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)
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.
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.
5. If one person is a stronger cyclist than the other – they take most of the luggage and a heavy bike.
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.
Urban cobbles, floral bridges and giant canals with the smoothest, widest cycle paths imaginable.
Even a motorway bridge at one point. You have got to love the Dutch, they do build bike paths on an industrial scale!
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.
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.
And finally item 8.
Go home while you are still having fun.
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.