Belgian cycling delivered another wonderful day’s riding last week. I went south to the hills and valleys around Namur to ride a mountain bike event called VTT de Malonne that showcased some of the best of the landscape, countryside and historic settings of the region of Wallonia.
It was also a pretty hard ride, but all cyclists and walkers know that the effort to climb hills is the price we pay for the best views and the most satisfaction, which is why I can produce this gallery of photos from the day.
I hadn’t actually planned to do another mountain bike event this spring, the road season is almost on us and the weather has been improving. But the Saturday night weather forecast was for a nasty frost and I really didn’t fancy skinny road tyres on the ice. Then one of the club guys put a note on the club forum about an MTB event near Namur. He gave various reasons why it was a good event and then hooked me by saying that the route climbed the Namur Citadelle three times along with other great climbs. Having been there just before Christmas to watch the World Cup Cyclo-Cross I knew this was a spectacular location to ride and although it would involve a lot of steep hills I felt I was in for something special. Also the great joy of frost for a mountain biker is that it firms up the mud and makes for better riding which at this time of year is a treat.
The route delivered everything promised. The local organisers did an amazing job weaving eight courses of between 10 and 45km into the high headland that separates the confluence of the Rivers Meuse and Sambre in Namur. One of the things I really like about the way the clubs here organise their routes is that everybody rides a core route, then the longer courses are made up of numerous extra loops that break away and re-join further round.
This means that all the riders keep intermingling and the feed stations are a gathering point for all abilities and backgrounds. And if you decide it is all getting a bit much you just take the shortest route back to the start from almost anywhere on the course.
Of course for the 45km route almost all our extra loops involved a climb and a dip, overall 1700 metres of elevation packed into a relatively short distance so I can report that it was a very thorough workout. On the last 45km loop it appeared that most others had decided that this was one too many because I had some superb moments of isolation way up on the ridge of open farmland between the valleys. Overall there was something of everything, woodland, hills, cobbled climbs, tiny chapels set in little hamlets.
At the heart of it all was the giant structure of the Citadelle itself, the massive fortress overlooking Namur that guards the meeting point of two of Belgium’s great rivers.
The Citadelle itself was a great place to ride. It is open to the public so local mountain bikers come up here a lot but we had the advantage that our organisers had set out a mixture of trails around the hill, from cobbled roads to tiny tracks down that encouraged more than a few to walk carefully rather than dive off the edge, brakes squealing.
As well as the physical route I can once again recommend the feed stations too. A couple of great locations in the shadow of the Namur Chateau and another by the banks of the chilly, misty Meuse. Unlimited food? Even I was satisfied, I didn’t touch my usual energy bars.
If there were failings they fell largely on my side, or I could blame the unpredictable weather. I should have realised when I woke and drove down in thick fog. Instead of minus 2 degrees it was plus 2 and the previous day’s rain had left something of a bog, it was wet, muddy or spongy in many places, especially after hundreds of bikers had ridden the course. Skimming over the ground on frozen surfaces never happened. At times even sections of flat fields were almost unrideable, my rear wheel just slipped and slid away on the slick top, and I was not alone.
By mid distance the curse known to mountain bikers as “chain suck” struck. If you have had it you know it. The chain gets so muddy it will not release from the chainwheels and the pedals cannot turn more than a half revolution before they lock up. It is always the small ring, the so called “Granny Ring”, the one you need for steep, offroad hills. There are cures. A complete bike wash is a good one (not available mid route and of course only a short term solution.) The real cure is a new chainset and chain as the main cause is chainwheel wear, but that’s not exactly a fix out on the route either.
Meanwhile in the real world I had no choice but to stop using the Granny Ring which meant some extremely hard pushing on the lower slopes and increasing walking and pushing on the steepest bits. I won’t say I wouldn’t have been walking anyway, a lot of other people were, but it would have been nice to have the choice.
Then finally the rear brake just stopped working, no matter how tightly I adjusted it. I must have worn away all the brake pads on those tricky descents early on, but by the time I was in the final 5km I was also walking down anything really steep for fear of tumbling over the handlebars when I snatched at the front brake. Which was a pity, because there were some lovely forest descents in those final kilometres, but better safe than sorry.
So I could say this was a lovely mountain bike ride, combined with some excellent hill walking and a short course in mountain bike maintenance thrown in. What more could you want for just five Euros?
Throw in a free bike wash, immaculate signage and all the other things that the organisers laid on and I can only repeat what I have said in other blog posts, Belgian club cycling events must be the very best value in cycling. Apparently over 600 riders took part. Brilliant.
I will do this again, of course, but perhaps not until I have given my bike a bit of care.