Have you ever used a map while cycling in a foreign country? Trying to find villages with names you can barely pronounce not to mention remember? In the Netherlands and Belgium there is a much easier way. Thanks to the numbered junction cycle network all you need is a small note with a few numbers scribbled on it and you are good to go.
All over the Netherlands and in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium you can find small signs with just a number and an arrow next to the more beautiful recreational cycle routes. They point to the numbered junctions, sometimes called nodes, because node is the closest translation to their name in Dutch: knooppunt (literally “knot point”). But knooppunt is also the equivalent of “junction” so why don’t we simply use that word and call these things what they are: numbered junctions.
The numbered junctions are the points where the routes in this recreational cycle network intersect. By numbering them and by placing signs directing to these numbered junctions from every direction in the routes, you can create your own cycle route in the most flexible way possible. The routes are not always on separate cycleways, but they do try to follow roads with only very limited motor traffic. With a map (for sale at tourist boards) you can plot a route yourself by writing the numbers you want to pass on a piece of paper, but there are websites that make it even easier. First, you click on a starting point. Then you click on a point in the route and some others and the computer will automatically connect the dots for you. You are completely free to determine your own directions and how long you want to make the tour. You can then print the numbers in a variety of ways so you have the route with you – in the way you prefer – when you cycle.
On your bicycle you follow the signs to the first numbered intersection on your list. If that is number 52 for instance you cycle until you reach that particular intersection. The final sign before you reach it will inform you “you approach junction 52”. From there you follow the next number on your list. At the numbered junction there is also always a map showing you part of the network closest to this junction. Including that intersection next on your list. New signs, with that next number, will lead you to that next junction. The signs are only pointing to the nearest next numbered junction. So you always have to go from one to the next one. The maps on the intersections give you the opportunity to maybe change your route on the spot. Take a shortcut if you’re running late or when the weather is changing or add an extra loop when all is well that day.
The numbers in the Netherlands are one or two figures, making them easy to remember. That doesn’t mean there are only 99 numbered junctions. The same numbers are used more than once, but far enough away from each other so that you cannot be confused. In Belgium most of the numbers I saw are three figures, sometimes two. This also has to do with the fact that the entire network is not maintained by one organisation but by a huge number of them, all with their own network numbering. That is why you can have a junction number “2” in the Noord en Midden-Limburg network and also in the Eindhoven network adjacent to it. In the Netherlands the signs will tell you who owns and maintains the network. Especially the route maps on the junctions show the name of the network part you are using. In Belgium that is not always the case, but there it is also less important because the numbers do not repeat as often as in the Netherlands. That there are so many tourist organisations, each managing a part of the network, is also reflected in the high number of websites on which you can plot a route. The network can also be shown and used in the Route planner of the Cyclists’ Union. One Belgian website is particularly user friendly in my opinion. You can also use it for the Dutch part of the network and there is even an interface in English.
The numbered junction network gives you an enormous flexibility in creating your own cycle route, but it is related to other systems. Particularly the Long Distance Cycle Routes, LF-routes, which are usually on the numbered junction network. They are also signed in both directions but they show an A and a B to tell you in what direction you are cycling that route. The Long Distance Routes are currently in transition. The number of routes is being reduced. If you have older maps or guide books you should be aware of this. Existing routes are combined in themes that have to do with learning about the Netherlands. The new names are for instance Tour of Holland route (through both Holland provinces), the Roman Limes Route (following the old border of the Roman Empire) or the Dutch Coastal Route. If you want to know more about this transition (taking place from 2017 to 2021) you can read the excellent article by Hilary Staples on her website. With these themes they tie in better with the high number of local, much shorter, signed cycle routes all over the country that have names such as “Van Gogh Route” (after the painter), “Liberation Route” (referring to World War II, following the route the allied forces took) et cetera. These shorter local routes are typically suitable for a day trip.
The Numbered Junction Network can also be found in parts of Germany, connecting to the Dutch or Belgium network and in (sometimes isolated) parts of Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium. The system was designed by a former coal mine engineer when he became director of a tourist board in Belgian Limburg. That led to the myth that the system is an adaptation of a way-finding system that was used in the mines. Hugo Bollen, the former engineer said in an interview later: “That was something a journalist made up because she wanted a better story. I just wanted a network that would lead you from junction to junction. Using the names of villages would have caused chaos. Because there are not enough letters in the alphabet I chose numbers. A logical deduction.”
The tourist board Hugo Bollen worked for initially didn’t believe the network would be a success. Hugo was told: “Who would want to cycle from number to number?” “Well”, he said in the interview: “They have been proven wrong!” After the first signs were placed in 1995 the network expanded rapidly, also abroad. In 1999 the first sign was placed in the Netherlands in the adjacent province with the same name. From there it went relatively quickly and the last part of the Netherlands was connected in 2014. The award winning system is very well-known and highly appreciated by people who want to cycle for recreation. The system doesn’t offer you the quickest routes, but almost always the nicest ones!
This week’s video explaining the numbered junction network system.