Windswept dikes and herring stands
When I finally arrived at the little brick hostel perched eerily on the edge of a reclaimed marshland, I knew I wasn't joining just any bike tour. Offbeat is the word for Frank Behrendt's International Bicycle Tours, which explore a side of Holland the guidebooks don't go into.
Mr. Behrendt, a 42-year-old Dutch-born businessman who operates out of Westchester County, takes his summers off to lead groups of a dozen or more across windswept dikes, up into bell towers, down into church crypts to see 400 -year-old mummies, to a watery town named Giethoorn where citizens and cows get around by boat, and to every herring stand he can find. (Write International Bicycle Tours, 12 Mid Place, Chappaqua, N.Y. 10514.)
His 13-day late-summer tour was already more than a week in progress when I intercepted the group at Lelystad, a miniature Levittown in the polders northeast of Amsterdam. I had flown into Schiphol Airport with Finnair, a carrier that actively promotes athletic vacations, mostly to Finland where one can do a 10-day bike tour of the Aaland Islands. On a Behrendt tour of Holland, each night's youth hostel differs markedly from the last (in the coming season, hotels will be used). The Lelystad digs I came upon had been a polder camp not long before, housing the doughty workers who had reclaimed the surrounding land from the sea.
Only 100 feet from our little compound lay the flat dark Ijsselmeer, the dike-surrounded waters that the Dutch harnessed from the old Zuyder Zee. It was exactly 50 years ago that the Ijsselmeer was sealed off from the open sea with a 30-kilometer dike -- a narrow causeway topped by a road - linking the provinces of North Holland and Friesland. This same dike, Holland's longest, is part of the IBT itinerary -- a challenging ride on a windswept and lonely lane, water pressing in on both sides, an experience my cycling mates referred to over and over with a mixture of humor and awe.
After a 6 o'clock supper in the hostel dining room, a Dutch photographer attached to the group explained to me the genesis of the greening new land around us, completing a geography lesson I'd never quite absorbed in grade school. ''First,'' said Govert Vetten, a tall and wry Amsterdammer, ''the water is pumped out, using modern methods and not windmills which did the job in the 17th century. You see, land reclamation is an old story in Holland; it was the original purpose of the windmills. We had 1,100 windmills in the 19th century but only about 90 today, mostly used for grinding grain.
''Anyway, after the water is removed, an airplane dumps reed seeds over the swampy land. As the reeds grow, drying up the marshes, they are cut and used for farmhouse roofs and the fences you see around here. Willows and ashes begin to grow too, and then rape seeds - those beautiful yellow fields - are planted and cultivated. In this fertile layer of clay and sand, the farmers plant sugar beets, wheat, flax, potatoes and pretty soon a farm is prospering and that, my friend, is all there is to say about a polder.''
Next day, figuring his charges had seen enough of polders and dikes, Mr. Behrendt removed us and our bikes inland, using the invaluable little van serving every IBT operation. It is good to know that the van, piloted by a young Dutchman named Michiel Hegeman, is never far away, offering repair tools, refreshments, even a free ride to the next stop.
On that tender September day we rolled in and out of deep forests in which, as our puckish leader said, ''Our chances of meeting a wild boar are greater than seeing a car.'' We did encounter, at a crossroads between forests, a Dutch Army convoy out on late summer maneuvers. In the cockpit of a tank sat a young soldier taking a morning break, a can of soda pop in his hand, his hair hanging well beneath his helmet. ''This is the modern Army,'' said Mr. Behrendt. ''Compulsory service, no saluting, not much discipline. It's even unionized, the only one I know.''
It occurred to me, as we headed off through the forest in a widening rank, that our biking platoon probably had as much discipline as some modern armies. Fun-loving as he is, Frank Behrendt is also serious about the matter of getting a dozen or more bikers of varying experience in and out of a country where cycling is not only a sport but an important mode of transportation. Hand signals, traffic signs and biking ethics are explained at the outset. Mr. Behrendt generally rides up front, assigning a competent sweep to bring up the rear. Our sweep was usually Sue Given, a CPA from Tacoma, Wash., who had done some advanced cycling in the Pacific Northwest.
We were a varied bunch -- a newspaper librarian from Long Island, a mother and grown daughter from White Plains, N.Y., a Palo Alto, Calif., couple who elected to stay in hotels instead of hostels each night, a self-employed paint and body-repair man from Chattanooga, Tenn., with a penchant for imitating the cries of squirrels and crows, a Fort Worth, Texas, medical technologist temporarily based in Abu Dhabi, and a Carefree, Ariz., woman, mother of four, whose husband, sensing the IBT trip would be too tame was biking from Oregon to Mexico.
Hostel food will never be reviewed by Mimi Sheraton, but we were free to eat elsewhere, and lunchtime on the road was never a disappointment. In the village of Elspeet we propped our bikes under a huge shade tree and sat down in a garden restaurant specializing in pannekoeken, distant relative of a Perkins Pancake House. There were 42 varieties, crispy pancakes a foot in diameter filled with apple, cheese, ginger, prune, etc. Another day we picked up cheese, salami, bread, fruit, pate, and pastries and ate on the edge of a pasture. Cows lay nearby, also taking their midday ease. And the man from Chattanooga, confronted with the bucolic quiet, made his crow and squirrel calls. Not your everyday lunch. Nor your everyday tour.