By Tony Hadland
In May this year fellow Moultoneer Keith Findlay and I spent eight days exploring Utrecht, Noord Brabant and the Gouda area. Detailed accounts of other people’s cycle tours can often be rather boring. Nonetheless it was suggested to me that a brief account might be of interest to MBC members contemplating a short tour in The Netherlands. I’ve therefore tried to concentrate on practicalities and you will find no mention of windmills, museums, how many miles we rode or how many lagers we downed. However, Keith did think that the best-looking girls were in Utrecht. As a happily married man I could not possibly comment.
Originally we intended to travel to Holland by road or rail and ferry. However it soon became apparent that air travel would be a lot simpler, quicker and no more expensive, bearing in mind the savings on road/rail travel, meals en route and additional overnight accommodation.
We therefore decided to fly to Schiphol, Amsterdam from our nearest airport, Birmingham. There are many flights each day and we had a choice between the Dutch national carrier KLM or our own British Airways. Enquiries suggested that, despite what one might expect, KLM are rather less bicycle-friendly than BA. Consequently we decided to “fly the flag” and invested £117 each in Apex returns.
The bicycles went as part of the baggage allowance. For lightness we therefore decided to use AMs rather than APBs. Both were AM5s built about ten years ago. Keith’s now has a Sturmey-Archer Sprinter 5-speed hub. Mine has a 1960s F&S 3-speed coaster. I find this one of the sweetest running and most reliable hub gears, and with a top gear of about 74″, perfectly adequate for touring in Holland.
We decided to stay mainly in 2 or 3 star hotels, which tend to be quite a lot cheaper than in the UK. In the centres of provincial towns expect to pay about £30 a night for bed and breakfast for two people sharing a room with private facilities. For the first few nights we pre-booked accommodation recommended by The Rough Guide to Holland. This was done by fax after ascertaining that secure covered accommodation would be provided for the bikes. We had previously trawled the Internet for accommodation but the best matches to our requirements were already booked. We had also bought a bed and breakfast guide through the Dutch tourist office in London but this turned out to be a relatively expensive waste of money.
Dutch breakfasts tend to be very good and set you up well for the day ahead. Typically you will start with a hard-boiled egg, followed by a variety of breads with thin-sliced cheese, ham and perhaps other cold meats. There will also be jams, chocolate spread and/or marmalade, possibly with croissants. You may also be offered yoghurt, perhaps with fresh fruit. Invariably there will be a choice of tea or coffee. Whether fruit juice is provided is a bit more hit and miss. But you won’t leave the table feeling hungry. Nor will you feel you’ve just swallowed half-a-pound of grease.
Although most hotels will take UK credit cards, Holland is still very much a cash-oriented country. For example, many quite upmarket restaurants will not accept credit cards. However, cash dispensers are everywhere and most accept UK credit and debit cards. Hence it is easy to obtain cash. Also, Eurocheques are widely accepted.
As we were not camping we felt sure that we could get our entire luggage for eight days into the AM rear bags. This proved to be the case (no pun intended). The ease of loading and unloading the bikes was a real boon and the bags were small enough to be carried on the aircraft as hand baggage. This meant that we did not have to reclaim bags from the standard luggage carousel, enabling us to go straight to the oversize luggage belt to catch the bikes as they came through.
We travelled midweek, leaving home about 8.30 in the morning. Birmingham airport eight miles away was easily reached – about 35 minutes of cycling, mostly along country lanes. There was no need to queue at the BA check-in and the girl on the desk was extremely helpful, volunteering to fetch two free-issue disposable polythene bags for the bikes. We did not need to remove the pedals or turn the handlebars. However, the usual requirement to deflate the tyres applied. In anticipation of this we carried with us a stock of carbon dioxide tyre inflation cartridges to enable a quick and clean getaway. These momentarily caused a flurry when they went through the security scanner on the outward journey. However, it was soon realised that they were not miniature mortar bombs and we were on our way.
The bikes arrived unscathed at Schiphol and with the help of our gas cartridges we were soon on our way. Note, however, that carbon dioxide seems to diffuse out of inner tubes much quicker than ordinary air, so expect to top up tyre pressures after a day or so.
On the return journey bike bags were not provided. Consequently the bikes suffered minor cosmetic damage – a few scratches and the odd bent mudguard stay – but nothing serious for a working bike. I should add that we protected the outer edges of the rear carriers with pipe insulation. This not only protected the relatively thin 531 tubes but also helped locate the rear bag.
So how did the bikes perform? The answer is pretty much impeccably. Apart from a puncture on the first afternoon there were no breakdowns. The suspension, as ever, did a great job of smoothing the ride. Luggage was carried safely and easily, and loading/unloading was a doddle. The ability to mount the loaded bike by stepping through the frame was also a noticeable benefit. Even when fully loaded, the bikes were responsive and handled nimbly in traffic.
Of course, being Holland, the traffic was mostly of the two-wheeled variety. Bicycles, mopeds and scooters usually have a segregated track, even in towns. These are usually well surfaced and one feels much safer using them than when cycling at home. So much so that we did not take the helmets that we habitually wear when cycling in the UK. (A cynic might suggest that the Dutch have lots of cycle paths, whereas we have many psychopaths.) In fact, apart from racing cyclists, almost nobody in The Netherlands wears a helmet.
The main perils on the cycle paths are speeding scooter riders and occasional gaps between paving slabs where subsidence has occurred. It also takes a while to get used to the fact that, although the typical cycle path looks only wide enough for two abreast riding, the Dutch are used to getting three in that space. Hence a pair of oncoming Dutch cyclists riding side-by-side will expect you to be able to keep going without falling off the track or running into them. And indeed it is possible – Dutch roadsters rarely wobble – but not what we Brits are used to.
On the subject of Dutch bikes, it is good to see that the traditional Dutch roadster is still holding its own quite well against the mountain bike. However, when it comes to gears, derailleurs are making some inroads. And in the hub gear department, once dominated by Sturmey-Archer with Sachs as runners up, Shimano are now doing very nicely. The Dutch branches of Halfords and other dealers have many bikes with Shimano seven and four-speed hubs. Sturmey and Sachs are still there but need to look to their laurels.
And the prize for best bike shop? Of those we visited (and there were quite a few) the clear winner has to be Wim Kok of Utrecht. When we found this shop it suddenly became clear why there are so many Bromptons in Utrecht (we saw 9 in two days). Wim had 19 different types of portable cycle on display. Prominently among these were an AM Jubilee L and a Land Rover APB. And clearly visible among the neatly arranged binders of service information behind the counter was one bearing the legend Alex Moulton. Wim Kok’s Utrecht shop is enormous and arguably the most interesting bike shop I have ever visited.
A few words on maps and cycleway signposting. Let’s start at Schiphol. Although there are good cycle paths to and from the airport, these are designed for people working there or leaving their bikes at the airport. There is no special provision for air passengers actually entering or leaving the terminal with a bike. Hence walking out of the terminal doors you get no clue whatsoever as to where to go with your bike. Everything is geared around buses, taxis and cars. But fear not: just cycle 100 yards or so in either direction and you’ll pick up a cycle track.
Cycle paths have their own signposts, with red lettering and a bike symbol on a white background. Usually the distance is marked and these signs are generally pretty useful. However, as in most countries, some signing is ambiguous or missing. Hence good, large-scale maps are a great benefit. Local tourist offices (VVVs, pronounced Fay-Fay-Fay) are good places to get these. Falk’s 1:50,000 series is particularly good. Very good value are the Landelijke Fietsroutes map packs. Typically these comprise a book (in Dutch) of cycle routes with about ten small maps at 1: 150,000 scale, all in a weather resistant transparent pouch. They sell for about £10 a pack and one covered most of our tour. However, the routes shown are distinctly scenic (i.e. they add 50% to the mileage from A to B) and require very careful navigation. They are not the most direct signposted routes. I’ll be pleased to provide further advice on this topic to any MBC members who care to contact me.
Finally, the language. English is widely understood. The Dutch cannot help absorbing a lot of English, as a high proportion of their TV programmes are bought in from the UK, USA or Australia and are transmitted with the original soundtrack and sub-titles. In urban areas the majority of people are able and willing to converse in English. However, in the countryside, whilst people will usually understand a lot of what you say, they often lack the confidence to respond in English. I speak a little Dutch and found myself using it about ten times during the tour when asking directions in country areas. But I am sure that I would have got by with sign language and Pidgin English, had I not known the lingo.
I hope that this article has provided some useful background information for other MBC members contemplating a short tour in The Netherlands. Certainly the combination of air travel and AM proved very effective and remarkably hassle-free. And it is a pleasure to cycle in a country where unconventional bicycles are not laughed at by the ignorant.