All about cycling in the Netherlands
Half an hour after the railways announced it wasn’t certain the trains would go riding again after the storm last Thursday and that it would be wise to seek alternative transportation, I was on my bike to ride the 55 kilometres from my workplace to my home. The routeplanner of the Cyclists’ Union informed me it would be just over three hours at a speed of 18km/h. Five hours later I was home, ten minutes before the first train arrived from Utrecht in ’s-Hertogenbosch after all.
The storm on 18 January 2018 was of a category that takes place about once in a decade. The Germans named it “Friederike”, but – following Dutch custom – it remained nameless in the Netherlands. Sadly, the storm claimed three lives in this country. Since the storm only arrived in the late morning I had no problem reaching my workplace by train in the morning rush hour. However, when the storm hit it had a more devastating effect on the railways than at least I had expected. All over the country there were 344 incidents, including 97 trees on the tracks and over 20 locations where the overhead cables had been damaged. At least one of those power cables had already been broken around 9 in the morning on the line from Utrecht to ’s-Hertogenbosch, when I had just reached work.
Was it careless to simply jump on the bike for such a long ride in the January cold? Maybe, but I – sort of – knew the way. I had done this before. Sure, the last time I cycled the return journey (110kms) on one day was in 2005, which is quite a while ago, but I had cycled in Houten very recently and I cycle in Culemborg quite often. I would also pass these stretches on this journey. I had my smart phone to check the route if necessary and I had a bottle of water and something to eat in my back pack. The wind speeds had decreased from about 140km/h (90mph) at the height of the storm to about 20km/h (12mph), so that would be doable, I thought, because I did know that the remaining wind would be in my face for at least the second half of the way. The one thing I overlooked a bit was the fact that it would be dark half an hour after I started my journey and that I had no puncture repair kit or a pump with me.
So why did I take 2 hours longer than expected? That was partly due to the darkness. At places it was so dark that I had to ride in such a way that my front light illuminated the middle lines, to be able to see where I was going exactly. That decreases your speed dramatically. There were traces of the storm, a trampoline in the middle of the road in Schalkwijk and a tree, freshly sawn just besides the road in Zaltbommel, that I both only noticed in the last instance. That did make me ride careful and slower too. I lost some time with a slight detour in Houten and a wrong turn in Geldermalsen (that made me cycle about 1 kilometre extra). I lost time with the ferry to Culemborg and with a 30-minute coffee break in Zaltbommel. Finally, I also lost quite a bit of time taking pictures and tweeting. Although I must admit I didn’t always stop to do either…
I knew the infrastructure would be good with just a few exceptions, but it surprised me to see that one of those bad stretches had been completely upgraded. The road from Geldermalsen to Waardenburg used to only have cycle lanes. On street cycle lanes on an 80 km/h road is totally unacceptable under the sustainable safety policies and this has now been taken care of. The brand new bi-directional cycleway next to the new narrowed roadway had only been opened last September, by local school children. Another poor bit of infrastructure is the main road in Schalkwijk (in the municipality of Houten). For about 600 metres the road is quite narrow with on street cycle lanes. Even though the road has a 30km/h speed limit, drivers tend to go faster, especially in the dark. Fortunately you can cycle on a separate service street a bit later.
The scariest part in the entire journey was between Culemborg and Geldermalsen. That 5-kilometre stretch has beautiful well-lit bi-directional cycleways on either end, but those cycleways are interrupted in the middle for a length of 1 kilometre. That bit is in complete darkness. The road is so insignificant for motor traffic that you can’t even see it in Google StreetView. There are no lines on the asphalt and it has ditches on both sides. With several turns and even a side road it was quite demanding to find my way. I almost missed a turn. Just in time, I noticed that my front light was illuminating grass, not asphalt. That prevented that I ended up in the ditch. It was scary when I heard multiple motor vehicles approaching from behind. I even checked my back light just to be sure it was on. But that worked fine, and I was indeed seen. Both drivers were very careful when they overtook me. It was even nice to be able to see where the road went when the head lights of these cars lit up the road ahead of me for hundreds of metres.
I turned more south for the last bit of the route. Unfortunately the wind turned with me at precisely that moment. I thought I had imagined it, but the records of wind speed and direction confirm it. There appears to be some truth in the joke the Dutch always make: no matter what direction you cycle, you will always experience a head wind. With the fatigue and the cold getting to me, I had to take a rest. I found a petrol station where I got a hot coffee and that also helped to get my feet warmer again. By that time it was only 4 degrees Celsius (39.2F) and that is not very warm to be cycling in for hours on end. If ever it had felt good to arrive home, it sure was that day! It felt good that I cycled home, though. It is good that you can do that in this country, without much preparation, but I won’t be doing it anytime soon again, I think…
My video to explain the main things I encountered
in the 55km unplanned evening ride in January.
All the footage I shot during the ride (25:40 mins).
You could watch it at twice the speed if you like that better.
The entire ride on Google Maps:
A lot of people wonder why I didn’t use a bus. The answer is simple: there is no bus service between Utrecht and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Even many Dutch find that very hard to believe. But due to the special nature of this trip, through three provinces and crossing 5 rivers and a few canals, there are so many borders, administrative and natural, that there is no viable option with a bus. If you try to plan a bus trip on the journey planner of the Dutch public transport services and you request a bus trip, you get the answer that “no travel advice is possible”.
Update 10 February 2018
Jitensha Oni has again analysed my ride in detail. Quite an achievement to study all this information for a 55-kilometre-long journey! Very interesting to see how much of the trip was on lit cycle infrastructure, to name but one of the details. Jitensha Oni compared this journey with a long trip in the UK on Twitter.