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Youth Beat

Seeing Netherlands From Behind Handlebars

September 07, 1986|LUCY IZON | Izon is a Canadian travel journalist covering youth budget routes.

DENEKAMP, Netherlands — An economical break from big city sightseeing in Europe is cycling in the Netherlands. You'll discover here that traveling by two wheels isn't a novelty--it's a life style, supported by some of the best cycling services in the world.

This country has 14 million people and 11 million bicycles. That means that most car drivers are also bike riders and tend to treat cyclists with respect on the roads.

In many areas of this ideally (for cycling) flat country, riding on roads isn't necessary. The Netherlands has 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) of special bike paths through forests, over dikes and between country villages.

Other special services include cyclist traffic lights at busy intersections, subway cars marked and designed for easy boarding with a bike and 300 train stations that allow you to board with a bike--outside of rush hours.

About the only thing that can hamper the cyclist is the weather, but fortunately it changes quickly. Your best bet is to pack a poncho and take a break in a pub when you encounter short showers. If the wind picks up, try to find a route through a forest area, which will act as a windbreak.

Detailed Maps

A good way to begin planning your visit is to request a free copy of "Cycling in Holland" from the Netherlands tourism office. It covers where to get detailed maps and rental rates. It offers seven suggestions for tour routes and a map indicating main bike routes. It also offers a selection of 20 do-it-yourself package tours, which include bike rentals, lodging, some meals and route information. Some packages also include luggage transportation.

If you don't want to tie yourself into a tour package you can ask for bike route information at a local tourist information office. They are identified by the letters VVV. Rental rate for a bike at a major rail station is about $2.50 per day or $10.50 per week. You will likely be asked to show your passport and make a $86 deposit before you can rent. (All prices here are in U.S. currency.)

If you arrive in the country interested in cycling but without any prior arrangements, you might begin with a one-day tour out of Amsterdam. You'll get tips on cycling, meet other independent travelers and learn about some of the sights you'll see in the Netherlands.

For example, we cycled under a lamppost that had a school bag hanging from it. We learned this is a tradition, common in front of the home of a graduating student. Our guide also explained that when the French introduced the use of last names in 1795, some of the Dutch thought it wouldn't last and didn't take it too seriously, which accounts for some local names with curious translations such as "born naked" and "sugar belly."

When we stopped at a windmill we learned this device was brought from the Middle East by the Crusaders. Only 100 years ago there were about 9,000 windmills, now there are about 950. The position of their blades was used to convey messages to neighbors. Blade position could indicate birth, death or even the approach of a tax collector. The expression "three sheets to the wind," incidentally, referred to the unbalanced blades of a windmill.

Visit to Cheese Factory

Tours from Amsterdam's Amstel station are operated daily by Ena's Bike Tours, between June and October. The 7 1/2-hour, 23-mile tour also includes a swim (weather permitting) and a visit to a cheese factory. Cost including bike rental is about $15. Tours depart daily at 10 a.m. For information, phone (015) 143797.

The travel service of the Netherlands Youth Hostel Assn. also offers a cycle package annually, which includes purchase of a bicycle, four vouchers for lodging with breakfast, a bag, tire repair set, poncho, road map and a temporary youth hostel card.

These packages are available between March 15 and Oct. 31, and you can arrange to have your bike waiting in Amsterdam, Doorwerth or Den Hagg. You must make arrangements one month in advance. This year's price is about $194.

For further details on the association's package, a copy of "Cycling Holland" or the free publication "Holland, a Young and Lively Country," which includes budget accommodations listing, contact the Netherlands National Tourist Office, 605 Market St., Room 401, San Francisco, Calif. 94105, phone (415) 543-6772.

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