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THE BALANCED LIFE: Going Dutch in the Netherlands

A blistering 7.85 kilometers-per-hour average cycling speed through the Netherlands, barely faster than jogging, yielded our most enjoyable cycle touring holiday ever.

A blistering 7.85 kilometers-per-hour average cycling speed through the Netherlands, barely faster than jogging, yielded our most enjoyable cycle touring holiday ever.

How fast can you go with a dozen farm-fresh, long-stemmed lilies stuffed inside the back of your cycling jersey? Breakfast at the Heart of Zwaag B&B in Hoorn, in northwest Holland, had been so delicious that my wife and I felt obliged to thank the proprietor with flowers.

Stopping to photograph a family of goats sunning on a shed roof can slow you down a bit, but being silently surrounded by 30 curious sheep while focusing really kills the average speed.

When the path ends abruptly and you have to cable-winch a tiny manually-operated ferry across a canal to continue, even Chris Froome would lose time.

Squinting to shoot a 350-year-old windmill in perfect contrast to seven, 120-metre-tall, 5-megawatt wind turbines in the background takes time too.

With open-air terraces everywhere along canals, streets, and city squares, and “pils” less expensive than coffee, even the dimmest of Canadian cycle tourists (yours truly) eventually realizes slow is good. Viewing a working barge stacked with hay bales, a sleek fiberglass sailboat en route to challenge the North Sea, a couple kayak touring, and a spectacularly restored teak and oak sailing ship with immense, retractable, brass-edged keels flanking its sides were the reward for munching cheese and pastry along a rural canal.

A grey-haired couple cycled by, perched bolt upright, exuding two-wheeled aristocracy: he in suit, tie, and fedora, she in high heels, long skirt, and designer blazer. Teens cycled effortlessly by too— pretty girls chatting on phones, pretending to ignore the handsome boys approaching.

Modes of transport exist in a well-defined hierarchy in the Netherlands. It’s boats first—whether in bustling downtown Lemmer or rural Beemster, when the warning siren sounds, best not be standing on the drawbridge.

Pedestrians rank above cyclists, and in towns and cities, bikes fill lanes between the road and sidewalk, unintentionally providing a moving guard rail to protect walkers from cars. Tractor jockeys, obviously paid by the acre rather than the hour, are king. Bicknell or Jimmie Johnson have nothing on these guys, and everyone scatters when tractors roar from field to field down country lanes and town streets, green monsters trailing rakes, discs or harrows threatening to slice and dice anything in their paths.

When evening arrives, expect your bike’s accommodation to be as cozy as yours. In Hoorn, the bikes retired to an unused dining room corner in our four-star hotel. In Workum, they shared a boathouse with a fleet of cruisers. In Giethoorn, the bikes emerged from an evening in the laundry room smelling of fabric softener.

Holland is a marvelous blend of ancient and modern, catering to cyclists in unexpected ways. The meandering dike along the Ijsselmeer from Gaast to Harlingen is an example of how spoiled cyclists can be. Hot and sunny? Ride the top of the dike in a cooling breeze above a panorama of sea and farmland. Strong headwind blowing off the sea? Cycle protected along a rural road nestled in the lee of the dike, through charming towns and villages. Want a fix of waves, waterfowl, and an endless variety of boats and ships? Choose the paved path reserved for pedestrians, bicycles, and adventurous livestock at water’s edge on the dike’s seaward side if you have fenders.

Don’t miss the smells wafting from acres of flowers, canal-path exploration, and insight into Dutch culture that a leisurely cycle tour provides. There isn’t an easier and safer place to complete your first tour as an individual or family than Holland.