Balloons, bikes and boulevards – touring Brussels with the Big Bike Event

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At the end of last month a special cycling event was held in Brussels by the combined EU delegations of the Benelux – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Called “The BIG Bike Event” It was to show support for the idea … Continue reading

Late summer Saturday in Belgium – any excuse for a bike ride will do, but it helps to have several

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On Saturday I was just back from a hectic week at Eurobike – which means an awful lot of talking about cycling and not a lot of doing, followed by 7 hours on the train home from Germany. And I … Continue reading

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

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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

Not despairing in Brussels – 22nd March 2016

Belgian National Day

I started to write this blog post last night, the evening of the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

I felt the need to write to share something of the feelings I had during the day. And most importantly I want to say my own small thank you to our worldwide cycling community who have been in touch all day to ask how the ECF team is doing.

But I was exhausted by the physical journey and perhaps by the emotional reaction to the day so I slumped into bed and slept deeply with these words half done. So tonight I share, perhaps with a slight bit more distance than there would have been last night.

These are not, as you might imagine, normal days in Brussels. The attacks on Brussels Airport and a metro station carrying hundreds of people into the EU district where I work have brought normality to a sharp halt.

Yesterday when I cycled to work it was a lovely spring morning, even cycling through the noisy suburbs of Brussels was quite comfortable. I had a shower and I was oblivious to the outside world when I got to our office and was told by a colleague that something had happened at the airport.

Over the next two hours the whole situation unfurled. By about 11am we had accounted for everyone and all but one of our team had come past the cordons to the office, mostly by bike of course. And then we determined to maintain an air of normality by working our way through the day.

But of course everyone in the team took time out to phone family and let them know that they were fine, especially some of our younger team members. But then the flow gradually turned to our many cycling friends who were picking up their newsfeeds and getting in touch.

By the time I cycled home I could feel the change outside our closed world and perhaps see what they were seeing. I wandered south for more than an hour seeking a way home that didn’t involve riding the whole way. But the stations were either blocked by the police or seemingly devoid of trains.  So eventually as it started to get dark I phoned home and my wife drove out to pick me up.

What I really wanted was to be home with my wife and to have the chance to confirm to family and friends that I really was alright and away from the city. But that extended ride gave me more time to reflect than I expected and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because at some point there can be just too much time to think.

That’s a very rare thing for me because a bike ride is normally where I sort out my thoughts.

I think there were really two competing thoughts that would not let me settle.

The first was overwhelmingly “when does this stop?” I felt horribly, horribly old when I think that I was in London in the 1970s when one of the IRA bombing rounds took place, waiting with friends to hear whether the rest of our group were ok.

I remember clearly where I was for 9,11, for 7,7 and the recent Paris attacks. I remember calls to Bali because a close colleague was on holiday there during the bombings. As an optimist I have a feeling that somewhere, somehow in my lifetime the human race could and should have developed an emotional intelligence that makes this sort of thing impossible. It is very easy to feel anger and indignation, and even more anger at the idiots who have already tried to exploit this situation for their own narrow political gains.

And by contrast I was uplifted. It wasn’t the speeches of politicians and the flags at half mast, although the images of the Belgian flag superimposed on the great landmarks of the world almost made me cry.

The simple messages of enquiry from all over the world a reflect an age when we can make contact by phone and text and skype and Facebook and Twitter, but I am just astonished by how many people from all over have just taken a few seconds to say “are you all ok?” and “our thoughts are with you”.

It is being part of a community that cares, that places decency and respect and compassion at its heart. And having family, friends and colleagues who I am proud of for the lives they lead and the work they do.

And I am very very happy here in Belgium, this odd country that the world’s media is questioning almost daily about its competences and its differences, but where we have chosen to set up home and make our way in the coming years. I have to believe that Belgium will win out, it will find peace, supported by its neighbours and supporters who have come here to form a remarkable international community.

For those things I am very lucky.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

I do not despair. I will not despair.

Still waiting for winter in Belgium

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After the warmest December on record in Belgium it is suggested that winter may just be coming. But it is taking it’s time. The news, web sites and social media shows snow reaching Scotland and minus 14 temperatures in Scandinavia, … Continue reading

When I am warned that my bag is falling off my bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race

When you live in a foreign country one of the subjects that often comes up is “how to break the ice with the locals”, especially where language is a barrier.

I have found an unexpected source of conversation that lets me meet someone new almost every week.

My briefcase.

I use an Altura Urban 17 bike briefcase, a design that suit me because it is a big baggy number that can absorb laptop, papers, lunch, waterproofs and even a change of clothes.

To allow for its size it has one particularly distinctive feature – it is mounted on the pannier rack at 45 degrees to horizontal to give heel clearance. That is a really sensible adaption.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I think it must be my second or third version of the bag and until I came here the angle hadn’t really crossed my mind. But it seems to have a really unsettling effect on passing Belgians, whether they be cyclists, pedestrians or even car drivers.

Hardly a day goes by in Brussels without someone approaching me with a look of real concern on their face and saying “your bag is coming unhooked”.  This includes behaviour like chasing me down the road even when I am thrashing along in my lycra and pedestrians rushing off the pavement waving.

Perhaps most unnerving of all for me is to be shadowed by cars and vans who hover just off my back wheel until they can pull up beside me, wide down the widow and gesticulate furiously until I recognise the magic words “sac” and “décroche” over the noise and realise I have found another good Samaritan, not a nutter.

Initially I was really surprised and slightly thrown because I don’t recall a single comment in the many years I rode with a similar bag in the UK and I really do not expect to be approached when riding. Perhaps us Brits don’t do that sort of thing, there are legends of two Englishmen castaway on a desert island who didn’t speak to each other for forty years because they hadn’t been introduced.

Now I have got used to it I am really rather charmed by the concern of the Belgians for my safety, and even the fact that they could look at a passing stranger in enough detail to notice the angle of my bag. It is a nice feeling that they care enough to make a real effort to look out for my welfare.

My alternative title for this post “Invisible cyclist? Get yourself a wonky bicycle bag.”