Sight-impaired cyclists tour Holland. On tandems with a sighted partner, the blind enjoy the outdoors

IN the dining room here at the Malle Jan Inn, the mood is festive, even triumphant, as Frank Behrendt calls for silence by rapping on a water glass with his knife. It is the final night in Holland for a group of Americans, their farewell dinner following a memorable cycling tour that has taken them through the sand dunes and bulb fields of North Holland, the farmlands of Friesland, the heather and hamlets of Drenthe, and finally through the forests and wild boar country of this Vierhouten region, not far from the summer retreat of the Dutch Royal family.

En route they have stopped for refreshments at fascinating country inns or caf'es, visited a centuries-old tile factory in Makkum, and found out how Dutch farm cheese is made.

They have cycled alongside countless canals, right through a herd of sheep on a country road, and paused to breathe deeply next to a field massed with rich-scented hyacinths. At times, horses have galloped by, and always the air was filled with bird song.

Now, finally it is time for Mr. Behrendt to sum up the tour and evaluate each participant. He does so by mixing serious comment with easy humor. He's done it a hundred times before. But this occasion is different: This is the first time his International Bicyling Tours company has organized a trip specifically for the blind.

It has proven an unqualified success and Behrendt's delight is obvious.

For a variety of reasons, this group - ranging from college age to retirees - has cycled further than usual on the five days of cycling (some 54 miles on this final day), and all have managed well. That minor inconvenience, the flat tire, has been limited to three in all; complaints have been fewer still. Best of all, the cyclists have ``seen'' Holland to a degree that the untutored sighted cyclists in the group found remarkable.

Cycling for the blind involves the use of tandems (bicycles made for two). A sighted ``captain'' sits up front, making all the traffic-related decisions, steering, and pedaling; his or her partner sits behind, playing the part of ``stoker,'' as current cycling terminology has it, pumping on the pedals and changing gears if the bicycle is so equipped.

Raised in Amsterdam, Behrendt lived in Turkey, Greece, Israel, and England before coming to the United States as a consultant in the printing and publishing industry. But his experience as a cyclist in all these countries and others saw him soon sought out for advice on cycle touring overseas.

With such requests for assistance becoming regular, Behrendt saw the possibilities and dropped his executive pin stripes for the less formal attire of a cycle-tour leader.

International Bicycle Tours was founded in 1976, initially operating exclusively in Holland, but now offering tours to most of Europe, Bermuda, the US, and soon to New Zealand.

This particular tour for the blind came about when Behrendt was introduced to Michael Conway, an avid blind cyclist and sky diver from West Hempstead, N.Y. With his wife, Marcia, up front, Mr. Conway hits the road on a tandem almost every day when the weather is good, and he was eager for an overseas cycling experience. There were many others like him, Conway insisted. Noting the young man's preference for sky diving, Behrendt doubted that was true, but went ahead with the tour anyway. Announcements in various publications for the blind brought an immediate response and the tour was filled within a matter of weeks.

Now recognizing the ease with which blind cyclists take to the road with a sighted captain up front, Behrendt doesn't see the need for special blind tours in future. ``I'll take a blind cyclist with a sighted partner on any of my tours,'' he says. The blind have a word for that sort of participation: they call it ``mainstreaming.''

On tours such as this, the sighted partner will describe the sights and answer questions in a sort of running commentary. For more than a decade now, Arline Huckins of Tucson, Ariz., has been doing this with considerable skill for Ross, her husband of 41 years. As he explains it: ``She sees out loud for me.''

A schoolteacher until she retired recently, Mrs. Huckins's professional training gives her an edge in this respect. But the blind can ``see'' all on their own as well. When the tour entered a narrow cycle path with tall trees on either side, Joan Carroll of Wilmington, Del., immediately picked up on this, describing it with remarkable accuracy. ``How do you know that?'' she was asked. ``Because I can hear them [the trees],'' she replied.

Not everyone is perhaps quite that sensitive, but all could feel the breeze on their faces, and hear the birds, the carrillons in the country churches, and the bleating of lambs.

The appetizing aroma of a Dutch pastry shop during a morning break was particularly appreciated. So was the smell of early season hay, of scented flowers - even that of a farm field newly spread with manure. So was the touch of a hundred things: from wooden shoes, the tools used in their manufacture, and the round ball of a maturing Gouda cheese, to the warm, soft, cuddly feeling of a lamb and the moist, nuzzling nose of a young calf.

Gloria Riston of Milwaukee echoed the feelings of all her compatriots when she praised the bicycle as an an ideal touring vehicle for those without sight.``Touring in a bus is boring,'' she says. ``You can't hear, or feel, or smell what's outside. Walking is very interesting but slow. On a bike we are in touch with everything, just like walking, but we have speed as well.''

For Behrendt, perhaps the most heartening comment of all came from Stan Smith of Wilmington, as he walked to the bus that would take them all to Schiphol, Holland, and the flight back home: ``Well we've seen a lot of good stuff this week,'' he said.

The statement came naturally to Smith, who had never previously left the US. A long time ago he learned that seeing is comprehending what is going on all around.

For more information, contact International Bicycle Tours, 12 Mid Place, Chappaqua, NY 10514.

View from the back seat

Tom Dimeo, a computer programmer from Harrisburg, Pa., had always reveled in the freedom and mobility his bicycle gave him as a youth. Later, as a blind adult, he often thought back wistfully to those bike-riding days, believing they were gone for good.

About 10 years ago, it occurred to him that perhaps his cycling days were not over. If he could get someone to do the seeing for him he could cycle again on the back of a tandem. Since then he has cycled regularly, once riding 212 miles in two days across Ohio. Most recently he cycled through several northern provinces of Holland on his first trip abroad.

What Mr. Dimeo did, others in his position might also do if they wish to get the enjoyment from touring that is impossible inside a bus, he says. First, he ``shopped around'' for cycle clubs in his area, then advertised in club bulletins for anyone who might be interested in tandem cycling with a blind person. ``I got quite a few responses,'' he says, and he has been cycling ever since.

Karren Vetter of Rochester, N.Y., who was in Holland on the same tour, also rediscovered the satisfaction of cycling ``on the back of a friend's tandem.'' She recommends inquiring at local cycling clubs or perhaps hiring a tandem and riding with a friend.

``Right now I'm in the market for a tandem, if I can get a good deal on a used one,'' Ms. Vetter says. But, she cautions, ``don't rush out and buy one until you've found out if tandeming is for you.''

Once you find you can ride a tandem, both Dimeo and Vetter agree, there's nothing like cycling ``for getting in touch with the environment.'' Start slowly, with short two- to five-mile rides before going on to longer journeys, they advise, and agree that an exercise bicycle, though intensely boring compared with the real thing, is a great way to ``stay in shape during the winter.''

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