On the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour de France, cycling’s greatest amphitheater, Alpe d’Huez, once again turned orange as thousands flooded the infamous Dutch corner with cheers, fuelled by beer and europop. Watching on TV, I was transported back to 2013 when I’d been there myself, spectating as the Tour passed twice to mark its 100th edition. Cars and motorbikes all slowed to navigate the sea of fans, the air smelling of flares and the burnt-out clutches of the trapped team vehicles. A man in an inflatable armchair was carried on the shoulders of strangers simply because he had the name of a Dutch cyclist penned across his chest, and families danced together on the roofs of caravans that were draped in the flags and colours of home.
Hairpin seven – with all its energy and madness – is one of the defining images of the Tour and one of the greatest shop displays of the passion ofan entire nation. However, the day-to-day appreciation of the bicycle in Holland is much more discrete–there’s no shouting about it, it’s simply the way things are. In London, my commute is drowned in engine noise and bus fumes. In the Netherlands, you can hear the mechanical sounds of bike chains turning, and people talking to each other, riding side by side. All of them are dressed for the destination, not bedecked in lycra and racing through the city streets.
My girlfriend is Dutch and is campaigning for us to relocate to Amsterdam. While I ponder her proposition, I’m campaigning myself, to help those trying to secure better cycling infrastructure in the UK. And every time we visit Holland, I learn more that helps further both those causes.
In Holland, over 20% of journeys are made by bike, rising to 38% in Amsterdam and even 61% in the university city of Groningen. By comparison, this figure is just 2% in the UK. My colleagues and I helped to create a campaign called ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ in recognition of the fact that Holland is streets ahead. Cycling is simply in the DNA –children are brought up on bikes, learning to use cycle paths from the age of three and, at the other end, e-bikes are enabling people to enjoy cycling well into old age. Throughout life, the bike is there, even on rainy days with an umbrella, and whether you’re a politician getting to work or a student moving house. Many of the bikes are old and clatter about, but they serve their function beautifully, and they truly rule the cities; spilling out of multi-storey cycle parks, you’ll find them resting beside every bridge and lamppost, forming a swarm that says ‘we’re in charge’.
For the love of bikes
The national love affair –and how oblivious the Dutch are to how good they’ve got it–is captured in Pete Jordan’s book In the City of Bikes. Jordan arrived in Amsterdam to study how to make cities in the USA more bike-friendly, and simply never left.
“After just three days in Amsterdam, I decided it was where I wanted to remain for the rest of my life,” he said. “Having spent decades on bikes in cities across America –and being treated like a second class citizen –I finally felt truly athome.”
As Jordan points out though, the Dutch approach to cycling took time and has required brave decisions. It has been a work in progress since the 1970s when protests took place against the way town centres were being given over to motor vehicles and causing huge numbers of deaths, especially in children. The ‘Stop de Kindermoord’(stop child murder) campaign and the formation of the Fietsersbond Cyclists’ Union helped lead to cycling being placed at the heart of town planning, one bike path at a time.
Now there’s a complete system that integrates with the wider transit network, with the supremely affordable cycle hire scheme, OV-fiets, being operated by the Dutch railways. It’s no wonder the world comes to Holland to learn how to make changes, with organizations like the Dutch Cycling Embassy sharing their accrued knowledge.
“For other cities, it can seem to be an insurmountable task to become as cycling-friendly as Amsterdam. But the lesson to be learned is that it didn’t happen overnight,” added Jordan.
Infrastructure and innovation
There’s no room for complacency though. The Copenhagenize Design Company’s Index of the most bike-friendly cities in the world has this year placed Copenhagen in first position, ahead of Amsterdam. Most Dutch people will tell you not to take that too seriously, as still have three cities in the top five, with Utrecht and Eindhoven joining the capital, but the judges’ feedback should be a wake-up call. The Danish capital got the nod because of investment in the future. Amsterdam is accused of maintaining the status quo and, with the number of cycle journeys growing considerably in the past few years, further smart development is needed to address the expanding demands. There are now so many cyclists that waiting for two or three passes of the traffic lights is not uncommon at rush hour in places like Utrecht.
Whilst capacity continues to be an issue, there are plenty of examples of innovation underway. In Groningen, there are plans for traffic lights with rain sensors to give quicker priority to cyclists on wet days and heated cycle paths are planned to protect cyclists in the frost. Last year, near Eindhoven, the world’s first solar road was built a short stretch of cycle path that soaks up the sun during the day and lights up at night. The success of this innovation, described as ‘techno poetry’, could see it rolled out internationally. The nearby Hovenring is a striking, floating circular cycle bridge elevated above the rest of the traffic, proving great design is both practical and beautiful.
The pleasure of leisure
Cycling’s popularity is particularly evident in the recent growth of bike clubs in the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s respected Kaptein Tweewielers bike shop is amongst those supplying the current surge in demand. The owner, Jeffrey Kaptein, said: “There has been a real growth in leisure and competitive cycling, especially with the ladies –a lot of girls want to ride in competitive clubs and more and more clubs are too full to even accept new members.”
These growing numbers are causing friction with some groups and there’s much discussion in the Dutch media about what to do with groups of cyclists speeding through villages, competing for path space with e-bikes and casual cyclists. The Sunday-morning dog walkers, especially, are not happy. The rules are that where there are cycle paths, cyclists have touse them, but there are now calls for large groups to be forced to the road.
Kaptein said: “I can imagine when you live in a small village you might get mad at all the cyclists who don’t slow down, but, everything has two sides, of course, : for example, a lot of people on electric bikes ride side by side and when a group of cyclists come near and ring their bells we often hear a lot of complaining that we want to own the path. I think everybody has to remember that the path is for everyone.”
Whilst many countries have a distinct cycling subculture, in Holland it is simply the culture. However, there are signs that ‘stylish cycling’ is edging its way in. This is most clearly demonstrated by Rapha opening a store in the centre of Amsterdam, but even at Kaptein’s they are seeing changes.
“It used to be true that our clients just wanted to ride, and it didn’t matter on what bike and with what kind of clothing. Right now though you can see a different side of it,” said Kaptein, referencing the number of customers now looking for ways to match their clothes and bikes. Another example of this demand for discerning style can be seen in the re-emergence of RIH, the Dutch bike brand ridden to 63 world championships and Olympic golds, and last year relaunched and expanded to cater to the interest in custom-crafted steel bikes.
The Dutch mountains
Cycling in Holland is made easier by the country’s incredible flatness, where the main obstacle near the coast is the wind, which tears in off the North Sea. It will break a peloton from the side, as we saw in this year’s Tour. Face it head on and you may feel as if you’re in the Alps. “Welcome to the Dutch mountains,” my friend Ivo said one blustery day in Amsterdam.
There are real hills though, mostly in the undulating southern province of Limburg, where you’ll find the Limburgs Mooiste cyclosportive. With routes and rides suiting everyone from the ultra-competitive through to those after family fun, the popular event takes place every May, and next year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Limburg also hosts the annual Amstel Gold Race, the premier event in the professional cycle season in Holland and its most popular spectator event. The course this year included 34 ascents (some hills are climbed more than once), finishing on the Cauberg, a short, sharp climb with a maximum gradient of 12%, with some of that Dutch-corner fan frenzy thrown in.
The love of professional cycling runs deep amongst the Dutch. Names of past legends are held in honour –Raas, Knetemann, Winnen and, later on, Rooks, Theunisse, Breukink, Dekker and Boogerd. This love of racing is most perfectly captured in Tim Krabbé’s 1978 novel De Renner (The Rider), still the most iconic Dutch cycling book. The opening paragraph sets the tone, with the protagonist describing his total incomprehension of the lives of those who don’t race. ‘The emptiness of those lives shocks me’, it reads.
Now 72, Krabbé still races. His club, the Windjammers, describe him as ‘one of the grittiest riders in the group’. Ask him why he loves cycling and he’ll refer you to the 37,000-word answer he gave in De Renner. Ask him why more people are choosing to cycle today and he’s more precise, particularly about his generation: “Well, it’s wonderful to ride. And we view doing sports and age differently these days. Half a century ago, you were dead at 60. Now, you take up cycling.”
The next yellow jersey
This love of cycling has not translated into what is perhaps the most sought after accolade though – there has not been a Dutch yellow jersey wearer since Erik Breukink won the 1989 prologue. This year there was a national celebration when the Tour started in Utrecht, with huge pressure on Tom Dumoulin to take the opening time trial, but it wasn’t to be as he got squeezed into fourth.
Will Holland get that elusive yellow jersey any time soon? Krabbé says no: “There is no specific reason why not – but it’s unlikely. Prominence in sports comes to nations in waves. However, cycling greatness should not be measured in Tour-de-France wins but in wins in the classics, and with Terpstra winning Paris-Roubaix last year, we’re not that bad.”
In fact, ‘not bad’ may be one of the modest writer’s greatest understatements. In both of the past two years, Dutch cyclists have finished in the top ten of the Tour, with Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema finishing 6th and 7th in 2015. Other Dutch heroes include Lars Boom, and Laurens ten Dam, and there’s emerging talent too in the likes of Wilco Kelderman, who rides for Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo. That team has come a long way since Rabobank pulled its sponsorship in 2012 in the wake of the sport’s post-Armstrong reputation and, after name changesto Blanco and then Belkin, it is looking very promising.
The Dutch can also claim to have the greatest female cyclist, possibly the greatest sportswoman, in the world. Marianne Vos has been world champion in track, road and cyclo-cross racing multiple times, as well as Olympic champion, and past winner of the Giro D’Italia Femminile and La Course. She follows in the shoes of now -retired Leontien van Moorsel, who won numerous world and Olympic titles, and still holds the women’s hour record. And there’s more talent on the horizon –this year’s La Course was again won by a Dutch rider, Anna van der Breggen.
The continued rise of the professional scene will further inspire the club and leisure cyclists and, in turn, this should prompt even greater investment and innovation incycling for all. Next year, the opening three stages of the Giro d’Italia will be hosted by the Dutch cities of Apeldoorn, Arnhem, and Nijmegen, in the province of Gelderland. This will be another great chance to not only showcase the Dutch racers but to also show off the nation’s total adoption of the two-wheeled pursuit. And for anyone thinking of relocating there –well, you’d have to be mad not to, right?