The centrepiece of my recent trip across northern Europe was to cycle up the Jutland peninsula, or most of the way. I think most touring cyclists follow the coastal roads, but I chose to go up the middle along the Haervej or Military Way, perhaps more accurately known in German as the Ochsenweg or Oxen Way – it’s an ancient droving road, used for moving cattle from the Danish pastures to the markets of Hamburg, and also by pilgrims. (The Haervej is now designated as part of EuroVelo route 3, running from Trondheim in Norway to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, about 5,200 km in all, so it can still serve as a pilgrimage route.) It may be 4,000 years old, but it’s hardly the Ridgeway; towards its southern end it’s still partly an unpaved road (with lots of ancient burial mounds nearby, as well as a few nineteenth-century bridges), but the rest of the route is largely on normal roads and tracks. (There’s also a walkers’ route, which takes a longer way round as a rule, to avoid traffic.) Accommodation is, of course, an issue when it comes to route planning (Jutland is a lot emptier than you might think, and also very expensive) – there are some free ‘hikers’ shelters’, literally just a wooden platform with a roof and three wooden walls and as a rule a fireplace, but you’ll need a proper bed, with washing and device-charging opportunities on alternate nights. I diverted quite a way northwest, to Grindsted, in search of a relatively affordable bed, which also allowed me to notch up quite a few kilometres on former railway lines, some well surfaced and some less so.
In four days I made it to Viborg and then the next day to Aalborg, the historic northern termini of the Haervej, but I chose not to push on for a further couple of days to Skagen, the sandy northern tip of Jutland, to tick off the full 450km Jutland End-to-End. Although Skagen was known for its artists’ colony, drawn by the light and big skies, I was finding Jutland’s scenery a little dull and felt I needed to get to some cities if I was to actually learn anything about Denmark. At the time I didn’t know about the mink farms of northern Jutland, across the Limfjord from Aalborg, and the mutant version of the Covid-19 coronavirus they were incubating, not that it would have affected my choice.
I actually started from Flensburg, the last town in Germany, where I can strongly recommend the Seemannsheim Hostel and in particular the excellent breakfast. The border crossing was on a short section of unpaved track in to Padborg, the first town in Denmark; then my route went through the Frøslev prison camp (in use 1944-5 and now a museum) and on authentic bits of unsurfaced route, quiet roads, and a good long grassy section in forest south of Kliplev. The wooden bell tower at Kliplev church claims to be one of the oldest in Denmark, dating from 1300, but I suspect it’s been renewed a few times. Beyond the Povlis Bro, a small bridge built in 1844, there’s a long unpaved stretch on which the only traffic was a fairly large milk tanker visiting several farms, then quiet roads continue past the villages of Hjordkaer, Rødekro, Øster Løgum, Hovlund Stationsby and Vedsted before reaching the town of Vojens, where I diverted slightly to a shelter in Maugstrup Plantage (plantation).
On Day 2, quiet roads led to the Stursbøl Plantage, the town of Jels, and another historic bridge, the Frihedsbroen (Freedom Bridge) which marked the Danish-German border between 1864 and 1920; a little further north there’s actually a climb to a hotel and the Skibelund Krat, an open-air site where Danish nationalists from both sides of the border held patriotic meetings. It’s not much further to the town of Vejen, from where a good segregated cycleway leads alongside the road to Asbo and Baekke, where I turned off the EV3 to go via Vorbasse to Hejnsvig (partly on a busier road, but there was no problem and I was happy to make good progress). Quiet lanes took me to a railtrail that’s currently being extended further south from Grindsted, where I stayed the night. For most of Day 3 I followed another converted railway (of varying standards, mostly unpaved but good enough) to the northeast, rejoining EuroVelo3 at Funder; from here it climbs up a steep (for Denmark) hill to a junction with Route 11, which took me at speed down into Silkeborg. This is supposedly Denmark’s outdoor activities centre, with lakes, forests, and relatively high hills; I wouldn’t get too excited, but the youth hostel does have a lovely waterside setting, and there’s a decent museum.
On Day 4 I returned (on a good roadside cycleway) up the hill to EuroVelo3 and then on minor roads to Hald, where you can either follow a railtrail for 10 km into Viborg or stick to EV3 which drops on a very rough bit of track to an attractive lake and manor house before joining the railtrail into town. Viborg is an attractive cathedral town (although the cathedral is a little way north of the centre) by another lake; however the cathedral was largely rebuilt in 1864-76 and is largely a copy of the one in Lund (Sweden), which I saw two weeks later. From here EV3 runs northeast but I headed north on a cycleway beside a main road, which wasn’t up to Dutch standards but still allowed good steady progress, to the village of Bjarregove and the Hvolris Iron Age village, where a reproduction long house doubles as a hikers’ shelter.
On Day 5 I headed east to rejoin EV3 through Hvornum, but then came to a bridge over the railway that was being rebuilt for electrification work so had to find my own deviation northwards, taking a short cut on quiet roads via Brøndum and Hørby to rejoin EV3 at Døstrup. From Vebbestrup I should have taken a more direct route to the east of EV3 to Arden, after which the route (a bit rough in parts) passes through the Forest of Arden! Not I think the Shakespearean one, although of course Hamlet is set in Denmark. There’s potential for another shortish cut-off west of Skørping, after which EV3 runs relatively directly north, passing to the east of Svenstrup and Skalborg (having had to distinguish between three towns beginning with V on Day 1, the three towns beginning with S were less of a problem to my aged memory). The route into Aalborg is hardly a direct commuting link, but it gets you there soon enough.
My route was almost entirely through pleasant agricultural country, dominated in southern Jutland by cows, corn (maize) and Christmas trees, as well as lots of wild rosehips, and by cows, potatoes and root vegetables in northern Jutland, which is slightly hillier but still easy riding. Roads are wide, smooth and little used, and EuroVelo3 is well signed, the only inconsistency being whether they show mileages as well as directions. Jutland is not heavily populated, but I could find supermarkets (if not village bakeries) frequently enough – I wouldn’t recommend doing the trip on a diet of nothing but Danish pastries, but it would certainly be possible, and enjoyable for a while at least.
Elsewhere in northern Europe
I had already spent three days cycling from Hoek van Holland to Leiden, Haarlem and Amsterdam, and I also cycled from Roskilde to Copenhagen, from Malmö to Lund and back, from Berlin to Potsdam, and from Koblenz to Bonn, as well as using my bike around town every day. Copenhagen is generally touted as the world’s best cycling city, and that’s fair enough (they built seventeen bicycle bridges between 2006 and 2020), but Denmark as a whole is not as great for cycling as the Netherlands. On the other hand, for someone like me, constantly stopping to write notes, snap a photo, or just find out where on earth I am, cycling in the Netherlands is problematic because there’s constantly someone about to run into the back of me – in Denmark I didn’t usually have to signal and manoeuvre off the cycleway before I could draw breath. The same applied when I was a pedestrian – I was always getting caught out on Dutch cycleways while trying to take photos.
Navigation is made easier in the Netherlands by a nodal system, with all the usual route signs but some at key junctions marked with a number and signs to other nearby numbered nodes – there are good maps at the nodal points and of course all the apps and online maps also show the nodal points. Belgium has a similar system, but Denmark and Germany don’t; in fact I was surprised that Bonn was not signed from Koblenz, or vice versa, despite its being a very obvious route along the Rhine – you have to follow signs for intermediate towns such as Andernach and Remagen. Even stranger, the route from Malmö to Lund is not signed (despite being a direct off-road route), but Malmö is signed from Lund. I quite liked the Dead End Except Cyclists signs used across northern Europe – they don’t comply with British regulations so we have to have an Except Cyclists plate beneath the standard Dead End sign – except that usually we don’t.
In the Netherlands a road will usually have a one-way cycleway on each side of a road (although riding the wrong way for a short distance is acceptable), while in Denmark and especially Germany there’s more likely to be a two-way cycleway on one side of the road, which is adequate provision but not the best. In fact, Germany generally feels fairly similar to the UK from a cycling perspective – drivers are not particularly aware, and in most cities the idea of cycle provision is lines of white paint on the carriageway, with no physical separation. Dropped kerbs tend to be bodged ramps rather than properly planned infrastructure. I can’t speak for the Germans, but the Dutch and Scandinavians do not share the Anglo-Saxon obsession with not paying tax – they prefer to have decent infrastructure (for transport, health, education), which might also be linked to having proportional representation, often with coalition governments and a good degree of continuity rather than the to-and-fro system of undoing everything the previous government started.
There was some excitement recently in Cambridge when our first ‘Dutch roundabout’ opened (partly because it was absurdly expensive and late), with a cycle lane all the way round with priority over motor vehicles; in fact I found that the ‘Dutch roundabout’ is not as clearly defined as we thought and comes in various forms. Quite often it actually has a two-way cycle lane, but one that only goes halfway or three-quarters of the way around the roundabout. Where there’s no space for off-road cycleways in a built-up area, the Dutch will provide on-road lanes of a decent width and leave a central space which is wide enough for cars in one direction only – so to pass in the other direction, drivers have to negotiate and move into the cycling space where possible. This works with Dutch drivers, but I really don’t think British drivers could cope.
I was surprised to see so many lycra roadies belting along on the Dutch cycleways – there are already scooters and mopeds on many Dutch cycleways, and adding fast road cyclists to the mix just builds annoyance and resentment – or maybe that’s just my reaction. I dare say they would be on the roads if Dutch law didn’t force them to use cycleways where provided. In the circumstances it seems weird that every one of them is convinced a helmet is part of the uniform, even though they’re not coming into conflict with cars except for the odd road crossing – what a triumph of marketing. I’m sure they don’t wear them when they’re out on their cheaper bikes around town.
Road cyclists were also visible in Copenhagen, mainly going out in the early evening after finishing work, but much less so in the rest of Denmark (and the same applies to cargo bikes), and in Malmö they actually seemed to be commuting. They are very rare in Germany, for some reason.
However the big issue in the Netherlands at the moment is the advent of ‘speed pedelecs’, electrically assisted bikes that are able to cruise at 45km/h rather than the 25km/h of regular pedelecs. E-bikes account for 42% of bikes sold in the Netherlands (and over 50% by value) and are expected to be over 50% of sales soon, as opposed to 4% in the UK. In 2019 65 people were killed riding e-bikes in the Netherlands, almost all of them for some reason men over 65 riding speed pedelecs, and just after I left the country it was announced that a 4km stretch of cycleway near Schiphol airport had been fitted with electronic devices that automatically slow e-bikes (presumably only those fitted with corresponding devices) when they approach junction or enter built-up areas. If the trial is successful, this will be rolled out across the country. I did notice that ‘close passing’ (car-to-bike and bike-to-bike) is pretty common in the Netherlands and doesn’t seem to bother people – but there’s not much of a safety margin. It didn’t greatly concern me, but it’s one of the things that puts a lot of people in the UK off cycling on roads.
Incidentally, I was riding a Dahon Speed TR, a touring folder, I think, rather than a folding tourer. I’ve had a Brompton for some years, which is great for train travel but doesn’t really carry luggage – the Dahon will carry standard panniers and rides well all day long (it has the full 21 gears), but it is a bit heavy and too big for luggage racks on trains and so on. Virtually every train I used had loads of space for bikes so it was no problem (generally you need a cycle ticket, unless the bike is folded). It’s a compromise, of course, but one that I was happy with.