I received this account of cycling in Europe from a local cyclist who is a familiar face around Lichfield. I wrote something about cycle infrastructure in Lichfield last year that I was intending to revisit again some time. Thanks very much to Marion for sending this article in, it certainly helps put our cycling conditions into perspective.
I must first say that all views and opinions expressed in this article are derived from my own experience and no doubt many who read it will disagree at some point. I will talk about cycling in the Netherlands and, more briefly, Germany. Nevertheless I hope you enjoy it.
I was fortunate to be able to retire fit and well with very few ties and outside responsibilities so, just before retirement, I sold my car and bought a Brompton folding bike and a mule trailer to add to my trusty Dawes Karakum. I was not daunted by the horror expressed by many people I knew. “How will you get about, how will you do your shopping, what if it rains?” I have never regretted it. With the cash I save by not running a car I travel, trying to include a trip of up to 6 weeks each summer in Europe. I always travel solo and am already planning next year’s tour in my head. While cycling in northern Europe is wonderful there are, for me, unpleasant aspects; particularly, both the Dutch and the Germans smoke a lot. You can still buy cigarettes from machines on the street and, at railways stations, there are smoking areas on the platforms, marked out with yellow lines painted on the ground. Arriving from our more smoke-free environment is always a shock. Bicycle theft is common in the major cities. Also it can be a shock to find a moped heading for you or behind you on the cycle path – it is allowed and, on some stretches, mandatory for mopeds to use the cycle path and not the road.
When I was working I cycled from Hammerwich to Lichfield most days, sometimes leaving at 8 in the morning and returning at 10 in the evening. Even though I owned a car, the bike was and still is my main mode of transport. I am sure I was regarded, by colleagues, as somewhat eccentric because many people cannot envisage life without a car. I have lost count of how many times it has been suggested that I need a lift in a car to carry my shopping or reach somewhere a very short distance away. This is rarely necessary and I am fortunate enough to have good friends for the rare occasions when it is essential. Having said that there are taxis, buses, trains and home deliveries. I still find it curious that people will drive to and from work then later to an expensive gym to sit on a static bike in a closed air-conditioned room. Why not ride to work?
Children riding to school in the Netherlands
I can’t speak for France, Spain or the southern European countries but a very different attitude to the bicycle and its purpose is immediately obvious if you travel to Germany, Denmark or, of course, the Netherlands. While the perception here seems to be that cycling is for children on stunt bikes, a sport or exercise; in these countries it is an everyday mode of transport. There are those who enjoy riding road bikes and racers with dropped handlebars but they generally have another bike of the ‘sit up and beg’ type for daily use. For men and women this is normally a step through frame fully equipped with mudguards, pannier rack and possibly baker’s basket or frame at the front, coat guard, chain guard, hub gears and dynamo lights. Every morning in the Netherlands the excellent cycle paths are packed with children going to school (38% of secondary school children are said to ride between 6 and 15km each way and some even further), businessmen and women, teachers and all other kinds of workers cycling into work. In the evening it is reversed and during the day they are not so packed but used by women doing their shopping, taking their children out or visiting friends and even classes of children going on school trips. All these people are wearing ‘normal’ clothes and shoes, not a centimetre of lycra in sight but, there are sights which I am sure, here, would attract the attention of someone interested in health and safety.
Family transport Dutch style
People will say, “But the Netherlands is flat.” That is true in many but not all areas; try cycling the undulating paths through the North Sea dunes or the woodland trails around Arnhem. Also where it is flat there can be fierce winds; try 3 days with a 15 – 20 mph headwind possibly accompanied by rain! In the Netherlands there is a nationwide network of cycle routes and paths of all descriptions. Cycling is quick and convenient for two main reasons: paths form a continuous network unlike the disjointed infrastructure we have here and at most junctions there are either cyclist traffic lights or cyclists have the right of way. For example where a cycle path crosses a minor road joining a major road you are safe to keep cycling; vehicles turning in and out must wait. At first it is a shock to find a massive HGV waiting for you to cycle across. One notices the mutual respect between motorists and cyclists. Perhaps this is because most drivers are also cyclists. However it also depends on cyclists strictly obeying signals and stop lines where they exist; there is no ‘jumping the lights’ or ‘nipping’ across if nothing is coming. In town in the Netherlands there are so many paths and so many cyclists that I, as a foreigner, often feel I am a danger because I don’t know the rules. For example where crowded cycle lanes cross who goes who waits or do you, like the Dutch just weave your way through.
Typical Dutch junction
All routes are well signed with the very useful feature, especially useful for long distance travel, of the knoopunt system, which originated in Belgium. Selected junctions are given a number, which is indicated on cycle maps and at that point on a finger post, column or mushroom. At each knoopunt there is also a map of the local area, marked with the other junction numbers. It is simple to plan a route from number to number. Many Dutch bikes carry a handlebar pad on which you write the numbers for your planned journey.
Much of what I have written about the Netherlands also applies to Germany where the network of paths is neither so well signed nor developed outside the main towns and cities but there are wonderful routes along all the major rivers. Finding a route through towns and cities can be quite tricky. If you have the time, it is interesting to ride the Mosel from Thionville at the France, Luxemburg and German border, as far as the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz, then north along the Rhein into the Netherlands at Millingen aan de Rhijn. You could stop there or continue on across the Netherlands to Rotterdam or Hoek van Holland. Or you could ride the Elbe from the North Sea to the Czech border. The benefit of making such a long trips is that you can experience the changing landscape, food, architecture, people and culture. This is not so noticeable if the route is split into a number of short trips. Verlag Esterbauer produce excellent guides. Where Germany does beat the Netherlands is with its cycle friendly trains, sometimes buses and integrated transport infrastructure. In both countries there are vast cycle parks at all stations. At Utrecht Centraal there is a new state of the art underground park for over 5,000 bicycles but most German stations also provide large areas for bicycles. I don’t know how you find your bike again!
Cycle parking Münster Hauptbahnhof
In both the Netherlands and Germany it is possible to take your bike on the train for a small charge, about 4 Euros for a day ticket but the provision on the trains is far superior on Deutsche Bahn and quite unbelievable for those accustomed to the 2 places per train on most UK Intercity trains. On German Intercity trains you must reserve a space, you are given a numbered stand or hanger and you will also get a reserved seat in the same or adjoining carriage. Similar facilities are found on regional and local trains and although these are filled on a first come first served basis the guard or ticket collector will often squeeze in extra bikes.
Empty cycle carriage on German Intercity train
In some areas it is even possible to take your bike on the bus or tram outside rush hours as shown here in Bremen.
In Greifswald in Germany I saw children arriving at Kindergarten and chaining their bikes up to the special sized racks. Why not here?
A start is being made in Glasgow where nursery school children are being taught to ride, through the Play on Pedals scheme, a legacy of the Commonwealth Games.
Last year a British journalist wrote, “It is fashionable at the moment to be noticed by cycling through the London parks in a floaty dress on a Dutch bike.” He went on to say that he longs for the day when you are not noticed riding a bike because it is normal. That is what I have experienced in Europe, where cycling is part of the fabric of life rather than an eccentric activity warranting mockery if not abuse. I look forward to living to see the same here although it has taken something like 40 years to reach that point in Europe.
Finally I invite you to view this Vimeo clip about “How the Dutch got their Cycle Paths” and perhaps dream or be spurred on to press for a better infrastructure here.