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