Riding in Utrecht: Flashback from RIDE #48

With the announcement overnight that the Grand Départ of the Tour de France in 2015 will be in the Dutch city of Utrecht, with a 13.7km time trial on day one (4 July), it prompted us to revisit one of our stops from the Caffeine Culture series. In RIDE #48, Rodrick de Munnik put this piece together about the riding culture that existed at the time (March 2010). 



 

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Fietsclub ledig erf (NL)

 

CAFFEINE CULTURE #34 Utrecht, Holland (from RIDE #48 – April 2010)

 

– By Rodrick de Munnik

 

For this particular group ride in Holland beer is more the elixir than coffee but socialising remains the key focus for Ledig Erf cyclists. One of Utrecht’s locals tells the story…

 

With both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France starting in Holland in 2010, this country is cycling’s place to be this year. Amsterdam will host the Italian race on 8 May and the Tour begins with an eight-kilometre prologue in Rotterdam on 3 July. The city of Utrecht, in the heart of the Netherlands, will host the finish of the first stage of the Giro and was runner-up for the Grand Départ bid. [Note: on 28 November 2013, it was announced that the Grand Départ of the 2015 Tour de France would be in Utrecht – starting on 4 July.] Not without reason. Bike riding is huge in the nation’s fourth largest city. To get an understanding of what we can expect when everything goes Dutch shortly, we plunge into the bike culture of a local training bunch.

A big group of cyclists dashes to the finish. Their faces seem to show that they might be willing to sacrifice their health for glory, just as you would expect from the likes of Mark Cavendish or Robbie McEwen on any flat day in July. Except that this is not the Tour de France. It is not even a race. There is no audience, no jury, not a finish line in sight. This is a normal Sunday ride for a cycling group in the Netherlands. In this case, the fietsclub Ledig Erf from the city of Utrecht.

Each Sunday of the year, no exceptions, members go out for a ride of about 80km in the small hills east of the city. The route features famous local climbs with names like Ruiterberg (“Horse rider Mountain”, elevation: 56m), Hel van Leersum or Amerongseberg (63m). After the hill section, at the farthest point of the regular ride, the remains of the group that took the start will join forces at the top of the dyke that runs along the river, riding mainly into the prevailing southwesterly winds. The group will be shattered even more in the 20km of echelon riding that follows, before heading home towards that imaginary finish line.

The editor of the club’s newsletter insisted that I mention how the last half of the ride (after Wijk bij Duurstede) is along the ancient frontier of the Roman empire, an historic fact which is marked on the road. We don’t care though, we are racing.

The club started some 25 years ago, thanks to the efforts of a local bar owner by the name of Jacob van de Lagemaat who organised a fixed bike date with his friends starting from the terrace of his cafe Ledig Erf at the Ledig Erf square, the best terrace in town. Some friends of his brought along friends of theirs and the club quickly grew into something bigger. These days there are about 250 members.

 

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In the early years it was not only the cycling that attracted the riders. After the ride all members of what has become a club in its own right could order a free ‘cycling beer’ at the bar. This could become quite an expensive exercise for the patron. Van de Lagemaat’s bar specialises in rare Belgian beers. It’s this elixir that united the riders more than coffee; some have been known to cycle to breweries in Belgium as a side hobby. The most popular beer is Weihenstephaner, a Weizen from Germany served in half-litre bottles, of course. Ledig Erf sells more of this beer than any other bar in the country. But, personally, I’m careful to play it safe and stick to iced tea.

On more than the odd occasion the Sunday ride has finished late in the evening and there are numerous stories of riders struggling to get home on their bikes.

But Jacob sold his place, bought a bike hotel in the French Vosges and the new owner skipped the ‘cycling beer’ deal after the handover. Still, the change did not influence the atmosphere nor the number of members; the Sunday rides are as popular as ever and members still enjoy discussing events afterwards on the terrace. On a fine Sunday maybe as many as 150 people will show up at the Ledig Erf square in front of the bar. You would expect that a number like that would call for some organisation, but the club keeps the promise it made at the beginning: no rules, except those of nature.

No member meetings, no official starts, no regulations. Just Sunday: 1.00pm, be there! It’s always the same route. By some miracle it has never caused any problems. The people of the Ledig Erf are capable of organising themselves. Being organised is not just a Dutch trait, it’s almost habitual.

It means that the riders all start at one time and will then look for a group of their own level to complete the ride with. Sometimes that happens voluntarily, other times the forces of nature will tell a rider to look for a slower subgroup as he or she gets dropped without mercy. On the club’s official site (fietsclub.ledigerf.nl) three grades are listed: A, B and C with average speeds for the 73km route given for each – 35-40km/h, 30-35 and 25-30, respectively.

Over the years the level of riding has increased dramatically, as one veteran of the bunch, Kees Vreeken, recalls. “In the early days we did not touch the bike all winter,” said the 62-year-old. “At the first ride of the year we were always fat and slow. As the months passed the rides would get faster, but not as fast as they are now.” Kees should know, because he has data from all the rides he’s participated in stored in an archive on his computer. His comprehensive records include the names of the riders who accompanied him. The story is that many riders make the list but are written in with potlood (literally, “pencil lead” – a Dutch term meaning you were actually there but could be rubbed out at any time). It meant that you started the ride together with Kees but got dropped along the circuit. “Back then we would average about 35km/h. Now my record is 41.2km/h. Mind you, that’s with other traffic on the road and traffic lights to wait for. Impressive!

Others call it “gek” – crazy. Just ask multiple Olympic gold medallist Leontien van Moorsel-Zijlaard. A few years after winning the road race, time trial and pursuit at the Sydney Games – where she also claimed the points race silver – she was invited to join the club ride to open the season in March. (Although we ride all year, there is an opening and a closing – so we have a reason to organise a party. A celebrity is generally invited. It can be a former cyclist, cycling writer, or both.)

Leontien has been through a lot in her career, but she remembers her ride with the Ledig Erf group vividly. “I didn’t know what happened to me! The chairman of the club had asked me faithfully every year to open the season but I never had the time to do so. Then, in 2001, it fit into my schedule. He told me that it’d be a nice, cosy ride, but I think he meant something else. I have always been afraid of riding in tight bunches, but that wasn’t the worst of it. All the others wanted to ride next to me, and all I wanted was to keep out of the bunch. So we found ourselves chasing each other through the province, going faster and faster.” Leontien later went on to win another gold medal at the Athens Olympics.

Speed is a topic of discussion in the club, as well as behaviour on the road. Riders help each other by giving signals for upcoming obstacles and adhere to other forms of what must now be universal cycling etiquette. But, perhaps more importantly, the bunch makes sure that it recognises the other forms of traffic and adjusts its position on the road accordingly. That goes for every group in the densely populated country, and it’s how it must be in a place like Holland.

You can imagine what kind of space a group of 150 cyclists  takes up on an open road. It’s not so strange then that other users can get irritated by the fact that bike groups leave no space to overtake. This is exacerbated by the fact that the recent history of the sport in this country has a significant lack of true performers, especially when compared to the halcyon days of Dutch cycling. We have to go back to Joop Zoetemelk in 1980 before seeing a rider from Holland at the top of the rankings of the Tour de France’s general classification. People younger than 25 have never seen a compatriot wear the yellow jersey, except for the pitiful riders that get the silly idea to buy the shirt in a shop and then dare to wear it when on the bike. (A tip for new players: if you buy a maillot jaune it should be a souvenir, not something to use on your next ride.)

You can imagine what this does to a country where around 16 million people own more than 19 million bicycles; it’s a common part of life but many seem to forget that a bike can also be used for exercise. “People used to have much more respect for cyclists,” said Vreeken when comparing how it was when he first started in the bunch to what it’s like now. “When everybody cheered for Zoetemelk, the people knew what being a cyclist meant. They would give right of way the minute they’d see us coming. Now it is a sport to pass us by in their cars as close as they can. Sometimes they almost touch the handlebars. People are so easily stressed.”

Not so long ago ‘Ervers’ (the colloquial name for members of the Ledig Erf group) used to stop halfway at a restaurant in Amerongen to have coffee and apple pie. In winter months that coffee stop could be longer; in front of the nice fireplace of the restaurant you could see cyclists doing their best to stay awake, hesitating to ride back against the chilly western winds. With the average speed increasing, a more competitive attitude  has appeared. Nobody stops at the restaurant any more. He or she who calls for a coffee break is often also the rider who has been off the bike for a considerable time.

The Ledig Erf is not the only cycling club in Utrecht and the bunch ride is not the only one you can do if you visit the area. Only a modicum of research into the cycling culture in Utrecht – which is the name for both the province and the city within it – will reveal additional training groups. There are at least five other options through the week. It’s actually difficult to miss them; almost every part of town has its own bike club.

You have the Tuindorpstoempers in the west of Utrecht. This roughly translates to “garden village stomper” and it’s one for those who like to ride big gears and dream of somehow riding the Tour of Flanders. Then there’s the Nachtegaalriders, “Nightingale riders”, so named because of the street in which they meet for the start of the session: Nachtegaalstraat, which is essentially in the centre of the city. In the suburbs there are other local subgroups. Even though the lifestyle of the people that ride is shared, there isn’t much overlap between members of each group. All the clubs have their own subculture, with their exclusive style of conversation. Of course they all speak Dutch and the chatter will often be about the same subject, but due to the different group cultures and the people that they attract, they end up being quite distinct.

 

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During that first weekend of the Giro, Utrecht will be coloured pink, with an expected 10,000 participants in the ride and 200,000 spectators for the race.

Also on a more competitive level, cycling in Utrecht is a big thing. Local team de Volharding was the official national club champion in 2008 of the KNWU – the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Wielren Unie, or Royal Dutch cycling union – and the Classic the Ronde van Midden-Nederland starts and finishes in the middle of the city, and has done so for more than 50 years. Ledig Erf member Andy Knijpinga finished fifth in 2009, among the elite of Dutch cycling.

One thing that is encouraging is the amount of women riding along as part of the Sunday rides. About five per cent of Dutch cycling purists are female; on the Erf that percentage improves dramatically, sometimes to the envy of other male dominated cycling groups. Out of the 250 people wearing the team colours, about 40 are women.

The relative abundance of women and the cosy nature of the club prove to be fertile soil. During recent years a number of ‘Ledig Erf babies’ have been conceived by couples who met during club activities. The writer of this article should know: he contributed two of them.

Utrecht is a city with a strong reputation for education and  the appeal of cyclo-sportive cycling has broadened to a more diverse group because it’s accessible and enjoyable. It’s becoming popular among an educated crowd and is being practised by professional people looking for a sport that engages them. Most members of the club have a university-level education or job, which is about the only thing that makes a Ledig Erf stand out among hundreds of similar informal clubs around the country. Members are found in influential places in the local administration. The former chairman, Jacob, played a role in trying to secure the Grand Départ of the Tour de France for 2010 for the city of Utrecht before he moved to France. Despite the committee employing 1968 Tour champion Jan Janssen to head the bid, the prologue of the start went to Rotterdam. But, according to ASO boss Christian Prudhomme, Utrecht should keep itself ready. “I was very impressed by what Utrecht had to offer.”

To emphasise future possibilities, Utrecht then focused on getting a stage of the 2010 Giro d’Italia. Although the prologue was given to Amsterdam, the second stage will end in Utrecht on 9 May this year. Several members of the club have played a big role behind the scenes in any number of ways, either in the organisation of the Giro stage or of the tourist version of the same stage on the Saturday before. During that first weekend of the Giro, Utrecht will be entirely coloured pink, with an expected 10,000 participants in the ride and about 200,000 spectators for the race.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the stage that will finish in Utrecht is very similar to the route of the famous Ledig Erf Sunday ride, crossing a few of the local hills with some echelon riding on the river side. We wait to see if the pros can get the same average speed!

– Rodrick de Munnik

 



Author: rob@ride

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