Eating and cycling combined in Taiwan – put it on your culinary bucket list


This gallery contains 18 photos.

It is going to be very hard in the next few blog posts to not just turn this into”101 reasons why you should visit Taiwan in 2016.” We have our major international cycling conference there in March 2016 so there … Continue reading

Taiwan touring day 2 – Taichung mountain circuit


This gallery contains 5 photos.

I am assured that the three peaks of the mountain circuit from Taichung are the measure by which all local riders are judged, with the local clubs and pro-groups regularly thrashing round in a form of survival of the fittest. … Continue reading

I just want to keep riding

Solvay park morning March 2015

Today I leave for what is now the fourth of my annual trips to Taiwan for the Taipei Cycle Show. Added attractions this year are the Asian Cycling Forum, a big step on the road to our Velo-city 2016 Conference in Taipei and a very special weekend cycling with the wonderful Formosa Lohas Cycling Association team who are going to take me out for a couple of long days in the centre of the island.

It may be the rainy (drizzly?) season but it will be warm and muggy compared to Belgium.

However before I leave I had some personal errands to do so I decided to do them by bike early this morning and then cycle hard for an hour so my body is nicely jaded and I might just sleep on the plane tonight, a process that never comes easily to me.

This was a sharp but wonderful contrast to what I am expecting in Taipei. As I left the house there was a very sharp frost and the first 70 metre drop to the valley below left me gasping in shock. But the place was bathed in sharp morning light which began to warm everything with a golden glow. An hour later as I rode through the woods I felt this was going to be the perfect day to spend the whole day riding,

Belgian woods March 2015

I just wanted to set off on a huge adventure on my two wheeled companion and “not come back till tea-time” as we might have said in a children’s book. What a waste to be stuck in a metal tube for hours.

Taipei will be wonderful again, stand by for lots of blogging. But I have unfinished business with these spring mornings in Belgium.

“If you only have one day to ride you take what comes”. A stormy ride to Valetta, Malta


This gallery contains 25 photos.

It is hard to identify what the symbol of this bike ride should be. One of the many broken umbrellas littering the ground? The cars driving through flooded roads? Or just about any blurry photo with rain on the lens … Continue reading

Searching for cycling in Malta

Photo Kevin Mayne

At its heart this blog has a simple message. Seeing a cyclist is something to cheer, an uplifting feeling from HG Wells’ experiences of cycling in the 1890s right through to today.

So it was all a bit worrying in Malta this week when I took 89 hours from arrival to see a single sign of cycling life, other than our visiting group. My colleagues said they saw one cyclist on the second day, but I missed him or her and from that point onwards the search became a bit like a birdwatcher seeking an elusive rare species. I almost cheered when I saw my first rider on day four, he must have wondered why this passing rider had such a silly grin on his face as he passed. This is indeed the only cycling post on Idonotdespair so far where I don’t have a single picture of a local cyclist, except our host Roberta on our group ride.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I was in Malta for a workshop as part of an international project to boost cycle commuting which has a Maltese partner as part of a 12 nation consortium. While we were discussing the high potential for further growth by learning from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands we were all sensitive to the huge challenge face by our Maltese friends to get cycling going here, especially at our press conference on the final day.

Photo Kevin Mayne

All week the local paper was full of stories about congestion on the roads and that is hardly surprising given that Malta has the second highest level of regular car use in the EU, one of the lowest levels of public transport use and very definitely the lowest level of cycling, by a large margin. When it comes to cycling it is congested, hilly, hot and has inherited many of its attitudes to cycling from that well known cycling laggard and former colonial power, Britain. I understand that it was probably the Brits who advised the Maltese on their transport policies in more recent years, not a recommendation from cycling point of view.

Photo Kevin Mayne

In fact we seem to have left such a great legacy that our other Mediterranean colony Cyprus joins Malta at the bottom of the cycling league tables. Not a good trend is it. British heritage = rubbish at developing daily cycling, British transport heritage and driving on the left, even worse, a special club combining the UK, Australia, Malta and Cyprus.

But knowing that we just did what we always do. We went for one of our multi-national bike rides to explore the reality on the ground, 20 foreigners forming a sort of critical mass in the late afternoon gloom.  Then the following day I went for a solo ride despite a very stormy afternoon. So as usual I give you the I Do Not Despair snapshot of another country, with perhaps a bit less “adult on a bicycle” than the normal observations. The photography was even more challenging in the half light, wind and rain so apologies for the blurry edges.

Our group ride left our hotel at St George’s Bay to ride around the coast and inlets of St Julian’s Bay and Sliema, cutting across the steep headlands on the return. Only a few kilometres as the night closed in but a real taste of some of the challenges of Maltese roads. And doing it as a group we had a safety in numbers effect and lots of visibility. Lots of smiles

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

There were some attractive vistas across the bays, especially the capital Valetta which was tantalisingly close across the harbour.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

Riding on my own to Valetta a day later I was less confident and spent a bit of time hiding on pavements and promenades which seemed more sensible, but the conditions that night were a bit extreme. (Post to follow)

What was it that led to this reticence? Yes there were no cycle paths and the roads were a bit hilly and narrow, but that is not exactly unusual in many of the places I ride, not least Brussels. No the main problem here was the cluelessness of the drivers. I wouldn’t call them super aggressive, it’s just that they had absolutely no idea how to drive around cyclists because clearly they hardly see any. In fact they weren’t particularly dangerous on the busy city and coast roads because their congestion and the narrow side streets acted as excellent traffic calming.

We got honked at a few times when we were actually doing nothing particularly obstructive or when it was absolutely clear that the street was only just about wide enough for a cyclist so there was no way a car would come past even if we pulled over to the side. When there was a gap the drivers didn’t hang back, they tended to pull up beside us which was disconcerting for our less experienced riders and pushed everyone in to the edge.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I tried to hang at the back of the group on the bigger roads a few times and take my preferred “primary position”, hanging out into the carriageway to try and deter their encroachment into the group but without much luck.

Photo Kevin Mayne

On my own in the dark and the wet I wasn’t trying the primary position but there was further evidence that motorists hadn’t much experience of cycling or walking when the roads got really wet. The dreaded bow wave, a wall of water sometimes over metre high when the cars accelerated into the puddles instead of recognising that there were people outside the car as well!

I don’t think the roads were so much worse or unforgiving than many other towns and cities with higher cycling levels. But as well as no cycle lanes there was very little other help from the authorities. For example the older areas were a wonderful maze of narrow streets, especially in the capital city Valetta. To cope with cars they have mostly been made into one way streets but that makes navigation around the city somewhat complicated. A simple adoption of universal contraflow cycling across the cities would open up huge networks of streets instantly.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And some parking restraint wouldn’t go amiss either, that could open up a hell of a lot of space and start changing an attitude that the car is king.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Off season the wide promenades are also perfectly good shared use spaces too, we were advised to use them by our bike tour operator and that was definitely a good call. Great views too.

Photo Kevin Mayne

There are undoubtedly some seeds of change and as usual we met some really committed people who want cycling on the island to succeed. Above all the congestion is reaching a point where the citizens and public authorities know something has to happen. And we know from other countries that part of the human rebellion that set cycling going was a reaction to congestion, when cycling is so much quicker and easier than other transport. A chap from the ministry of transport that I met at our press conference also suggested that e-bikes could be part of the solution, probably not a bad move in a hot hilly country. (Our rainy days were far from usual.)

I also heard that local cycling events can get up to 5,000 participants which is great, the cyclists must be out there somewhere and there are groups of cyclists coming here on tour which must raise its status. But it is going to be a long haul, there has to be a critical mass of cyclists that emerges in at least one town or city somewhere on the island to give it some profile and start educating the local drivers. And despite everyone at our press conference agreeing that it wouldn’t be easy they all then went off into little groups discussing great ideas and places where perhaps it would be possible to get people cycling to work.

My thanks to our hosts who made it an excellent trip and a special thanks to Denis Debono from Bybike who provided possibly the friendliest bike hire service I have come across. He provided the bikes, guide and running commentary on Thursday, then he dashed halfway across the island to bring us bikes on Friday afternoon’s ride and made himself available for a call when the storm caused most of the group to give up our ride to Valetta. Highly recommended and a good reason to cycling in Malta.

Book Review: Along the Med on a bike called Reggie

Along the Med on a Bike called ReggieI don’t get round to doing many book reviews from my cycling library but I feel Andy Sykes latest offering is well worth a few words, probably because I just like Andy’s attitude to cycle touring which is a triumph of curiosity and enthusiasm overcoming his self-declared naivety about the more mundane processes of cycling such as how to pump up a tyre!

As the blurb says this is his self-published account of his summer 9 week trip from the southern tip of Greece right across Europe to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, nearly 6000km and 10 countries. He loosely follows the route of Eurovelo 8, the Mediterranean Route but very much creates his own itinerary and diversions, not least to the legendary Mont Ventoux, cycling’s “Giant of Provence”.

It is a sequel to his 2010 trip “Riding across Europe on a Bike called Reggie” where we first met an even less prepared Andy and Reggie cycling from the UK to Brindisi in southern Italy along Eurovelo 5.* I enjoyed the first book a lot, there were some highly amusing moments all along the way so I was looking forward to book 2 when I heard Andy was off for more in the summer of 2013.

The cycle touring book has a long tradition going back almost to the invention of the bicycle. Some of them are voyages of discovery, some epic endurance adventures. The ones I enjoy most are the ones where the personality of the writer comes through and Andy certainly wins on that front. His writing is strongest where he addresses his own feelings – sometimes curious, sometimes anxious, even at times a bit nervous about hills, main roads, the state of the local campsites and arriving in Portugal in his allotted nine weeks. And then the other Andy takes over and just does it, delighted by the small pleasure of cycling travel like wonderful views, chance meetings, yet another coffee in a town square, a day completed. Occasionally he even lets an inner epic cyclist come out and like his day cycling over 200km to Valencia and he is drawn to master the incredible Ventoux, a legendary mountain of the Tour de France. I think the book is best in the first half when he has the time and relaxation to potter about and take side diversions in countries like Greece, Albania and the states of former Yugoslavia including Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

Both books make an excellent introduction to these long distance routes and the concept of using a bike to have an epic adventure.  Andy is also the first cycling writer I have discovered from what I can only call the “on line” generation. He may hardly have a functional map of most of his route but he has got an I-Phone strapped to his handlebars, a solar charger on the back to keep it powered, an I-Pad in the pannier, hotels booked during the day by the internet, guest homes from the cyclists hospitality web site Warm Showers and he has kept his on line community in contact with his travels by Facebook, blog and Twitter. I think many tentative cycle tourists could be encouraged and inspired to take even a short adventure by Andy’s travels across Europe with limited preparation but confidence in his resources. If you know someone who needs a push to try a bit of a cycling adventure but loves their electronic toys this could be the perfect Christmas gift, but of course they would download it as an e-book! I am trying to be this relaxed about my touring, I think a bit of the Andy Sykes approach is starting to rub off.

You can find links to the books and the various points of sale on Andy’s lively web site which also has his blog and lots of other content.

If you like this you’ll probably also like “One Man and his Bike” by Mike Carter and “French Revolutions” by Tim Moore, both mentioned in my library page

(*Declaration of interest here, the wonderful 70,000km Eurovelo network with its amazing long distance cycle routes is a product of the European Cyclists’ Federation who I work for in Brussels. Thanks to Andy for some enthusiastic promotion of the network, even if he does frustrate some of our colleagues by “not sticking to the proper route”. Personally, that’s what I would do, use the routes for inspiration and then make my own way, so no problem here!)

Ingredients for our perfect cycle tour on the Flanders Cycle Route.

Belgium Flanders cycle touring

My Dad and I have just returned from three days really excellent cycle touring in East Flanders and its borders with the Netherlands. Before writing up a typical travelogue I was musing on what made it particularly successful.

We have both done a lot of touring over the years and we had a very clear idea of what we didn’t want. We didn’t want the sort of trip where the cycling gets in the way of the touring. Or more probably the cyclists got in the way of the touring, the sort of trip popular with cycle tourists who have a very fixed view of what constitutes a day’s cycling.  I have of course done these rides, and enjoyed them enormously, especially afterwards. The trip where there is a consensus that we are going to sixty miles a day come hell or high water. Or where the organiser has booked hotels exactly xx miles apart in a straight line and we are just going to have to get there, even if we arrive in the dark when the chef went home hours ago. Other symptoms include arriving at a place of beauty and riding straight past because we are behind schedule, or probably worst of all discovering a set menu of exquisite local food for just €15 and going in the café next door because we can see the bikes from there.

Legends are born on trips like that. But that isn’t what we wanted.

We wanted the other sort of cycle tour, where the cycling is a means of exploration and an excuse to spend a few days just chatting and putting the world to rights. And for various reasons we both needed something that was entirely relaxing. As we haven’t actually toured together overnight for many years we also had to work out something that made sure we were on the same wavelength too.

So we compared notes on some important ingredients and then discovered that East Flanders was absolutely perfect recipe for our needs. This was only a relatively short trip, others may indeed set off to cycle round the whole of Flanders, of Europe or indeed the world. But for us it was just right. If the Mayne rules ever help you design a future tour then please feel free to steal them.

1. If the plans get in the way of the enjoyment, ditch the plan.

2. It’s not about the cycling, it’s about the trip. Stop lots. Especially in the proximity of a café. (see 7)

cycle touring in Belgium

3. Don’t go anywhere.

Yes seriously. A few days before we were due to set off I was beginning to worry about where we should go. Maybe the Ardennes, maybe a Eurovelo route? Somewhere by train, car or bike? We need to get out and see some more of Belgium don’t we?

And then a booklet for the circular Flanders Cycle Route which meanders some 800km through the five Flanders provinces sort of fell off a shelf into my hand and I made two important discoveries. Firstly that it passed just 10km from my house and secondly that I hadn’t actually ridden any of the areas in that Easterly direction. So I thought “why bother doing anything else?” It is mapped, signposted and starts on the doorstep. Wherever we end up we can get a train back. Let’s just give it a try.

Flanders cycle route sign Photo Kevin Mayne

4. Distances are to be measured at the end of the day, not set at the start.

This was a particularly successful strategy. I had predicted roughly where we would end up each night based on the straight line distances between some of the towns but we discovered that the winding route added a considerable distance on each stretch so my predictions were way out. But because we had neither planned nor booked anything it really didn’t cause any stress at all.

The wonderful Knooppunt navigation points* help with that too because at each junction you are pointed to the next Knooppunt but no distances are given. So you just potter on to the next number, and then choose a new one depending on how you feel.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

5. If one person is a stronger cyclist than the other – they take most of the luggage and a heavy bike.

Touring bikes for Flanders tour

No equality required. (How many times is it that I see groups of cycle tourists where the person struggling is always overladen and on a heavy or unsuitable bike? Does nobody see how wrong that is?)

6. Ride anything.

Looking back it is actually quite hard to work out a type of road or cycle path we didn’t find en-route. If at any point one of us was a bit bored by the flat or terrorised by the cobbles we found that five minutes later it would change. So there really was no point even commenting. (Much)

Narrow concrete tracks across farm land and rolling orchards were quite common and delightfully quiet. We followed dirt tracks surrounded by trees and wonderful purple heather.Flanders cycling photo Kevin Mayne Off road cycle route cycling Flanders

Urban cobbles, floral bridges and giant canals with the smoothest, widest cycle paths imaginable.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

Flanders cycle routes

Even a motorway bridge at one point. You have got to love the Dutch, they do build bike paths on an industrial scale!

Cycle route motorway bridge

7. It is always worth ten minutes more at the café.

When one person really wants to go and look at the bravest of the Gauls, the Belgae warrior Amborix whose statue was rather too like comic book hero Asterix to be taken seriously then the other person is equally free to take a second coffee.

Cycling in Flanders

And conveniently on this trip every time we took a bit longer it started to rain, but in this year’s Belgian summer it was soon gone again soon. We rode on a lot of wet roads, but only in a bit of drizzle in the whole 3 days. Very, very lucky.

Geoff Mayne by Kevin Mayne

And finally item 8.

Go home while you are still having fun.

Cycling in Flanders Kevin Mayne

When we set out we didn’t actually decide whether we were going for two days or three. The weather was probably going to be the defining factor, but we both knew that we had to work out whether we were going to enjoy each other’s riding style and the route.

At the lunch stop in Maastricht a conversation took place that roughly said “when are we going to get the chance to do something as good as this again?” and the matter was very quickly decided in favour of the extra day. Unanimously.

*Knooppunt are a system of nodes or junctions on a network of recommended cycle touring roads, paths or route sections.

They are all numbered and you plan your route by selecting a sequence of numbers that you want to connect on a map, on-line or on a GPS unit. The excellent signposting takes care of the rest as each road or trail junction has a signpost pointing to the relevant numbers. They started in the Netherlands, now cover Flanders and are gradually beginning to appear in specific areas of Germany and Wallonia.

Where we went the Dutch and Flemish signs linked up over the border – so useful.

Some more information here.


Beautiful time lapse cycling video from Australia – one for my library

I was pointed to this beautiful time-lapse video sequence of a long distance cycle ride in Australia by Cycleclips, the weekly email from CTC, the UK’s cyclists charity. It seemed even more timely because I was in Australia when I watched it.

The newsletter said:

Audax Alpine Classic, a short film shot over four days and nights which captures in extraordinarily detailed time lapse photography the 2000 cyclists taking part. The riders in the 250km audax event look like miniature models as the stunning scenery looms above them.

It is only four minutes long but worth every second. Email recipients of the blog may need to read this post in your browser to see the film, or click on the link below to go to the page on Vimeo.

Film on Vimeo here

If you like an eclectic selection of other cycling videos then try my Video Library page

Sydney’s Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park – the backdrop to three outstanding bike rides

Bike at West Head Lookout Sydney Welcome to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park

As soon as we arrived at my in-laws house in the northern suburbs of Sydney I was looking at the map working out where to get in a ride or two, especially as I had a very nice road bike on loan. My expectation was encouraged by knowing that the landscape is really interesting and the amazing weather forecast was promising around twenty degrees and mostly dry weather every day. You cannot do better than that for a winter holiday and I certainly wanted to get some kilometres in because the weather prospects for New Zealand were much less promising.

The map was extremely enticing. To the north of my start point in Beecroft is the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park and it had some brilliant looking roads running up to the coastal inlets that define this area. However I was less clear about the actual topography or the road quality and to get there it seemed I had some busy highways to navigate so I was a little hesitant before my first attempt.

I can report now that over a week I found three outstanding rides which offered the low traffic volumes, spectacular views and exciting riding that I was looking for. The numerous cyclists I saw on each route confirmed that I must have dropped on to some real local favourites.

Hills on the West Head Road Sydney

My health warning is that while the scenic roads were brilliant the access was much less so. I was exposed to more high speed traffic and unpleasant riding conditions than I am happy with. This may explain why many locals seemed likely to have driven out to the National Park before riding. It was also my first exposures to the fact that any  in suburban Sydney are a very distinctive group with a completely different perspective on what constitutes a good bike ride to anywhere else I have been. However that will be a later post, for now let’s concentrate on the positive.

Bobbin Head reserve Sydney Bike ride

My first ride was about an hour and a half through a feature on the map called the Galston Gap. The attraction on the map was an area of green adjoining the National Park called the Berowa Valley Regional Park with a very wiggly road running across it which could only be hairpin bends – oh yes please!  The ride up to Hornsby was a bit of an induction, it involved a very nervy crossing of the multi-lane Pennant Hills Road and then a road that can only be called a roller coaster, there wasn’t a flat bit on it. I was puffing like a steam train by the time I even thought about the Galston Road.

However I was then rewarded by a 4 km descent and a 3km climb on quieter roads through a wooded valley which cheered me enormously.

The next ride was my longest and by far the most spectacular. I was quite sure that I wanted to ride the road right through the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park out to the great looking headland at West Head but I decided to Google a bit to see if a dead end road like that would be worth it. I was very pleasantly surprised when almost top of the Google ranking was a very positive 2010 description of the ride on the excellent “Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road” blog which I follow.

West Head Road

Richard and his son went by car but I was determined to make a half day ride of it so I wanted to ride out. My sister-in-law assured me that the long link via the Mona Vale Road was a popular cyclists’ route because “there are always cyclists on it” so I decided that it was all quite possible.

I can say now that I am incredibly pleased that I made the effort, the West Head Road is a spectacular triumph of a cycling road on a quiet sunny week day in winter. I saw perhaps a dozen cars, far more cyclists, the road surface was spectacularly smooth and rolled up down and around the contours for about 20km in each direction.As I approached its north end and the head itself the peninsula narrowed offering great views over the sea inlets on either side and then ended in the West Head lookout itself.

West Head Lookout bike ride

I enjoyed a very pleasant twenty minutes or so just taking in the views and taking pictures before I retraced my steps. This really is an amazing route, not to be ignored just because it is a dead end. It is one of the highlights of my Sydney trip.

Mona Vale Road cycle path SydneyI could say I am really pleased about the other 45km of the ride through the suburbs. I am pleased for my fitness and because I was out on the bike. However in all honesty it was really hard riding on many of those roads because the hills are ferocious and the traffic is really busy. There’s no escape from the noise and the fumes anywhere. Mona Vale Road may suit Sydney’s head case cyclists, but it isn’t for me if I could avoid it. I kept hoping that I would discover the secret back roads that the local riders use for scenic cycle touring but in that part of the city the back roads don’t seem connect because of the steep sided valleys so bikes are using the same corridors as the cars and freight.

That explains why my final offering for the “three great rides” was a car assist, after a lunch at the beach I got dropped off to complete the third leg of my valleys’ triple. This time it was back into Ku-Ring-Gai Chase for the Bobbin Head ride. I started at St. Ives and had a fantastic long descent of about 3km down to the sea at Bobbin Head, right at the heart of the national park. This secluded inlet is only home to an exclusive set of moorings on the water and a visitor area on shore, otherwise it is a silent green haven with steep sided valleys cutting it off like walls on all sides. It was almost deserted apart from a few fishermen and occasional passing cyclists.

Bobbin Head bike ride Sydney

This ride is apparently popular for local clubs because it isn’t just a dead end, it climbs up to Hornsby on a similar long shallow climb which conveniently has been spray painted with 500 metre intervals all the way up.  (3km I can report).

Bobbin Head Road Sydney

Again I just thrashed the final 25 minutes from Hornsby and rode the final kilometre into Beecroft on the pavement to avoid the trucks but it wasn’t enough to diminish the pleasure of the overall ride.


There is probably a way of combining these rides into a spectacular set of touring and training routes that would be one of the most outstanding cycle routes you could imagine anywhere. (I have put them all together in this Google Map) Unfortunately from my perspective the horrible access roads currently make them rather exclusive to serious cyclists who feel comfortable on busy roads or those who drive out to the national park.

three great rides in Sydney

As a set of shorter rides each can be exceptional, especially the West Head ride which is a superb ride by any definition. Possibly the ferries that link some of the beaches could be the “missing link”, as could access by mountain bike which opens up a lot of tracks and trails, I didn’t quite work that out in the time I had. If I lived there maybe I would work it out.

However that doesn’t stop me saying that I am really glad I did these three rides, the chance to ride in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park was a cycling high spot on this holiday.

West Head view point

Melbourne provides all the ingredients for a great bike ride – good company, great route, brilliant weather.


This gallery contains 18 photos.

One thing was absent for seven days during my recent trip to in Melbourne. Cycling. Catching up with family and friends is always special. We explored some lovely settings. We consumed large quantities of excellent food and drink. But my … Continue reading

Torrens River Linear Park – Adelaide’s green cycling gem


This gallery contains 13 photos.

“So what did you think of Adelaide?” will be the obvious question as we move on around Australia and then back home in a few weeks. Especially as I haven’t been here for nearly 30 years. The honest answer might be … Continue reading

Follow the arrows for a Belgian magical mystery cycle tour


This gallery contains 17 photos.

My last Sunday in Belgium before I head off for Australia and New Zealand for Velo-city 2014 and some overdue holiday. So it was fitting that the weather turned on a spectacular day, the Walloon countryside was beautiful and we … Continue reading

“Grand” cycling day out in Dublin – with the Danes, Russians, Dutch, Austrians….


This gallery contains 12 photos.

The joys of the bike rides we have at our ECF meetings are their multi-national flavour and a chance to explore a new country. This year our excellent AGM hosts from had organised three completely different day rides to … Continue reading

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.