My first contact with the Netherlands as a tangible concept was through the writing of J. M. Coetzee. In his book, Dusklands, he writes two narratives, one centred around the Vietnam War, the other around a hunting expedition in South Africa. In the latter, the bounded and manufactured environment of the Netherlands, where the narrator (Jacobus Coetzee) grew up, appears as a narrative and symbolic contrast to the unbounded nature of the South African veldt. At one point, alone and more than slightly mad, Coetzee (the character) describes how he becomes just an eye, swamped by the visual information that envelops him.
Only the eyes have power…. I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see.
The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,”Dusklands”, J. M. Coetzee
Of course, the mythical flatness of the Netherlands themselves have perceptual consequences, but this flatness is real only as a stereotype. Where I lived in Nijmegen in the late 1990s had both flat polder and dike as well as hills and forest. And as I have just discovered, the terrain of Limburg (apart from Weert) is about as flat as the hilliest parts of Yorkshire.
So, this is an essay about a race, and for once, not a race I watched or read about, but one I entered, started… and finished. All of these things are new: I haven’t competed in a bicycle race in my entire history of cycling:
I’ve ridden two Super Randonneur series since returning to the bike after my kids got a little older (in 2014 and 2015), but I have been riding long distances and cycle commuting since my 20s. I ride on and off road (but mostly on), rode a fixie in London in the 1980s, have toured unsupported in England, Wales and France (including the big climbs of the Alps and Pyrennees), and currently do a few solo DIY audaxes as well as calendar events, I spent a year working in Nijmegen in 1997/8 and loved the cycling (the route also passes near Wassenaar, where I ran a conference at the NIAS in ’98), and brought my bike on a shorter stay in 2004. My passion is to ride far, and look after myself, and I think it is time to race 😉
So for want of a better structure I’ll pick some themes that seem important as I write this after two days back in my reality of trying to be a normal person with a job, a family and a house.
Turn left at the Google Data Centre
The Race Around the Netherlands (there’s Facebook group here with much discussion and many photos) is an unsupported fixed route bike race with a time limit of eight days: you basically get a gpx file (about 1670 km, which I added turn-by-turn to) and after that it’s all yours. Navigation is just following the route and deciding where and
when to stop. The mesmeric nature of some of the long, flat straight and car-free surfaces was perfectly illustrated by the northernmost left turn, at one of Europe’s largest data centres, which is home to much of Google’s data, as well as many of the other big IT names. My saved can of Fanta (keeps your sandwiches cold in your musette I find) went down well on the approach, and shortly after the turn I stopped at a bus stop to change my tracker batteries and eat something.
Well what can I say: I had planned to do more camping (both wild and tame) but decided just a few days before the race to try using Airbnb as an alternative (every night but one in the end).This was a risk as I had never used it before, but it just looked like a good solution, and I could always sleep rough it if went wrong.
I discovered very quickly how this was both extremely practical and emotionally uplifting. I decided roughly where I might stop for the day each evening, and then about mid-morning I would book my place. All my hosts were fine with a late night arrival and an early
disappearance, and some even allowed me to bring my bike inside (or had a shed, garage or back garden). And wow, what lovely people I met: so thanks Jochem, Roelie, Elies, Esther, Annet and Klaus, you were great to meet, however briefly! A special mention goes to Annet, who, through her son’s expert translation, established I wanted to leave before 6 am, and made me a packed breakfast and loaded up the coffee maker in advance, but all did something to make me feel looked after.
The one night I camped was at a fantastic campsite (a natuurkampterrain) in Weert, just off the
route, called Camping Wega. I emailed ahead the day before, and ueed my green card for the first and only time. It was one of the best sites I have stayed at, and after a good shower and some eating I whipped out my bivvy and slept under the stars.
I’m not sure about camping as a solution every night, but here they take check-ins until 2100, and of course I was off early, just before dawn.
If you’ve read any other posts on this blog you may know I have a position on drugs. Well, reader, I brought some with me, and used them. I had half a packet of paracetamol, half a pack of ibuprofen. I used all the ibuprofen (but below the max dosage) to keep the inflammation in my achilles (from about day 4) under control. I really don’t think I would have finished without medicine, the pain was intermittent and never too awful, but I think it kept it under control. I certainly wouldn’t recommend prophylactic use of ibuprofen but it did its job as a response to the battering my underprepared body was taking I guess.
At sea with Onno
I rode most of the race on my own, if you don’t count my attempts to catch and pass Dutch kids on traditional bikes: I was so destroyed by the first day that the final 20 kms into Enschede were aided by yo-yoing behind a girl and her younger brotther who were much amused by my inability to maintain any kind of speed as the light dimmed in the evening and the temperature fell. However, I did ride side by side with two fellow victims of the race, Onno and Marc, both for long enough to find out a little about their motivations for racing and their life outside cycling.
Given the importance of wind direction and strength for riding in the Netherlands it seemed particularly apt to ride for a bit with Onno on my second day of racing between Enschede and, in my case ter Apel and my second Airbnb, given his life at sea. I had had a late start, having to stop at Bagels & Beans for a “power breakfast” on my way out of Enschede. I think we had both had a rough start to the race, and Onno had not had much sleep, staying in a hostel. It was a welcome change chatting with someone, and although I couldn’t quite match his pace and had decided to make a short day to compensate for the ugly start and my lack of pre-race fitness, the brief time we had together was a priceless reminder of why I do this kind of thing. It’s the random nature of the focused human interactions, against the background of being alone. Onno was to maintain and extend his lead over me, despite an achilles injury (which seemed to be catching, as two days later my left achilles started to hurt).
It’s not about the bike
It really isn’t, although some aspects of my setup desrve a mention, like the excellent wheels purchased from bikediscount.de (xt hubs, front dyno, dt 466d rims), faultless charging and lighting from B&M, and the completely flawless Vittoria Corsa Control 28 clincher tyres, run with inner tubes, no punctures and run at low pressures for smooth riding. Less satisfactory was my decision to use xt spd pedals and RT86 shoes: the slight rocking this setup allows contributed to ankle and foor pain, and I would use spd-sl pedals and more supportive shoes (probably my Bonts, which I have completed a 600 in). I did very little walking and the achilles problems I suffered nearly ended my race. Similarly, I had considered either using my race bike (with the same tyres, they just fit) or transferring the di2 onto my Whyte: after the first day (cold and wet then hot) my hands were covered in splits which just got worse over the course of the race. By the time I reached Limburg on the penultimate day I could barely change gear it was so painful, and braking became an issue. I had very few other physical issues, and unusually for me, my back and neck were pretty cooperative throughout.
The race podium
Although I felt pretty disconnected from the pointy end of the race, the podium deserve special mention. I chatted with Colin and Tjerk a little before the start and they both seemed pretty sorted (Colin is a TCR finisher) and experienced. I didn’t speak with Joris, but I remember looking him up before the race and thinking that he looked one to watch. I was interested to see how the real differences in finishing
time seemed to derive as much if not more from rolling average speed, but from time on the bike. This is not an unfamiliar pattern for races of this kind, but it’s a lesson for anyone who wants to try to win. I was sleeping for about 6 hours a night and taking photos, and even if I had been better prepared (i.e., not ill for 3 weeks before the race and able to ride) I think I would have struggled to continue at such a speed with less sleep.
There was scandal at the front of the race. That’s all I’m saying…
Full value with Marc
The other rider I spent a few hours with was Marc Wismans, who was riding in support of Forza4Energy4all, and lovely to talk to. Marc was struggling at the beginning with back trouble, but was keen to get full value from the ride, meeting with kids his charity works with along the route, and having a clear plan to use the full 8 days. It was a pleasure Marc!
Eating and drinking
I did much of my eating on the bike, often purchased from service stations (although I did stop at a great sandwich shop somewhere or other and even an Aldi which did a nice pizza slice):
I cooked for myself once at Elies’ Airbnb (pasta with honey), having had a lucky encounter with a late-night Turkish convenience store. I did eat two McDonald’s meals, one late in Scheveningen after a long day prior to meeting Esther, my host for the night; one in Malden, on the outskirts of Nijmegen where I felt the need for cooked breakfast and coffee on the final day. I did eat some ‘proper’ Dutch food (uitsmijter twice, hamburger speciaal (!!) and appeltaart (yum)).
The service station food was a mixture of squeezy yoghurt, sandwiches and a variety of snacks. I had a musette with me which was useful for stuffing full of all the food I could buy at each stop for easy access – and I could fold it up into my back pocket when empty. Getting water and food on the two national holidays was bit of a worry, but I never actually ran out of anything.
Rain and sun
There were really only two kinds of weather on the race: cold and wet on the first morning, and increasingly sunny and hot for the rest of the race. The temperatures reached the 30s celsius on the penultimate day in Limburg, and the winds varied from strong and gusty (only really a problem on travelling East prior to Limburg) to just a breeze.
I saw sheep, goats, rabbits, was raced by hares and was surprised by wild horses: I actually slept next to horses one night on Elies’ farm, they were literally in the next room and I could hear on of them snoring! I was also serenaded by crickets and frogs! Oh and geese!
A special mention has to go to the organisers, especially Mark and Michael, who set us off and welcomed us with such good cheer. The organisation was pleasingly low key and clear, and I am keen to see what their other events turn out like. Adventure Bike Racing seems a good thing, and this particular race was a really great stepping stone for me into the world of unsupported racing. Also it was nice to start from such a fabulous venue in Amerongen, the Cafe de Proloog.
The Netherlands is famous for its built environment, and much of it is below sea level thanks to Dutch engineering prowess. But we were routed through to near wilderness areas: the Hoge Veluwe and the Dunes of the West coast. Both were magical, and although I have ridden in the former before, it was 14 years ago, and the bike paths weren’t as good!
What can I say. My major goal was to get to the start, and get back for my younger son’s birthday, so actually finishing the event within the time limit was great. It is particularly resonant given that the previous two seasons have been plagued by unfinished and unstarted events, and some really horrible physical and mental collapses. I really didn’t think I was going to start until a few days before when my cough began to subside, and given I hadn’t ridden a bike for three weeks until I rode from Schiphol to Amerongen (about 70 km) the day before the race. Maybe I could do it a day quicker, although I’d have to be fitter and stop less!
Cauberg and Co.
Just before the turn onto the Cauberg
I was really worried about the Limberg climbs (we did three of the Amstel Gold ones) due to my achilles: I live in one of the hilliest parts of Britain, so normally I wouldn’t worry. It was a relief to find that 36:36 bottom gear was enough and my achilles actually hurt less than on the flat into a headwind!
The Cauberg was a shock to the system and the Keutenberg was a pig, but the third big one (Camerig) was really beautiful, worth the previous kilometres on its own. There are some great views to be had in Limburg, I will return.
Ah, the Afsluitdijk, one of the moments I was really grateful for aero bars. 32 kms of straight, two-way flat cyclepath, next to a main road… in blazing sunshine. With a plague of buzzing midges which came at me like black clouds. Quite the strangest piece of cycling I have done, and when I finished shaking the bugs out of my helmet on exit, I really felt I had been in the Netherlands.
The sea was an often present feature, sometimes bizarrely unseen, behind a dyke, at other times the dominant visual feature:
And where there is sea, or rivers and canals there must be crossings:
Although I didn’t ride for three weeks before the race due to illness, and hadn’t ridden more than 160 km since the previous September, I did ride about 160 km per week throughout Autumn and Winter (at a fairly brisk pace (for me, anyway) at times), including a completed Festive 500. I actually think three weeks off the bike was a blessing in disguise, although it was touch and go… It will be interesting to see how I fare on June 16th on the BRM600 I have entered.
The scene of the crime
One of the nicer aspects of the race was passing by my old workplace and street in Nijmegen, I spent a year here as a Postdoc in 1997-8 and came back for some research leave in 2004.
Some things stay the same
And returning to the polder and the hills around Mook was a curious mixture of seeing how little time touches places, and how much. The dyke roads were unchanged, but the addition of huge cycle infrastructure investment was really apparent on the outskirts of Nijmegen (as well as the new McDonald’s in Malden).
The map is not the territory … The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map…
Science and Sanity, A. Korzybski
The kindness of strangers
The proprietor of de Proloog who lent me his jersey to ride the race in (mine was mothed); the Turkish shopowner who insisted on giving me free figs…
Being followed and encouraged on social media was a fantastic experience, thanks to all of you wonderful people, but I think Herbie takes the prize for obsession, with some stiff competition from Robert:
Contact with the enemy
Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus
no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force
On Strategy, H. Von Moltke
Through the woods with Julia
Julia Freeman had a painful couple of days on the race with injuries before very sensibly calling it a day. I was touched that she came to see me finish, and guided me to Schiphol via train and a lovely wooded route.Tot ziens Julia and dank u wel!
I stayed in a rather posher hotel at Schiphol than I had wanted, but it was probably for the best. And there was a moroccan buffet, and Belgian beer. Inevitably I had one too many, but I managed to get up for my plane, and had time the next day to take pictures of jets for my aeroplane obsessed older son.
I couldn’t have done this wihout the support and encouragment of my partner, Alison, who kept me positive when I felt like self-sabotaging before the start. And it was great to return home to see my younger son becoming a year older!