I was doing a little cycling in Holland last week. It is very difficult to count on your fingers the ways in which cycling as a means of transport in Holland is better than it is in the UK.
The reason it’s difficult is because your hands are trembling in a jealous fury. To begin at the beginning, though. I was in Limburg. Limburg is the hilly bit that sticks out at the southern end of the Netherlands, between Germany and Belgium. It is full of the campervans of Dutch nationals who’ve come to see a land where a handful of dropped marbles don’t just stay where they landed.
This isn’t my own personal bit of stereotyping, I asked a Dutchman, who said that he came to Limburg every year because where he lived the biggest hill was a motorway flyover. Or, on reflection, he thought maybe the local artificial ski slope.
He was waiting at the railway station, because his brand new campervan had been badly damaged after it had rolled away down a hill. It turned out the handbrake didn’t work, and he hadn’t been able to tell.
Lidless in Limburg
This is relevant, because everyone in Limburg still rides a bike – so the bike culture isn’t based on the land being flat. I saw one woman descending the Cauberg, the 12 per cent finish hill of the Amstel Gold race and the final climb of this year’s World Championships, on an old steel sit-up-and-beg bike. She must have been doing 70kph.
I have no idea how she stopped in the town at the bottom, but she must have managed it because by the time I got there, there were no trails of wreckage through the pavement cafe tables. When I mentioned this to a friend, he said that that was why the Dutch national shoes were made of wood. They were the original brake shoes. I told him that was impermissible stereotyping, and nicked his joke.
The towns and villages were full of kids to pensioners riding to schools, shops, and jobs. None of them wear helmets, so it does take a little longer to get there by the time they’ve slalomed round the piles of dead, but apart from that it all works rather splendidly.
There are a number of reasons. The roads are laid out with traffic islands, signs, raised kerbs, many colours of surface, dotted lines, solid lines, road humps, speed bumps, brick road-crowns at junctions, and are essentially a riotous display of everything that a highway engineer has ever dreamed of.
This means that most drivers are reduced to a crawl as they try to absorb the sensory overload and avoid pulling into someone’s driveway because they’ve mistaken it for the motorway to Antwerp.
Yet it’s not the road design that is most important. It’s that even after they’ve mastered the road layouts, local drivers are just plain weird. They stop to let cyclists out at junctions. They don’t mow riders down on roundabouts. They don’t drive in bike lanes.
They display much the same courtesy towards pedestrians. It’s as if there’s a national policy of pumping Prozac fumes onto petrol station forecourts. Or, to look at it another way, it’s as if the Dutch have been taught to drive properly. From our point of view, the Prozac fumes are probably a more practical idea.
There are downsides. If there’s a bike path available you have to use it, and they sometimes have a surface like a corrugated roof. I did see a policeman diligently looking the other way when the only other option was telling Philippe Gilbert to get off the road and onto the vibration plate. And the queue in the local bike shop was shocking. But I think I’d settle for it, I really do.
Great Inventions of Cycling – 1920s: Tactics
In the early days of cycle racing, tactics played a minimal role, because the racing was so slow that it was normally just a case of every man riding as hard as he could. As racing speeded up after the First World War (or, the Great War, as the UCI thinks of it), the importance of drafting became more pronounced, until it came to define how the sport works.
Cycling fans are fond of claiming that cycling is ‘chess on wheels’, due to the importance of race tactics. It’s much better than that. Chess has dozens of pieces all moving in different ways. Cycling has just the question, ‘Shall I ride fast now? Or shall I ride slowly?’ yet out of this weaves a whole world of complication and consequence.
You can launch your fastest bike riding anywhere from 200m to the line, to 200km to the line. A 200m man is a ‘sprinter’, a 2km man an ‘opportunist’, a 20km man is an ‘idiot’ and a 200km man is ‘Thomas Voeckler’.
Most serious attacks come on hills, where the drafting effect is minimal and it’s hardest for rivals to follow a strong rider. Attacks on descents are rarer, and normally the resort of the desperate. You can tell they’re about to happen because you’ll see the rider go back to the team car to put his brain in the cool-box first.
Despite the importance of tactics, it is still often as not the strongest physical specimen who gets to the line first.
Acts of Cycling Stupidity
If you read any of the cycle-trade magazines these days, you find they are full of electrically-assisted bikes being touted as the next big thing. They’re already big in the Netherlands, where they help those past the first bloom of youth haul their shopping up the occasional hill. In that context, they are, in fact, a great idea.
However, last week I saw several member of a national squad, preparing for the World Championships, riding up a long drag sitting on the wheel of a middle-aged woman with a basket full of carrots. Seriously, guys, it’s a matter of trying to hang onto some dignity.