Flanders cycle tour day 3 – Bicycle Paradise.  Geleen, Maasmechelen, Hoge Kempen National Park, Genk and Hassalt.

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This gallery contains 17 photos.

I keep wanting to write that that this trip was a “Tour of Flanders”. However the cycling traditionalist part of my brain keeps telling me that the name Tour of Flanders is reserved for Ronde Van Vlaanderen the great one … Continue reading

Day 2 of our Round Flanders Cycle Tour: “A tale of two Limburgs – Belgian and Dutch” From St Truiden to Tongeren then across the border to Maastricht and Geleen.

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This gallery contains 21 photos.

Today’s route was multinational. We started aiming to cycle round Flanders but it was impossible to cycle past the famous Dutch city of Maastricht without paying a visit and after that some minor navigation errors saw us spend the afternoon … Continue reading

Cycle touring East Flanders – Discovering Leuven, Hoegarden and St Truiden

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This gallery contains 22 photos.

This was our first day riding together, very much finding out the pace and rhythm that would suit us both. It was also a really good taste of the Flanders Cycle Route because we were treated to a wide variety … Continue reading

Ingredients for our perfect cycle tour on the Flanders Cycle Route.

Belgium Flanders cycle touring

My Dad and I have just returned from three days really excellent cycle touring in East Flanders and its borders with the Netherlands. Before writing up a typical travelogue I was musing on what made it particularly successful.

We have both done a lot of touring over the years and we had a very clear idea of what we didn’t want. We didn’t want the sort of trip where the cycling gets in the way of the touring. Or more probably the cyclists got in the way of the touring, the sort of trip popular with cycle tourists who have a very fixed view of what constitutes a day’s cycling.  I have of course done these rides, and enjoyed them enormously, especially afterwards. The trip where there is a consensus that we are going to sixty miles a day come hell or high water. Or where the organiser has booked hotels exactly xx miles apart in a straight line and we are just going to have to get there, even if we arrive in the dark when the chef went home hours ago. Other symptoms include arriving at a place of beauty and riding straight past because we are behind schedule, or probably worst of all discovering a set menu of exquisite local food for just €15 and going in the café next door because we can see the bikes from there.

Legends are born on trips like that. But that isn’t what we wanted.

We wanted the other sort of cycle tour, where the cycling is a means of exploration and an excuse to spend a few days just chatting and putting the world to rights. And for various reasons we both needed something that was entirely relaxing. As we haven’t actually toured together overnight for many years we also had to work out something that made sure we were on the same wavelength too.

So we compared notes on some important ingredients and then discovered that East Flanders was absolutely perfect recipe for our needs. This was only a relatively short trip, others may indeed set off to cycle round the whole of Flanders, of Europe or indeed the world. But for us it was just right. If the Mayne rules ever help you design a future tour then please feel free to steal them.

1. If the plans get in the way of the enjoyment, ditch the plan.

2. It’s not about the cycling, it’s about the trip. Stop lots. Especially in the proximity of a café. (see 7)

cycle touring in Belgium

3. Don’t go anywhere.

Yes seriously. A few days before we were due to set off I was beginning to worry about where we should go. Maybe the Ardennes, maybe a Eurovelo route? Somewhere by train, car or bike? We need to get out and see some more of Belgium don’t we?

And then a booklet for the circular Flanders Cycle Route which meanders some 800km through the five Flanders provinces sort of fell off a shelf into my hand and I made two important discoveries. Firstly that it passed just 10km from my house and secondly that I hadn’t actually ridden any of the areas in that Easterly direction. So I thought “why bother doing anything else?” It is mapped, signposted and starts on the doorstep. Wherever we end up we can get a train back. Let’s just give it a try.

Flanders cycle route sign Photo Kevin Mayne

4. Distances are to be measured at the end of the day, not set at the start.

This was a particularly successful strategy. I had predicted roughly where we would end up each night based on the straight line distances between some of the towns but we discovered that the winding route added a considerable distance on each stretch so my predictions were way out. But because we had neither planned nor booked anything it really didn’t cause any stress at all.

The wonderful Knooppunt navigation points* help with that too because at each junction you are pointed to the next Knooppunt but no distances are given. So you just potter on to the next number, and then choose a new one depending on how you feel.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

5. If one person is a stronger cyclist than the other – they take most of the luggage and a heavy bike.

Touring bikes for Flanders tour

No equality required. (How many times is it that I see groups of cycle tourists where the person struggling is always overladen and on a heavy or unsuitable bike? Does nobody see how wrong that is?)

6. Ride anything.

Looking back it is actually quite hard to work out a type of road or cycle path we didn’t find en-route. If at any point one of us was a bit bored by the flat or terrorised by the cobbles we found that five minutes later it would change. So there really was no point even commenting. (Much)

Narrow concrete tracks across farm land and rolling orchards were quite common and delightfully quiet. We followed dirt tracks surrounded by trees and wonderful purple heather.Flanders cycling photo Kevin Mayne Off road cycle route cycling Flanders

Urban cobbles, floral bridges and giant canals with the smoothest, widest cycle paths imaginable.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

Flanders cycle routes

Even a motorway bridge at one point. You have got to love the Dutch, they do build bike paths on an industrial scale!

Cycle route motorway bridge

7. It is always worth ten minutes more at the café.

When one person really wants to go and look at the bravest of the Gauls, the Belgae warrior Amborix whose statue was rather too like comic book hero Asterix to be taken seriously then the other person is equally free to take a second coffee.

Cycling in Flanders

And conveniently on this trip every time we took a bit longer it started to rain, but in this year’s Belgian summer it was soon gone again soon. We rode on a lot of wet roads, but only in a bit of drizzle in the whole 3 days. Very, very lucky.

Geoff Mayne by Kevin Mayne

And finally item 8.

Go home while you are still having fun.

Cycling in Flanders Kevin Mayne

When we set out we didn’t actually decide whether we were going for two days or three. The weather was probably going to be the defining factor, but we both knew that we had to work out whether we were going to enjoy each other’s riding style and the route.

At the lunch stop in Maastricht a conversation took place that roughly said “when are we going to get the chance to do something as good as this again?” and the matter was very quickly decided in favour of the extra day. Unanimously.

*Knooppunt are a system of nodes or junctions on a network of recommended cycle touring roads, paths or route sections.

They are all numbered and you plan your route by selecting a sequence of numbers that you want to connect on a map, on-line or on a GPS unit. The excellent signposting takes care of the rest as each road or trail junction has a signpost pointing to the relevant numbers. They started in the Netherlands, now cover Flanders and are gradually beginning to appear in specific areas of Germany and Wallonia.

Where we went the Dutch and Flemish signs linked up over the border – so useful.

Some more information here.

 

“It’s the end of the world as we know it. (And I feel fine.)” A special last ride in New Zealand. Thanks to everyone that made the cycling on this trip possible.

Bluff Point sign

So this was the final day of my six weeks in Australia and New Zealand. It has taken me almost that long again to write it all up, but the last day’s ride was so good it feels vivid and fresh right now.

It was not only a symbolic end, I physically reached the end of New Zealand’s South Island, spending my last morning riding on Bluff Hill, a rocky dome of a hill that rises 265 m (870ft) straight from sea level at the very southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It has 360 degree panoramic views along the coast, inland towards Invercargill and even to the mountains far beyond. The Maori name for the hill is Motupõhue which means “island of põhue flowers”, because from the sea it appeared to be an island rising before the rest of the land could be seen. Despite its remote location Bluff has a claim to be the longest permanently settled European town in New Zealand, the first trader and farmer bought land off the Maori here in 1824. Today it is still an active port although many Kiwis will be much more interested in the seasonal Bluff Oysters, considered the finest of delicacies and craved by exiles.

I knew about Bluff Hill from my previous trips to Invercargill. Everywhere has a hill like this. The one you have to go and try when you think you have become a cyclist. The local cyclists talk about it in that tone that tells you it is a place of legend. When you are even part way up your legs are burning and you are frantically looking for a lower gear that you don’t have any more. Bluff Hill’s reputation is enhanced because the Tour of Southland, New Zealand’s toughest bike stage race regularly finishes at the top.

Flagstaff Road Bluff New Zealand

However I had never actually cycled there on my previous trips, mainly because it is 25 km south of Invercargill and the access is an open stretch of main road that I had never fancied riding. However this time I was updating my knowledge about what was going on locally when I saw a link to Bluff Hill trails on the Southland MTB Club web site.

Within moments I knew that this was a “must do”. A bucket list item almost. To know I had ridden on what is possibly the most southerly set of planned and maintained mountain bike trails in the world? To ride up above the countryside and sea and take in the landscape at this unique place. To know I could spend an hour or more playing on good mountain bike trails rather than just head-banging down a main road. You bet I was going to try and go there.

I hadn’t really planned on it being the last day but that is the way that time escapes on a short visit. So to maximise family time and get in my special ride I compromised and got up at 6am to drive my in-laws’ car out to the foot of the hill, ready to ride at first light.

Bluff Hill Flagstaff Road in the dark New ZealandThat part of the plan went perfectly. Too perfectly. I arrived just as there was a glimmer of dawn on the far horizon, but I couldn’t actually see a yard in front of my face at the trailhead so any prospect of riding up the hill off-road had to wait.

Instead I took the route of most pain and climbed the almost straight road to the top of the hill. It is 22% at the steepest point and an average of 11% so I certainly needed the mountain bike gears, doing that without any sort of warm up at 7.30 am in the morning would have had me walking for sure on a road bike.

But then my timing turned out to be absolutely perfect. As the light crept in under the clouds the landscape changed magically, second by second. Each time I lifted my head deep blues turned to pinkish hues behind me and the road surface became more visible.

Bluff Hill view New Zealand

Buff Hill sunrise New Zealand

Dawn from Bluff Hill mountain bike tracks New Zealand

As I got to the top a soft yellow glow was driving away the shadows right across the landscape.

Bluff Hill Sunrise over south coast of New Zealand

Way in the north Invercargill was visible a series of light spots on the flat plain.

Lights at dawn Invercargill from Bluff Hill New Zealand

I was also blessed by the weather. The start of winter and I was wearing a light cycling top and shorts in almost windless conditions, an incredible stroke of luck for the views and the riding. Despite it being winter clumps of hardy gorse were in bloom, the yellow flowers seemingly sucking up the rays and glowing against the grey-green backdrop.

Gorse flowers on Bluff Hill New Zealand

I don’t know how long I hung around at the top taking in the rising sun and the changing views but I had to pinch myself to remember I was there to ride as well.

Bluff Hill viewing point at dawn

I looked momentarily at the entrance point to the “Downhill route” which descends a terrifying straight line and is graded “Black” or “expert”, but knowing that it was not for me I dropped down the shallower side of the hill and played for an hour on the intermediate trail network. It weaved its way up, down and around the hillside, offering me a good variety of riding. But what made this set of trails special today was that every corner offered a different sea view, and when I was sure I had gone round a section more than once it didn’t really matter because the effect of the sunrise was to make it feel subtly different each time.

Bluff Hill Mountain Bike Trails New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike tracks New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike track with sea view New Zealand

All the time in my head I was revelling in where I actually was, at the far end of the world and at the end of my holiday. Throughout the ride a song played in on permanent repeat in my head. REM’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it” was the song of the day. Inevitably? Maybe, in the odd way my mind works.

Then time was up and I let the bike flow its way down the lumps and bumps in the track to the parking where mine was still the only car, another joy of riding on a winter dawn. It was indeed the end of the trip, and fate intervened to tell me so in no uncertain terms. As I freewheeled into the car park there was a horrible rending noise, all pedalling ceased and I looked down to discover a very distressed gear mechanism in quite the wrong position. My last seconds, my last ride and my only mechanical failure of the whole trip.

Time to go home, but what a way to finish.

My huge thanks to everyone who made the cycling on this trip possible. The mountain bike trail builders of New Zealand and the local authorities building bike paths all over Australia and New Zealand. The friends, family and commercial companies that made it possible to beg, borrow and hire eight different bikes in six weeks. Jason I am really sorry about the last day mishap on your nice mountain bike – I hope you have it fixed now.

Last and by no means least the family, friends and hosts who indulged me once again while I went off at all times of the day to get my cycling fix. I had come to see you all, of course, but a bit of pedalling made me a nicer human being – trust me. As my favourite travelling companion knows best of all.

If you cannot see a link to the REM song here in the email version of the post click “View in Browser” for a working link.

A morning’s cycling in Invercargill, New Zealand. Not despairing in the deep, deep South

After two days in Invercargill I was getting quite desperate for a bike ride. Then my first ride delivered a special day that brought back old memories and created some new ones, combining favourite Idonotdespair riding elements in to one package. At the extreme end of the developed world I found dawn riding, waterside cycling, exploration, stunning scenery, almost car free and some playtime. It may have been a bit grey and overcast, but what more is there in a cycling morning?

My big problem for the first two days wasn’t only that I needed my regular fix of pedalling, but because I was seeing so many people out riding in bright winter sunshine I was just plain jealous. That surprised me, from previous trips I know there is an active club cycling scene here but I had no recollection of regular leisure cycling on a day to day basis.Cycling Waihopai river path Invercargill

I was out for a walk each day when I found that the Waihopai riverside path near my in-laws’ house is now regular spot for many people having a late afternoon spin. This included lots of people out riding with their dogs which made me even more jealous, my furry riding companion was 12,000 miles away.

Bike ride with dog Invercargill Cycling with dog Invercargill

Complementing this nearly all the big wide roads seem to have gained a cycle lane and those were in use too. Enforced 50kmph speed limits and no cycling fatalities since 2008. Why wouldn’t you cycle? Even in winter. Good news indeed.

Cycling in Invercargill

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to lay my hands on a bike. Invercargill being the close-knit community that it is the word was soon out and a nice guy called Jason loaned me his very tidy Merida mountain bike so I could sample the mountain bike tracks that were beckoning me.

Invercargill winter sunrise Winter rainbow over Invercargill

The first thing that delivered was the dawn sky with a lovely sunrise and rainbows. I then picked up the riverbank path which let me completely bypass all the city roads and took me quickly to the open banks of the estuary and spectacular views of the Southern Alps in the far, far distance.

New River Estuary Invercargill New Zealand Southern Alps from the Oreti River Invercargill

My destination was Sandy Point, a 5km long sandy headland across the mouth of the Waihopai and Oreti Rivers. It is a long, low lying area that was originally just sand dunes, forest and open heathland. Today it is Invercargill’s playground with about 20 sports fields and most importantly for me it has the Sandy Point Mountain Bike area, a fun section of twisty trails cut into the forest that were going to make my playground for the morning.

It was almost an hour’s ride each way to the MTB area but I loved every pedal stroke because I was treated to water views, wild birds and plenty of wide safe cycle lanes.

Oreti Cycle Way Invercargill

By contrast when I got into the woods for my mountain biking it was a dark maze of interconnected paths, up, down and around every lump, bump and hillock in the area. I know many of my readers are daily cyclists and cycle tourists who may wonder about the attraction of this stuff mountain bikers call “singletrack”.

Sandy Point Mountain Bike Area Invercargill

When I started mountain biking it was really just a sort of cycle touring but across hills and forest tracks instead of roads. Only when my skills improved did I learn to throw myself in and out of the trees slalom style, making me smile as the bike dips and roll with the terrain. Being low-lying and sandy this site didn’t offer the volunteers who built the trails an opportunity to do anything rocky or terrifying which suited me perfectly, this was “just for fun”. Once again my thanks to the local volunteers, this time Southland MTB club who have been working on trails on Sandy Point for over 20 years.

Sandy Point Trail map

I guess I played for about an hour without exhausting the trail network, but I was beginning to tire with the constant changes in direction and gradient. So I decided to finish my Sandy Point ride with the icing on the cake. This place is already unique because it is one of the most southerly mountain bike trails in the world. But it has another wonderful feature that makes it stand apart.

Oreti Beach sign Invercargill

Oreti Beach.

On the seaward side of Sandy Point is a spectacular open beach that runs for kilometre after kilometre around the huge bay between Invercargill and the coastal town of Riverton, some 40 kilometres away to the west. Out to sea is Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third island which makes a stunning backdrop to the beach and the waves of the Southern Ocean. I don’t know how I can give the sense of space that I get on Oreti Beach, winter or summer. I guess there is something in my head that tells me that this is no ordinary sea, there is almost nothing out there beyond Stewart Island but one of the greatest and most feared expanses of water on the planet, the wild Southern Ocean.

Oreti Beach in winter Invercargill

The fine sand is packed hard by the wind and tide which means not only is it beautifully flat but it is firm enough to take the weight of bicycles, motorcycles and indeed cars. It is an Invercargill institution to drive out in the summer for days on the beach but I have never seen it look busy because the area is just huge. In the middle of winter it was completely deserted, I had it entirely to myself. If I had the time I could have ridden for hours.

Some readers may also have seen Oreti Beach before. If you are a film fan you may recall a 2005 film called “The World’s Fastest Indian” where Anthony Hopkins played an eccentric Kiwi from Invercargill called Bert Munro who broke world records on his Indian Scout motorcycle. Oreti Beach plays a key role in the movie because it is here that Bert comes to test the speed of his bike and gets into a race with some local youths. Bert did test his bikes here and parts of the film were made locally.

Or, for my British readers who are also members of CTC, the cyclists’ charity. Open your copy of the CTC magazine this month to page 76, the members’ page. Down on the bottom right you will see a nice photo of a cyclist riding on a sunny beach that appears regularly on this page.

I’ll give you a better view of an original.from the same day.

Oreti Beach - Invercargill - New Zealand

My son, Ben, riding on Oreti Beach on our last trip in 2005. I gave the picture to the CTC editor to use some years ago, I am pleased he likes it too because he has thousands of pictures to choose from. I just wish more people knew the wonderful spot where the picture was taken.

On this trip it was just me, a bike and the memories, some old, some newly minted. What a great place to ride a bike. Not despairing in Invercargill.