I promised myself at least one long touring ride over the Christmas break and yesterday was “the day”. It didn’t start out with a blog post in mind, but it turned into an interesting taste of Belgium’s long distance cycling networks so I thought I would share.
The three networks on this ride were:
- Grande Randonnée – national network of long distance walking routes
- Ravel – railway paths and canal cycleway network of Wallonia
- Vlaanderen Fietsroute – the signposted “Round Flanders” cycle route
This “three routes” ride was an accidental discovery because this ride had some special seasonal criteria. The first was to be relatively safe in icy conditions. I wanted to get out early but the mornings have had deep frosts, so that suggested an offroad ride. Also safety suggested that I stay away from roads being used by morning commuters, it was forecast to be misty and it is only the first week back to work for most drivers after Christmas, I didn’t really want to be out among the incompetents behind the wheel if I could help it.
Those factors encouraged me to head out south along the mixture of farm tracks and forest trails that form Grande Randonnée 126, one of the long distance walking routes that crisscross Belgium. And that connected neatly to a section of Ravel, (From “Randonnée á velo”) Wallonia’s offroad cycle tracks on old railway lines and canal banks. Ravel is a great idea, like similar rail trails or greenways in other countries. But it suffers from the fact that most of it just doesn’t connect up, the project to create a region wide Ravel network has just never been realised so I only every use it in short sections as part of road rides.
However poring over the Ravel map I realised that on this occasion a longer ride did enable me to create the third side of a rectangular route by returning in a northerly direction along Ravel 1 which runs pancake flat along both sides of the big Charleroi to Brussels canal. As the early section of the ride on the Grand Route would force me to ride the mountain bike conversion that I use as a sort of work/trekking bike I hit on the idea of a tracks and trails ride for the whole day. Not full-on mountain biking because that would be just too hard for an early year ride, but a day of largely car free riding and easy navigation. Perfect.
This only left the final side of the rectangle. I was struggling to find an option because I knew didn’t particularly like some of the roads that connect back home from the canal and it would undermine the spirit of the ride. Then I realised that if I carried on just a bit further North I would hit the Flanders border and pick up another section of the Round Flanders Cycleway that I had enjoyed back in the summer. This section would leave the canal at Halle and take me across into my favourite Forêt de Soignes/Zoniënwoud, the great wood that run East-West across Brussels’ southern flanks. Re-joining a final section of Grande Randonnée 126 in the forest would see me home with a full set of Belgium’s long distance routes under my wheels.
And that is pretty much how it panned out. I left just before another perfect sunrise and spent nearly an hour picking my way through the frosty tracks and trails of GR 126. This was all familiar stuff, I come here quite often on my mountain bike. There were a couple of sections I had to walk but that was expected, I hadn’t come equipped for the full MTB experience.
At Bousval I dropped steeply into the valley of the Dyle to discover that the sunrise was barely penetrating the mists trapped in the valley so the Ravel path was a contrast of dark and occasional light bursting through the trees.
It was now easy riding, I just pointed down the flat path and went as the sunrise started to break the mist and open up views across the valley.
As I got closer to Nivelles after an hour and half it had become a strong glaring light that burst across the city creating a silhouette of the great church, the Collégiale Ste-Gertrude.
The railway path continued round the city until I got to the charming small town of Arquennes.
Here I had choice of continuing on the railway path or picking up the banks of a disused canal to Seneffe. I quickly discovered I had made the right choice because the combination of sun reflecting on the part frozen canal, waterfalls passing through the old lock gates and wild birds pottering about on the ice was just lovely.
Seneffe was the south westerly tip of my journey and key intersection for several Ravel routes. It seemed almost as if the weather decided “Go North” was an invitation to bring on some cold weather because as I rode past the boat yards at the edge of the huge Charleroi to Brussels canal a cold hard mist settled in again giving a ghost-like quality to the boats working the canal.
Whereas the old Seneffe to Arquennes canal branch was charming these big transport canals in the European mainland are basically industrial corridors which can be plan and featureless. Like the boats the cyclist can use them to cover distance efficiently, especially on some sections which have lovely smooth asphalt paths but they are not my favourites. However this section was rich with wild birds which always gave me something to look at. And here I also rode slap bang into one of the most impressive bits of canal engineering I have ever seen, which certainly woke me up from my reverie and forms tomorrow’s supplementary post.
The Ravel route actually got more attractive as it cut its way through some of the hills around Ittre and Clabeq, introducing some colour to the banks, helped by the final disappearance of the mist.
It is hard to know exactly when I crossed the border in to Flanders, but it became increasingly built up as I entered the town of Halle. Conveniently the canal ran right up beside the station so coffee and a sandwich were easily obtained, plus a warm up by the heater in the café.
From there all I had to do was find the Round Flanders route and set off for a final hour and a half cross country towards home. However that proved surprising difficult. Unlike other sections of the Round Flanders Cycleway I found it very difficult to find and follow the Vlaanderen Fietsroute signs. And oddly I found myself really quite disappointed with the riding. Having arrived in Flanders I got the expected extensive network of cycle paths beside most of the roads, but having been in splendid isolation all morning I found myself resenting the built up area and the closeness of the traffic. And this being the southern part of the Flanders the cycle paths were a hodgepodge of provision, on road, on pavements, up, down and around kerbs, parked cars and bus stops, not quite up to the Dutch style paths of other provinces further North. Compared to my long sections bowling along railway paths and canal towpaths progress was frustrating and I got a bit tired and grumpy.
It was an absolute relief to stumble out of the built up area back into the tranquility of the Forêt de Soignes/Zoniënwoud and ride on familiar forest roads back home. After a short final section on the Round Flanders Cycleway I crossed my original route, the Grande Randonnée 126 making its way south from Brussels so I was able to turn south and follow it for a final few kilometres. No real mountain biking here, these were lovely hard forest roads that dipped and rolled through the trees.
A great day out and yet more reasons to recommend cycling in Belgium. Distances were not great because I was pottering and several sections were on dirt roads rather than smooth tarmac, but that didn’t matter at all because the objective was discovery, not mile-eating. And to do the whole day in almost car-free conditions was an absolute privilege.
Perhaps unusually for cycling in Belgium on this occasion it was the Walloon sections of the tour that came out top in my assessment.
If I had a favourite part I must say that early morning section along the disused canal from Arquennes to Seneffe was a delight, for the time of day, for the sun on the icy water and the gentle calm of a backwater in transport history. That will be a treasured memory and a place I shall go back to.
To be fair I know the Round Flanders cycleway has much better sections so it is perhaps better to read last summer’s accounts than this short sample.
But not bad for a January ride, now 2015 has one to match 2014’s great start.