Hoodwinked into cycling across the Netherlands, indifferent cyclist Kati Auld quickly realized how a bicycle changes the experience of travel.
Here are some facts about bicycles: It is fun to go fast, on wheels; it is terrible to push a bike up a hill; falling off a bike tends to hurt a lot. If you had asked me six months ago, that is probably the most complicated assessment of cycling I could have given you. My physical ability is made up of equal parts enthusiasm and clumsiness; I tend to fall off things.
I feel the same way about bikes as you might about, say, a kitchen mandoline: Useful for some specific tasks—but at the risk of slicing the tips of your fingers off. I can feel a grudging admiration for the lycra-sheathed bodies that pass at ridiculous speeds (either much too fast down hills, or much too slowly up them), but in general I don’t really understand what’s driving them, other than a vague lack of self-respect.
So why, exactly, am I fixing a slipped chain in a forest, alone, in the Netherlands?
Naturally, I was hoodwinked by a cyclist.
Here is another fact about bicycles: They are the solution to all the world’s problems. Did you know this? I knew it, in the technical sense, the same way I know we should all probably be vegan. Bicycles, according to a fairly vocal group of nutters, are much better for your health (obviously), are a much more efficient use of space in cities (of course) and are powered by porridge, or sandwiches, or whatever their rider had for breakfast. Magnificent! So here I am, experiencing the long-term glories of carbon-neutral travel for the first time. I’ve never missed my car more.
Cathleen, my brilliant, principled friend, does not share my problems with ethical ambivalence. The Venn diagram of our interests is two neat circles, bobbing alongside each other. In mine are skincare, whiskey, music festivals and diving; in hers are human evolution, urban planning, West African jazz, spreadsheets. Despite being wildly different people, we’ve been friends for 10 years, through breakups and deaths, ideological differences and international moves. Our friendship is the one leg of this wobbly table called life that I have utter faith in.
So, when she suggests that we can do a camping trip in the Netherlands, and points out how much more ground we’ll be able to cover on bicycles, I do have to agree that it makes a certain kind of sense. That was my first mistake.
A cycling trip is very different from a hike. For one thing, you have to stop every time you want to use your hands—some people can drink water while on their bike, but I certainly can’t. If your backpack strap is somehow twisted around an item of clothing, for instance, you have to stop and fix it.
The water is glinting golden; the verge is overgrown with wild flowers. Every muscle in my body is politely requesting death.
There’s no casual chatting-while-applying-sunscreen, no fishing of sweeties out of backpack pockets, just absolutely nothing but holding on to the handlebars and pedaling. I’m wearing a helmet, not because it is necessary but because my granny told me to. Its main purpose seems to be ensuring that Cathleen and I can’t hear each other; it’s also excellent at alerting Dutch people to the fact that I’m a tourist.
My second mistake was forgetting that Cathleen is one of those people who looks human but is, in fact, a high-speed train in disguise. She continues to refer to our trip as a ‘jaunt’, pointing out all of the time we will have to visit farmer’s markets and climb up whimsical towers and bask in the sun. But it is 6pm and we’re still cycling, along a river, a wide road with open water alongside us, and a headwind. The water is glinting golden; the verge is overgrown with wild flowers. Every muscle in my body is politely requesting death.
By the time we’ve reached our first campsite, I have taken two magnificent falls, one of which was down an escalator, my bicycle and I wrapped around each other in a grim, death-defying dance. We have cycled more than 50 kilometers. I can’t feel my legs; Cathleen calls the exercise “breezy.”
I delicately place my poor bruised bum bones on the saddle the next day. “Bike is home,” I pronounce. Bike is home.
As the kilometers roll by, though, I can’t help but notice that something is changing. Despite the bruised bum bones, and the burning thigh muscles, and the inability to apply lip balm while in motion, I’m starting to take tiny little sips of the Kool-Aid.
The feeling of being your own engine, well, it’s addictive. Somehow, movement has become our neutral state. Now, when we stop to fix something, instead of it being a joy and a relief, it’s an irritation.
It’s not possible to deny, for instance, the beauty of a smooth, herringbone-patterned brick road, and the velvety feeling of riding over it. There’s a certain smug feeling when we’re going up a tricky hill, and I can continue to do the thing even though it’s hard. When we coast through a tiny Hanseatic town, our tires are silent on the path, allowing us to hear the magic tinkling of the carillon chiming in a neatly scalloped silver church tower. It’s a gift we would never have been able to hear in a car.
By day four, there’s a section where a loose bit of gravel runs forever downhill, and I speed on ahead, screeching around the corners, with the familiar closeness of injury—my old friend—never too far away.
The feeling of being your own engine, well, it’s addictive. Somehow, movement has become our neutral state. Now, when we stop to fix something, instead of it being a joy and a relief, it’s an irritation. Maybe bike is home.
We start to hit rhythms. We talk about politics, the world’s best kind of dumpling, our careers, why Cathleen’s bike is named Spud. It’s not that the pain ever stops, exactly—by now I’ve tried so many minor variations in sitting angles that my entire saddle area is evenly painful, like a tanned side of beef—but it becomes irrelevant, a side show to the main event.
We breeze along country roads at sunset, with an industrial sprinkler shooting rainbow droplets into the air. (We hoped this was water; might just have easily been pesticides.) Every day is a mishmash of different scenes—endless farmland, duck-spotted canals, sandy paths alongside beech trees—and every time we roll past another beautiful sight, we both hold our breath, hoping that the other won’t ask to stop and take a photo. Everything becomes a montage, because the surroundings are never as important as the impetus to keep going. In some small way, it feels as obvious as the urge to travel itself: Just. Keep. Moving.
By the time we arrive in Groningen, 400 kilometers later, I realize that something has fundamentally changed. Perhaps my bike will never have a name, and texting while cycling will remain an unreachable dream for me. Cycling will never be an end in itself. Because when it comes to travel, it’s a pretty good means. Bike is home.