, it’s even harder to stop with all those silent bikes coming up behind you. Best just to go with the flow, and hope that eventually you will find some way to escape.

2. Scooters in the bike lane are a nightmare. Stressfulness aside, and even with the odd hapless looking-the-wrong-way visiting bike blogger in the mix, in truth everyone seemed to rub along fairly well in the maelstrom, just swerving out of the way when necessary and adjusting their speed to meet the conditions, but the scooters just blast along regardless, weaving through everyone else. As one of our party commented, the only good thing about it is that it makes the Dutch seem a bit human because otherwise everything would be a bit too perfect. Of course, we may be biased because we’d barely arrived before all four of us were almost wiped out by a scooter blasting round a corner at high speed.

3. The Dutch have an inalienable right to cycle side by side with their mates. I knew that they had nice wide cycle paths so that you could cycle side by side, but I hadn’t realised just how ingrained this was into cycling culture – it is not considered a nice-to-have. Not just on the nice wide out of town paths, but right in the middle of the city where there are meandering tourists and scooters and people in a hurry also using the bike lanes, there will be two Dutch cyclists going at a stately pace side by side, chatting away. I consider this a mark of the highest civilisation.

* At the Vondelpark, where the central path is basically a huge river of bikes, we watched a Dutch dad launch his young son on what appeared to be his first stabiliser-less maiden voyage into the endless stream. I suppose that’s the way to learn to cope – but it did strike us as being similar to teaching someone to drive on the M25.

Statistics for Dummies

June 30, 2014

We’re back from the Netherlands and a crammed 72 hours of cycling and adventures (you can read the slightly more official report here). I had a great time drooling over all the cycling infrastructure, while the other half, having discovered that one side-effect of mass cycling is huge numbers of fit-looking women with great legs, has also become something of an evangelist for the Dutch way. The sun shone, the headwinds were mostly kind, and all went very well, apart from the motor scooter that nearly took out all four of our party on an otherwise blissfully pleasant cycle path – oh the irony – and some navigational issues on the way in to Amsterdam.

On our way back, Marc from Amsterdamize very kindly not just pointed us in the right direction, but rode with us till we were practically half way to the ferry terminal (at the aptly name Halfweg). That meant that, even after a fairly leisurely lunch, we got into the outskirts Ijmuiden with more than an hour to go and our thoughts began to turn towards stopping for coffee and some well-earned cake.

‘Even if we got a puncture now, we could still make it in time,’ one of our number said rashly, and I rapidly shushed him before the Puncture Fairy could hear us. He, being a rational medical man, pointed out my folly, and explained all about regression to the mean and centralised tendency theory and all the other reasons why simply mentioning a puncture does not in itself make a puncture more likely. Which is why I now know that the fact that I then got a massive puncture from a metal spike that went right through my Marathon Plus back tyre, is simply a coincidence…

Still, as he did very kindly also fix the puncture and we did as predicted make it to the ferry on time (while, in a final surreal touch, being serenaded by a Dutch male-voice choir singing Wild Rover as we came round the final corner) – he is forgiven.


January 26, 2012

I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that regularly cycling – indeed regularly getting drenched and frozen on a bike – does wonders for the old immune system. This is partly borne out by the fact that since I’ve moved up here and regularly got drenched and frozen on the bike, I’ve barely had a cold, or at least not one that’s got beyond a day or so. So when the neighbour – as thanks for looking after his cat – brought back a stinking cold from Australia, the other half duly succumbed but I wasn’t worried. I even nobly headed out for the paper on some pretty ropey days to save the other half the drive and to top up my immune system in case it needed it. The problem was, having begun to believe my own propaganda, I’d mistaken ‘less liable to getting colds’ for ‘my superpower is not catching cold’. And yep. The day before I’m due to be in London for high-powered ambassadorial meetings I have come down with what promises to be a stinker…

I’m not going to let it stop me, though. I’ve spent the last year, one way or another, trying to make the case for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. Far too often, it feels like the very people who should be helping are the ones that hold us back. Never mind the Mr. Toads who hate cyclists – or the hardened vehicular cyclists who feel comfortable mixing with fast traffic and can’t see why everybody else should do so too – they were never going to support us in the first place. No, the real grief seems to come from the people who are nominally supportive of the idea of proper cycle infrastructure but who always seem to come up with a reason why it won’t work here and we should stop wasting everybody’s time asking for it. And the one that comes up time and time again is the ‘crap cycle lane’ argument. You know the one. Because half the time the facilities that get put in for cyclists are derisory, baffling, and occasionally downright dangerous then, so the argument goes, if you ask for cycling infrastructure – particularly separate cycle tracks as they have in the Netherlands – then you’ll just get more of the same. And worse – you’ll be MADE to cycle in them. Ergo, safest not to ask for anything at all and just keep on taking the lane, accelerating up to 20mph to get round multi-lane roundabouts, dicing with lorries 20cm from your wheel – and occasionally taking a cycle tour to the Netherlands to enjoy their superior cycling facilities with your family (who won’t cycle in the UK, for some reason, even though statistically it’s extremely safe) while reminding yourself why it is that such things would not work in the UK due to the fact that we’ve got different laws of physics from those crazy Dutch people.

Oh no, wait, hang on…

What’s really different here from the Netherlands is not the laws of physics but a failure of the imagination. We look at the crap we’ve got and we can’t imagine any different. We look at the amazing facilities the Dutch have and we can’t imagine how we would ever get there given the complete lack of will to create that sort of thing in the UK, and so we give up. We fight our inch-by-inch battles for an ASL here or a bit of shared path there or half a foot wider lanes along the potholed margins of our roads until we’ve forgotten we ever had a vision of something that wasn’t just not crap, but was actually a bit fantastic. And when somebody else comes along, all starry eyed and excited about their holiday in Amsterdam we snarl at them and remind them that it’s never going to happen here and besides who wants to cycle on those lousy Dutch bike lanes with their horrible smooth surfaces and their over-generous width when we’ve got the thrills and spills of a potholed roundabout to tackle…

What we’re trying to do this weekend is to close the gap between the UK reality and the vision that we want to achieve. We’re not trying to change the laws of physics – but we are trying to chip away at the laws of human nature. Which might be a lot harder, but it’s worth a shot. I’m looking forward to it, cold and all. I’m just sorry in advance that I’m going to give everyone my lurgy.

Bike Bingo

September 19, 2011

Right, I’ve been in the Netherlands for less than a day and already I’ve got my Dutch bicycling bingo card almost full: Bike with flowers in the basket? check! Old guy cycling along at a stately pace with his knees out, waving at his friends? check! Other old guy on a sit-up-and-beg bike with tri bars out the front (it’s for the headwinds, you know)? check! Gaggle of teenagers cycling five abreast while texting each other? check! Dude cycling along bolt upright with his hands in his pockets? check! Girl on a bike with crutches? check! Implausibly cute apple-cheeked baby carried on a sling by Dad on a bike? check! Stations stuffed full of bikes, bikes tethered to railings by canals, bikes with beer crates on the back, bikes with teenagers riding sidesaddle on the rack, bikes with adults riding sidesaddle on the rack, cargo bikes, delivery bikes, folding bikes, bikes, bikes, bikes … check, check, check, check, check. We even saw a guy in full lycra and a helmet, because truly there is every kind of bicycle imaginable. I’m sorry, I think I’ve gone a bit delirious.

I hope to post something a little more coherent later, but so far the Netherlands is proving to be exactly as I imagined it only a little bit more so. Though my B&B is right next to a motorway, so it’s not quite Nirvana yet…

Travels Without my Bike

August 3, 2011

Oh blast blast blast. There I was happily planning my trip to the Netherlands (I know, I really know how to live it up on holiday – first chicken sitting, now infrastructure study tours). One can’t really go to the Netherlands and not cycle, so obviously the bike was going to go too. And fortunately, the trip would be an easy one. There’s a train that goes direct to Newcastle from Bigtown that doesn’t require booking for bikes and has space for up to 12 bikes on it, so the chances of there not being any room are pretty slim. And then from Newcastle to Amsterdam the ferry only charges a fiver each way for my bike and I can book a place online. And once in Amsterdam, well surely by now the Dutch have installed magic carpets or automatic bike-lane tailwind generators (or maybe just efficient trains you can take your bike on) to get us both to Assen without a problem. So it was all good.

Well, it was until I checked the trains to Newcastle, anyway. And saw that the dreaded bus-replacement-service-of-doom was operating every Sunday until the end of the summer or possibly the end of time. No space for bikes (or wheelchairs or bulky luggage for that matter). All my lovely plans scuppered. Bikeless in Holland* – oh the frustration.

Fortunately, I can rent one for the actual study tour, so I won’t be completely bikeless. And a sneaky thought – quickly suppressed – did occur to me. After all, there are plenty of bikes, proper actual Dutch bikes, in the Netherlands, they’re all around and probably available cheaply secondhand. The cost of renting by the day would soon add up making buying one almost sensible and there’d be no problem getting a bike back on the train…

Of course, we’ve been here before (and we’ve not got that one back from France yet either). And I don’t need another bike, let alone a heavy single-geared coaster-brake model designed for a country with rather fewer hills than we have. And I can’t really afford just to go buying bikes for the hell of it, even cheaply secondhand. So I won’t definitely won’t be buying myself a bike out there. Well, almost definitely.

Watch, as they say, this space.

*I know, I know, it’s the Netherlands, calling it Holland is like saying I live in England. Tell that to their own tourist board, that’s all I’m saying

Adventure Cycling

June 10, 2011

Heading back through Nearest Village this morning on my way back from fetching the paper I came across two cyclists looking at a map and naturally I stopped to ask them if they needed any help. They were looking for our local landmark, a place which is reasonably well-known but entirely unsignposted (most of the summer is spent directing lost drivers to it, often after they have gone spectacularly wrong in their search for it – this is no doubt a cunning ruse on the part of Bigtownshire Tourist Board to make sure the visitors discover just how friendly the natives really are). Once I’d cycled down with them to show them the turnoff, we stopped to chat and I discovered to my amazement that they live in Groningen in the Netherlands which, to those wierd people who don’t spend their entire life reading bike blogs on the internet, is one of the holy cities of bike infrastructure, as written about in the gospel according to St. David on a daily basis.

After I’d finished apologising to them for the state of our own roads, and any near misses, SMIDSYs, honkings and the general hair-raisingness that cycling on UK roads – even rural Scottish ones – must entail after riding on proper civilised bike paths, they laughed and pointed out that they’d cycled all over the world so were used to it. They were then charmingly polite about cycling in Scotland (including the weather, which is how I know they were just being kind) but did say rather sadly that they didn’t see too many people on bikes. I left them heading off for some art (and hill) appreciation, while I cycled home, glad to have been of some assistance.

I did wonder what made them want to take their holidays cycling here when they could be somewhere far more civilised, not to mention flatter (although hills, of course, go down as well as up). And then it struck me that it was probably akin to those more adventurous tours you can take when you’re bored of life and fancy a bit of adrenaline, like walking safaris through lion country, extreme sports or being the first tourists into Kabul. Do you find pedalling sedately along on your nice wide cycle path while chatting to your pals is getting the tiniest bit dull? Come bike the UK where you too can dice with death along our A-roads, dodge left-turning lorries and feel the buzz of accelerating round a monster roundabout while 4×4 drivers text their mates just inches from your wheel! You’ll never feel more alive!

That’s got to be a goer as a campaign, right? And certainly better than the current local tourist board slogan which, as far as anyone can tell, is ‘Shh! Nobody Knows we’re Here!’