A Belgian cycling adventure on my Brompton, and two bicycle museums
Badly needing what I called ‘a little adventure’, I set out on a cold, windy Sunday morning in February from Faversham, Kent for a 2-day ride to Belgium on my folding Brompton. My purpose was not only to have the ‘little adventure’, but to visit Gent to call on my friend Jan Boesman, who was working on a book about Major Taylor’s visits to Europe in 1901, 1902 and 1903. [It’s now finished and published, if you read Dutch!]
As the prologue to my adventure, the road from Faversham to Dover was a mixed blessing. Looking for an alternative to the A2, but not wanting to increase my mileage too much, I rode successively on dangerous, boring stretches of main road when I had to, and then breathed a sigh of relief to discover quiet, hilly Kentish lanes with pretty views to the north across open countryside. But the wind was ferocious! On one uphill stretch of the A2, I gave up trying to make pedaled forward progress, and more comfortably pushed the bike on foot to the crest of the hill. The steep descent into Dover on a back road was such a relief!
Not having crossed the Channel on a car ferry for quite a few years now, I was surprised at the degree of comfort and cleanness upstairs in the passenger areas compared with the old days, but NOT surprised to find I was the only cyclist on board, both going and returning. For that reason, I felt appropriately smug and superior!
On the return trip, having locked the Brompton to a large vertical pipe downstairs in the truck zone, I found myself totally trapped in place against the ferry wall by huge vehicles with trailers, drenched in clouds of noxious diesel fumes, until the nearest row had exited the front of the boat, allowing me to move out on foot. But on the outward journey I was triumphantly the first ‘vehicle’ ashore, waved on by an agreeable steward, while truckers waited their turn. They have to be very careful with cyclists, because the going can be wet and slippery, and they don’t want any lawsuits.
Heading east along the coast of France, past Dunkerque, towards the Belgian frontier [is it even really a frontier any more? there’s just a little hut with nobody even inside] on gravelly, nasty roads in gathering dusky conditions, against a headwind, I lit up, put on my yellow windproof jacket against the cold, swallowed a couple of Mars bars to keep my strength up, and at about 8 o’clock began to look for real food and think about a bed for the night.
After a short search, chips and a sausage [this was Sunday night and open restaurants were hard to find – how slow this French ‘fast food’ was!], I discovered a hateful little empty hotel in Bray-Dunes, a seaside resort totally and dismally closed down for the winter. The toilet in my room barely worked, expectorating loudly but with hardly any water involved, consequently leaving most of what I had produced still sitting there at the bottom all night. Nasty! The bad reputation of French plumbing arrangements didn’t improve there. Early the next morning, I felt like riding off without paying.
Heading south-east from the Belgian border into Flanders the next morning, I began my long grind through to Gent on busy minor roads, through Veurne, Dijksmuide, Tielt, Deinze, for a distance of about 70 miles, the longest single day’s ride I’ve ever done on the Brompton, part of the ‘test’ of my ‘little adventure’.
The Brompton isn’t, I admit, either the fastest or the most comfortable touring bike for a long distance, and it’s definitively NOT a good climber. But if any landscape is do-able on my friend Andrew Ritchie’s brilliant invention [the owner of the Brompton company is, of course, the “other” Andrew Ritchie!], it’s the flat roads of West Flanders. With its Sachs 3-speed and the additional 2-speed derailleur mechanism giving me adjustability against varying winds, I was able to maintain a pretty comfortable 12-15 mph, with frequent short breaks, and my only mechanical problem was a saddle that tended to inch down with the vibration from the infrequent pavé.
Immediately upon entering Belgium, cyclists are recognized and protected by well-defined bicycle lanes, and at road junctions, roundabouts and where a road with a bike lane crosses a motorway, for example, the cyclist’s right of way is well defined by a red-painted bike lane surface where right-turning motor vehicles must cede to you. On roundabouts, the cyclist has his own lane marked on the perimeter of the motor vehicle lanes, and dedicated cyclist traffic lights tell him when it is safe to cross exiting spur roads. The realization that, yes, a road engineer has specifically planned for your presence and thought about your safety as a cyclist is reassuring. Even though larger vehicles are there, you feel that you are legitimately recognized and have your space on the road. The only conclusion that you can come to after a day’s riding on Belgian roads is that we, in England and the United States, are [with several notable exceptions – Davis, California, for example, Portland, or a few parts of London] seriously retarded when it comes to the provision of facilities for cyclists!
At Dijksmuide, I had my breakfast – coffee and chocolate croissants – at a delightfully civilized café on a corner of the old market square [like coming in from the cold], and later, at Deinze, an equally delicious plate of hot vegetable soup and a large plate of spaghetti bolognese reinforced me for the afternoon’s work. The rain threatened, but held off until I was about 20 kms outside Ghent, where, taking a wrong turn, I found myself in Gavere [the hilly edge of Tour of Flanders territory] where I was rewarded with a vicious but fortunately brief hail storm, sleat pouring down the road. A well-situated bus shelter provided me with a convenient roosting place while the storm blew itself out. Without a good bicycle map – which I regretted not having – I was confined to a boring stretch of the N60 for the final push to Jan’s house in the centre of Gent. He later told me that I could have ridden the canal towpath all the way in!
But to the purpose of writing this story…..which is not supposed only to be about my Brompton trip, but about the two cycling museums, one in Oudenarde and the other in nearby Roeselare. The Oudenarde one is the museum of the Tour of Flanders [an early-season cycling classic held since 1913] and essentially a celebration of the history of the most famous Belgian single-day race and its place in Belgian cycling history and culture. It is well worth the small entrance fee, especially for those interested in racing rather than bicycle technology per se. On the top floor, photographs of early stars, jerseys, race paraphernalia and one of Eddy Merckx’s actual race bikes can be enjoyed [and the bike even handled – there are no annoying ‘Do not touch’ notices here!].
While, downstairs, you can ride a stationary bike which tests you against Tom Boonen or Peter van Petegem, see a map of all the cobbled hills which define the Ronde van Vlanderen, or have a mock-up photo taken of yourself reported in the newspaper as the winner of the Tour of Flanders. A fantastic shop with many books and jerseys will probably leave your credit card a couple of hundred Euros poorer, and you even get to shake hands with a living exhibit, the ex-world road champion Freddy Maertens [world road champion twice, 1976 and 1981], who helps to run the place. Altogether a lively, informative and entertaining experience, a must for cyclists touring in Belgium.
The Roeselare Museum, in contrast, was frankly disappointing, especially when Velorama, Nijmegen is so close. Arranged along conventional chronological development-of-bicycle-technology lines, it has little to recommend it except [Jan and I agreed] a wonderful advertising poster of Edmond Jacquelin [Major Taylor’s arch-opponent during his first, 1901, tour of Europe], and one or two interesting paper items concerning the early days of the Belgian Cyclists’ League. Neither an unexplained Macmillan replica, nor a panel explaining the Leonardo ‘bicycle’ will particularly appeal to the well-informed bicycle historian. The traveller needing a good dose of bicycle technology will be better off jumping on his Brompton or the train and hitting the road for Nijmegen, Holland, where Gertjan Moed’s Velorama will keep him utterly entranced for at least a whole day.
And so…..back to Gent, where Jan and I buried ourselves in his new research on Major Taylor in Europe, and I tried to catch up on a bewildering array of new Belgian cycling history books, mostly written in Dutch, which I don’t, of course, understand. Thus, Belgium didn’t disappoint as a repository of cycling culture and history. The landscape of west Flanders is a gentle mix of old farmhouses, strung out villages, canals and lines of trees. The food is good and most people speak at least basic English. The cities of Gent and Bruges are, of course, fabulous from an architectural and historical viewpoint.
A note of warning to bicycle tourists.
Returning by train from Gent to Ostende, I was really annoyed to be informed that foot passengers and cyclists are simply not allowed on board the car ferry. Actually, I was flabbergasted!!! It was a daily occurrence, the lady politely informed me, that she had to turn cyclists away, especially in the summer. My only alternative now, given my time constraints, was a 3½-hour train journey to Dunkerque, via Bruges and Lille, a real waste of time and money, plus a ride of 20 kms to get from the downtown Dunkerque railway station to the ferry port well to the west. The CTC will get an enquiring letter from me about this, and I’m sure I won’t be the first cyclist to complain.
Musings on my ‘little adventure’…..for such a short trip, it’s hard to beat the Brompton. With it, you have a wonderful combination of athletic exercise, practical tourism and versatile mobility. Arriving in a town like Gent, you can be a cyclist with your friends, and for exploring a town like Bruges, you can take in twice the number of sites and delights as you would be able to on foot, without becoming exhausted. Even when you actually are a genuine gawping tourist, you are, on your Brompton, protected from the worst excesses of horrible touristhood, and merge happily and inconspicuously with the native population. Some ‘real’ tourists even wanted to ask ME a question. You can pretend convincingly that you belong!
Oh, and I proved that to travel for 5 days with just the integral front Brompton bag and a small elongated bag on the rear rack, plus my usual small shoulder bag, gave me more than enough room for a change of clothes, tools, my cameras and a bit of food. What more do you need? The only trouble was finding space for those Belgian cycling history books from the Museum in Oudenarde…..and the shit sitting in the toilet bowl in the hotel at Bray-Dunes!
Thanks to Jan and his wonderful parents for housing me!
– Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, Oudenarde, Belgium, www.crvv.be
– Wielermuseum, Roeselare, Belgium, www.wielermuseum.be.
And, not visited on this occasion, but very much recommended:
– Nationaale Fietsmuseum, Velorama, Nijmegen, www.velorama.nl.