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The International Writers Magazine: Bike/Barge Tour of Holland

Three “Sisters” Bike the Netherlands
(and Face Being 50)
• Mary Collins
The baker, the birdwatcher, and the bicycling advocate all set off across the Netherlands on 40 pound bikes with soft wide seats that cause butt blisters and high tippy handlebars clearly meant for steering in a straight line in this flat, canal-striped land.

bikebarge
Duurstede After a few days of pedaling from the 16th Century town of Wijk bij Duurstede (no, they cannot pronounce that) to Zutphen on the River Ijssel with a bike/barge tour group of 17 others, the three ladies from New Jersey renamed themselves Sister Sharon (Roerty), Sister Betty Ann (Kelly) and Sister Patricia (Vanech). Their new bond as they sailed aboard the boat Tijdgeest: women marking their fifth decade who left behind husbands, partners, kids, jobs, and a bundle of fears to tackle as much as 60 miles a day on two wheels.

They were on a seven-day birthday travel bash that included bunk beds on the boat and cabins with showers so tight they had to stand on one leg to fit.By the time they made it to the Kroller Muller Museum in the National Park De Hoge Veluwe, which has the largest outdoor sculpture garden in Europe and a collection of Van Gogh paintings that rival the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, they learned something about themselves and about the Netherlands.

Most importantly, the Netherlands does have hills, and sand dunes and wild boar and many other remarkable, unexpected things that have nothing to do with windmills, canals, tulips or the infamous red light district.

And the sisters could make 60 miles on their bikes even when they never intended to do any such thing (the brochure estimated 30 to 40 miles a day), but the guide, the endearing Joost, kept getting lost on his way to the latest castle in his native country’s heartland.

But few complained too intently, certainly not the British couple (both over 60) or the Germans or the Belgians, and definitely not the Sisters from New Jersey, who took in the flower markets, cheese shops, 14th Century Churches, Roman ruins, medieval town walls, wonderful coffee and chocolate shops and the unique bicycle culture. Even the local trash cans are angled so that a person pedaling by can toss their garbage in without stopping. Nearly everything and everyone centers their life on the bike in the Netherlands.

The Dutch walk or bike for 80 percent of their trips each day.

Now Sharon Roerty, a petite, dynamic woman who grew up in Jersey City with her fellow traveler Tricia Vanech, has spent most of her adult professional life as a city planner and bicycle advocate eyeing such statistics and wondering how the same magic can translate here in the U.S.

Another great upside of the biking/walking culture: it’s easy to reach a local pub without having to drive, which makes it much safer when you head home. Sharon herself, despite weighing less than a pound of Dutch cheese, proved an adept beer guide for the Sisters. She urged them to test local brews, like Jopen in Haarlem (light and with berry undertones), and never seemed the worse for wear after a night of sampling.

Though by midweek in the Netherlands, the three Sisters did elicit a lot of shushing from the locals, even in the bars.
“They just shushed us!” Tricia would often say with shock, her blue expressive eyes magnified by her glasses, and they would all look a little sheepish, tone it down for a time, then order another beer, get to talking and get shushed again.

Tricia, a professional pastry chef, left the bicycling culture to Sharon and focused more on the Dutch bakeries—of which there are many, often one every few blocks in larger places, such as Zutphen. They have a tendency to leave their doors wide open, even in the cool, damp air characteristic of a Dutch summer, so the yeasty smell of bread pools in street corners.

bike tour Tricia was already comfortable with extended bicycle rides (often heading out for as much as 100 miles) but she was still cagey about the bike/barge trip. She’d be with a group of people she didn’t know, stuck on a tight boat and taking rides that she had to complete once she started them (there is no following van in most bike/barge tours so even if you tire you have to keep moving). But she decided she didn’t want to miss a chance to do something with Sharon, whom she’d known since age 4.

Tricia also had mixed feelings about turning 50. “I thought to myself, are you doing the things you wanted to do with your life?” Jumping into the Netherlands tour was part of her answer to that question.

Once on the boat, she could see that it was all about “the girls bonding—like a rebirth. Without our partners along, we’re sillier, more thoughtful about each other, more vulnerable. “
Betty Ann Kelly also knew Sharon, but from a job just out of college; she hadn’t seen in her in decades when the two decided to reconnect in the winter of 2011 over a few beers in Maplewood, NJ. Sharon mentioned her trip and asked Betty Ann to come along.
“I said no immediately,” Betty Ann says. “But then after a few weeks went by, I decided I was going.”

So she got some new gear and convinced a neighbor to start riding with her to get in shape for the trip. Physically she’d been laid low by some knee surgery and other ailments and hadn’t had the time, energy or incentive to reclaim her life as an athlete for several years.

She knew the trip would be a major challenge: biking more than 30 miles a day; going with a friend she hadn’t seen for decades and a group of people she didn’t know; bunking with a stranger.
Betty Ann did find the heavy bikes a real grind, but she always pressed on, because she feared being left behind.
“I started strong but I felt more vulnerable as the week went on. The incline on the second day ride in particular seemed to go on forever, but there was a real sense of comradery out there.
“The trip would have been very different if I had brought my husband along. I really enjoyed this whole sisterhood thing. I so appreciate that Sharon shared her friends with me.”
By day five the Sisters were telling each other everything.

Their guards were down, their knees were sore and the local pubs were offering an amazing range of beers. To make it through the week, it was essential that each of them felt comfortable enough to skip a ride and stay back at the boat for the day. Since the captain docked in places like Deventer, an incredible city with layers of history, locally owned shops (especially shoe stores that carry Italian and Spanish brands) and houses bedecked with flowers, there was plenty to do off the bike.
Deventer

Now for a live real-time snapshot of two days in the Sisters’ Dutch Adventure:
The charming Joost, a tall, trim Dutchman in his sixties who has biked from the Netherlands to Italy in his dress shoes and ankle socks, brings the group out into the pouring rain for a tour of Wijk bij Duurstede, which has a castle, cobblestone streets, and amazingly well-preserved shops that lean into each other and create a tight village space. Just past the castle, it all breaks open and large thatched-covered farms with complex flower gardens line a road so narrow that the riders assume it’s just a bike lane, but it’s also for cars (a misconception that occurred throughout the country), so out of the gloom they watch for headlights. This seems likes a very dangerous situation but, in fact, the narrow lanes force cars to go incredibly slow and the bicycle-friendly culture means all drivers are looking for riders. The Dutch have the lowest bicycle fatality rate in Europe (and much lower than the U.S.) even though they do not wear helmets.

At one point the bikers startled a stunning black horse that raced back and forth in his fenced-in meadow, the wet green field presenting such a sharp contrast to his blackness. The entire town and experience had a painterly quality to it that made even the Sisters from New Jersey quiet with admiration.
“After seeing Van Gogh and then the landscape, I could see what he was capturing—the various types of greens, the wind,” Tricia says.
All of the riders in the group noticed how adept the Dutch are at beautifying every piece of private space, from flowers on their bicycle baskets to the lay of stones in a walkway.

Sparkenburg The rain clouds parted after that first ride and, despite ominous forecasts all week, the group ended their tour six days later on a sunny ride pass the wooden fishing boats of Sparkenburg (Van Gogh painted them because he thought they looked like flowers). Following a pattern they established on the first day of the trip—ride 10 miles, stop for a sweet and coffee; ride another 10 miles, stop for another sweet and coffee; repeat—the group paused about 10 miles outside of Sparkenburg in Laren at a waffle house.

Decked with colors and flourishes more appropriate for a merry-go-round, the waffle house sits in the center green and has two enormous cast iron stoves; one equipped with several large waffle irons and another with long rows of small indentations for the batter of the poffertjes, which look like munchkins but taste as light as a popover. The veteran chef poured the mixture of flour, milk, eggs, sugar and butter into the scalding cast iron portals and transformed all of it into a magical sweet as fine as anything the group ate in the Netherlands. The restaurant offered no syrup or fruit; just squares of waffles with thin walls and brittle interiors covered with melted butter and powdered sugar.
Sister Tricia, the pastry expert, gave it five stars.

As they sat around the small tables set against a sidewalk busy with pedestrians and cyclists, the Sisters from New Jersey reflected on the close of an arduous but rewarding trip.
“The bike has always been a source of fun and freedom for me,” Sharon says, “and it’s been great to reconnect with that.”

As for Betty Ann: “I took a gamble on this trip and I don’t regret doing it at all. It made me stronger physically and mentally. When you hit your fifties, you let your guard down more and search for opportunities.”

Then they set off again on their bicycles. Betty Ann’s knee was bothering her; Sharon was tired and trying not to fall too far back from the group; Tricia bantered with them both until all the pains and exhaustion were forgotten and all they had was the warm taste of waffle in their mouths and their own loud New Jersey laughs and no one around to shush them.


BOOKING A BIKE/BARGE TOUR IN THE NETHERLANDS

bikebarge The Sisters from Jersey went on the Castles and Walled Cities Tour offered by Van Gogh Tours, which is based in Vermont (www.vangoghtours.com). It includes a day in Amsterdam but focuses more on the trading towns that line the canals in the heartland. They cycled past a lot of farms, visited several castles, the National Park De Hoge Veluwe (which includes sand dunes) and the Kroller Muller Museum within the park (a spectacular collection of Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Rodin and more).

The catch: Van Gogh Tours farmed the tour out to HAT Tours, which provided poor bicycles and insufficient support on the rides. Joost, the guide, was beloved by all and had a deep knowledge of his country’s history, but he needed a partner to help navigate and to serve as sweep. Be certain to ask your tour group about the quality of the bicycles and whether or not there is a support van and TWO guides on the ride if it has 20 or more riders. The standard Dutch touring bike is really only good for trips under 20 miles.

The cost: Under $1000 for seven days and includes three meals (light breakfast and cold cut sandwiches for lunch but a more elaborate dinner) and a bunk. Open bar on boat is not included in cost.

In general, most summer Dutch bike/barge tours take one of two routes: the Castle tour, which includes smaller towns such as Kampen, Haderwijk and Zutphen, or the city tour of Amsterdam, Haarlem and Delft. The most popular tour: the spring ride through the tulip fields.

Why the Bike/Barge Tours Work Well for Women Over 50

1 The heavy bikes encourage a slow pace and frequent stops (the group stopped about every ten miles for a sustained break—usually cappuccinos and apple tarts)

2 The country is mostly flat, though the wind can often make a level trail feel like a hill.
Sisters

3 Outside of Denmark, the Netherlands is the most bicycle-friendly country in the world, which means even a novice cyclist can rest assured that there are clearly marked lanes and right-of-ways and plenty of company on the bicycle lanes. All of the Dutch ride, including the elderly. By the final day, when the tour reached Amsterdam, even the most inexperienced riders in the group could navigate the complex flow of the city’s rush hour.

4 The boat docks at night on very calm canals so even people who might be susceptible to motion sickness will find that’s rarely a problem.

5 The bike/barge combination and the simplicity of the dining and sleep arrangements, encourages a low cost, low stress, low maintenance experience.

© Mary Collins June 2012
Mary is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Central Connecticut State University, has written for a range of organizations including National Geographic and the Smithsonian. Her latest book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, won the 2010 Indie Book Award. To read more of her work, visit www.marycollinswriter.net.

see also Amsterdam by Bike

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