Monday 20 October 2008

The downside of cycling in a flat country

I've noticed a tendency for people living in other countries to be dismissive of the rate of how much cycling there is in the Netherlands on the grounds that "it's a flat country, so easy to cycle".

In fact, living in a flat country means living with headwinds. Strong headwinds.

I've cycled both in places with hills and in flat areas with strong headwinds. It's easier with hills. Hills don't go on for ever - after climbing a hill you get to ride back down the other side. If you're lucky enough to have rolling hills you can get part way up the next one with the speed you gain on the previous downhill. Excellent fun. On the other hand, once you start into a headwind you're generally stuck with it. Possibly for the rest of the day if you're touring.

The Dutch recognise this problem. You find a lot of upright omafietsen (granny bikes) are fitted with tri-bars. This applies even to omafietsen ridden by actual grannies (though the example in the photo is actually a rather upmarket machine ridden by a genuine grandad).

It initially looked to me like a bizarre combination, but it's quite practical. It's got nothing to do with pretending to be in a time trial and everything to do with a practical desire to minimise one's frontal area to go into headwinds with a little less effort.

One of the Dutch readers of my blog, Anneke, commented on a recent post that on her 16 km round trip to school each day she could "remember riding in a flock of school kids and arguing about who had to ride in front facing the strong winds."

To summarize, if flatness was all that mattered you'd expect that areas of the UK such as Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Somerset would have a similar rate of journeys by cycle as the Netherlands. They don't. Not even the parts which are called 'Holland'. The problem is the lack of subjective safety. Riding on roads, sometimes with hostile motorists, does not make for a cycling experience which is pleasant enough for everyone to want to cycle. This is what is so different in the Netherlands and the reason for the high rate of cycling here.

What's more, Switzerland has a higher cycling rate than any English speaking country, and it's anything but flat. So, can we please stop making this excuse about hills ?

Update 2014
I went to Trondheim in Norway this year. It's a very hilly city. In fact, it's the only city in the world where a permanent mechanical lift has been installed to help cyclists climb a hill. Trondheim is also a very cold place in winter. Nevertheless, Trondheim is investing heavily in cycling and plans to double its existing 8% cycling modal share in the next few years.

To grow cycling, investing in good cycling facilities. Nothing else has the same effect.

We organise cycling holidays in the Netherlands - when possible we take into account the wind direction.


cocosolis said...

Well, we do have our windy days in Manchester too - if blowing from the North, it's resulted in the paradox of my journey downhill into the city centre taking slightly more time than my journey back home, up hill.

But you are right: except when gradients are extreme and roads very poor (the Himalayas?) these are minor factors, and the one you've identified (subjective safety) is the single most important one. If only UK authorities would open their eyes to this.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but it's also a factor for people here: half a kilometre of 11% hill looks pretty daunting when you're at the bottom, even with the segregated bike lane alongside. The other 'cycleway' is 25% and a bit longer. Thing is, you can see a hill, so people tend to include them in calculations, whereas wind is less obvious -until you're riding into it.

Anonymous said...

I have heard that the wind can be hard in the Netherlands. But aerobars do look rather odd on those type of bikes. But if it works.

The other thing I have found about riding all day in the wind is that the constant noise becomes maddening.

Anonymous said...

Living at the west end of the Columbia River Gorge, I can tell you the wind sometimes blows in an unrelenting attack.

I have a three mile long hill at the end of my commute and on the nights when the wind is blowing I feel like it is twice as steep and long. But when I have a tailwind, I feel like superman going uphill.

If I have a choice I will take the hill without the wind.

Kevin Love said...

Toronto is also very flat. So the government plants trees alongside the cycle paths.

It works.