To Namur for the World Cup Cyclocross. Belgian cycling delivers another spectacular day out.

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It is the weekend before Christmas and we are standing in a historic rock fortress overlooking a Belgian city. Fantastic views across the river Meuse, even on a bleak day. This is Namur, capital of Wallonia, the French speaking region … Continue reading

Cycling in Sofia, Bulgaria – positive observations from a short visit

Time for another “Idonotdespair” moment, trying to get a snapshot of the cycling culture in a new city through the eyes of local activists, a short ride and some general wandering about. I was in Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria for three days this week which included a guided cycle tour of the city centre and a similar walking excursion. I have broken my usual collection of photos and comments into two posts, this one about the cycling experience and then a few tourist notes in a few days’ time.

I think the cycling can certainly be summarized as “far better than expected” because the country hovers towards the bottom of most European cycling league tables and expectations had been set fairly low by our hosts. But I found a lot of positives and yes it was so much better moving about by bike than walking!

We were in Bulgaria with delegates from small and medium sized cycling organizations as part of a programme to support European groups that are trying to make the jump from smaller, informal structures to try and create a national impact. So I wasn’t there on my own and that helped keep the differences in perspective. Coming to Sofia from the low cycling countries like UK, Greece, Ireland, Czech Republic and Ukraine it really didn’t feel vastly different to home, so we of course were able to share our experiences as “kindred spirits”. On the other hand at least one person in the mid rank of cycling nations who joined us (Austria, Finland, and Sweden) said she certainly felt a bit better about her home city after cycling here.Photo by Kevin Mayne

First impressions were not great. In the taxi from the airport we were faced by nose-to-tail traffic queues and wide high speed boulevards that made me suspect that this was another east European city that had embraced the car with enthusiasm in the last 25 years. It was not until we reached our city centre hotel that I was delighted to notice a cyclist, inevitably a hipster on a fixie jumping a red light. There must be a factory somewhere in Taiwan that just creates them and sends the whole unit over to Europe as one item, person, bike, trendy beard and colour-blindness included.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The start of our group bike tour the next day confirmed some of the poor impressions. We were cycling on multi-lane roads or encouraged to share the lumpy, poorly repaired pavements with pedestrians, neither of which was particularly appealing. The infrastructure gave no help knowing which route or what positioning on the road to take. Our guide did point out a few places where there were once cycle lanes and the paint had worn away and suggested the city really didn’t know what to do with cyclists now. I was very grateful that we did have a host to start with, it gave confidence that we were actually riding in an accepted manner. (Although more of that below)

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Throughout the trip I noticed that the city had the parking plague, every street, spare corner and open space seemed to be covered with parked cars and they were often double parked, pushing us out into the traffic. In that it reminded me of Kiev, Ukraine, because there was potentially a lot of space for cycling facilities but no space to install them without taking on the parking menace.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Nice cobbled streets around the National Theatre offered the possibility of an attractive slow moving network of cycle friendly streets like I had seen in Madrid in September, but the parking was still intrusive and not well controlled. The road surfaces were pretty awful too but after three years of Belgium I hardly take that into account any more, I rather regard it as a form of traffic calming.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Towards the end of our tour we turned back towards our hotel along Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street of the city that gets its name from the dramatic snow covered Vitosha Mountain that is visible on the skyline right along the street.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

By the time we did so I was in a thoroughly good mood from the cycling and beginning to quiz my colleagues about what I had seen and felt on the ride. Because I certainly wasn’t getting the impression that this was a frightening, anti-cycling city. That impression was reinforced the next day when some of us walked around other areas.

Most importantly of all I felt that the drivers of Sofia were some of the most patient and well behaved I have come across. Seriously! It seemed common to just to wander out into the street and face down the cars which proves to me that is far from a car dominated city centre. At no point was our large group honked at and passing distances were well respected. Whenever a pedestrian or another cyclist just wandered out into the carriageway or attempted a pedestrian crossing the motorists stopped almost instantly so we started doing it too.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Turning at junctions the traffic didn’t race off, people were able to cross and in the small streets traffic speed was very sensible, especially in the numerous 30kmph speed limit zones.

The other thing that struck me was that the numbers of pedestrians and cars was incredibly quiet for the centre of a large European capital on a weekday. I kept thinking I must be missing something such as a public holiday, but apparently not. There were definitely traffic jams out on the peripheral roads and arterial corridors but it really was quiet and sedate to get around by bike in the city centre. I wonder if it is the traffic management that makes everybody so patient, the waits at traffic lights were never ending? However in most cities where cars queue at traffic lights it seems to make them impatient and grumpy, here I just didn’t get that impression. It may be that we were the beneficiaries of a significant police presence, especially at larger junctions where they still have these brilliant little control boxes that sit up above the street corner and manually intervene to control the traffic flows. How old school is that – brilliant!

Photo by Kevin Mayne

When we walked a bit beyond the city centre we came to some of the many parks that run around central Sofia.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Here there were networks of quiet car free paths and alongside the canalized Perlovska river there were long cycle lanes looping around the south of the city centre. They too were not in wonderful condition, but they were there, and being used.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The last discovery of the trip turned out to be just near our hotel where we found a large, wide cycling and walking bridge linking the National Cultural Centre to the southern suburbs, allowing people to cross a really nasty main road into the city centre from their residential areas.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

This is the kind of infrastructure we desperately need to fill missing links in our networks in so many cities and here was a perfect example in a place that is supposedly really bad at infrastructure. How confusing.

It was a bit spoiled by the nasty collapsed drain cover on the down slope but most of the locals seemed to know it was there, the BMX riders jumped it and the oldsters went round.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Because there were cyclists. Not in huge numbers but almost everywhere we went in the city there were just ones and twos pottering about on the streets and pavements. No it wasn’t a lot and I could see that they probably didn’t add up to more than the 1% mode share claimed in the published statistics. But they were there and it wasn’t just the cool dudes. We saw older people, mothers with children on child seats and younger women which also suggests that the environment was not totally hostile to all but the fearless.

What surprised some colleagues more was the bikes. They were 90% cheap mountain bikes, only occasionally did we see a more equipped city bike. Again those of us from low cycling countries were less surprised, a population that doesn’t cycle much and therefore doesn’t understand the need to pay more for mudguards, a rack and some city tyres is just what we experience all the time. We did conclude that fat tyres and suspension was probably a good idea when a lot of Sofia cycling seemed to involve bouncing up and down kerbs but we know that you have to build up the population’s knowledge quite a bit more before the better equipped bikes become more common.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

So I leave Bulgaria slightly puzzled by my cycling experiences in Sofia. In many ways this was like my experience of Berlin with its wide streets, quiet traffic and well enforced traffic laws. And in that context cycling could and should flourish because the traffic jams on the arterial roads were bad and there is only a two line metro service to fall back on.

I guess cycling really hasn’t set down new cultural roots in the city and it is going to take a slow steady campaign of promotion and a lot more commitment to cycling infrastructure before it takes off, if only to help people know where and how to ride.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

What this place needs more than anything else is more cyclists because a visible group on the streets riding around safely will do more than anything else to show what is possible.

Probably I got an artificial impression in the centre because the traffic did look more aggressive further out. But there was a huge maze of minor streets around the suburban apartment blocks which could be bike friendly. Of course what usually fails in those circumstances is crossing the big roads and I may be wildly over optimistic from what I saw, any bike route is only as good as its most challenging junction because that is the one people won’t cross. But I couldn’t help but feel the city centre is a good destination for cycling, there must be something to build on there and I would certainly ride there on my own on a return visit.

Now we will do what we can to help our passionate friends at the Bulgarian Cycling Association and their allies to take advantage of what they have because it will be a long road to build up a cycling culture from such low numbers.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

But it is possible that their underlying conditions are a lot more tolerant than in many other countries.

I do not despair.

El Botroul – glorious Autumn mountain biking in Belgium

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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.

Mountain biking at Hanmer Springs, New Zealand – playtime in a stunning location

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I seem to be starting a bit of a tradition by taking in some excellent mountain biking on my holidays after Velo-city conferences. Perhaps it is all that earnest urban energy, a country boy needs his escape to the green … Continue reading

Mystery cycling photo combines with favourite cycling memories to bring a smile

Now here’s a mystery.

Just how has one of my absolute favourite places in the world to cycle been combined with one a much loved photo of a past ride despite them having apparently nothing in common?

The story so far.

About a week ago I was speaking to a former colleague at CTC, the national cyclists’ charity in the UK. “Oh” she said, “we were just talking about you”.

They had just seen a leaflet that was about to be inserted in this month’s CTC magazine, advertising Mid Wales Cycling Adventures. Apparently on the cover there was a photo which they were sure was my son Ben and I on our mountain bikes.

Mid-Wales is just one of the most brilliant places to cycle. I wrote about in last year in the post “Mid-Wales – The antidote to almost everything”, not just for cycling but for walking and chilling or whatever takes your fancy. If you haven’t been – just go. Go cycle touring or mountain bike, whichever takes your fancy. Good on Mid Wales Cycling Adventures if they are adding to the range of small businesses that are gradually building up in the area to support sustainable tourism. Great scenery winter or summer, this was from a hotel room in Rhayader.

Rhayader 2010

But I was bemused. Despite Ben and I having ridden together at places like Coed-y-Brenin and Nant-y-Arian mountain bike centres I just could not recall a photo of us together. Maybe a photographer had been snapping while we were there. But if we were in a shot to promote cycling in Mid Wales then I am happy to be a model.

Mid Wales Cycling Adventures leafletThen yesterday my copy of the magazine arrived and even before I got home to pick up my copy Mrs Idonotdespair had spotted the leaflet dropping out and waved it curiously under my nose. Because it was very clearly us!

The plot thickens.

Of course the CTC staff recognised the photo. It was on the noticeboard by my desk for nearly eight years, a souvenir of a fantastic day out with Ben back in 2005. It was spring and we had a brilliant day out with the local CTC group after the 2005 CTC AGM, just one of those days when everything works. Good route, good company and the countryside at its very best.

So as soon as I saw it I just smiled. Here’s the original beauty spot.

Warwickshire

Except…….

We were nowhere near Wales. That photo was taken by a ride leader from CTC Coventry and Warwickshire somewhere south of Warwick. 80 miles from the nearest bit of Wales at my guess.

How has it come to be associated with Mid Wales? I don’t know. It wasn’t as far as I know a commercial shot so maybe that ride leader had given it to a friend in Wales, or even moved there himself. Maybe old fashioned mixed labelling. I expect I’ll find out soon.

But if a great memory can help promote a wonderful place to ride then I don’t mind. So I won’t tell if you don’t. Ok?

Things can only get better – I will not despair, I will ride my bike on Sunday

Sunday was almost “one of those days”.

I promised myself 2-3 hours road bike cycle touring ride, not too heavy on the legs and taking advantage of a reasonable forecast.

First look out of the window took care of that – no way an I risking the icy minor roads round here on 25mm of rubber. So mountain bike it is.

Lasne Matin Hiver

Some fettling needed because of the hammering the bikes took over Christmas in the mud. Another 30 minutes lost.

Thorn in bicycle tyre

And then that most infuriating of seconds. I look down at the wheel, and I flick at a piece of debris. Which resists for a second and then hisses at me vigorously – a horrible thorn. Good news it didn’t happen ten minutes into the ride, bad news I am loosing the will to ride fast.

But then I am restored. Unwilling as I am to exert any mental energy into the process I let the local route network take over and guide me round one of the many routes in the area. It is so nice to feel welcomed and valued.

It took me over to Ohain, which is one of the five settlements that make up our commune (municipality) but not one I have particularly featured in the blog as I tend to go in other directions. But it is one of the few villages in Belgium to have retained its traditional village tree lined green and this one is especially nice because it slopes down a hillside.

Ohain Belgium

The white-washed cottages were almost painful to the eyes as the sun began to glare and the church sits attractively in a network of cobbled streets which livened me up and sent me happily away on the farm tracks and lanes that made up my route for the day.

Ohain Lasne Belgium Ohain Eglise Belgique

Two hours later I am a much better human being. Ahhhh.

Ten best things about being a cyclist in Belgium

Watchng the Fleche 2

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

  • Belgian National DaySocial 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.

Cycleottignies

It’s the scouts.

Belgian scout ride

It’s the youth clubs.

Chateau Solvay La Hulpe cyclisme

It’s the senior citizens on a Friday night near Ghent.

Friday night in Flanders

It’s just a couple of friends riding their mountain bikes.

Solvay park VTT

It’s the randonnée à vélo for families that every village and town puts on for its jour de fete.

Child cycling Solvay Park La Hulpe

2. The Classics

fans 5

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.

Liege Bastogne Liege Sprimont 5

minor places Fleche Wallonne

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.Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

Hard to repeat that, but I’ll be back again this year for my next fix.

3. Tracks and trails of Wallonia

Brabant Wallon

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.

Beaumont Lasne

Belgium, Brabant Wallon

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.

Brabant Wallon

4. Long summer evenings

Ben Mayne Chapelle St Lambert

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

IMG00779-20131126-0836When 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.

ECF lunch rideBut 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.

Segregated cycle path Ghent

For me to be “the strange one” is a statement that cycling has healthy prospects in Belgium.

6. The ever changing Belgian countryside

Houtain le Val

Friday night bike ride Flanders

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.

IMG_2822

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.

Mist, trees and moon, evening in Belgium

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.

Snowy ride Belgium

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. 

Wallonia Cycle Touring

Or a public holiday in mid-summer when the parks and woods are empty for hours, making them a personal playground.

Brussels forest

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

Tour of Flanders IMG_0707 beer 1

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.

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen Ronde Van Vlaanderen Centrum

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

Ittre Walloon Brabant

Flanders Cycle route signs

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.”

Wallonia

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……

Luxembourg Old town and Kirchberg

10. My bike shed

Ok, you can’t enjoy this with me. It’s my space.

Kevin Mayne's Bike Shed

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!

Cycling, sculpture and a local hero. Glenkiln, near Dumfries in Scotland

Henry Moore King and Queen Glenkiln

Having written about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park last week I was reminded of one of my best experiences of cycling and sculpture some years ago, BB. (Before Blogging)

It gives me an excuse to share some old thoughts that would never see the light of day without that prompt and to pay tribute to someone who I think is one of cycling’s unsung heroes.

Dumfries CTC Birthday Rides 2006Dumfries in Southwest Scotland can with some justification lay claim to a reputation as one of UK cycling’s tourism best destinations. With a local authority who woke up early to the potential of cycle tourism there are a good network of road routes including numerous National Cycle Network Routes, there is incredible mountain biking with five of Scotland’s flagship Seven Stanes trail centres in the area, it lies on many people’s Land’s End to John O’Groats route (the UK’s End to End). It also claims to be the place where the pedal driven bicycle was invented by Thornhill blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan in about 1839. OK, that last one is disputed by some commentators but that doesn’t discourage the locals from celebrating their man.

There were many people who can claim credit for the rise of the area as a cycling John Taylorvenue but as each element is explored the name of a local volunteer called John Taylor always comes up. He was actually an Englishman who moved to the area to work as a forester but spent much of his life campaigning for cycling. Among other things his work gave Seven Stanes Mabiehim a unique opportunity to scout the forest for riding sites when mountain bikes were barely invented. I remember the Seven Stanes Development Officer saying that when he first got to the Forestry Commission offices in Dumfries he found a set of maps of centres and routes that had been drawn up by John years before, almost all of which could be part of the new centres.

On road he campaigned tirelessly for safety and routes across the whole Dumfries and Galloway area while the Kirkpatrick MacMillan cycle rally was conceived and run by John for many years.

And even though he started to struggle with his health and hearing in later life he would cycle 20 miles from Castle Douglas to Dumfries in all weathers to get the train to Edinburgh for national meetings, especially when he represented cycling during the negotiations of Scotland’s world leading access legislation which opened the countryside to users of all types. Without John there was always the risk that cycling might have been frozen out as it was in England’s Open Access law.

CTC Glenkiln cycle routeAnd so to the Sculpture Trail. When we came to Dumfries in 2006 for the annual CTC festival of cycle touring “The Birthday Rides” there were a great group of volunteers who hosted the event but it was John who had mapped out the hundreds of miles of routes for us. During the planning I was approached by one of the cycling promotion staff from the local authority who said that they has a new route in development that they wanted to open during the event and they had decided to brand it the CTC route “in honour of John”.

The CTC Glenkiln Loop is a 23 mile route up into the hills to the Northwest of Dumfries Dumfries_CTC_Signswhere there is almost a secret valley around the Glenkiln Reservoir. Up in the open moorland local landowner Sir William Keswick placed works in the  by August Rodin, Henry Moore, and Jacob Epstein which were commissioned for their location in the 1960s

Sadly one of the Henry Moores was stolen last year by metal thieves for its value in bronze but when I rode up there in 2006 I discovered that modern art in a natural setting could be a stunning backdrop to a bike ride.

Henry Moore Standing Figure Glenkiln

Henry Moore Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1 Glenkiln

My personal favourite is another Henry Moore. “King and Queen” is in a majestic setting overlooking the valley which is why I put it at the top of this post as my feature image.

John Taylor died in 2009 aged 79. As we stood in the pouring rain at a green funeral site in the hills above Kirkcudbright I couldn’t help but feel that he was at home. The Glenkiln cycle route is but one of his many legacies for cycling. RIP John.

Today’s Belgian cycling conundrum. “What makes one set of cobble stones more special than another?”

Aside

The strangest thing.

Somebody has decided to repair a 10 metre stretch of Grand Chemin (the big path)

Grand Chemin Lasne

It is a former roman road that runs through our patch, a mix of cobbles and dirt paths, most of which are unfit for normal car and road bike use. Some of it is almost unusable except for tractors in winter.

I use it all the time as it links loads of useful tracks and trails. Even on road bikes we sometimes ride this way on the grass verge in dry weather, you can just see the worn patch we all use in the picture below.

But repair it? That would be something entirely odd.

These are the stones on the approach.

Lasne Grand Chemin

And these are the stones on the other side.

Belgian cobbles

And just the road there are some much worse sections that look like nobody has replaced a single stone for several centuries. One of the reasons I like it up here is because you can almost visualise the French and Prussian skirmishers who moved through here en route to the Battle of Waterloo, it won’t have changed much.

So why these few distinct stones? Why do they deserve maintenance in a country where the quality of a road surface is a lottery?

Curious indeed. I expect nothing less than a magic carpet ride when the work is done.

Tonight we rode

Belgium Brabant Wallon

Ben Mayne Chapelle St Lambert

My son and I came back to the house and there was only one thing to do.

Glorious late evening light. No breeze worth mentioning. Eager dog ready for the off. We rode.

Brabant Wallon Towards Grand Chemin Lasne

I was lifted up. Oh I needed this. So good to have all this on the doorstep.

And we were not alone.

Lasne Grand Chemin

Thanks Ben, thanks Murphy.

VTT Lasne Belgique

Do not despair’s daily bike back on the road

Mayne City Bike

After all the wonderful machines of two weeks ago at Eurobike I returned to the basics of my cycling life to replace my daily work bike.

I actually do more miles per year on this machine than any other, perhaps 3000 per year (4500km). Therefore there are rules. It must handle all weather conditions, be bounced on and off trains and yet it has to be so ugly that nobody could possibly contemplate stealing it. Weight completely immaterial, ability to carry significant loads essential. Puncture proof tyres.

I achieve this by getting old mountain bike frames or bikes and modifying them with recycled road parts from bikes I have had for up to forty years. The mountain bike setup lets me use fat tyres on very cheap steel frames and use of the parts is just common sense – and appeals to my more miserly side.

It has other benefits too. I have learned an enormous amount about creative bike building and repair as I have bashed and bodged various fits together over the years. I have also learned to curse the bike industry for lack of standardisation as I move from bike to bike discovering parts that don’t fit the latest incarnation.

The last bike was a Giant Granite that was left in a park in Reading, UK and picked up by a friend who recycles them. However after a several years and a Belgian winter it succumbed to a crack through the frame. Now it has been replaced by an unidentified silver machine with flaking paint and rusty spots for which the only evidence of origin is “Made in Taiwan” stamped on the bottom bracket.

Substitution of friction shift levers that I can mount somewhere on the frame is the issue I face every time so I can get rid of the mountain bike changers on the bars. Indexed shifters combined with the brakes are all very well if you have all the matching gear mechanisms and correctly spaced sprockets but that is never going to happen here. The rest usually works with a bit of fiddling and adapting.

I am quite happy with it on the first couple of rides to the station but I will probably need a longer/higher handlebar stem at some point. A 25km hilly cross country ride to work on Monday should confirm or remove any other niggles.

Total cost – €40 on E-bay for the run down MTB and a spare frame thrown in. That will undergo the same treatment to become my son’s student bike. Good value all round!