Utrecht and the Tour de France's Grand Départ: Hooked on pedal power

The medieval Dutch city is all geared up for the arrival of the cycling elite, writes David Whitley

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The Independent Travel

Stepping from the side street into Biltstraat at go-to-work o'clock is like stumbling across a beehive that has just been smashed open. Swarms of cyclists buzz down the heavily demarcated lanes, the near- silent purr of the new purchases contrasting with the inharmonious clanking of the old rustbuckets used because no one would want to steal them. Even by pedal-happy Dutch standards, Utrecht is extraordinarily in thrall to the bicycle. It's not just an act to lure in the Tour de France.

The city – which forms a triangle with Amsterdam and the Hague – is hosting this year's Grand Départ, with a time trial tomorrow and the opening kilometres of the second stage tomorrow. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about this is the lack of upheaval it will cause. The city's infrastructure and transport policies have long been shaped with cyclists as the number one priority. Maliebaan, the grand boulevard to the east of the medieval city centre, had cycle paths laid alongside it as far back as 1885.

Few cities would erect a sign commemorating its first cycle path, but Utrecht does with pride – even if the penny farthing pictured on it has fallen out of style. Its descendants – tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of them – can be found chained to every available railing and lamp post in the city centre. In the huge bike parks near Utrecht Centraal station, they look like they've been planted as crops, with the fields stretching way over the horizon. And it doesn't take long to click that hardly anyone seems to be walking.

In Utrecht's medieval heart, at least, this seems particularly odd, because it is arguably best explored on foot. Most of the streets are painstakingly paved with the same thin red bricks used to make the houses. There's an amiable handsomeness to the cityscape. Little is ostentatiously stunning, but it works delightfully as a whole. Peaceful narrow lanes emerge at the semi-hypnotic arched vaults alongside the canals, while the houses of the wealthy are distinguished by detail rather than blockbusting grandeur.

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The Dormtoren

The key exception to this is the Domtoren, the 112-metre Gothic tower that became detached from the main cathedral thanks to a nave-collapsing storm in 1674. On a landscape of unceasing flatness, it ends up being a navigational point from pretty much anywhere as well as the symbol of the city.

The first stage of the Tour will whizz mostly around wide bus lanes on the city's outskirts, but the slow, processional start of the second stage will clatter and bobble through the centre's centuries-old streets.

The best view will be as the cyclists head towards the Domtoren, then squeeze through the gap in the middle of it. They'll probably not have time to puff and pant up 465 steps to the top, but that's a shame. The views are predictably splendid – stretching as far as Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the distance – but the chambers on the way up provide the surprises. The Michaelskapel looks like it should be the throne room of a minor house in Game Of Thrones, while there's something domineeringly trippy about the bell chamber with giant clappers dangling at head height.

After passing under the Domtoren, the cyclists will glide through the Domplein, Utrecht's main square and one that only exists due to the collapse of the cathedral nave.

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Last year, the narrow passageways and vaults underneath the square were opened to the public via the Domunder tours. Much of the rubble, including remarkably well preserved Gothic detail, is shoved into big heaps down below. Walking through with lamps feels like wandering around earthquake debris. But there are also remnants from the Roman era that have been excavated – the Domplein was once the site of a military camp on the empire's northern border.

After a few kilometres of grandstanding twists and turns to show off the prettier parts of the city, the peloton will find itself on a snarling highway that, since it was constructed, has ruined the view from Utrecht's most extraordinary home.

The Rietveld Schröder House, designed by architect Gerrit Rietveld and live-in interior design enthusiast Truus Schröder-Schräder, is World Heritage-listed as a prime piece of De Stijl architecture. It is a zealous case of form following function. The exterior bulges were designed with the interior design in mind, and the first floor acts like an elaborate theatre set.

On initial viewing, it is open plan, with the beds wedged against the walls having a disturbing lack of privacy. But then the guide sets to work on a bafflingly elaborate system of sliding and unfolding walls. Everything is measured to fit precisely, and when all the shoving, shifting and adjusting is complete, everything is perfectly shut off and compartmentalised. Quite why anyone would want to do this every night before bedtime is beside the point – it's an astonishing feat of imagination. And the same applies to the design of Utrecht as well – especially if you're tackling it on two wheels.

Getting there

David Whitley flew with KLM (020 7660 0293; klm.com), which flies to Amsterdam from numerous UK airports, including Heathrow, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Bristol, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Utrecht is five hours by train from London St Pancras via Brussels and Rotterdam. Eurostar cannot sell through tickets, but agents such as Voyages-sncf can (0844 848 5848; uk.voyages-sncf.com).

Staying there

The park-side Hotel Mitland (00 31 30 271 5824, mitland.nl) has doubles from €145, room only.

Visiting there

Bikes can be hired at numerous locations, including Celil Citybike (00 6 1444 8955; celilcitybike.nl) at Voorstraat 24, from €7.50 a day.

Advance bookings are required for tours of the Domtoren (00 31 30 236 00 10; domtoren.nl) and Domunder (00 31 30 233 9999; domunder.nl), which cost €9.50 and €10 respectively. The same applies to Rietveld Schröder House (00 31 30 2362362; centraalmuseum.nl); entry €14.

More information

visit-utrecht.com; tourdefranceutrecht.com; letour.com

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