The man with the wooden bike - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

December 29, 2006

The man with the wooden bike

Leiden, Nordwijk, Zandvoort, IJmuiden, Casticum, Alkmaar

There are obligatory pictures in every tourist book of the Netherlands. One is of all the windmills along the Kinderdijk and another is of the houses leaning in over the canals of Amsterdam. A third is the sight of porters carrying trays of cheese on their head at an open-air market.

The cheese pictures are of Alkmaar. It is there that the maker of wooden bikes lives.

Will it float? Will it be attacked by woodworm? Jan (standing) and me and a wooden-framed bike
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Unlike the cold, grey, breath-steaming ride up the coast, today was a bowl beneath a faultlessly blue sky. The temperature rose degree by degree until, well, not until it was actually hot but certainly to the point you'd say it was warm. Especially for northern Europe in the last days of the year.

We zig-zagged through streets to the coast and then picked up LF1, the North Sea cycle path that I had followed from Hoek van Holland. And there we rumbled on to Nordwijk, with all its closed hotels but without the tourists, and on through the larger holiday resort of Zandvoort, which didn't impress Erie at all.

Nor did the dunes beyond Zandvoort's car-racing circuit. The problem, she said, was that people who ventured into them never came out. Their bleached bones were found years afterwards, heaped over the damp and perished maps they had been trying to follow. Or if she didn't say that, she did certainly say that she and others had got lost there before and it had taken them a good extra hour to make it the few frustrating kilometres to the other side.

And so we mustered our courage over a hot chocolate north of the town and made a brief but pitiful attempt to ride along the beach. In that way, we reckoned, we could get to IJmuiden on the other side of the dunes without tears being shed on the way.

Sadly, tears were shed instantly because it took only seconds to spot that my front wheel was sinking into the sand, even the wet, compressed sand near the water. If my wheel turned, it lifted wodges of sand that jammed under the mudguards. If it didn't jam under the mudguards, it was only because my wheels couldn't turn at all.

It was here that my genius and cunning came to the rescue. Because we rode off into the dunes instead, along the pavement-width paths that cross it, and by the simple expedient of following the signposts we got to the other side.

To be fair, it's often possible to guess that your path should go straight ahead when in fact it makes a turn to the left. You'd be forgiven for not looking at the little mushroom-shaped signpost down by your ankles. And it paid to get a bearing from the sun at each twist and turn as well. On a dull day with any signposts missing, I could see why you'd get stuck.

But stuck we weren't and we emerged in IJmuiden (the "mouths of the river IJ", IJ being the 27th letter of the Dutch alphabet) and took the free ferry across the river. My smugness as a Marco Polo de nos jours vanished, however, when my sketch map of Alkmaar proved to have little connection with geographical reality. Or, to be frank, any connection at all.

Jan had given us an address which, encouragingly, brought us to an industrial estate. A man who made wooden bikes would need a workshop and industrial estates are where a workshop would be. Except that the address we had turned out to be an ordinary house.

To get to the house meant circumnavigating a long metal fence - why there was such a fence would be too lengthy and above all dull to explain - and it seemed far easier to plunder the mail box set in the fence to see if Jan's mail was in it. And it was. So therefore we'd found the right place.

Except that we hadn't and, what's more, we were caught rifling the royal mail.

"No," said the mail's rightful owner once we had explained, "you want one of the canal boats. The address is almost exactly the same and we get the mail here instead."

Jan, romantically, lived on a converted freight boat moored with several others alongside an unmade path. His name was on a hand-painted metal plate propped outside. But he wasn't there and, according to the man in the boat next door, didn't live there anyway.

"He's moved in with his girlfriend, in the town somewhere."

"And do you know where?"

The man looked apologetic and said he didn't. An industrial hum came from the neighbouring sheds. Water flup-fluppered at the grass banks. The man scratched his head and a seagull flew by.

Well, it would take too long to explain how we eventually found our man, Erie and me. But we did and by then it was dark and I wasn't going to be able to ride far on the wooden bike. But I did have a go and it was superb. Jan and I are about the same size and proportions and, while I had my SPD touring shoes and the bike had Look pedals, I could still give it a whip round the local streets.

Jan, a craftsman with his craft
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It was made of laminated birch and it looked beautiful. Unless you looked closely, you wouldn't spot that it was wood rather than metal.

"Wood is just lovely to work with," he said. "I started with tables and a chest and a couple of boats. Three or four years ago that was. But since I was a boy, I've needed something to challenge me, something I could work on until the end. Well, that's the bike.

A bike fit to be hung on the wall
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"Wood is stronger relative to its weight than metal. It took me about 200 hours to get it right. The race bike is made from one piece of laminated birch, 34 layers, and the joy is that I can shape it and craft it. You can't do that with aluminium or carbon. Every bike is individual."

Nobody, Jan least, would claim it was the future of cycling. The bike is 2kg heavier than a conventional racing machine. That's no problem in a city without hills but even so he reckons he could sandpaper it down by another kilo or so. No, he makes them because nobody else makes them, because they're a challenge. It's a lot more fun than making chairs and windows.

This and the other pictures are of the "city" bike; the detail is as beautiful as on the race bike
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They cost the earth, of course. But then again, that's the point. Jan is in the exclusive jewellery market. Practical jewellery, jewellery you can race on (he has, and so have others, and it corners like a dream, they say), but

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essentially jewellery that only one kid on the block will ever own. You. It's the market that people go to for a Ferrari. Except that while there's a chance you may one day see another Ferrari coming the other way, it's probably less likely you'll stop at a bike-riders' café and find another wooden bike propped outside.

Today's ride: 103 km (64 miles)
Total: 162 km (101 miles)

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