The weekday streets and bike paths of Amsterdam's Eastern Docklands are reassuringly deserted as I lurch past my brother's apartment on his second-hand Dutch granny bike.
The bike may be a Gazelle, one of the best Dutch bike brands, but I'm as graceful as a newborn hippo. Yet after a few shaky moments, I feel confident I won't end up in a canal and ready to tackle a slice of the Tour of Italy and, my dream ride, the Tour de France.
My brother Stuart and his girlfriend Sue are living in Amsterdam for a year and quicker than they can say "free accommodation", I fly over for a holiday. Inspired by the local bike culture, Stuart and I plan to cycle around the Netherlands and the Flanders region of Belgium for 11 days.
Coincidentally, both this year's Tour de France and Giro d'Italia started in the Netherlands. The 2010 edition of Le Tour hosted a time trial through the streets of Rotterdam, followed by a stage ride from Rotterdam to Brussels via the Delta Project and Antwerp. The Giro d'Italia held a time trial in Amsterdam, a stage ride from Amsterdam to Utrecht and a stage ride from Amsterdam to Middelburg.
Our plan is to cycle from Amsterdam to Antwerp via Utrecht, before passing through Gent and Brugge (often seen in English as Ghent and Bruges) on the way to Middelburg. We will then cycle up the coast, cross the dams of the Delta Project and make our way to Rotterdam and back to the Dutch capital. While our trip may seem arduous to a Tour de France couch potato, the Netherlands and Flanders are ideal for the casual cyclist, with a flat landscape, dedicated cycling infrastructure, a network of long-distance bike routes and celebrated cycling culture. Not to mention plenty of opportunities for coffee, cake and beer along the way. The locals are fluent in English, too, no doubt due to the endless repeats of Knight Rider on Dutch television.
We plan to use Stuart and Sue's second-hand "omafiets" and "opafiets", or grandma and grandpa bikes. These old single-speed, back-pedal brake "upright" bikes, fitted with panniers, are designed for short urban trips. The locals think we're mad to cycle around the country on them and I agree, given Sue's omafiets looks old enough to have been ridden by a grandmother in her irresponsible youth.
My first couple of days in Amsterdam are a hectic combination of sightseeing, trip preparation and introduction to cycling, Dutch-style. Amsterdam looks like bike utopia compared with Sydney, yet there's a particular rhythm and etiquette to cycling that takes some adjustment.
I struggle to negotiate the various cars, trams, mopeds, oblivious tourists and carefree local cyclists. My favourite is the "dog-rider" who, instead of walking the several dogs in her care, rides with them on the bike path, causing chaos. Aside from the obvious attractions such as the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House, the greatest joy is simply cycling around the beautiful streets and canals of Amsterdam, stopping for coffee and Dutch apple cake at Cafe Winkel and a beer at the Brouwerij 't IJ, a small brewery next to a traditional Dutch windmill.
After three days in Amsterdam, including a day ride to Edam, we set off for Utrecht in light drizzle that soon turns into brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures. My cliched expectations are indulged as we cycle through the Dutch countryside, passing picturesque villages, windmills and canals. I'm pleasantly surprised by the beautifully manicured houses and quaint gardens that often incorporate funny garden ornaments, moats and farm animals.
We arrive in Utrecht in the afternoon, with time only for a sandwich and an excellent guided tour of the Domtoren (church bell tower), the tallest in the country. As the sun begins to set on some of the most spectacular scenery of the whole trip, we race to reach Gouda before nightfall. It's immensely satisfying overtaking the locals on our old bikes.
The next day begins with a typical hearty Dutch breakfast, a quick tour of Gouda's town square and an obligatory visit to a cheese shop. We depart for Kinderdijk, crossing the Molenkade River by car ferry before encountering one of the toughest hill climbs of the trip: the short incline from the ferry up to the main road, a challenge on an overloaded omafiets with bulging panniers.
Kinderdijk is a compact World Heritage-listed site where 19 picture-postcard Dutch windmills are set close together. On a clear sunny day, it is windmill heaven.
On day four, we cross the Belgian border, disappointed by the lack of signs and fanfare. We celebrate with nougat in the woods of De Zoom-Kalmthoutse Heide, a cross-border nature reserve.
Eventually, we reach Antwerp and, like the Tour de France riders, cycle along the Scheldt River, past Antwerp Castle and the old docks.
Aside from the elation of riding from Amsterdam to Antwerp, the main town square holds special significance to us. Dad's black-and-white photograph of mum standing by Brabo Fountain is one of our few surviving family treasures. Now we are standing in the same spot, trying to re-create that picture and create a few new ones for future generations.
If only our parents had warned us, however, about the International Seaman's House, with its hospital-inspired decor and the blood-smeared mosquitoes splattered on the walls of our room.
We enjoy a rest day wandering around Antwerp's Gothic architecture, sampling such Belgian delicacies as chips with mayonnaise, waffles and Trappist beers. Overnight stays in Gent and Brugge complete the trifecta of historic Flemish towns as we ride on to Middelburg in the Netherlands, passing through a rural landscape of gorgeous fields, red-roofed farmhouses and tiny churches. After crossing the seemingly non-existent border, we follow the North Sea Cycle Route to the coast.
Much of Middelburg's city centre was destroyed in 1940 by the same German aerial bombing that destroyed much of Rotterdam. While Middelburg survived and was rebuilt, German tourists now invade the town each summer, according to our B&B host.
Strong winds greet us the next day as we ride in slipstream formation to the Delta Project, a massive engineering system of dykes, locks and storm-surge barriers built following a flood that killed 2000 people in 1953.
We ride over the Oosterschelde Stormvloedkering, which is three kilometres of moveable dams that took 10 years to build and formed part of this year's Tour de France. I'm sure it makes for stunning television but up close it's ... breezy. The abundant wind turbines aren't here for decoration. Forget flooding, I'm surprised the country doesn't blow away.
Eventually we reach Neeltje Jans, an artificial island that was built towards the end of the 1960s and served as the construction site for the main elements of the storm surge barrier. Now it is the site of a theme park that's only worth visiting for the Delta Expo, where we learn more about the tragic flood and engineering project.
We're relieved to conquer the strong winds and arrive in Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands. While it lacks Amsterdam's well-preserved houses and canals, there is much to admire, such as the views from the Euromast, the iconic Cubic Houses and the Erasmus Bridge, the latter a striking backdrop for the Rotterdam prologue to the Tour de France.
All too soon we reach the outskirts of Amsterdam. By now, our bikes are falling apart but I've grown to love my adopted granny. Our ride may not be worthy of a yellow jersey but we feel triumphant, if tired. A seat in an Amsterdam bar is the only winner's podium I need.
Have you ever been to Amsterdam?
Written by Ian Wilson. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.
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