Every so often when I'm out on my mountain bike in the woods, I see a mouse. Usually it is something like once every couple of months. Most often it catches my eye by running across the path in front of me, but sometimes, if I'm going slowly up a hill or something, a rustling movement in the undergrowth draws my attention. But this year it is different. For the past few months, since the spring in fact, every time I've been out, without fail, I've seen at least one mouse, and often more. I write 'mouse', but actually I don't know, they might be a shrew or a vole or something. The photo above is a bank vole (Myodes glareolus), taken in a woodland just over the border in the Eifel a few years ago. Obviously that was no snapshot with a phone camera, and to be sure that it was a bank vole I remember you needed a good view of its toes (though the small ears tell you already that it isn't a mouse). So when something small and dark scuttles across the path at high speed, I really could not say if it is a wood mouse or something else. Entertaining as that is for the mountain biker enjoying the nature, the biologist in me wants to know why there are so many all of a sudden. I'm seeing plenty of buzzards this year as well, so it is not that there is nothing to eat them.  And anyway, according to the textbooks the food determines the prey population, not the other way around).  Maybe it is something to do with the large amounts of acorns and beechmast that we have had for the past couple of years. Whatever the reason, they are always a delight to see.  

Sallandse Heuvelrug

It had been a few years since I last mountain biked over the Holterberg and Nijverdal routes and having read on that there had been some improvements, I was curious to see what it was like. I got the chance last weekend. There were not 'some improvements'; it had been completely transformed. What was previously a route through an impressive landscape but mostly straight and straightforward paths was now composed of twisting paths making the most of the smallest height differences and requiring enough concentration that in most places if you wanted to take in the landscape, you had to stop. It has been turned into a a superb route, well worth going out of your way for.

From Wageningen, it is not too far out of your way, being only an hour's drive to the North, or 1 1/2 hours by train (there is a station at the start of the route in Holten). However, the flora and fauna is quite different, considering it is so close. For instance, there are some extensive patches of Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, 'vossenbes/rode bosbes'), which although not terribly rare is much less common than the normal bilberry (Vaccinium mytillus) that you see everywhere and tends only to be found in the north of the country (both here and especially in the UK).* It makes you wonder how it will respond to the warming climate.

[text continues below photo of Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

 Not surprisingly, the area is showing the same signs of suffering from the extremely dry summer as the heathlands closer to home. The bilberries are recovering nicely, but there are still great patches of dead heather where there is a big risk that it will be replaced by grasses rather than heather regeneration. The mountain bike paths are beginning to get very sandy in parts - in some places it is even almost too sandy to cycle, and I was glad that I had reasonably chunky Nobby Nic tyres on to give at least some grip. 

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Sallandse Heuvelrug

The loose sand is worst on the Northern route by Nijverdal and Hellendoorn, so doing just the Holten route is always an option. The signposting for both routes is excellent, though I did't see signs connecting the two loops (perhaps there aren't any) and the gps track on was not always 100% the same as the route on the ground. I also found that with a combination of the twisty track and loose sand, it took me longer to go round than I had expected, so that is also worth bearing in mind. All in all, this is a great route now, fun mountain biking, a special landscape and even some rare plants to gaze at as you pass.

*In the first version of this article I wrote that this was Arctostaphylos, which is very rare. The leaves are a bit similar but the flowers are not, so I had no excuse. My apologies.

Many and few

Normally I cycle every Saturday on my mountain bike with a small group from the club. These days, the mountain bikers are split into three groups, so everyone can go at their own pace, which means there is often only a handful of people in each group. But last Saturday it was different, we were helping with the 'Hell of Ede Wageningen' with 8-900 participants. Aside from having to get up at the unearthly hour of five in the morning to get the arrows all set out in time, it was a great event, with a smashing atmosphere and a treat to see so many smiling faces going past.

Today was forecast to be very hot, so instead I went cycling by myself yesterday. Quite a contrast from the hundreds of people last week and even more so seeing it was a Friday, so the trails were practically deserted. It was so quiet and peaceful that when at last one mountain biker did cycle past me, I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was also amazing how many wild animals I saw; deer (too fast to see if it was roe or fallow), red squirrel, wood mouse, and water vole (swimming across the small river Grift), as well as all sorts of birds including a lovely pair of oyster catchers. The experience of being part of a big event or with a small group, or cycling on your own is quite different, and when it comes to it, isn't it great that all that is possible?

Scots Pine near Amerongen

August in April

Wolfheze heide

This weekend it has been the hottest Easter here in the Netherlands since records began. Last summer, a lot of sections of trails were closed because they were so dry that the surface was just crumbly sand and there has been nowhere near enough rain over the winter to make up the loss. On Saturday, the trails were like the hottest period of summer, with clouds of dust coming from our wheels in some places. I had to keep 10-20 meters behind the person in front of me some of the time. A lot of heather and bilberry plants died of drought last year. In some places I've seen them recovering nicely, but certainly not everywhere. If you look at the photo above, you will see that most of the vegetation is dead and grey, with just a few small patches of living green. There must be a good chance that this heath is never going to recover, which would be a big shame, but who knows maybe it will manage to regenerate from seed, with the right management. There is rain is forecast to come in the next few days, but it will take more than a couple of days of rain to get the water table back to normal, otherwise it is going to be even more closed trails this summer.Taraxacum


The buds are bursting on the trees and shrubs in the woods, the skylarks are singing in the meadows and to cap it all we passed a group of Primulas (elatior or verna) flowering away in a verge this morning. What is more I saw at least four large buzzards flying around, two of them definitely together and we all stopped to look at a red squirrel playing in the branches overhead. But the new life of springtime wasn't the only new thing today. We had heard rumours of a new track being made near to Doorwerth, not quite finished yet, but still rideable. We were not disappointed. Because it isn't yet finished, some parts were more challenging in terms of loose sand than you might wish for on a twisty up-and-down track, but it was great. The builders had made the most of what elevation there was and we had to keep our wits about us as one after another twist came up round each corner. I guess it won't be long before it is finished off, the signposts go in and everyone else can explore it.

Doorwerth Track


It has been ages since I wrote my last bog. It is not that I haven't been out on my mountain bike. Despite a few (albeit short) severely wintry spells, there has hardly been a week the whole winter when I haven't been out. But there simply hasn't been anything noteworthy happening. So when I was mountain biking yesterday with the club I was thinking that it was about time that something newsworthy happened. I am not one of those who subscribe to the belief that fate can be tempted by such wishes, I don't really think the inner workings of my mind have such a great cosmic influence, but it was remarkable that only a few minutes later a large stick jumped up and inserted itself between my chain and the derailleur, prising the lower of the small wheels off and sending the arm firmly in between the cogs of the cassette. One broken bike.

Fortunately, extracting the derailleur arm was no problem, but that still left me with a completely non-functional system, there being now nothing to hold the chain tight and in place against the cassette. All those hours reading mountain bike magazines came to my rescue; if I could make the chain shorter then I could bypass the derailleur and still be able to pedal, although not change gear any longer (see the photo below). That would at least get me home - we were (naturally) at the furthest point of the ride when this happened, so walking would have taken some hours. First of all, I tried un-linking the quick link, with a small pair of pliers and then a piece of string (another trick I had read about, but that one didn't work). However, after a few minutes struggling, it occurred to me that I had a spare quick link with me, so all I needed to do was to make the chain shorter and I would be mobile again. That was quite straightforward with my multi-tool, the only problem being that I hadn't noticed that the chain was not properly on the front cogs, so I made it shorter than optimal and ended up in a rather low gear.

I was now able to head for home, but if I pedalled as fast as could, I could go all of 11 kph. Once it became clear that I would be able to limp home, I had expected the rest of the group to go an and finish their planned route. However, they insisted in coming with me, not only keeping my spirits up, but sheltering me from the strong wind, picking up some key bits and pieces which fell off the derailleur as we went along, and giving me a lift by car the last few kilometres.  Two clear lessons learnt. Firstly, even if the tools and bits and pieces I carry around in my rucksack don't come out very often, it really is worth taking them with me every week. Hooray for quick links! And secondly, what a difference cycling with a group of friends makes!