Bicycling across (all of) Belgium

I don’t look good in Lycra. I’m too thin; my stomach too round. I look like a snake choking on a tennis ball. Even the changing room mirror is embarrassed for me.

Drawing back the curtain I step out into the Brussels bicycle shop where Arthur Destree is waiting for me. Tanned and fit, Arthur looks perfectly happy in this outfit. He’s Belgian, and a professional bike rider. He probably wore Lycra nappies as a baby.

He’s to be my guide as I undertake the most ridiculous assignment of my professional travellingl life: I’m going to spend the next week riding across Belgium. Yes, all of it.

This will end badly, mark my words.

“You look like a professional,” Arthur assures me with a game-show smile.

“I look like an otter,” I reply, following him outside to collect my bicycle.

We spent an hour this morning pulling frames down off bike racks, prodding tyres and adjusting seats. The bicycle sitting before me is a perfect fit for my imperfect frame, but it’s still a two-wheeled torment that digs in where it should cushion and prods where it should nudge. I’ve nicknamed it Vlad and I’m to be its victim for the next week.

The hard miles begin tomorrow.

It’s 4am when reception calls to inform me that Arthur is waiting in the lobby. He’d mentioned this last night while piling steaks onto my plate. I’d assumed he was joking. After all, there’s a reason they exiled 4am so far away from the respectable hours that make up the rest of the day.

Dragging myself out of bed, I crowbar myself into my outfit and squeak down to the lobby. A hearty handshake later and we’re stood outside near the bikes, a huge map unfolded between us. Starting in Brussels, today’s plan is to follow the waterways to Ghent, capital of Belgium’s western Flanders region. Hopefully this will keep us away from the roads and their zooming waffle trucks.

It’s funny how small countries look on Google Maps. From the comfort of my air-conditioned office, cycling in a big loop around Belgium looked about as difficult as banging my head on a rafter. To be honest, I kind of assumed that if I did a small hop the Earth’s rotation would do most of the work for me. Now Arthur’s talking about riding seven hours a day, draining a lakeful of water every hour, and eating 5,000 calories before bed. Swarms of locusts don’t go through that much food.

***

4am doesn’t have much to recommend it, but the streets of Brussels are mercifully empty as I wobble my way through the first few kilometres of today’s 100km journey, down an embankment to the canal. Miles saunter past as the sun climbs and the city peters out into farmland. Over the next hour the countryside becomes a cliché of bird song and cowbells, our well-paved cycle track disappearing into overgrown tow paths

Arthur’s moving at a measured pace, babbling away about the glorious outdoors, when a group of road riders come streaking past us like neon strip lights. There must be some sort of etiquette involved in humiliating an amateur, because one hangs back for a chat. He’s about 35, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a grimace that appears to be permanently etched onto his face. His calves are large enough to serve a four-course meal on.

“Nice bike,” he tells me.

“Cheers.” My mind goes blank. “It’s got wheels and everything.”

Thankfully Arthur steps in with a few more details, though such is the intricacy of their conversation that I can’t tell whether they’re speaking Flemish or just bike. As they’re talking, somebody waves to me from the deck of a passing barge. It’s a big, black industrial thing but they have a drink in their hand and the self-contented smile of somebody who’s not on a bicycle and knows they won’t be for quite some time.

To be fair Vlad delivers me to Ghent in a little under six hours and with minimum impalement. In fact it’s not until I park my bicycle outside my hotel and try to get off that I realise my legs have stopped working. As it turns out, nothing’s easier than falling off a bicycle.

***

6am comes around spitefully early, and we’re on the road once again. Ghent’s eerie at this hour, the Gothic architecture of the central square beautiful but oppressive. In the far distance the imposing Het Gravensteen Castle watches us sombrely; its two-metre thick walls an impressive reminder of the town’s faded prominence in European affairs.

This morning we’re headed south, which in my mind equates to cycling downhill. It’s a psychological sleight of hand, but I need all the help I can get. Despite spending an hour in the sauna last night, I still feel as though I spent yesterday strapped to the wheel of my bike, rather than being sat upon it. This is a problem because I’m going to be in Vlad’s infernal clutches for a lot longer today, thanks to a three-hour detour to the neighbouring city of Brugge.

I tried to explain my policy of never visiting places I can’t pronounce to Arthur, but he’s unmoved and so we find ourselves arriving in Brugge on a sleepy Saturday morning. It really is a beautiful city: cobbled bridges overhang glassy canals on which boats packed with tourists are escorted between the city’s grand squares. Horse-drawn carriages clip clop along the cobblestones, while all around us people enjoy having sensation in their buttocks.

We stop for a drink, but Arthur’s got the patience of a caffeinated kitten and we’re soon on the move again.

Over the next several hours we pass through farmland and countryside, picturesque nature reserves and large parks with medieval châteaus at their centre. All’s going well until Arthur calls us to a halt, pointing towards the gaggle of geese on the path in front of us.

“Geese can attack, we shouldn’t provoke them,” he says.

Provoke them? My body feels like Belgium’s been hitting it with sticks for the last two days and I look like a seabird that’s just dragged itself clear of an oil slick. Beneath me is 10.2kg of wheeled malice and ahead of me 140km of hard riding. And he’s worried about me provoking them?

Despite my reservations, we pull the bikes off to the side of the road and wait for the geese to waddle by. One of them hisses at me and only the ache in my legs prevents me from pushing it back into the canal. It’s the first time I’ve been belittled by fowl. I swear it won’t happen again. A man must have his pride. Even a man dressed like a human hosepipe.

We stop that night in a town called Mons in the south of Belgium, and for the second night in a row I fall off my bike the moment I come to a stop outside the hotel. Food enters my mouth and words come out, but I’m so exhausted none of it means anything.

***

Arthur has a heart! Admittedly, it’s a rusty thing made of spokes and spinning metal, but it works well enough for him to let me stay in bed until 8am the next morning. I need this. Last night I seriously considered sleeping in the sauna, so unsure was I of even being able to stand up this morning.

Loading a plate with pastries, I take a table outside the hotel to watch Mons go about its daily business. Unfortunately, it’s Sunday so Mons’s daily basis is being in bed, but this leisurely breakfast on a deserted street is exactly what I need. For the first time in two days I mount Vlad with a smile on my face.

We’ve got a big day ahead, with a lot of east and then a lot of north. The scenery’s also changed, with the canals and waterways straddled by many more mechanical contraptions. They’re the sorts of things my dad would understand and admire. They lift and pull, drain and fill. Arthur tries to explain their purpose to me, but he might as well try and hug a cloud.

It’s not that I’m disinterested; I just find it difficult to maintain a conversation while cycling. My words seem to drop on the floor like confetti as I go along. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time on this journey rattling around inside my own head, which is exactly where I am when Namur envelops us.

I must be the only person in history who’s ever been snuck up on by an entire city. One minute I’m pondering the most graceful way to pedal into the river and the next I’m surrounded by cars and people and beautiful buildings.

Entering Namur is a humbling experience. There are loads of people on bikes here, and all of them seem to be enjoying the experience. Parents peddle along in shorts and tee-shirts, dragging children behind them. In carriages, I should point out. Not by ropes or anything.

Men cycle along with young women perched side-saddle on the back, chatting amiably and managing to look dashing and handsome and happy. Everybody’s smiling, and suddenly so I am. Peer pressure, I expect.

The next few hours are a blur of aching legs and weary pedalling. I don’t know how I do it. I retreat to some dark corner of my mind and lock the doors, while the rest of my body hollers outside, demanding to be let in so it can collapse in a heap.

I’m seriously wondering how much more I can take when Arthur directs us onto the road, where a minibus is waiting. The moment he stops beside it is the greatest of my life.

“You did it,” he says with a smile. “Congratulations!”

I’m so grateful that when I fall of my bike I make a conscious effort not to hit him on the way down. It’s about as eloquent as I can be in my current state.

***

Our barge chugs along the canal on the way back to Brussels, Vlad stored safely below decks. He’s earned this as much as I have.

Evening is descending slowly, a few stars in the sky, the rest still shy. I have a cup of tea in my hand and a blanket over my knees. The ride has made an old man of me, but I feel amazing. I’ve just cycled across a country; through farmland and cities, along rivers and a few roads. Arthur pushed me and Vlad battered me, but I’ve never seen a country this way before, or felt this much triumph at the end of a trip.

Arthur asked me if I’d ever do it again, and sitting here – I’d say yes, though it could just be the exhaustion talking. But if there is a next time I’ll wear shorts and a tee-shirt. I still look ridiculous in Lycra.

Bicycling across (all of) Belgium

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