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Film by Ertzui Film
Memories of Holland
Thinking about Holland, I see broad rivers moving slowly through endless lowlands, rows of unthinkably thin poplars standing as high plumes one above the other; and sunken within wonderful space, farm houses scattered throughout the land, clusters of trees, villages, cropped towers, churches and elms in one great association. The air hangs low and the sun is slowly muffled in a grey mottled fog, and in the many provinces the voice of the water, with its eternal calamities, is feared and heard.
– Hendrik Marsman
Do you remember last April? It was meant to be spring and yet it was relentlessly horrible. Four to six degrees Celsius, raining all day long, the sun dim and distant.
That was the story of our ride, in short, although I have to admit that the wind was in our favour for parts of the day. It followed us, whipping the waves as they came in along the coast, reminding us of the force that we had to fight against.
We stopped for onion soup more times than I can remember. The pubs and cafés make it in giant vats, and serve it with lumps of Gouda and fresh bread. We’d rush inside, trembling, and ask for onion soup without even looking at the menu.
I don’t know who did it first, but someone had the idea of taking off our shoes, socks, gloves and hats, and holding them in the stream of hot air from a hand drier. Most of the places we stopped only had one drier in the toilets, and we’d crowd around it, laughing at the odd ritual that developed.
I don’t know if it helped at all, in truth, but it felt like it helped, and I think that is enough. There was never really enough time to fully dry kit under the hand drier, so most times you were faced with the nasty prospect of putting wet socks and shoes back on recently warmed feet.
I was born in Germany, in the south, near the border with Switzerland and Austria. I had Lake Constance and the Northern Alps on my doorstep, all this height and sunshine and majesty – then we go riding in the Netherlands and it’s hard to think that this place is even on the same continent. You could walk to Lake Constance from the Netherlands, if you really needed to, but it feels like a totally different world.
The people we met were so friendly and so interested in what we were doing. They were all so highly educated, it seemed, and every time I spoke to someone for more than ten minutes we’d end up talking about painters and poets and photographers.
It rained everyday. I don’t mind the rain, I happily ride in it, but this rain was strong, cold, and brought the visibility down to just a couple of metres. It was a storm, a real storm.
When visibility improved, we were met with a very strange beauty. We rode from Rotterdam to Amsterdam through a protected area – sand dunes rose up on one side of us, and the sea sat on the other.
The wind picked up grains of sand and blasted them through the air, and when this touched your skin it was painful, really painful. Any exposed bit of skin became raw and sore. We were riding 160km per day, long days made longer by the wind, and you’d finish the day with salt and sand on every inch of you. You must trash bikes, living there. There was no way of getting all that sand and sea salt out of every small space.
When the wind was behind you, you could pedal at 60km/h. It was frightening at first, it felt so unusual and dangerous, but we soon got used to it. At one point in the middle of the last day I tried to move n to a harder gear, only to see that I was already in the 53×12, no more gears left, the scenery blurring past me from the speed.
When the wind was to the side, we organised echelons – it’s the only way to protect yourself. Many of the roads were raised from the ground, I think to provide a barrier between the sea and the land. They were so hard to ride on because they put you above any obstacles that could deflect the wind. There was no place to hide.
We saw hardly any traffic for days. Much of the route was lined by canals, which were so peaceful. Then, on countryside roads or the roads that took us to the town centres, we were afforded so much respect by the cars that it was like riding on closed roads. It was a reminder that cycling is a priority there, not an afterthought.
Road cycling in the Netherlands
For me, the first things to come to mind are the hills in the South, especially those short, steep stinkers from the Amstel Gold Race. After that, it’s the flatlands – with a lot of cows and a lot of wind. Remember Stage 13 of the 2013 Tour? There’s a reason the Dutch and Belgian teams ripped the peloton apart with such ease.
There’s a beauty in riding in such a windy, flat country. They are invisible mountains, where the gradient is measured by the wrinkles and waves on the water, and the diagonal positioning of the branches on the trees. You come around a corner into a wall of wind, almost coming to a stop – your only choice is to sit in and ‘stoemp’ up these invisible hills. When climbing regular mountains you aim for the next hairpin and, in the distance, you can see the little café at the summit. When you reach the summit, there’s a little plaque marking the altitude and your achievement, so you stop for a celebratory photo and talk with your friends about how you have just climbed the same iconic mountain from some stage of the 1968 Giro, or similar.
You get none of that in the lowlands – it’s just you and the wind, fighting until the next turn, the next village.
Of course, you come to hold dear the days when there is less wind – there is no such thing as a day with no wind – but the simplicity of your personal battle with the wind gives a satisfaction that is hard to explain. If you give up, the wind punishes you immediately. Always keep the pressure on, always move power through the pedals without standing up – standing only benefits the enemy.
More than often, the wind brings its friend the rain. Heavy and horizontal, the rain works with the wind to beat you up. But then, after duking it out for kilometres, it’s there: victory and its sweet reward, tailwind.