Friday 19 October 2018

Over the hills and far away - Drenthe has built a hill for cyclists

Steve, Peter and myself on "our" new hill: The "Col du VAM". It's the highest point in Drenthe at 4800 cm above sea level !
Each week, a small group of recumbent cyclists ride together from Assen on short touring rides. This morning three of us went on a 70 km round trip to ride up a new hill which Drenthe has created for cyclists of all kinds to ride over. "Our" new hill is now the highest spot in the province, reaching 48 metres above sea level. If you want to climb higher than this in Drenthe then you have to do it more than once.

Posing in front of the visitor centre before we properly begin our second descent.
This hill has been quite a long time in the making. While professional cycle races have also used the hill for many years (watch a video of Marianne Vos on the hill five years ago) it's been closed to everyday cyclists with a gate at the bottom because there was a potentially dangerous conflict on the only path which used to exist between pedestrians and cyclists descending quickly. That's why the general public were restricted to walking until yesterday when the new cycle-paths over the hill were officially opened.

Optional cobbles on the climb. There are a lot of
these around Drenthe for cycle-racers to use.
In total we now have 2.1 km of cycle-path on this hill which provide several routes up to the top and back down again. The climb has an average gradient of 10% and a maximum of 15% so it's a fairly good challenge. I've enjoyed riding over many larger hills in the past, but never before has there been a hill like this which was made especially for cycling over.

The quality is excellent: Wide and incredibly smooth asphalt paths are provided both for the ascents and the route back down again (where it's even more important).

It's really well thought out: A one-way system is used to prevent conflicts between those climbing and descending.

There is even a section of Kasseien (Kinderkopjes) to allow those who wish to to emulate their heroes in the Paris-Roubaix and other classic races, but because that's not everyone's cup of tea it's provided as an optional extra for those who want it while the rest of us can ride on asphalt.

Peter chasing someone else towards the steep part of the
descent. We saw many other cyclists on the hill today. I
expect it'll be even more popular on sunny Sundays.
My recumbent touring bike isn't really set up for hills. I've use a single front chainwheel with 60 teeth and the largest sprocket on the cassette at the back has 28 teeth so there's a minimum speed which it's possible to cycle at because going any slower will mean that I'll stop and never get started again and would have to push. As it worked out, all three of us reached the top, twice by different routes, without any problems in a reasonable amount of time.

The descent is marvellous, a unique experience in this area. It's deliberately been made less steep than the climb but 60 km/h is reached before you know it. This gives your brakes some work to do before the corners, but you always have the security of knowing that going off the asphalt doesn't mean crashing into anything hard because there's grass on both sides and you also have the certain knowledge that no car will ever get in the way of your safety as you descend because there are no cars allowed here.
While we were eating sandwiches at the top, this chap arrived over the cobbles with a handbike, having ridden from a village 10 km away to go over the hill. Cycling should be for everyone, including people with disabilities.

The visitor's hut at the top has an explanation of what lies beneath
It's Rubbish !
The VAM-berg is actually a pile of rubbish. Literally. It's a landfill site which has now been turned into a useful facility. It's not only useful to us cyclists, but these days, between 4000 and 5000 cubic metres of useful gas are extracted every hour from the waste. A fifth of the gas is burnt in a power station next to the hill while the rest of it is injected into the gas pipelines of the Netherlands and used by consumers at home to cook and heat their homes.

Recreational cycling and hills
Hills are not a problem for cyclists, they make cycling more enjoyable. If you go up a hill on one part of your journey, you get to ride back down again a little later on. No hill lasts more than a few kilometres. On the other hand, flat countryside means you can ride all day long against an endless and unbroken headwind, which costs you just as much energy as a hill without the reward of a descent.

Recreational cycling is often overlooked by cycling campaigners, but it is important as it provides more options for cycling. In my case it's one of the things which helps me to remain healthy. Recreational riders don't need much special infrastructure. They mainly use the same infrastructure as is used by local people to make everyday journeys. We just typically use more of it in a single day, benefiting from how everything is joined up across the Netherlands. Cycling infrastructure which doesn't allow people to make longer journeys also won't really allow them to make short journeys everywhere.

Our route to and from the VAM-berg included new sections of top quality cycle-path which are so new that I couldn't use them when I last cycled in this direction a few weeks ago. Other sections were part of a route which I've used for more than ten years to collect stock for our webshop from a supplier 40 km away.

Elsewhere, priority should first be given to providing infrastructure which allows specifically for everyday journeys, focusing on city centres and safe approaches to them, but a comprehensive cycling policy results in more than that. Journeys in any direction will be possible if a comprehensive go-everywhere grid of high quality infrastructure is built. In that context, a mere 2 km of cycle-path which exist for no reason other than to allow people to smile as ride up and down a hill especially built for them appears as part of a comprehensive policy. It should be seen everywhere, but actually it's only seen here.

This is an excellent and unique piece of infrastructure, in a province which prides itself on being the best place in the world for cycling.

As part of the official opening event, local school children rode up the hill and left pictures behind which are now on display in the visitor's centre.


Ronrich said...

Hey David, I'm impressed. But Canada did something very similar 50 years ago in Saskatchewan. Although not bike oriented, made of the same materials and about the same height. Just Google "Mount Blackstrap" for more info...

Robert said...

For British cyclists cars are no longer the biggest danger when descending hills, but potholes. The United Kingdom is well on the road to becoming a world leader in road surfaces that kill. Yet another great British achievement. Hurrah!