By Irene Middleman Thomas
Ron van Dijk, 58, speaks five languages and has lived in five countries. A fervent environmentalist, he has an M.A. in economics and began working — at age 16 — as a coleader for Euro-Bike Tours, the first U.S.-based operator to offer bicycle tours in Europe. Van Dijk said bicycles were poured into him “with the baby milk.” After all, “The Netherlands is a country where cycling is a way of life. Everyone practically cycles from the cradle to the grave!”
In his youth, van Dijk spent a year traveling solo through southern and eastern Europe, as well as several months on a bicycle in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
So it’s only natural that he’s been the European Operations Manager for Billings, Montana–based Austin Adventures since 2009, the year that Euro-Bike Tours was acquired by Austin.
We recently asked Ron about his 40+ year career as a bicycle enthusiast and tour operator. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Question: Where have you lived?
Answer: I was born in Ottawa, Canada, to Dutch parents. I’ve lived since 2000 in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, just five miles from the German border. My parents moved around, due to my dad’s career with IBM, so we also lived in the U.S., France, and Germany. I met my German wife, Elfriede, in Claremont, California, while earning a Masters in economics from Claremont Graduate University. I have dual Dutch and Canadian citizenship.
Q: Are you multilingual?
A: Yes, I am fluent in Dutch, English, German, French, and Italian.
Q: Why did you study economics?
A: I wish I would have studied history instead, because history is my real passion, but at the time I believed it would have limited my career to teaching in school (in retrospect, it would have been a perfect fit for my current job!) I chose economics also because since money makes the world go round, and the study of economics is, in a way, a study of society.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the bike tour business?
A: Really, when you look at it, not all that much has changed. It continues to be about great people enjoying beautiful routes by day and good food and accommodations by night. Okay, maybe the electric bike is a recent game changer, as this opens up more challenging destinations where you otherwise might not have gone, and adds at least 10 years to your cycling life.
Q: Which are your favorite countries to cycle in and why?
A: I like Holland and Denmark for their biking infrastructure and “easy-goingness,” while an added advantage for Americans is the fact that practically everyone can speak English quite fluently. France (especially the Dordogne region) is wonderful for its secondary road system, the food, and the many regions, which each have their own character. Austria’s scenery is spectacular.
Q: You are vital in the company for so much, from building great routes to hiring the best guides, but you still get out and guide trips now and then — pick four of your favorite trips to guide.
A: Denmark: It’s flat, it’s easy, lots of islands and pretty coastal scenery, and fantastic biking infrastructure. And let’s not forget the happy Danish population.
Belgium: Another flat and easy destination, also with great bike paths away from the traffic, picturesque canals, and the best beer in the world!
Burgundy: Beautifully kept vineyards, of course. Wonderful restaurants and superb wines. And some hills for those who are looking for a challenge here and there to whet their appetite.
Vienna to Prague: A perfect blend of history, culture, and nature. Be sure to add a few days before and after the trip to explore these great cities.
Q: Tell us about your favorite cuisines — you’ve been fortunate to experience many of them.
A: I love Italian food, and if I had to eat one cuisine for two weeks, that would be my choice. But if I only had to pick for one meal, it would be French.
Q: What is the number one thing you have enjoyed most and continue to look forward to each and every year?
A: That would have to be our guests, I find our travelers are absolutely fabulous and I just love sharing my passion for both cycling and travel. And of course I love to see people return year after year.
Q: What is your number one recommendation for families that want to take a European bike trip?
A: Families with smaller children like easy riding destinations with lots of bike paths for safe cycling, such as Holland and Germany’s Mosel Valley. For older children, I highly recommend multisport trips because teenagers love the variety of activities (hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, tandem paragliding). We’ve got some great ones in Austria and Croatia.
Q: Where do you see yourself and the industry going in the next 40 years?
A: Well, I hope to still be able to guide a few trips a year during the next 40 years! (I will be 98 and might need an electric bike myself.) Europe is just so well suited for cycling tours and has been for decades. Europeans have embraced cycling even more than they already did before. And let’s be honest, it is and always will be something special to ride into a small town on ancient streets that have been there for centuries and stop in a café for a cappuccino with the locals.
Q: After 40 years of guiding with some of the best cycling guides in the world, who would you pick to join you on any of these trips?
A: That is almost impossible to answer, because I like all our guides. During the last years I have really enjoyed guiding with my daughter Mirjam and my son Dennis. They remind me of my first 10 years guiding — such great energy and enthusiasm. Past that, I also plan to guide with two guides with whom I have spent half a lifetime: Désirée (since 1988) and Tom (since 1990).
Q: What are your personal goals?
A: My goals for the future continue to be showing our guests what Europe is all about — its history, culture, architecture, society, cuisine, etc. There is so much we can all still learn from each other and the best way to do this is to travel. In my humble opinion, travel is the best way to bring this world together. Prejudices continue to exist because of a lack of contact, communication, and knowledge with and about each other. This can be done through our existing destinations, and I will certainly not oppose adding new ones just to keep myself on my toes and learn more in the process.
Irene Middleman Thomas is an avid bicyclist since childhood whose last story for Adventure Cyclist was “Maine on Two Wheels” in the February 2015 issue. For more information about Thomas, visit irenethomas.com.