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Who builds a bicycle road on a 32km-long sea dyke? One akin to a really, really long Severn Bridge, made of earthworks, tumbleweed and gulls, with a six-lane highway? The Dutch, that’s who, and I’m grateful for it.
With no end in sight, only a straight line of smooth tarmac stretching seemingly to infinity, and bordered on both sides by sea, this bike road on the Afsluitdijk is impressive, if only for its sheer length and optimism. After two roadies and a man on a small, rattly moped overtake me at the start, there are no other cyclists using it but me, laden with panniers and tent, while motorway traffic buzzes past, at the foot of a wide, grassy bank.
As someone who loves cycling despite the conditions on UK roads, I wanted to see what it was like cycling in a country where cycling is a normal way to travel. It’s fair to say swapping the London traffic scrum for the cycling utopia of the Netherlands for a month was an eye opener.
My Dutch exchange was part holiday, part office swap, so after a few days in Amsterdam finishing some last-minute assignments I set off on my bike into the Dutch countryside.
Of course, it’s not the Afsluitdijk that’s meant 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are taken by bike, but the safe, continuous, convenient bike routes used by all kinds of people for everyday journeys – and which made my Dutch experience such a relaxing one.
Leaving Amsterdam, I had followed the ingeniously simple junction network out of the city and suburbs to the North Sea coast. Like a giant dot-to-dot across the country, junctions are assigned numbers, so all you have to do is work out the right sequence to reach your destination, and follow the sign posts to each successive number. If that results in a bit of a zig-zag route, there’s also signposts showing the most direct route for cyclists. Either way, you’ll be riding on dedicated bike routes, protected from motor traffic by kerbs, verges, and trees.
None of your hodgepodge of paint that prioritises cars and disappears at junctions that you see in the UK: this is cycling taken seriously.
Separate, smooth, well-maintained bicycle roads cross the country, and are often more direct than motor traffic routes. They have their own junctions, with sign posts, where you give way only to other cyclists, and have to negotiate a few runners and walkers. When a bike road meets a car road there are dedicated bike crossing points, often where those in motor vehicles give way to bikes.
Because of this decent infrastructure there is a remarkable variety of people cycling, of all ages and from all walks of life. There are old couples riding side by side on e-bikes on long bicycle roads between country towns. There are people in normal clothes riding in astonishing numbers in the cities at rush hour. There are parents with kids, sometimes one on the front, one on the back, even kids standing on pannier racks and holding nonchalantly on to the cycling adult’s shoulders. There are children cycling unaccompanied to and from school, and cycling and playing in the streets, even in Amsterdam.
One thing that blew me away were the bike roads through national parks, without a ‘car’ road in sight. The Dutch attitude to cycling in national parks is a far cry from the UK’s – take the New Forest or now, potentially, Epping Forest, where cycling is seen, albeit often among a small but vocal contingent, as controversial, or bizarrely, detrimental to wild places.
Whereas in the UK it seems we’d rather do anything than deal with the traffic problem, even if it means painting ponies blue, Dutch national parks actively encourage exploration by bike. In the Hoge Veluwe national park (which has more than 40km of dedicated bike roads) I cycled through silent forests, got lost on bike roads for what felt like hours without seeing another soul, and encountered a sounder* of wild boar.
People can still be arsey here, of course, and city roads, even bike lanes, can be hectic. People still do daft things on bikes, behind the wheels of vehicles and on foot because, well, people are people, and prone to taking risks, having bad moods and lapses in concentration. The difference is there’s room for error here, perhaps one reason why people are more forgiving of mistakes.