Easyyjet’s check in assistant at Gatwick stared at our bikes with a look of horror and confusion.
‘We cannot take bikes like this. They must be in a box.’
Calmly, I explained that I had read the policy and it says that the bikes must be in a bike box or bag.
‘This is a CTC Bike Bag. Cycle Touring Club bike bag specifically for flying.’
‘No, that’s not a bag, it’s just a piece of plastic.’
The assistant phoned her manager at the check in row opposite, telling her to lean over the counter to see the plastic bags we were insisting were bike bags.
‘Go around the corner to the luggage shop and get them wrapped in bubble wrap.’
I was hungry. Up since 5am and it was my birthday. I was beginning to feel a bit pissed off. The shrink wrap packing company refused to wrap the bikes saying they weren’t allowed, so we joined the queue where the Easyjet manager was. She was having a bad morning and decided to talk to us from behind her desk while we were still shuffling along in the queue. A young man with tattoos like long socks, dressed like Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Le Male’ Eau de Toilette joined the queue behind us. His tiny white shorts exposed strong tanned thighs and a lot more besides. My mouth curled into a smile.
‘Get some bubble wrap from the luggage shop,’ the manager said
‘We tried. They refused to do it.’
‘They said they are not allowed.’
I think she saw the perfume bottle man behind us and mellowed.
‘Alright, but you’ll have to sign a disclaimer.’
We collected the bikes at odd size baggage and wheeled them outside to a spot under an awning where we rebuilt them. There was little protection from the heat even in the shade. Sweat dripped like raindrops from Dan’s forehead and my dress clung like a limpet to every curve.
The plan was to cycle along the coast to Den Helder then loop back to Schiphol, camping each night. We grabbed a cone of French fries each before setting off from the airport. We minced around, changed clothes, had another drink, rode into a carpark, then back to the airport before finding the cycle path and getting going.
We followed the Knoopunten network to Hoofdorp, Haarlem, Heemstede, Zandvoort and then LF1 Route north along the coast. I let my hair hang loose, ditching my normal Dutch girl plait. I wore devilishly short shorts and a t-shirt. I was helmet free and I felt good.
The Netherlands has its finger on the pulse when it comes to cycling. Wide smooth paths occasionally shared with pedestrians, scooters and mopeds. Plenty of signs to make navigation a breeze and most of the time completely separated from traffic.
There are so many bikes it’s hard to believe. Mostly sit up and beg types with big bouncy saddles and baskets in front. Nearly everyone has panniers which seem to come in every colour and pattern imaginable except luminous orange and yellow. Lycra wearers are few and far between; they are usually on road bikes and look like they’re on training sessions riding in pelotons on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Cycling is normalised. There is no nod of acknowledgement to other cyclists otherwise you would end up like a nodding dog on a car dashboard. No one wears high visibility clothing or helmets, nobody tuts when you ride past and car drivers are patient and courteous.
Mothers ride cargo bikes loaded with babies and toddlers, dads follow with deck chairs, beach towels and parasols. Couples pedal gently holding hands on a country ride, girls in frocks and high heels saddle up for on an evening out.
There are a million places to park your bike, in town, country or outside the supermarket. Discovering we had right of way on roundabouts and some road junctions took a bit of getting used to. Traffic lights have bike symbols! And riding a mountain bike when you’re small means you get an eyeful of knickers as you tootle along. That is why it is not advisable to wear skin toned underwear with a summer dress.
I’d only been to Holland once; to Amsterdam. So I knew that there were a lot of bikes, boats and canals. I also knew about the Red Light District, Live Sex Shows, Peep Shows, studded leather cock rings and an ancient wooden contraption a female could sit on and pedal. Pedalling turned a wheel to which tongue shaped pieces of leather were attached. The leathers would flick against the female genitalia for clitoral pleasure. So I was told! Coffee Shops where you can purchase marijuana and legally smoke weed are commonplace. From these hedonistic choices, I opted to go to a Peep Show.
What I knew about the Dutch countryside was that it is flat, they grow tulips, and there are windmills, canals and a lot of bikes.
I was surprised to see trees, hedgerows and lakes. I had some weird notion that I would be able to see as far as the horizon across miles of flat open land. Small rises over bridges, the only hills I encountered that day.
Dan was pedalling nineteen to the dozen, his single speed 32:16 gear ratio more suited to hills and off road. We barely got enough speed to generate a breeze. ‘Maybe you should put some more air in you tyres,’ I suggested.
‘Do they look soft?’
‘Not really, it just might speed you up a bit.’
Dan laughed, saying he thought I thought he had a puncture. Two minutes later, I saw my first Dutch Windmill. ‘Look Dan, look.’
‘I’ve got a flat tyre,’ he said, dismayed.
‘You shouldn’t have said the ’P’ word,’ I said as I swept my fingers around the inside of the tyre searching for thorns. A new inner tube was inserted and Dan began to pump. He pumped and he pumped. Sweat lashed from his head, droplets formed at the end of his hair and huge sweat stains covered his back and chest. I offered him some water and off we went.
We stopped for dinner, at Zandvoort, a lively vibrant seaside town. And another surprise, you see I thought that the entire coast of Holland was protected by dykes. Miles of soft pale beige sand stretched as far as the eye could see with magnificent sand dunes creating a natural barrier from the sea. The beaches were jam packed and the heat was relentless even at 7pm.
We rode along the coast searching for a camp site. They were full. The last camp site near Bloemendal aan Zee, Camping Bloemendaal also said FULL, though we went in anyway. ‘Surely they won’t refuse a couple of bikes and a small tent for one night,’ I said. They didn’t. The cost was €19.80 plus €1 extra each for showers.
When we were doing the final pack the night before, I asked Dan if he would share his sleeping bag and we could use silk liners as it would be hot. I’d had a similar brainwave twenty odd years earlier, on my honeymoon. I was sure we wouldn’t need sleeping bags then for the same reason. I was so wrong that time. Desperation forced me to retrieve a sleeping bag from a cockroach infested tip. I still cringe at the level I stooped to, simply to keep warm.
This time, my plan worked. The silk liners were warm enough. Mine was handmade in Morocco, heavier than Dan’s blue Snugpack and a quarter of the price. I used vanilla extract dotted all over my body to keep the mozzies at bay and only got a few bites during the night. No worse than when I used DEET, and much more pleasant to taste and smell.
The site was too close to the road. Motorbikes roared along, revving their engines as I tried to sleep. I was tired but not exhausted. For the first time ever after a long ride, hunger pangs were banished. I lay inside the tent, my eyes fixed on a mosquito. A cricket chirped and stopped, then chirped again. I whacked the mosquito with a smelly sock and told the cricket to go to sleep.