A 4-day cycle tour in North Holland


Full set of photos: North Holland Cycle Tour May 2012 PicasaWeb album

'Holland doesn't offer enough challenges for interesting cycle touring'. That rather superficial preconception had kept me heading for hillier terrain until now. But circumstances conspired and this year I found myself in Holland with a few days to fill. Of course riding my bike was what naturally sprang to mind. 

Planning a route

Holland is known for possessing some of the best urban cycling facilities in the world. It is also endowed with the impressive "LF" network of high quality long-distance routes (LF: "landelijke fietsroutes = long distance cycle routes") connecting most of its cities and passing through some of its best rural beauty spots. The LF routes certainly simplified my tour planning. I was looking for a varied 4-5 day tour starting from The Hague and finishing at Hook of Holland. A quick look at the LF network map suggested that I could use LF1 and LF10 (i.e. the Netherlands part of the North Sea Cycle Route) to traverse the dunes and agricultural lands of the North Holland peninsula to the beginning of the Afsluitdijk - a long dyke that acts as a dam separating the IJsselmeer from the North Sea. Once across the Afsluitdijk I could join the Zuiderzee route with its unusual terrain of polders, The Weerribben and many prosperous old Zuiderzee ports such as Makkum and Kampen. The Zuiderzee route would take me as far as Utrecht or thereabouts and depending on my rate of progress and the weather I would then ride or take the train to Hook of Holland for the ferry home. That sounded like a challenge that ought to be achievable in my desired timespan, given decent winds.

How it worked out

The first day turned out fine and warm with a cross wind that neither helped nor hindered. I had decided to try for a good distance on the first day to ensure I would complete my tour in the available time. I was leaving mid-week and wasn't aiming to stop in a popular destination so I booked no accommodation, relying on my phone to find me a bed when I was nearing a stopping point. The LF1 route is part of the North Sea Cycle Route and I certainly wasn't the only cyclist following it on that Thursday. For a few kilometres I rode in the slipstream of a friendly Belgian couple who were travelling light on a pair of road bikes. Then I came across a young French couple riding touring bikes heavily-loaded with camping gear. Their surprising answer to my 'Where are you heading?' was 'Mongolia'! There's confidence for you! I hope they make it. Even if they don't I'm sure it will be a good adventure.

The LF1/North Sea route followed the coast, arriving abruptly at the Noordzeekanaal in IJmuiden where the route was signed down the loading ramp of a large vehicle ferry. I joined about 50 schoolchildren and other cyclists on the ferry and continued to follow LF1 through the coastal dunes. By mid afternoon at around 90 km I fired up Google Maps on my smartphone and searched the chosen target area for 'Bed and breakfast'. This brought up a few reasonable-looking options. The first one, on the coast, was fully booked. 30 km further along my route I was able to book in a pleasant-sounding canalside village. Tiring now I turned inland towards the village and continued. I was glad to be cycling through reclaimed polders with no more dunes! (Surprisingly, the dunes on the coastal part of the route had produced a tally of some 1100 feet of climbing for the day).

At Zijpersluis the ferry crossing of the NoordHollandschKanaal seemed closed and indeed it was for vehicles. I feared a big detour but breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted a dedicated cycle and pedestrian ferry just downstream - free of charge of course. My chosen B & B in the tiny village of Burgerbrug was as welcoming as anyone could wish. My host turned out to be the president of the Dutch Triumph classic car owner's club and we reminisced over the exquisite 1960's Triumph Vitesse convertible in the garage. The village boasted just a single pub where I was the only diner and was served with a very filling fish dinner for €20.

My plan for the second day was to ride the 20-30 kms from Burgerbrug to the beginning of the Afsluitdijk at Den Oever, then take the 30 km long cycleway along the dyke connecting North Holland to Friesland. My host had shown me weather forecast with a cloud image suggesting that the heavy rain that had fallen during the night had cleared. Indeed my ride to Den Oever was dry and assisted by a strong south-westerly breeze, so I made good time. My route had diverged a little from the standard North Sea cycle route (LF10 by now) to reach the B & B in Burgerbrug. Following my host's advice I now followed the scenic local road built on top of the Westfiese Zeedijk before rejoining LF10 at Oudesluis where I found a good minimarket and stocked up with picnic provisions, which I conveniently stowed in the spaces of my spaceframe bike.

I had to stop to repair a puncture and was happy to encounter my Belgian companions of the day before. They seemed to be following a similar route to mine and at a similar pace. We wished each other well and parted ways - they were pushing to get back to Belgium in time for work in 2-3 days. The LF10 skirts the shore of the Waddenzee, following roads alongside the sea dyke with just occasional views when the road rises. The land is intensively cultivated everywhere and dotted with attractive thatched buildings. The shore is punctuated with small fishing ports and moorings.

As I reached Den Oever rain began to fall. But the air remained warm so I donned a lightweight waterproof jacket, removed my socks to let the water to flow out of my SPD-equipped cycling sandals and headed straight onto the cycle track along the Afsluitdijk. With a following wind now blowing at about 30 kph I made rapid progress on the long straight track that parallels the dual carriageway road linking North Holland to Frieseland. The cycle track is on the flank of the dyke, above the road but still sheltered from the sea wind. At the halfway point there is a rather bleak island with a campsite and a petrol station. I was hungry by now so ate my picnic lunch while sheltering behind an information panel on the island before resuming my ride, waving to a few hardy cyclists who had the misfortune of heading into the wind.

After a couple of hours on the dyke I reached the Frieseland shore and immediately felt the full force of the wind and rain on my face after turning sharply right onto the minor road heading south along the Frieseland shore towards Makkum. I reached Makkum by mid-afternoon, having covered about 80 km rather than the 100 km I had planned, but I decided to call it a day there and took a room in the mid-priced Hotel de Waag, where I was pleased to get a comfortable room that had a radiator to dry my wet clothing. In the evening the weather cleared and I was able to explore Makkum, a former seaport of great character, now a minor port on the freshwater IJsselmeer and still used for fishing by boats working both within and outside the Afsluitdijk.

The next morning dawned dry and calm. Once the swing bridge across the harbour at Makkum had closed I promptly resumed my ride south, following the well-signed Zuiderzee Cycle Route that I planned to use for the rest of my trip. The route is formed of minor roads and tracks some running inland but many hugging the dykes that form the eastern shore of the IJsselmeer. It passes through several former seaport towns and villages of great character including Stavoren, Lemmer, Blokzijl, Kampen and Harderwijk each of them offering interesting sights and subjects for photography. The village of Stavoren nestles up to its port with winding lanes and canals linking it to the water. It seems to be a starting point for working cruises on traditional sailing ships and as I passed through on a Saturday the ships were in port embarking their excited young crews for the coming week.

I had to cover about 100 km on this third day to reach Blokzijl from Makkum, having booked a B & B at Blokzijl the night before thinking that Saturday night might make it more difficult to find accommodation. It was a comfortable ride, punctuated only by brief stops in Stavoren and Lemmer and some navigation problems cause by closures due to roadworks. The most notable part of the day's ride was a traversal of the Weerribben area. This is a compact watery fen-like area criss-crossed with waterways and bounded by the villages of Ossenzijl and Kalenberg. The cycle route runs alongside a wider waterway that also carries tourist cruise boats for sightseers to visit this popular holiday area. The villages are full of holiday cottages that can be reached only by boat or bicycle since the roads stop short at the boundary of the Weerribben.

My Blokzijl B & B was a farmstead about 2 km outside the village, where a very enterprising family has built a business comprising B & B and a large conference and activity centre in a separate building. I received a warm and very friendly welcome from the Anglophile older generation while the younger generation were busy leading a youth group on a climbing tower. Returning to Blokzijl, I wandered the streets of the inland port and had dinner in a canalside bar and slept comfortably back at the B & B in a very modern room in the old farm house.

For the fourth day I planned another 100 km stage ending at Nijkerk, a small town a few kilometres to the south of the official Zuiderzee route. I set off in bright sunshine on what was to be the finest and warmest day of my tour. The route followed rural roads that led me via a ferry crossing at Genemuiden to the port of Kampen. Located at the mouth of the river IJssel, Kampen has a spectacular historic waterfront which is in full view as one approaches it and crosses the river via a suspension bridge. The cycle route then dives into the pedestrianised streets that form the heart of the town, rivalling more famous Dutch towns such as Gouda or Harlem for character. I was reaching the edge of my supply of borrowed maps of Holland and Frieseland, so I visited the tourist office with a view to buying another of the excellent ANWB cycling maps. None was available for the immediate locality but I did buy one for the South Holland area that I planned to pass through on the last section of my tour.

Leaving Kampen reluctantly, I found the rather tortuous exit for the Zuiderzee route with the help of my Garmin GPS. The route then traverses some very minor roads and tracks remote terrain alongside the meers that fill the space between the old and new polders before arriving at Elburg and then Harderwijk, where I joined the Sunday afternoon crowds enjoying the sunshine with a cup of coffee in one of the waterfront cafés. My route then followed a service road linking Harderwijk to a chain of beach-side parks stretching for almost 16 kms along the Wolderwijd lake. The beaches were entirely deserted on this warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. I stopped at one of them fo my picnic lunch and then continued to Nijkerk where I received the usual warm welcome from my B & B host. Nijkerk was less interesting than my other overnight stops, but the B & B was comfortable and the town centre had a square with a good choice of restaurants and bars.

My plan had been to continue the tour for another couple of days, proceeding westwards to Leiden and down the LF1/North Sea Route to the Hook of Holland for my return to the UK on the the Hook - Harwich ferry. But on the following day the weather turned nasty, with heavy rain forecast for the entire day. Nijkerk had a rail station and I quickly decided to take the train to Hook of Holland where I could use my flexi-ticket to catch the ferry on the same day, avoiding one or two days of cycling in what promised to be unremitting rain. Bikes are charged for on Dutch trains. Had the ticket machine at Nijkerk worked my train journey ought to have cost about €18, though I ended up paying rather more. The journey involved three trains, all well-equipped with cycle space. I reached Hook of Holland in good time and boarded the ferry in teeming rain without difficulty.

'iPhone touring'

Smart phones have changed the name of the game as far as tour planning is concerned. But it is important to minimise 'data roaming' charges. That was easily achieved on this tour because all of the B & B's that I stayed in offered a free wifi internet facility. I was able to use their free networks to browse Google maps on my iphone and select a few options for the following nights B & B.

Budget

My budget averaged about €80 per day. The single rooms that I stayed in (usually entailing the use of one of the beds in a twin-bedded room) were priced at €45 to €70 including breakfast. Evening meals in a restaurant or bar were in the €18-25 range including a beer. Lunches were simple picnics costing only €4-5 if that.

Navigation

I used both maps and a GPS device - a Garmin Edge 605 dedicated bike GPS. As a map on the GPS I used the excellent Garmin-specific OpenCycleMap mapset for Benelux countries available for a nominal sum from shop.opencyclemap.org. I had downloaded GPX tracks for the LF1/LF10/North Sea Route and for the Zuiderzee Route (all the way around the coast of the former Zuiderzee). One snag with most Garmins is their inability to follow GPX tracks with more than 1000 points. My workaround for that is to load all tracks into the excellent free mapping service at gpsies.com first, where there are options to 'simplify' and re-download tracks with the appropriate number of points.

A GPS isn't essential. The Dutch ANWB 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 map series show the extensive long-distance cycle route network very well. I used the Garmin in a supplementary manner to show my location relative to the intended LF route and enabling me to log my actual daily routes for later upload and viewing on Google Maps or gpsies.com.

The bike

I'm lucky enough to own an Alex Moulton New Series separable (not 'folding') bike. Its spaceframe is constructed from narrow stainless steel tubes. The innovative suspended design, top class componentry, lightness and ultra-smooth road suspension make it my ideal bike for lightweight touring.

Accommodation

B & B's:
Night 1: Catherina Hoeve, Burgerbrug, http://www.catherinahoeve.nl/
Night 2: Hotel de Waag http://www.hoteldewaagmakkum.nl/
Night 3: de Strand Hoeve http://www.destrandhoeve.nl/
Night 4: de Brink B & B, Nijkerk http://www.bedandbreakfast.nl/bed-and-breakfast/nijkerk/de-brink/8219


Copyright: George Coulouris, June 2012.
Also published in The Moultoneer No. 97 (Magazine of the Moulton Bicycle Club)