Monday, June 28, 2004

Vlissingen, The Netherlands

Friends: I have come 250 miles across the southern border of the Netherlands starting in its southernmost extremity, a claw wedged between Germany and Belgium. I will go as far as land's end at Westkapelle out on the country's westernmost tentacle extending into the North Sea. The last ten miles to Vlissingen, where I will take a ferry across the bay, have been on or just below towering dikes holding back the sea.

As in Germany, the riding has been largely on bike paths. Thanks to the pancake flatness of the land, the paths could more closely follow the roadways, or at least not suddenly disappear or make outlandish loops due to the terrain as in Germany. That has made the riding somewhat more tolerable, but its still not my preference. For some it would be idyllic. Its been like a giant theme park for cyclists, with the paths connecting one Pleasantville after another of manicured lawns and tidy homes, interspersed with pastures of grazing cattle and goats and sheep and fields of corn and other grains and the occasional woodlands.

Unlike Germany, there have also been legions of cyclists of all ages out riding--moms and pops with children tagging along or on bike seats, teens and young adults and plenty of the graying set. The elderly may have been the best represented of all the demographics, usually in pairs and sometimes in groups. Dogs in baskets were a common site. I'd frequently see cyclists waving to friends. But for me, it's like having to ride on a sidewalk, as the paths often were. They are a lot less smooth than the roads and can get complicated at clover leafs and overpasses, and especially so when I had to pass through a city of any size.

The bike signs were generally excellent in getting me into a city, but not so good in getting me out. I had to rely on a lot of asking and dead reckoning and haphazard guessing and solar navigation, diluting the joy of being on the bike. The road signs weren't of much use, as they generally led to the autobahn. After a hundred miles of this I nearly turned back to the gritty reality of Belgium, but I couldn't resist going out to another land's end and continued on. I couldn't even average twelve miles per hour with all the impediments. I should have easily been doing fourteen miles per hour, which would have gotten me to a hundred miles for the day in seven hours, rather than eight. But it was still leg-soothing and generally carefree, mind-clearing cycling, so I couldn't complain.

It was all too protected, however. I imagine Dutch cyclists must be terrified to leave their playpen cycling for the open road of other countries. I wonder myself how I'm going to react to traffic roaring past my shoulder after three days of such sheltered cycling. I was hoping the traffic, car and bike, would thin out on this 50-mile long peninsula, but only barely, as it was as developed and populated as the rest of the country. As I drifted off to sleep in a pear orchard last night, halfway out the peninsula, I was subjected to the non-stop buzz of traffic from an
autobahn a mile or more away, going where, I couldn't imagine. I was hoping to come across small, rugged outpost towns as I did in Norway and Alaska and Iceland, but the only of my assumptions that held true was that I would be more vulnerable to the wind out here. The wind was strong enough that for the first time in these travels I saw cyclists on recumbents and also quite a few cyclists with aero handlebars enabling them to be more streamlined in battling the winds.

There were a handful of caravan parks below the dikes full of people on holiday. Many brought their bikes and were out pedaling. I'll be back in Belgium shortly after the ferry crossing. I will welcome its bike lanes, shoulders hugging the highways. The altimeter function on my cyclometer has had three days of rest, though not totally, as it did register the 30 foot climbs I had to make on overpasses crossing waterways and autobahns.

Later, George

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