The Long Ride, Day Zero

This morning, I got up, got dressed, and got on my bike. I cycled south from my village into Amsterdam: right turn, left turn, right turn, cross the river, get to work. It took me about half an hour.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to get up at about the same time, get dressed, and get on my bike (albeit with the saddlebags bulging a little more). And I’ll cycle south from my village into Amsterdam: right turn, left turn…but then I’ll go straight instead of turning right, pass under a viaduct, jog left, and follow the road as it unspools in front of me in a new direction. I’ll cross highways, canals, rivers, provinces. I’ll cycle over bridges, through cities, into villages, among sheep, past birds, under windmills, along dikes. And through it all I’ll keep the IJsselmeer to my left until I get home again. It’ll take me four days.

The desire to cycle really far has been growing in me since I started biking around the Noord-Hollands polder. When I’m out in the open land, there’s a part of me that wants to just keep going, to do something monumental and vast to match the space around me. Over time, that’s coalesced into the wish that I could circumnavigate the IJsselmeer, the great body of fresh water that makes the shape of the Netherlands so distinctive.

The story of the IJsselmeer is the story of the country itself. It grew from small lake surrounded by over-drained, sunken land (medieval water engineering was still in beta). It became the salty Zuiderzee after a series of floods in the late Middle Ages broke the dikes, filled the sunken fields, and scoured the ground away. Through it sailed the ships of the Golden Age on their way to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to the world. Even the process of taming it into the IJsselmeer was characteristically Dutch, undertaken with stolid practicality in difficult times: turning a vast salt body fresh and filling a large part of it in during years of economic hardship, war, famine, and natural disaster. Now it’s tranquil water surrounded by peaceful, prosperous land, and both land and water are mindful of their history but not haunted by it—much like the Dutch themselves.

I figured the trip would take about four days; I reckoned the best time to do it would be late summer. I idly elaborated on the idea as I cycled to work or wandered the countryside. It was a dream project, something to do “one of these days”.

But it’s such an achievable dream, whispered the wind out in the deep polder. Over four days, it’s maybe 90 a day. You ride 30, 40, 50 kilometers already, and don’t even notice it the next morning. Only a little extra conditioning, a little planning, the kindness of Martin and the kids, and you can do this. Come. Come.

So “one of these days” is tomorrow, and I’m coming…but in my own way. Not in garish Lycra, not bent over on a racing cycle, not whirring through the air like a bright arrow in flight the way the denizens of Clan Spandex do. It seems right to me to do this in my ordinary clothes and on my ordinary bike, just as when I go to work, run errands, or wander the Noord-Hollands countryside on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary, like water in wine, like the IJsselmeer itself.

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13 Responses to The Long Ride, Day Zero

  1. As you know, Bob, to me this sounds like almost more fun than the human animal can stand. My envy is great.

  2. fadeaccompli says:

    This sounds like such a fantastic trip. I really look forward to hearing back from you along the way, or at the end of it.

  3. I don’t know the specific timings, but the coast of Lincolnshire was protected by a chain of barrier islands until Late Medieval times. [checks Google] Here’s something with maps.

    There’s a mention of storm surges in 1287 and 1288, partly inferred from entries in monastic chronicles about whole parishes vanishing on particular days, and it went on and on and on.

    A lot of Lincolnshire, in the 17th Century, was recovered by Dutch engineers, both on the Wash and the Isle of Axholme. Some old buildings show the atchitectural influence.

  4. Jacque says:

    It’s been eons since I’ve done even an afternoon bike trip. There’s some really lovely country around here that I miss. Your plan sounds sublime.

  5. Mental Mouse says:

    You may take it lightly, but I find a four-day bike ride sufficiently impressive for the week! Good fortune for your trip!

    A thought; do you find anything of the pilgrimage in this?

  6. Dion says:

    Don’t forget your raincoat. Monday’s forecast is typical Dutch!

    Have fun, and tell us your stories.

  7. drycamp says:

    The pictures you’re tweeting are beautiful. Have a wonderful time!

  8. Lila says:

    Bon voyage!

  9. pericat says:

    OMG, I so wish I could come along.

  10. @Wolf Bagkinski:
    The 1287 St Lucia’s Day flooding was also significant for the Zuiderzee; it either broke or finished breaking the sea dikes to turn the lake into an inlet.

    @Mental Mouse:
    A thought; do you find anything of the pilgrimage in this?

    A difficult and meaty question, complicated by the fact that I’ve never been on a real pilgrimage and thus have no good baseline. It’s not social, and pilgrimages generally are or become so, simply because there is more than one person going to the destination. And it’s not destination-oriented, since I’m traveling in a circle; the only destination is my origin.

    But having said all that, it is a time out, a chance for thinking thoughts all the way through, but also a chance to choose not to think all the time, but just be. It’s a hope that I will return with some new directions and new thoughts (not that my extant ones aren’t good; see wealth in the next entry). To the extent that a pilgrimage is those things too, then yes.

    Whether it is or not, what it definitely is is a chance to enjoy this headspace, this place in my life, with the hope that in so doing, I can extend that enjoyment to the time beyond these four days.

    (This is all in addition to the fact that I get the I rode around the IJsselmeer, here let me show you it on a map, yes it is big achievement.)

  11. dotless ı says:

    I can’t define a pilgrimage for you—and everyone’s pilgrimage is different anyway—but a lot of your descriptions resonated with me: Traveling slowly, with time to think (or not) to look at the surroundings (or just be surrounded by them). The kindnesses on the way (and the musings on the saint’s medal). The musings on the kinds of wealth that enable and support a pilgrimage. And yes, the that satisfaction at the end (complete with “let me show you on a map”).

    Thank you for posting these. I enjoyed following along, and you incidentally brought back some happy personal memories for me.

  12. @dotless ı:

    Yes, I was thinking of you and things you’ve written when I was fumbling around for an answer there.

    The other thing I’ve been thinking is that it’s a pilgrimage only insofar as my life itself is. That’s a thought that sneaks across the linguistic boundaries of my mind and wants to express itself in Dutch, about how my levenstocht is a pelgrimstocht. It’s part of a growing class of ideas that come to me in Dutch, and are stubbornly refusing to entirely shed their original linguistic context. Which is neat and fine, but makes it hard to discuss them clearly in English.

  13. dotless ı says:


    To the extent that I can translate the terms (“life journey” and “pilgrimage”?), each is at least a tempting and effective metaphor for the other. It’s been years and many life events since my last pilgrimage, but I still find myself usefully mapping between them.

    I do hope that some day we have a chance to talk about this stuff in person. You wrote about living “thought to thought”, and I sympathize, but I often find the thoughts that you do manage to post thought-provoking and enlightening.

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