Well it’s been a while since I last updated this blog, but being a full time daddy doesn’t give me enough free time. Here’s the thing, I’ll bet there are loads of guys out there just like me, who see their partners, wives or girlfriends looking after a new baby and never really appreciate just how hard it is. Hilke has now returned to work and I’m home alone with Natascha, and I can honestly say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My love and appreciation for this fantastic mum is overwhelming, I realise now how difficult it must be when I take off on my longer cycling rides. Oh and here’s a tip for other new dads – even at 12 weeks, Tom and Jerry keeps the little ones occupied!
Talking of cycling trips (well that’s what this blog is all about, right?) I’ve been getting in long rides out on the road before the weather turns too nasty. A weekend away for a church meeting in Utrecht saw me cycling down, a trip of 199 kilometres against a very stiff headwind with rain thrown in for good measure. It took me almost 9 hours, which given the conditions I was pretty pleased with. What wasn’t so smart was that I’d chosen to do it on my road bike, carrying a heavy rucksack on my back. A bad choice and one I’d pay for on the return journey as the pulled muscle in my lower back saw me calling it a day after 32 very pain km’s and climbing onboard a train. It had been a good weekend though and in total I’d managed 290 km’s after calling in on my now extended family in Haarlem. The importance of friends/family for a cyclist is no more apparent than when you turn up soaked through to the skin for a hot shower and warm meal!
It was a few days later when I got out for another ride, having given the pain in my back a chance to subside and sensibly (for me!) I only did a couple of hours. Almost two weeks later and I was back doing a century ride, but it’s getting much harder out there on the road as now it’s not just the wind, but the cold and rain. Time to consider riding indoors, something I haven’t done in many years. Looking around for a (cheapish) turbo trainer I came across a relatively new phenomenon hitting the web, an online cycling game and much more importantly, an online training tool called Zwift. On to YouTube and people are going crazy over it, so I signed up for the free trial to take a look myself. I was hooked. Here’s a link to a good video about it:
So now all I needed was a trainer, the relevant dongle and a speed sensor. Took a while trying to acquire all the relevant kit on a budget, but later today (Friday 27th November) I’ll be doing my first proper ride on it. Of course it won’t just be another turbo training session as I’m in training for something a little bit special, both in the ‘real’ world and of course, now in my new ‘virtual’ world.
Next June will see me taking part in one of Europe’s oldest and best known cycling events, the Styrkepröven, which celebrates its 50th Edition in 2016. A non-stop ride of 540 km’s from Trondheim to Oslo, it is known throughout cycling as one of the most prestigious races on the Cyclosportive circuit. Just my cup of tea!
If you’d like to join me and some of my team mates from here in the Netherlands, details can be found here > Styrkeproven
In preparation I have even more daft ideas. Some of you may remember my charity event of a good few years ago, when in the foyer of JJB Sports I cycled 333 miles (536 km’s) on a static turbo trainer. I stopped at 16 hours, but only because the centre closed. There was a follow up charity event (for Cancer Research) planned in the foyer of ASDA where my late wife Caroline worked, but this was cancelled due to her own battle (and very sudden death) with this terrible disease. It was due to be a 24 hour non stop cycling challenge.
After my own battle with cancer and subsequent trip around the world, I never dreamed I’d be returning to this kind of event, but here we are. Winter approaching, too dangerous to cycle outside and I’ve decided I need to once again push myself to my very limits. It starts week Saturday with a 24 hour cycling challenge, where people from all over the globe will take part in this ‘virtual’ event. There will be few who will attempt to ride the full 24 hours, rather they’ll be part of a relay team. Me, well I want to see how far I can go and my plan is to try for 500 miles, which might take me a little longer!
Will I complete the 24 hours?
Who knows… but I would like your help and sponsorship for a very good cause. I’ll link below to the charity page which explains what it’s all about and also give a link to my own fundraising page. If I can get a fraction of my followers to donate just £1, €1 or $1 then just imagine the change we can bring. Please help.
It doesn’t end there though, more personal challenges will follow including breaking a few records for time spent on a static trainer. Watch this space and my Facebook page for updates.
I wonder how many readers of my blog realised yesterday (Thursday 10th September 2015) was World Suicide Prevention Day?
I mention this because August was a tough month for me, thankfully September changed things around and I’m happy to report some amazing news – but I’ll get to that later…
During my cycle trip around the world, in March 2014 I visited a cancer hospital in Vietnam. On the children’s ward I met a young Vietnamese student who was going through his own battle with cancer. Having lost his left leg, the disease had spread to his lungs and his prognosis looked grim, yet despite all this, Liem Chu Duc had a zest for life I have rarely seen before – he put my own efforts to speak out about fighting cancer and inspire others to shame. His work with youngsters blighted by this terrible disease was truly astounding, and a stark reminder of the difference between my homeland and his. Had he been born in the UK, would he have lost the leg?
I had my first battle at the age of 14, when a lump the size of a pea was ignored and grew to the size of an orange. After threatening to take off my left leg, I was told I’d need a brace, probably for the rest of my life. A year later and I’d run my first marathon (around the track field in Huddersfield, my home town) for charity. It seemed I could turn the abuse I’d suffered as a child into something positive – and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d call upon this inner strength.
Sadly Liem lost his fight on 15th August 2015. I wanted to write about it then, but the emotion was too much for me and I had other reasons to try and stay upbeat and happy. Ten days later and I received news that a good friend had lost his sister to suicide. This hit me very hard, because I’d lost my only remaining sister just 3 days after the death of my late wife.
Depression is the silent killer, we often have no idea that our loved ones need help desperately and by the time we are aware, it can be too late. I’ve said many times before, I wish it was an illness that was openly discussed and not kept hidden by so many and although I try hard to raise awareness, I still feel like people would prefer me not to talk about it. I can understand why – happiness is after all a much nicer emotion.
I messaged Jean, but told him honestly I had no words of comfort. It never gets easier when a loved one leaves you. His honest response brought me to floods of tears and I asked him if it was OK to repeat it here, in the hope it might just help others…
Lost my sis on Aug 25th to suicide. I was in her house when she did it. left the house because I thought everyone had gone biking, since both cars were in the driveway and the bikes were gone. So, I locked up the house and left to go pick up someone for the ride back home in Rimouski. 30-40 mins. later, got a call from the police telling me that my sister had been admitted to the hospital (same one she was born in, go figure). Meanwhile, my relationship with the g/f was so-so, And during the following days after my sister’s death, it went further in the ground, so now, I don’t know where I stand, what to look for, what to do, what to think. I just don’t know anymore. Life sucks and no I’m not thinking about suicide myself. It’s not a luxury I can afford nor something I’ll make my mom go through again. One tragedy is enough. We just don’t need a second one.
Before I left the UK to begin my journey, I chose to support the Mental Health charity, MIND. How strange then that as I was writing this piece, I should receive the following email (if you click the link, it will open in your web browser) < click here >. I’m really grateful to Richard for having the strength to write this, as it can only help others who are are struggling. Jean, I’m here for you if ever you need a listening ear.
So lets discuss happiness. As I said above, moving into September things changed around, in a very dramatic fashion for me. My late wife Caroline and I had tried for many years to have a child and in particular after my prostate cancer was finally diagnosed in 2005, the words “impossible” were never far from the medical teams lips given my almost non-existent sperm count. I spoke in my last blog about finding love again, but never imagined I could become a parent. Well the miracle has happened!
At precisely 3:15 p.m. on Monday 7th September 2015, our beautiful daughter Natascha Grace, came into the world, weighing a hefty 3.662 kg (that’s 8 lb 1 oz). Sleepless nights, but watching Hilke nurse Natascha I have never felt such love. I’m truly blessed with this “impossible” gift of life and I know I speak for Hilke when I say we will give this child all the love (and more) we both missed in our own childhoods.
I hope you will share with me the joy of this story, because I know in my heart it is a true miracle. The circle of life. I just wish sometimes it were easier and we never had to suffer such sad losses, but seeing a child born does help raise you up again.
It’s been a while since my last post.
How do you tell friends and family that everything is not OK?
We spend so much time saying everything is alright, pretending that there are no problems and wearing our masks that it just becomes our normal behaviour. Thankfully most of you will have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and in all honesty, I’m truly grateful for that. But some of you will know. Depression is insidious, it seems at times totally harmless, but it’s effects are devastating.
I make no apologies for talking about this illness here. There is a need to do so, and oh how I wish more people would (or could) have the courage to join me. Those coming here and expecting to read my cycling blog may well just turn away, because it makes for difficult reading. A good friend pointed out to me “you need to be more positive in your blog Derek, otherwise you will lose your following!” and he’s right. But I pride myself on my honesty, and don’t I owe it to not just myself, but my faithful followers to tell them just what is going on with me? It’s so easy to write about all the good stuff, yet not so easy to speak about struggling to make it through just another day.
What’s crazy is this should be the happiest of times for me, after-all, I’m getting fit again, my health is improving and I have been granted an amazing gift. And therein lies one of the problems. I have been given so much, yet feel so worthless, because here I am living in The Netherlands with no job, no income and the feeling that I cannot contribute is eating away at me. I’m a house husband. I built a website for my local church, I joined the local cycling club and I’m trying to integrate myself into society here, but still I feel inadequate. I’ve always looked after myself, always been able to provide. On my travels that was so easy, because I never needed much and I liked the thought that everything I owned, I carried on my bicycle. Now I’m here, unable to be the provider and I just can’t seem to accept it.
I said above “one of the problems” but there are others. I should be giving thanks for still being alive, but instead I’m still asking the question “why me? – what makes me so special?” and it’s hard to describe the turmoil this is causing me. Not just because of my faith, but because I’m asking myself do I really deserve another chance, because this will be my third. Many people would give anything to have a second chance, do I really deserve another?
I have a girl who loves me so much more than I deserve and I love her more than life itself. She will find this blog post difficult to read too, because I have become so good at hiding what is going on with me. She knows something of my struggles, because we share a pretty special relationship – we are both victims of our pasts. My one hope is that we will continue to heal. That’s a strange statement given what is written above, but the truth is we have come so far from when we first met, when I didn’t want to live at all.
Now I do. I want to make a difference. I’m not only talking about my difficulties, I’m actively helping others and hope to be able to expand on this by giving more talks and getting more involved with help groups. In doing so, my wish is that I can begin to feel a sense of self worth – a major milestone on the highway to recovery.
Normal blog service will soon be resumed…
Part 2 – Encounters
The cycling was fantastic. My legs had shed the few ounces of fat and were now lean and mean. Unless I was doing a lot of climbing, I could keep my breathing under control and the riding was pure joy. Morocco was a true mixture of sensations, and I spent several weeks exploring this diverse country. It was January 2013, cool to warm and pleasant during the day, but extremely cold at night. The idea of my writings now are not to repeat what has gone before, but to do a quick summary, so dig back into my blog if you want the full version with all the photographs.
In France I’d had the opportunity to share my story with a selected few who had taken me in, given me a warm bed and a hot meal. It was also the first time I’d ever spoken about my depression and I found it helped not just me, but my kind hosts. Here was a couple who had lived with depression for over 30 years and yet stayed together, sharing the hurt and pain. I decided that day to openly talk about this illness, so often hidden from friends and family. It became easier to talk with strangers because there was no judgement, no calls for you to “get a grip” or “snap out of it.”
When I met Sam in Morocco, my sensors were in full ‘connect’ mode. Like I said earlier, broken people have a way of attracting other broken people and Sam was broken. We spent time together, discussing our lives and what the future might hold for us both. It was a reality check, because I don’t pull punches. I never say just what people want to hear, it’s one of the things I used to be well known for – being bluntly honest. I’m not even sure if I really helped, but I’d like to think I did and in that meeting I made a true friend. Maybe I can even say we both came away with a true desire to live our lives to the full.
That’s the way I saw it then, but of course depression is not something that lets go of you so easily. There would be many more battles to come…
There is one other story I’d like to share from Morocco, which fits in well with this blog article. Sometimes life has a way of pushing you down a certain path and whether it is what you desired is another matter entirely. While wandering around the Fez Medina, I spotted local craftsmen working on various vessels. I stopped to ask (using a kind of mime language) if I could take photographs, when I was astonished to be answered in perfect English by this gentleman pictured below. It turned out he had studied at Oxford University, but had decided he would spend his final days working in his homeland, teaching others the centuries old art he had learned from his forefathers.
The wide open spaces (and deserts) of Morocco prepared me perfectly for my crossing of the Western Sahara. While some days I had definitely bitten off more than I could chew, in truth I had started to get cocky, asking myself what the ‘big deal’ was in riding and wild camping in the sandy landscape. It was tough going, but I was able to ride the bike here, even though I’m not sure the word “road” really applies to the surface underneath my tires.
Feeling pretty good, my next challenge would be to cross the Western Sahara. The ‘easy’ route involved following the ‘new’ tarmac road for 1,000 km’s, so I chose to ride a good portion of the old road. I say ride with tongue firmly in cheek, because I pushed my bike and luggage through sand for more than a few days.
The biggest problem was the heat and subsequently carrying enough water as 24 liters would last less than 2 days, with no indication as to whether you would find another source before running out. Although I’d done some internet research, many of the stations mentioned were now just lifeless shells, abandoned to the ever shifting sands. But somehow in this inhospitable place, I had never felt more alive. The solitude, the quiet, the amazing stars overhead (you could clearly see the milky way) more than made up for the hard effort expended during the day.
Too soon I was in Africa proper, crossing the no mans land into Mauritania. Africa was not kind to me, although it did give me one of my most enduring memories of the whole trip, restoring my faith in mankind. I’ll tell you more about that in my next update…
Inspiration. Where do you find yours?
There are so many good blogs out there, so many people doing incredible things. Now that I’m taking time out from my travels, I have time to read more, and this invariably means following the stories of other world travelers and their reason for choosing adventure. It got me looking back at my own journey, which has metamorphosed into something completely different to what I had envisaged.
Not everyone has the time to read through my 33 months of blogging, so here is a (shorter) version of my story. I’m going to serialise it into smaller chunks and I hope in some small way, others can take inspiration from it.
Part 1 – The beginning
Truth is, my round the world bicycle tour began long before I set off from England in November 2012. When people talk about ‘bad luck’ what do they really mean? It seems I have struggled all my life, from a very early age. It’s a story I’m committing to paper for later, but the abuse I suffered as a child and then the cancer which lifted me from that abuse (which I believed was a good thing) sowed the seeds of a very broken man.
They say broken people attract other broken people and this was certainly true of me. I went from one disastrous situation to another and at the age of 21 decided to join the Army, because the alternative for this crazy out of control person was jail. Surprisingly it turned out to be a good move, but my past still held me back. Unable to form meaningful relationships, my first marriage was doomed to failure and even the birth of my first son could not save it.
I lived with an alcoholic, and learned that physical abuse was not just a ‘man’ thing. Of course you don’t speak about it, because men aren’t ‘real’ men if they allow women to push them around. It took five years for me to finally snap, to raise my hand to a woman for the first (and last) time. Just the once, but the shame I carry to this day remains. I walked out, leaving behind my second child. To give up, to admit defeat, was something I never, ever, wanted to do. It broke me.
Then I met Caroline. She needed help just like me and we soon realised we had each found our soulmate. I don’t honestly know how long we were together, but we were married for a good part of the twenty plus years. It was a mixture of joy and great sadness, as the wanted for child never materialised. Cancer became a part of our lives, first with me in 2005 and then Caroline in 2007, when she had her breast removed to stop the cancer. In 2009 it returned, this time as secondary stage cancer. We asked “how long” and were told 12-18 months. Talking it over later that same evening, we made what has now become known as a ‘bucket list’ of things we’d like to do. To this day I’m proud we managed the top 3 on the list, amazing really when you consider she died just 9 weeks after being told we had 12-18 months.
I fell apart. Life had no meaning for me anymore. The successful photography business I had spent sweat and tears building became a millstone around my neck, I let people down and more importantly, I let myself down. I shut myself away, friends were pushed away from me and I sank into the deep hole of depression. I’m not going to pretend over the next couple of years there weren’t some moments of joy, but they were fleeting and I finally reached the bottom, ending my life would be a relief from a life of such immense pain. I tried, I really did, only to once again come up short.
When told in October 2012 my cancer had returned, it was a blessing. At last I felt a longing, a need to finally make something of my life and setting out on a cycling trip around the world fitted my needs. I sold and gave away everything I owned, paid my bills and just three weeks after being given my diagnosis and told I would not be able to cycle at altitude, I set off for the Himalayas. The real journey had now begun and the results would defy both belief and logic.
My weapon of choice was the Surly Long Haul Trucker, one of the most popular touring bikes out there, which I over packed with more than 73 kilos of luggage. I would soon begin to discard items I either didn’t need, or just decided I could live without to save weight. It was a steep learning curve, the actual cycling though proved to be the easy part even through the cold winter of France and Spain. In truth I was carrying a great deal of residual fitness at the start of my tour and days of 200 km’s were not out of the question. I knew that I had to go well early, because I was pretty sure my illness would catch up with me eventually. Two years later and I would struggle to complete less than a 100 km’s, even with a full 12 hours of riding.
I had a plan. It’s just with me, things never seem to work out the way I want. My decision to follow the Camino de Santiago pilgrims route through France and then Spain seemed like the right decision, especially seeing as I had issues with my faith after everything that had happened. As I mentioned above, I don’t like failure, don’t like giving up. After the first snow stopped me in Sauges, France, I took a taxi ride (along with two hikers) to the other side of the snow line, then carried on cycling.
I didn’t get far. This was winter. Winter here means snow. Lots of it. Unable to cycle, I took a train to the east coast of Spain, where I would cycle down to Morocco and then cross the Sahara desert into Africa. I was changing, becoming a different person. The meetings with other travelers, the kindness of total strangers, the solitude, all gave me much to think about. I needed this time, the pain and injustice I felt would take time to work itself out. Slowly, it became more about others and less about myself. If I treasure anything from my incredible journey, this is what means the most to me: I became less selfish. I was ready to give something back.
I’ll tell you more about that in part 2, which I’ll post in a day or two.
What does a round the world cyclist do when he stops cycling around the world? This is a question I’ve been trying to answer, but I’m finding it very difficult to do so. Truth is, I miss being on the road. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not complaining about the changes in my life, it’s just it was never supposed to be like this and I’m having trouble adjusting. Firstly there’s the whole health thing. The doctors have given me a (relatively) clean bill of health, after subjecting me to more tests than a lab rat and not coming up with answers. I was very ill, that’s indisputable, but now I’m not just holding my own, I’m actually getting stronger and fitter cycling the Dutch fietspaden.
That’s not (for me) the best news though, because while recovering from the accident that changed everything around, I met a girl, fell head over heels in love and followed her back to Europe. We are now planning our future together. I’m really lucky, because she too is a cyclist. We’re going to be hitting the road together, but it may not be this year. So I’ve decided to set myself a goal, not just to get fit again, but something more in keeping with my character – a challenge!
It’s my birthday on Saturday, yet Hilke has already given me my birthday present: a road bike. So that got me thinking, as well as training to get fit, let’s aim for something to keep me motivated. It seemed natural that I’d choose to once again ride in the mountains, so the plan to not just ride the Etape du Tour next year, but come away with a gold standard medal for my age group was born! It’s a crazy idea and even crazier that we will probably cycle all the way to France to take part.
The Etape du Tour is a full mountain stage of the Tour de France, as ridden by the professionals. We (amateurs) get to ride it on one of their rest days and the actual route will be announced later this year, probably in September. For those of you that don’t know me, I’ve done quite a few of these before when I was at what I considered to be my peak fitness. They’re not easy if you’re aiming to finish well and I can’t think of a better challenge. Riding a road bike again in the mountains is for me, nirvana. So watch out for my posts on facebook, where I’ll log the majority of my training rides, in the hope we can show the improvement in fitness that will be needed to get my gold medal. Only real problem is I’m living in the Netherlands, where hills are sparse to say the least. Looks like there will be quite a few long rides then, and of course we have the wind here!
The other (big) problem I have is I need to begin earning a living here. I’m hard at work on some new websites which will be ready soon. In particular I’m really hoping to get back into professional photography, so I’m looking at covering some events, maybe even getting some weddings. No idea how this will play out, there’s a lot I can do if I’m given the opportunity, including IT and website work.
Here’s my photography website, it just needs some more pictures in the portfolios (which I’m sorting after recently cataloging them all) and it’ll be ready to go. I’d welcome any feedback from my friends out there.
And that’s about it for this short update. Now that I’ve got a goal I’ll try updating the blog a little more often, even if only with my training rides and progress. Here’s the first ‘serious’ session – it was actually a 46 km ride but I forgot to start the timer. High winds, so I’m quite pleased with the result.
It’s been a while since my last post, not only due to my recent trip back to England to have my shoulder fixed, but because of some major problems with my website. I’ve had to change my hosting (to save on costs), something which should have gone easily enough (as I’ve done it many times before) but it’s been a complete nightmare. Despite making proper backups, the data transfer has not worked correctly. Not only did I lose ALL my existing post links and comments, I lost ALL my emails to dereksbiketrip.com.
This means I now have no subscribers, no commenter’s and I have to put back the posts in my blog manually (from the backup files) as the auto import does not work, something I’ve made a start on, but it’s going to take a while to complete. [Update 10/5/2015: The blog articles have now been re-inserted, missing photos will be fixed shortly.]
So please, can all my subscribers please re-subscribe (subscribe box is on the right sidebar) and anyone who sent me an email and did not get a response over this last 6 weeks please contact me again – the email is now sorted and working again, I’ve just lost all the archive and messages. I will eventually also re-build my mailing list, for those who rely on receiving an email before checking the blog.
Thanks for all your support.
OK back to the blog and what else has been going on. I travelled back to beautiful Yorkshire to attend the hospital appointment for my dislocated shoulder. This time I was really lucky, as the operation was done with keyhole surgery, meaning my recovery time will be much shortened. In fact although I have to go through some pretty tough physiotherapy, I was able to ride my bike to the ferry a week later to return to the Netherlands.
Hilke joined me in Yorkshire for a brief holiday, enjoying the beautiful countryside with me, but not necessarily the very steep hills! Coming from the Netherlands, the only hills Hilke is used to is when she goes over a bridge, so she found it pretty hard going. But we did do some pretty decent walks too.
Back in the Netherlands and I once again visited my good friend Sam in Den Haag, not missing out on the opportunity to borrow his spare titanium road bike and go riding together in the dunes. My shoulder was hurting, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares? I do miss going fast on a bike!
Sam was also kind enough to take both me and Hilke on a walk through the dunes as the sun was going down. It really is a very special area.
So what’s next? Well I still need a few more months before I can use the shoulder well enough to do more big touring trips, but I also have to think about my new life here. I’m in a committed relationship and need to earn a living to continue touring in the future. To this end I’m working on a few projects, which include building new websites (for myself and clients), something I’m gaining lot’s of experience with and though I say so myself, the results are pretty amazing – you’ll get a look soon…
I’m chasing work in the following areas, but it’s a difficult time to be trying to find employment.
Outdoor Pursuits Instructor
Photography (including Weddings and Portraits)
IT and web design
Translation Services (with Hilke’s help, we are pretty proficient)
If you know of anyone with any of the above needs, please put them in touch with me. Thanks.
As for this Blog, normal service will be resumed very soon…
My present home here in The Netherlands is Groningen, known as the World’s Cycling City. After living and cycling here since just before last Christmas, I’ve made a conscious effort to determine if indeed Groningen deserves this title. I think I’m in a reasonable position to judge, having cycled two thirds of the way around the world, some 37,000 km’s, through 38 countries!
But first, let’s have a bit of background to why Groningen is considered the best, amongst many other great cycling cities, such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Portland, Oregon.
The figures certainly back up it’s claim, as the city has the highest percentage of mode share cycle users in the world, an amazing 60% in the city centre and 50% of all journeys in Groningen are made by bike. With a population of just over 192,000 people owning 75,000 cars, bicycles rule – there are an estimated 300,000.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960’s cycle paths were removed to make more room for cars and motorways were built to bring traffic right into the centre itself. However in 1972 a new ‘left wing’ government made plans to drastically change the transport policy and make Groningen centre a car free zone.
By 1977 Groningen centre had been divided into four zone quarters, with traffic prevented from travelling from one quarter to another, instead having to use the outer ring road which now encircled the city centre. Buses, cyclists and pedestrians were of course allowed to do so and along with pedestrianising the centre, a comprehensive cycle path network criss-crossed the now car free city. Car parking was moved to the outskirts and park and ride schemes introduced.
Despite shop keepers threatening to leave due to cars not being allowed to park outside their stores, the radical transport policy worked and became a model for other cities to follow.
In truth, you can get around in Groningen (and it’s outskirts) much quicker by bicycle than by car. To traverse the city centre from one side to another would take at least 30 minutes in a car on the ring road, whereas on a bicycle it’s no more than 12 minutes. But it’s not about how quickly you can go by bike, it’s about how safely. Entire families use bicycles as their only mode of transport and it’s not unusual to see very young children sat on the front of their parents bikes. The cycle paths are well maintained and I’ve yet to see any evidence of a ‘pothole’. I for one have never felt so safe cycling in a city and it’s because bicycles are seen as the primary source of transport that the infrastructure exists.
Take roundabouts as an example. As a cyclist of very many years, I’ve learned to be exceptionally wary of them, because they are a major cause of injuries to us cyclists. But here in Groningen cyclists have right of way on the majority of them – the cycle paths encircle the roundabouts and cars must stop and give way. It took a little getting used to, but now I don’t even check to see if a car is approaching and in the (very) unlikely event you have a coming together with a vehicle, the driver is at fault. No fancy lawyer arguments, you are the victim. Always.
Bicycle parking is also taken very seriously here in The Netherlands. There are custom bike parks everywhere, mostly free, like the picture below of the multi-storey bike park just outside the railway station. The neon sign (on the right) informs you of which zones have spaces left!
Or if you want that extra level of protection, their are 24 hour security monitored parks. It’s a dream come true and you begin to understand just how much the cyclist is catered for here.
And if you don’t have your own bicycle, Groningen, like many other cities here in The Netherlands, has a comprehensive bike share scheme where you can hire one and return it to any of the other participating cities.
Bridges are built with cyclists in mind and it’s unlikely you’d have to wait (alongside the cars) to cross one of the many canals when a barge comes along, as they have included pedestrian and cycle friendly bridges alongside to ensure your onward journey. It really is a transport policy designed first and foremost with cyclists in mind.
Most of the canals have cycle paths running alongside them with clear signposts, many being part of the national cycle route network (Landelijke Fietsroutes or LF-Routes) which criss-cross the country. Bike only bridges are a common sight here.
So does Groningen deserve the title of “the worlds cycling city”? Yes, Unequivocally. Nowhere in my travels have I seen such a level of commitment to keeping us cyclists both safe and happy. While I have witnessed wonderful cycling infrastructure in places like Luxembourg (another fantastic cycling country) it doesn’t even come close. I love it here.
However in just a few short weeks I have to return to England to have major surgery. I’ll try keeping a little more up to date with the blog then…
Walking the icy lanes on the moors above the beautiful town of Haworth, I reflected on the last six months of this incredible journey I’ve been on. I use the word “incredible” wisely, as events have taken a more than unusual twist since the accident in Rimouski, Canada, which was the catalyst for all that followed. It seems now there is more likelihood of me falling on the ice and breaking a leg, than there is me dying of lung cancer.
If you think that’s all a bit dramatic, then consider this: five months ago I was fortunate enough to be taken in by Mike in Toronto. I was not well at the time and remember the visit we took to the Royal Museum, where I struggled to climb the wooden stairs. When I say struggled, I’m talking not being able to breathe well enough to physically climb the stairs, without stopping numerous times. Then there was my trip to the Cabot Trail with Hilke and another friend, where I elected to stay in the car and sit out the trail walk, because I knew I could not complete it.
I genuinely believed I was reaching the end of not just my journey, but my life.
So what happened? The honest answer is I really don’t know, but felt it was time to tell the story anyway. My dislocated shoulder (the result of the accident in Rimouski) meant I was never going to be able to comfortably ride the bike again, having it fixed in Canada was way beyond my means, so I knew I was always likely to return to England. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to have myself checked out and actually find what the status of my illness was. So leaving Canada behind, I made my way to New York City and a flight home. That however is not the full story. Along the way I fell in love and my whole world (and life) was suddenly turned upside down.
My first indication that something was wrong (or right?) was when we stopped off at a friend of Mike’s on my way to New York. Judy is an ‘alternative’ therapist and told me I no longer had lung cancer! I was very sceptical, but kind enough not to express my doubts at this time, though I had seen an improvement in my breathing which did seem at odds with my expectations. On my return to England I had my first series of scans, before returning to The Netherlands shortly afterwards. I would have to wait for the results, but never expected to be asked to return again to the UK to have yet more tests, because the scans showed no sign of the tumours present in 2012, when I’d originally left the UK to begin my trip.
My second trip to England confirmed the initial results, but I also had biopsies of my prostate and x-rays/CT scans of my shoulder, so that an operation could possibly be scheduled for April/May this year. In truth, I would never have bothered with this as I thought the time left to me could be better spent. My motivation for going through with it now is because I want to spend time with my girlfriend; there has been a surprising improvement in my health and the hope is I can return to cycle touring after my operation.
So where does this leave me now?
Well I’m once again back in The Netherlands, where I will try and learn Dutch and find some work if possible. I will do some short tours, but nothing major until after the shoulder is fixed. I can’t explain why instead of deteriorating, I’m now actually getting fitter day by day. All I can say is I have never been this happy for many years, I’m very much in love and if I’m truly honest, I think this is the main reason why I’m doing so well – I actually have something to look forward to, a reason to want to be here and it looks like I’m going to be around longer than anybody expected.
When I do return to cycle touring, I will not be alone.
I returned to The Hague to spend a few days before Christmas with my good friend Sam. I’d decided to take the train from Groningen as there was quite a storm blowing in from the South West, which made camping inadvisable and I hadn’t been able to arrange a midway stopover to break up the 250 km distance involved in the journey. Truth is I’m not even sure I could have done it cycling in two days given the weather, even if Holland is flat! So borrowing Hilke’s small fold-able bike which would be free to take on the train, I cycled the 5 km to the station and boarded the bike specific carriage. I was mindful of the need to arrive early as these carriages fill up quickly not only with bicycles, but large pieces of luggage. It’s a first come, first served system so arriving early is the only way to ensure yourself a seat.
Sam met me at the station and we cycled into the city, where we made our way to a local coffee shop and a bowl of ‘snert’, the local delicacy. It’s a hot pea soup which really touched the spot, as Sam explained he had called a friend to meet us and give a guided tour of the city. I never realised just exactly what I was going to get, but when Jonathan arrived it really was a lovely surprise to find out he was a fellow Englishman working over here in The Hague as a full time guide.
To say Jonathan is an ‘expert’ is not really telling the whole story. His style of delivery, light hearted but extreme knowledge of his subject has to be experienced to be believed. Having travelled the world for many years (even before my bike trip) I have never met a guide so able to describe the sights being shown to me, he truly is in a class of his own and I’d heartily recommend his tour if you’re visiting the area.
I hope you’ll have better weather than we did and although not the best for photography, here’s a few of my pictures from my Tour of The Hague:
The Binnenhof (Inner Court) is a complex of buildings in the city centre of The Hague, next to the Hofvijver lake. Built primarily in the 13th century, the Gothic castle originally functioned as residence of the counts of Holland and became the political centre of the Dutch Republic in 1584. It is counted among the Top 100 Dutch heritage sites. The Binnenhof is the oldest House of Parliament in the world still in use.
The Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) is the main building of the Binnenhof in The Hague. It is used for the state opening of Parliament on Prinsjesdag, when the Dutch monarch drives to Parliament in the Golden Carriage and delivers the speech from the throne.
In 1822, the Mauritshuis was opened to the public and housed the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and the Royal Cabinet of Rarities. In 1875, the entire museum became available for paintings and was privatised in 1995. The foundation set up at that time took charge of both the building and the collection, which it was given on loan.
William I, born Willem Frederik Prins van Oranje-Nassau, was a Prince of Orange and the first King of the Netherlands. In Germany, he was ruler of the Principality of Nassau-Orange-Fulda from 1803 until 1806 and of the Principality of Orange-Nassau in the year 1806 and from 1813 until 1815. In 1813 he proclaimed himself ‘Sovereign Prince’ of the “United Netherlands.” He proclaimed himself King of the Netherlands and Duke of Luxembourg on 16 March 1815.
Noordeinde Palace is one of the three official palaces of the Dutch royal family. It has been used as the “working palace” for King Willem-Alexander since 2013. The palace originated as a medieval farmhouse, which was converted into a spacious residence by the steward of the States of Holland, Willem van de Goudt in 1533. The original farmhouse’s cellars can still be seen in the palace basement.
The largest covered atrium in Europe, the City Hall (nicknamed The Ice Palace) is a truly stunning piece of architecture. It was designed in 1986 by American architect Richard Meier and completed in 1995. Located in the new city centre, it incorporates the council chamber, the main public library, as well as cafés and exhibition spaces. The public can take a glass lift upto the 11th floor, so as to view the atrium from above.
I took many more pictures and the next day with Sam explored the outskirts of The Hague and Scheveningen, I’ll post those pictures in my next update. What’s pretty amazing is all the above pictures were taken on my iPhone and all the information alongside them was provided by our excellent guide, Jonathan.
That’s it for this quick update, more in the next few days…