Last update - 29 May 2001: cleaned up the tenses, and added a bit about route LF12a, a few links and the route lists.
Day one: Rotterdam to 's Hertogenbosch (106 Km)
Day one route
Day one (morning): Rotterdam to Lage Zwaluwe (45 Km)
Setting off from home in Rotterdam on Thursday morning would have been just like cycling to work, had it not been for Marion's company, heavy handlebars from my bag and the journey we were planning. I should point out that at this stage we were pretty flexible about this whole 'cycling to Maastricht thing; various kinds of cheating involving trains and shortcuts had been mentioned. Besides, we hadn't measured the distances or planned a route particularly carefully.
Still, the plan remained: cycle to Maastricht in three days (ish) and relax on the fourth day of the long ascension weekend.
So there we are, cycling down Coolsingel in Rotterdam in the already warm sun at half-past ten on Thursday morning, feeling fresh and keen. In this state of mind Rotterdam is beautiful, with its spangly glass office blocks, freshly scrubbed town hall and pristine Erasmus bridge.
Once South of the river, having neglected to turn left before the bridge and take my usual route to the office, we already find ourselves in strange country. Like most who live in a city divided by a river, my knowledge of the place is distinctly one-sided. The same certainly goes for the Londoners and Parisians I've met.
After almost an hour we finally make our way across the motorway South-ring and out of the city, to find ourselves skirting the edge of a Randstad phenomenon in the making.
Smitshoek is yet another Dutch village whose nearby motorway junction has made it a target for scores of block houses that seem to have fallen from the sky and turned it into yet another dormitory town. What's left is a familiar view in the West of Holland: a village, windmills, canals and fields have become a village, Lego houses, new roads and open ground cleared for the next wave of development.
Personally I can live with all this: if the population has to rise then I'm all for the denizens of the rat-race confining themselves to their motorway commutes, their out-of-town offices and supermarkets, and their television equipped shoeboxes. After all, otherwise they'd be my neighbours. Put the other way, I'd try to imagine living in Smitshoek myself, but it's an existence too scary to contemplate.
Further on we reach the Maas. Well, not so much the Maas as the Oude Maas; one of the several waterways that are connected to the Maas proper. Here the holiday feeling starts, helped by hundreds of locals out walking, cycling, sunbathing or just playing on or near the riverside path to Zwijndrecht. Encouraged by the people out enjoying themselves we whiz along the path to the tiny ferry across the river.
Putteshoek, on the other side, has a small and beautiful harbour - the first of many. We would pause here and have a look around the village, but we need to make some distance before we stop for a morning break; still keen we push on, cycling along the dike that follows the river.
Soon after the village we face a challenge in the form of a large fence and concrete block across the path, followed by the same again a few hundred meters later. In between, on either side of the dike, is the building site for a new river tunnel, but no people or vehicles - it is a public holiday after all. After some procrastination, and an increasingly useless series of 'oh dears' from the locals who arrive just after us, I grab my bike and lift it over the barbed wire fence to the side. Disappointingly, no-one complains, so I have to lift Marion's tank of a bike over too.
Lifting the bikes back onto the path, then off and on again a few hundred meters later, gives me two things I wasn't expecting at this stage in the day: a big greasy chain sproket mark halfway up my T-shirt and extremely tired arms. Still, at least we're not going to Go Back.
's Gravendeel is the next place on the map, after a few more kilometers of gently curving dike path. On our way through the town I'm pleased to see signs for the LF12a Landelijk Fietsroute (national cycle route). The LF-routes, maintained by the ANWB, cover the whole of the Netherlands, and offer consistently good cycling on attractive and relatively traffic-free routes. This is (literally) a good sign for our route.
At the next LF12a sign, we see more of the text on the sign as we go past - Maas-Vesting route, Maasluis-Nijmegen. This is even better, because we might be able to follow this route all day, and get to spend much less time reading our map; that's a real pain because stopping even for a minute costs lots of extra time and energy. The bubble bursts with the next sign, where we see the extra text Maasluis-Nijmegen 230 Km - a complete disaster. We were hoping to make Nijmegen today, but that's two days' cycling; maybe our trip is a silly idea after all - something that more than a few of our friends told us. The best thing to do for now is clearly to ignore this particular problem.
Further along the cycle route is the road tunnel under the Dortse Kil canal, which runs South of the Oude Maas. The tunnel proves a good chance to cool down and reach my top speed for the trip on its slope: you get a good cool breeze at 50.7 Km/h in the shade.
Unfortunately, the other side of the canal doesn't offer the petrol station (fizzy drink and chocolate stop) that we need at this stage, and we can't be bothered to look for one, which is foolish given that we didn't bother to bring supplies. More organised people than ourselves would have packed energy tablets, muesli bars (without chocolate, which melts messily), and fruit.
So, without thinking about our lack of energy we head South along a straight quiet road lined with scenic trees that eventually converge with and cross the A16 whose huge bridge we share. Approaching the bridge on the left hand side you can see the start of a new railway bridge for the future high-speed train track that will Paris even closer to us in June 2005, as part of the HSL Zuid project - happy days!
From the huge (1040 meters long) motorway bridge, you can see the old railway bridge that also spans the Hollands Diep waterway slightly to the East. The view is spectactular, with the open water teeming with sailing dinghies and other small craft. On the South bank we head East again, this time with the river hidden behind the dike; on to our first proper stop.
Lage Zwaluwe has no more to live up to than our need for food and drink. Although small and quiet we quickly find a waterside cafe to eat in. Things are going fine (cold, fizzy, sweet drinks) until Marion asks about food…
Marion: 'can we see the food menu please?'
Proprietor: 'there isn't a menu... you can have steak, schnitzel, port chops or saté, all with chips.'
Marion, after consulting with me: 'just chips then please!'
Proprietor: 'I only serve chips with a meal - this isn't a snack bar you know.'
Marion, who is veggie: 'how about something without meat?'
Proprietor: 'yeah right - chips without meat is just chips.'
Marion: 'er no, something vegetarian, or just fish?'
So I had been thinking how nice this terrace is, with its shady roof and view along the long narrow marina. Still, food is more important, so it is lucky that I have already spotted the red and white parasols of another cafe at the other end of the marina.
The other cafe, unlike the first, is far from empty, and soon serves us with a huge and satisfyingly greasy pancake each; bacon pancake for me, cheese pancake for Marion. This cafe has an unfamiliar crowd and strange music, increasing the day's holiday feeling: leather-clad bikers and Francophone Belgians, accompanied by loud Dutch pop folk music (smartlap, but more like German schlager).
After all this, and the pancakes doing their work, we feel much better: worries gone, along with cravings for the other customers' ice creams. Only one problem remains. With the maps unfolded on the table our morning's cycling looks hopeless. We are hoping to reach Nijmegen for the evening, and we're barely further East than Dordrecht. Being forced to think of alternatives makes plenty spring to mind, with Just Go Home featuring highly. Fortunately, our shared assumption that we shall do No Such Thing keeps us heading East.
Day one (afternoon): Lage Zwaluwe to 's Hertogenbosch (61 Km)
Drimmelen. Pass Dongercentraal and along main road to A27 bridge over the Bergse Maas.
Dussen. along roads behind dike, against NE wind
Drongelen. pretty country village but no cafe or shop. road curves right along never-ending dike. N267 bridge back over the river
Bokhoven. more pretty dike path
Engelen. blockhouse suburb on the way into town
Day two: 's Hertogenbosch to Venray (105 Km)
Day two route
Day two (morning): 's Hertogenbosch to Lith (26 Km)
's Hertogenbosch. quick escape on main road bike paths
Empel. from small straight tree-lined main road onto dike. main road N265 on dike - get hooted at for not being on bike path below, but good view L to Kerkdriel and Alem
Kessel. past girls in short dresses, in the wind
Lith. down from dike to small square for milkshakes
Day two (late morning): Lith to Ravenstein (31 Km)
Lithoijen. difficult to find bike path
Macharen. cross country to find dike
Dieden. end of the NE routes!
Demen. sugar stop at small cafe - several other cyclists
Ravenstein. small, pretty, nice; table under tree eventually, busy and slow.
Day two (afternoon): Ravenstein to Venray (48 Km)
Niftrik. cross on A50 bridge to follow dike
Balgoij. ugly path; should have stayed South
Nederasselt. cross back on A324 bridge
Grave. short cut SE on N321
Cuijk. nothing on waterfront, no cans in small Hema, toilet stop on high street, chat to waitress about trip - 'Do you do this often'. Dike road SE
Sint Agatha. convent, windy roads, no river
Beugen. dike road turns to gravel; no river and long way to Venray so lie on grass and opt for short cut along railway line
Boxmeer. fizzy drinks from Wizzl
Smakt. into woods along pretty bike path into town
Venray. find right part of town. stop at Chopinstraat to ask for directions to Etudestraat; find it back at Overtuurstraat
Day three: Venray to Maastricht (115 Km)
Day three route
Day three (morning): Venray to Kessel (32 Km)
Venray. long day so straight S, not 10 Km East first, to be 5 Km further East at Venlo for the industrial bit
America. more straight roads then lots of N277
Helden. out into Heldense Bos; beautiful path away from road through trees
Kessel. great view onto Maas. stop in hot sun before ferry
Day three (late morning): Kessel to Thorn (33 Km)
Beesel. bad path on LF3 route! slow like against wind yesterday, and fear of puncture, worse since no tube at Den Bos
Swalmen. horrid main road
Roermond. stop in town centre for horrid kroketbroodje but hungry, force feed Marion, LF5 towards Thorn
Heel. lost route having gone along wrong side of canal
Panneel. should have got LF maps - ugly route instead of through Wessem
Thorn. pancakes for lunch!
Day three (afternoon): Thorn to Maastricht (50 Km)
Kessenich. amazingly well signposted LF7a - Vlandersfietsroute
Masseik. more river path
Berg. ferry, coach, canoes; nothing on the other side, abuse cafe
Leut. small square, shop for chocolate
Neerhaven. cross border, pass kid who shouts in French
Maastricht. De Percee
Libeek. up hills!