The Penultimate Day: Millingen aan de Rijn to Zaltbommel
There are only three things to say about cycling in Holland: wind, wind, and more wind. There is a rhythm to cycling and it becomes meditative and therapeutic, but every now and then, it’s not like that at all. It is soul destroying. Today, every bone and muscle in my body ache; to put it bluntly, today was total shit.
For starters, I didn’t know which route to take. In Holland, the Rhine splits into various estuarial waterways, namely: the Waal, the Maas, the Lek, the Nederrijn, the Oude Rijn, and the Rijn canal. My guide map suggests going north to Arnhem and then to zigzag around the Nederrijn, Oude Rijn, and the Rhine canal towards Rotterdam. However, my online guide for all river-route cycling recommends the Waal route via Nijmegen. My online guide is highly informative and, with the creation of his own cycling club called the ‘Over 50 with Bad Knees Bike Club,’ the author is also very entertaining and amusing. After procrastinating over breakfast, I decided to take the Nijmegen route.
After just a few kilometres, I hit the wind. Even though for three out of the last four weeks I cycled a rough average of eighty kilometres per day, today felt incredibly tough. I recognise Nijmegen from a previous visit and I cycle to the Tourist Information Centre to buy a map. Strangely, it’s closed on Saturdays. I then carry my bicycle down the high steps to the riverfront; the cycle route signs disappeared, but I know I need to be near the river. At this point I feel fine. Little did I know what lay ahead of me.
The wind is unreal; warm yet intensely strong, it acts almost as an invisible barrier against my forward motion. I cycle inland for a while, but the terrain bores me. There are good quality cycle lanes all the way, both inland and along the river, but I always choose to be near the river when possible. Whenever I head riverside, there’s a better view, but when it’s so open, there is also incessant wind. It seems I am always riding into the wind, fighting against it to make slow progress. Occasionally it is at my side, but never behind me, never at my back to give me any help. Hardly anyone rides in my direction. Cyclists in lycra on road bikes fly past in the other direction, but my unfit mother would go just as fast as them in this wind. I’m not sure what is worse; cycling into the wind or trying to stay upright when it comes from the side. No wonder they have windmills all over this country.
I stop in Druten. I am so fed up with my ride. Progress is slow, the wind fighting my efforts to put kilometres on the clock. It’s said that the wind is a poor man's hill, but this is unlike any hill I’ve ever attempted. So far most of the time has been spent stuck in first gear, and I certainly do not remember being in top gear all day. I am tempted to stop altogether in Dreumel, but I don’t have the heart to go the one kilometre off the cycle route into town to find a guest house this early in the day. I stop and sulk at a bus stop. Every bone aches. My finger, which I hurt earlier on this trip and which I thought was healing, is now in agony because I grip the handlebars so tightly to keep my bicycle upright. My chest and stomach ache, in addition to my arse, thighs, knees, calves, shoulders, hands, and elbows.
Eventually, I crawl into Zaltbommel exhausted. Today I biked a measly seventy kilometres, with an average speed of thirteen kilometres per hour. The cycle path signs disappear too. After a couple of roundabouts too many, I find my way into town. I see a road sign for Hotel Prins, a beacon at the top of the high street. I pedal for my El Dorado. A grunting Chinaman outside directs me into the restaurant next door. Maybe I look like I need some nourishment. His poorly attired wife wants forty-five euros from me and does not stop poking and touching me. I don't know whether the price is for a room or for some other service that I am clearly incapable of providing to her; she’s picked the wrong guy on the wrong day. I finally agree to see the room. The stairs, even without carrying my bags up, nearly kill me and the room is filthy. I leave the keys on the bar and run or, more precisely, stumble tiredly out to reclaim my bicycle.
I cycle another circuit of the town. It’s bigger than I had previously thought and I desperately search for Tourist Information. I’m directed to a building in the town square, which throbs with people. It appears that everyone wants shelter from the wind. My bike falls over as I try to park it; I’m so tired. I spot at the Tourist Information and inside I ask for a recommendation for a guest house. I can’t believe the first hotel the woman calls is Hotel Prins and, while she’s on the telephone, I gesticulate wildly for somewhere else. She tries a few others in town, but they are all full. She eventually gets me in at the hotel I had cycled past an hour ago on the way into Zaltbommel and the only rooms left are luxury rooms at an expensive eighty euros per night. I ride back there, via several dead ends and wrong turns. The hotel is a ring road, car-friendly, standard issue hotel, perfectly appropriate for my bad day.
I am so worn out that I take a bath in my luxury room to soak my muscles. I am alive enough now to visit the bar of the hotel, but there’s not a chance I will cycle into town for dinner. I struggle to decide whether to give up on my journey or persevere. I have eighty kilometres or so left to reach Rotterdam tomorrow, but I know I cannot have another day like today. Will anybody know if I rob a car and drive into Rotterdam and throw my bike into the North Sea?
The Final Day: Zaltbommel to Rotterdam
This is incredible; after a few kilometres, I am speeding along in top gear! There are no signposts and there are so many dead ends, but I do not care. I race and there is no wind! I arrive at Brekal quickly. This town was my fall back plan. Cycle to here and if the wind is too bad, cycle back along the other side of the Waal with the wind at my back to Zaltbommel train station. I take the ferry across the river. I’m excited and my good spirit returns. There’s something about being on a ferry, crossing a mighty river. As a born and bred Liverpudlian, growing up on the banks of the River Mersey with its famous ferry, it never fails to excite me.
On the other side of the river, there is the ubiquitous Dutch bike autobahn – a high quality, tarmac cycle path complete with road markings, but usually with no signs. I think the Dutch have these because everyone cycles in the same way, always using the wind and, because they only cycle with the wind, there is no need for signs. There are signs to ‘give-way’ or for ‘no entry,’ just no directional signs. I reach Gorinchem with my faith in cycling restored and I arrive sooner than I had imagined.
I stop and watch the boats traverse the canal via the sluice gates. I had thought about stopping for a coffee, but it’s too good of a ride at the moment. I spot a sign giving direction and mileage to Rotterdam, my final destination. It gives me such a fantastic boost of energy and hope. I cycle past a church and, at the end of the service, the congregation dressed in their Sunday clothes get on their big Dutch bikes to cycle home. Together with the holy cyclists, I have to stop at a road bridge that is raised for ships to pass through.
Dordrecht also passes quickly and I plough on to Rotterdam. I cycle past de Kuip (Football Club Feyenoord's stadium) and then across the Erasmusbrug, and arrive in the centre of Rotterdam. I am tired, but it has been such an enjoyable ride today, even though yesterday did leave its indelible stamp.
Later, I enjoy a couple of celebratory wines in an outside bar on the banks of the Maas River. It’s a weird ending to my Rhine odyssey. Yesterday, I was so close to forfeiting. I think about the whole journey; I trusted it and I made it. It is also strange that the Rhine splits and I actually followed the Waal, but now I sit on the banks of the Maas. I thought the river traffic may die down after the separation at the delta, but both the Waal and the Maas were just as busy as the Rhine.
Quietly, I reflect back to the stunningly beautiful sections, those right on the banks of the river itself, and the wonderful solitude of my cycling. I enjoyed the ferry rides to cross the river at various points and, of course, there were some long slogs in the heat. The worst of the worst was the penultimate day in the wind, much worse than falling off my bicycle in Schaffhausen and my frustration with the non-existent signs. I guess in the same way as Camino de Santiago walkers must feel, I am glad it's done, but right now I’m quietly satisfied that I completed a thousand kilometres or so of cycling along the Rhine, from Lake Constance to Rotterdam.
Summary: This article is an adaptation from my book Revolutions: Wandering and Wondering on a Sabbatical Year. For anyone stuck in a rut, this is a compelling tale to deal with change and to follow your dreams.
Photo's by Author
Pete Martin is an author of transformational journeys. “After twenty-five years in the corporate world, I quit my job to travel. When I am not travelling, I am either cycling or writing about travel. I also coach those who are stuck and who seek help to fulfil their travel dreams. Please reach out to me. There are still too many places I haven’t been to, but my one “bucket list” journey is to cross the Indian Ocean by ship.”