Gravel AdventuresFrom The Field
An Interview with Erwin Sikkens
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Erwin Sikkens
In Partnership with komoot
Komoot Ambassador Erwin Sikkens seeks out hidden gravel routes in the Netherlands and beyond.
Coming from one of the world’s biggest cycling cultures, the Netherlands, Erwin Sikkens was always going to get involved with cycling, but his desire for adventure took him off the smoothly tarmacked lanes of his home country in pursuit of dirt and long-distance bikepacking adventures around the continent. Armed with his camera, Erwin has pursued discovering and developing routes to share with other bikepackers – and to invite riders to see another side of the Netherlands.
Sidetracked: What was your journey into adventure cycling?
Erwin Sikkens: It’s hard to define what adventure cycling actually is. It’s easy to jump right in and talk about some of the more recent stuff I’ve done – like my first off-road ultra on the Canary Islands last November. But it doesn’t feel fair to go there straight away, because as with everything there is a learning curve when it comes to going on adventures.
In my opinion adventures start out small, just around the corner from where you live. The first time taking my road racer off-road to discover a new patch of forest was quite adventurous for me, back in the day when I was new to riding road racers. Now we call that gravel riding and it’s one of the fastest-growing things out there in cycling.
But I guess that’s how adventure works. You start off small, get excited, and before you know it you’re riding your first bikepacking trip. Mine was riding my bike from my home in the Netherlands to Rome, Italy, back in 2016. It was definitely a big adventure, although I made many mistakes, especially in packing. Bringing a big and heavy tent and a camping power outlet doesn’t sound as adventurous to me now, but back then it definitely was. It’s through experiences like these that you get excited about the next trip and the next adventure, taking it a bit further every time. Through the years I kept pushing my boundaries little by little, ending up where I am today.
You’ve recently entered the world of ultra racing – what was your first experience like in GranGuanche? Did you have a strategy? Did the race surprise you at all?
Having dotwatched for many years I knew the crazy world of ultra from a safe distance already. Dotwatching was my gateway drug. I already knew and loved the absolute freedom of bikepacking, as well as challenging myself to do something new – so riding an ultra felt like the logical next step, and the off-road version of GranGuanche seemed like the perfect event.
I had never been to the Canary Islands before. Tackling most of them in one go by bike seemed like the best way of getting to know the different islands, and I created a plan where I wasn’t going to push myself too hard and just have fun. I felt as prepared as I could ever be before the start. Still, no matter how much preparation you put into it, experience is key – and I had none.
Despite being quite relaxed before the start, after talking to more experienced riders I made the classic mistake of throwing my well-thought-out party pace strategy overboard. They convinced me that I was underestimating myself and that I could ride the thing much faster than I thought I could. Tricky thing in this race is that you’re not only racing other riders, but also the ferries that don’t go at night and sometimes even just two times a day. Making the choice to party pace, or to push it just a little bit harder, could either mean getting onto an afternoon ferry or sleeping in a harbour waiting until the next morning.
Looking back, I pushed myself too hard those first few days and slept way too little. I totally fell through the ice and had some really bad moments on the bike the third day, thinking of scratching. In the end I did, but not because of my legs. A storm hit the final island La Palma mid-race, making it inaccessible for riders like me. This all might sound like a disappointment, but it definitely wasn’t. I really enjoyed riding GranGuanche and am happy with the experience I can now take with me to any possible future ultra rides.
I think a lot of people will be surprised to learn there is a Green Divide in the Netherlands – how did you scout the route? What can visitors expect to find on this adventure that is different from the Dutch riding they may be used to?
The Green Divide route started out as a personal passion project. Most people know the Netherlands as this boring flat country with only meadows and cows, but there are actually beautiful slightly hilly parts of nature right at the centre of it. It began as a crappy route filled with horse tracks and muddy paths, but after I started exploring with komoot the route started coming together quickly. I created beautiful gravel highlights in places I didn’t know before and used these to explore some more in the area and connect the dots. Eventually I developed the route into a beautiful 300km off-road ride taking on the full length of our biggest forests.
It’s become quite popular since its launch last year, and I do get why. Even people from the Netherlands are surprised by its beauty and the fact that you can have an almost uninterrupted off-road ride in nature for so long in our tiny country. For some the ride is a collection of the nicest parts of forest and heath they might know from separate rides. For others it’s a beautiful entry-level bikepacking adventure right in their back yard, away from it all. It became a perfect example of an adventure just around the corner.
Are you always taking photos when you go on adventures? How does capturing the story influence the adventures you go on?
I bring my digital camera with me on most of my rides, although I wouldn’t necessarily say it influences the adventures I go on. The camera follows me, not the other way around. From the outside it looks as though it’s becoming more and more part of the gravel culture to bring a camera with you. I can imagine that, for some, the struggle with a camera strap or the hunt for that perfect Instagram-worthy picture can really take your head out of the ride. I would never let it get this far. The ride itself is always the most important thing when I’m out there.
For me bringing my camera is a logical extension of who I am and what I love to do. I love riding my bike, but as a professional photographer I also love capturing moments. It doesn’t cost me a whole lot of extra energy to do so. The pictures I take from the saddle help me share my stories better and hopefully inspire others to ride their bikes more often.
Tell us about your favourite bike adventure to date. Where did you go, what challenges did you have to overcome, and what did you learn?
In 2017, the year after my first bikepacking trip, I rode my first solo bike-touring trip, which left a mark in the most positive of ways. It was a three week cycling tour from Newcastle, England, up to the Scottish Highlands. The riding and the landscapes up there are amazing, but above all I really went out of my comfort zone by doing it all alone. It included my first time wild camping, riding through these crazy big and beautiful empty mountain landscapes, planning for food and water in a place with few towns. I had only a bit of bikepacking experience and learned most of the stuff I needed to know along the way. Most fears are just in your head and totally irrational, but no-one can tell you that – you have to get out there and experience it to really feel it. And, especially when you travel alone, you connect with so many friendly people you meet along the way. A big lesson I learned back then was to stop doubting and just get out there and do it. It’s a life lesson I still cherish today.
For the last couple of years there was the constant fear of lockdown and the constant hope of measures being lifted. I tried to plan as much as I could, because you never knew which events and rides would end up happening and which would be cancelled last minute. This was fun but also hectic. This year I’m leaving space in my calendar for spur-of-the-moment ideas. Because of this mentality I’ve already found myself spontaneously bikepacking my road racer to Paris last February. The idea just popped into my head, I opened up komoot, created a beautiful route, and a couple of days later I jumped on my bike and rode it there. The experience definitely made me realise once again that you don’t have to plan too far ahead to have a great time on the bike. Spontaneous adventures big and small are often the best. Your bike is waiting for you and the road is out there. You just have to get out there and do it.
Komoot lets anyone find, plan and share their adventures. By using the ’Find Your Next Adventure’ button on the app or the ‘Discover’ search on the website, and searching by region or worldwide, it’s now easier than ever to find the best bikepacking route Collections. Riders can then bookmark bikepacking route Collections and if needed tailor their individual journeys. To find out more, head to komoot.com