While the classic London to Paris ride is about as iconic as Land's End to John O'Groats, in my opinion it's a little overdone. Did you know that in just as many kilometres, you can pedal your way through four countries in four days? England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, via the historic city of Bruges before finishing in the incredible city of Amsterdam.
As you travel north through Europe the cycling infrastructure just gets better and better, and you’ve soon forgotten about the first stage of the ride leaving London, the streets strewn with glass from smashed phone boxes and littered ‘cycle paths’ running alongside A roads.
When my friend Tom, who’s a personal trainer with very little cycling experience, recently asked if I’d join him and a group of his family and friends (and one client), on a ride to Amsterdam, I said yes without any hesitation. The ride was to mark his son’s incredible results at his two year growth tests, having been born at 26 weeks gestation and having suffered a grade 4 brain bleed, and to raise money for the charity Small Steps, where Harry underwent his rehabilitation and the family received emotional support.
The route planning was the responsibility of Tom’s cousin Dave, a military man and keen cyclist, but if I’m honest I think he let komoot do all the work! The group was made up of some experienced riders and some not so much, including Lucy who bought her first adult bike for the challenge. This means the route was planned to be direct, without picturesque detours which may add extra kilometres and elevation.
If you had a strong group you could add an extra 60km to avoid London Road, taking a scenic route along the river out of London using more of the National Cycle Network Route 1. If you’re willing to include a bit of gravel, you can stay close to the bank of the river mouth for a much quieter ride.
Our first day really was a ride of two halves. We performed something of a miracle not getting a single puncture in our group as we traversed the urban wasteland of East London and North West Kent, before things got a lot more pleasant as we entered the garden of England and picked up the Swale Heritage Trail West of Faversham.
Faversham, home of Britain’s oldest brewer Shepherd Neame, would’ve made a good place to stop, but we pushed on up possibly the climb of the day from Staple Street to Canterbury for a much-needed hydration and ice cream stop...
From Canterbury to Dover you're treated to rolling hills and a gradual ascent, which saps the legs after 100+km in the saddle; but as you ride along past hedgerows, gently fading Victorian walls, honey-coloured churches and fifteenth century pubs with the sun dropping out of the clear blue sky, the Kent lanes are painted in some of its very best light.
There’s a steep descent into Dover, and some of us were gritting our way through aches and pains and white-knuckling on the breaks, while others raced the local kids on their mountain bikes. We pulled up to the Travelodge and after a full court press on the duty manager, he let us take all our fully loaded bikes up to the rooms.
After a quick sink wash of kit (don’t make the mistake I did of not drying it in the morning!) we headed to Nando’s across the road before an early night.
The next morning we gorged on a Travelodge breakfast, stuffed our jersey pockets with croissants and bananas and headed for the ferry. We hadn’t left ourselves a huge amount of time so we ignorantly rode up to the front of the car queue... but karma has a way of paying back, and after passport control we got syphoned off for additional security! The guys at the port were actually really good and after checking a few bags only to find an assortment of underwear and jelly babies, they let us get on our way.
After the short ferry ride we were asked to wait until all vehicles had disembarked and we were given a car escort through the port which felt like the neutralised start of our very own grand tour stage.
Very soon we had left the port behind and were cruising along in peloton formation chewing up the kilometres on pan flat, well-tarmacked roads. Our first stop was Dunkirk, 40km in, where we paid a visit to the Dunkirk memorial which commemorates more than 4,500 casualties of the British Expeditionary Force who died in the campaign of 1939-40 and who have no known graves.
Just past Dunkirk we dropped off the main road and onto a canal path, which was a small taste of what’s to come, and then onto a quiet road that took us past rural villages and farm land onto the Cobergher cycle route towards the border.
Right on the border, which is halfway between Calais and Bruges, is a great little bar which I believe is called Aan Terugkomst van de Jacht. It’s a small, local place resembling a living room where the walls are adorned with calendars displaying local landscapes and topless women. The landlady was friendly, and most importantly they sold cheap beer and powerful schnapps.
As we crossed into Belgium the cyclist seemed to get the right of way. Every cycle lane, path and road marking favoured cyclists, and about 10km past the border at Veurne we picked up the canal path which took us all the way to Bruges. The cycle path running alongside the canal was full of riders, from 80-year-old couples on electric bikes to groups of time trialists with their heads down hollering for us (fairly politely) to move aside.
With the cycle paths being completely flat and beautifully smooth there was no test to the legs or lungs; but for someone like myself, who is not used to putting two long rides together, the challenge was putting the aches and pains to the back of my mind. It was a very welcome, then, when we reached Bar Boer 25km from Bruges just off the cycle path. A converted old farmhouse with classic cars parked inside, and deck chairs and big canvas shade sails outside provided the perfect place to rest up and fuel the legs before the final charge for Bruges.
Riding into Bruges you hit cobbles, a painful end to a long day in the saddle, but you are treated to one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Picturesque cobbled lanes, flanked by fabulous mediaeval buildings, the smell of warm Belgian waffles floating in the air and the sound of horseshoes clicking on the cobblestones, and by finishing in the old Market Square under the Belfry you have a host of restaurants to choose from for a celebratory beer and moules frites. A lovely couple on the table next to us even bought us all extra chips!
After a few Belgian beers we had to climb back on our bikes to cycle a couple of kilometres out of the city to our hostel. With all due respect to the venue, next time I may fork out for a hotel!
Day three is the longest leg of the trip, but the only elevation is going up and over one of the many vast bridges. We got up early and knocked off the 35km of perfect cycle lanes, across the border to the harbour town of Breskens, where alongside what seemed to be hundreds of cyclists we boarded a ferry for the 25 minute crossing from the Western Scheldt estuary to Vlissingen.
Zeeland, the South Westerly province of Netherlands, is made up of a network of islands and peninsulas. This province is home to the DeltaWorks, a massive network of dams, dykes and levees created to help prevent flooding.
From Vlissengen we rode North across Middelburg past endless sand dunes. The monotony was certainly a challenge at this point; a hill, junction, or even a bend in the road would’ve been a welcome distraction. Our one regret was not grabbing 20 minutes for a swim at one of the beautifully calm and quiet beaches we passed.
At exactly halfway on day three we reached Neeltje Jans, the largest part of the Delta Works. Riding along these vast bridges is like nothing I’ve experienced before. For the most part we were very lucky to have a north easterly tailwind aiding us on our journey through Europe, but when you get up on to the bridges it can feel like you are riding a 15% incline.
Our next stop was at the 100km mark in Ouddorp, on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, where we stopped for lunch at a Dutch fast food outlet called Hema. It was hard getting back on the bike after this one, with 50km still to go, but we just had to remind ourselves you don’t get to cycle perfect infrastructure with wide open cycle lanes surrounded by fellow friendly cyclists very often.
Even as we approached Rotterdam and had to navigate our way through the industrial areas running alongside the gigantic port, there were cycle paths running parallel, but separate to the roads, and you always seemed to have right of way at junctions.
We arrived in Rotterdam tired, thirsty and hungry, and made a mistake that we’d already made a couple of times before... contactless payment technology and card machines in general still haven’t infiltrated this part of the world. We ordered drinks at the Teddy Bear Bar and had no way of paying, but hearing our fundraising endeavours the lovely landlady gifted it to us on the house. We have a few tokens stacked up in the ‘pay it forward’ column. After the hostel in Bruges we treated ourselves to a room in the Bilderberg Parkhotel, and the lovely lady on reception managed to fix us up with an upgrade.
Day four is the shortest of the trip (thank god!) although as I climbed onto the bike that morning in Rotterdam I thought maybe, just maybe, my body is getting used to this.
Once we left the sprawl of the city of Rotterdam behind us we were almost immediately back on canal paths. We cycled alongside waterways, counting windmills before reaching Rottemeren, a nature reserve north of the city.
North of Rottemeren we passed through pretty, sleepy Dutch towns, past farmland and through parklands until we reached Alphen aan den Rijn, the halfway point for the day where we stopped for coffee and lunch in the sunshine next to a canal.
From here on we were treated to much the same, on the beautifully flat cycle paths, with the prospect of only 35km to go the aches and pains all seemed to drift away and the legs felt strong. With about 15km to go you can see planes coming and going from Schiphol Airport in the southwest of the city, a sign you are very almost there.
From here, we skirted round the edge of Amsterdamse Bos, a landscaped parkland that has been entirely artificially created. As you enter the city itself, one of the most bike-friendly cities on earth, there is a sense of calm that you don’t get when cycling in any other city. It felt like we’d arrived in cycling mecca, and our pilgrimage was over.
The journey home
Getting home can be a bit of a challenge! A group left us in Bruges, and once upon a time pre-Covid this would’ve been as easy as jumping a train to Brussels and returning via Eurostar; but when we travelled they still hadn’t reopened bike bookings on the Eurostar from Brussels. The only option other than cycling back to Calais was a €180 taxi, some smooth negotiation and impressive bike Tetris.
Those of us who made it to Amsterdam had booked flights back with BA. So long as you call up and let them know, you can send your bike back as your hold luggage for no extra cost, and you can get a cardboard bike box from the airport for €30.
This was Harry’s ride, raising money and awareness for the charity Small Steps
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