A year ago we moved to Belgium.
By way of an anniversary post and a thank you to my new country here are my musings about the best things about cycling here so far.
Next week I might throw in a few pet hates, although the scales are overwhelmingly positive for the first year in this great cycling nation.
In no particular order this British cyclist’s “Ten best of cycling in Belgium” are
- Social cycling
- The Classics
- Tracks and trails of Wallonia
- Long summer evenings
- Being strange
- The ever changing Belgian countryside
- Belgians like a lie in
- Bike fans
- Somewhere near to everywhere
- My bike shed
1. Social cycling – you are not alone.
Recreational and sports cycling in Belgium is overwhelmingly a collective activity. At the weekend you can hear the groups of cyclists passing our house not by the tyre swoosh but by sounds of talking and laughing. I have commented that I love the sense of community in the small towns and villages of Belgium that carries over into the cycling, everywhere I go I see people riding together.
It’s not just the big pelotons of club cyclists in the touring and racing clubs.
It’s the scouts.
It’s the youth clubs.
It’s the senior citizens on a Friday night near Ghent.
It’s just a couple of friends riding their mountain bikes.
It’s the randonnée à vélo for families that every village and town puts on for its jour de fete.
2. The Classics
The chance to experience the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are just fantastic days out for a bike fan.
All the legends – beer and frites, fan clubs, cobblestones and star riders come together in an atmosphere I have never experienced before after a lifetime of going to bike races.
And by pure chance this year I took the best cycle racing photo I will ever take on the Patterberg – Spartacus (Fabian Cancellara) making the winning move against Peter Sagan.
Hard to repeat that, but I’ll be back again this year for my next fix.
3. Tracks and trails of Wallonia
For the mountain bikers this time. Every commune in our area has hundreds of kilometres of farm tracks, forest trails and cobbled roads that together make an amazing network of rides for mountain bikers. Where I live in Lasne the brilliant folks at Lasne Nature have signposted 250 kilometres of the trails into circular routes from 5-15km in length, all of which can be joined together to give great rides.
And this continues for village after village.
It isn’t rugged and mountainous, it isn’t the flowing singletrack of a purpose built trail centre but it is an endless source of riding. Add an unexpected and freak layer of snow for four months last year and it was plenty tough enough for hard riding too.
4. Long summer evenings
An unexpected bonus. I didn’t think I would notice the time difference between Belgium and the UK. It seems a minor point but because Belgium is an hour ahead of the UK in clock time but geographically just a few minutes ahead this is like having a whole extra hour of daylight in the evening.
In the summer this means the evenings just seem to go on for ages. When I was a little boy I used to resent being sent to bed while it was still light in the summer. Now I can commute home in the light so much later or go ride my bike after work. We have had some just lovely riding evenings, even well into the autumn.
5. Being strange
When I had made a lycra-clad appearance in our office for the second or third time a colleague said to me “you are a bit strange”.
While I decided whether to be offended or not he quickly qualified himself. He said he had never met anyone in who worked in cycling who also enjoyed cycle racing and sport or was prepared to commute in from outside Brussels. I was a bit thrown, I had come to Belgium to be part of this glorious cycling heritage and I was being portrayed as a bit of freak.
In the UK I have always been around sports cyclists even when I was working in transport and tourism and many of my colleagues carried a passing interest or a background in the sports world.
But in some areas of Belgium, especially Flanders and in the EU district of Brussels what I think of as the Dutch/Scandinavian sub-culture is really strong and it is daily transport cycling, in normal clothes on normal bikes that holds sway. It is really great to be part of this multi-national community in the mornings, taking their kids to school, going to the shops and generally giving cycling status as a proper transport mode in front of the EU political classes, unlike in much of the English speaking world where cyclists can still be distinguished as a sub-culture by sport or hipster dress codes.
For me to be “the strange one” is a statement that cycling has healthy prospects in Belgium.
6. The ever changing Belgian countryside
I have written many blog posts about the changing light and weather of Belgium over the past 12 months. I don’t know what I expected, but I don’t think it was steep-sided valleys covered in beech trees or ever changing farming landscapes. The differences across the country from West Flanders to the Ardennes pack a lot of scenery into a small country.
Belgium farming and forestry practices have a big part to play in maintaining this landscape as does the maintenance of the historic buildings and villages despite it being the battleground of Europe.
There is a big push towards organic and pesticide free farming here which means that farmers have returned to traditional practices like crop rotation and green manures. In the fields just around our house we have seen wheat, barley, sugar beet, maize, potatoes, and parsnips just this year, all mixed up with fields of cows, sheep and horses and lots of coppices of deciduous trees. And in addition to the fields themselves this wide variety enables bird and animal species that are declining in other countries to flourish. Not the large monocultures of Britain or France or the horticultural factories of the Netherlands here.
It means that even familiar roads can take on a new feel from month to month, the sense of being part of the rhythm of the land is palpable. More examples of posts here, here and here, or just chose the Belgium tab to the right.
7. Belgians like a lie in
Just 30 kilometres from the capital city, the heart of Europe. And a group of cyclists can ride for two hours on a Sunday morning and not see a car moving.
Or a public holiday in mid-summer when the parks and woods are empty for hours, making them a personal playground.
Sundays especially are like a throwback to an earlier time. The shops are not supposed to open and tranquillity regulations ensure that mowing the lawn and noisy DIY are banned.
Thank you Belgium. Don’t bother getting up, I’m going out on my bike.
8. Belgian bike fans
Cycling matters here. Or more precisely cycle sport matters here. Especially in Flanders.
Every branch too, not just the impressive heritage of road racing. I mean, where else can cyclo-cross be on the TV every Saturday and Sunday all winter and Sven Nys be a national superstar. Do you even know the name of the national cyclo-cross champion in your country? I don’t. It is in the news, the television and even the gossip. Earlier this year I blogged about how the Prime Minister of Flanders got pulled into a dispute about cycling facilities while he was away on a trip to the Tour de France, everybody is sucked into the cycling world.
I loved my trip to the Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde to absorb the legends, to the classics to celebrate with beer, frites and people in birdie suits.
And amazingly this even carries over in to driving behaviour. Drivers have a remarkable tolerance for anyone in lycra out in the countryside, they seen to be prepared to wait for ages for individual riders or in groups. Maybe less so in the rush hour in Brussels, but I have certainly noticed that when I ride like a posing roadie I get a lot more space. If only they knew just how un-Belgian my riding actually is I might not get the same respect.
9. Somewhere near to everywhere
While I was in Poland last week at the COP 19 Transport Day I met a very dour Belgian railways official. When I said I used the service every day politely he asked me “how do you find it?”
He was genuinely shocked when I said I thought it was a good network with cheap prices and how pleased I was that it carries bikes on almost every service. He turned to his companion from the European rail association and said “See, I have to come to Poland to find a satisfied customer.”
Yes some of the trains are old and tired. Yes the strikes are a pain. But I cannot be fed up in a compact country, covered masses of country lanes, varying terrain, varying history, even different languages, all seemingly within about an hour’s travel in any direction and the chance to let the trains do the work.
And beyond the borders more great cycling countries to sample, all within such easy reach. Luxembourg, Germany, France, the Netherlands……
10. My bike shed
Ok, you can’t enjoy this with me. It’s my space.
All I wanted was a shed, or a garage. When we started looking at apartments in Brussels we quickly realised that space was going to be at an absolute premium so I started reluctantly selling off some of my old bikes and bits. But having decided against city life and headed for the countryside I raised my hopes slightly that the shed would be a bit bigger.
When I visited a former farm in Lasne that we had previously ignored off as too small, too remote and without any storage in the particulars it was a very long shot.
Ok the house was fine. But seconds after entering the former milking shed I just burst into a smile that has barely left my face ever since. And now it has been properly equipped with its new livestock it has a similar effect on visitors, although mainly they just bursting out laughing.
Mysteriously the bikes seem to like it here, for it appears their numbers are growing. When the rental finishes it is going to come as an almighty shock, but for now it’s in my top 10 reasons for loving being a Belgian cyclist.
Thank you Belgium.
A year ago I wondered what life might bring. The answer? I do not despair!