The Longest Ride

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written Sunday 20 June 2004

The Longest Ride

It's great fun on some mornings to lock the apartment door behind me, and point the bike in no-matter-which direction, confident in it and in myself and in NS's ability to lug us both home at the end of a day from any train station--no planning, just a few maps and a notion. Nice rides, unplanned rides.

This is not one of those rides.

To sew up the southwest corner of the Netherlands will require a ride of at least 155 km, and probably more like 170 km. My longest ride to date has been 145 km. What's more: this ride is all the way across the nation, several train connections. I'm in great physical shape, and the bike is in great shape, too, so I can probably do the ride itself--but there is no way I can ride a train for 3 hours, take a ferry, ride 12 hours, and ride 3 hours home. But I refuse to give up on the ride.

A hotel. I get a hotel at the ride's start, stay overnight: start early, start fresh. Saturday night I buy a one-way ticket to Vlissingen. I sit with the train. Tomorrow will be long. Everything is about conserving energy.

It is good to conserve energy.

It's a few km to the hotel behind the dunes west of Vlissingen. They won't give me a ground-level room, but they do offer to let me park the bike overnight in a locked area with the employee's bikes. From the balcony it is quite beautiful, and the weather is perfect, though not forecast to stay that way. I can see the bike from my balcony.

Get some rest down there, you're going to need it.

A big dinner, a glass of wine, a bit of TV5 on the tele, and it's time to sleep. It's 11 pm. I close the curtains against the twilight.

And wake up to thunder. And rain. Lashing rain and tremendous winds and lightning, for a couple of hours. The bike will be very clean tomorrow. Sigh.

The alarm goes off, and soon I'm at breakfast, which doesn't open until 8 am--too late to make the 8:50 ferry. I sneak into the restaurant with some group or other at 7:30, gorge myself on calories--a 170 km ride will require about 3000 of them. I go back for seconds, thirds, fourths. I eat until people start to notice, then I pay, load the bike, and quickly ride back into town under dark, threatening skies. But a lovely hotel--Farewell.

The fast ferry across the wide Westerschelde estuary waits. Huge, menacing. Not what I was expecting. It could carry dozens of semi-trailer trucks, but since completion of the long tunnel, it's used only for foot and bicycle traffic. It's 8:50. We load, I lock the bike, and go upstairs with the camera.

The sky looks positively evil; it is not promising at all. I really am not going to get another chance to do this ride. The ferry at the other side, 120 km east, runs only on weekends. It is my last free Sunday. And today's winds out of the west are perfect. If the weather turns nasty at just the wrong point, I will be 70 km from the nearest Dutch train station (Belgian ones are a total hassle with the bike). We're talking hotel, a logistical nightmare, and missing work on Monday. The huge ferry reels on the North Sea's swells. Twenty minutes later, we're all a little green as we disembark... we disembark in bright sunshine! OK, then!

The passengers all scatter without goodbyes. I turn west--yes, west. You can take a general, one-screen look at the map -->HERE<-- or follow the day's ride on the huge detailed map -->HERE<-- (760 KB). Today's ride highlighted in red, previous rides in green.

So I turn west into a strong wind, to find the Netherlands' westernmost point, after which to follow the Belgian border (east, downwind, hallelujah), cross the Schelde river (weekend bicycle ferry from Doel to Lillo), cross over/under/on the enormous Antwerp canal. The canal is the day's only navigation problem: I don't know how to get across it yet. If there is no ferry or bridge with a bicycle path, I'll have to go all the way south to Antwerp, and they day will be close to 180 kilometers. Cruel and unusual. Either way, then I go northward back into the Netherlands and to either Bergen op Zoom or Roosendaal station. And a ride home, or a hotel if I just can't stand the 3-hour ride home.

The first leg's headwind is stupendous. It will work in my favor when I turn east for most of the day's ride. I keep my head down, and I tell myself again, and again.

I look north across the Westerschelde. Behind those dunes hides last night's hotel. The bike's parts don't complain about their rain-soaking.

After two upwind hours that I would basically characterize as Hell, I reach the first border marker. I put on sunscreen. I look through my (new) lightweight sidebags and realize I left my hat in the hotel room. Sigh. Extra sunscreen on my face.

I follow the border south, through a very attractive village named Retranchement. I find this name hilarious. I can't stop laughing. People notice. This is a Very Bad Sign. Oxygen deprivation usually holds off until about 100 km of riding, and I'm now only 35 km into this one. Then I miss a turn, another Bad Sign. So I have to pedal into the wind, in search of...

...the Netherlands' westernmost point. Now, this is very strange. According to my map, this should be it. And the pieces fit--the Belgian sign on the left and ugly, un-Dutch power poles just beyond. But how can a restaurant be sitting directly on the border? Now I'm really intrigued--exactly where IS the border? It's several minutes of searching before I see it. It's actually in this picture. Look closely.

Look to the right end of the restaurant and the small white pole. That's an official Dutch border marker.

The border line cuts right through the restaurant, diagonally. I just barely got these pictures: the restaurant is opening for lunch, and a car parks in front of the border marker, blocking my view. Their front tires were in Belgium, their rear ones in the Netherlands. They never noticed.

And now from the westernmost point, it's all downwind. Through Sluis, an attractive if bluntly named town. South for a bit and a break at Kruisdijk, an sad, all-but-abandoned house and pentagonal moat on a leafy spot where several dijks meet.

The area seems more ways than one. How many bricks were laid to construct this, yet now it's been abandoned so long that large trees are growing inside. All the bricks. Could anyone count the number of bricks? I'll have more to say about bricks in a week or two, in one of Downwind of Amsterdam's final, summary posts.

The above picture is available in really huge format HERE.

But most of the afternoon's hours consisted of following the border, noodling just into and just out of Belgium, always within sight of the other country and sometimes straddling the border as I rode.

Another rest stop, just north of Sas van Gent. As I write this and follow along on the map, and I remember what these places looked like, even what the moment's weather was like and what birds were singing. But I know that before long I'll forget.

South of Terneuzen, a sign warns bicyclists that the old northbound ferry doesn't run anymore. It says that busses run through the new tunnel, and that each bus can take up to 3 bicycles if you want to chance it. The weather is turning dark, but I'm not tempted. I continue east.

East through Nieuwmolen, then Koewacht (cow watch). Another break at the main intersection of Sint Jansteen, under a ANWB direction sign and concrete Jesus on the cross. Then on to Halfeind, where I've set my decision point: on to the Doel-Lillo ferry (last one departs at 19:00), or south to cross at Antwerp. An easy decision: it's only 16:40. Through Kieldrecht and into Belgium, all the signs point to Doel. I follow them across flat fields. and it starts raining. The wind is strong enough that I can ride very fast, fast enough to stay just ahead of the worst of it. Of course, when I stop at the river, it will catch me, but I will dry off under shelter while I wait 45 minutes for the 18:00 ferry.

Of course, there is no shelter at Doel's ferry pier.

We wait, I and three of the local hooligans. Belgium is just incredibly ugly right here. And it's a race to see which will get to us first: the ferry or the next raincloud.

The ferry wins (meaning we win).

We get inside and wait to depart, beside Electrabel's nuclear steam clouds.

From off the North Sea, up the Schelde and too close for my comfort, booms a Chinese freighter, impervious to everything in its path, like a small planet.

Some people think this is a good idea.

We roll down the ramp and off the ferry--no charge--and down the long pier into Lillo, a Vesting, meaning an old fortress town. Now a small cobblestone square with restaurants, very nice but not what I need right now. What I need right now is a way out. And what I find is the one way out, a narrow road out the north side, which dumps me and everyone else onto an industrial highway. Bikes are forbidden in the tunnel, and there is no other road. I'm not even sure there is another way out of this place, even the long down to Antwerp and back up. The evening's last ferry has left Lillo.

There is a bent, faded sign "Lillobrug". A bridge. I know it doesn't cross the river, so it must cross the canal, which is great. I ride up the long, high ramp in high spirits, then I see the bridge--and for the first time in 3700 km of riding, I absolutely panic.

This is Lillobrug.

It is a train bridge. It is automated. The white stripes make a crude bicycle path, but it is a very long bridge, with no space on the sides to dodge freight trains, and they sure aren't going to stop. I don't know how fast they would come at me. This is not good. And Omigod--it's a drawbridge. So when I get halfway across, they could raise it, and I'm up for a ride very, very high up in the air. I would have to ride it up, watching upward to rush for the best place not to get crushed. Then it occurs to me that it's getting late--what if their normal procedure is to leave the bridge up all night? No one could see me up there, there's no one to hear. I've run out of water and food, but I have warm clothes and a rain cloth to hide under.

But I simply don't have much choice. I keep to the middle (to dodge a train from either direction), and roll to just a few inches short of gap where the drawbridge section starts. I stare up and down the enormous canal. I can see no boats approaching from either direction, so in principle whoever is in charge of this bridge, wherever they are, has no reason to raise it. I judge the drawbridge section to be 150 meters in length--maybe 30 seconds at my top speed. I get off the bike and put my ear to the rails. Nothing coming. I launch across before I change my mind. I roll across the opposite gap--23 seconds. I'm off. I catch my breath. I have now ridden 130 kilometers, and 30 to go. The bridge just stands there. I focus past it, to the west, upwind. Clouds dumping rain.

It takes another half-hour to backtrack three times around this industrial area, trying to find my way out. Finally a sign: Stabroek, a town just northeast, and I wind my way to it. Now, I'm within a few km of the Dutch border and Bergen Op Zoom beyond. So do I make a beeline for it?

In one of Life's great mysteries--no, I don't. Write it off to exhilaration at finding the world again, or to oxygen deprivation or hypoglycemia, but I turn northwest to get to Bergen Op Zoom the hard way, along the canals. And for another hour and a half as I roll north, I wave to barge captains, and I try to identify birds I hear. All the smokestacks and large motors turn into lock passages and then to sheep along the quiet dijks. The sun glitters yellow off the water.

At the end I turn right, to Bergen Op Zoom, and the rain clouds are behind me again. This time their wind gusts catch me just as I roll very fast through the cobblestone streets to find the train station. My GPS batteries choose just now to blink off. Great. I happen to roll right to it. The Amsterdam rolls up just as my ticket pops out of the Automaat, I haul the bike on, and we're rolling in the heavy rain.

And that was it. I was safe. I had done the ride that had stuck such fear in me, and I had done all 172 kilometers (107 miles) of it. Nothing could take that away, or could take away the memory of making myself small while I sneaked breakfast, of all the roads and towns, and numbered border markers, and ferries huge and small, and sun, and rain clouds, and wind, and crucifixes over town squares, and farms, horses, birds on rocks on the shore, of munching sheep and glittering water, of frightening bridges faced very much alone, and of rolling to the station, through the station, and up onto the train and here onto a comfortable, padded seat. It had ended so casually, so invisibly to other passengers milling about. If only they knew. Rain lashed the train's windows. I'd be home by midnight, nothing could stop that. Nothing.

posted by eric at 23.56 CET


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Readers' Comments

feels good doesn't it? i think you have earned those lance armstrong bike shorts ;) will you be able to complete the last section, Hamont to Maastricht, before you leave?

Posted by: vavega on June 28, 2004 03:24 AM
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