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Get On The Dyke & Ride! Jamie Thomson Cycles To Roadburn In The Netherlands
Jamie Thomson , June 3rd, 2011 09:24

Intrepid man of pedal and metal Jamie Thomson tells the tale of his mission to cycle to the Roadburn Festival: featuring ferries, dykes, windmills, heaviosity, rude signage, useless national cycle trails, and 345 cheese & ham toasties

"But why?" That was the incredulous response I frequently received when I told people I was going to cycle to Roadburn this year. Well, I never planned to go in 2010, but many of my friends did – some were stranded in Holland for days due to the Icelandic dust cloud; some never even made it over and spent their Roadburn propping up the bar in an airport waiting for the all-clear that never came. What, I thought to myself, would be a cast-iron way of getting to Tilburg without relying on planes or trains? (The ferry, of course, being the exception, but in the event of modern civilisation collapsing, I'm sure I could have sailed across at some point.)

To augment the journey, I planned to listen to music by the bands I'd be seeing in the flesh – and hopefully happen upon some serendipitous soundtrack to my journey. For this I bought a neat little speaker to hang over my shoulder from my rucksack, as listening to music on my headphones while cycling has long been a no-no. This has been the case ever since I lost a nice pair of Sennheisers to the spokes of my front wheel after a car roared up behind me – which of course I couldn't hear – nearly sending me over my handlebars. I was so incandescent with rage that two drunks broke off from their fight over a can of Special Brew to come over and calm me down.

Originally, the plan had been to cycle door to door, but my tried-and-tested path out of east London had been scuppered by Olympic building works, and as I didn't really fancy taking my life in my hands on the Eastway, I arbitrarily chose Chelmsford as my starting point. It's just as well I did, as with even only an extra 10 miles tacked onto my journey, things could have worked out very differently.

Day 1 – Chelmsford to Harwich International Ferry Terminal
Distance 50.2 miles. Duration: 8hrs.
Soundtrack: Coffins; Soilent Green

The Olympic shutdown aside, one of the main reasons I started off from Chelmsford was, according to the National Cycle Network map I had, it was the first place NCN Route 1 was laid out with any consistency, rather than being shattered into little stretches by trifling matters such as the M25. I really shouldn't have bothered – I could have got off the train, thrown my bike over a hedge and started riding through people's back gardens like a cycling version of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer for all the good their signposting did me. Within, oooh, 10 minutes, the little red NCN stickers – so easily obscured by hedges, branches and other, bigger stickers - vanished. In an attempt to at least follow their vague, 'oh, I don't know … over there somewhere?' directional arrows. I ended up cycling through a suburban housing estate and onto a patch of wasteland strewn with rubble. Once I had negotiated that, I looked over my shoulder and saw a very large sign written in angry capitals announcing: "DANGER! NO TRESPASSING! UNSTABLE GROUND!' Not cool, NCN. Not cool.

With NCN 1 being a total bust, I had to chart my own way to Colchester, my waypoint before picking up the NCN52 from there (although my confidence in that plan was already waning). Following the A12 for 20 or so miles wasn't the pastoral tour of the English countryside I had in mind, but it was the most sensible option given the circumstances. So, with Coffins' ‘Buried Death’ ringing in my ears, I pushed on through the paths and utility roads that ran parallel to the main road, with the occasional diversion through a village or a town, before I ended up in the outskirts of Colchester.

From there, I charted a course that should have allowed me to keep the main road in sight, but distant enough so that I could at least pretend to be miles away from civilisation. After an hour or so, the little country road I was following steered me onto the dual carriageway, but unlike before, there was no pavement at the side – just four lanes of traffic screaming past me. Cycling on a road like this was hugely dangerous, if not illegal – cycling on it in the dusk without a rear light was akin to suicide. (Did I mention that I had forgotten my rear light? Yeah, that was the stroke of genius that would change the whole complexion of the rest of the ride.) My only option was to cross over – and even then I was taking my life in my hands - and hope to pick up a B road on the other side. Waiting for a lull in the dot-dash-dot of executive saloons and heavy-load lorries I made a frantic pedal for it, threw myself towards the junction diagonally across from me and, once the panic had subsided, tried to get my bearings.

Like some great deus ex machina reaching down and plucking me out of my peripatetic hell, there it was – the glorious site of a red square with two white numbers '52' attached to a road sign, waiting to guide me along the final, crucial stages as the light dimmed. I could have cried I was so relieved. Now, with only a meandering dozen miles to go, it was a race against time. Cycling unilluminated on the A12 was crazy, but traversing country roads under the gloomy canopy of trees was only marginally safer. But at least I knew where I was going. If NCN1 was an absent father, NCN52 was an insistent auntie, dragging me along its route with signpost after signpost, sticker after sticker. Slavishly I followed, fearful that the guidance would suddenly end – well, it's not like it hadn't happened before – or would be obscured by darkness entirely. As a result, with ‘Soilent Green’ as my pacemaker, I did the last stretch like I was Lance Armstrong … on crystal meth … outrunning a herd of carcinogenic elephants.

Of course, the grand achievement of getting to Harwich by sunset only meant that, as my ferry was leaving just before midnight, I had more time to kill in Harwich itself – a town that probably doesn't pride itself on its bustling nightlife (and if it does, it's seriously deluding itself). After cycling up and down the deserted seafront, I decided against frequenting the lonely looking kebab shops, cut my losses and headed to the ferry port, because that's where the action would be, right? Clearly, the memory my last visit to Harwich ferry port, about 10 years ago when I spent 12 hours drinking cheap cider in a giant car park because I'd missed the morning ferry and had to wait until the evening one, eluded me. Oh but it came rushing back when I was confronted with the otherworldly diorama of hulking superstructures lit by a fearsome halogen glare. 'Ah crap,' I prophesied, uncannily. 'There's going to be bugger all here.' Now I don't want to be too churlish about the tiny pub I did find, because my bartender did let me off with 12p on my second pint ("Sorry, we don't take cards."), but if you do have a menu outside your establishment, however faded it may be, the retort, 'Oh, is that still there?' is pretty much the last thing a weary traveller wants to hear when you are the only place open for miles around.

The ferry, by contrast, was like the promised land. As a cycling passenger I had to queue up with the motorists, navigate the ramps and causeways and ultimately enter the ship in spectacular style, the enormous bow lifted high above my head by hydraulics. I defy anyone not to shout: "Wheee! I'm cycling my bike into a massive bloody boat!" while doing this. Later, after checking out my cabin (the nicest place I stayed on the entire trip), I stayed awake long enough to eat some dinner and, at a loss for something decent to read, I had a look at the pamphlet I had been given before – which I promptly stuffed in my pocket – before boarding. "Guidelines for cyclists," it said. "Cyclists must walk their bicycles on to the ferry. On no account should they ride their bicycles on to the parking decks as this is a danger to themselves and their fellow passengers." Oops. I think it can be taken as read that whooping like a banshee while doing so is frowned upon, too.

Day 2 - Hoek van Holland to Dordrecht.
Distance: 42.3 miles. Duration: 12 hours (but with a fair amount of pissing about).
Soundtrack: Bobby McFerrin; Godflesh; Focus; Golden Earring

Waking up and looking out of a porthole to see the waves gently lapping at the side of your home for the night is a wonderful way to start the day; being woken again by ‘Don't Worry Be Happy’ being played over the ship's PA less so. But it had the desired effect. After hearing it for the third time in its entirety, I don't think there was one person willing to stay on board – in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few jumpers before we had even docked.

It's was 7am, and it was Hoek van Holland – unsurprisingly, there was nothing open, so I decided to hit the astoundingly well signposted cycle route along the coast and down towards Brabants. It is almost impossible to get lost on Holland cycle paths – I did my best a couple of times, but you're never more than half a mile away from being found again. (Take note, National Cycle Network Route 1.) Keeping moving until I found a town that could provide food, money and – most importantly – a comfortable and well-appointed lavatory seemed the most sensible option, and with Maaslouis a few miles away down the water, I chose that as my goal. By the time I got there, the last of these requirements had a three-line whip underneath it. Now, I don't want to dwell too much on the physical logistics of the situation, but sitting down and cycling out of Maaslouis was no longer an option – that was like tying a tourniquet around my guts.

I had to find somewhere and fast, but this sleepy little town was taking its time meeting the day, and what few occupants there were out and about must have been bemused by the sight of a red-faced outsider half-jogging, half-powerwalking along the cobbled streets looking for something, anything that might be open. Christ, I will buy a bloody house and live here if that's what it takes. I'm at the point where I'm considering throwing myself in a canal such is my discomfort when I spot a tiny tearoom down the bottom of a lane. Mercifully, beautifully, wonderfully it is open – bravely flying in the face of the ethos of the rest of the town. Decorum – and the fear of being shouted at in a language I barely understand – forces me to order before I make use of the facilities. I scan the menu feverishly and see the words tosti mit kaas und ham. Cheese and ham toastie! Can't go wrong with that. After what seems like several hours, I return to my table considerably more relaxed to be greeted with the high watermark of my eating experience in Holland. At 10 euros, this was the Koenig of cheese and ham toasties, a dish that I will become very well acquainted over the next few days. Let's just say that there's a reason The Big Book of Dutch Cooking is not a standard text in every kitchen.

After swooping round the coastal road, where I don't see another soul for a good three or four hours, to the spacey sounds of Ufomammut, Rotterdam roars up out of nowhere, and with astounding presence. It's known as the city with no heart, given that the centre of it was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but they are making up for lost time. The entire centre seems to be in the process of rebuilding – and the view from the riverside offers a spectacle of futuristic ziggurats and gravity-defying suspension bridges. In complement to the clanking and banging echoing through the city, I listen to some Godflesh – from one post-industrial cityscape to another – until, wussily, I have to turn it off as their pummelling bleakness is kind of ruining the sunny day for me, and is interfering with my internal satnav (ie I keep forgetting to look at roadsigns.)

Once I get to the waterbus stop to take me downstream, I'm faced with a dilemma – the boat that will take me to my next scheduled stop, Kinderdijk, doesn't arrive for another 20 minutes. The one to Dordrecht, my ultimate destination for the day, is only five minutes away. Must … stay … strong. Despite every muscle in my body screaming at me to take the easy way out, I stand resolute. This was probably the best decision of the trip. After a quick lunch – 'oh, you only do toasties? Ah, OK then ..." - and a nice Belgian beer, once back on the road I am treated – to my surprise – to some genuinely breathtaking Dutch scenery. Kinderdijk is the Holland that I barely even believed existed outside of cartoons and lazy stereotypes – row upon row of perfectly preserved windmills dotted along the sides of ancient waterways - some spinning gracefully, unerringly in the wind, some still like watchful sentries: … big … giant … windmills. OK, a smarter writer than me would make some subtle Cervantes-esque allusion, but I'll just hammer you over the head with it. I'm Don Quixote, right? And for this delusional quest, my bike is Rocinante. Good, I'm glad we're on the same page now.

All cynicism aside though – this is exactly the reason why I decided make this journey. My ride down the dyke lasted little more than an hour, but were anyone to ask me about the hours-upon-hours on puff-pant, burning-thigh-muscle exertion of these four days, this was the first thing that I'd eulogise. It was nothing short of magical. And to think I could nearly have missed this if I'd got that Waterbus to Dordrecht. But enough of that positivity: back to the world-weariness.

A few miles down the road, my home for the night is a hostel more reminiscent of a young offender's institution than the idyllic woodland retreat I had deluded myself I'd be staying in. Even the utility-grade bedding is dumped at the bottom of bunks waiting to be made up by the inmates … sorry, guests. The borstal vibe was heightened by the fact that I was sharing these facilities with a Under-16s football team from the UK who, when they weren't chasing each other up and down the corridors, hung menacingly, Scum-style, around the pool table.

It did however have a bar – not that borstal-ly then, I concede – so I R&Red there and, to accompany the third cheese and ham toastie of the day, I was treated to my first Dutch airing of ‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring. The barman – clearly able to tell that I was a connoisseur of the heavier end of the musical spectrum – treated his patrons to a compilation CD that must was surely called Now That's What I Called Extremely Average Dutch Rock from the 70s (And Focus). Or perhaps he just wanted to drive the kids away. It worked – and rather than have to listen to ‘Radar Love’ for a third, or maybe fourth, time – I too headed off to bed to for a fitful night's sleep on a wafer-thin rubber mattress, the opening line looping in my head: "I've been riding all night, my hands are wet upon the wheel."

Day 3 – Dordrecht to Breda.
Distance: 37.8 miles Duration: 7 hours.
Soundtrack: Golden Earring

An inauspicious start to the day, as my portable speaker is mysteriously missing, no longer clipped to my rucksack. My last memory of it was in Rotterdam until Godflesh got too much to bear – did someone steal it? I know the Dutch are pretty good at cycling, but could a resourceful (and apparently desperate) thief really have kept pace with me without my knowledge, unclipped it and made off into the Dordrecht gloom with my precious piece of technology that cost all of £16.99 from Argos? No, I probably just dropped it.

I made my borstal breakout, dumping my used bedclothes in the bin at the door as requested under fear of a punishment beating, and headed off through the forest to the waterbus that would take me down to Sliedrecht. Just as I'm congratulating myself for travelling on a bike that can handle the rigours of an off-road path through the Dutch national forest – 'and not some poncy Hoxton fixed-gear twiglet' I say to myself – the bike gods punish my hubris by throwing a big patch of soft sand in my way, which is the cycling equivalent of tripwire. While I don't eat it completely, I do smack my knee off the handlebar and scrape a pedal down my shins, neither of which are much fun. It's an hour to the next waterbus, so I limp off to a nearby 'woodland' cafe and order a cup of tea and, yes, another fucking cheese and ham toastie.

Back at the waterbus stop, I amuse myself by taking pictures of the information board which, if I time it correctly, the scrolling message looks like it's swearing at me. Oh the larks!

Then, about two minutes before the boat is due to arrive, I notice a large blue button that runs up to a large klaxon on top of a pole. It has some important looking Dutch words on it in bold type that suggests it’s some of sort of emergency alarm and not – as my stupid, over-anxious brain is trying to convince me – the button you press to hail the waterbus, a maritime version of sticking your arm out at the bus stop. Common sense is telling me it’s some kind of emergency signal and under no circumstances should I press the blue button. But it's blue, not red, the next water bus isn't for another two hours, and what kind of emergency can be abated by signalling to boats on what is basically a large canal? "Help, I'm being attacked by a team of under-16s footballers from the UK!" "OK, well, let us turn this barge around and we'll be with you in about an hour and a half ..."

In the end, I chicken out and don't press the blue button, but try and convey my need to be picked up by staring expectantly at the waterbus as it scoots by. Incredibly, this works, and the conductor shouts over: "Kinderdijk or Sliedrecht?" "Sliedrecht!" I shout back, immensely proud of myself that I bothered to remember where I was actually headed. The boat picks me up at the jetty, and I pay my fare. Immediately the conductor says: "Oh, you are going to Roadburn?" The beard, tattoos and black t-shirt must have been the giveaway, and cheered by this recognition I completely forget to ask her about the blue button.

Ten miles down the road, I have to cross the water again – this time on a little tugboat that is part of some national heritage scheme to stop cyclists from using modern bridges or something. It's basically a charity that exists on annual donations, as the nominal fee charged (little more than a euro) would hardly be enough to sustain it. So taken was I with the quaint way of traversing the waterways of Holland, I barely noticed that we had pulled up on the other side of the river and the captain was shouting at me in Dutch. What had I done? Had I looked enviously at a bridge while we passed under it thus ruining the illusion of this being a superior form of transport? Or had he rumbled me as someone who hadn't paid their annual subscription fee? All became clear when the 12-year-old girl stood next to me broke off from her texting, made a 'oh please' face at me, grabbed the mooring rope and tied it to the jetty. This was apparently my duty as I was closest to the gangway. So this is the downside of the charming tugboat scheme – getting shouted at by crusty old captains and mocked by children. It's bridges from now on for me, then.

Save for a heated exchange with the manager of a pancake restaurant over wifi access privileges, which resulted in me rather childishly storming out and thus robbing me of the opportunity to eat something other than a cheese and ham toastie, the rest of the journey was pleasant if uneventful. I did convince myself that I had got lost at some point, but the firm, guiding hand of the Dutch cycle network appeared and pushed me back on track. A faded poster stapled to a telegraph post for a Golden Earring gig in nearby Breda meant that unwelcome earworm popped into my head again: "I've been riding all night … aarrrgh! Shut up!" It was a times like these that I really missed that speaker. But now I was only a matter of miles away from my base for the next couple of nights, and a leisurely cycle from the festival itself. My pages of cycling directions were now largely redundant and I was down to the last three lines of now, through familiarity, only vaguely cryptic Dutch – yet strangely I didn't really seem to be near anything resembling civilisation. Certainly nothing that looked like the functional business hotel in the middle of an industrial estate that I'd plumped for. The crumpled sheets of A4 that had served me so well had now abandoned me in a smelly cowfield in some indeterminate part of rural Brabants – I'd have to pray that I get a 3G signal and could call on Google Maps to aid me. Thankfully, for once, my shitty, shitty phone came good. I was only about half a mile away, and must have missed the turning. Buoyed by this, I scoot off in the direction I came – so deliriously happy that, for the very first time in the whole journey, I forgot what side of the road I should have been cycling on. The volley of horns and screeching brakes that greeted me as I sped the wrong way around a blind bend brought me back to my senses. And as I picked myself out the ditch that I'd thrown myself into to avoid colliding with a large VW estate and its furious occupants, it was more embarrassment than fear that coursed through my veins. What a silly boy.

Later, showered and sedated with strong Belgian beer, I blew off an invite to the Roadburn pre-party, as it would have involved me moving more than 20 feet away from my bed. I did however struggle manfully down to the bar in search of food (and more beer), where pasty British businessmen sat unsuccessfully flirting with the disinterested Eastern European bar staff. "I'm afraid the kitchen is closed now, sir, but we can offer you a toasted sandwich – would cheese and ham do?" Oh jeez, alright then...

Day 4 Breda to Tilburg
Distance: 10 miles. Duration 1 hour.
Soundtrack: Alcest

This was the least interesting ride of the journey – one long straight cyclepath from A to B, with not much to look at other than the road ahead. (The ride back at night, however, was a very different proposition – with only my front light to guide me through miles of pitch-black forest, it's a pretty spooky ride, none more so than when I'm confronted with a bizarrely elaborate shop display which consists of ghostlike mannequins standing inside cable cars. How the hell did I miss that on the way out?)

To allay the boredom of travelling in a straight line for an hour, I do something I hadn't done in years – cycling with headphones on. I plump for Alcest's ‘Ecailles De Lune’. Soon its swooning, limpid whispers and pummelling blast beats are turning my journey into something altogether more joyful. And I'm filled with a sensation that I'd thought I'd left behind me in my less-cynical teenage years – that wonderful feeling of anticipation that says: 'Christ, I bloody love this record – and I'm getting to see them play these songs in only a matter of hours!" (Weirdly, the chance selection of Alcest created a kind of musical palindrome for the week as a whole: my journey started with Coffins and finished with Alcest; Roadburn started with Alcest, and I wound down the weekend watching Coffins – a perfect symmetry.) As I got closer to the venue in central Tilburg, I charted my path by following the ever-growing throng bearded men in black t-shirts. Once I arrived – not to cheering crowds, just blank looks and the mild annoyance of shoppers when I inadvertently cycled through a pedestrian-only precinct - I had allow myself a wry smile when I struggled to find somewhere to lock my bike. Although it had served me wonderfully over the last 140-odd miles, here it was just another bicycle packed in to the untidy scrum of metal that is the feature of every Dutch street corner. But I knew better. They could have cancelled the festival there and then, and not a second of my journey would have been wasted. Maybe "they said it couldn't be done" would be over-egging it a fair bit, but "they" certainly wondered why anyone would want to. Come on … windmills, Golden Earring, cheese and ham toasties – why the hell not?