Of Dykes and Bikes


A long long time ago*, I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, which I attempted to do using just two Michelin road maps (England and Scotland). Consequently, given the scale of the maps, I remember spending about four days on the A1 as it seemed like the shortest way between two points, and much of that time diving onto the hard shoulder in an effort to avoid being dragged into the undercarriage of passing trucks.

The reason I mention this is because, I fear, that if I wanted to cycle the end to end again today, I reckon I’d possibly still plan to use the A1. Whereas, having just spent two and a half days cycling in Holland, it’s pretty clear that there’s a very different way of doing things. Hard to know where to start, so here’s a list.

1. We went from Hook of Holland to Den Helder on the first day – to save you looking at the map, this is about 100 miles up the west coast of the country. Then from Den Helder, across the Afsluisdijk dam and down to Stavoren, across the ferry to Enkhuizen, and down to Amsterdam. Then on Day 3, across country to the Hook again. In total, we pedalled around 250 miles, in which I reckon we shared the road with cars for about 5 miles.

2. The network of cycle lanes connecting the towns and cities in Holland is simply astonishing. It splits into two: the LF routes, a network of 6,000 km which have been built specifically for cyclists and walkers, and the cycle lanes in every city and town that mean that you can travel between points either parallel to the road network or with interconnecting paths that take a shorter route. Compare that to the UK, where on the one hand the fine efforts of SusTrans have got us to a fairly disconnected system of paths, and where cycling in towns and cities is even more of a joke. When I cycle with my kids into the city, two of them go on the road in front of me, and the other two cycle on the pavement. I can’t imagine that it’s anything but annoying to pedestrians, car drivers and other cyclists, and, frankly it’s not much fun for me or them either. And did I mention that the cycle network in Holland goes through really really pleasant countryside, that if you have to get across a bit of water in the way that you just hop on a (free) ferry, that everyone, from racers to kids on dutch bikes, to families to senior citizen outings uses the network, and that cars are obliged to give way at junctions?

3. And that unfailingly, if you appear lost, a cyclist will stop next to you, and point you in the right direction. In perfect English. On day one, after about 70 miles, a weather-beaten cyclist of around 50 gave us directions to Den Helder. We’d been going about 5 miles when he came past us to tell us we’d taken a wrong turning, turned us round, led us back to the right turning, did about another 5 miles with us to make sure we got on the right route (a perfectly tarmaced road about 5 metres wide) before he turned round and went home. Can you imagine that happening where you live?

4. So, what’s stopping us in the UK going anywhere near this? After all, the man who considers himself our next leader is pushing himself as a keen cyclist, as is the mayor of London. So, we’re in for a pedalling-friendly decade as we put in place a series of cycling networks to encourage us all to pedal rather than float around in cars, aren’t we? Well no, not really. The government and opposition contributions to the debate have been pretty poor, frankly, and have been partly along the lines of ‘infrastructural constraints’. This means that no-one can see a way to satisfy car and bike user…so they don’t. Our obsession with the car means that, while they’re still the main form of transport, they’ll still dominate the debate, and in the meantime the car users who don’t ride bikes (I get the impression there aren’t too many of these in Holland) will continue to run the cyclists off the road.

If you need to see a different way of doing things for yourself, get over to Holland and go for a ride. It’s absolutely phenomenal. Meantime, there are some pressure groups, and www.goskyride.com andwww.sustrans.co.uk might be good places to start to shake up our rather pathetic approach to transport issues.

* (and I can still remember how the music used to make me cry…)

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