Tour de France 2018 – our dusty day in hell


This gallery contains 16 photos.

The sun is glaring down, baking the land in Belgium and Northern France. The landscape is fluffy clouds and blue skies above golden fields which have begun to be harvested early because of the heatwave. But across one set of … Continue reading

To the cobbles born – Mum cycles Belgium

I have written numerous times about riding on cobbles in Belgium, in particular the effect it has on visitors. Most recently I was worried that visiting author Andrew Sykes might suffer wheel damage somewhere between here and the North of Norway after a day or two with me in Belgium. I am mighty relieved that he made it to the North Cape this week and is on his way home without a wheel collapse.

Photo Kevin Mayne

However I have also noticed that some visitors just take the lumps and bumps in their stride, without any obvious reason why. After April’s Tour of Flanders Challenge the English language web sites were full of moaning Brits muttering about the pounding they received, but my brother and I were seemingly not as discomforted as many others.


We put this down to the fact that we have both mountain biked a fair bit so the idea of a bike bouncing around underneath us is really not a novelty.

However today I found that there may be another source …. genetics.

As the days of drizzle and gusty winds finally drew to an end and we have got some proper sunshine I took my mother and stepfather out for a long overdue spin as part of their holiday stay. We had a glorious ride through golden cornfields that are just waiting for the harvest.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

To avoid too much traffic and to enjoy the tranquility I took them carefully along some minor tracks and trails that include a few short stretches of the bumpy stuff.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Patrick behaved entirely appropriately for a Brit on the pave, he was really quite discomforted.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

However there has rarely been anything that stops my indomitable Mum and some simple Belgian stones were dismissed with disdain as she bowled over them without missing a single revolution.

Extremely impressive, her first exposure to the dreaded stones at the age of 73 and she looked like someone who has been on the cobbles all her life.

Chapeau indeed!

A special New Year’s Day Ride – the classic climbs of the Tour of Flanders

Belgium, Ronde Van Vlaanderen fietsroute

Ronde van Vlaanderen Blue route

The New Year’s Day ride is a ritual for me, the year hasn’t really started until I have turned the pedals. But this year’s ride was something really uniquely Belgian, or rather Flemish.

The presence of my Kiwi cycling brother-in-law meant that we had an excuse to finish his stay in Belgium with a classic ride – one of the many marked Tour of Flanders race routes, this one taking in nine of the classic climbs from the final section in the Flemish Ardennes. The Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg are climbs written into cycling folklore. While I watched the race last year I have not actually ridden them and he couldn’t come to Belgium without trying one of the legends so we had the reason we needed to head off. This would also be payoff for our days of flogging through the rain and mud on mountain bikes before Christmas, this was a treat for the fans.

Andrew on the Paterberg

We had a plan to get up early and get ourselves over to Ronse for a few hours of special riding. However if you had asked me if it was going to be a top day’s cycling when the alarm went at 8am I would not have been able to give you a very positive answer, New Year’s Eve’s aftermath left me thinking that an afternoon potter through the lanes would be a much more sensible plan. However the requirement of being a good host and the promise of a special route was just about enough to get me going, or rather a pint of tea and a start line coffee did the job.

I chose the 78km Blue Route (De Blauwe Lus) one of three published by the Tour of Flanders centre in Oudenaarde, but by starting from Ronse on the Southern edge of the route we planned to cut out the flat start and finish sections in and out of Oudenaarde and make it into a 55km circular route, quite enough for a New Year’s blow-out. (map image and downloads from )

It was an overcast blustery day with rain forecast later so we had to take on the mid-morning chill, but overall it was a stunning ride. The flat country lanes between the climbs were a bit muddy and horribly exposed whenever we turned into the wind, but provided enough respite to give the hills our full attention and the views from the top were great. 

Kicking off on the Kruisberg with 1.8km of cobbled climbing up to 9% gradient meant we were plenty warm enough before we felt the full force of the wind on the exposed hill tops. However the Kruisberg cobbles are well maintained and like a carpet compared to what was coming. The Monte de l’Enclus wasn’t too steep or cobbled but from when we hit the Oude Kwaremont we understood the challenge.

The lower slope was deceptive as the village church could be seen on at the summit and it didn’t look too steep, but the smooth road surface was a trap for the unwary.

Bottom of the Oude Kwaremont

The cobbles soon started and the reality struck. Andrew looked smooth as if he was born part Belgian but I was labouring away finding it very hard to keep my gear moving despite a triple chainset.

The key lesson about this sort of riding is that you are denied the fallback of getting out of the saddle when the hill gets steep. As soon as I stood up to get a bit of extra leverage the back wheel started to bounce and all grip was lost, you just have to stay hard in the saddle and heave the pedals round from a seated position. This completely exposed the fact that I have never had that kind of strength, I have always been an out of the saddle climber and it was tough. Andrew found out the grip problem the hard way on the Paterberg when his back wheel just shot from underneath him and dumped him on the cobbles, but as he said “its not as it I was moving very fast”. He did get back on and complete the hill – although you can see the effort!

Suffering on the Paterberg

The Koppenberg defeated us both as the big damp greasy stones and the 19% gradient proved an impossible combination with no traction whatsoever.

Ronde Van Vlaaderen Fietsroute

Tour of Flanders Cycle route

We were entirely philosophical about it as the Koppenberg has seen the majority of the professional peloton walking in the Tour of Flanders, especially when wet. Fans always recall the incident in 1987 when Danish rider Jesper Skibby had broken away from the chasers and fell off on the narrow hill. The race director then promptly ran over his fallen bike with Skibby still on it, apparently to keep clear of the chasing group. Opinion varies on whether he would have done that it Skibby had been Flemish!

The descents had to be treated with respect too, the roads were drying out but these are tiny agricultural lanes with quite a bit of mud and gusty cross winds stopping us taking full advantage.Tour of Flanders Cycle Route Ronde Van Vlaanderen Fietsroute

But here’s the thing. Once again rural Belgium was a cyclists’ paradise. Every climb was car free, we had the complete width of the roads to wobble and wander and on most of the minor roads we hardly saw a vehicle. Apart of the one or two main roads we had to cross we probably saw as many cyclists as cars and those were countable on one hand. However you are never divorced from the cycling heritage round here as this farm’s mural paid testament to the heroes of the nation.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen Mural Flanders Belgian cycling heroes on mural

It is also entirely possible that we might be considered completely mad by the locals. The sensible Flemish who live nearby can do this every day and it takes an Englishman and a Kiwi to get up early on a cold New Year’s morning to ride De Ronde so they left us to it. If that’s the case I accept the charge, but I personally can’t think of a better way to make 2014 a special cycling year – christened by riding De Ronde Van Vlaanderen Fietsroute on New Year’s Day.

Tour of Flanders Cycle Route

The sequel – After “10 best things about being a cyclist in Belgium” the “5 worst”

Belgian cobbles

Thanks for all the positive feedback about my previous “Ten best things about being a cyclist in Belgium”.

If a visitor wanted to gently tease our Belgian hosts about some of the less attractive features of riding here you could line a reasonable consensus around at least four of the list below. And as an ex-pat Brit I am putting in a special plea for the cyclists’ café stop.

  • Ridiculously bad road surfaces
  • Compulsory cycle lanes
  • Unfathomable driving
  • So called touring routes that don’t exist
  • No tea stops

Ridiculously bad road surfaces

Cycling Wallonia

A road defect reporting tool like the wonderful www, would be seen as some sort of joke here, overwhelming local authorities by the sheer volume of holes and degraded surfaces in Belgium.

Waterloo cobbles

I put it down to the starting point. If 200 year old cobbles are acceptable as road surfaces then it seems that anything else is a bonus. I come back from rides with the local club with my neck and shoulders aching from the battering despite the fact that the group leaders make big detours to avoid all the worst stretches of pavé in the area. And I have already had my first nasty crash on the holes, the only thing missing from my set is a bent rim or two, but I am sure it is to come.

Waterloo Belgium

And this carries over to unswept and unrideable cycle paths, pavements and road edges. Yet I hear almost no complaints and there does not seem to be a wave of litigation from crashed cyclists and motorcyclists to force the authorities into action. It is how it is, apparently.

I had sort of assumed that the cobbles themselves are somehow wired into the Belgian DNA and that by living here you gradually hone a riding technique that works for you and it all becomes rather straightforward, a bit like living in the mountains.

In reality it appears that while practice means local riders have less fear of the worst pave than tourists what they really develop is a sixth sense for avoiding it, either by taking another route or by riding anywhere except on the carriageway itself.

One of the most amazing racing sights I saw on TV last year was a mid-ranking professional event held between the spring classics called Flèche brabançonne – the Brabant Arrow/Brabantse Pijl. A full field of top riders, won by Peter Sagan, second Philippe Gilbert, so serious stuff. As they entered Overijse for the finish circuit the entire pro peloton bunny-hopped up onto the pavement led by the Belgians to climb a cobbled hill in what was clearly a planned move.

Impressive bike handling indeed. Wonder what the pedestrians think?

Compulsory cycle lanes

Brussels cycle lane

Going with the really bad road surfaces and some of the unrideable cycle lanes comes a parallel problem. The cycle paths, when present, are obligatory. Absolutely stupid, unenforceable rule.

No matter how badly surfaced, no matter how many pedestrians wander all over them, despite the fact that there is no provision for clearing them in snow we are supposed to use them. Fortunately most drivers don’t seem too bothered that cyclists don’t tend to use them much because they are frankly dangerous so I don’t bother much of the time.

Although I was shouted at by an angry cyclist not so long ago. Maybe he works for the municipality.

An old post on the subject here

Unfathomable driving


I refer you to my post on roundabouts. Still got no idea what they are doing. Interestingly some readers assumed my post was a general rant about how bad roundabouts are for cyclists around the world.

It wasn’t. I have cycled, walked and driven all over the world and there is something uniquely odd about a Belgian motorist faced by a roundabout. Incomprehensible.

So called touring routes that don’t exist


Just to say that in Wallonia the maps tell me that there is a whole network of cycle touring routes stretching across the province.

Boucle d'Ophain Braine l'Alleud BelgiumNo there isn’t. Except maybe in somebody’s head. The riding is fantastic, but out there on the roads there is just nothing to support you by way of signs or markings. I am on my third set of published maps and I haven’t found one yet that actually exists on the ground. Local circular routes around a single commune yes. Walking and MTB networks – brilliant. Fietspunt in Flanders – fine.

Personally I probably don’t need signed routes, I’ll just use my maps. But let’s not pretend OK? Because it us useless for everyone else.

No tea stops

The ceremonial process that transcends the cycling club ride or the cycle tour.

The place where legends are made and debated, seasons are digested, rides are planned and friendships made.

The coffee stop. The cyclists’ café. It is as much part of a British club cyclists’ DNA as the cobbles are to the Belgians. The Eureka, Tommy’s, the Dalesman, the Riverside, Top of the Town are part of our heritage. The bikes lined up from the multiple clubs are a symbol of our community.

Cyclists Cafe stop

Around 11am on a Sunday morning my body almost shuts down and I go a little lightheaded for lack of caffeine and cake. Then they don’t stop, except maybe for a quick pee behind a hedge.

The tea stop is a fine tradition Belgium – one worth investing in!

So that’s it. 10 great things about Belgium, and 5 moans. I hope that puts it all in balance, I am not despairing.

Brussels cycle lanes – taking the rough with the smooth

Last week’s trip to Amsterdam prompts me to revisit one of my pet rants.

The surface of cycle lanes in Brussels.

Rue des Sables - Brussels

Typical state of Brussels cobbles

There was lots of cycling on cobbled streets in Amsterdam and in Brussels. I like a nice cobbled street, even if it does play havoc on a small wheeled folding bike. Cobbles are part of Belgian cycling folklore, you can’t be a Flandrian icon without that background as a hard man of the pavé. So I’ll forgive the truly diabolical state of repair of the cobbles in what is supposed to be the capital of Europe.But why, oh why do so many Brussels cycle lanes have to be made of tiled surfaces? It’s an awful surface, effectively a pavement for bikes. And mostly built beside smooth, welcoming tarmac.

Tiles on the Avenue de Tervuren cycle path at the Tervuren end

Avenue de Tervuren cycle path

Harder to ride on, difficult and expensive to maintain, really unwelcoming.The most frustrating stretch I have found was on Avenue de Tervuren, the Tervurenlaan. Direct cycle route all the way to Brussels, nicely segregated from the main road. But every bone in my body wants me to move to the welcoming tarmac beside me rather than stay on the tiles.

Avenue de Tervuren cycle path at the Tervuren end

This looks really inviting, doesn’t it?

I am house hunting out here at the moment but the idea of this being the first 5km of my daily commute is a bit depressing.It’s not as if there is a design standard that stops them.

There are much better examples – to the north of Brussels a new section around an industrial estate and to the south in Walloon Brabant a lovely smooth descent through the rhododendrons near Chateau de La Hulpe which is more common out in this province.  Critics will say that it is deficient because it isn’t properly segregated, but frankly this is supposed to be the transport of delight, you shouldn’t need to be hard man of Flanders to bike to work.

Cycle lane on road to La Hulpe

A welcoming cycle lane on road to La Hulpe

Proper tarmac cycle lane in Brussels

Proper tarmac cycle lane!