How not to cycle across the Netherlands

Note:  be sure to check out the video at the end of this post!

I suppose the past week could be summed up as “a wonderful debacle”.  Nothing went as planned, everything was more difficult than expected, and yet I had an amazing time.

The plan had been to cycle from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to Cologne, Germany over the course of five days with my friend Chris.  Well, Chris had to finish this little thing called a Master’s Thesis and arrived a day late, leaving us only four days to cycle the same distance.  We didn’t think much of it–that was only fifty miles a day and we were both cyclists in the Rockies back home.  No sweat.

Shows you what we knew.

Windmills on Kinderdkij, east of Rotterdam

Windmills on Kinderdkij, east of Rotterdam

Problem #1:  The Bikes

We rented “trekking” bikes from the Radstation in Cologne, then took them by train to Amsterdam.  The bikes themselves were fine–they were well-maintained and worked perfectly.  The problem was Otto II and Ophelia II were very heavy bikes with high-resistance tires and seats not built for distance riding.

Ready to ride!  Chris and I leaving Amsterdam on Day 1.

Ready to ride! Chris and I leaving Amsterdam on Day 1 with our bikes Otto II (mine) and Ophelia II (his).

Still, if Richard Halliburton and his friend Mike could do it on 20th century bikes, surely we could make do with ours.

Not so.  Our pace was roughly half what we would have done on road bikes, making 50-mile days a lot more time-intensive (and painful) than we could have imagined.

Problem #2:  Directions and Route-Finding

The network of trails in the Netherlands is prolific and well-signed, so we weren’t worried about route-finding.  But it’s almost too prolific and too well-signed.  For example, we knew a bike trail called the LF2 would take us all the way to Rotterdam on the first day.  What we didn’t know was that the LF2 consisted of hundreds of linked bike trails that you could continuously follow if you never missed a single LF2 sign amidst all the other dozens of cycling signs.

Baffled by the clear and explicit cycling directions in the Netherlands

Baffled by the clear and explicit cycling directions in the Netherlands. Photo by Chris Danly.

Well, we missed a sign about 10 km into Day 1, and didn’t reconnect with it until roughly five hours later.

During the five hours we spent zig-zagging all over the countryside we saw amazing landscapes filled with more canals and flowers than I could have imagined, so at least being lost was a visually pleasing experience, but it didn’t do much for our efficiency.  We called it quits in the town of Gouda (yes, where the cheese comes from) and took a train the last 20 km into Rotterdam, arriving at 11:00 pm.

Scene along a canal somewhere south of Amsterdam

Scene along a canal somewhere south of Amsterdam

Exhausted and short-tempered, we made our best decision yet:  to stay two nights in Rotterdam and spend the next day resting and planning a better route.  The decision meant we wouldn’t make it all the way to Cologne, but what’s the point of achieving a goal if you’re miserable the entire time?

Finishing with a smile

Rotterdam was a great city, and I’m so glad we spent more than one night there.  The architecture is amazing and the people are so friendly–definitely check it out if you’re in Holland.  After Rotterdam we spent a day riding 80 km to a town with the baffling name of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.  We were better prepared and enjoyed the whole thing, only getting mildly lost a couple of times.  Lunch breaks, berry-picking breaks, and photo-ops broke up the day nicely.

Fresh-picked blackberries somewhere east of Rotterdam

Fresh-picked blackberries somewhere east of Rotterdam

From ‘s-Hertogenbosch we rode the “final” 50 km to the town of Nijmegen.  Along the way we found the perfect tree to recreate one of Richard’s photos from his bike ride through Holland in 1921.  Note Richard’s bowtie and collared shirt–so glad bike shorts and t-shirts are acceptable cycling attire in 2014!

Comparison of a photo of Richard Halliburton in the Netherlands in 1921 and Sarah in the Netherlands in 2014.

Comparison of a photo of Richard Halliburton in the Netherlands in 1921 and Sarah in the Netherlands in 2014. Richard and his friend Mike named their bikes Otto and Ophelia.

Nijmegen is near the border with Germany, so I can say with pride that I have ridden a bicycle across and entire country!  Granted it’s a small country, and there was that bit on the train, but whatever–my butt certainly supports my claim.

From Nijmegen we took the train to Cologne, celebrated our success with a tiny bottle of bubbly, and collapsed gratefully in our hotel room that night.

Celebratory drink after arriving in Cologne, Germany

Celebratory drink after arriving in Cologne, Germany

My advice for others cyclists:

  1. Bring a hat–that sun can be vicious
  2. Bring a GPS and download the bike routes from here–it’ll save you so much time
  3. If you don’t do the GPS thing, write down every single number and every single town you’re supposed to pass through.  The numbers form a sort of connect-the-dots way to get from point A to point B, but sometimes the numbers are missing and the city signs are your best bet to stay on track.
  4. On a real roadbike you can probably do 100 km days comfortably (including time for lunch breaks and getting lost), but if you have any other kind of bike you’d better reduce your daily goals by half.
  5. Have fun!
Numerical directions from Rotterdam to 's-Hertgenbosch (picture taken during a lunch break, hence the cider!)

Numerical directions from Rotterdam to ‘s-Hertgenbosch (picture taken during a lunch break, hence the cider!)

Check out my video of cycling across the Netherlands set to Bebe’s awesome song “Siete Horas”:

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  1. Just beautiful, love the video ; )

  2. Henrik Fransson

    I just love reading your posts just as much as I love the thought of this adventure you are on. You are truly a person I look up to. good luck Sarah and remember when its time to hit asia I have some contacs there. I have some in southern germany aswell if you need. Hugs from sweden!

  3. Love hearing about your journey, your humor, and how you problem solve.It is great you are flexible.
    What a life learning experience you are having..
    Have fun and stay very aware.
    Love to you.

  4. Sarah: Hope you were out of Holland before Malaysian plane crash. How sad it is for that beautiful little country. And, being as you are your way to the Matterhorn, I suggest that you practice up on expelling expectorant so that you can “spit a mile” as Irvine wished. Could be quite ethereal from the top of Matty, I do agree. And . . . (this is motherly talk) if you decide to descend Matty ala Halliburton, please be sure to purchase “butt-balm” ointment in Zermatt before the adventure begins. Love and good wishes from Colorado!

    • Oh Judy, you just made me laugh! I will certainly attempt Mike’s 1-mile spitting feat, much to Richard’s dismay. As for butt balm, I could have used that in the Netherlands!

  5. One of the attributes Halliburton had was his determination to succeed coupled with his ability to cope with vicissitudes. You seem to have emulated that as well as his physical biking feats. Well done! You might be interested in knowing I sent out an email to several writers, adventurers, and Halliburton admirers who may not have heard of your ambitious uneventenor activities. I am on tenterhooks anticipating your Matterhorn ascent.

  6. I just love reading about adventures and memories (even bad ones) because those are so much better! It’s the life I actually want!

    What I want to know… is how much savings I need to have before I could go on a world tour? I mean, it’s a lifelong dream but I have no idea how much savings is enough to last.

    Celeste White recently posted…Awesome Mountain Bike Training ExercisesMy Profile

    • Hi Celeste! Thanks for reading! How much you’ll spend on travel depends on three things:
      1) How long will you travel?
      2) Which regions will you visit?
      3) What level of comfort do you require?
      Travel can easily cost the same (or even less) as what you spend to live at home. It can also cost much, much more. Check out my post here for some more specifics:

  7. I’m contemplating a cycle from Cologne towards Holland and I’m not sure if after reading your blog post I’m too scared or even more excited! :)

    • It was an amazing time, I highly recommend it…I just want my readers to be better prepared than I was! A better bike (or more modest goals), better bike shorts, and a GPS with the bike route plotted would have made everything so much easier! Have fun :)

  8. Hi Sarah! Really enjoyed your trip report. I love the pictures you took, especially the one with that lovely house in it. We also want to go on a bike trip through The Netherlands this year, although I hope we won’t get lost haha ;) Do you know a good bike tour organizer in Holland. I searched on Google and found a few ( being among the most okay ones) but I haven’t found a good tour yet. Or do you recommend planning a tour by myself? Thanks!

    • Hi Ella, thanks for reading! I don’t know of any tour companies in Holland because I didn’t look for one, and whether or not you want to join a tour depends entirely on what you want to have happen during your ride. Personally, I love to do my own thing because it’s a greater adventure and I have complete control over my itinerary. But an organized tour would have its perks, too, like (hopefully) not getting lost. Whichever you decide, I hope you have a great time!

      • Thanks Sarah! I agree with having more control over your journey, it’s just that I don’t know if I can all plan it on my own without ending up at night in a place where there’s no hotel or place to sleep :)

        • Well, based on the places I ended up sleeping in entirely by accident, it seems like every town has a small hotel or B&B, and outside of Amsterdam you don’t really need reservations anywhere. It’s a small [tiny] country, so you’re never far from a town. Best of luck with whichever option you go with!

  9. I had a very similar experience the last 2 days cycling from Antwerp to Gouda!

  10. Amazing article about bike! I’m really glad when I read your writing. Thanks a lot.

  11. Thanks for recounting your experience and tips here. Sure helps those who are planning a cycling trip there!

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