The bicycle paths of Holland stretch for a thousand kilometers to every corner of this green, beautiful, and very productive land. The fact that the Dutch countryside is flat, yet infinitely varied, makes it a biker's dream. That its soils are so rich and its people so skilled in horticulture makes it a gardener's dream as well.
For several years, International Bicycle Tours, based in Chappaqua, N.Y., has operated tours for Americans wishing to cycle through this land. Now, with the Dutch flair for growing things in mind and the marked increase in gardening as a hobby in the US, the company has included three tours for bicycling gardeners: the tulip tour (April 16-29) and two garden tours (May 21-June 3 and June 4-17).
Accompanying each of these leisurely cycle tours is a Dutch horticulturist, skilled in both his craft and the English language, to explain just why the bulbs are grown the way they are, how the reeds are planted to prevent soil erosion, and what it is that makes Brussels sprouts grow so large and tasty in the muck soils of the polder lands.
Obviously, the tours include conventional sightseeing, entertainment, restaurants, etc., but gardening and meeting with Dutch gardeners is the foundation on which the trip is built.
The tulip tours will concentrate on the Dutch bulb industry, cycling through farm fields that are a breathtaking patchwork of spring color. The cyclists will go into the fields themselves and listen firsthand to a grower explain his craft. In the villages, homeowners will invite you in to see the ornamentals in the front of the house and the vegetable plot in the back.
There will be visits, too, to conventional farms and small cheesemaking operations; to fishing villages on the Ijselmeer and towns whose architecture remains firmly rooted in the medieval past.
The later garden tours will pay somewhat less attention to bulbs and more to the dune country, where continuous planting of reeds has brought a halt to the ravages of the wind and sea, and the heather-covered moors of Drente along with trips to farms and private homes.
Frank Behrendt is the expatriate Dutchman and Chappaqua, NY resident who organizes the tours. As he explains it, a typical day starts with a hearty Dutch breakfast of fresh rolls, sweet butter, jam, cheese, juice, and hot beverage, after which the cyclists mount their bikes and ride off into the countryside.
''We follow a leisurely course and always have time to enjoy serendipitous pleasures. If the day is warm and beautiful we will stop beneath the trees for a regal spread of Gouda (cheese), crusty bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables. If we are wheeling through a tiny village known for its delicious pannekoeken (Dutch pancakes), we will happily indulge.
''By five each evening, we reach our next hotel, shower, change, and are ready for a sumptuous feast which might be a rijsttafel (a smorgasboard of Indonesian, Japanese, and Chinese delicacies).''
All of the Behrendt tours end in this exqusite woodland region of Vierhouten and its near neighbors of Nusnpeet, Elspeet, and Tongeren, to name a few. Wild boar still forage in the surrounding woodlands at night while by day a hare might dart across the cycle path in front of you.
Clusters of pink mushrooms push up through the forest litter and ferns abound everywhere. It is an area of peace and tranquility, good food, and the occasional sound of klompen (wooden shoes) on cobblestones. A great place, indeed, to conclude any trip to the Netherlands.
Obviously one must know how to ride a bicycle to take one of these tours, and it would pay to get some riding experience in one's hometown before leaving. But there is no need to train like an athlete for the going is easy paced throughout.
Having not cycled any distance for some while, I had no difficulty taking in the final day of a recent cycle tour here, with one exception: I was very conscious of the saddle beneath me by day's end. Getting used to the saddle, then, more than conditioning leg muscles is the most important preparation for a planned bike trip.
For more details write: Garden, International Bicycle Tours, 12 Mid Place, Chappaqua, N.Y. 10514.