Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dutch Mountains

When we first moved here, I actually wondered if there were any organized bike rides in Holland -- like the "pay $15 and get a t-shirt" century rides in the U.S. I should have known better -- I really should have, but I didn't, so I continued to wonder and searched the web for months. By late winter, we stumbled across the amateur version of the Amstel Gold Race. It's based on a famous pro race that's known for its brutality -- as Discovery team's Demol said "it's a [bleep] course with a thousand turns". So, during our short winter days, we learned of this amateur performance event' (as the website called it) and I practiced my skill of quickly signing up for events without thinking through the ramifications.

Before we get too far into discussing the Amstel Gold and other organized rides, I would like to
formally declare that yes, the Netherlands does have hills. It's just that they're all in the tiny southern tip, practically in the fanny pack of Belgium. (By the way, I struggled over how to make this literary connection to Belgium. You see, I am the holder of a Dutch residence card, so I really owe it to my host country to poke fun at the Belgians at every opportunity. The problem is ... Belgium rocks. Great cycling, great beer, great chocolate, and every single time I've been in Belgium, the sun has been shining. So, that's why I picked fanny pack. It's such an odd metaphor that I'm hoping that it straddles the fence nicely). So, yes, declaration made ... the Dutch can indeed claim hills and the part of the Netherlands that we've now fallen in love with is referred to as Limburg.

Back to the story: We had a fantastic time on that inaugural ride -- getting in
a huge day of cycling with great weather. We also enjoyed watching the pros take on the course the following day. It was one of those "don't pinch me, because if I'm dreaming, I want to keep on dreaming" weekends! Since discovering Limburg during the Amstel Gold, we've gone back several times to participate in organized rides, such as the Steven Rooks Classic and Limburg's Mooiste (mooiste means beautiful in Dutch), and also to train on our own or with groups of friends (including the great group that invited us to ride the M&M (Melick, Maastricht, Melick Ride)).

Here are some
of our top experiences of cycling in Dutch hill country

Insane climbs: One minute you're cycling past cows on easy terrain, the next you're on a 20% incline. The road has suddenly narrowed. There is no shoulder. On both sides of the road, there is either barbed-wire fence (there's no space to waste here!) or a row of trees. Despite the starting field of riders spread out several hours, it's shoulder-to-shoulder cycling (3-Wide in Nascar speak, although I'm not sure why I know this term and why I would mention Nascar on my blog). It's so steep that people are falling over -- stopping dead in their tracks. There is no room to maneuver. You can barely turn the pedals over -- it really hurts, but it's a beautiful pain. It's raw cycling. It's what you always envisioned when you heard about the European Spring Classics (Paris-Roubaix, Tour de Flanders, etc.). Your heart rate is at it's max, you see signs painted on the road for the pro-race. You give it every ounce of energy, like your faux-career as a pro racer depends on your ability to attack on this climb. Oh no, a cyclist stops right in front of you -- lean to the left, scrape against a tree, balance, balance, shift to an easier gear that's not there (the dud-shift), push it, now you're making contact with the guy to your right, step on the pedals, this is your moment. You're foaming at the mouth, you've got that fixed, but cloudy gaze in your eyes and you drain all of your reserves with no thoughts of the consequences. You top out in only a few minutes, have 5 minutes to recover and then you do it all over again.

My problem is that I'm always so happy to see hills that I attack every single one of them -- they're rarely longer than a mile and usually around 1/4-1/2 mile, but there are so many of them that these relentless attacks take their toll and you end each cycling day completely exhausted. Hill after hill after hill.
a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Paint-by ... I mean Ride-by-numbers:

They've got this great bike route system in the Netherlands -- all over the country. It really shines in Limburg though. You see, they've planned a web of routes, placed numbers at nearly every major intersection, and placed permanents map boards all over the place. These map boards show you your current location (with a reference number "We're at number 54") and arrows pointing to the next number(s). This allows you to make up major routes on the fly without fear of ever being lost. At any given moment, you just arrive at sign, check your locale, and head off in the direction of the next sign. Sometimes we'll plan a series of checkpoints -- ok, 54-55-58-36. Once we're at 36, we'll decide if we want to add a loop (that would be 35-25-19-18-36) or just follow the series of numbers to the closest train station for the ride back to Amsterdam. This is such a phenomenal system as seen by our American eyes. I would love to see something like this on our riding grounds back home. The sad thing is that in the best rural riding areas in the U.S., you have the kind of people who would quickly vandalize anything like this. That's really sad. I sure hope that changes some day, because such great cycling facilities encourage a happier and healthier lifestyle for an entire society. I have to be fair here though -- if you check out the picture to the left, you'll see that the numbers on the sign with arrows have been whited-out. It's not quite the bullet-holes vandalism you'd see in the American south, but it's still vandalism. People are people, I suppose, regardless of the flag that flies over their capital.

When a country gets their cycling infrastructure right, as the Netherlands has, you go out for a ride and you see so many different types of people in the outdoors, pursuing the
same joy and health benefits. Even in hill country, it's not just the racers who are out. You see families out for a spin, the elderly (we've seen a fair share of 70- and 80-somethings gliding through the country-side), people in their Sunday best, people on mountain bikes, people riding to the local pub, people riding alongside someone on a horse, people on a city bike in street clothes riding up the finishing stretch of the Amstel Gold route moments before the pro riders come through ... all types and all situations.

In addition to the ride by numbers, keep in mind that whenever you're anywhere near a village or even a slight amou
nt of traffic, you'll be on a dedicated bike path (a "fietspad" in Dutch) or in a dedicated bike lane. In the remote areas, you often lose the bike lane, but the cars just have such incredible respect for cyclists. It seems unreal. In the hundreds of miles I've logged in the Netherlands, I've never been honked at, had anything thrown at me ... never been yelled at, never been the object of obscene gestures, never been told to "buy a car" (my favorite redneck comment heard in the States). I've also never been offered cash or been handed a plate of warm brownies, so I suppose that there's still room for improvement!

Finish Line Beer: This experience brought tears to me eyes -- it really did. After 10 hard hours of riding at Limburg's Mooiste (the last 2 hours of which I was redlining the whole time), we arrived at a finish line, where I saw two scantily-clad young ladies holding trays of beer. You can hear the music
now can't you -- I know you can! Right under the Finish Line banner, I was handed a cold beer. I've trekked to the beer tent after rides before, but to be handed a beer the moment you finish, oh, that's just very special.

So, yes, there are Dutch Mountains. It takes some effort to get to them if you're living in Amsterdam, but they're there for the discovery and along with them comes all the joys (and pain) of big mountain riding!


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ride the train, berijd de trein.

As a prelude to our upcoming Dutch Mountains posting, I wanted to chat with you about train travel. Of course, as Americans, our prior experience with trains was little more than hearing freight trains in the distance on summer nights while playing kick-the-can as 7-year olds, waiting at the occasional train crossing when our handy short-cut was thwarted by loads of coal, chickens, and hobos headed for somewhere else , and watching toy trains chug through miniature landscapes ... past the depot, through the tunnel, oops the caboose just fell off and the dog just stepped on all the miniature people at the Depot. Yep, that and some flashbacks of old Western movies and of course, Blazing Saddles, represented our whole paradigm on trains until we moved to Europe.

To reach our favorite cycling destination in the Netherlands, we've been spending lots of time on trains and thus immersing ourselves in a very different transportation culture. This is quite a change from our "toss all the gear in the car and gas 'er up" mindset that we honed in the land of plenty (except for public transportation options, that is)! It requires a different preparation mindset and different expectations, but the rewards are outstanding and we get a double-bonus by being in a country with such a great cycling infrastructure. That is, we can count on never having a worry on getting to or from train stations purely by bike wherever we go in the Netherlands. There are special provisions for bikes everywhere -- on the trains, at the train stations, even on roadways fairly remote from major villages or cities.

These train trips start out as we navigate our road bikes through the streets of Amsterdam with a weekend's worth of belongings in backpacks. It's at this point that we really appreciate how well-oriented our city bikes are to uneven, cobbled road surfaces and heavy loads -- it's tough on the road bikes and we're always a bit nervous on our tiny-tired bikes as we weave our way along the canals and past the hoards of tourists to the train station! Twenty minutes later though, we're on a train with our bikes gliding through the flat countryside. It gives you a great feeling of self-reliance -- it's really liberating not to have to rely on a car and to achieve your travel objectives solely by bike and train.

We learned quickly that 1) you have to buy a separate ticket for your bike and 2) you have to board on one of the special cars with a bike sticker above the door. Now, the downside to #2 is that most people carting bikes on trains aren't carting around their fancy racing bike -- instead, they are carting around their daily driver ... their 1983 pickup truck of bikes ... their beater bike. And this is the part that makes me the most nervous and serves as fodder for the rest of this story. It always goes like this: the train pulls up. You spot the special bike sticker and as the train slows, you start walking toward it. The train keeps on moving though, so you walk and then start to run because now the special door is 100 yards away. You realize that the best bet would have been to stand still and wait for the next sticker. You finally make it to the door, carry the bikes up the steps into the train car, and place them oh, so carefully along the wall (in a special bike area). You line up the bikes for you and your traveling companions, brace them so they won't move an inch, triple-check to ensure that the cranks and skewers are aligned in such a way that no contact will be made .... no scratches on the carbon fiber surfaces, no scratches on the components, no inappropriate bike-to-bike contact. Then, you lock the bikes together just to make sure that should bandits storm the train with guns a blazin, bandanas covering their faces, and horses awaiting their getaway ... that they would have to take all the bikes together and not just one.

Seconds before the train pulls away, it always happens that someone shows up with the beater bike. You can see him coming ... it's happening in slow motion. You want to jump out of your seat and hit the button to close the door. You beg to hear the conductor's whistle signaling imminent departure, but alas, beater bike guy makes it on. You know it won't be pretty. You know that beater bike guy has no clue that instead of owning a car, you invested a car's worth of savings into a high-end bicycle. You stand up, to make your presence known and to make an awkward attempt to head-off the inappropriate bike-to-bike contact that's sure to happen. It's all happening in super slow motion, but you just can't seem to move quickly enough. You've ceased to breath because of the anxiety. Beater bike guy's basket nicks your saddle -- then, out comes the kick-stand. His jeans are making contact with your wheel -- what if something on his shoes snags my rear dérailleur and rips it off the bike?!!! Then, with the kickstand extended, you clue in on the impending lean. Mathematical calculations are whizzing trough your brain! Will it touch?!! Will it touch?!! What if the train lurches forward suddenly?

Beater bike guy leaves the bike in mid-lean and starts his walk into the main train cabin. His bike is in free-fall. The kickstand has yet to make contact with the ground. The handlebars are turning -- the basket is in full motion. The rear panniers are making their move toward your aero wheels. Your bladed spokes are cowering in fear. You try to reach for the beater bike, but you're not fast enough. It's all a blur -- not just a scratch, but a full disintegration of your carbon fiber frame flashes before your eyes. You envision spikes, blades, and big fangs extending from the beater bike and ravaging your beautiful frame -- your recreational art -- your prized steed that allows you to escape to a world of bliss. You envision millions of carbon fiber particles filling the air as your bike meets its end. Oh, the humanity, you think.

The train eases from the station as beater bike comes to rest. A stillness fills the air. Tears well up in your eyes -- just preparing themselves for escape should your frame have been damaged. You survey the situation -- taking it all in. No contact. No contact. Thank you, thank you, thank you ... no contact! Sweet, glorious music fills your mind.

For the next two hours though, you watch the bikes like a hawk. Every time the tracks shift, the bikes move and sway. You hope that the kickstand doesn't fail and allow 50 pounds of steel, rubber, and plastic to violate your prized ride. Finally, it's beater bike guy's stop. One last contact with his jeans -- one last bump of the saddle by his basket and it's over. Serenity -- sweet serenity. The bikes are alone as we complete the journey. They arrive damage-free and apart from the now expected and somewhat humorous anxiety, the trip is pleasant and just plain easy.

We exit the destination train station, toss on our backpacks, and mount our bikes. We experience our typical feeling of disorientation, find a map of the town (usually on a big sign that also shows the bike routes), and ease into a bike lane headed for our hotel or camp site. Sometimes it goes super-smoothly and sometimes our journeys are filled with multiple beater bike experiences and track repair work requiring multiple train changes and just a lot of hassle. I'd still much rather worry about a scratch on my bike and some hassles than deal with rush hour traffic and road rage!