Zwolle to Assen, by bike – Part 1

Hackney Cyclist has recently put up a series of blogs on his experience of cycling between Dutch cities. They’re well worth reading in detail, and they’ve inspired me to do the same for a ride I made last summer between the cities of Zwolle and Assen, in the north of the Netherlands.

This is a distance of around 45 miles, or 70 kilometres. I did it on my omafiets, shown below during a ‘rest stop’ on this ride.

Omafiets on the way to Assen

As you can see it has two full panniers carrying everything I needed for a week’s worth of cycling (this was part of a trip that included visits to Rotterdam, Utrecht, and a three days in Assen and Groningen on a David Hembrow study tour). I was wearing ordinary clothes; I’ve never felt the need for special equipment or special bikes when doing these kinds of distances in the Netherlands because the environment allows me to go at a smooth, relaxed and consistent pace, never really exerting myself. Indeed, part of the fun of these trips is covering large distances as a ‘wheeled pedestrian’, hopping on my heavy machine straight after breakfast without even really thinking about it, and heading off over the horizon.

l left the centre of Zwolle on one of its ubiquitous bi-directional cycleways. Zwolle itself is very much a mixed bag; some really high quality new stuff, mixed with some low-quality infrastructure – just paint, essentially – that is very dated and often left me feeling quite exposed.

Bi-directional cycleway Zwolle

Heading north, I turned off this path onto an access road, with no centre line, and cycle markings at the edges.Access road ZwolleThese kinds of markings have recently hit the headlines, so to speak, having been employed on a main road in the north of England. That’s a very different context from this street, which only serves a handful of properties, and is very quiet.

My route then took me onto a temporary path, and the crossing of the main road that has been upgraded, as described here, and shown in the video below.

On the other side of the road the cycle path climbed gradually, reaching a high bridge that took me over a large canal. There was a fast, busy road alongside me here, but cycling was comfortably separated from it.

Zwolle Ijsselkanaal bridge

In the distance in the photograph above is the impressive cycling suspension bridge shown in this Good Facility of the Week. You can cross a large junction on this bridge to enter the suburb of Westenholte, or you can veer around underneath the bridge to head north out of the city, as I did. Note the two very different types of cycling!Zwolle two types of cycling

The path continued on seamlessly, bypassing a roundabout without me having to go anywhere near it…

Roundabout bypass Zwolle … before leading me onto another access road, this time in a new development.

Access road Zwolle

Again, just as with the example before, these markings are only appropriate on these kinds of quiet streets. Motor traffic (as can be seen) stays out of the lanes, because there is rarely oncoming motor traffic. This particular street only serves the dwellings on the left here; it is closed at the far end with a bollard (which retracts, only to allow buses to pass).

From here I left the city completely, moving onto a beautiful access-only road running beside a branch of the Ijssel river.

Zwarte Water path ZwolleMotor traffic can use this road, but again, only around a handful of houses along here (a white one can be seen in the background) and I didn’t encounter any drivers along it. At this point, in fact, I still haven’t had any encounters with motor traffic, at all, nor have I even had to stop. My journey out of the city has been blissfully smooth and painless.

Checking my directions carefully on my phone, I eventually find the correct country lane I need to take to head towards the town of Hasselt. Even this quiet little lane has had a smooth concrete cycleway added alongside it, within the last few years. This concrete is actually smoother than the tarmac of the road.

Ruimzichtweg Zwolle

This lane took me to the busy N331 road (‘N’ is the Dutch equivalent of a UK ‘A’ road), which was carrying plenty of fast, intimidating HGVs. Naturally enough, however, I had some parallel provision in the form of a service road, some distance from the main road itself.

Service road alongside N331 ZwolleIn this agricultural part of the country these service roads are used by farm traffic, too slow for the fast main road – and obviously by any residents who live along the service road as well. This led to my very first shock of the day, an overtake from a large tractor pulling a vicious-looking piece of equipment, perhaps only a foot away from my left elbow. (The farmer had obviously momentarily forgotten about strict liability, which makes everyone play nice in the Netherlands).

Tractor overtake Hasselt

Happily this service road ended as I arrived on the outskirts of the town of Hasselt, and I was back on a cycleway, which followed the N331 as it bypassed the town.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.44.20

I was treated to a lovely, almost stereotypically ‘Dutch’ view of Hasselt as I crossed the river, and here I made my first (entirely voluntary) stop of the day. I’d made great progress – not with any great speed while cycling, but without ever having to have stopped moving.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.45.40

Leaving Hasselt I was back on a service road again, parallel to the main road, and this one was definitely uncomfortable by Dutch standards, with what seemed like a large number of vehicles turning in and out of it at a busy junction which I had to cross, feeling quite exposed. Just like the overtake from the tractor driver, this was another bump back to earth, and it felt distinctly ‘British’. Note how the drivers are driving on the cycle markings – a clue that they aren’t appropriate.

Busy service road Hasselt

From here, though, I was rewarded with perhaps the best cycling of the day, winding my way towards the next town of Meppel along a combination of tiny, tiny little tracks through the countryside, and broader farm roads, again only used by farmers to get to and from their properties, and not used by people cutting through, avoiding main roads.

These little tracks were surfaced with beautifully smooth concrete – this might be the ‘countryside’, but the surface was wonderful to cycle on.

Country cyclepath Meppel

It’s important to note that paths like these are merely ‘recreational’ routes, and are definitely not part of any formal or official utility cycle network. That’s why they are often not particularly wide, because they aren’t being used heavily – only by people like me taking the scenic route, or people cycling around for leisure. (The width isn’t a problem because you are unlikely to encounter someone coming the other way). In essence they are a nice ‘extra’ on top of the dense grid of utility routes.

Indeed, as I got closer to Meppel I joined one of these ‘proper’ routes, a much wider concrete path, with lighting – even though I was still in the countryside,

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.57.44… cycling past herons…

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.59.23

… distinctive cattle…

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 22.59.53… all on gloriously smooth paths, even the farm roads themselves, composed of wide concrete that I just rolled along on.

Farm road MeppelThese little lanes had no motor traffic at all on them, but I still managed to suffer a close pass from a lady in a battered old Ford Fiesta, who then immediately turned left, right in the midst of her attempted overtake, into the farm where she evidently lived. Again, that hallowed ‘strict liability’ effect was evidently only intermittently effective…

On the outskirts of Meppel these tracks and paths joined a tarmac road, busy with leisure cyclists of two distinct types – elderly couples, and people whizzing past them in lycra, both groups enjoying the morning sunshine.

Two types of cyclist, Meppel

I’d reached Meppel – about 30km from Zwolle – having only had four or five direct encounters with motor vehicles (unfortunately, most of them quite bad!), and with only having had to stop a handful of times, whisked along on a combination of genuinely impressive cycle engineering on a grand scale, right down to modest, tiny paths in the middle of nowhere.

Part 2 – in which I cycle from Meppel on to Assen, with a diversion along the way – to come!

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14 Responses to Zwolle to Assen, by bike – Part 1

  1. Notak says:

    Three thoughts about this:

    Firstly, the proportion of ‘bad encounters’ is incredibly high. Far higher than I’ve experienced on any road in any country. But perhaps this is just a statistical anomaly due to the low number.

    Secondly, I note the strong – 100% in your photos – correlation between lycra, drop bars and helmets. It’s even stronger than in the UK!

    Lastly, those roads with no centre line but cycle lanes: I’ve yet to encounter one myself but I’m beginning to wonder what the point of them is. It seems clear, both from various reports and from common sense, that they will only work where (motor) traffic is infrequent; in which case what is the need for them? They only work where they are not needed and where they are needed, they do not work. It would make more sense to leave those roads so marked with no markings at all (or just with conventional centre line) and to make something more effective on the busier roads. Can this be the Dutch quota filling?

    • andreengels says:

      The answer to your question is I think that those markings are useful but NOT as cycling infrastructure. You can say that that is what they are pretending to be, but their actual function is to regulate motorcar speed: because the road looks narrower than it actually is, drivers are less likely to speed.

      • stonojnr says:

        yes my experience of these types of roads in the UK are that they are intented to focus on slowing cars down, often the markings are combined with a lowering of the speed limit, whether that achieves the aim I dont know, the cycling infra side is definitely a secondary consideration

        and actually rode along one today, its only about half a mile long,& supposed to be a 30mph limit, but I was overtaken by 6 cars in just half the distance again so only quarter of a mile which shows how busy it still is, whilst I was averaging 16mph,so they were doing a rapid 30mph given how easily they breezed past me.

        3 of the cars maintained their position central on the road, but 2 immediately retook their position on the far left and drove effectively in the cycle lane and treated it like a normal road, the final one sort of hesitated for a bit centrally, but then took a far left position as well, as the road approached a corner, so they were happyish being central when they felt they had good forward visibility, but rather than slow down as is the intention of the road on the bend, they took the lane instead.

        but at no stage was there any traffic coming the other way for them to have been obliged to move over.

        interestingly I also noted the lanes were much wider at one end of the road and narrowed to nearly just handlebar width by the end,and actually had to pop out of the lane at the end as overgrowing hedges were proving to be an obstruction.

        • Notak says:

          We’re quite used to supposed cycle infrastructure in the UK actually being used to slow cars down or (as an attempt to) persuade them onto different routes, but it’s interesting, for a number of reasons, if the Dutch are doing the same. It would seem to indicate that they don’t always treat cycling infrastructure as seriously as we would like; and that despite the high share of cycling in their transport use, they also have the (worldwide) problem of excessive car use for the available roadspace.

    • USbike says:

      I think the contrast in the Netherlands is what makes the bad encounters really stand out. Cycling in the southern USA, these incidences are encountered almost on a daily basis. But the conditions are just so subpar that it usually doesn’t even register as abnormal to me anymore. But when things are great most of the time (in Holland), I can imagine even these minor events triggering a feeling of unease. Recently, I was in Utrecht and got to cycle around the city. One thing that really stood out is that people in general (drivers and other cyclists) are way more comfortable hanging or passing close to one another. This was especially evident on 30 Kph streets with no separate bike infrastructure. Cyclists would often ride 2 or 3 abreast and take up at least half the street, but the oncoming cars would just pass in the other direction without any fuss. The few times I’ve tried that with my friends here in the US, riding 2 abreast on a residential street with more than half the street remaining, the drivers would always freak out or just stop, not knowing how to handle that situation. Same with most cyclists on recreational trails-people are way more timid about passing/being passed closely.

      And then, even in Holland there are jackasses. The first day, I decided to walk downtown to do some sightseeing. I stayed near Biltstraat and had to go west to reach the city. Within 20 minutes, I encountered 2 occurrence of road rage. The first was someone on a snorfiets tailgating and honking aggressively at cyclists in the separated cycle path because they were riding 2 abreast (which is totally legal first of all). The 2nd time was further west on that road, where it becomes a 30 Kph area with no bike paths in that direction. A motorist kept tailgating and VERY aggressively honking at every group of cyclists who would “block” his/her way. I just had to shake my head at that. Fortunately that never happened to me when I later rented a bike and rode on that same street.

      • jeldering says:

        Two such road rage incidents in 20 minutes seems extremely rare to me: I’ve lived in Utrecht for 12 years and cannot remember a single incident. Sure there may have been a few, but clearly not serious enough to stick in my memory. I’ve also lived in London for two years, cycling about as much there and remember 2 incidents of road rage (angry shouting, honking) directed to me. Still not a whole lot, but in my experience a totally different world.

        • USbike says:

          Yeah, I’m sure it was just unlucky coincidence that two impatient jackasses went through that same route and decided to act up. Nothing like that happened again and the trip was incredible otherwise. I biked around the city the rest of the trip and it was amazing, just like what we read on these blogs. If only the cyclists I’ve met here in the States who claim to know everything about cycling could go there and see the skill level of people cycling in Holland, it would be an eye opening experience. People there are really not afraid of getting up and close with others, unlike in the US.

          That motorist incident unfortunately stood out to me. And that may be due to my expectations of how things should work in Holland. Had that same scenario occurred where I live, I would actually expect such a result. I will say that the 30 Kph section (Voorstraat) definitely didn’t look or seem quite up-to-date for Dutch best practice. Maybe it’s on the books for upgrade in the near future, but I was confused as to why there were non-mandatory bike markings on some stretches: https://www.google.com/maps/@52.0950898,5.1246184,3a,75y,50.84h,39.17t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sHpGLsd5RS3TeBodLoKwXFg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1. That seems to contradict using the full lane of the road. Either way, the aggressive behavior I saw was completely unnecessary and thankfully I wasn’t one of the cyclists in front.

          • jeldering says:

            I think people in the Netherlands typically are not afraid to come close to each other is because everybody knows how to deal with the situation (cyclists and motorists) so there is no fear of dangerous behaviour. That said, cyclists can behave unexpectedly and motorists cope with it.

            The Voorstraat indeed has some of the poorest infrastructure in Utrecht, and this has been basically unchanged (except for the separated contra-flow cycle path) as long as I remember. I remember that cycle lane sign being ridiculed as the shortest, shallowed cycle lane in The Netherlands on a Dutch webpage somewhere. I think there is simply a real lack of space to change things, unless the car parking space is sacrificed. But that might meet too much resistance…

            • USbike says:

              I wonder if Voorstraat could eventually receive the red carpet treatment, as Mark from Bicycledutch has shown for some other streets lower-speed 30 streets. Although I do wonder how that may conflict with the separated contra flow lane-if rules would allow both to exist.

              • jeldering says:

                The Voorstraat is the single street for traffic to cross the city centre from east to west, so I think it’s difficult to close or lower car traffic. This means that making it a “fietsstraat” doesn’t really work.

  2. andreengels says:

    “(‘N’ is the Dutch equivalent of a UK ‘A’ road)” – it is actually a bit more complicated. The N roads numbered under 400 (including the N331) are equivalent to A roads, the N roads numbered over 400 are more equivalent to B roads.
    “Note how the drivers are driving on the cycle markings – a clue that they aren’t appropriate” – I disagree. The traffic is probably too heavy for this kind of treatment, but on a more quiet road it would still be good behaviour from the car drivers to go into the cycle markings when encountering a cyclist (you) going in the other direction.

  3. I live in Hoogeveen, only 1 hours aways from Meppel. The distance I report is measured in cycling hours, on regular slow city bike, not car, or tour de france fancy high speed hardware. BTW Meppel to Hoogeveen is much nicer than Zwolle to Meppel. More rural also. More empty spaces, hence more head winds. But Snow, Rain, headwinds, blonds on bikes always going the other way…It just never stopped the dutch boys from cycling. Youtube channel bicycledutch has some nice video demonstrating that concept. Also watch that incredible girl dressed in classic wool fashion on a bike picture of @Haagsefietschic

  4. Pingback: Zwolle to Assen by bike (part 2) | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  5. Aron says:

    “Note how the drivers are driving on the cycle markings – a clue that they aren’t appropriate.”
    I’m sorry but I have to defend my fellow Dutchmen here. It’s actually the opposite of what happened. Contrary to the UK, a dashed line means that it may be crossed, as opposed to a solid white line which is not to be crossed at any time. (an exeption in these are the dashed lines on the side of larger roads, like the N-roads in your report, they are just for decoration). These roads’ design allow two-way traffic to pass easily, however they have to cross into the cycle path if they want to do so. If there’s a cyclist in the cycle lane, traffic has to wait behind them if there’s oncoming traffic. There is no pressure involved here, generally everybody is calm and civil about it. In your case, the car was invading the cycle lane to give you, coming from the opposite direction, more space (yes, really!). This road design is so much better than what would have been there previously: no cycling provision at all but just a white seperation line (sounds familiar to your UK ears?). It’s usually used on 50km/h roads where seperate cycle infrastructure is (not yet) possible (because of many possible reasons, ie. wanting to keep roadside parking, trees, lack of space, etc.). You can sometimes also find it on the busier 30km/h roads, which see more traffic than a regular neighbourhood street or where 50km/h is really unwanted (city centers, shopping areas, etc.). The older version of this design can be seen in the 3rd photo in your post. There you can see it the road is wider and and the cycle lane is narrower. This acts less as a traffic calming incentive and gives cyclists less space.

    As for your complaints about safe passing distances, I’m going to be blunt and say that it’s a cultural thing. Car drivers here are used to cyclists, and vice versa. Sure, in some rare instances people will pass without leaving enough room, but it most cases it goes just fine. You’d have to ask David Hembrow about this though, as he has a good insight in both countries and cultures.

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