Touring the Netherlands on a Self-Guided Tour

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By Matt Davidson — I absolutely love cycle touring! Different than all my previous bike tours, on this trip I stitched together a paid, self-guided adventure designed by a tour company along with another couple, and then ventured out on my own Self-Supported tour in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. That Self-Supported tour is described in an interview with Lou Melini in a companion article. After completing five self-supported North American bike tours, which inevitably involved some camping escapades, and throwing in a biking adventure in Thailand with my son, my wife LouAnn was tentatively considering the idea of bike touring. The catch? Only if it meant cozying up in comfortable hotels instead of wrestling with tents in the rain at campgrounds. Another non-negotiable was that the tour had to stick to flat or nearly flat terrain, offer ample chances for restaurant meals, boast bicycle-friendly pathways, and come with a luggage-carrying Sherpa. Then, I had an “Ahh-Hah” moment that seemed to tick all the boxes!

Picture cycling on flat, immaculately maintained, glass-smooth, separated bike paths where bicyclists rule at intersections and get priority over cars. Where else but the Netherlands? With more bicycles than people, it’s a cycling utopia. There are 23 million bikes for 18 million Dutch, and it seems like almost everyone in the country stays fit and healthy by pedaling. I managed to convince LouAnn to join me on a Dutch bike tour with our friends Jim and Robyn, knowing that 30-40 mile cycling days would be a breeze and a fantastic way to explore Europe.

Cycling in The Netherlands is a joy! Smooth bicycle-dedicated pathways, friendly Dutch and fairytale scenery. Photo by Jim Isaacson

Once our destination and budget were set, the next dilemma was whether to design our own bike tour or pay a tour company for their expertise, planning, and bicycles. Shipping our bikes to Europe or renting them upon arrival was an option, but that presented a whole new set of potential problems. Currently, Delta Airlines allows a bicycle box weighing under 50 lbs to be checked in at no charge as flight luggage. Any additional bags would incur a fee. However, lugging your bike box through airports, possibly involving escalators, isn’t always a walk in the park. Therefore, having bikes provided by a tour company and included in the package cost seemed pretty appealing, especially for those less comfortable fixing their own bikes. If I were touring solo, I’d be fine fixing any mechanical failures and playing the waiting game, but it’s not as fun when a group is stuck while one person’s bike undergoes surgery.

Next, the decision was whether to join a bike tour with a paid leader and a group of 5-10 strangers or venture out on our own using a tour company’s route. For someone new to overnight bike touring, having a tour company leader guiding every turn might be a good starting point. Your likelihood of getting lost is pretty low when riding with a tour leader. The alternative was a “self-guided” bike tour, meaning the route is predetermined, loaded onto easily readable cycling computers provided with every bike group. No one is leading your path or selecting your lunch stops and timing, other than your group’s decisions on following a route, be it the GPS-provided route or your own daily variation. In both tour types, you are free from loaded luggage panniers weighing you down—instead, your luggage is transferred every day to the next night’s lodging. From start to finish, our self-guided group only included my spouse and friends—no one else. We decided that as a group, we could comfortably navigate each day and preferred to travel without a paid guide. To share the navigation responsibility, my friend Jim and I alternated that leader role, which turned out fine. I imagine our group missed out on some additional geographic or cultural explanations along the way by not having a paid leader. However, windmills are pretty hard to miss, and Google searches helped fill in the blanks.

We chose a Dutch company called Holland Bike Tours (HBT, hollandbiketours.com) primarily because friends had completed a tour with that company in the past, and their $1250 pricing for six nights, including buffet breakfasts and bikes, seemed reasonable compared to other luxury tour companies. All our mid-range hotels were comfortable, air-conditioned, and had convenient bike storage spaces. Before we launched our tour, the owner talked a bit about Dutch culture and history, gave us a detailed tour pamphlet describing each town stop, restaurants, explained how to use the cycle computers, and provided well-maintained bikes. The tour bikes were equipped with 8 speeds, included fenders for possible rainy days, hydraulic brakes, straight handlebars with an upright riding position, one empty pannier for snacks, and lights for night riding.

I would almost give HBT an A+ rating, except for the fact that while on tour, our luggage didn’t get transported for a few hours until after we rolled into our destinations at normal afternoon times for two of the six nights’ hotels. Late luggage meant that we couldn’t change into fresh clothes immediately and venture out into the towns on those occasions. When asked, HBT provided an excuse that really didn’t hold water. Other than those two instances, I would recommend Holland Bike Tours if someone wanted to pay a tour company to arrange a trip. For adventurous self-supported travelers, I would estimate you could maybe shave off about $300-$600 per person off the total cost by finding and arranging your route, bicycles, and camping. That’s a bit of extra work to research convenient hotel options and really worth the added cost to use local expertise. When looking at all tour options, it seemed that comparable leader-guided tours would increase tour costs by about $400 per person if that’s the style that works for you.

Zipping along a canal near Leiden, Netherlands. Photo by Matt Davidson

The Netherlands did not disappoint! Anyone who has even casually observed a bike path in the United States and has the faintest interest in experiencing tourism on two wheels would be pleasantly surprised by how the Netherlands has prioritized cycling over gas-powered transportation. The Dutch government assigns a very high societal value to bicycling for everyday life, including commuting for work, shopping, or just out for an evening with friends. As a result, fantastic segregated two-lane bike paths are built everywhere, and everyone can ride throughout cities, countryside farms, and along neighborhood canals, feeling very safe and protected from speeding cars. Locals even watch out for tourists on bicycles, giving them a wide berth and unprompted cycling safety advice. In the Netherlands, you will see a wide variety of bikes, including cargo bikes, tandems, kiddie carriers, and even teenagers dressed up with their dates sitting side-saddle across the top tube. If a trip is less than 30 minutes on a bicycle, I learned that most Dutch would take a bike rather than a car, even well into retirement age.

Our complete 210-mile route started in Haarlem and weaved through Leiden, Gouda, Dordrecht, Willemstad, Zierikzee, Middelburg, and finished in Bruges. Only after viewing the elevation charts did I realize we were bicycling below sea level for a portion of the time. Maybe riding below sea level added to the intrigue and mystique about riding in the Netherlands! Over the past 700 years, the Dutch have brilliantly reclaimed marshland and pumped water off into canals, creating usable farmland. Most of the 10,000 windmills were historically used as water pumps, although some were built to grind grain or purposed as a sawmill. Now, only about 1000 windmills still exist and make for great photo opportunities. If you haven’t toured outside the United States in a cycling wonderland and it is within your budget, it’s well worth the added cost. Try it — you may be surprised at what you have been missing!

Trip Details:

  • Number of days: 7
  • Total Miles: 210
  • Route start and Finish: Haarlem, Netherlands to Brugge, Belgium
  • Trip Date: September 2023
  • Trip tip: Be flexible and spend extra effort getting to talk with and know a few locals and understand their culture better.

 

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