There must have been some online organised cycling event in North Bedfordshire today. There were dozens of cyclists out on the roads, many of them ploughing the same furrow, usually about 1-2km apart, most of them intent on keeping up a pace….
Did we witness a Strava-organised sportive or time trial? There was something suspiciously consistent about the numbers, pace and distance apart…..
We, however, pootled along on the tandem, enjoyed the bright sunshine, took in the scents and colours of the rampant spring, and generated an appetite for a steak lunch.
With apologies to Rudyard Kipling:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on COVID19,
If you can trust your judgement when many doubt official advice,
But make allowance for their doubting too……
Keep calm and ride your tandem bicycle…..to some remote spot, at the end of a tiny country lane with no exit, and sit quietly in the early spring sunshine watching the sheep graze lazily, the early bumblebees forage for nectar, and the crows root around in the undergrowth gathering material for their nesting sites.
Melchbourne is one such spot. A tiny hamlet at the end of a road, with its cluster of houses built within the grounds of the 18th century Melchbourne House. Amongst its recent inhabitants are included Sir Percy Scot, a diplomat who helped found the modern Iraq; Audrey Lawson-Johnston, last living survivor of HMS Lusitania that was sunk by the Germans in 1915; and Sarah Kennedy, a well-known BBC Radio presenter.
A Dutch Lutheran minister and his wife were riding their tandem in the dark, and were stopped by a policeman for not having lights. “Not to worry said the minister, the Lord is with me”. The policeman said “Since when was the Lord a woman?”.
Ever heard of the ‘Dutch reach‘? If not, you’re probably not a learner driver, nor a cyclist. For the safety of cyclists on the road, new drivers in the UK are being taught to open their doors using the opposite hand, to force them to look behind for overtaking cyclists. Of course, they don’t call it the ‘Dutch reach’ in Holland…..it’s just what we do, said one Dutchman. And Dutch people never ever use fear of traffic to prevent them from riding a bike, which is the most common reason given by British people who might otherwise be persuaded to leave their cars at home and do all manner of everyday errands on a bike. We have a lot to learn still. As Dutch drainage engineers did for us in draining the fens, we need to invite a cohort of Dutch urban planners to sort out our transport infrastructure once and for all. They are the world’s best, believe me. Here are a few other moments we savoured on our journey:
In Amsterdam, a pedestrian stepped into the road and was knocked over by a tandem, sustaining bruises and scratches. The tandem captain said: “Phew you were lucky!”. “What d’you mean ‘lucky’?” said the pedestrian. “Well, I normally drive a tram…….”
Let’s not be literal on this one….a ‘Dutch treat’ is yet another expression for paying your own way (are the Dutch really that stingy?)….but a riverside café was a happy chance discovery, and meeting a family group including a 99 year old gentleman was an even happier occurrence.And when I discovered he had a favourite local sweet delicacy called a hazelino, I had to have one….and he kindly posed to ‘model it’ before I dived in to demolish it.Delft is yet another classically pretty town of the Dutch canal variety, every street an open-air museum of imaginative urban planning, rounded off by a fascinating museum telling the story of the assassination of William the Silent, and the 80 year war between the Protestant rebels and the Spanish Catholic incumbents….it divided the Netherlands for centuries, and even today, there is still a demarcation line that separates the country into two halves….but now, happily, without the internecine aggression. A great finale to our Dutch adventure was to be hosted by another delightful couple, Manon (French) and Florian (German),both with widely varying interests in cycling, walking and climbing. We spent the evening refuelling on excellent food and wine, sharing our various experiences of Cuba, and debating the subtleties of urban cycling infrastructure (Florian is completing his PhD thesis on the topic). Unbelievably, when we set off for the ferry port at the Hook the next day, it was actually raining….so we donned our waterproofs for the first, and only, time…..😀
Dutch tandemists were passed by an oncoming car, the driver waving his arm out of the window shouting: “Pigs, pigs……!!”. Deeply offended by the insult, they pressed down hard on the pedals and sped round the corner….and, sure enough, they collided with a herd of pigs!
And no, a ‘Dutch roll’ is not a cheese sandwich made with Gouda cheese, or any other cheese, but a particular form of aircraft wiggle in the air, imitating the roll of a Dutch ship. I often liken our standing start on the tandem to a plane getting ready for take-off. We need a bit of runway to taxi until we can take off and get up to cruising speed. And the ride can often seem like a flight, weaving in and out, avoiding other road-users and street furniture….
So with the excessive heat, we made an early start (8am), and said goodbye to our hosts in Leiden. Erik and Lia were not only fellow cycling enthusiasts, but also fellow tandem riders, with several multi-week rides under the belt. Their exploits have included Cuba, around the British Isles and the length of Spain. But much more curious and fascinating was Erik’s fascination with the journeys of a French fictional child character in a book by Hector Malot entitled Sans Famille who did a Phileas Fogg-style of journey across Europe totalling some 6000km, and Erik is endeavouring to complete the same journey by bike. Extraordinary and totally unique….
Our ride to Gouda was straightforward, missing the searing heat of the afternoon, and we settled to enjoy the twice-hourly carillon chimes from the city hall,
sitting in air-conditioned comfort for lunch, and meandering along the inevitable canal with its spectacular floral decorations. And, of course, the cheeses, the stroopwafel with ice cream, and the history of the clay pipe.
A Dutch tandeming couple had a marriage-threatening argument one day, and the husband stormed off on his solo bike, riding 80km every day to let off steam. After 7 days he said he felt much happier….now that he was 560km away!
We all know that taking Dutch leave is the equivalent of being AWOL, playing truant, bunking off without permission……well, today that was us….yep, I humbly confess that we ‘bunked off’. So, on an independently arranged cycletour, how do you ‘bunk off’?
Well, we took the train……yes I know (yawn), it is cheating….it’s not in the spirit….it’s playing by the wrong set of rules….but who makes the rules? Well, we do of course…..so we make and break them. The reason? Temperatures here in Holland were climbing into the high 30s, (40C+ had been recorded in Eindhoven) when sensible people take special measures to simply survive. So, we let common sense rule…….OK?
Last night’s Warmshowers hosts, Dirk and Veerle, were exceptional. After a picnic supper, we headed out for ice creams, then on to a favourite bathing spot where Veerle could take a dive into a canal and have a swim…..but, she declared, the water was a bit too warm…..
….air conditioned, lots of space even for a tandem, comfortable……we could have stayed on it all day….but instead, when we got to Leiden, we made a beeline for the Museum of Lakenhal, recently refurbished and a cool haven in the heat…..one of the best museums we have ever visited……anywhere. More than adequate compensation for the missed cycle ride.
A Dutch couple on a tandem were climbing the L’Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, and the stoker said “Blimey, that was really hard going…..such a steep climb”. “Just as well I kept the brake on”, said the captain “otherwise we would have gone backwards”
After a very hot, sticky night, I climbed up to the top deck of the boat to greet the sun, to enjoy the cool of the dawn, to discuss political shenanigans with an anti-BoJo Scot who had slept on the deck with his teenage son,
and to admire the view from our breakfast lounge.
For €18pp B&B, this was a rare deal indeed, and one to be savoured….
Browsing the forecast ahead of us, we had every reason to shy away from mounting the tandem, but it was only 24km to Amsterdam which, in normal conditions, is a mere pootle in the park, but when it’s in the mid-30s, it can be a trial by ordeal.
But why Double Dutch? Our English metaphor for gobbledegook…..well, to back up my Garmin routing, we switched on Mrs Google in my back pocket while we rode, and Jenny had to repeat everything I couldn’t hear clearly because of traffic noise, so that I knew where to go…..well, you can imagine the fun we had with the pronunciation of street and place names! The common factor was that most ended in ‘straat’….it was the bit that preceded ‘straat’ that caused the fun. Try this one, for example: Scheepstimmermanstraat…..see what I mean?
Anyway, we limped into Amsterdam, defeated by the heat and humidity, and had to forego a visit to the Resistance Museum because, ironically, our resistance had been defeated by the circumstances. What energy we had left was expended on a café terrace while waiting to meet our hosts for the evening…..(to be resumed…)….
A Dutch couple riding a tandem stop by the roadside, and the stoker gets off and lets the back tyre down. “What are you doing that for?” asks the captain. “Oh, I just need to lower my saddle a bit. It was too high”.
Whoever said Holland was flat has never cycled the length of the dunes running from Den Haag to Zandvoort, a distance of some 80km. Flat they are not….any route that runs through dunes is going to be seriously undulating, but the compensation was the almost desert-like wilderness, and the thrill of mixing with a cycling nation out to play.
This route is a favourite with sports cyclists, chasing their Strava points. But the excessive heat began to exact it’s toll, as we headed towards the hottest day ever recorded in Holland’s history….in 48 hours time, we would be ‘basking’ in 38C+ degrees….which for us on the tandem could be health threatening…..decisions had to be made. Our options would either be to make a very early start to Leiden and beat the hottest part of the day, or throw in the towel and take a train….watch this space. But when we limped into Haarlem seeking refuge from the heat, we found some respite in our accommodation for the night on a canal boat….not luxurious, of course, because cabins can only ever be classed as ‘cosy’, but the thrill was in having a picnic supper on the cool deck, as the sun was setting, watching party groups cruising the canals, and being entertained by the adventurous few diving in for a swim, hoping to impress their buddies. Haarlem is quieter than Amsterdam, more laid back, but equally as pretty. The secret to visiting the capital is to stay in Haarlem, only 15 minutes away by train, which is cheaper and more relaxing. Our overnight on the boat, including a very generous breakfast, was only €18 each.
If you look up idioms using the word ‘Dutch’, you will find a plethora of widely dissimilar expressions. So, when you ‘go Dutch’, why is it that you pay for our own food and drinks? And what about ‘Dutch courage’ (a stiff drink before you leap) or speaking ‘double Dutch’ or having a ‘Dutch uncle’? As you’ll find when you read my coming entries, each day’s ride had a ready-made theme.
Anyway, after an overnight ferry crossing to the Hook, when sleep was cruelly interrupted by a 5.30 announcement that breakfast was being served, we wobbled off the ferry ramp suffering from sleep deprivation, and desperate for a second ‘intravenous injection’ of caffeine….which we found in a beach café called ‘Moments’ some 10km along the North Sea route. Well actually, Jenny had the coffee, but I was sorely tempted by an iced beer….believe me, iced beer before 10am can be a tonic….if you get my meaning.
“Oh, you’ll want to take two diversions along the dunes…..perfect cycling routes”, said a kindly passerby, taking a spin with his wife. So we got up onto the head of the dunes (and yes, the track over the dunes is very ‘lumpy’, believe me) and discovered a strong south-westerly breezing up our backsides…. couldn’t believe it….this only happened in dreams.
Destination Den Haag, better known as The Hague, architecturally one of the least interesting cities in Holland, but historically of huge significance. But it has its beauty spots: all around the Binnenhof and the café-strewn streets,
the Peace Palace and its gardens, the stunning floral displays along the leafy avenues….oh yes, there’s money in these parts. And it is flaunted…. But then, everyone rides a bike…..so who could fault them?
Before we said goodbye to Eric and Harma, our Warmshowers hosts for the night, we enjoyed an extraordinary breakfast of wheat-free banana pancakes and strawberries….one of the many reasons we chose to ‘go Dutch’ on this trip…….
We ponder and fret about so much trivia these days, simply because we enjoy the affluence of choice: the kind of bike I need; the kit and accessories that will improve my experience; disc or rim brakes; hub or derailleur gears; carbon fibre, titanium or steel frame; Di2 or mechanical; the myriad choices are endless, and we end up living the ‘pride of ownership’ experience much more than simply enjoying the ride.
If this is you (and I am not guilt-free myself), be inspired by Jim & Elisabeth Young who, in 1940, on a pared down tandem called The Spirit of Fun, carrying minimal kit, rode 7000 miles across the USA, from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, and back again….and I bet they didn’t even have a spare tube or puncture repair kit.
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I haven’t got a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet, up on the seat,
Of a bicycle built for two!
1930 Rudge, similar to our first, costing us £10
The idea behind a later design was that the gentleman would ride on the back seat and steer, while the lady could perch in the front with enough room for her skirts. That meant that all the controls were loaded to the rear passenger, and the person in front could simply enjoy the ride.
The modern inheritance of these designs can be seen in the Hase Pino
where the ‘stoker’ becomes the front rider, leaving the ‘captain’ to do all the steering, braking and gear-changing.
But as ever, today out on the most popular iteration of the design, I was informed (yet again) by a bystander and a passing cyclist for the 1000th time that ‘she’s not pedalling on the back’….so Jenny did stop pedalling…..(I say no more…)
Why do cyclists (well, some at least) have this inexplicable yen to do straight-line routes that begin in one place and end in another, and they have to use transport, other than the bike, to get to the start and get away from the finish? And when it involves a tandem, you have to use your imagination to do just that. Buses, trains and planes are not happy about taking tandems unless, of course, there is a clever way of either folding or splitting your machine. We have neither, so we have to be a little more creative still.
As I key in these reflections about our tandem adventure cycling the 100 mile Devon C2C (Ilfracombe to Plymouth), I am sitting on one of two trains and a bus that will take me back to Ilfracombe to retrieve the car, to shoot back to Plymouth in order to pick up both Jenny and the tandem. We did the same for the Way of the Roses, the Thames: Source to Barrier and, more recently, Bristol to Newbury. It kind of works (usually), but it’s an additional logistical hassle that we could do without.
Having said all of that, it doesn’t detract from the excellent, challenging ride we’ve just had over four days, following the Tarka Trail, continuing along the Granite Way from Okehampton, and finishing off by an astonishingly fast descent to Plymouth over 12 miles on Drake’s Trail, most of the four days spent on former railway tracks, much of them asphalted and traffic free.
The trails climbed and descended through woodland, over the lower reaches of Dartmoor, through parks and along rivers. The climbs were short but very steep….horrendously steep, sometimes……and so we dreamed of electric assist. We were overtaken several times by cyclists gracefully gliding up impossible climbs, whistling their favourite tunes, or chatting to a buddy when they should have been panting…..but the characteristic whirring sound of the electric motor gave them away. Will we cross over into the wonderland of electric-assist one day? The big attraction will be keeping open the possibility of touring in hilly, indeed mountainous, terrain which, on a tandem, is particularly challenging.
Our accommodation was a mixture of B&Bs, Youth Hostel, and one night being hosted by a fellow cyclist through Warmshowers (a 26 year old dairy farmer who was a great cook, to boot!). Each location had its own special character, and its own unique brand of hospitality. One of our B&Bs was a remote farmhouse where we were served pork and bacon from their own pigs. The YHA was a converted railway shed by the old 1960’s station in Okehampton, that also had an excellent cafe on the platform where we tucked into their small breakfast called ‘Branch line’……guess what the full fry-up was called?
The café at Barnstaple was similarly situated on an old-style station, underlining the reality that this part of the country still revels in railway nostalgia, with teams of enthusiasts helping to maintain old rolling stock and preserve an environment that some of us remember from the 50s and 60s.
As I sit on a train to Barnstaple, listening to the clickety-clack of wheels over rails, and wishing they had even a minimal catering service, I try to ignore the hunger pangs by dreaming of the uphill speeds we’ll achieve one day when we get a vra-vra-vroom electric motor on the tandem.
And I conclude by uploading our routes:
Ilfracombe to Bideford:
Bideford to Okehampton
Okehampton to Tavistock
Tavistock to Plymouth
On a solo bike, I am seldom of a nervous disposition, unless I have to negotiate something ‘technical’: like a narrow ledge with a steep drop, like a winding narrow track that slopes down the hillside, like a narrow towpath along the edge of a canal or river.
On a tandem, that nervousness is doubled, because the captain is steering and balancing for two. Canal tow paths are glorious for their views, peace and tranquillity, but as soon as the track narrows to within inches of the water, the jitters set in.
Today, however, we felt brave enough to stick with the Kennet & Avon canal, and we were rewarded with encounters of mixed and varied life, both on shore and on the water. Stag parties and birthdays were being celebrated on rental narrow boats, travelling communities had formed their ‘scrapyard’ enclosures, craft markets traded their goods, and groups of party-goers began their festivities cycling between drinking venues, mostly kitted out in fancy-dress. There was not a dull moment…..
Canal tow paths are not always suitable for bikes, so we steered off along the lanes, but that inevitably meant hills……….aarrgh, they go upwards. And that ain’t no easy task on a tandem. We may have two people pushing the pedals, but that definitely does not equate to twice the efficiency.
OK, we accept the hills, and we even welcomed the rain (after nearly 8 weeks of near-drought conditions)…….but what do you say to a puncture or two……and in the back wheel?
I go weeks and months without a puncture on my solo bikes, and we seldom get them on the tandem, but when they strike, they are mean. Even meaner when you discover that the spare tubes that you have been carrying for years unused have the wrong type of valve for the hole in the wheel rim. The process of repairing a back wheel is tortuous….you have to take the panniers and the rack pack off the back first, and a Schwalbe tandem tyre is difficult to get off and to get back on again, and when you have to repair the puncture road-side in the wet, that is the most cruel and mean-spirited fate to befall the tandemist.
Of course the repair didn’t work, so we wheeled the tandem a couple of miles into Pewsey and, being a Sunday, found the only bike shop closed, so sought comfort in an all-day breakfast in a local café. When all was lost, a couple of cyclists walked in, I grumbled about our cursed situation, when one of them said he happened to have a spare tube of the right size…….. (sorry about the pun) but it saved our bacon. The moral of this little story is: always help out a fellow traveller if you can.
We finally made it to our destination in Hungerford and relaxed over an excellent meal in one of the local hostelries. All’s well that ends well…….
A logistical challenge was looming. The canal tow path was still too narrow for balancing on the tandem, with the added risk of falling into the water, so we headed off over the hills, making our route to Reading much longer than anticipated. And I had a logistical problem to solve…….how to get back to Bristol to pick up the car and get back to Reading in time.
So we got as far as Newbury, I checked out the trains, there would be two changes to Bristol, but…….and this was a BIG BUT……the trains were disrupted by engineering works. To cut a long story short, I got to Bristol and got back to Newbury about five hours later where Jenny was patiently waiting for me on the station, and we headed off to a service station on the motorway and had ‘our lunch’ at about 7pm.
It’s never too late…….
Some hold-ups are annoying, unnecessary and downright frustrating, but if you insist on going for a ride through the countryside at this time of the year, you have to expect this from time to time……..and if you are in no hurry, and you engage with the farmer, it can be an informative and entertaining interlude in the ride……as this was.
The front-end of the combine (reaper/gatherer??) was so big, it had to be dismantled and separated from its enormous ‘parent’ and transported individually to the next field in line for harvesting. I asked the farmer the size of his combine: ‘Thirty five feet’, he told me……’but it’s not the biggest….which is currently forty feet’. I asked him if he had contracted it in: ‘No no, that’s mine….bought it last year….this is it’s second harvest……cost me £400,000. I’ll give it another year before I have to change it’.
I was trying to compute these enormous figures when I asked him when he would start to see a profitable return on his investment. ‘Profit? Profit? Nah, we farmers never talk about profit……..we’re farmers, after all’, he said, with a broad grin on his face…….
We stood and watched as this enormous beast began to swallow swathes of the field of rapeseed…….. simply astonishing.
Alas, the period of silence comes to an end! The pencil went blunt, the inkpot ran dry…..the beckoning world of ‘la plume de ma tante’ was naught but a code for……….this man has been AWOL for a couple of weeks. In fact, with his wife riding the tandem midst chateaux and vignobles of the Loire valley, fueling up on croissant and baguettes, re-hydrating on grandes tasses de café et bières a la pression, and when off duty (ie. off the bike), over the final meal of the day, popping the cork on a wine from Saumur or Anjou, and sampling till the lees tell us there is no more……..
Our host, Yan, took us down into the bowels of his garden, a deep
cavernous cellar below his lawns, to reveal wine racks that stretched around the walls, and offered us three of his collection……..two full bodied reds and a sparkling Vouvray that we corked to toast our own 37th anniversary.
The quiet days of October, with warmth still in the sun, is an ideal time to be exploring the Loire valley. We covered most of the terrain between Tours and Angers, discovered the chateaux of Langeais, Villandry, Saumur and Ussé, and found time to idle over a typical French lunch, or be distracted by Caves where the invitation to a degustation was too good to ignore.