Monday, April 2, 2012

Netherlands - Den Haag or Bust

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90 miles, Friday, August 12

We left at 7 a.m., needing an early start for the attempt at reaching The Hague (Den Haag). We are bent on parking the bikes for a bit and catching up with an old friend. I’m not normally an early morning riser. Andy nudges me and then the whine of the tent zipper creeps into my fuzzy-headedness. I could easily go back to sleep, though once I’m up, breakfast eaten and we’re packed and pedaling, I realize that the solitude on the road is the best part of the day.

Photo credit:
In the country slim-bladed white windmills anchor the waterways, whipping in a tailwind breeze. The quintessential Dutch windmills are displayed in city centers for posterity. Poplar trees line roadways reminding me of a comb, belly-up on the horizon. Their rustling is soothing. And there is the warm rain, but it’s at our backs.

We take a ferry (free to bikes) over the Westerschelde channel before heading east to Bergen op Zoom. Map routing between here and Rotterdam with all the inlets promises to be challenging, but we are hopeful that with the popularity of cyclists, signage will ease the way. Of immediate concern though, my bottom bracket has finally complained, creaking and groaning with every revolution. It does not sound good. I picture the whole crank seizing up, leaving me stranded.

And to top it off, I attempted to pedal over a railroad crossing, turning into the road, setting the front wheel at the proper perpendicular angle to the tracks, when a large truck came up from behind. I feared a collision and countered, pulling the handlebars back, but the front wheel slipped on the wet rails and I went down. I was okay though. Fortunately, I had slowed beforehand. The bike was fine. Loaded panniers were a salvation, protecting much of the drivetrain.

Well-marked Dutch bike paths. Note the open map on his rear rack.
In Bergen op Zoom it was an easy search for a bike shop. And we learn that English is a second language for the Dutch people. Their country is so small that in order to communicate it’s common to know 2 or 3 languages. For 5 guilder (approximately $3 USD) a mechanic took apart the bottom bracket, revealing rusty bearings. I was a bit embarrassed. When my bike was rebuilt in the U.S., I presumed everything was greased and we hadn’t encountered much rain since. It was certainly odd, but I was thrilled to have it finally taken care of, and without great expense.

No bikes allowed.
This type of sign was confusing
to Andy and me.
Photo credit:  Enjoy Europe

Continuing northward following cycle paths towards Rotterdam we become confused and frustrated, negotiating numerous locks and dikes. Much to our dismay, there were particular ways to cross these waterways of which we couldn’t quite fathom. We cursed the red circled signs with a bike in the middle, indicating no bikes allowed. We tried pedaling on a few of these roads, but drivers wagged an admonishing finger. In this often frustrated manner we made it to Rotterdam, the last harried lane shared with motorcycles and buses, a steep descent and incline beneath a river.

Now 7 p.m. I am tired, ready to take a train the last few miles to Hugo’s place. Unfortunately the cost is prohibitive and my spirits sink. Andy and I are caught in a big city and it’s nearly dark. It’s drizzling. The population is dense between Rotterdam and Den Haag. There is nothing to do but press on. We have lights. We call Hugo to let him know our plans.

We crept on through fog, but fortunately we are mostly alone on a separate bike path. My mind wandered, thinking of the last time we saw our Dutch friend. It was at our wedding, 5 years ago. He’d driven from Michigan to Vermont. He was someone we met in 1984 at the end of our U.S. bike tour, a roommate of Andy’s brother, Peter. Fun-loving and witty, his Dutch accent was an endearing part of his personality. We’d lost touch for three years, but through mutual entomological contacts, Peter had tracked down Hugo, who’d returned to his homeland. Andy and I shared these thoughts as the miles slowly went by, the only light from our beams on the wet path. This time the Dutch signs were helpful. We pedaled through Delft and finally, after 15 miles, entered Den Haag. We’d planned to meet up with our friend at a central location, but with the aid of a bus map we pedaled right to his apartment. It was after 10 p.m. and we were both exhausted. When Hugo answered the door, with the same grin plastered on his face I found so heartwarming, I wrapped myself around him and held on for a long time.

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