Going Dutch! The David Eales Memorial Ride cycles again this year from London to Amsterdam

A tour to the Dutch cycling city is a must says Nick Moffitt - and there's still time to join the 2018 ride

You'd  probably  never  guess  that  I  could  make  the  350  miles  to  Amsterdam  just  by  looking  at  me.  And  when  people  find  out  that  I've  made  the  journey  twice  on  my  heavy  Dutch  omafiets('grannybike')  I  do  get  a  raised  eyebrow  or  two.So  how  did  an  out-of-shape  dad  manage  to  lead  a  rag-tag  band  of  commuters  and  monthly  social  riders  on  an  award-winning  (the  ride  won  a  2017  London  Cycling  Award)  international  cycling  adventure?Well  I'll  let  you  in  on  my  big  secret...  it's  far  easier  than  it  looks.

For  most  people,  the  David  Eales  Memorial  Ride  is  their  first  long-distance  or  non-UK  tour.  We  spend  two  days  riding  through  Belgium  and  two  through  the  Netherlands,  with  an  optional  two-day  'prequel'  ride  from  London  to  Dover  for  the  more  committed.

We  cycle  on  smooth  protected  cycleways  beside  canals,  railway  lines  and  roadways.It's  not  uncommon  for  riders  to  cry  out  "I  wish  our  borough  had  something  like  this!",  or  "We  should  get  our  council  out  here  to  see  how  it's  done!"

My  involvement  began  when  I  first  spotted  an  ad  for  an  LCC-managed  fundraising  ride  from  London  to  Amsterdam  in  the  pages  of  this  magazine.  A  number  of  us  who  had  registered  took  over  planning  when  LCC  had  to  cancel  the  event  at  the  last  minute. I  reached  out  to  David  Eales,  prominent  member  of  LCC's  Ealing  borough  group,  who  intended  to  travel  on  his  recumbent  tricycle.  David  helped  us  get  our  plan  for  the  trip  together,  but  his  most  important  lesson  was  not  to  overcomplicate  things.  He  taught  me  that  once  you  have  lodgings  and  ferry  tickets  sorted  out,  the  rest  of  it  is  really  just  getting  on  bikes  and  pedalling.

Sadly,  David  died  from  Stevens-Johnson  Syndrome  that  summer and  he  never  got  to  join  us  on  the  trip.  We  decided  to  dedicate  the  Amsterdam  ride  to  his  memory.  We  filled  the  empty  spot  on  the  ride  at  David's  wake and  in  September  of  2016  six  of  us  cycled  to  that  beautiful  Dutch  city.

ABOVE: our route from London, via the Dover-Dunkerque ferry crossing, and on through Belgium and the Netherlands to Amsterdam.

The 2017 Ride

Four  veterans  of  the  2016  journey  joined  nine  new  riders  for  last  year's  return  outing.  Among  our  mixed  fleet  were  three  Dutch-style  upright  commuter  bicycles,  two  recumbent  tricycles,  and  one  Brompton  folder.  To  see  us  go  past,  you'd  never  guess  how  much  distance  we'd  end  up  covering.

Six  of  us  made  the  extra  two-day  trip  from  London,  starting  at  Parliament  Square  and  enjoying  the  lovely  cycling  facilities  of  Cycle  Superhighways  3  and  6  along  the  Embankment  and  Blackfriars  Bridge.  Quietway  1's  best stretches took us to Greenwich, and once we crossed into the Eastern Hemisphere we followed  the  quiet  back  roads  of  Bexleyheath  toward  National  Cycle  Network  route  1.

Lunch  on  the  first  day  was  a  stop  at  the  cafe  in  the  fantastic  Cyclopark  on  National  Cycle  Network  route  177  in  Kent  —  a  stretch  of  the  old  disused  A2  alignment  that's  now  something  of  a  handy  protected  bypass  route  for  some  of  the  squirrelly  bits  of  NCN1.

We  stayed  the  night  in  Whitstable,  sleeping  through  Storm  Aileen  and  waking  up  to  clear  skies  and  a  brisk  tailwind.  We  felt  relaxed  as  we  climbed  hills  through  picturesque  forest  via  the  Crab  and  Winkle  Way,  a  converted  railway  track.  We  soon  passed  through  Canterbury  to  glide  eastward  toward  Sandwich  and  the  coast.  A  quick  stop  for  fish  and  chips  in  Deal  left  us  plenty  of  time  to  cruise  up  the  gentler  (though  longer)  eastern  slope  of  the  Dover  cliffs  against  a  steady  headwind.

At  a  hotel  bar  near  the  port  of  Dover  we  gathered  all  but  one  of  our  number  and  rolled  in  together  to  board  the  ferry  to  Dunkerque.  A  simple  two-hour  crossing  and  we  were  settled  in  for  the  night  at  an  inexpensive  hostel  near  the  French  ferry  terminal.

Before  setting  off  the  following  day  we  gave  the  bikes  and  kit  a  final  check,  and divided into smaller groups of four to five riders to make our way to Belgium. 

We saw a general improvement in safe cycling provision with each day we travelled. Level terrain, smooth paving, courteous driving and a tendency to take the details seriously made quite a contrast to what we were used to. 

  

Belgian beers and cobbles

My  group  picked  up  our  fourth  rider  at  the  Dunkerque  railway  station  and  we  headed  through  the  forest  to  the  Belgian  border.  No-one  at  the  café  on  the  Belgian  side  batted  an  eye  at  how  early  it  was  for  us  to  have  our  first  celebratory  beers  of  the  day.

For  the  most  part  we  navigated  our  way  through  Belgium  by  following  canals  and  railways.  The  airy  cycle  tracks  beside  the  inland  waterways  of  Flanders  are  a  definite  cut  above  the  gloomy  rubble  we  generally  call  towpaths  in  England.  And  with  the  prevailing  wind  at  our backs,  it  was  an  easy  day's  pedalling  to  Bruges.

Getting  to  and  from  these  straight  routes  was  made  easier  by  the  excellent  knooppuntennetwork.  The  whole  of  Belgium  and  the  Netherlands  is  dotted  with  numbered  signs  representing  locations  on  a  map.  Each  sign  lists  one,  two  or  three  nearby  nodes  with  an  arrow  indicating  whether  to  turn  left,  right,  or  go  straight.

We  wrote  down  sequences  of  numbers  while  planning  the  trip  and  knew  that,  for  example,  '01,  84,  09'  would  take  us  from  the  border  café  to  a  lunch  stop  in  the  town  of  Veurne.  If  we  got  separated  for  some  reason,  we  could  call  each  other  and  quickly  say:  "Let's  all  meet  up  at  knooppunt  08  in  Nieuwpoort,"  and  know  we'd  all  arrive  at  the  exact  same  landmark.

  

Bruges to Antwerp

Bruges  is  the  best-preserved  medieval  town  in  Belgium,  and  it's  a  fantastic  place  for a night out. The cobbles are a bit rough to ride over, so we stored the bikes in our hostel's indoor parking facilities and walked to the central square for dinner. The hostel even had a lovely bar on the ground floor, and some riders decided to just relax and recover from their first long day's ride.

It was with a mix of regret and high spirits that we left Bruges the next morning to make our way to Antwerp. The morning ride was another pleasant canal route to the city of Ghent, with a pit-stop for coffee and cakes at a mouth-watering bakery in the little hamlet of Bellem.

Ghent has recently begun filtering motor traffic out of most of the city centre, which makes it far more pleasant to cycle through. The market square has you spoiled for lunch options, and the biggest challenge is getting the will to leave on schedule.

Alas, my pannier rack had cracked, and we needed to get some parts to help another team with their mild mechanical troubles. As luck would have it Ghent hosts one of the most famous bike shops in Europe: the century-old Plum Gent is not just a simple repair shop, but a piece of cycling history. The staff were too busy to fix our bikes at that moment, but were more than happy to let us use their workshop and tools. We took turns making repairs while the rest explored the adjoining museum of bicycles, some of which date back to the 19th century.

We raced the sunset to Antwerp. Some teams arrived with a little daylight left, but most of us arrived after dark. There are no bridges over the Scheldt here, but the tunnels underneath have levels specifically for cycling across — the lifts up and down are spacious, but it's common for people to just take their bikes on the escalators.

  

Going Dutch at last

The next morning we followed the cycle routes alongside the railway lines north. The Dutch border at Essen posed less of an obstacle than some barriers we navigated on Quietway 1 back in London. While it would be trivial simply to ride on through, it's hard to resist stopping to take a photograph in front of the bollard that separates the two countries.

On arriving in the Netherlands, the approach to the route changes dramatically. Instead of hugging canals or railway lines, you can take your bike to just about any major road and find a lovely cycle track alongside it. We followed the road atlas straight into Roosendaal for lunch, and straight out again towards Rotterdam.

The countryside in south-east Holland is rural, but populated and we rode along raised dikes while schoolchildren passed us on their way home from school. The Haringvliet is a broad estuary that flooded with seawater in the 13th and 15th centuries, and the bridges across it have an entire separate section for cycling and farm vehicles — meaning you can turn your attention to the stunning views without worrying about the high-speed motor traffic on the rest of the structure.

Although Rotterdam has plenty of bridges, the best way to enter it is via the Maastunnel. This impressive structure was built by the United States just after World War II to help restore shipping in the city. Again, spacious lifts are available, but some riders simply can't resist the novelty of joining the locals in taking their bicycles on the escalators.

On the final day we rode from Rotterdam first to a café famous for its apple pie and then pressed on for the final stretch. Even the least athletic of us found that four straight days of constant cycling had built up our endurance and we made good time through farms and greenhouses, past Schiphol airport and into the Amsterdamse Bos.

We emerged briefly onto the streets of Amsterdam before entering the lovely Vondelpark. At long last we pedalled our bikes through the center of the Rijksmuseum and posed for celebratory photos in front of the 'I Amsterdam' sign. It was only at this moment that it sank in just how far we had travelled under our own pedal power. And that we'd finally gone Dutch.

 

THE 2018 RIDE

The David Eales Memorial Ride (named after the late Ealing Cycling Campaign member, pictured left) is an annual event and we're always looking for new riders to share the adventure.

Registration is open all summer for this year's ride, which takes place from 15-18 September (with the optional two-day ride from London on 13-14 September).

When you sign up, you'll get regular info for beginners and experts alike on how to prepare for the journey.

Learn more: lcc.org.uk/londontoamsterdam2018

Email: londontoamsterdam@lcc.org.uk