Two-Wheeled Reaches of the Netherlands

Friesland Netherlands

I’m up north in the unbounded Netherlands. Cycling beyond the old fishing village of Harlingen, way out on the western tip of the province of Friesland, where the great Dutch ice-skaters live. Where action is virtue.

Down at the dock in Harlingen, the departure point for ferries to the nearby Friesland islands, I fuel up on fresh raw herring and onions, the lox and bagels of the Netherlands.

I’m not alone. This northwest corner of Holland, with its mind-blowing Wadden Sea, is a feeding frenzy for upwards of 12 million migratory birds. It’s the largest coastal tidal wetland in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Biking through Friesland

But it’s the inland canals of Friesland that interest me today.

On a bicycle it’s possible to follow the route of the infamous Elfstedentocht, the 120-mile ice-skating marathon along frozen canals, lakes and ice-filled ditches through eleven Old World, burningly romantic Friesland towns, including Harlingen.

But I’m not going the distance of the Elfstedentocht.

My destination is the town of Hindeloopen, only about 20 miles away. I’ll pass through the coastal towns of Makkum and Workum, which like Hindeloopen had their heydays in the 14th century. Now they offer the pleasure of discovery, not memory.

Biking through Friesland 3

“You must visit these towns,” said Jelle Dijkstra, a bicycle shop owner in Harlingen. “They are like living museums, even to us Dutch.”

Jelle tells me where to leave the rented bike if I arrive back late, after the shop is closed.

I wish I were riding my Canadian ice skates. But the canals don’t freeze every winter. The last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997, when more than 600,000 spectators watched an elite group of lead skaters followed by some 16,000 tireless wannabes.

The race starts in the darkness of early morning on the canals of Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, and ends where it starts. The front-running skaters finish around 1 p.m., a heart-wrenching performance.

To receive the Elfstedentocht Cross, a skater must finish before midnight and show the stamps collected from all 11 towns.

It’s no walk in the park. There’s a frostbitten amputated toe in a jar of formaldehyde at the skating museum in Hindeloopen.

But now I am on a strong Dutch bicycle on a china-blue day, and this flat country, with its domelike sky and ancient towns wrapped around canals, is perfect for cycling. It’s as good as it gets.

Paved bike paths (some 25,000 miles in all) marked by red-and-white signs take you just about everywhere in the Netherlands. And everywhere you’ll find English speakers if you need directions. The Elfstedentocht bike route is well signed.

From Harlingen, the route south slaloms across sheep-grazing pastures, green grassy dykes and to-die-for villages dominated by churches with high steeples and pitched roofs.

The light is pure as crystal and there’s a rainbow in the distance. At times it feels like I’m riding through Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, pedaling right through the canvasses of Jan van Goyen, Cornelis Springer and Jacob Van Ruijsdaal.

Biking through Friesland 5

A stop in Makkum makes for a fine stroll while stretching cycling legs. The central core of canals is lined with 16th- and 18th-century buildings. And if you can’t bear to leave, there’s a nice selection of moderate hotels and restaurants.

But the Elfstedentocht town of Workum is just a 30-minute ride away. The cycle path leads to Workum’s wonderful market street, past storybook facades, the 16th century church that still isn’t quite finished, and the Jopie Huisman Museum, the most visited museum in Friesland.

Huisman was a local junk collector and artist. His art mostly depicts working-class life. A pair of red-laced worn boots is among his best-known paintings.

But the crown jewel of these old seafaring towns is Hindeloopen, another half-hour ride away. The village has its own dialect, costume and style of painting. The place is a mix of here-we-go-again and never seen this before, choked full with wooden bridges over small canals lined with colorful houses.

And in the skating museum is that frozen toe.

It’s been a lulu of a ride here from Harlingen. And as I turn to head back, I find out why. The northeast wind had done most of the heavy lifting. Now I’m heading straight into it, lucky if I beat the night.

But up in Harlingen, I know where to leave the bike if the shop is closed.

Bikiring through Friesland 6

Photos by Gerry Wingenbach

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