Cycletouring the Netherlands for foreigners
definitely not by the Dutch Tourist board 


(c) m.s.gerritsen 2003-2010

(please note that any disclaimer by any lawyer ever probably applies to this page (and it wasn't me, honest!))

Cycling is for the Dutch a way of life. Everyone learns to cycle in infancy, and for short journeys cycling is the prefered mode of transport. If you go shopping, if you have to go to school, if you have to answer questions in parliament or are planning a pubcrawl the bicycle can't be beat. Some might even ride a bike for sports or as a way to keep fit, but they are a fringe minority with so many normal bikes on the road. In primary-school we have all done sums involving a cyclist at 18 km/hr, and most Dutchmen will consider this quite fast and long enough.

Theft
The Dutch ride mainly roadster (sit up and beg) bicycles, and these are supposed to keep working without maintenance. In fact maintenance is a liability, as a new rear tyre increases the risk of theft. Bike theft in Holland is a real problem and  the most popular crime, committed either by addicts looking for money or by those who have missed the last bus home. In some circles it is even considered normal to steal a similar bike if you find your own bike gone!  In 2006 760.000 bikes were reported stolen, which is about 5% of all cycles in the Netherlands! 

I would suggest to 

  • Bring a lock, and lock the bike to something solid 
  • Not to park the bike in the streets at night
  • Not to bring your bike to large cities with a population of drug addicts (walk or use trains, trams or busses if you can work out how the ticket system works. Taxi's are very expensive, and -politely put- the quality and morality of the drivers is variable) 
  • Only park your bike at railwaystations if there is a guarded facility (check the opening hours though)
  • Not to expect anything from the police (okay, perhaps a cup of coffee) 
  • Oh by the way, if you apprehend a thief be nice to him. Only police or criminals are permitted to use force, ordinary persons will be prosecuted. 
Arrival
If you arrive by plane, but want to start cycling from Schiphol Airport, print the map by the airport authority for directions. If you want to continue by train there are ticketmachines situated in the baggageclaim area, so you can get a ticket before your bags arrive. If you leave the bike packed you won't need a separate ticket for it. The trainstation is underneath the departurehall, check the large yellow noticeboards for the right stationplatform. The airporttrain to Amsterdam is ideal hunting grounds for pickpockets, so take care.

Trains
Outside of rushhour (this restriction does not apply in weekends or July and August)  it is theoretically possible to take your bike with you on the train. Getting tickets (buy before boarding!) can be quite a challenge though, as more and more humans are being replaced by ticket vendor machines. But shouting at the machine is fine, where humans might feel threatened. These machines probably accept your ATM card with a four digit PIN, but don't let this nice helpfull man in line behind you run of with it! You'll need a special ticket for the bike, and be prepared that the designated place for the bicycle is at the other end of the train. If you get there before the train has left this place will either be occupied, or to small to fit your bike. And you are supposed to remove your bags from the bike, but if you are a poor bewildered tourist the conductor might turn a blind eye.
If the trains actually run on time, please don't mention it. Complaining about NS-rail is sociably much more acceptable.

Riding in traffic
Dutch cyclists grow up around motorcars, and motorists are used to bicycles. It's a jungle out there, and the survivors have figured out a way to stay alive. To a foreign cyclist it will look totally accidental if the observed behaviour coincides with the official rules of the road. You will need some time to acclimatize, so don't tackle the busiest city first if you can help it. But take it easy the first days and you will be ok because, although it makes a poor epithaph, most drivers now realise that a cyclist can hit a car intentionally head on and it will still be the car-drivers fault by law. You'll know you're accepted into the fold when a passing motorist brushes you with his mirror, instead of giving you a wide berth as if you're an alien!
All traffic (including bicycles)  from the right has mandatory right of way, but often this is changed with road signs. Watch out for roundabouts, as the priority rules are varied from region to region to catch out the non-locals.

If you don't hinder other traffic cyclists can ride two abreast.
Busy junctions can have separate traffic lights for cyclist. Sometimes you have to push a button to get it's attention, sometimes the button is only for show ;)

Roads
To make driving a car easier we have lots of cyclepaths: 

  • We have cyclepaths to connect villages to the nearest city. But trying to ride from city to city can be a real challenge, as some vital piece might be missing necessitating a large detour without the help of signposts,
  • We have cyclepaths for tourist which don't go anywhere usefull,
  • We have cyclepaths which are mandatory for cyclists,
  • We have cyclepaths which are optional for cyclists (but forbidden for other vehicles),
  • We have cyclepaths which can be ignored by all traffic users..
If you encounter a blue round shield with a bicycle depicted this means a mandatory cyclepath.
If you encounter the rectangular sign "fietspad" only cylists are allowed to use the path, but they are welcome to use track adjacent.
If you encounter a red road surface with a bike on it, cyclist are suggested to use that bit, but without the round sign mentioned this doesn't mean much.
cycling path signcycling path signcycling path sign
(l to r) mandatory cycling path, definitely not a cycling path, optional cycling path with the ubiquitous bollards
 

Cycle paths are usually constructed with concrete tiles over treeroots, power lines and moleruns, but red 'double rolling resistance' asphalt is another option. Posts thoughtfully placed in the middle of the path to deter motorists (as if somebody would ride on a cyclepath by choice) ad excitement at night. Or the path might end suddenly with a 90 degree turn-off shooting you in front of the uncoming traffic which you can't see for the trees lining the road.

Cycling is not allowed on Motorways and trunkroads (with or without a hardshoulder), on roads armed with a round red-white sign depicting a bicycle, on roads flanked by a mandatory cyclepath, on roads where you could use the service road instead, or on the footpath. Other laws: it is legal to tow a trailer and we have no mandatory helmet law. Maximum width of a bicycle is 30" (75cm),  wider and you have to follow the rules for handcarts which are completely forgotten by motorists, cylists and cops alike.  Bicycles should be fitted with a bell, reflectors to the rear, sides and pedals, have a working brake and carry (non flashing) lights after darkness. With the exception of the lights you should, like any Dutchmen, expect to get away without any of the above! 

For cyclist who like cheating there are 'nationale fietsroutes'. These routes for cyclist avoid many of the challenges, involve nice bits of scenery and quiet roads suitable for cycling, and go to places you actually might want to go to. You could try to get a map at the tourist-office or a bookstore, but the routes are signposted. The maps for all routes are available in the guide: 'Basiskaart fietsroutes' @ € 27,50  Get the current one with the maps printed double sided on plastic material, not the old superceded one with the maps printed on watersoluble paper! Note that these routes usually include sections through forests etc, where the roadsurface is not paved. I would suggest a 35mm tyre or wider, especially in the wet season.

lf14
sign for a national cycleroute (LF14a goes in the opposite direction). Kamperen bij de Boer is also useful, it directs you to a small 'campsite at the farm'

Nodal grid ('knooppuntroute')
We even have them in the north now, so you can traverse a fair part of the country and Belgium using the nodal grid for cyclist. Nodes are provided with a signpost complete with a regional map and you can plan your route by making a list of the numbers of all the nodes you will be passing. If you buy a recent updated cycling map the numbers will be on the map too. If you have difficulty with remembering the Dutch placenames 36-38-41-29-42 might be easier to follow ;) In nature reserves the roads could be anything from tarmac to MTB style singletrack. Things to watch out for when you try to use this system:

  • the signs are rather small and usually badly positioned, which makes it difficult to anticipate forcing you to a stop or crawl at every junction
  • there might be a logical way between two nodes on the map, but if it doesn't pass the standards by the committee you'll have to detour or use your own sense of direction
  • sometimes there will be an easily missed  4" by 6" sign saying that to reach the next nodal point you have to follow some other signposted route

Routeplanner
The Fietsersbond (cyclist union) has a cool routeplanner for cyclists online. You can choose fast or scenic routes with lots of options and there is a language option too. You can print out the track of save it as a file for your GPS
or googlemaps.  It is all here:http://www.fietsersbond.nl/fietsrouteplanner/

Roadmaps.
The whole country fits on a single roadmap 1: 250000 (4 mls/") If bought at a red and yellow petrol station, price and quality will be quite reasonable. Smaller scale maps exist, but if you go north-south you'll need quite a few. Getting lost in the Netherlands is probably possible, but before long you'll run into one of the 16 million Dutchman who are eager to show off their english.

GPS
If you prefer a map for your GPS download the free 'Openfietsmap' at http://sites.google.com/site/openfietsmap/  By all reports this one is miles better than anything you can buy! Not surprisingly it is the work of a Cyclist!

Hills
Most of the country will disappear if we switch off the pumps. So not surprisingly we have very few hills and to confuse matters more the ones we have are often called mountains (= berg)! These can be found in the south (The Belgian Ardennes extend into Limburg) or scattered around the National park Hoge Veluwe bang in the middle of the country (Veluwezoom, Sallandse Heuvelrug, Utrechtse Heuvelrug). Dutch racing cyclist will know all these hills by heart, foreigners will probably fail to spot them. Don't leave your granny gear at home though, because what we do have is Wind! The country is very open in places and you could face a tough headwind all day long. If you're lucky the headwind will be dry ;). 

Signposts
We have lots of signposts in the Netherlands. Red letters on white are signposts for cyclist (these usually point to one out of a series of 10 different hamletts in about the same direction), blue/white signs for motorcars actually mention the place you want to go. Too bad you don't know about that bit of motorway in between. Green on white signs are also used for extra long (?) and scenic cycleroutes. Black lettering on yellow is used for detours, as it is common with road reconstruction to block the whole road instead of mucking about with temporary traffic-lights and single file. On a bike the best approach is to ignore these signs and press on. Occasionally this won't work as you'll find a bridge completely gone, but more often you' ll avoid a lot of -illegal for cyclists- motorways and silly detours by just walking a short stretch and asking nicely!

mushroom signsignpost for cyclists
signposts for cyclists...
 
doodlopende weg
mtb route
More signs for cyclist. Left: Uitgezonderd means excepted, so this dead end will continue as a cyclepath. Right: Not very useful for touring: this sign is used for a MTB track

doorgaande
                    weg
Doorgaand verkeer = through route, cyclists should turn right (red lettering) . This also happens to be in the direction of the tourist office (VVV)

detour
Temporary sign: doorgaand (through route) verkeer (traffic) gestremd (blocked) uitgezonderd (excepted). Naturally bicycles don't deserve a mention

E-bikes
You know it must be weekend with a good forecast when the E-bikes come out in force.  The typical E-bike is bought in pairs by couples who can't ride a bike worth a damn to enable them to terrorise a larger part of the country. They will pull left without looking over their shoulder, come round blind bends on narrow tracks through the forest with the power setting on 11 and ride two abreast oblivious to other road users. Signs to look out for are bikes with fat hubs, erratic pedaling (pedal only half a turn to prevent the electronics from cutting out, saddles too low, matching outfits warmer than a cyclist could stand, and blue rinse. They are all deaf as a post and will complain loudly that you should have used your bell. You have been warned!

Food
24 hour economy refers in the Netherlands to the working week. If you want to buy food you'll find most supermarkets close at 20:00, and they won't be open on Sundays unless the management is really clever and you're well clear of the biblebelt! In rural area's they might close even earlier. On the plus side, cafe's and bars are much more liberal, and in some cities it is possible to keep drinking around the clock. If you're over 16 and manage to stagger to the next place that is. Tee-totalers might not appreciate the Dutch Coffeeshop thoughtfully situated near airport or border, although no alcohol is served in those places. On the subject of coffee, many supermarkets have a free courtesy coffeemachine in the back of the store. 

If you want fastfood drive past the McDonalds and go to an authentic cafetaria. Get yourself a ' grote patat met" (large french fries with mayonaise) or something similar unhealthy (who cares, if you're cycling you need all the calories you can get;) ) and save some money.Top of the bill is a 'Kapsalon' where you can actually feel your arteries clogging up ;)  If you survive you can go for jellied eels or fresh herrings next!

Camping
You're not supposed to camp in the wilds or in what we consider wilderness. You'll probably fail to spot our nature reserves because we have nature organised. This is big business involving committees, planning permission, designers and heavy earthmoving equipment. Certainly not something to be left to nature, which is why it looks different.  But if you pick your stealth camping-spot with care you could be ok, just don't try this in the height of the tourist season in coastal resorts. Evasion of the tourist tax is frowned upon! Campings are probably closed october-april. If you decide to tour in the off-season, you'd better bring decent rain gear. With a sea-climate being out all day on a bike on a rainy day would not be my idea of fun.
The latest thing is that wild camping in our organised wilderness is now organised and regulated too! In some forests, spots are marked where you can pitch your tent for the night. Don't look for it on the site of our forestry commision: staatbosbeheer. it is unintelligible, and knowing Dutch doesn't make it any better.The Hiking site has a list with placenames and GPS coordinates of the sites (click on the map (the red spots don't mean a thing) and you get a list of the closests spots. Pitch your tent within sight of the pole and boil the water (there should be a well) before consumption. Take your trash, don't build a fire and leave within three days.
If, like most cyclists, you like your campsite simple and quiet but with a hot shower, you could try the campsites by the Dutch forestry commision. You'll need a permit (valid for upto 4 persons) and a list of sites whch can be obtained at the first campsite you visit: http://www.natuurkampeerterreinen.nl/en/index.html

Friends on Bicycles (Vrienden op de fiets)
If you're not the camping type you will appreciate the foundation Vrienden op de Fiets. This is a widespread network of people offering a room and a breakfast for fellow cyclist for 19.00€ or less.You'll have to join the foundation for the adresses, but it 's only a nominal fee. They have a website and the link for the english language section is hidden in the blue bar at the top, to ensure than only proper cyclist will join! 

Things to do on a bike

  • Ride the Afsluitdijk, the dike which turned the Zuyderzee into the fresh water lake IJsselmeer  Depending on the wind, this could take you all day. Another tough one could be Enkhuizen-Lelystad, which goes halfway through the IJsselmeer and which is notorious for mosquitos (The ferry Enkhuizen-Stavoren might be more fun)
  • Visit Velorama, the bicycle museum in Nijmegen
  • Ask the miller if you can take a look inside if you spot a working windmill
  • Visit Groningen, which was once voted Fietsstad (cycling town) of the year. The cyclepaths fitted with sleeping policemen probably clinched it!
  • Ride along one of our rivers (Waal, Rijn, IJssel) over the river dike, and enjoy the timeless landscape by Rembrand cs. (or see the originals in the Rijksmuseum allthough most of the museum is closed for alterations) 
  • Eat lunch, leaning against a Drents Hunebed (Megalithic gravetomb made of very large stones in the province of Drente)
  • Take a girl friend home on the luggage carrier after a night out.
  • Get your picture taken by one of our many speedcamera's! (only a few km's over the limit should do it, and motorists will love you for it)
Things not to do with a bike
  • Many cyclepaths through the Dunes are fitted with barriers, speedbumps and other attractions to turn away cyclists. You might have to unload to get your bike through the narrow barriers!
  • Ride without lights in darkness. Ride with a blinky in rural area's: city cops will be happy that you have some sort of light, rural cops have enough time on their hands to write a ticket!  By law the lights should be fitted to the bike, not to the person but it has recently been officially announced that this won't be enforced (officially not enforcing official law is the Dutch way of doing things, and Gedoogbeleid could soon be a word in your language too!)
  • Take your bike with you in shops or restaurants, unless you're very good at 'sorry I'm a foreigner...'
Cycleshops
Although the majority of cycleshops specialize in the repair and sales of sit up and beg bicycles, there are plenty of racing and MTB shops who can work on a touring bicycle. Just stop the first person on a halfway decent bike and ask for directions. Dedicated touring gear will be harder to find if you don't know where to look. (If you're stuck you can always contact me for suggestions)

Renting a bike.
Some shops rent out decent recumbents. See www.ligfiets.net for details. At stations or in tourist resorts it is often possible to rent a Dutch roadster. I know of no place where you could rent a decent touring bike. You could try buying a second-hand bike (The Dutch version of Craigslist is at Marktplaats.nl) and if at a shop negotiating to have them take it back after your trip. (Edit: Sneltweewielers.nl in Utrecht rents touring bikes, Bike4travel.nl (Rotterdam) rents tandems and trailers)  

Holidays
We have more holidays than we know what to do with, and they are all thoughtfully positioned late spring/early summer. The anniversary of our Queen (30-4) is a nice example as the real anniversary of our current Queen Beatrix is ignored because of the possibilty of inclement weather. We've stuck to her late mothers birthday as it makes so much more sense!

Phones
Due to the widespread use of cellphones, public phones are dissappearing fast. Coin operated phones are rare due to vandalism, so you'll need a phonecard. Phones at trainstations are operated by a different company than the phones everywhere else. If you bring a cellphone make sure it takes a simmcard and doesn't have a simmlock so you can use a locally obtained prepay card. Even then phoning home will cost a fortune, but receiving one won't be so bad. Texting will be cheaper than voice.

Internet
I'd try a public library or asking your host. And many people have wireless, so you could stumble on an open connection by accident;) Many cafe's etc will also offer free wifi.

Emergencies
Dial freephone 112 for police, ambulance or fireservices. If dialed from a portable phone you are routed to a national switchboard, in which case proper directions to the location are even more important. Expect the operator to be able to speak -basic- english.

Medical care
Doctors are well hidden behind answering machines and are often organised in collectives to ensure they have enough days off. Don't waste too much time trying to find one and head for the emergency department of any hospital.Unlike US doctors a Dutch physician will not try to prescribe the entire contents of the pharmacy to cover every unlikely eventuality, even though the same medication will cost a lot less here ;). 

Natural dangers
Biggest natural danger is probably drowning if you haven't learnt how to swim. If you accidently fall in, first try if you can stand. Many canals aren't very deep.

There aren't many dangerous plants but touching stinging nettles will be very unpleasant. Especially after some rain you will spot them hanging out over the cyclepath, looking for a bit of leg. Rub the offending spots with the crushed leaves of ground ivi or plantain. Avoid Bereklauw (Hogweed) too.

Animals: Dutch wild animals are pretty well behaved. In theory you could get run over by deer, catch rabies near the German border, get savaged by a wild boar (in the national park Hoge Veluwe), get bitten by an adder (poisonous snake) or get stung by bees but you would have to work at it. The exception are ticks, many of which are infected with Lyme's disease. If you are bitten by one remove it as soon as possible, within 24 hrs. If you subsequently notice any red discoloration spreading around the bite or get flu-like symptons consult a doctor straight away.  Another pest in the south of the country, active from the middle of May till July can be the Oak processionary, whose poisenous hairs can cause asthma and skin irritation. You might encounter warning signs "
Processierups"
 

stinging nettle
Stinging nettle, aka brandnetel
 

Other dangers
About 200 people were murdered in the Netherlands in 2005, and about the same number of cyclists died in a traffic incident. In other words, if personal safety is a concern don't go home. Some neighbourhoods will not be as nice as others, but we don't have no-go zones as in the USA or France.