Knowing what a flat and cycle friendly country The Netherlands is, I’d always thought that as someone who loves cycle touring, I must one day go and explore the country in more detail.
So, in June this year I set off on my trusty 26-year-old Dawes Galaxy, with a rough plan for a 10-day circular tour – although the serious cycling was scheduled for seven days. I left my car at Harwich terminal and took the morning Stena ferry across to the Hook of Holland. The cost to take the bike was only £1.
My well tried and tested set up for touring is a set of Ortlieb front and rear panniers, plus a bar bag. Total additional weight is probably around 15kg, as this includes a tent, sleeping bag, basic cooking items, some food, clothes, waterproofs, tool kit and battery pack etc. Despite many previous efforts, I’ve never been a lightweight tourer.
As the ferry was planned to dock around 5.30pm, I’d already made the decision to make straight for a recommended campsite just 3 km away, which Garmin found and directed me to. Sitting in the warm evening sunshine, I looked at my maps in more detail, with plans to cycle north along the coast for the next two days.
The next day, a very warm and sunny Sunday, I was up early and on my way by 8.30am. My rough target destination was Alkmaar, about 100km north, which seemed easily doable with a light tailwind. What a great opening ride that was, the vast majority on excellent wide cycleways, which meandered over and around sand dunes and along the seafronts of many towns. Even passing around the outskirts of The Hague was a doddle.
That first jaunt was an instant eye-opener to the Dutch cycling culture, as being a weekend and near the coast, everyone was out on their bikes. Old and young, lots of family groups, plus cycle clubs, on a vast array of different bikes, all out together on safe traffic-free, well sign posted routes. My favourite memory is the number of parents riding cargo bikes with two or three small children sitting in the front, beaming with joy.
So, a good start to day one, as my 107km ride ended at a nice small campsite, not far from Alkmaar. The first day really highlighted just how well thought out and signposted the Dutch cycle network is. The whole network is based on a series of numbered waypoints (usually junctions), all of which are shown in a national route/map book, with campsites also clearly marked. In addition, free regional maps are available from tourist offices, plus local maps are displayed along most routes at waypoints. To plan a journey, just write down the list of numbers along the route you want to take – it’s as simple as that. Most of the longer sections have repeater numbers along the way and you know when you’ve reached your chosen waypoint when the number has a green background, as the photo below illustrates. I should also add that when I got home, I discovered in this day and age, there is of course an App called “Fietsknoop”, which would have probably made navigation and planning even easier.
My plan for day two was to continue north for a bit and then make my way towards the famous (well it is in The Netherlands) Afsluitdijk. This is the 32km long dike or causeway, built between 1927 and 1932, that runs across the top of the country. Normally you can cycle across it – and I later found out, that to cycle, walk or run it is what a lot of Dutch people aspire to do. Trouble is, since 2019 and for a further three years, it’s been undergoing major strengthening and improvements to the sluices and only vehicles are currently allowed to use it. However, the well-organised Dutch had a special bus service laid on for cyclists and walkers.
Once across the dike, I continued north along the coast until I reached the ancient port of Harlingen, the most northerly point of my tour. My Garmin registered 109km for my days travel, although around 25kms was spent on the seat of a bus. Whilst around 200kms in two days on a loaded touring bike was good going, I told myself that this was a holiday and not an endurance event. So, with a late arrival at my campsite, I decided to take a bit of a rest and make a two-night stop of exploring the historic port Harlingen.
I like seaports and Harlingen didn’t disappoint, as it’s one of the main ferry hubs to the northerly Frisian islands. It’s also busy with North Sea oil and offshore wind farm maintenance boats and seems to be the home of many tall ships sailing boats. My stay also highlighted an amusing observation throughout the country – that of trying to find a bike parking space outside a supermarket. The many racks are often full and trying to find space with a loaded touring bike was a challenge at times.
That was my only two-night stop and from Harlingen I headed south, roughly circling the giant Ijsselmeer and Markermeer – formerly the sea, but now freshwater lakes – created by the Dutch. Again, the cycling was great, with a great variety of cycleways, some wide like cycling motorways, others delightful, almost single, tracks, often punctuated with a swing bridge, lock gate crossing or a small ferry to cross the numerous canals and polders.
A typical small Dutch town, full of interest and rammed with boats
The small towns I passed through were always interesting, many based around canals, packed with boats and usually containing a welcome coffee stop. For those with a map, or a knowledge of the Netherlands, I passed through Sneek, Lemmer, Giethoorn, Meppel, Kampen, Elburg, Harderwijk and Baarn, which took me up to end of cycling day five and with 485km completed.
From Baarn I had roughly two and a half days to get back to the ferry, which given my pace would be fine. The only thing that slightly concerned me now, was navigating my way through or around some of the large built-up areas ahead. These included Utrecht, Gouda and then the sprawling city of Rotterdam.
However, in the end it was all so easy and stress free. You had to be a bit more vigilant with the signs, but the network of cycleways even in the middle of cities was so safe, with cars always giving way to cycles when required. In fact, the antics of the odd cyclists was of far more concern than those of motorists.
Probably my hardest ride on the trip was the final Sunday afternoon ride out of Rotterdam, along the Nieuwe Maas canal and back to the Hook of Holland. It was a lovely sunny day, but I had a very strong headwind, straight off the North Sea, for the whole 20km. The odd headwind is about the only negative cycling in this wonderful interesting and often surprising country.
My route in yellow, the red spots are campsites
Total distance covered was 735 kilometres (456 miles), that’s around 105km per cycling day, which is probably a bit more than I’d planned. That’s the great thing about cycling in the Netherlands, you can cover big distances, in relative ease, with simple navigation.
I’d certainly recommend a cycling holiday there, especially for families with children. I took “the kitchen sink” and camped, but Airbnbs and small hotels are everywhere.