I’m struggling my way up a Flandrian cobbled climb, it’s an icon of the sport, races have been won and lost here, tyres have slipped, breaks made, feet have been put down, heads dropped, bikes pushed, disappointment has been met. It’s steep and traction is awkward as I pick my line over the smoothest of the pave sunk in the trees, although smoothness is all relative, there is no good line, just less bad. It’s all that hellingen should be but something’s not quite right. I’m damp, which going by all previous experiences of riding around Belgium is pretty standard, but the wetness is seeping from the inside rather than coming from the skies, and it’s warm rather than freezing cold. It’s actually quite hot and it’s sweat that’s making me moist rather than any of the fifty types of rain. And disconcertingly I am not wearing five layers of warm clothing that are slowly progressively failing against the persistent onslaught of Benelux dreich. All of this makes a refreshing, if disconcerting change.
I’m grinding up the Koppenberg, the classic climb in Flanders and it’s dry, the sun’s in full force and it’s my forearms that have a slippery sheen rather than the pavé and it’s just plain…. odd. It’s not meant to be like this. The image we have been repetitively sold of riding around Belgium is one of cold and grey and rain and grit and hardship, with steely hardmen fighting tenaciously against the elements and the climbs to succeed against the odds year on year on year in high ISO black and white. In cycling vernacular riding in Belgium exists for about two months in Spring when the early season Classics are fought out and we expect it to be miserable and wet, it’s intrinsic to the fable. If it’s anyway halfway pleasant weather we’re almost disappointed. There’s a whole romantic windblown expanse of cycling culture that deals with the Cult of Epic and a lot of it is built around the iconography of this early part of the year. Buy into the dream with show of just how tough you are with some socks decorated with a lion rampant. The symbol of Flanders has become a simple rugged shorthand. Put a sticker on a frame to show it was born of effort, hail, mud and struggle, add a bit of black, yellow and red. Instant kudos.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Cycling can be nice. Cycling in Belgium can be lovely. There are another ten months or so aside from the Classics season in which you can ride your bike in Flanders, and a good few of those might even be quite pleasingly less gritty. Imagine that. Leave all your black-and-white unshaven gazing into the distance hardship at home and enjoy yourself. You can do that can’t you?
For this sunny long-weekend in Flanders I’m based in Ghent. I’ve visited the city enough times in the Classics season to partake in the Ronde van Vlaanderen sportive and then to watch the Pros race the next day, and while there was that one time it was unseasonably warm and nice enough to sit outside and have a post-ride beer I’ve spent most of my jaunts in Belgium being that very special kind of Northern European cold outdoors or huddled indoors trying to warm myself with beer and frites. To wander around in just shorts and a t-shirt is outstanding and the flipside season reveals a totally new aspect to the city, but more on that later, there’s bikes to be ridden in what feels like too little lycra.
There are a myriad of ways to plan a route these days when you’re somewhere you don’t quite know you way around, go old school and guess at something with a map, finger and pen, poach someone else’s training loop from whatever internet cycling social platform you’d care to chose, if you’re lucky follow something already laid down and arrowed or if you’re in Benelux then you can download the FietsKompass app. Using this handy route planning tool you can drag and map any riding loop you care to conjure up and once on your way your phone will let you know just before you approach any junction which way to turn. Pop an ear-piece in one ear and it will tell you like a virtual DS, put a little strip of tape over it so you look more Pro.
Which is how Dries from Cycling In Flanders and I plan a loop out of Oudenaarde (after coffees in the Tour of Flanders Centre) on the first ride of the weekend and head straight up the steady climb of Edelare onto the ridge that runs east of town. It’s nice up here, even nicer without a taught wintry wind cutting to your marrow. And it’s even nicer again to be riding through a world of colour; greenery, and blue skies rather than the permanent brown and multitude monotone shades that I’ve slouched through in the Spring. It’s like a different country, well, like a country that you know but with make-up and best frock on. It scrubs up well. Even at the height of Summer the roads round here are quiet though, it isn’t just the wind and rain that keeps people away, and we casually noodle about the lanes, some of whom I recognise, that bit of road made of numbered white concrete slabs, dunk, dunk, dunk, sections of cobbles that I’ve bumped over on the Ronde, swoops of tarmac not into a frigid headwind this time, and again it all feels a little wrong to actually enjoy them rather than internalising tears at the miserable onslaught of slippery pavé, cold, drizzle and freezing toes. I can recommend this change in attitude.
We’re enjoying a pleasingly undulating route along dappled sunshine lanes but before we’re even really warmed up the ride takes an unscheduled stop thanks to an untimely tumble into a ditch. This leaves me time to see what wandering around Ghent in the evening sunshine is like rather than huddling in a café and drinking lots of beer to hide from the drizzle and the dark as is my norm. There is the time, daylight, warmth and inclination to stroll about the place, see the sights, even sit outside and watch the world go by. This is a novelty.
Ghent has the feel of a secret as everyone tends to gawp to film-star Bruges 50km away up the E40, and it’s all the better for it, for while it has its moments it’s not over-run with tourist tat. Ghent is an university town so it has a large student population and all that is associated with that, so lots of bars, restaurants and music venues. It’s a vibrant cultural hub, has a strong history and despite being well inland is also a port thanks to a 25km long canal to the North Sea. Mix that all of together and you’re not going to be lost for something interesting when you’re off the bike.
My first night there we’d clattered across the cobbles on battered town bikes with beer aided suspension, rocked up at an event somewhere bigger than a gig but smaller than a festival held underneath a threatening crane by the river. Inside the building there’s some 80’s derivative electronica going on, there’s a stack of televisions showing a random collection of fuzzy and interference heavy images and films projected onto the walls giving the whole place very much a Max Headroom vibe, in a good way. The girl singer even has a harsh Pris replicant haircut. You know you’re at a cool venue when someone turns up in full cycling kit and Sidis and no-one bats an eyelid.
Thanks to the wool trade there are strong historical links between Ghent and the UK, the statue of Jacob van Artevelde in the Vrijdagmarkt is pointing towards England to celebrate this fact, which is maybe why it feels like a second home to me. And Bradley Wiggins was born here of course. There’s no statue yet. The centre of the city is a shared-space pedestrianised area so it’s an easy pleasure to saunter around, with only the odd tram and multitudes of bicycles to dodge. There are restaurants, cafes and coffee shops galore, both traditional and trendy, there are posh shops and quirky boutiques, some cycle shops to get your fix and enough weird history in-between to keep you occupied off the bike. Find out why the informal symbol of Ghent is the hangman’s noose, hear about the castle that has only been invaded once – by students protesting about the price of beer, what a Ghent Nose is, taste a Nun’s Behind and hear the story of one of the most famous and unsolved art robberies in history. Then go and eat some local cheese.
If you’re in luck you’ll find yourself down a side street and through a tall thin door that takes you into a dark and cluttered to the ceiling bike shop, although it’s more of a museum than somewhere to pick up a spare long-valved inner-tube for your carbon wheel. Sit outside and chat with the owner in his slightly too baggy and yet too tight striped tights, get offered a plastic cup of beer, sign the visitor’s book.
While we’re on beer, you can’t really escape it here, discover that in the Middle Ages the city of Ghent was split in two, divided by the river Leie, with the left half of the town controlled by the French who for reasons of power and taxes were forced to use herbs instead of hops to brew beer. This is a tradition carried on by brewster (the proper word for a female brewer, not hipster slang) Annick De Splenter in Gruut, Ghent’s only brewery, which gets it’s name from what brewers used to call the herby mixture. Gruut has a handful of different beers to try, which all seem equally adept at washing down their handsome post-ride stew and chips. It’s much much more than just cobbles and classics here.
My final day fling I have a big lollipop ride planned; head down to Oudenaarde, ride round a signed route from the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen and then back the same way home to Ghent. There’s a famous bike path that runs all the way alongside the river Schelde between the two towns, although to call it a path is to do it a disservice, it’s the width of a road. Finding my way onto it takes a bit of getting lost and some fluke but once there it’s a simple, easy and stress-free 30km pedal to Oudenaarde. The Schelde path is a well known cyclists artery, there’s even an infamous Scheldepeloton chain-gang that blats up and down it, and it’s apparently not uncommon to see a Pro or two clipping up and down on their way to or from a training session on the bergs. Sure enough I spot a Lotto rider coming the other way, all gangly legs and flappy gilet, sat up on his phone, going pretty swiftly. I’m making slightly slower time alongside the river on a quiet weekday which makes it beautifully empty, it can get pretty rammed at the weekends, and skimming under the dapple of the trees passing the odd pensioner on their town bike is about as big a counterpoint as it’s possible to have to images of Belgian rouleurs battering themselves up drizzly cobbled climbs. And that’s just fine.
I divert off the river into the centre of Oudenaarde, pick up a coffee and a bun and head to the Centrum to look at the route map. There are three sign-posted routes to chose from; the Blue 78km, the Red at 114kms and the Yellow, which is the 103km option that I plump for, and 14 km of it is cobbles. It heads straight west out of town, over the bridge, past where the finish line for the RvV is and then swerves right down a somewhat scruffy lane that requires double-checking of the signage and thus quickly into the countryside to follow a clockwise sausage-shaped route round Flanders, with a bunch of those famous climbs backloaded into the last half.
I can tell I’m in Belgium because in the first village I spin through I pass a team car parked outside a house. Normal and incongruous at the same time. You have to keep your wits about you when following the coloured routes out from the museum, although they’re impeccably signed it’s sometimes easy to miss the small coloured plaques by getting excited and going too fast, or they’re obscured by foliage, or you’re enjoying the ride too much and just not really paying much attention. Ahem. I make enough wrong turns for all these reasons but the sun is out, I have the roads pretty much to myself and it’s not a problem. I swoop between cornfields and attack the cobbled sections with the usual big-ring gusto, they’re still teeth-rattlingly hard, even in the joys of Summer, and still with big holes to avoid, still happy to throw out a puncture or two, just less greasy.
After fiddling through Zingem the route hits the Schelde path by the river and I miss the turning that takes it over a bridge and onto the eastern half of the loop and head straight back into Oudenaarde by mistake. Oh. Undeterred I head back out south-west on a route I remember from the past that takes in a few more climbs and a few more cobbles, onto that flat straight bike path to the base of the Koppenberg to tackle it in the warm and dry, and more importantly uncluttered of sportive traffic. It’s still not easy, and that bit three-quarters of the way up where it steepens just enough is still a tongue-out few pedal strokes, but in the shade with the late afternoon sun dripping through the cover of the trees it’s almost a picturesque scene. Top out by the houses, where the last time I stood I was somewhere in the Top 10 of the coldest I’d ever been on a bike and cruise down to Maarkedal and one of my favourite sectors of pavé; keep it fast and in the big ring and you can float all of this, start to struggle and have to drop gears and it becomes a bumpy grindy torture. Turn right off the hard shoulder of the dual-carriageway, use the slight downhill to all of it’s advantage and hit the long straight of cobbles as hard and as fast as you can and hope to carry your speed as the road slopes every so slightly up towards the farm buildings. Gnnnnn.
Dropping off the other side down Stationsberg it’s pleasing to see the cobbles shiny in a sheen of low sunlight rather than that of drizzle, up the Ladeuze, and finally down the Achterberg into Oudenaarde to hunt down an emergency Fanta and sticky bun to get me back to Ghent. Big gear lope back down the river, it’s heading seawards so should all be slightly downhill, the sun drifting over my left shoulder, past that big building making a lot of noise and the café, and then as I get closer to town joggers and people sitting in green spaces enjoying the evening start to appear. This isn’t the Belgium we’re fed. I slip back through town, still warm, in no hurry to get back to my hotel to get out of shivering wet clothes this time, I’ll be able to sit outside later and enjoy more beer and frites. Marvelous.
Forget all that gritty faux-epic ego-driven codswallop and come to Belgium in the warm and sunny, it’s really very very nice. You can still buy a casquette with a lion on to keep the rain off. Or sweat and sun out your eyes.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.