Sunday, 3 July 2016

Cycling: once learned, never forgotten. Except for the tactical nuances

They say that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. It’s true up to a point: when we went for a cycle ride, up along the Dutch coast one way, back through the Dutch countryside on the return, the simple matter of pedalling and guiding the bike were, as ever, simplicity itself despite a year or two since Id cycled anywhere.

From the length of that gap, you can reasonably infer that I’m not generally an enthusiastic cyclist. There are just too many hills. But since Holland solves that particular problem by basically having none, I was happy to get back into the saddle on this occasion.

By “having none” I mean that the clever app I used to map our route suggests that we started at an elevation of 11 metres and reached a maximum elevation of 19 metres. That’s a level of hilliness that I think of as acceptable.

No problem with the basic process, then. What I’d forgotten about was a key principle of cycling tactics. But I discovered it again, the hard way.

Not the Med or the Caribbean, but the North Sea has its charms too
We moved along the coast cycle path at a stimulating pace. Most of the way was in among impressive dunes, with occasional glimpses of the sea through pathways down to the beach. We even popped down one of them, to our considerable satisfaction We made such good time – I couldn’t believe how much better the hired bikes were than last time we used some – that I proposed cracking on up the coast trail right to pretty much the outer suburbs of Amsterdam. Then we could travel inland and down past water meadows and even see a windmill or two.

Sadly, what I’d failed to take into account – the cycling principle I’d forgotten – was the difference the wind makes. On the way up, it was at our back, and what joy it was to cycle in that direction!

Nothing to do with bike quality. Nothing to do with our mastery of the techniques. We were being pushed along.

On the way back, on the other hand, you can readily deduce, everything was reversed. The wind – and in a land of windmills, the wind’s more or less ever-present – that had made our progress so light and easy was now making it feel like a ride through treacle.

That was also when I discovered the downside of the lack of hills: there’s no shelter. The wind would drop while we were behind a run of trees and then, when we re-emerged, there it would be again, cruel, baleful, malicious and waiting for us so it could come howling across the wide expanse of flat, open land, with its canals and flower fields, lovely to see but painful to suffer, straight into our faces, unimpeded by so much as the slightest rise in the ground.

A good moment. Before the rain started
Cycling can be a joy. It can also be grim. And it was grim then. On the way out, I barely got below fourth gear out of seven; on the way back, I never went up above third and, to my shame, found myself repeatedly in first.

The weather saved a sting in its tail for us, too. Just as we got back to the village where we were staying, it unleashed a regular storm on us, accompanied by rain for our amusement. The last kilometre or so was all uphill. Not uphill by much, I grant you, but in those conditions, it felt like the Alpe d’Huez.

It was getting late. We didn’t know at what time the hire shop shut, but we could see ourselves stuck with the bikes overnight and, to add injury to insult, having to pay extra the next day for the privilege. Indeed, as we came around the final corner, we saw all the bikes and motorbikes had been cleared away from the front of the shop.

Still, I decided to take a closer look. To my joy, as I approached the front, I found a door open. They’d cleared away the display bikes, but two men were still waiting for the hired ones to come back. I headed towards them in some trepidation, expecting a ticking off for being back so late. It was with great relief that I heard their greeting as I pushed the bike over the threshold.

“Hello. You look wet. Would you like a beer?”

Wet outside, I was parched inside and the offer was immensely welcome.

A good touch, a touch full of the warmth we met from most Dutch people, and a satisfactory way to wrap up what had gone from a quiet day out to something more like an epic.

I told them about the tactical error I’d made. They laughed.

“Always go upwind first, so the return trips easy.

Yes. That was a nuance that had escaped me before but I hope it won’t again.

“You could always take one of our electric bikes, you know.

Excellent advice, if just a tad tardy. Still, I was enjoying my beer and I wasn’t going to complain. Instead I’d just try to remember another useful lesson.

We never did see those windmills. Still, they may have been there. When you’ve got your head down to avoid the gale and the rain, enjoying the view’s not a top priority.

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