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Wheels of fortune

Travel: cycling in the Netherlands.

For a moment, I think we’ve stumbled into a parallel universe as we cycle through forest and heather moorland, glimpsing the sea through the sand dunes, pedalling past grazing Highland cattle.

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We’re far from home, in North Holland at Lake Yssel, but parts of the scenery do look strikingly Scottish.

Stretching for several kilometres to the sea, the dunes reach up to 52 metres high. That’s like a Munro to the Dutch. The Netherlands owes its existence to these dunes, which cover much of the length of the country; their formation 1000 years ago provided protection from the North Sea.

On previous visits to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, I’d been amazed to see just how mainstream cycling is. Business people; schoolchildren; grannies; mothers with babies; women in long skirts; and even teenagers, all pedal their sturdy bikes with nonchalance. It will be some time before such activity is commonplace in Scotland.

I remember one summer 10 years back when my partner and I commuted through Dennistoun in the east end of Glasgow. We were viewed as a novelty act and attracted many “colourful” comments. Who knows what those hecklers would make of the more memorable cyclists we saw, such as the clog-clad Dutchman with walrus whiskers and pipe. Almost 30% of all journeys in the Netherlands are on bikes, compared with 2% in Scotland, and while the famously flat terrain helps, it’s the Dutch mindset that makes the wheels go round so effortlessly.

On this trip we have cherry-picked day routes, as my youngest is just seven years old, travelling between areas by camper van. Schoorl, a short distance from the port of Ijmuidein, near Amsterdam, is our first stop. Next to the campsite, in the shadow of a restored windmill, there are a myriad cycle routes. With the help of the ubiquitous red cycle signposts, we set off for the historic town of Alkmaar, six miles away.

Initially we follow an on-road cycle route, which at first seems disappointing. One soon becomes aware, though, that Dutch motorists have an entirely sympathetic attitude to cyclists. This is because many motorists are also cyclists, and the sheer number of cyclists also has a powerful pull on the motorist’s psyche. Car drivers are also held legally responsible for any accident involving young or old cyclists, regardless of their actions.

We start to relax and enjoy our surroundings. Fields full of small tan-coloured horses are a common sight. We ride on through suburban areas on generously wide cycle paths, which run parallel to the road, past immaculately kept houses. While we’re not on the most exciting ride of our lives, we are enjoying the ease of cycling in this densely populated country -- 16.4m inhabitants live in an area half the size of Scotland.

We arrive at Alkmaar to find a stunning scene. There are bikes everywhere. Locking our trusty steeds opposite the late mediaeval Great Church of St Lawrence, we wander to the heart of the historic city. Victory against the Spaniards began here in 1573 when the invaders were successfully repelled, paving the way ultimately to the golden age of the Dutch Republic. Wonderfully preserved canals pass through the city and one can hire a boat, as we did, to admire the ancient houses and the Waag -- the ornate cheese-weighing house. We leave the city in the company of dozens of cyclists, who negotiate the roundabouts (with their separate cycle lanes) en masse.

From Schoorl we drive to the tip of mainland North Holland, near the unremarkable naval port town of Den Helder. A cycle route hugs the coast, partly along a sea dyke, to the port. This forms a section of the North Sea Cycle Route -- a 3700-mile circular route, which, from Norway, runs the length of Scotland down to Harwich in Essex.

From Den Helder we board a ferry for the Texel, the largest and most southerly of the Wadden islands, which separate the North Sea from the shallow Wadden Sea. The island is best known for its thick-fleeced sheep and large annual catamaran race, but thirsty cyclists will probably better appreciate its fine brown beer. We soak up the sun in Den Burg before cycling off, along exquisite winding roads past thatched houses towards the sea.

Leaving our bikes in a cycle park (every beach seems to have one), we enjoy more Texel beer in the cafe. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, away from the major tourist centres, we are in the extreme minority: our foreign bikes mark us out despite our best efforts to blend in. Dutch bikes are upright affairs with few gears and coast along the country’s 12,000 miles of cycle paths and lanes, which were conceived in the 1980s as part of a bicycle masterplan.

Our final stop, after a marvellous cycle trip to Edam for a touristy cheese market display, was the De Hoge Veluwe National Park near Arnhem. At each of the three entrances to the park visitors can pick up a free white bicycle from among hundreds. We follow a cross-country cycle path, passing ancient sand dunes, to reach the Kröller-Müller Museum, which holds van Gogh masterpieces such as The Sower and Cafe Terrace at Night. Cycling back across the park, families and groups on their white bicycles paint a contented picture. One hopes that if good things come in cycles, then perhaps our time has finally come to re-embrace the humble bike in Scotland too.

GETTING THERE

Overnight crossing from Newcastle to Ijmuiden. Return for a family of four, inc berth and car, from £460. Visit www.dfds.co.uk or call 0871 522 9955. Bike hire is widely available in Netherlands. Visit http://holland.cyclingaroundthe world.nl

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