A bicycle trip around the Netherlands turns back the clock like child's play.
It's not often after age 30 you can order beer and French fries with a calorie-clear conscience, but a group of friends and I believe this a just dessert after biking 40 to 50 miles in a day. We'll repeat this greasy ritual throughout our seven-day bike-and-barge trip around Holland, undertaken to celebrate a major birthday (60) of one in our group. Increasingly, people marking such milestones are insisting: "No big parties. No presents. I just want to take a break, forget the demands that clutter my life, and spend a week with close friends, doing fun things in an exotic location. Maybe I'll even feel like a kid again."
The birthday boy in question is Joe Patuleia. After an earlier visit to the Netherlands, he's long yearned to return. And like most people his age, he's made recurring promises to get into shape. This trip accomplishes both goals. It turns into a family affair (complete with older kids) when our wives refuse to let us go unaccompanied to a country where prostitution is legal and recreational drugs are tolerated.
For some, including my wife, the barge is the better part of a bike-and-barge trip. It gives you the option of relaxing on deck, reading a book, having a cocktail, taking in the views, and arriving at the next stop ahead of the bikers. Or you can pedal in the morning to work off last night's meal and wine, then return to the barge for a leisurely afternoon.
You'll marvel at the map. Dutch town names appear to be randomly arranged letters you'd swear could never be turned into words. On day one, our warm-up day, after taking the barge out of Amsterdam, we get on our bikes in Nigtevecht, ride 25 miles to Utrecht, and spend the night aboard our barge in Wijk bij Duurstede.
Patuleia, who dreamed up this escapade, probably told himself: "It's been years, but you never forget how to ride a bike, so how hard can this be?" Well, imagine lying in an operating room and just before the anesthesia takes effect hearing the surgeon say to a nurse, "I haven't done this procedure since med school, but it's just like riding a bike." You'd want to roll off the table and head for the exit. Suddenly someone yells: "We're going to need more Band-Aids!" Less than ten miles into our trip, Patuleia has already crashed twice.
In time, after we regain our cycling skills, we try to close ranks—the better to talk to each other and enjoy the camaraderie. Yes, we've seen professional riders in tight formation, taking advantage of the aerodynamics of drafting. But, apart from our Spandex cycling shorts, I'm afraid we have little in common with the Lance Armstrongs of the world. We look more like trained circus bears pedaling around under a circus tent than a peloton in the Tour de France.
Holland is the ideal country for our traveling circus to attempt a weeklong bike tour. It's mostly flat. Think Kansas with canals, wooden shoes, and windmills. (Okay, the wooden shoes are only in souvenir shops.) The biggest difference between the Netherlands and the United States is the ubiquity of the bicycle. Everyone here rides—kids going to school, adults going to work, old folks visiting friends. Even teenagers, dressed for a night of clubbing, head out on their bicycles.
Roads are designed accordingly with clearly marked bike lanes. Likewise, drivers of motor vehicles share the road with cyclists rather than viewing them as targets. Holland, it should be noted, has no shortage of cars, but its people aren't addicted to them. Often we notice locals pedaling up to their houses with a kid on the back of the bike and a basket full of groceries on the front, despite the presence of a perfectly good car in the driveway.
Consequently, the Dutch look as healthy as any people I've seen. Maybe it's time for the U.S. to update Herbert Hoover's old campaign slogan to "fresh veggies in every pot and a bicycle in every garage." But while I'm contemplating this way to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and cut health care costs simultaneously, we reach a sidewalk café and order our usual reward of French fries and beer.
The waitress tells us, "You can't just order fries." "Okay," I reply. "We'll have ice cream with a side of fries." "No, that doesn't work either," she answers. "We are a restaurant, not a snack shop."
It's not just the people in Holland that look good. The whole country appears to have been designed by Disney. Starting in Amsterdam and pedaling in a big, nearly 300-mile loop, we see much of the nation. The houses all seem freshly scrubbed and well maintained, the yards manicured. I don't know if this results from individual initiative or perhaps from a tidiness police force that tells people when to paint the shutters and where to plant the tulips.
The only unsightly blemish on the landscape is our motley crew huffing, puffing, perspiring, and eating our way around Holland. After the first couple of days, we lose our wobbliness and find our confidence, freeing us to expand our horizons from just riding to riding with a certain je ne sais quoi. Or as the Dutch would say it, "Here come the ugly Americans."
Patuleia has never outgrown his adolescent obsession with comic book superheroes. That's why one morning all the guys dress as Superman and the ladies as Wonder Woman to ride through Hattem, circling the town square just as a formal wedding exits the old church. Stunned guests delay their rice throwing to gawk at us caped crusaders, raising our right arms and humming the Superman theme as if we're about to soar up, up, and away.
We exit town and head out across the open countryside, laughing and pedaling fast, capes flapping in the breeze. For a moment we are indeed kids again, off on an adventure with our friends. That's the best kind of birthday, an experience you'll never forget. It's just like riding a bicycle.
Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.