“Highly-commended” was the verdict of the British jury for a bridge near Hoofddorp in the 2014 ‘International Footbridge Conference’ in London. It is strange that this bridge was featured as a footbridge, because although people can also walk here, most people will use it on their bicycles, exactly as was intended by its designers.
The “Kick Pruijsbrug”, as it is called since May this year, was named after a “racing cyclist and rescuer”. I will go into that later, but I can already reveal that it has to do with the fact that the bridge is located very close to the end of the runway of the international airport Schiphol, right under the flight path of aircraft taking off.
Finished in 2013, the bridge spans the 16 lanes of the A4 motorway from Amsterdam to The Hague. It had to be built because the previous crossing was at the location of the recently relocated N201 regional highway.
The bridge was built right where the expanded motorway crosses the former Defensive Ring of Amsterdam . This defence system, to protect Amsterdam from a foreign invasion by a carefully controlled flooding of vast areas of land, consisted of 46 forts and bunkers and it was built between 1874 and 1914. In 1996, the 135-kilometre (84-mile) long defence line was included in the World Heritage List. The bridge was mainly meant to be a recreational cycle route to make the ring better accessible, but it is also heavily used by people who simply want to go from A to B.
The cycle bridge was the first of its kind to be built from weathering steel. The rust protects it oddly enough from further rust. Unique when designed in 2007, but now COR-TEN steel has become so en-vogue that structures of this type of steel can be seen all over the country.
The span of the bridge is about 130 metres (426.5 Ft). The four main parts are 31 metres long and 7 metres wide (101.7 x 23 Ft). The useable bridge deck is 5 metres wide (16.4 Ft). Fences with a height of 3 metres (9.8 Ft) protect the traffic below, from objects that could be dropped from the bridge. On the approach ramps the railings stand only 1.1 metres tall (3.6 Ft). More technical information of the bridge can be found on the website listing steel structures in The Netherlands.
All the bridge parts were constructed in a factory in Belgium, about 140 kilometres away (87 miles) and transported to this location via the road. Which was quite a task, considering the large segments weigh 70 metric tons and they are – as said – 31 metres long and 7 metres wide. When the parts left the factory the whole Belgian village came to watch how the bridge parts were manoeuvred through the village and with the local fanfare up front they stopped at the local pub for a little refreshment. The Belgians know how to make a party for any reason one of the Dutch comments in an amusing video of the event.
What is even more amazing, however, is the time it took to place the two main bridge parts at their final location: just 17 minutes in total! The builders only had permission to close the important motorway for 10 minutes at the time. For every 5 minutes that they would exceed that time, the fine would have been 10,000 euros. So when the first segment was placed, in the night from 2 to 3 October 2012, it took the builders all of 9 minutes! The second part was placed one night later in an even shorter time of 8 minutes! Traffic could already continue after a short waiting time of 10 minutes in two consecutive nights. Because this is so amazingly quick, the local papers wrote that the bridge had “landed”.
The bridge was really designed for its location. The landscape designers wanted to keep the former defence line in tact as much as possible. So the bridge was placed 12 metres away from the actual defence line on the ‘friendly side’ of it, in line with – and directly over – a canal. That led to the approaches making a full square, with four rather sharp turns. I thought they were perhaps a bit too sharp, but apparently they are not and they can even be taken by people riding a velomobil. It is commendable that the designers didn’t want to damage the defence line too much. But it makes you wonder why that wasn’t important for the design of the 16 lane motorway…
Now back to the new name. It is rather befitting that this impressive bridge was named after a racing cyclist, but there was a tragedy involved as well.
It was Sunday morning the 14th of July in 1935, when Kick Pruijs, a 19-year-old racing cyclist from Amsterdam, was racing on the new motorway from Amsterdam to The Hague. That road had not yet been opened, but it already had a beautiful smooth asphalt surface perfect for some training rounds. It was just after 9:30, when Kick and his cycle friends heard a plane taking off. The sounds were odd and when they looked up they saw that the two left wing-engines of the plane had stopped. The pilot should have made an emergency landing, but instead he tried to turn around. With engines working only on one side of an aircraft, it is very hard to make a full circle and indeed the plane crashed into the dike of the former defence line of Amsterdam. With some of his mates, Kick rushed to the crash site and he was the only one who climbed on board. He helped the shocked passengers to get outside. Gentle at first, but quickly he literally threw them out. Then he found the crew trapped in the cockpit. At the age of 84 Kick remembered: “Behind the window of the cockpit door I saw the face of a crew member. Judging from his uniform it must have been the pilot. He was banging on the window with his fists. I tried really hard, but I could not get that door open. I pulled, I kicked, but the crash must have displaced the steel door. I saw the pilot go down, intoxicated by the smoke of the plane on fire. I couldn’t help him anymore. Outside people were screaming that I should jump out of the aircraft and I did. Seconds later it was ablaze. The four crew members burnt alive in that cockpit.” Of the 20 people who were on board the plane, 6 people died that morning, 2 passengers and those 4 crew members. If Kick hadn’t climbed on board the aircraft, it would have been a totally different story.
The airline KLM and the authorities at the time, seem to have covered up the crash, possibly because this was one of three crashes in just one week! But Kick never got the honour he deserved. Decades later, Gijs Zandbergen, a journalist, joined the same cycle club as Kick. He got to know Kick personally, who was still occasionally cycling at a very high age. Gijs the journalist learned of Kick’s heroic act. In December 2000 he first published Kick Pruijs’ story and when a bridge was built in 2005 at some distance from the crash site, he tried to get it named after him. But the authorities were not interested. On 24 December 2006 Kick died at the age of 90. Then this new bridge was built, at almost the exact location of the crash. So the journalist felt compelled to try a second time. This time the request was seen by the alderman for traffic, who was a racing cycling enthusiast himself. He immediately thought it was a great idea to (re)name the bridge after the cycling hero.
And so, one year after the bridge was opened, on 10 May 2014, its final name was revealed by Kick Pruijs’ grandchildren, in the presence of the mayor and 16 of Kick’s family members. Kick’s daughter Ineke told reporters that she had cried a lot when she got the news. “Dad would have been so proud”. But she comforted herself with the idea that he would look down on the event and ‘know’ of it anyway. With a 79 year delay, finally some recognition for the heroic act of Kick Pruijs. The “racing cyclist and rescuer” who now got a beautiful cycle bridge named after him.
My video showing the Kick Pruijs Cycle Bridge near Hoofddorp.
Filmed on 3rd October 2014, when it was still like summer!