Postcards from Flanders

1. Dear Mum & Dad, from the Netherlands

Hi mum and dad! We’ve arrived safely into the Netherlands. The food on the ferry wasn’t as expensive as you might have thought, and we didn’t spend all our holiday money in the duty free.

I know you can’t understand the appeal of a cycle touring holiday and if every day was like today I’d come round to your way of thinking! I think you would have liked Zandvoort, a resort town with stylish cafes all along the sandy beach. But not on a day like today, with a hooley blowing and all the visitors crowded round scampi vans for the warmth and the comforting calories. We were so eager to discover cycling in the Netherlands that we ignored the weather forecast and found ourselves battling a constant coastal headwind and drizzle that intensified as the day went on.

Wind speed and direction (in purple) during our ill-conceived cycle from the port at Ijmuiden to Ijzendijke!

We were going to head further into the weather front (Me? Stubborn? Who would have thought it!) but a mechanical failure decided against it on our behalf. We didn’t think we’d get the help we needed because Zandvoort is tiny – only 18,000 people – but it had a bike shop with 15 mechanics, which would be unheard of in Scotland! It’s perhaps no surprise as the streets were lined with bicycles. That said, a bird still chose mine to shit on while we had coffee and waited for Hubs’ wheel to get fixed.

You would have thought that would have brought us some good luck, but as well as deteriorating weather we also fell foul of a peak-time train rule* which meant we couldn’t complete our journey to the ferry terminal in one go. We ended up kicking about in a sort of upmarket London commuter town-type place called Goes.

The best part of today was cycling through the national park just south of Ijmuiden. The woodland was so alive with all the familiar sights and sounds – magpies and jays, the drilling of a nesting woodpecker – and some less familiar – you want to see the size of the snails here, your bedding plants wouldn’t stand a chance! A warren of wetland territories hosted coots and moorhens, there were ducks in dykes aplenty, and – a new one for the bird badge collection – EGYPTIAN GEESE. Just lovely!

Other wildlife highlights brought slithers of joy to an otherwise miserable final 10 miles. I won’t tell you how strong the winds were because you’ll only tell me off, but suffice to say I should have learned from the sudden exodus of other cyclists that riding in a storm is ill-advised when your countryside has no hills and barely any trees to protect you! The wind and rain were relentless and if it hadn’t been for the oystercatchers cheering us on from the sidelines, the frog in the road keeping us on our toes or the sights of hares seeking shelter and a raptor flying ahead with some unlucky prey, we might have succumbed to giving up and falling into the nearest roadside dyke!

Anyway, this postcard can be your reassurance that we are still in one piece. Tomorrow is a shorter, more familiar journey with better weather… just don’t bear to think about the state we made of the floor when we arrived, muddy and wet, at our bed and breakfast; it will give you palpitations! The hosts at our B&B were more gracious than you would be about it!

*travelling by train in the Netherlands with a bike: some things we wish we knew during holiday planning…

One bicycle per person can be taken on trains throughout the Dutch rail network
This excludes peak hours (06:30-09:00 and 16:00-18:30 on weekdays, excluding public holidays)
You have to purchase a bike supplement for each bike, currently €7.50 per journey. It is less expensive to hire a city bike at each side of your train journey if you hire with the national city bike scheme
If the cycle area of your train is full, you have to wait until the next free train

2. To our local bike shop, from Oudenaarde

Hey squad! Just a little goedemiddag from Flanders in Belgium! We just crossed the border from the Netherlands earlier today and are enjoying an afternoon beer! (Don’t be jealous). Mid-ride alcohol consumption definitely seems like more of a thing here… imagine the headlines if it picked up in the UK and the Daily Express got wind of it!

We weren’t long into the ride when we came across our first stretches of cobbles – and in the rain too. I know what you’re thinking: you’re already cursing us for getting our bikes filthy after they’ve only just been serviced. Well don’t worry because we’ve already been punished with two problems requiring mechanic assistance in two days… today I needed a spoke re-tensioned and we managed to get that sorted pretty quickly, although Hubs’ initial enquiry with the bike shop in Ghent promised little…

HUBS: Hello! We’re on a cycling holiday passing through Ghent and my wife’s wheel has misaligned. Would you be able to have a look at it today please?

MECHANIC: Which wheel is it

HUBS: The rear wheel

MECHANIC: Come on, I’m trying to help you

Anyway, we went to the bike shop and the guy we met couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful – we can only assume that he meant to say “Come in, I’ll try and help you!

After that, I’m happy to say our bikes have been riding a dream in spite of a cold headwind. We weren’t the only muddy ones: cycling down the Schelde river towards Oudenaarde we saw loads of cyclists – all men* – pedalling home from the Ronde von Vlaanderen amateur sportive, which must have been pretty minging judging by the state of them.

We stayed clean for the rest of the day but fear not, we still managed to put our bikes through their paces with an accidental detour onto back-to-back fabled cobbled stretches on Kirkgate and Holleweg. I think I’ve almost perfected my cobbled riding, sticking to the middle of the road where the camber is more favourable, and keeping as loosey-goosey a grip as I dare… easier said than done with my narrow ‘femme’ handlebars! Some of the other cobbled stretches have ‘escape gutters’ down either side but you’ll be proud to hear that I didn’t use them… that wouldn’t be in the spirit of Flanders, would it. I know you’ll be pretending to roll your eyes at the state my bike will come back to you in at the end of the trip, but really you just wish you were here!

Raising a glass of La Chouffe for you all… and cycling responsibly afterwards…

* a quick straw poll of race results from the 2023 Ronde von Vlaanderen sportive suggests that less than 7% of entrants were female. If macho-MAMILism is still in full swing in the world of cycle sportives then it’s no wonder the women are put off…

3. To our pals who couldn’t join us this year: Wandering & De Ronde’ing

Some essential Ronde route planning

Well friends, here’s your first update from our first Flanders holiday without you!

The first thing to say is, that it was NOT the same holiday without staying at our usual B&B! Both places we stayed had underfloor heating, which I suppose is more efficient than radiators, but made it hard to get our clothes dry after we got soaked in the rain! Gratefully, it was dry today for us watching the pros ride the Ronde.

As is customary by now, we spent a good half an hour poring over the race schedule and looking at the node point map* – the cycling-by-numbers did not disappoint, as usual! – at a new cafe we found near Horebeke. The owners were lovely and very curious to hear about where we were from (to avoid awkward Brexit chat we refrained from saying UK and got a much better reception when we said we were over from Scotland!). We brought a conciliatory bottle of Jura whisky along with us and shared a dram with them; the barkeep got quite misty-eyed when we told him a bit of folklore from the island! They knew our B&B friends too – I always forget what a small community it is here.

Speaking of which, we caught up with them before the race for a coffee. They’re turning the old guest rooms into a home sauna! Which we could have done with today because it was freezing waiting for the cyclists to pass by – luckily both the men and women were racing at the faster end of their ETAs. We managed to see the men at Jagerij and Sint-Maria-Horebeke, and the women at Sint-Maria-Horebeke and Taiaenberg, diving in and out of pubs in between to keep warm and watch the race unfold on the big screens. The pubs and cafes were mobbed, as usual, and all the usual ales were on tap: Adrian Brouwer, Westmalle, Ename Pater, Dubbel and Blonde, and for the ladies, a Kreik Boon or a Leifmann’s Fruitesse. We had to leg it to Taiaenberg to catch the women a second time but we took the same route we took with you, including that God-awful hill… how you got up that with a baby trailer, I’ll never know!

There was a really nice family atmosphere as usual, in spite of the cold, with loads of kids out with their Jumbo Visma-sponsored caps and flags, and we got a few collateral cheers from them when we swept up the cobbles just before the pro caravan. Alas we never found that delightful bar at the old peoples’ home that we sat in to watch the finish last time we were there together!

We didn’t head into the main square after the race but we heard there was quite a lot of rowdiness and a few fights broke out – I think there’ll be some sore heads tomorrow as we pass through! We’ll keep you posted on how many of the cafés in the centre remain gesloten tomorrow in spite of it being the biggest event in the Oudenaarde tourism calendar. I hope our new B&B has a big enough breakfast to see us past lunchtime!

* The node – or knooppunten – network is a national map of numbered junctions which are signposted along the recommended roads to ride throughout Belgium (a similar network exists in the Netherlands too). These roads are likely to have great cycle infrastructure, beautiful scenery or points of interest and usually a low burden of traffic. They’re also a great way to get in and out of cities, avoiding the usual carnage of urban sprawl. Just select your start and destination points and pick out the numbers to follow from the online interactive map. Signposts at junctions show you which way to go to get to your next knooppunt. It’s as easy as that!

The node network map of the area surrounding Oudenaarde in Belgium. Look at all those nodes!

To our friends who aren’t cyclists: in search of the Golden Egg

Hi guys! Writing to you from a cafe in Ghent in Belgium! We’ve been staying just south of here in Oudenaarde for the racing but spending a couple of hours in the city before getting a train through Brussels to Hasselt, our next stop on our tour.

Thought of you specifically because of how lovely the cafe is: it’s a speciality coffee shop that also sells great plant-based sandwiches, cakes and pastries. I can’t cope with too much food choice at the best of times so I didn’t know what to do! Luckily Hubs is amenable to sharing 😄

It makes a change from the offerings at most places around Oudenaarde too – every other dish is still (after seven years of visits) white asparagus with scrambled egg or steak and chips. Most of the waiting staff there have been pretty wide-eyed when we asked for something not made with animal in it…

We arrived here hungry too: we’ve just finished cycling the ‘Gulden Ei’ (Golden Egg), which is a waymarked 45km route through the Kruishoutem region. You would love – or hate – the quirky architecture round here; lots of brutalist ‘compound’-looking bungalows with high security fences and quite a few actual moats being built around the bigger houses! You would also be outraged by how savage some of the gardens are, it’s all paving and privet topiaries and miniature hedge mazes. We met up with a friend who does landscape gardening in the area and he was telling us that they were warned when they started training not to expect to be planting all day as the job is more than 50% paving, and I could believe it. The town squares we passed through were lovely though, all neat cobbled roads and soft pink blossom floating down from the trees. Much of the route is on designated cycle lanes, the roads are really quiet and it’s well-signposted too, it would be an ideal introduction to Belgian cycling. Don’t expect much sustenance on the route though! In line with most of our culinary experiences round here, we completed the whole route, passing through several small towns, and none of the bars or cafes were open. I don’t know how these guys stay in business! Cycling round here can be a real test of your mettle for food insecurity, we’ve been smuggling as much fruit and as many bread rolls as we can from our B&B, but there’s only so many breakfast items that will keep in a rucksack or pannier on a warm spring day!

However, when you find a winning place to eat… boy do the Belgians know how to do cakes and pastries!

18 April, 2023

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