A Cyclist in Utrecht

Sun 22 May 2011

It’ll be ‘Cycle Heaven’ they all said. You’ll be in your element. Lucky s*d! was another euphemism.

So what’s happened? My job has moved to Utrecht in The Netherlands. As long as I’m reasonably well behaved, I’ll be here for two years with a possible extension to that. And I’ve set out to see if I can live without owning a car.

Let’s make this clear. I’ve always been into appropriate transport, which for me has been a mixture of feet, cycle, motorcycle, car and public transport. The definition of ‘appropriate’ is generally that which has the lowest environmental impact for the task that’s needed, but I’m no purist. A motorcycle may have been used for no more than the fun of using it. My halo lies in fragments on the floor.

So I’ve taken the train, ferry and train option of travelling here, a Stena Line deal from Liverpool Street Station to any Dutch station. I’ve brought a rucksack and the rest follows in a van later. I was at the excellent Strowis by 10.30, and by midday had bought a bicycle, a secondhand simple mtb-style deal from the station cycle hire shop for €115. A classic Dutch bike would have been €200 secondhand, reflecting a good market for a bike that was about €600 new. Until I understand how to cope with Dutch bike theft, I don’t want a pricey bike.

From the city centre it’s a 3km journey for work. Using the standard city map, I’ve been able to find a route to work which has minimal traffic, uses bike lanes and cut-throughs, and would be nuts to do with a car. I’m cautious because this has been on a lightly trafficked Sunday, and a weekday may be very different. I’m guessing the biggest hazard will be all the other bikes, all not expecting this Brit to make unexpected pauses, turns and other actions that you just don’t do.

Cycling out to where I’m living for the next week, on the west side of the city, I’ve discovered the other feature of Dutch bike life. A flat landscape allows winds to blow easily. It was only a 15 knot headwind, but my knees tell me I’ve done some adventurous hill climbing for 4km or so. This was to Terwijde, a suburb planned around large and small housing blocks, with lots of greenery, children’s play areas, one car space per dwelling and of course routes reserved for cycles and pedestrians. And all signposted for cycles, with one or two just about forgivable exceptions in a new development where all the roads are named with a musical theme. Anyone fancy a game of footy in Duke Ellingtonstraat?