Cycling in the Netherlands

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As part of this year’s summer holiday to the Netherlands, I decide to go for a solo cycle ride from Rotterdam to The Hague via Delft, a round trip that ended up being roughly 64km in total. I had already hired a bike for a couple of days that could be used by either my wife or me, with the option for The Boy to be seated at the back. So my expedition was by e-bike with a rear-mount child seat (which served nicely for holding my backpack!) – maybe not an ideal setup for what would be over two hours of continuous riding in each direction, but it was okay.

Rotterdam to The Hague (Route)
Rotterdam to The Hague Outbound Route (Strava/OpenStreetMap)

I knew roughly where I wanted to go, and had plotted a route on Google Maps. However, with nowhere to mount the phone, the map was hidden away and I was reliant on audio prompts in my headphones to help me navigate. Unfortunately though, a technical problem meant my phone was frequently losing the GPS signal on the way out meaning extra reliance on signage and my general sense of direction along with occasional stops to check my way.

My GoPro camera was strapped to my chest to record much of the outbound journey (before exhausting two batteries), and a speed-run through that outbound route can be seen below.

My way ended up being less than optimal; I took a few wrong turns here and there, walked through a closed road due to roadworks, went the wrong way down a one-way road, and was hampered in The Hague by an event which appeared to close the route I wanted. But I found my way in the end to my destination, the beach at Scheveningen (not terribly long after my camera battery ran flat) after a journey time of about 2.5 hours and a ride time of about 2 hours – a bit over the estimated 96 minutes that it perhaps should have taken me. But that’s fine; I was in no particular rush on the outbound journey at least.

For the return journey, I started off with similar difficulties – a lack of GPS signal making navigation through city streets difficult, and I took a number of wrong turns which fortunately still ended up going in the right general direction.

I lost signs for Rotterdam and at one point had to ask if I was heading the right way. Fortunately I was, but this time I wasn’t going through the centre of The Hague and wasn’t hindered by that event. I skirted around and eventually found myself back on a more familiar route from the outbound journey.

My route back ended up being a bit more direct this time and I broke away from that outbound route once more to go past the University of Delft, before rejoining the rural section between Delft and Rotterdam. Coming back into the city, my route changed again as I headed to Rotterdam Centraal Station where I needed to return the bike.

This time, my journey was a more realistic 2 hours, with about 97 minutes of moving time.

The Bike and ‘Dutch Hills’

Bossa Dutch e-Bike
Bossa Dutch Step-through e-Bike

My journey was by hire bike, an e-assist step-through ‘stadfiets’ or city bike with a child seat mounted to the back, and that wasn’t really ideal for a long trip, but it was what I had available.

Compared to my own bike at home, a hybrid Merida, I found the bike to be a little uncomfortable, particularly on the arms. I’m used to a more forward-leaning posture rather than the upright position of a city bike, so my arms felt a little cramped particularly initially. A few adjustments to the saddle height helped and eventually I got a bit more used to the position, but for a longer journey like this one, I think I prefer my regular bicycle.

I didn’t use the e-assist all that much on the way out. With the wind behind me, for much of the ride I kept the assist switched off or on low, only upping the power for the occasional boost, to help pull away at signals and to assist with overtakes. At the end of my outbound journey, the battery indicator hadn’t dropped even a single blip and that’s after a few kilometres of riding the day before too!

Elevation Profile (Strava)
Elevation Profile: Rotterdam to The Hague Outbound Journey (Strava)

But coming back was a different story and this time the e-assist really came into its own. The wind was in my face this time. It was a very blustery day and the resistance was very noticeable. The wind is what is known colloquially as ‘the Dutch hills’; the country may be flat, but the wind is perhaps worse than a few awkward climbs, particularly when it’s rather relentless. With hills, at least there’s usually a downward section to enjoy. If the wind doesn’t stop, it’s a constant battle. I was on a time constraint too, needing to get the bike back to the hire shop by 6pm. This time then, the assistance was cranked up to the higher levels almost constantly.

It was still hard work, mainly because of that time constraint, but the assist helped me get back to Rotterdam Centraal Station, and Zilt aan de Maas (the bike hire shop attached to the station) with about 30 minutes to spare. If I was on a regular bike, I’m not sure I would have made it, although my own bike is lighter and the forward-leaning position would help cut through the winds.

The Reality of Dutch Cycle Infrastructure

Of course, as well as doing the ride for the fun of it, I wanted to experience a range of Dutch cycle infrastructure. I’ve cycled in the Netherlands before, but in a more rural setting where signage was good but being on country roads still meant sharing with a small number of cars. This time, the ride was much more urban being in the cities. There was still some short rural sections, but it was a massively different experience.

Dutch Cycle Infrastructure
Good Infrastructure: Good sized lane, segregation, and clear priority over the side road.

Cycle advocacy in Britain often looks to the Netherlands as the lead example of how cycle infrastructure should be done, and it is absolutely right to do that. There is a lot of excellent and good facilities on offer that makes cycling safe, easy and relaxed. However, it’s not all perfect.

On a couple of occasions I found myself on ‘painted lane’ cycle infrastructure, only better than some UK cycle lanes by virtue of them maintaining the distinctive red colour and the road speeds perhaps being lower, but still offering no real separation between traffic and sometimes putting cyclists in the door zone of parked cars (though of course drivers in the Netherlands are more aware of cycles and are taught what we call in Britain, the Dutch Reach – opening doors with the hand furthest away to encourage turning the body to improve observation).

There was an occasion where I followed a marked painted cycle lane which ended up sandwiched between two lanes of traffic – a left lane for vehicles moving straight ahead in the same direction as the cycle lane; a right lane for vehicles turning right. This did feel a little bit uncomfortable and is certainly not somewhere I would want my child to ride yet, and probably not for at least a few more years.

Poorer Dutch Infrastructure
Poorer Infrastructure: There’s still the nice, clear red lane highlighting a cyclist’s route, but this is unprotected and leaves riders sandwiched between two lanes of motor vehicles. Not so much fun!

And indeed, drivers are not necessarily any better when it comes to ‘conflict’ with those on cycles. In a quite residential street with a low speed limit and hence no physical segregation, I still suffered a close pass by a taxi driver who overtook me with oncoming traffic. As is always the case in such situations, had the driver waited behind for a few seconds for that oncoming traffic to pass, they could have passed with a comfortable clearance. But those few seconds were seemingly much too important for sensible driving!

So, there are places where infrastructure is perhaps lacking to a degree, even in the Netherlands, but they were small parts of my entire route. For the most part, segregation or clear cycle priority and low motor traffic (e.g., on fietsstraten – bicycle streets where cars are considered to be guests) means cycle transport is available for the majority, regardless of ability and confidence. And mostly clear signage makes navigation fairly easy too (even if I did miss a few signs and take some wrong turns as a result).

Road Crossing, Delft
Good Infrastructure: Straight crossing over two carriageways and a tramway. Request/Beg button set back from the road edge for easy accessibility and clear traffic light signal at eye level. The only difficulty I had here was knowing whether green applied to all three crossings, given the “shark’s teeth” give-way markings.

Essentially, the situation in the Netherlands is almost the reverse of the UK. Where we in Britain have mostly poor cycle infrastructure with a few examples of excellence, the Netherlands has mostly good to excellent infrastructure with a few poorer areas that perhaps require improvement.

I know which I favour, and I look forward to taking further trips either refining this journey to a better route or finding other destinations of a similar distance.

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