In the Netherlands
Red lanes allow cyclists and some other two-wheeled vehicles to travel from one point to another via the shortest route, avoiding detours and with maximum safety. At every crossroad there are signposts. The signs show place names alongside accurate, reliable distances. Any work on cycle lanes is clearly visible and a clear alternative is set up when necessary.
Pedalling in the Netherlands was a delight. The bike is a mode of transport like any other. Indeed, the cycle path network is thought of in the same manner as a national road network. From Rotterdam you can reach Amsterdam without needing a map. Cyclists are safe everywhere and all the time. The distance they have to travel from one point to another is always shorter than for larger motorised modes of transport. The result is an unusual silence at rush hour in the capital, incredible friendliness and a much more humane way to share space than we have ever seen.
What surprised us the most is that this system seemed relatively new. Forty years ago, just as elsewhere in Europe, the car was King. After a spate of children were injured and worse many took to the streets in protest. Since then, urban planning has evolved. Roads are designed to guarantee maximum security for all.
Bikes of all shapes and colours and for all uses are everywhere to be seen, for all. We saw electric bikes with three wheels for the older generation, cargo bikes to carry up to six children, a bike to push a person in a wheelchair…
On the bicycle paths of the capital, the tourist is a real problem. While the locals seem to have a sixth sense of two-wheeled traffic, foreigners drown in a sea of bikes and the cacophony of bells is not uncommon. We had the chance to be introduced to the highway code by Simone, our Dutch friend and hostess. To indicate that one turns to the right or to the left, a discreet movement of the wrist is sufficient. To signal a passing by the left, a simple ring of the bell is enough. To identify who has priority, simply identify the ‘shark’s teeth’ that accompany the white lines on the ground. If they point to you, you must give way or you’ll be bitten. Finally, when you are pedestrians, deploy your panoramic vision and look in all directions before crossing a road or cycle path, cyclists are everywhere. You are quite safe on the pavement, the walking path is reserved for pedestrians and if you’re caught cycling a swift dressing down by a local will let you know your mistake quickly. If our explanations are not clear enough, watch the hilarious video uploaded by the tourist office of Amsterdam.
Lost in Venlo, unable to find the border with Germany as the light fades, a Dutchman flys out of the dusk to accompany us to the border. Richard, in a blue collar shirt and clogs returns from work on his bike and tells us of his and his bicycle’s travels in Europe.
Cycle lanes are designed to keep cyclists away from the road, ensuring unmatched driving comfort for motorists. Signs are mere accessories, cycle paths end in fields, offer mysterious access and/or the pedestrians are not inclined to share. Their use is mandatory, so motorists have the right to bip you to show you the right way. Riding on the bike path increases distances by up to thirty percent and are often complemented by numerous exhausting climbs and descents for a good variety of exercise. Lastly, cycling-speed-bumps unlit and unsigned might be put up on steep descents ensuring unexpected emergency braking!
It was with a twinge of heart that we crossed the border with Germany. After having used the unique Dutch cycle network, we know that nothing will be the same. Once the sadness has passed, we find we’re pleasantly surprised. Here too, there are ways that are reserved for us everywhere. Our first hundred kilometres are away from cars. Passers-by stop and help when they see us hesitating in front of our map. Arriving in Cologne, a local invites us to follow him. Christian and his folding bike take us on a guided tour of his hometown. The next day, we decide to follow the green cycling signs rather than the gps. At the end of the day, decisions are made. The marked trails have lengthened our route by 20km. On a day of one hundred kilometers, that’s a lot. Especially since you do not really avoid the hills. We will now prioritise navigation via gps and a map for the rest of our German stay.
Lisa and Hannes are waiting for us tonight in Marburg. 95 kilometres to go, with the assurance of a warm, dry bed tonight. As we have just started the first climb, Hannes calls us. He wants to join us today to pedal. The appointment is made, Hannes’ hometown, Siegen, at noon.
We set off as a three. After a giant picnic, we deviate from our initial itinerary to follow a route that Hannes has heard about. It seems that it is beautiful and there are no climbs. Motivated and delighted with this surprise visit, we push on in good spirits between streams and forests awash with autumn colour. As darkness approaches, we still have not started the famous downhill. We arrived at Marburg at 9pm, exhausted but satisfied with this odd day shared, in spite of the extension of over twenty-five kilometres!