Wednesday, August 31, 2022

2022 Tour Summary

Team of six. Three couples, of which one with whom we share a longtime friendship and many outdoors adventures, and the other being a more recent addition with whom we share various common interests. All well organized and experienced global travelers. Apt recipe for fun, laughter, and deep thoughts.
The individual drive from Torino, Italy, was an occasion for rest breaks along the way. For us, it was visiting Colmar and Strasbourg prior to meet all others at our accommodation located in the hamlet of Babelom near Hoegaarden, just above the "borders" with Wallonia. We're in the Flanders!
Erica welcomes us with cold Hoegaarden beer, a cloudy, fruity, refreshing "wit" - wheat white - and shows us the facilities. The complex includes a renovated medieval barn where three comfortable rooms have been obtained upstairs. It is hot even up north. Temperatures are well above the seasonal average and the cold beer ends too soon. Time to pull the bikes from the cars, prepare them, and lay them in a large section of the barn before going "to town" (Meldert) for dinner and, of course, local brews.


- Total 651 Km
- 9 stages plus one loop ride on a "rest" day in Ypres
- Sections of the Tour of Flanders and of the Tour of Art Cities cycling routes
- 1 puncture
- 10 minutes of light rain
- Hotter than average
- Mosquito galore
- Beer, beer, beer

The tracklog of the tour is available here:

Stage 1 - Hoegaarden to Leuven - 19 Km
Erica treats us with an outstanding breakfast that includes fresh products and various homemade delicacies: pies, bread, juices. And eggs laid by the friendly feathered ladies roaming free outside. Enough to fuel us for the entire tour in one shot!
Calling this a "stage" is excessive. Rather a short, pleasant ride aimed at checking that all bikes, luggage, and GPS unit are in proper order. Cycling in Belgium offers infinite - and safe - possibilities. A "Fietsknooppunten" system, with custom planning (and apps) available at several websites, provides a variety of route options. As for all of our previous tours, at home I had prepared in advance our entire route by choosing the intended places of interest and waypoints, then created the track to be followed, and transfered it to my GPS unit. This, mounted on the handlebar, showed the map and the track for ease of navigation without mistakes all the way to each stage's final accommodation destination. A small solar charger on top of the handlebar bag would meanwhile charge extra batteries in case of need.
Today's ride passes by the Abdij van Park complex founded in the 12th century in Heverlee. A break in the shade is much welcome as we're riding under a bright sun. The city of Leuven is almost in sight and surprises us with a fenced circuit. We're right on the course of the Tour of Leuven cycling race meant to start in a few hours. Time to check some gadgets at gazebos then head to the Begijnhof Hotel, make ourselves presentable and walk to watch the race - won by Victor Campenaerts.
We had been in Leuven before and yes, it's nice to see the lovely buildings' spires again. The magnificent gothic City Hall from the 15th century looks as if made of marzipan, and the Oude Markt square is a huge alfresco diner/cafeteria teeming with relaxed visitors.

Stage 2 - Leuven to Antwerp - 83 Km
Aside from the "prologue" ride of yesterday. now we talk. The usual evening task before dinner is to find a supermarket and buy provisions, and make sandwiches for the following day. We're then set for today including abundant water. We're not in "performance" mode, no need for specific fuel. Give Italians bread and salami/cheese and they will run for hours! Well, most of us. We know a guy who only runs for half-hours in between sandwiches. Right, Flavio? :) Through Mechelen and Lier we reach Antwerp. Our large apartment for two nights is a ten-minute walk away from the wonderful corporations buildings of the Grote Markt. Strolling, gazing, dining and re-hydrate. Say beer sampling. Restaurants aren't open as late as in southern European countries so it's early dining for us. A nightly climb to the roof of the Museum aan de Stroom, still open and free, allows for a view over the city and the Schelde river.
Contrary to what we've had back home for the past three weeks, it cools off at night and we enjoy the rooftop breeze.

Stage 3 - Antwerp to Ghent - 97 Km
Longest stage of this tour. Following the Schelde isn't as shaded as presumed and it's quite hot. There are no bridges over the Schelde and a few kilometers into the stage the crossing was via a tunnel for cyclists/pedestrians only. One elevator going down (capacity max 4/5 bikes), then a 700m tunnel, then an elevator to re-surface. Must be the reason why my recorded GPS track shows the lowest elevation at -22m a.s.l.
Some 10 Km before our destination Deb gets a punctured front wheel. Good thing it happened right before an overpass bridge to get a break from the scorching sun. Just the time to let the preventive sealant self-fix it and we're good to proceed to the center of Ghent where we accommodate for two nights at Gaby's, an artist having her studio in the same multistory building. A cozy old house where we stow our bikes among paint works. There are two rooms for guests and one of these integrates an attic. As per our reservation we were meant to have the room with the attic for the six of us but, as the heat was intense, Gaby thought of giving us two rooms instead - 3 in one, and 3 in the other) to avoid some of us to bake in the attic-oven. Even so, it was unimaginably hot anyway and no air conditioning. I almost collapsed when we got in. No kidding. We then left all windows open - to no avail - but Gaby forgot to mention the use of plug-in mosquito repellent. It was a horrible night indeed as we were eaten alive. I couldn't sleep due to the heat but, at some point, I was forced in desperation to defend myself from the teeny enemies by covering myself with a blanket. Ten minutes later I had to leave, so I was the only soul treading the cobbled streets at 4 AM until the break of day, then going back in with cracked eyes for breakfast. It went slightly better the second night but, well, I'll remember the truly enchanting city of Ghent as being both the highlight and the damned lowest point of the entire vacation.

Stage 4 - Ghent to Brugge - 75 Km
Partially along the Ghent-Brugge canal, at first at least, we find some shade and riding is quite pleasant. It turned out to be the most shaded of all of the stages - so far, and future - and, of course, to spare a scorching sun today, and only today, I decide to put on a long-sleeve jersey and longer pants. Our host in Antwerp mentioned Damme as a fine small town so we decide to visit. Non bad, but not much hype either. And on to Brugge. There's much talk around this city and hordes of tourists might be expected. Plenty of visitors, yes, but rather scattered as well as the city highlights. Compared to Ghent, the must-see aren't as much clustered and two nights in town allow for good sightseeing walks around squares, buildings, and along canals. High about 34C calls for proper re-hydration in the land of beer. Tripel, Dubbel, Wit, Geuze, Lambic, Kriek of countless varieties. Too many, but we deserve a mention of honor for the duly attempt at trying as many as possible during this tour. Among others, the excellent Brugse Zot can't be missed.

Stage 5 - Brugge to Dunkerque - 83 Km
It doesn't take long before we spot the ocean in Oostende and, from here on, today we'll see a very wide beach of fine sand due to low tide. Our intention to ride along it on the cycling/pedestrian walk - some paved with tiles, some with wood boards - would be abandoned after a while. Too many people. Especially after Bibi took a noisy tumble behind me on the wood boardwalk. Poor Bibi. Luckily at low speed, and no injuries, but it could have gone differently. Two police officers on bicycle immediately appeared out of nowhere for unnecessary help, but ready to take action in case of need. We chose the parallel road, with safe bike lane, to allow getting "home" before dark. This coastal area is overbuilt with huge back-to-back apartment complexes. An eyesore, but Belgians should have a place by the sea, eh? Through Nieuwpoort, then Koksijde where we stopped for a coffee/beer. The party of eight locals sitting at the next table started chatting and praised the beauty of Italy which they often visit on vacation. Specifically, the Dolomites. Needless to say, some of us were wearing Sella Ronda jerseys. Classy coincidence, that is! And on we go. Almost in France. Almost. There is no cyclable border crossing along the ocean. This is an area of sand dunes with several trails across but for pedestrians only. While searching a way we ask to a couple of policemen on motorcycle and they "don't know". Probably so, they were the kind of type standing exactly in the middle of the scale comprised between "kind" and "a**hole". A quick look at the GPS and one phone app and we found a route going around the dunes. Before noticing by the road signs, you know you're into France when the cycling lanes disappear and the drivers become a double tad less forgiving to cyclists. Whatever, let's reach our host in Dunkerque and its oceanfront lined up with restaurants.
Facing a couple of days soaked with WWI history, here we take a leap forward to WWII. It is here that, between the end of May and early June 1940, "Operation Dynamo" was launched to evacuate some 340K Allied troops surrounded by the Germans.

Stage 6 - Dunkerque to Ypres - 62 (+37) Km
The first half of today's ride is still in French territory. We manage to take minor roads without traffic to find ourselves back to Belgium without notice. Again, we're right on time upon arrival to meet our host. The apartment for two nights is fabulous and 100m away from the Menin Gate, the memorial commemorating all British and Commonwealth soldiers that lost their lives in WWI. Unveiled in 1927, it has tens of thousands of names inscribed on its stone panels. Space though proved insufficient to contain all and the remainder was then included in the Tyne Cot Memorial on the Ypres Salient out of town. Each day since its inauguration, "The Last Post" salute ceremony is held at 8 PM at the gate. Our host Benoit is the president of the Menin Association. Not only he gave us a private introduction on the events of the Salient while the daily ceremony was being prepared, but he asked us - boys - to actively participate by hanging a symbolic wreath of poppies on the wall to commemorate five of Italian origin who died on the Salient. We did, and it was a touching moment.
The followig day we took a 37-Km loop ride of the Ypres Salient to visit various memorials, cemeteries, and the In Flanders Fields Museum where we spared a downpour squall while inside.
Sadly, some 600K lives were lost on the Salient where gas was used as a large-scale weapon for the first time.

Stage 7 - Ypres to Oudenaarde - 76 Km
When in the Western Flanders, the Northern Classic races inevitably come to mind. This is the hilly part of the country. All ups-and-downs. Pleasant to the eye, tough on the legs. We're following the route of the Tour of Flanders race with light rain this morning, but likely - and it did - to stop in 15-20 minutes. We all put the rain jacket on and some of us also wrap their feet with kitchen film and tape. If, up to now, the tour has been a piece of cake, today is a different thing. Cobbles, "walls", and cobbled "walls". Unimaginable with a loded bike, but something to be experienced with keen interest and fascination.
The main hard sections for the day are:
- Oude Kwaremont
- Paterberg
- Koppenberg
As hard as this is, it is quite exciting to be on the course of the northernmost of the five "Monument" classic races. For me, it means spanning to their north-south extremes having done the Cipressa climb of the Milan-Sanremo in the past. I unashamedly admit having pushed in a couple of points. Even Eddy Merckx once did on Koppenberg. Unreal, and on dry terrain. It could have been wet and muddy! We're from the Alps and used to long, terrible climbs...without the bags :)
Right after the Oude Kwaremont summit - officially named Kluisberg - on the way to Paterberg, a series of large boards on the left display names and photos of the greatest riders of the De Ronde (Tour of Flanders). Nevertheless, this is called Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat. From here on, sort of an under-the-stars hall of fame, the names of each year's winner are stenciled on tarmac. From year 2004 on, the names of the women race winners come along as well.
The verdant hills provide for a pleasant lanscape. We somehow survived and reached Oudenaarde, the capital of the "Hell of the North" and the obvious store with racing paraphernalia. Checking out eateries for dinner, I'm impressed to see a restaurant listing a salad for 32 Euro. Gold-coated leaves? We end up in a restaurant where we're waited by a lively half-Italian guy who speaks our language. Excellent food, excellent bread. He even gave us a large loaf upon checkout!

Stage 8 -Oudenaarde to Bruxelles - 75 Km
More ups-and-downs today, including the Taaienberg and the Grammont - also called the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its iconic chapel at the top. After this, and a few more bumps, we left the Flanders Route in favor of a smoother option towards the Capital city, and Capital of Europe which has the good and the bad as expected in any city of such magnitude. Motor traffic, and cleanliness to be improved in some neighborhoods. Grote Markt, the heart of the city, would be magnificent without thousands of people within. Nice experience anyway on foot around the city center and a chance to see, tomorrow while leaving, the European Parliament district and the adjacent quiet neighborhoods.

Stage 9 - Bruxelles to Hoegaarden - 44 Km
The homecoming stage. The last day, as always, depicts on our faces a mix of happiness, sadness, and nostalgy. We're good and all in one piece. When there's much to savor in a short period of time it will take a while to realize what passed under our wheels and before our eyes. Memories will surface for the thousand situations, the million jokes and the great time that a group of friends can share.
Thank you guys! Cheers! Groetjes!

There are countries, Belgium being a fine example, where cycling isn't perceived by many as a "crime". In my homecountry Italy many think of cyclists as the "enemy". Those who use the roads that I pay for, those who impede my freedom to use my car as I want. Those damned cycling paths/lanes stealing my parking spots.
A bad cultural attitude that could only be reversed by pro-cycling measures decided by the administrators at all levels, from urban contexts to large-scale tourism. Give kids a ball and they will play. So, make it safe, and bikes around will increase like magic. Italy has a lot to offer but, until then, I'll keep looking up north where a higher level of respect is in place for my meager two-wheeler.
And, returning home with a carload of excellent beers is always a good idea.

Although of comparable size, statistics show that visitors to Belgium are less than half of those visiting the neighboring Netherlands. We only saw a handful of cyclo-tourists with bags through the entire tour. I otherwise recall thousands in NL a few years back. Well, if you cycle in the area, I'd recommend a Belgian experience. Slightly better cuisine on top of the ubiquitous fries. They have chocolate too!
English is spoken everywhere in the Flanders. We haven't tried French. There might be some hatred towards Wallonian "cousins" but I avoid striking that string.
Time for a personal note. Out of the visited cities, for me, the winner is...Ghent! Or Gent, or Gand. Third largest city in the country - 260K residents, its architecture doesn't differ much from that found in other cities. What strikes is that in the city center the amazing views are in any direction. Everything is clustered within stone's throw in fairy-tale fashion. A very rewarding experience. "Neuzekes" (noses), the purple jelly cones, prove too sweet for me but I can do without.
Next time I'd go for a beer instead - as if I hadn't already :)

- To be continued/edited -

2022 Tour Project

Years after our last cycling tour, we were eager to plan for another one in August 2022 and chose Belgium due to pleasant memories from a previous tour that included the Eastern Flanders and Wallonia. The cycling conditions in this country - safety, cycling network, accommodation, hospitality - are among the best in Europe. This time we wanted to see the charming cities of the Western Flanders and experience some of the playground of the Northern Classics road races. Conscious that the cobbled hills would be demanding, we planned for a counter-clockwise direction so to leave the hardest part towards the end of the tour. Same intentions as before. That is relaxed mode, quiet pace, individual stages of some 60-100 Km aimed at accommodating in cities to be visited (two-night stays in places), and walks or loops around on "rest days".
Looking up on websites, the complete Flanders Cycle Rout loop is listed at some 850 Km and excludes two major cities and, for logistics, we believe we would skip the easternmost portion. After a bit of cut-and-paste with GPS tracks, the resulting estimated total distance of about 650 Km would make it the shortest among our long-distance tours so far. Anyway sound for a couple of friends who were also interested and with matching timeframe. A spread of word and one more couple gladly joined for a total crew of six.
As for our previous loop tours, we opted for a start-end point in a small hamlet in the countryside to park our cars with peace of mind.
We then searched, planned, and booked accommodations based on the availability of an overnight safe storage for the bikes. Except for a couple of hotel stays, we could find excellent AirB&B solutions in the center of the visited cities.

We have other suitable bikes but opted for the faithful ones that already withstood thousands of touring miles. Panniers and a backpack in the rear, and quick-release handlebar bag. Total weight of about 32 Kg (70 lb.) plus extras - water, food, souvenirs - to come along the way.

The tracklog of the tour is available here:

2022 Tour Summary

Team of six. Three couples, of which one with whom we share a longtime friendship and many outdoors adventures, and the other being a more r...