Belgium's varied terrain and culture lure cyclists

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NEW YORK -- Belgium's varied terrain, from flat Flanders to hilly Ardennes, makes the country attractive to cyclists at all levels, according to biking specialists and their clients.

The cultural contrast between the two parts of Belgium -- the predominantly Flemish Flanders and French Ardennes -- also makes it an interesting ride, said Jerry Soverinsky, owner and director of CBT Tours in Chicago.

"[Cycling] is the best way to see a country intimately while covering an appreciable distance," Soverinsky said. CBT Tours' 12-night Amsterdam-to-Brussels package travels between 32 and 42 miles per day, spending nights in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels in Flanders and Namur and Han-sur-Lesse in the Ardennes.

CBT Tours has been visiting Belgium since the company was formed in 1989.

Blue Marble Travel, launched 14 years ago in Morristown, N.J., added a seven-night itinerary that visits Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany this year. The operator tested Belgium last summer with a "mystery tour," in which a group of 24 clients didn't know where in Europe they were headed when they booked.

Tour members were given their itineraries and told their destination after they had boarded a train in Paris, said Laura Malone, president of Blue Marble.

The mix of Belgium and biking was a hit with mystery tour travelers like Olivia Baumann, a 41-year-old consultant for a capital markets consulting company. "[Belgium] offered a very diverse type of cycling," Baumann said, recalling the long days of flat stretches and the short and occasionally long days of steep hills.

"The food was diverse and wonderful," she added. "After a long, hot day of biking, the meal is what makes you forget your pain."

Rich Bankowitz, a 43-year-old doctor from Chicago, was also a participant in Blue Marble's test run.

For Bankowitz, what stood out most about riding through Belgium was "the beauty and variety of the cities."

"The ride into Spa was one of the most spectacular I have done," he said, referring to the city of Roman baths from which the word "spa" originated.

Anthony Bellezza, a 28-year-old graduate student from New Orleans, said, "The ride was extremely varied -- ranging from some of the easiest days I've had on a bike, [such as in] the lowland coastal region, leaving Bruges, to some of the most challenging rides, [like those] into Boullion and Spa.

"Luckily, the easy days came first," he said.

Bellezza added that the days spent in Boullion, Spa, Bruges and Maastricht were highlights of the trip. "Boullion and Bruges especially were beautiful, and [they were places] that I doubt that I would have stumbled upon on my own.

"Biking along the shaded canals leaving Bruges with seemingly every other citizen in the area was pretty cool," Bellezza said.

For some of the Blue Marble repeat clients who participated in the mystery bike tour, a particularly welcome departure from other destinations was "the emphasis on quality regional beers as opposed to quality wines that one might find when traveling through France, Italy or Austria," Bellezza said.

"Since the gastronomic experience is a big part of why I go on these trips in the first place, and I brew beer myself at home, that twist was an interesting one," he added.

Dick Pagnozzi, a 53-year-old actuary from Glastonbury, Conn., who said he has been traveling with Blue Marble for about 12 years, said the operator's "normal trip is a wine lover's delight -- but Belgium is beer country, and we did our best to try them all. I lost count after around 100 different local brews."

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