Heaven for Cyclists, Hell for Bikepackers: Recumbentpacking the Netherlands
Following a surgery that left him unable to sit comfortably on a standard bicycle saddle, Evan Christenson’s restlessness led him to buy a second-hand recumbent on a whim. Find his story of loading it up, learning to ride again as he went, and seeing things from a fresh perspective on a laid-back journey across The Netherlands here…
To clarify, I didn’t want to do this. I never would have chosen, with dignity, to do this. But there I was, face down on the crinkly paper, staring into the soul of the drab office wall, holding my breath as the technician probed my ass. She had purple hair and talked fast. “My old roommate was a cyclist! He wore those cloppy shoes. Clip clop, clip clop, he would always go. And the spandex! What a weird sport.” I was making small talk and trying to keep my mind off the shadowy figure moving on the screen to my right.
“Yup, that looks bad. Really bad,” she said, as if that’s what I wanted to hear. I hadn’t been able to sit on a saddle for months. After a season of gritting my teeth and riding through a grouping of saddle sores in Baja, I had ridden myself into this awful doctors office. I had a cystic nodule that wouldn’t go away. I tried antibiotics. I tried steroids. I tried the all-curing power of time (as best as I could). I had to get the damn thing cut out.
I’m lost. I’m desperate. I have this need to do this thing, and without it, I feel an absence within me. Without motion, movement, freedom, I feel powerless. So, while gently recovering, clinging to my red silicone donut pillow, days on the couch, nights walking the same loops around the neighborhood, I prodded my mind. The future always feels so far away. It never gets closer until suddenly it’s there. I moved to Amsterdam, as was the long-running plan. But how could I enjoy my time? How do I get back out there? How could I ever appreciate the best thing about the Netherlands, that pristine cycling infrastructure, without riding a bike?
I remembered a sticker I saw on a recumbent a few years back. “Saddle sores are a choice,” it said. Maybe I’ll choose the dark side for a while. Out of necessity. Just for a while. Socially I’ll never recover from riding a recumbent, but after two months of lying on the couch, doggedly suffering through morning runs, there had to be a change. I packed up my girlfriend’s panniers and took the train to Groningen. The bike was 200 euros. It had rear suspension, disc brakes, and a Shimano drivetrain. It came with a flag, a patch kit, and a phone holder. The pedals clip in on one side, and a big silver tube slides in or out to adjust the length. I didn’t know anything else.
First, I see if it hurts to sit down. I brought a pillow and am pleased to see it fills the small dip in the seat so I can slide up and get off the surgery wound. Unlike park benches, train seats, even our dining room chairs, this doesn’t hurt at all to sit on. My weight is on the back. I feel relieved immediately. We wheel the long bike through the narrow corridor and onto the street. Marieke holds me up and runs next to me as I push off and wobble uncontrollably. I wobble and push and pedal, and it all goes so fast. I fall immediately. She picks me back up. We try again, again, and again. She always picks me up, laughing, smiling, enjoying this random American at her door trying a recumbent out for the first time. It’s a Tuesday morning. The sun is shining.
I slowly feel more in control. We straighten out the handlebars. She runs again, and her feet skip on the ground. I pedal a couple rotations this time, and finally get up to speed. The bike wobbles less the faster it goes. She runs so fast, I think as we tear around the neighborhood. People stare. We run over small children. Blood is everywhere. I can’t stop now though. She lets me go. It’s like being four years old again, finally riding my BMX bike without the training wheels on. I remember being so angry with my step dad for letting go the first time. Of course I fell. But of course that was the point. Marieke lets me go, and like a child, I’m freed from the shackles of home. Every stop light flashes green. This road will go forever. I look like an idiot and I smile like one too. I grab the panniers off the ground and ride. A right turn for Holland.
Stumpy cars and cigarettes. Wobbly consonants and dropped top tubes. Stinky cheese and fries with mayonnaise. Fries. With mayonnaise. Maybe it’s the perfect metaphor for how everything feels weirdly similar to an American. And then there’s just that one thing, here the mayonnaise, later the quiet stares in the supermarket, or how everyone actually waits at a crosswalk, the clucking of the traffic lights, how they call fast food snackbar, how every bike has red panniers, how we all wait to cross during a red light and no one talks to each other. How those little red cars just putter straight down the bike lanes, how cars can even exist that small, really, so small, like so small people shouldn’t be able to fit in them, so small that I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to fit in them.
“They’re iconic!” My girlfriend says. They stink, I reply with my pickup-sized disdain. English is even derived from Dutch, so when we have those constant moments of awkwardness, when I’m just being spoken to, it feels like what I imagine having a stroke is like. It all seems perfectly normal until I realize nothing makes sense. It’s America but skewed. It’s America without the fighting, the stress, the anger. No political flags, no telephone poles, no mountains. What a shame.
The Dutch countryside is easily the most unremarkable landscape I’ve ever encountered. North of Groningen is referred to as the “End of the World” by some Dutchies, and mistakenly, I point my new ligfiets (recumbent) in that direction to explore a bit. I pass massive industrial farms, small farms, quiet towns, barns, fields, dams and churches and trees. The roads are flat and straight. The bike paths are excellent. I look for dirt early on and find almost none I can ride on. I put a podcast in and pedal circles just for the joy of pedaling circles again. With the bike’s perpetual small inputs, the wobbliness I still haven’t perfected, the awkward position, my body hurts, and I find I get nauseous riding it after a few hours. There’s joy to be riding again, moving through the world and looking around, but there’s also a remarkable amount of boredom early on. I struggle to find people to talk to. The ground ahead stretches and rolls. Time is a blur of green patches. Hours turn to days.
The Netherlands is heaven for cyclists. It has an incredibly high population density, and all of its towns and cities are relatively close together. From A to B, on average, is just faster on a bike, and for decades the Dutch have prioritized cycling when developing new roadways. There’s always a bike path off to the side of the road, they rarely intersect with danger, there are designated routes and always signs along the way if you can understand them. And it’s so flat, so achingly, agonizingly, infuriatingly flat, that it’s easy going on a bike. The ligfiets settles into itself early on in this countryside. I have an able partner for long days and easy distance. We do these things. God, it’s boring.
I stay with three people my first few days. They’re all named Jan. The first is a consultant working to design systems more efficiently. He’s written over 100 books about the subject. The second is living on social security on a farm in the countryside. The third is a wire-haired and mad-minded mechanic who collects old American cars and chops them apart. He says fighting bureaucracy is also “kinda fun.” They’re all very nice people, and I like them a lot. Jan lets me try his wooden shoes, and although they’re a bit sweaty, I’m surprised by how comfortable they are. My hosts are all Dutch. So very Dutch.
There is no wild camping in the Netherlands. None at all. The Netherlands has the 22nd highest population density in the world, and behind Monaco, the highest in Europe. And just 1% of the Dutch surface area is considered “wild nature.” There are no long, peaceful rides through the countryside without the whirring of electric motors, the smell of pancakes, the dings of bells, and the fervent moving to the side as groups of cyclists come rushing the other way. There is no camping outside of campgrounds, and in these campgrounds, there is no peaceful morning coffee overlooking sunrise on the mountains ahead. The sunrise is always behind a tree or a building. The babies always cry and the neighbors always snore. The bathrooms are always clean and the tent is always wet. The Netherlands is heaven for cyclists, but it’s a certain hell for bikepackers.
Amid all this whining—this endless, mostly justified, whining—the ride went really well. My girlfriend Bo, a Dutch bikepacker, came to join me. We rode through her favorite sections of the forest. She showed me good gravel roads I could ride on my skinny, tiny tires. We found peaceful moments, crowded swimming spots, and decent food. Bo smiles wide as we ride through a quiet patch of forest together, the sun dimming in the sky, the planes crossing overhead. She points down a mountain bike trail I can’t quite make it down. “That’s where I almost cried it was so beautiful. That deer was running with me, the light was so nice. It was soooo beautiful… And in reality I was like six kilometers from a grocery store.”
Later, we meet Flore, a student from Rotterdam studying illustration. They’re out on their first bikepacking trip on a homebuilt 90s mountain bike. When I ask what they liked about it, they say “Well, it only cost me like 30 euro in total.” And later at a campground I meet a guy on a bikepacking weekender. He had already ridden 300 kilometers, mostly on dirt, in just two days. He says normally he’ll do 300, 400, sometimes 500 kilometers a day on his road bike around the Netherlands. He says it as if he’s plainly stating which restaurants he likes to frequent. As if 500 kilometers in a day isn’t an incredible achievement. He eats a pot of dehydrated noodles and climbs into his ultralight tent. I laugh. Five hundred kilometers will take me all week.
It rains as I head back into Amsterdam. Heavy, thick, cold rain. Stand under the bridge and wait rain. But I’m so close to home, I figure I might as well get a little wet. Embrace the Dutch cycling experience. The bike paths are full of students stacked on electric fatbikes and pantsuit women smoking cigarettes on VanMoofs. They’re all coming home from work as corporate executives. Every Dutch millionaire rides a bike home after work. To not do so would be entirely against the rules.
There’s a certain nonchalance to life here. Buy an e-bike, smoke a cigarette, go to the cafe. Nice clothes, nice hair, nice lives. Back in Amsterdam, it’s a fairyland utopia. I wait at stop lights sitting slightly lower than my tribe of commuters. I race through bike lanes and try not to crash into anyone. I have a warm shower and put regular clothes on and see a young British indie band play a show in a 300-year-old cathedral. Life here is nice. Brilliantly pleasant. There’s an eerie lack of tension in the whole thing. It scares me.
I ride the ligfiets through the city the following day and talk to some more bikepackers. I’m eager for more insight into the bikepacking experience in the Netherlands and am hoping someone can give it to me. I first talk with Jon Woodroof, an Atlanta-raised fixie rider who fell in love with the Dutch cycling community and never left. He now runs a marketing consulting firm for the cycling industry. He’s raced the Atlas Mountain Race and the Silk Road Mountain Race, as well as some stuff around Europe. He had just returned from Germany, where he took his break-apart frame on an overnight train and woke up on the border of Czechia. He says the access to other parts of Europe is a plus. And after a decade of living here, he can still surprise himself how nice the riding is. There’s no road rage. Little stress. Always more things to see. “When else on a ride can you just go through three different countries?” He says. And I wonder. With the EU’s open borders and tiny countries, not often so easily. But I also wonder, what’s the point in that?
As I prod the long nose of the recumbent around Amsterdam, scurrying pigeons, pissing off locals, stopping for more snackbar, I wonder what my takeaways from my ride around the Netherlands are. In some ways, I longed for more. But in others, it was refreshing to just move again. Kids would stare at me on my silly bike, point fingers, and shout to their mothers. I looked ridiculous lying lazily on my machine, feet up in the air, hands at my side, singing British indie music while yawning. But I slept well in my tent, I made friends, I felt wind in my hair again, and I felt recharged when I got home.
I learned that nothing is really that dorky and embarrassing if it grants you access to something otherwise inaccessible. And self-powered movement had become inaccessible after the surgery. I had missed the world around me, and this had closed that gap. I also thought of the Netherlands. Of this heaven and hell, of this promised land that falls a bit too short for me. And I guess I had accepted it by the time I returned to my shortly adopted home in Amsterdam. No place is perfect. There is no San Diego with Dutch health care and Dutch bike lanes. There probably never will be. Life is accepting disappointment. And bikepacking is an exercise in life.
On my way home I talk with Leanne Bentley after leaving Jon’s office. A London raised designer, she moved here just before Brexit and gladly stayed when the government offered her citizenship. During the pandemic, she fell deep into bikepacking, and when she couldn’t source a framebag, she decided to just make one herself. She bought a heavy-duty sewing machine and used her design experience to figure out the templates. And now she runs Carrie Gere, a bag-making studio as a part time gig/hobby. Leanne’s been riding around the Netherlands for years now, and I push her a bit hoping for a deeper layer to the riding here. She sits back in her chair, leaning over her work table, looking out over the water. She blows air through her lips and draws a blank. That’s riding in the Netherlands, I suppose.
We ride through the city together after I tour her studio. Leanne had a really hard ride at the Atlas Mountain Race this year. She went deeper than she ever had before. She’s been dealing with lingering nerve damage since, but she also says she still thinks about the race daily. We ride past Albert Heijns in our Utopian bliss. Leanne wears chic glasses, a fitted black top and a small golden necklace. “This feels worlds away from racing ultras,” I say. Light is bursting through the office buildings, reflecting off the oil slick water of the canals. Tourists eat pancakes on boats. The wind is soft. “That’s why I do it.” She says. “To feel something.”
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