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

The moments you don’t get with any other form of commuting except cycling?

Photo Kevin MayneAbout 7.30 in the morning.

Suddenly I am just caught by a moment.

Morning sunlight on the soft gentle greens of newly opened beech leaves.

Birdsong.

Peace and reflection.

If I didn’t commute to work by bike how could I have had such a moment?

In case you think I am far too smug about my rural commute I can report that 20 minutes later I was in the snarl of Brussels traffic and the sunlight was replaced by rain. But what is important is that I can forget that, but I won’t forget the uplift I got from my moment of magic.

I hope you had a moment like that as part of your day. You are one of the lucky people.

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.

Duel at dawn – part deux

A few weeks ago I amused some of you with my post “Duel at Dawn” in which I told the tale of the old sporty cyclist faced by another cyclist on the morning road.

The tale took a new twist this morning.

I was thrashing my way through the hills of the Foret de Soignes at my usual lumbering pace when I suddenly heard the swish of a bike tyre beside me and a cyclist zoomed past up the hill.

Without even looking I knew that I was being passed by some flying roadie in lycra and I was going to have little chance of slipstreaming the passing rider even if I put on a burst.

Except E bike Foret de Soignes

I was being passed by a woman on an upright bike in day clothes.

It took quite a few revolutions before the penny dropped.

E-bike.

The battery pack was the give away which I discovered when I got over the hill not too far behind her and then caught up freewheeling down the other side.

Amazing experience – we followed each other for about 3 km – me pulling ahead on descents and at any busy junctions but she absolutely flew up the climbs effortlessly and on the last one I just expired like a burst balloon and watched the green spot vanish.

It was the first E-bike I have seen in Brussels and you don’t see many of them on the commute in many countries because people are worried about storage at the other end. But we know from Germany and the Netherlands that the E-bike revolution is letting more people ride further, more often, in sensible normal clothes. Great to see it in Belgium.

Just not good for the ego of 50-something roadies. Time to move on.

30 days of biking: days 1-6 @30daysofbiking

A great idea from Minneapolis, now in its fourth year.

Pledge to ride every day in April and join thousands of others who have signed up to the same idea. Not too late to pledge for the rest of the month if you have missed it. http://30daysofbiking.com

I have a strong suspicion that many of my readers may not regard riding every day as the slightest bit challenging, but I have to say even an addict like me does have down days, not least in this year’s interminable European winter. But what the heck, why not. It might just become spring at some point.

The only slight problem bothering me is that the wonderful Mrs Do Not Despair reads at least some of my blog posts. Now she has probably worked out why I was prepared to take the dog out Wednesday evening even if it was awful.  And when she reads this post the words “Don’t you do enough cycling already?” may just pass her lips.

I move quickly on.

1st April – shadow ride. Lovely late evening sunshine for me and the pooch. 30 minutes.IMG_0804

2nd April – station ride – pretty standard stuff but so nice to do it without much ice around. 25 minutes for out and back.

Rixensart station

Lasne sentier

3rd April – The I really wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t made that stupid pledge ride.

Cold, bleak, horrible. 30 minutes of bashing round the tracks and the cobbles under the leaden skies of Lasne.

IMG00455-20130404-0818

4th April – Station ride again – but where are they all?

Easter holidays seem to have emptied the roads and streets of the area.

Foret de Soignes Cycling5th April – The long commute ride. To Brussels through Foret de Soignes. First time since the clocks changed so the woods have reverted to dawn. Saw the family of deer again and listened to the bird life pretending it is spring. 80 minutes – I’m getting quicker.

6th April – Test a couple of bike adjustments ride to Limlette. Cold, but maybe there is a glimmer of sunshine. And the key question. “is it bad form to bring your own mud to Paris Roubaix?” 25 minutes riding, 15 minutes spannering.

Brabant WallonMuddy Peugeot Prologue

Duel at dawn

As I was riding through the forest on my way to work earlier this week another rider swept on to the path from a side track about 50 yards ahead of me. As I normally have this track to myself I was immediately interested and I did the quick cyclist’s snapshot of man and bike. Looks like a rigid mountain bike, he is in cycling clothes but not full on racing gear, woolly hat not helmet and a backpack no doubt containing clothes or work.

Pretty much like me in fact.

As he turned the next bend and began to drag up into the trees he briefly looked back and I knew he was making exactly the same audit of this unexpected cyclist behind him. And then he sent out a signal. He hunched forward and pedalled harder.

A challenge! The hundred and fifty year old sign that says “Don’t catch me”, a signal between stupid men conditioned to think because we ride bikes it is some sort of competitive act.

Guilty as charged your honour. 50 years spent around racing cyclists takes over and of course I do exactly the same thing to see if I can catch him and within seconds we are both dashing along the tracks at massively higher speeds than is sensible for the time of day, the terrain and in my case my body. And had you been an observer you would have noted that both were trying to maintain a pose that says “Trying? Oh not really, I’m only riding to work”

For about ten minutes the distance fluctuated between 30 and 50 metres, me climbing a bit faster but him pulling away on the flat, neither of us changing pace or style. I was just so desperately relieved when he turned off though, honours even.

Why – why do I do that? I spent the rest of the day desperate for a quiet nap somewhere. It would have been so much better if it had worked out like most of the rest of my time so far in Belgium. I see another cyclist, they ride off, I watch. I keep convincing myself that all those people passing me at apparent high speed are actually refugees from Belgian cycle racing culture and they just commute on upright bikes in day clothes so I shouldn’t be upset that I can’t keep up. It really amazes me how well those ex-top racers can disguise themselves as little old ladies on shopping bikes, quite remarkable.

Will I ever learn? Probably not I am afraid. Sorry to all those who believe that Middle Aged Men in Lycra (MAMILS) are the death of daily cycling, I am who I am, I just need a few slower Belgians to keep me company.

Cycle commuters are the happiest commuters – but I’m not there yet

A great research titbit from the ever excellent Bike Portland made me realise now is the time to share my Bike to Work problem. “Cycling Commuters are happiest” whizzed round Twitter last week.

Graph of “commute well-being” from a presentation poster by Oliver Smith, Portland State University

This is exaggerated by the fact that those most likely to moan about cyclists are the least happy – lone car drivers. Great for the promotion of cycling and we all knew it really, didn’t we? (And does it confirm the stereotype that all cyclists are just that little bit smug about their transport choice!)

But currently I am not happy with my bike to work. I am seeking a special set of conditions that make my ride “Just so”.

The scene is set by my first week of living in Belgium. I realise that in the ECF office as in much of Europe I am also a much rarer beast than in the UK, while I am a daily cyclist I also have roots in sport, most of my colleagues here are largely transport cyclists and while the daily commute is a great thing to do (and thereby should make them happier) it is just a commute, to be done as efficiently and quickly as possible. One of my colleagues expressed her confusion about my travelling habits because on my second week after moving I rode 24km to the office, appearing as a sweaty mess and heading off to the local gym for a shower. “But” she said, “you have just paid for your season ticket on the train, why ride all that way?”

Automatically I gave her the same answer I have been giving for nearly 20 years. “Oh, it keeps me fit, keeps my weight down and it sets me up for going out with a local cycling club when I get a bit fitter”.

But in in hindsight I realise that my stock answer just isn’t true anymore. While I value the fitness what I miss more than anything else what I need is a ride where I can settle to a steady rhythm and then completely disengage my brain from the process of riding. Over 10 years of my last commuting route in England there were numerous occasions when I would arrive at the work bike sheds and realise that I had no recollection whatsoever of the last hour.

What happened in that missing hour was like a piece of mental magic. I sort, order, conjure and create until the most difficult of problems began to rearrange themselves into manageable form. So many presentations, speeches, projects and problems sorted themselves during those rides that I rely on those moments for my mental wellbeing. And the reverse is true, without the necessary therapeutic hour my mind becomes crowded and even my sleep can be interrupted by the competing threads.

My trusty commuting bike is also built to meet these objectives. Recovered from scrap the Giant Granite is a rigid mountain bike frame with drop bars added for road riding and my favoured Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres so I am never going to be troubled by punctures. But neither am I going to be troubled by the need for speed, add a couple of full panniers and I slow myself down enough to ensure I don’t get to work too quickly. (Oh and by the way it is deliberately ugly, dirty and distressed to deter thieves – honest)Mountain bike converted to road

There is all sorts of medical evidence that exercise reduces stress and people who walk and cycle to work arrive more productive and alert, I am sure I am getting the benefit of all those things on my ride. But I can get many of those by riding the 5km to the station too or on a weekend ride. What matters on my long commute is that the riding itself is completely automatic for just the right period of time.

Brussels Belgium Chemin Des TumuliiSo why I am not happy with my Belgian ride yet? The distance is about right – I can finesse the route to get my favoured 90 minutes and fitness will certainly come, there are five hills of varying sizes which I can charge up if I want to. And it has the makings of a great combination. First 8km on quiet country roads while the traffic volumes are low. Then into Foret de Soignes where I have about 9km on forest tracks and car free service roads before the final 7km is a zigzag though the southern suburbs Watermael-Boitsfort and Etterbeek to the EU district at Schumann.

I have a horrible feeling that this ride is just too diverse. I have to think too much. When I get to Brussels I am not yet confident enough to ride without full concentration. The forest tracks are actually in excellent condition but not enough to relax during periods of falling leaves, rain, snow and ice. I am begging for a dry spell when I can try just cruising.

Just maybe the conditions, travelling away and spells of illness mean I am just being too impatient, I haven’t done the ride enough to make it automatic, to switch off completely. Maybe a bit of route fettling will see me right, but something has to give. Wouldn’t it be a cruel irony if I have got myself this beautiful route and I find myself heading back to the typical horrible cycle lanes by the main road so I can create the cycle commute I need for my well-being?

Let’s end with a reminder of how great it could be ……… I live in hope.Brussels