I liked cycling. I liked Belgium (from what I knew of it). I figured I’d like cycling through Belgium. And I did. With a friend’s wedding scheduled in the low countries, it seemed like the perfect excuse to do some exploring by bicycle. We say exploring, but due to Schengen Visa requirements, exploring was relegated to the brief time spent each day getting from our planned start to our planned end.
Many people cycle around Europe every day. Some of them even do it for fun. Belgium makes this even easier, regardless of cycling proficiency, by being pretty flat, and having all its towns very close together. This is not necessarily specific to Belgium, but that’s where our friends were getting married, so it was convenient.
There are a number of companies which offer various packages for doing cycle tours throughout Europe. Some can be in groups, others can be self-guided. There’s also great variety of choice in the location, distance, support and accommodation packages on offer. And one day I’d love to try some of them, however we were limited.
We didn’t have a lot of time. We wanted to do 3 or 4 days of cycling max. My wife and I also wanted to do this trip by ourselves. We also wanted to start in Brussels and end somewhere else. Ultimately we were too picky. While there are lots of one-way routes on offer, they were generally longer. So we were left to our own devices.
If you’re hiring bicycles, not from a tour group, you’re required to return your bike to the start location. With train systems as they are in Europe this isn’t a major issue, as you can schedule your last day to be a train trip back to where you started, and just chuck your bike on the train. This also allows you to leave baggage at a hotel, in case you have something, like a suit, that you don’t want to cram into your panniers.
Because of our time restriction, and for simplicity’s sake, we eventually decided to do a short 3 day tour. Starting and ending in Brussels, our first day we cycled to Ghent, second day on to Antwerp, and on day three returned to Brussels. We used Cyclo, a Brussels based cycling organisation with several locations, to obtain a bike, and were overall happy with the experience.
The three cities we chose were all roughly 50km apart in a nice triangular formation, which for regular cyclists is not a terribly long distance. In fact it’s a pretty comfortable distance. It’s far enough to convince you’ve done some work and deserve that delicious Belgian beer and waffle, while also getting you to a completely different place in the country, and also not taking the entire day to do it. So what did we do.
You may notice the term ‘the bike’ and not ‘bikes’. This is because we decided to save a bit of money and hire a single tandem, as opposed to two bicycles. I also cycle more than my wife, and figured the trip would be more enjoyable for both of us if we shared a tandem, instead of having individual bicycles.
This was not the wrong decision. But we’re not sure if we’d do it again. Cyclo were able to provide us a perfectly decent tandem (it even had front suspension). There were one or two niggly things on the bike which we only picked up once we were far away from Brussels. It didn’t stop us, and the problems weren’t tandem specific, but it slightly affected our experience.
Firstly, I am not short, and rental bikes are not made for not short people, particularly one-size-fits-all tandems. The gears on our bike weren’t properly tuned, and the rear seat kept sliding down, no matter how we tried to tighten it. It also had a kick stand which loosened, and due to the length of the tandem would often scrape things while riding. The routes we ended up riding also involved more ‘rustic’ paths than we had anticipated, for which a tandem is not ideal. Also cobblestones. However this is perhaps again, no a tandem specific issue.
The tandem was fun though. It was fun to be together the whole time. It was fun to ride at the back at times. It was fun to have someone taking photos and navigating while the person in front could continue focusing on the cycling. We didn’t get upset with each other, or have any specific bad experience on the tandem, but at the end we both agreed we’d rather have been on our own bikes.
But wow, as flat as Belgium is, it’s a different ballgame climbing a hill with another person, panniers, bike locks and a (allegedly) 23kg bike.
Because this is Belgium, you can get away with Google Maps, and for getting out of cities, this is definitely what I’d recommend. Our first day we left later than we would have liked, and had to get to Ghent by a specific time, as such we decided to just follow Google Maps. And it works. But Google Maps takes you on the straightest easiest route. Also the least interesting, and least pretty route. We finished the first day and were a bit disappointed. We were hoping for some nice Belgian countryside, but we mostly just rode next to a B-road for 50km.
Thankfully there’s fietsroute.org. They are an amazing resource for all things cycling in Belgium (fiets is Dutch is for bicycle). Along with general information and suggested themed routes, they also just have a route planner letting you select a start and finish point, while it generates the best route.
The Belgian cycling routes are set out in nodes (an intersection where multiple routes meet). At each node there are signs pointing in the direction of the next node. And along each stretch, there are additional signs keeping you on track to the node you want. Fietsroute generates a route for you based on these nodes. It explicitly does not make use of main roads, as you can see in the below image, where the bicycle routes are overlaid on the normal street map.
Inevitably these routes end up being 20%+ further than the direct Google Maps option. But it’s well worth it. The routes it generates are far more enjoyable. Taking you through the countryside. On old farm roads, cobbled streets, and generally less trafficked and prettier areas. If you’re on a road bike, you may want to do a bit more work to ensure you stick to paved roads, as the first route you get may take you on some less than desirable paths (although these sections can be short).
Fietsroute provides a list of all the nodes (knooppunten) that you need to follow to get to your destination, and you can technically just follow road signs to these destinations. We found however it safer to download the GPX output and track those on a GPS. Most GPSs support this functionality, and there are several cellphone apps as well. We ended up using BikeGPX, which was sufficient for our purposes, if not perfect.
Below is the route we ended up taking. You can see on day one the route is fairly smooth as we followed Google Maps, and day two and three are more jagged, as we traced the Fietsroute suggested path.
You have many choices when it comes to accommodation. There are hotels everywhere. There’s AirBnB and multiple similar services. We ended up selecting places off Fietsroute’s list of BnBs.
Regardless of where you stay you’ll be able to lock your bike up outside for a night relatively safely. However the more expensive your bike, the greater chance of theft. The list of places on Fietsroute are listed specifically to cater for cyclists. So the places we stayed in Ghent and Antwerp both had place for us to store our bike overnight. Even our double length tandem. They also end up being a bit cheaper than regular accomodation.
But accommodation is really a small concern. Places in Belgium are so close together that you’ll be able to find somewhere to stay, no matter how far you decide to cycle each day.
I grew up wearing a helmet while cycling, and continue to do so. We planned on picking up helmets along with our rental bike. However, when collecting our bike, there were no helmets. Not to rent, not even to purchase. The shop cited some off-hand liability reasons.
And so we joined the throngs of helmetless Belgians, cycling through the cities, cycling on country paths. Sharing roads with cars, enjoying other roads completely devoid of any traffic. And being very careful not to crash.
In and around Brussels, probably only a quarter of people we saw cycling had helmets on. And cycling between the cities reduced even that. Arriving in Amsterdam (which easily had four times as many cyclists) revealed only 1 in 100 people wearing a helmet. Although the risk of an incident with a car is far less than say Los Angeles, or South Africa, I would have still expected helmets to be worn for for events not involving automobiles.
But we survived, without incident. The flat nature of the country, and heavy load kept our maximum speed at any point to under 20kmph. Which certainly worked in our favour.
Additionally, it was just wonderful to cycle around Belgium. Vehicle traffic is clearly aware of cyclists, and you never have to worry about being cutoff, or impatient drivers trying to squeeze past. This was true in the cities themselves, which had bike lanes laid out all over, as well as along more remote roads. People may be in a hurry, but they respect a cyclist’s place on the road
Cycling is fun and a great way to see a country. Especially if you choose to take the backroads. So many pretty tree-lined avenues, where it’s just you cycling along. So many unexpected ferry crossings.
We knew going in that we wouldn’t have much time to explore each city. Considering we were planning on traveling for 5 hours a day, this only left a few hours each evening to explore, and considering we only had one night in Ghent and Antwerp, we didn’t see much. We cycled and walked the towns, but rarely went in to places like museums. That being said, they both have a lot to see just from the perspective of a cyclist or pedestrian.
50-60km is not a lot to do each day. But considering how close cities are, it would be nice to plan shorter trips each day. This would also allow you to leave later and arrive earlier in each place, giving you more time to explore. Alternatively staying an extra night in each location.
Getting away from rental bikes is difficult, but we’d at least try switch to single bikes, allowing for a more comfortable riding experience. We’d also pack helmets.
In closing, we’d totally do this again. Everything worked out great, and for our first such trip I’m not unhappy with any of our decisions..