A Dutchman and his (man-made) mountain

In 2011, a Dutch cycling journalist’s tongue-in-cheek proposal for an artificial mountain in his homeland sparked a flurry of proposals and feasibility studies, growing to be the biggest innovation platform in the Netherlands. This is the story of Die Berg Komt Er – of a project, a man and a (man-made) mountain.

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In 2011, a Dutch cycling journalist’s tongue-in-cheek proposal for an artificial mountain in his homeland sparked a flurry of proposals and feasibility studies, eventually growing to be the biggest innovation platform in the very, very flat Netherlands.

This is the story of Die Berg Komt Er – of a project, a man and a (man-made) mountain.

Blame it on a deadline.

In July 2011, on the six-hour drive home from Paris, cycling journalist Thijs Zonneveld let his mind wander. The Netherlands had just endured a woeful Tour de France, with most of its fancied riders crashing out or failing to fire in the mountains. That year, there was no Dutch stage winner, and the highest-ranked Dutchman on the GC was Vacansoleil’s Rob ‘who?’ Ruijgh in 21st overall.

Perhaps falling prey to the special brand of delirium which comes from covering the world’s biggest bike race for three weeks straight, Zonneveld looked out the window at the flat landscape they were speeding across, and jokingly suggested to a colleague in the car that the Netherlands should build a mountain for its cyclists to train on.

The thought stuck. Back home and facing a deadline for his weekly editorial, a fatigued and uninspired Zonneveld remembered his off-the-cuff comment of a few days earlier. “I didn’t have any inspiration, to be honest, so I wrote it about a mountain in the Netherlands,” Zonneveld told CyclingTips.

Photo: Cor Vos

The article proposed that the Netherlands should construct an artificial mountain two kilometres high – more than six times taller than the highest hill in the country – and five kilometres wide.

“The last sentence was ‘Die berg komt er’ – ‘the mountain will be there’. It wasn’t serious at all,” Zonneveld said. “I did not think it through. I didn’t believe anyone would follow up on it.”

He was wrong.

“The next day, when I opened my mailbox, I had dozens of emails regarding the subject,” Zonneveld continued. “It appeared I hit a nerve without knowing it. And that the idea already existed in many ways. There were architects, engineers, geologists who put a lot more thought in it than I did.”

Zonneveld, who was a Continental-level racer before becoming a cycling journalist, had originally conceived of the artificial mountain as a training tool for the cycling community, but it quickly became clear that others saw broader appeal. The national skiing and mountaineering associations threw their support behind the idea, and other sports began to pay attention too.

The original column semi-jokingly pointed at the failings of the Netherlands in winter sports like ski-jumping and bobsledding, and the prospect of a Dutch sporting renaissance proved an appetising one. More important than just the sporting implications, however, was the fact that the idea presented a novel intellectual challenge.

Zonneveld had also, perhaps, underestimated the unusual pragmatism of the Dutch people, their roll-up-the-sleeves determination and their track record of bending nature to their will.

The opening to the manmade Nieuwe Waterweg shipping canal, near Rotterdam. Photo: Micheile Henderson, Unsplash

For centuries, the Dutch have been waging a quiet resistance against the North Sea, reclaiming land and building dikes to hold back the waves. When the dikes failed in 1287, flooding vast swathes of farmland, an inland sea was formed. For centuries after this cataclysmic event, the Dutch toiled away to reclaim what was lost to the Zuiderzee.

In 1986, all those years of toil reached an important milestone, with the establishment of an entire province of reclaimed land. With 400,000 inhabitants and a land area of 970 km², Flevoland is comfortably the world’s largest artificial island.

When an engineering feat like that exists in the recent cultural consciousness, a column like Zonneveld’s begins to look less like a bit of whimsy and more like a call to action.

From column to crowdsourcing

At the centre of a flurry of media attention, Zonneveld saw the interest in his lighthearted proposal not as an aberration but an opportunity. “I realised that I had … the platform to assemble [the experts] and their ideas. So I did, with the support of the newspaper I worked at back then – Dagblad De Pers. We decided to start bottom-up, to ask as many people as possible to submit their input,” Zonneveld recalls.

“Basically, it was some sort of crowdsourcing. The idea exploded. It was August, there wasn’t a lot to do, other media jumped onto it and before we knew it, Die Berg Komt Er was an enormous innovation platform.” Almost a hundred companies joined the project, pitching their versions of what the mountain could be.

An early feasibility study for the proposed two-kilometre-high mountain laid out the construction requirements – 7.7 billion cubic metres (271 billion cubic feet) of sand, at a weight of 12.6 billion tons.

When numbers are as vast as that, it’s difficult to conceptualise what they represent, so here’s a more meaningful measure: the enormity of that weight is enough to push down the surrounding area by up to 100 metres, and affect ground levels up to 50 km away.

And that wasn’t the only downside. An early 2012 study led by Bartels Consulting Engineers also looked into the risk of earthquakes, geological faults and changes to weather patterns, ultimately concluding that “a solid mountain made of sand and rocks would cost too much, erode too easily, and involve too much work to be completed in a feasible amount of time”.

And where to put it? Too close to Rotterdam, and it would interfere with shipping routes. Too close to Amsterdam, and it would disrupt air traffic out of Schiphol. Too close to the Hague, and you’d have coastal erosion. To say nothing of the expense: a study led by Eindhoven University of Technology put the potential cost of such a project at up to 7 trillion euros.

The initial concept for a massive sporting playground looked dead in the water, but the scope of the project began to shift into something entirely more futuristic and for the common-good. “The main focus … shifted to sustainable energy, housing, sustainable agriculture and water management,” Zonneveld told CyclingTips. “Big building companies joined the party, as well as investors, universities and sponsors.”

By late 2012, having seen the seismic implications of a solid mountain towering 2 km over the Netherlands, Zonneveld and the Die Berg Komt Er team had lowered their expectations – literally – to a 500-metre-high edifice, unlike any other mountain in the world.

“We conducted a feasibility research [at that height],” Zonneveld said. “The result: it could be done, if the mountain could be built as a hollow structure with vertical agriculture and housing in the core. And on the outside – waterfalls, ski-slopes, hairpins for Dutch cyclists to conquer. “But it was – of course it was – very expensive.”

In 2013, the Netherlands was plunged into an economic crisis, hit by the twin headwinds of a burst housing bubble and enormous debt, and Zonneveld’s mountain began to look increasingly unfeasible. And besides, Zonneveld told me, “It had become more of an innovation platform than a building project; it was used by scientists and universities to think outside the box.”

Images: Youtube

By that point, “it was way over my head. I am a journalist with a law degree – not a building company or an engineer,” Zonneveld remarked. Without firm plans to progress the project, momentum began to falter, and by 2015, the website of the project finally shut down.

Will the mountain be there?

It would be easy to look at the Die Berg Komt Er project as a failure, but that would miss the point of what it created. Zonneveld’s flippant column became a movement – a meeting of minds that sparked a new wave of innovation in the Netherlands. “The idea and inspiration of having a mountain in a flat country remains,” Zonneveld thinks. “Every few months, projects are started with a link to Die Berg Komt Er”, such as a proposed mountain over a massive road flyover in Rotterdam.

Time has marched on, as time does. Even in the absence of a mountain in their homeland, Dutch cycling has seen a renaissance since that inglorious 2011 Tour de France, with names like Bauke Mollema, Laurens Ten Dam, Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin making appearances in the top 10s and on the podiums of Grand Tours. The mountain hasn’t come to the Dutch, but the Dutch have gone to the mountains.

Dutch corner on Alpe d’Huez, a cauldron of noise and excitement.

As for the cycling journalist that gave birth to the idea, there’s been a more lasting impact from his involvement in the project. Along the way he had an unlikely crash course in futurism, architecture, economics, and engineering, but the biggest takeaway, he tells me, is that he learned that “people can do amazing things. It is doable to build a mountain, [and] with a lot of money you can build one that produces sustainable energy, housing and food.”

Zonneveld believes there’s a place for sport in that, too, citing Copenhagen’s CopenHill – an architecturally spectacular power plant that converts waste to clean energy, complete with hiking trails and a ski slope on the side.

For now, a mountain in the Netherlands “remains a futuristic idea,” Zonneveld says. “But probably that future is closer than we think.”

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