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Go-go-go! How a herd of cats became a peloton

By Louise Rachlis

Thursday night in Amsterdam, a few blocks from the Red Light District, a dozen cycle tourists are joking around in an Italian restaurant and presenting each other with mock awards...

There's the Gold Tulip Grease Monkey Award to Paula, wife of group leader Manny Agulnik, who managed to adorn her calves with black tracks daily; there's the True Grit Award to Rick Day for wiping out and still smiling, the Fashion Victim Award to Barry Wishart for his orange cycling jacket purchased in Delft, and assorted Bad Hair Day, Most Improved Cyclist and other awards to the rest of the gang, age range early 40s to late 60s who had just completed a six-day cycle excursion before which most of us were strangers to each other.

Participants Barb and Barry Wishart of Scotchtown, New Brunswick, are the sister-inlaw and brother of Heather and Byron Landry of Ottawa, where the rest of us originated.

This is the fourth year for Manny Agulnik's guided leisure cycling tours of the Netherlands. The Ottawa cycling proponent was so enamored by this cyclefriendly country that he wanted to share it with others. He puts together packages including rental bikes and hotels and his leadership; we get to Amsterdam by our own means.

Next year he's adding a cycle tour in Denmark to his offerings.

Here's a round-up summary of our adventure at the end of August 2008: Day 1 The 12 of us tram to Mac Bike, the bike rental location, with our luggage and then spread out on the ground to fill our panniers.We leave the rest of our stuff in the Mac Bike back room, and practice going around the building on our bikes with loaded panniers. Some adjustments, some tipovers, and our line is heading through the city on our way out to Utrecht.

When the bike signal is green, we push forward to cries of "Go, Go, Go!", but the light is short, and the back end is usually caught on the red and we have to wait.

A few minutes into the ride, we all stop again because Rick's handlebars are too loose, and he can't control his bike. We wait in the park while he and Byron use the Allan key and then we're on our way, on a beautiful hot day, the first anyone in Amsterdam can remember for the whole summer. We gain confidence as we exit the city onto country paths.

We arrive in Utrecht, leave our bikes at the hotel and walk to the outdoor market - the usual flea market knickknacks, plus giant cheeses and roasting cashews. The old cobblestone pedestrian streets are incongruously dotted with U.S. chains like Footlocker and The Body Shop.

We have dinner beside the canal where the two levels of restaurants and outdoor cafes are packed with sun worshippers. It's Saturday night, and there are bikes parked and being ridden everywhere, with not a car on the street.

Sunday morning we leave Utrecht for Gouda, stopping on the way for tea in Oudwater,where they used to judge witches. Some of the women obtain their witch certificates from the Witches Museum, attesting to their witchiness. For the rest of the day, we attribute misfortunes like Lorne's mislaying his bike lock key and Barb's flat tire to witchcraft.

For the first time we see cyclists in bike gear and good bikes out for a fast ride, a complete contrast to the clunker bikes and street clothes through the week.

Occasionally we have to stop as a pannier goes flying onto the street, or someone wants to photograph a bridge or windmill.

It's so wonderful that every urban street, every country road, has a bike lane and bike traffic lights. Instead of legislating helmets so cars don't kill people, the Dutch are proactive and make the country so cycling friendly that no one but Canadian tourists like us need to wear helmets.

We have become proficient at cheese sandwich-making from the hotel breakfast buffets, so that we have food en route and don't need to delay at restaurants.

The route to Gouda is along a dike, busy with Sunday tourers enjoying the good weather. It consists of beautifully landscaped houses, with corn, goats, sheep, horses and apple and pear trees in the fields. There are bus stops all along the road.

When we were attending to Barb's flat, at least three tall men stopped to help. One tried his small pump, and when that didn't work, went home for a large pump. Turned out the problem was a leaky valve which he fixed, and then was off again on his large bike.

At the Inn in Gouda around 3 p.m., we once again locked all our bikes together like a giant molecule and climbed the floors to our rooms for a brief rest before meeting up to walk to the esteemed Gouda cathedral. We become very proficient at locking and unlocking our tangle of bikes and heading out unphased by rain or wind.

The town square in Gouda has very fashionable jewelry and lingerie shops, not the tacky souvenir shops you see elsewhere.

In the evenings, the 12 of us go to restaurants, and some work out better than others for our large number. In Gouda the Italian restaurant required a too long wait for our food for tired people. We translated our orders with my Holland Phrase Book, but unfortunately, Lorne ordered Italian Onion Soup when he wanted Italian Wedding Soup. Uien sounded like 'wedding' (union) not onion.

As usual, at the end of the meal, one bill comes for 12, and we spend a lot of time initialing each couple's meals, putting the amount on a post-it and attaching the post-it to a charge card. Then the pile of six post-ited charge cards is given to the server who comes back with each bill to sign.

Gouda is a pretty town with the largest "markt" square in Holland, dating from its success in the medieval cloth trade. In the middle of the square is a 1450 Gothic building fringed with statues.

Monday, with heavy winds, was the hardest day as we cycled from Gouda to Rotterdam, much of it along the dikes into the wind. We were happy to have a break as we crossed on the ferry, and stopped to visit inside a World Hills near the Heritage windmill site.We ate our lunch assembled earlier from a grocery store en route.

(Because our Gouda accommodation was a small family owned inn, we didn't scarf extra food at breakfast.) Rotterdam is filled with beautiful post World War II architecture along the harbour.

Today we wore our jackets. I think we're all amazed that we're actually living for almost a week out of two bike panniers.

Excellent dinner at Bazar, an Arabic restaurant we'd faxed our order to a few days earlier. Our order arrived perfectly, shortly after our 7 p.m.reservation. Decorated in ornate blue patterned tiles and heavy stained glass red and gold chandeliers, the large restaurant was almost full on a Monday night.

We leave Rotterdam earlier than usual in the morning, to have more museum time in The Hague, our next destination. On the way to The Hague we stop in the square at Delft where all that blue and white china comes from, and then on to The Hague in the drizzle.

Manny had said this wouldn't be as interesting a ride, but it still went past canals with water birds, horse farms and the usual cows.

Our group of Paula/Manny, Barb/Barry, Heather/Byron, Cathy/Marv, Pat/Rick and Lorne and me have meshed into a fine and thoughtful bunch. Lorne was the most wary at the beginning of the trip, and has been praised for his ability to stay near the front of the pack and manage well on the trip. Yesterday he gave Manny the highest praise possible: "I have no complaints," Lorne told him.

Once in Den Haag we asked about taking a city tour but were told that's only Thursdays. Population 500,000, The Hague is the second largest city in the Netherlands.

We walk in the rain through the historic downtown to the Escher Museum in a former palace.

Escher is that Dutch graphic artist who did those creepy detailed meticulous perspective drawings, which consumed his whole life. The short film in the museum had nothing on his personal life except his daily schedule - work, eat, rest. In a perspective distorted room, we had our photo taken showing Lorne tiny and Louise large.

Walking along the cobblestones near the palaces, we saw a black limo exiting where the security barrier had been withdrawn. A large group of school children ran after the car waving and shrieking as if for a rock star.We asked their leader, and she said it was the Dutch premier they were excited to see.

Wednesday the gang sang happy birthday to Lorne at breakfast, and then we followed a wooded bike path and then a bike trail up to a beach on the North Sea. There were German pillbox emplacements built into the cliffs from the occupation.

Stopping for tea, we once again encountered Dutch groups in cycling jerseys doing holiday biking.

Spent the afternoon and evening in the university city of Leiden, birthplace of Rembrandt and where botanist Clusius grew the first Dutch tulips 400 years ago. Once again a square, canals and markets. Couldn't resist the smell of Dutch waffle cookies (stroopwafel biscuits) with syrup spread between them, made fresh to order at a market booth.

Mothers and fathers outdoing the shopping, with a child in front on the bike, another behind, an older child on a small bike beside, and the purchases overflowing in the panniers.

Dinner was a massive Indonesian Rijstafels in the tiny, busy, Surakarta Restaurant, a 15 minute walk from our hotel. It is such a pleasure to be in all these Dutch cities and towns where a walk means broad cobblestone sidewalks beside the canals, sidewalk cafes, small shops and pedestrian streets closed to cars, and bikes and bike parking everywhere.

Thursday Back to Amsterdam, the forecast is heavy rain, but we manage to avoid it. Our humid ride through tree-lined roads, past flower fields, horse paddocks and waterways is enhanced by a tail wind all the way. The last few kilometres are through Vendelpark, and then we're back at Mac Bike once again.

We meet up one last time for dinner in Amsterdam, and this time we just split the bill six ways.