Turning the commute into special time – a morning cycle tour to Brussels

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This gallery contains 25 photos.

It’s been a while. But welcome back. Welcome back to the feeling that today is that day. The day I just have to ride. The temperature is drifting up and forecast to clear 30 degrees for the first time this … Continue reading

A spring cycling day in Lasne – Journée du vélo à Lasne

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This gallery contains 3 photos.

Some of the fun things about Belgium country life are the local festivals, markets, walks and indeed bike rides that are put on by community groups and local councils. There is always something happening in Lasne and at least twice … Continue reading

Reasons to be cheerful 2016 – cycling in North Cyprus

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This gallery contains 4 photos.

In the middle of gloomy news and predictions for 2016 two of the media organisations I follow carried very similar stories of a small ray of sunshine in Europe. 2016 might be the end of a 42 year old conflict … Continue reading

Favourite cycling photos of 2015

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This gallery contains 11 photos.

To complement the small selection of nice travel and home photos that I published two days ago I now compiled a similar selection of 2015 cycling shots. Many of the travel shots were also taken on bike rides around the … Continue reading

When life gives you lemons – make lemonade. When life gives you wind and rain and mud and a bike trail just round the corner …… go offroad.

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

When we went to the Ardennes for the weekend I seriously considered not taking our bikes. The forecast was wet and windy, the landscape promised excellent walking, the old dog doesn’t keep up with the bikes any more.………. But somehow … Continue reading

Great days out – more fantastic mountain biking in Belgium

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This gallery contains 18 photos.

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 … Continue reading

Transformation. The joy of cycling through a changing season

Photo Kevin Mayne

Suddenly I feel the seasons may have changed. I feel uplifted. Recharged.

It’s not like it never happened before. It will happen all over the Northern Hemisphere in the coming weeks. But I am having my relationship with the countryside refreshed, personally and privately, deep in the Belgian woods.

I “cycle to work” every day. That can either be a ten minute ride to the local station or what we really call the “ride to work”, 25km across the rolling valleys that criss-cross the countryside to the south of Brussels, of which at least 45 minutes is spent on peaceful forest tracks through the Forêt de Soignes/ Zoniënwoud before the bustle of the Brussels rush hour.

This year I am trying very hard to get a bit fitter over the winter (for reasons which will become clear in a few weeks) which has meant I have ridden the longer distance many more times than usual. It has been a long, hard winter in the woods. The dark forced me to stick to one simple route where I know every bump and hollow but I still feel like I have been squinting into the dark trying to avoid holes and fallen branches forever, it has been hard to relax and roll.

Two weeks ago I went off to Munich for several days which was an even colder experience, but enjoyable none the less.

When I came back to Belgium it was like a switch had been turned. It was only a week away but things had changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly the light had just crept though the magical time shift where the whole of my forest ride was in daylight. Maybe only a soft dawn light as I enter the woods but enough to see without the lights, to relax and pedal without nasty surprises in the dark.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Secondly we had a week where the morning temperatures rose quickly above freezing. They may have dropped again this week, but that one week was enough. No green shoots have come through the carpet of golden beech leaves left from the autumn, but nature got the message. From the sombre silence of winter the birds have just burst in to life.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Over the winter my only accompaniment has been the owls. The area is alive with what we call tawny owls in English, the source of the classic owl sound as the males “tu-whit” and the females “tu-whoo” in reply, a seamless exchange that comes across as a single call.

Now it is the turn of the day birds to rediscover their energy. Blackbirds, robins and all the woodland birds are bursting with song, a true dawn chorus. Every valley seems to have a woodpecker hammering energetically at the mighty beech trees that line the paths. The owls have been replaced by the top predator of the daylight as buzzards can be heard mewing as they circle above the tree tops.

The absolute beauty of it is that the days have been still, cold and crisp. Despite the fact that I cannot see them I can hear every note, every peck.

As if in response to their enthusiasm I feel uplifted myself. The ride has been transformed from a trudge to a pleasure.  Instead of wanting to get it over and done with I find myself adding 10, 20 even 30 minutes to my route by adding extra loops deep into the woods.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Alone, except for the birds and the deer.

Because the deer will be my other constant companions for the coming months. While I ride around dawn they are bold and foraging close to the paths. I know they have been there too in the dark as I occasionally hear them bouncing away over the dry rustling leaves, but I never see them. Nobody else comes this way at this time so they have not been scared away from the paths and the silent approach of the bike doesn’t seem to alert them until I am quite close. So now in the mists of dawn we carefully watch each other from a comfortable distance.

Photo Kevin Mayne

The first weeks of a new season and I am bursting with life too. The transformational impact of a simple bike ride.  Like the birds and animals I know it’s going to be a great spring, because I can feel it.

Sampling three types of Belgian long distance cycle touring routes in one January day.

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This gallery contains 14 photos.

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 … Continue reading

Its snowing – of course childish enthusiasm wins over mature common sense!

Photo Kevin MayneI had been seeing tweets and news stories all day about the snow hitting Britain and Northern Europe.

In Yorkshire there were typical shots of closed roads up on the hills while the Dutch were being oh so smug about the clearing of snow from their bike lanes.

And here it rained, and it rained and it rained.

Until about 2pm when the rain turned to slush, then sleet and finally slow.

Of course I had to go out – its like a rule isn’t it. It may have been mainly slush on top of mud but it was beautiful. (Even if I did have to clean the signs)

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

El Botroul – glorious Autumn mountain biking in Belgium

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This gallery contains 15 photos.

Last Sunday I got up early and rode off into a misty Autumnal sunrise to take part in El Botroul, my club’s big annual mountain bike randonnee. The day was glorious and there was a lovely early autumn feel to … Continue reading

“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.