Brochure, tour operators provide options for bike-tour clients

NEW YORK -- How often does someone come into your office asking about a biking tour in Belgium? Probably not too often. But the right client will discover a country that has its own special love affair with the bike and is not overrun by tourists, which makes this type of touring such a natural extension of the Belgian travel experience.

"Biking is a custom, a tradition in our country," said Annette Choynacki, deputy director of the Belgian Tourist Office here. "[In Belgium] people bike to school, they bike to work, and as professional bikers know, we produce the best racing bicycles in the world. The country is very, very bike-friendly."

Biking along a Belgian canal. That friendliness is reflected in the well-planned infrastructure of bike paths around the country. These routes take riders along the country's scenic canals and offer connections between towns and sites of interest to tourists, such as the country's various castles and -- if the biker works up an appetite -- cafes and restaurants. And because biking is so ingrained in Belgium's culture, Choynacki said automobile drivers are much more careful around cyclists, which makes touring on roads a much safer experience as well.

To promote the appeal of biking in Belgium to Americans, the Belgian Tourist Office for the last two years has produced a "Belgium for Biking" brochure. The brochure describes sample itineraries and various packages and options available to the prospective bike-tour candidate.

Travelers to Belgium can go castle-hopping. Choynacki makes it clear that one doesn't have to be in great shape to consider such a trip. "About half the country is very flat, so you don't have to be a pro," she said. In that half of the country -- Flanders -- the tourist office details a variety of itineraries ranging from a 30-mile tour around Bruges to a 450-mile journey through the countryside and villages, which avoids the major city centers.

For the more serious and physically fit biker, there is the Ardennes region to the south, which Choynacki described as being similar to Vermont in its terrain.

The one sample itinerary provided in the brochure is a 194-mile tour that highlights some of Belgium's historic attractions.

Choynacki also noted that all the train stations in Belgium rent bikes, which makes it easy for the independent traveler to simply explore an area by bike then hop over to the next town or city and rent another one.

But for a more formal bike travel experience, the tourist office recommends two different tour operators, Bellevue, Wash.-based Europe Express/Uniquely Europe and Chicago-based CBT Tours, both of which work with travel agents and offer commissions starting at 10%.

CBT specializes in adventure travel in western Europe and has been offering bike tours to Belgium for the past 10 years. CBT offers both group and FIT itineraries, but firm director Jerry Soverinsky said his group trips -- one in conjunction with Holland and the other to Belgium only -- are more popular. These packages start at $140 per day and are customized to the needs of the group.

Soverinsky likes Belgium as a biking destination for many reasons. "From a traveling standpoint, it is a country of contrasts and diversity, both in its culture and its scenery," Soverinsky said. "In the north you have

the Flemish culture and its flat countryside, and in the south you have the French

influence and beautiful hilly terrain."

Soverinsky also noted that Belgium is not crowded with tourists, and because biking is so popular in the country, there is a great support system in place for bikers. When asked to describe a typical CBT Tours client, Soverinsky said, "We get people of all ages and abilities. A typical client is willing to bike at least 10 to 15 miles a day."

While biking may be roughing it when compared with riding in a motorcoach, clients do have the services of a support van to transport their luggage between hotels, which also rides back and forth along the bike route during the day to offer any assistance as needed.

Uniquely Europe, a division of Europe Express, offers customized bike packages as well as a six-night Flanders Fields self-guided itinerary priced at $784 per person, double, land only and $987, single. The package includes use of an 18-speed bike, luggage transfers between hotels, accommodations at three- and four-star properties, and breakfast and dinner daily.

But offering a package does not mean clients are going to walk in and request them. "This is something the agent has to promote," said Kim Bartell, a supervisor at Uniquely Europe. "[Clients] might come in saying, 'I'm looking for something different. I'm athletic and I want to do something I haven't done before.' It's up to the agent to say, 'Hey, what about a bike trip?' The typical client I'm seeing is someone between 40 and 60, usually professionals like lawyers and doctors," Bartell added.

As for the physical demands of such a tour, she noted the appeal of the country for bikers of all fitness levels. "Belgium is very easy, it is very flat and is really charming. You bike through beautiful scenery and quaint villages; it's a special kind of trip."

And what happens when the weather is bad? "If it's just a sprinkling, they are expected to do their thing," said Bartell. "But if it's pouring, they have to contact the supplier and he will take them on to the next stop."

A path to building a biker clientele

Where might you find clients for a bike tour of Belgium? Other than swaying a client that walks in your door, you might try contacting your local bike club. The League of American Bicyclists -- founded in 1880 and currently boasting more than 35,000 individuals and 450 recreational club members -- produces the "Almanac of Bicycling," which is a good place to start. The almanac lists all affiliated bike clubs and organizations in the country by location.

Brewster Thackeray, editor of the organization's Bicycle USA magazine and director of communications, said, "Another easy way to find out what bike clubs might be nearby is to do a Web search. Just type in the name of your town and then 'bicycle' and it should pull up the area clubs."

For a copy of the "Almanac of Bicycling," send a $15 check or money order to: League of American Bicyclists, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 401, Washington, D.C. 20006, Phone: (202) 822-1333, Fax: (202) 822-1334, E-mail: [email protected], Web: www.bikeleague.org

Belgian Tourist Office, Phone: (212) 758-8130, Fax: (212) 355-7675, E-mail: [email protected] .com, Web: www.visitbelgium.com

CBT Tours, Phone: (800) 736-2453, Fax: (773) 404-1833, Web: www.cbttours.com

Europe Express/Uniquely Europe, Phone: (800) 927-3876, Fax: (800) 370-0509, Web: www.europeexpress .com

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