Many moons ago I decided to do a cycle ride to Amsterdam from my home town of Stevenage to see my Dutch friends and many more on route. I also invited Ollie, one of my best mates along on the trip and it kind of turned into a challenge. Since then we also decided to raise money for our two chosen charities, Diabetes UK (as my wife suffers from type one diabetes since she was a child) and Crohn’s and Colitis UK (which Ollie suffers from Crohn’s disease).
I have to admit I didn’t really know what sort of challenge this would be. Sure the Dutch capital is around 450 miles (600km) down the road and that the land would be very flat as soon as we disembark from the ferry in Calais but to be honest the nearer the date came along, the more difficult the challenge was becoming. We spent money doing up our bikes, I put a lot of training into this (but Ollie didn’t) and working out the routes etc, it was getting to the point on how far we could cycle each day to make up the mileage. Thinking about all this after the ride and reflecting, I don’t think we did too bad. OK, we kinda went over budget with accommodation (thank you Gent for providing us a four star hotel luxury suite which was the only room left in the city!) and we did do the mileage we wanted to (just!). This is how our ride unfolded.
Day 1 – Wednesday 27th May 2015
After a slightly late start from my home in Chells (as Ollie slept in) we departed the Clock Tower in Stevenage’s town centre at 04.40 with a few supporters, Ollie’s family who drove down from nearby Letchworth at stupid o’clock in the morning whilst the wife managed to drag herself out of bed to see me off. (The only time she is awake at this time is for the airport so I was quite impressed).
We rode out of Stevenage towards Hertford in haste, taking in the sights of Watton-at-Stone, a beautiful sunrise near Stapleford where the river mist floated in the area and the sun rays poured over the rolling Hertfordshire hills. We did get bloody cold and our hands were already frozen (despite wearing gloves) so out came the thermals etc until the temperatures warmed up. Even cycling fast didn’t warm us up or break any sweat. Through the county town and down the A10 we were picking up speeds and so far no problems with the bikes.
We joined the Lea Valley Canal system at Waltham Cross and cycle along the canal into the heart of East London, taking in beautiful and wonderful places like Ponders End, Enfield, Tottenham, Walthamstow, and Hackney. It was so nice to see all the barges moored up and to hear the birds sing. Not a soul in sight and this was now the morning rush hour period. We did this part of the route in a fast time (and Ollie had now started to enjoy the ride as we were now off the main roads) and we landed up outside the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. It is here we decided to have breakfast where a delicious McDonald’s breakfast was to be had.
Departing Stratford we had to make our way to the River Thames near City airport so we took in the Greenway which is a fantastic long stretch of cycle track going through housing estates in Plaistow all the way to Beckton. It was such as great short cut and before we knew it, we were breaking the rules and cycling through the Woolwich foot tunnel and came out where the ferry port is.
The Thames Path is another great cycle route which took us towards Erith and Dartford. Shame the sights were poor as it is a very industrialised area. In Dartford we had cars passing us where drivers were hooting their horns and when we pulled over in an housing estate we had a local who gave us support and a quicker, safer route for cyclists to get out of the town.
Before we knew it, we were cycling pass Bluewater and into Gravesend where we stopped for lunch at a supermarket before cycling through the beautiful Kent countryside through Cuxton and over the Medway Bridge where we got to see the amazing motorway viaduct and a Eurostar train at full speed heading in the opposite direction. The hills were slowing us down quite a lot but I was grateful for not having to cycle down Blue Bell Hill towards Maidstone. We picked up our fastest speeds of the trip here. Afternoon riding passed and we made our ferry connection in Dover in good time late in the evening before cycling across Calais to our cheap budget hotel in Coquelles (next to the Le Tunnel Sous La Manche terminal).
Day 2 – Thursday 28th May 2015
Departing from outside the Hotel du Ville (City Hall) in Calais at 09.30 and we made our way north through the town, trying not to get stop about the Africans who are roaming the streets trying to get to ‘our’ island. At one point we thought we were getting chased towards the village of Marck by one of them whom had a bike. He was right on Ollie’s tail but as soon as we got to the countryside and hit fast speeds, we left him for dead. The ride to Gravelines along the Cote d’Opale was a fast one and stopped in the fortress town to go to one of my favourite bakeries (I have been here before by the way) where cakes were to be enjoyed and I managed to get Ollie a free baguette so he could put it on the back of his bike and look French. All he needed now was garlic and a beret.
Through Dunkerque and we got some support in a supermarket in the north of the city. Some the locals came up to me (speaking French of course to which I do get by very well) saying things like you are crazy but will down. One child even asked me to bring back a windmill for him! Outside in the car park we had an elderly lady approaching us shaking her head in disbelief at us.
We cycled along the ‘Canal de Flanders’ as we passed fields, farms and locks. We were now in the most northernmost place in France and it was very quiet (and only mid-morning). Not a soul or a chicken to be seen. Across the border into Belgium and cycled through Tobacco Road where lots of British and French tourists buy their tobacco and cheap beers from. The street is littered with them. It wasn’t long before we were in the first town of Belgium, Verne (Feurnes in French) and we stopped here for a beer outside the impressive church and the market square. I liked the feel for this town, the quiet pace of life, the brilliant WIFI signal outside (after we left this town, there was no WIFI to be had at all outside!) and the bars were amazing, full of beers I haven’t tried. Only if I had all day, I could tick off the menu.
The Flanders fields where many battles took place over the two World Wars last century was a sombre affair. Taking in the sights, seeing the poppies growing on the side of the road, destroyed concrete bunkers in the fields, there was so much history around here. It was fitting that we cycled through the fields on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
We arrived in the next town of Diksmuide where the IJzertoren stands. This huge tower is a lookout post to see miles around and was built in the First World War. It has been bombed since and was rebuilt after the Second World War. This tower houses an amazing museum inside which tells visitors about life in Belgium during the wars.
Now we had to get the mileage in so we stuck to a cycle route along the main road which passed towns such as Kortemark, Lichtervelde, Pittem, Tielt, and Deinze before heading along a river towards Gent which would be our destination for the night. Somehow we took a wrong turn (and despite all the cycle signs of destinations, there was not one for Gent which is a pretty huge city) and landed up somewhere to the west in Drongen. Eventually after speaking to a local, we found a main road which took us to the centre. We didn’t have a hotel room booked for the night so I went to one of the main chains in the heart of the centre to see what they got. A nice young lady was very helpful after finding out that the hotel I was in had no rooms. She rang every hotel around and they had no rooms either. The last hotel she called was a four star around the corner and all they had was an executive room with two single beds. I thought to myself this is going to be expensive but luckily we got a deal and was affordable (and also allowed us to have our bikes in the room). I thanked the girl so much for her hard work and I will send an e-mail for the high standard of customer service provided.
That evening after checking into the hotel we went out for food but it was late. In Belgium everything closes up early but we were fortunate enough to find an Irish Bar where the kitchen was about to close but they catered for us. Whilst here I had a local beer (of course) which was a 6%, and then ordered a 11% beer. When this was put down in front of me, an announcement came over the speakers that everyone in the bar would get a free beer to which was the same 6% one I had earlier! Dam, feeling tipsy already. On the way back to the hotel, stopping off in an shop, I grab a cheap can of fruit beer at 11% which turned out to be a big mistake the next morning.
Day 3 – Friday 29th May 2015
Departing late from Gent after a late breakfast and surviving my first hangover in many years, we cycled across fields and through small towns towards Antwerp. The weather started nicely but the winds picked up. Cycling along the ‘Express Way’ as the locals called it (a cycle route alongside the E34/A11 towards Antwerp) we were killing the miles in style. Antwerp came and we had to go through the Sint-Anne Tunnel, a tunnel which goes underneath the main river and is designed for dog walkers and cyclists. I probably got my fastest speeds in Belgium cycling through here. Kind of shocked Ollie when I overtook him at 30mph!
In Antwerp we stopped for lunch before making our way northwards towards the Dutch border. The rain came now and it was time to keep our mind focused. The route took us on a cycle track which runs alongside the railway line to Essen. Once again we were killing the miles in style but as soon as we got over the border and into a small town called Nispen, I knew I made a mistake (as well as taking in the first windmill of the country). I looked at the map and knew we went the wrong way out of Antwerpen and did the extra mileage. In Antwerp I booked a cheap hotel in Breda so we didn’t make the same mistake of the previous night in case we suffered we open wallet surgery again. The weather by this point was windy and the rain lashing down hard. Knowing that we already done the mileage, gone further than we should have done and the fact Breda was cross country, we cycled to the nearest town of Roosendaal and back-tracked on a train to Breda! It was only a short distance but by this point it was very late in the day and we were drowned rats! In Breda we still had to cycle four miles to the hotel and the rain did not stop!
Day Four – Saturday 30th May
The last day of cycling and we had to do more mileage as well as I originally planned to be in Dordrecht before this trip commenced. It was still raining hard after we left Breda and we were heading along the dijks going through some very small villages but lots of farmland to be seen. When the rain clouds passed we had to deal with the very strong winds. I was coping alright with them but Ollie was getting battered and by this point he was in pain. His joints hurt, his ankle swollen, he wasn’t enjoying the ride at this point I could see. I had pulled muscles on both of my calfs and my left hand was in a lot of pain after the way I was holding the handlebars. Also downstairs was kind of hurting as well.
Eventually we made it across to Dordrecht but we didn’t stop here. We took a ferry from the north of the city to Papendrecht (a short five minute crossing) before heading westwards to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Kinderdijk, where many windmills are located. Here we met good friend Jacqueline who we haven’t seen in years and stopped here for a short time. Ollie decided on a quick nap whilst I was checking the final stages of the route with Jacqueline. Cycling out of town, Jacqueline gave us a quicker and shorter route out of the area and onto a different ferry crossing on one of the many dijks in this area. Leaving the Kinderdijk the car traffic came to an stand as seventy-eight lorries came through from the opposite direction, all hooting, playing tunes, it was so noisy. Luckily Ollie and I could cycle through the traffic and Jacqueline had to wait in her car until the traffic passed. This didn’t take too long fortunately. We made it to the ferry and then on the other side in Bergstoep which is such a beautiful village. I love the architecture in Netherlands and the houses built alongside the dijks. We also said our goodbyes to Jacqueline.
It was now afternoon and the wind was still pretty strong. It was time to kill the miles and followed a cycle route along the main road which headed eastwards through Schoonhaven, Lopik, before heading north (and getting hit by a strong crosswind) through Montfoort, Woerden, Wilnius, and Baambrugge The cycle ride into Amsterdam was a slow one. Ollie in pain, strong winds but there was more drama to come. Ollie’s rack broke! He did a quick repair job and managed to get on our way very quickly.
Cycling in Amsterdam can be stressful if you haven’t got a clue like me and none of the cycle signs were making any sense. I had to keep asking locals to get us into the heart of the city. This achieved we were riding into the main square outside the Central Train Station at 19.20 (1h20 after the expected arrival time planned) where we were greeted by my wife Olga, Astrid, my Belarusian crew, Patrick and Margunn. It was so nice to have a good of friends to greet us. There was no time to celebrate as we had a reservation at a nearby restaurant so we had to quickly check into our 4 star hotel near the train station, change, shower and get to ‘De Klopmenrit – The After Party’ as quickly as possible where we also met up with Anna and her boyfriend Marko.
The four days went very well and to be honest I could have cycled even further. Cycling in the Benelux countries is fantastic, signposted and well maintained and used brilliantly by locals. No signs of glass on the tracks like the cycle routes around my hometown of Stevenage. In some ways I am embarrassed about our cycle routes back home and that we as a nation should improve on this, build new routes, promote cycling and fitness and get the country cycling again. Over the water, people love cycling and it was great to have the freedom and not worry about cars overtaking or trying to avoid hitting us. I had an amazing experience and I want more of this. Ollie on the other hand was very happy to get some rest and head home on the train back to De Panne in Belgium (via Brussels) and the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover (where we also took the train from here back to Hertfordshire).
Like I said earlier, we did this for charity as well. We would like to thank those who have donated, you are fantastic. Also the support we got along the route, online was amazing and spurred us onto the Dutch capital. Thank you.
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