And so to the final day of our short tour of Zeeland and the chance to ride part of one of the world’s great cycle routes – the North Sea Cycle Route where it snakes across the great sea defences of the Netherlands.
This is something I wanted to do for a long time, not just because I have seen the spectacular aerial photos of cycle races forming classic echelons into the side winds of the Dutch Coast.
This may surprise my Dutch friends but Dutch coastal defences have been part of the English school geography syllabus for generations. Sometime around the age of 12 or 13 we were taught all about dykes and drains and polders and the great dams that took the sea under control and prevented the low lying land from flooding.
I never knew at the time why the Dutch works originally held such as fascination for English geographers but on reading about the schemes again I discovered that the Delta Works were declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which probably confirms why they were important enough for us to study. I have a sneaking suspicion and maybe a silent hope that somewhere there was a subversive civil engineer trying to indoctrinate us Brits into “doing it properly”, instead of the mess and muddle that leaves the UK perennially flooded every time there is an above average climatic condition. He or she failed, it’s not just the bike lanes the Dutch beat us at.
So I was looking forward to our Wednesday ride north across two of the great sea works. However it didn’t quite work out as planned because the weather tried to demonstrate just why these sea defences had been built.
Our plans for this short break in Zeeland had been made by our wonderful friends (and my ex-boss) Brian and Marijke Morris, an Anglo-Dutch couple that we have known for almost twenty years, since I got my job as CTC Director.
Brian and Marijke are experienced cycle tourists and have been doing an annual cycle tour of the Netherlands for years, catching up on Marijke’s home and relatives and getting a fix of Netherlands cycling. Almost since we have known them Brian has been telling takes about the trip and saying we must come along one year. This year we finally found the time to say “yes” so they organised 3 days based in Zeeland before they were due to start the next leg of their tour with a 90km trip North up the coastline across the sea defences, with us joining them for the spectacular start across the Oosterschelde barrier and maybe the Brouwersdam.
Until we got up on Wednesday morning. We already had a taste of the coastal wind on Monday, but on that occasion it was mostly behind us. But we already knew the forecast said it was due to turn towards the North West, possibly the worst of all directions for this ride.
What we hadn’t really anticipated was that it had been raining torrentially since around 2am and as we took breakfast thunder rattled the windows and forks of lightning flashed through the sky.
Now there are not many things that make me nervous on a bike, but one of them is being a wet pointy target sticking up on a high sea wall in the middle of a lightning storm. And the prospect of our two 80 year old friends battling their way north for hours in these conditions was a non-starter.
Careful consultation with the weather forecast suggested that the wind was not going to abate all day, but at least the rain might move inland by late morning. So sadly we compromised and loaded the bikes into the car for the first half of the trip, enabling us to miss the worst of the rain and leave Brian and Marijke with the option of moving slightly out of the wind for the main part of their ride.
I did get to see the magnificent Oosterschelde at last, and I can say that driving across it and seeing the cycle lane running along the rain drenched and windswept seaward side did suggest that on this occasion we had made the right call.
However after we drove through the worst of the storm we were able to park up and head for the 7 kilometre long Brouwersdam, one of the giant embankments that keep the sea from the vulnerable estuaries and lagoons.
It is wide enough to carry two roads, a dedicated bike lane and a small steam railway while on the seaward side there are extensive beaches that are clearly important water sports centres. Or rather I should say wind sports centres, because the main activities were kite-surfing, windsurfing and sand-yachting.
Oh yes – the dams may stop the water, but riding the cycle path along the ridge into the teeth of the gale with fine sand blasting bare flesh was not such a good advertisement for Dutch engineering. Of course coming back in the afternoon after we had left Brian and Marijke was marvellous, we were bowling along, getting back in about a third of the time it took us to go out.
The wind also contributed to the spectacle that I had hoped for. Big blue skies, white capped waves, sunlit beaches and colourful sails. On the seaward side it was harsh and bleached, to the landward side the lagoons were a softer blues and greens.
There were extensive shellfish beds, I guessed probably mussels as Zeeland is the heart of the mussel industry for Belgium and the Netherlands.
And always a perfectly surfaced bike lane, quite busy with tourists, day riders and even a big group of hardy Dutch teenagers, obviously off for a swim. No idea where they came from but clearly pedalling off down a seven kilometre causeway was as normal as biking to school.
As a closing setting for four days in Zeeland it was great. (Especially with a downwind finish). Now I have unfinished business with the rest of the ride, but I will save it for a time when I can promise a reliable south westerly.