Eurovelo 5 – Belgium

I had originally decided to follow Anne Mustoe’s route across Europe which involved following the Roman road called the via Romea Francigena. Today that route is known by cyclists as the Eurovelo 5 which has a detour in it through Belgium. The reason for this diversion is that the Eurovelo headquarters are based there.

After getting off the ferry on a very windy day I was lucky enough to survive the short cycle to the gates of the port. It seems that drivers, particularly in red cars, like to come very close to cyclists. I very nearly came a cropper before I had cycled my first French kilometre.

Entering country No:2 was a breeze, I had dried off enough to be comfortable and although it was very windy rode off the ferry and out of the port. I then had to push the bike all the way to the railway station to meet mum.

We walked down the main Calais road looking for a bed and breakfast but ended up eating in an American diner of all places. The diner was called Sixties, all the music was from the 60’s but in French (doesn’t work). I ordered a starter of onion rings, calamari, fish balls (no comment). Mum thought the calamari was off onion rings, I had to laugh. We then had a burger and fries, mum was full from the starter so emptied a Tupperware box of biscuits she had and but her full burger in it, “I’ll have that later” she said. Classic!

I had called into a hotel earlier to check price and availability but they had nowhere to store my bike, so I suggested mum stayed and I cycle the 3 miles to a campsite. It was getting late and I had to dry all my soggy gear so mum checked in and we arranged to meet at Saint-Omer late the next day.

Finding the campsite was easy enough and it was right next to the beach, the sun was still out and the wind had dropped just enough to lay all my stuff on the floor to dry off. I headed for the loo and shower block only to be told by the cleaner “closed” I needs a wee is there a toilet “closed” how can this be! Turns out he was cleaning the shower block and the loo is next door and his English vocabulary is “closed” which is better than my French.

Once back at camp I set up, still leaving some stuff outside to dry, I lay in my tent and ate a bag of wine gums, this turned out to be a mistake as I now had a sugar rush and struggled to get to sleep. However I must have nodded off as I was being woken by the sound of rain, it was pissing it down and yep you guessed it my stuff is outside, too late to rescue it I rolled over and went back to sleep.

I decided not to rush off in the morning as most of my gear was soaked and the sky was dull, I went for a shower and shave but didn’t leave the shower block for an hour as the rain was bouncing off the floor. I had no way of contacting mum but to take the pressure off my only option was to stay another night, I went to the office and booked in again. I went back to the tent made some noodles and was going to go to sleep and the sun came out.

As soon as I lowered my head I thought it was a bad idea and I should really sort my gear out. As the bivi bag just let in water when in the muddy field I decided to bin it as it was excess weight.
I spent the next few hours cleaning my bike, oiling the chain, cable and washed my panniers. I still had no way of contacting mum so at 4 pm decided to catch a train to meet mum at Saint-Omer.

I cycle to the station and not wanting to have my bike and belongings stolen by the thousands of people waiting around the station, I took my bike into the ticket office and bought a one-way ticket to Saint-Omer via a healthy workout of the stairs of death!

Note: Calais railway station has no lifts to the platforms. I looked for a lift, I wished for a lift, I’d even pray for a lift, I even asked for a lift. No lift! Only a groove in the side of some very steep stairs, which my bike wouldn’t go in as my panniers made it too wide. I tried to use my brakes to control the decent, this of course failed and the bike and myself shot down the 40 stairs to the bottom, injury to elbow and my pride.

I stood waiting for the train and within 5 minutes the platform was crawling with police, I counted 24 of them, was there a football match in Calais tonight? It turns out they were there to catch illegal immigrants (big problem). As hundreds of people got off the train the police pulled some from the crowd, when the train emptied some of the police searched the train. I switched on the GoPro but a copper gave me an evil look, so I switched it off.

The journey to Saint-Omer was comfy, efficient and quick, the only problem was steps upwards and lots of them. Some guy offered to help me get the bike and panniers up them. I accepted, he picked up the bike and almost ran up the stairs. Well, I’m definitely unfit.

Mum was at the station and was worried due to the storm, she had booked me in the Chic ò Rail hotel and restaurant for 2 nights to rest up and get dry. This was also the point mum and I would go our different ways, mum exploring northern France and me to Lille and Brussels.

The hotel room was a picturesque French attic up 2 flights of steep stairs, warm and comfy. I arranged to meet mum in the restaurant after I grabbed a hot shower and changed into non-damp clothing. I ordered a beer and a steak with Camembert, the waitress put a bib on me, either something had gone wrong in translation or this was going to be an epic meal. Turns out an epic meal.

I put all my stuff on charge and fell asleep in my room, I woke after having some strange dreams that involved steps.

Aug 12th Tuesday. One week in.

I woke at 07:00, headed out at 09:00 into Saint Omer town centre, fluffy clouds in a blue sky. Walked along the river bank and to the towns square where we found the Spey river cafe and stopped for coffee and croissants, the cafe only had one croissant left but the waitress sent me to the bakery for mine and served mum, as we sat in the cafe it went dull outside, the wind picked up and it poured down, luckily it was just a shower and stopped after 5 mins.

We explored Saint-Omer, had a look in the Nostra Dam Church, went back to the cafe for a drink then had a nap at the hotel. I woke showered then went to a launderette I spotted earlier after the laundry was complete I had a crêpe with apple and a coffee, mum just had coffee. We grabbed some supplies from the supermarket and went back to the hotel.

Heard the news about Robin Williams today, very sad.

Aug 13th Wednesday

Mum knocked on my door at 05:30 she was anxious about the rest of my journey and hers, she decided to get the train to Calais and the ferry to the UK and was setting off early. We said our goodbye’s and that was it, I’m on my own. I really appreciate mum as she’s an adventurer and still enjoys travel also she looked after me over the 12 months I was off I’ll.

I packed and cycled around town – then 3 miles in the wrong direction. (Right road wrong way, all the excitement). It was a mixed morning of wind, showers and sunshine, after a couple of hours I stopped and made some soup.

In a Zone

Today I don’t know if I was in ‘the’ zone but I just got on with it, the bike was running well and I’d hung my map compass around my neck to be able to check my general direction. It worked, a day without any issues, well other than a bee sting at the top of my eye.

D211 – nipped through some road works
D642 – Turns out it’s a motorway, no bikes so used compass to run parallel.
Hazebrouck – Walked through town went to the supermarket
D642 – This time cycle path Strazeele to Bailleul
D933 – Nieppe, got stung by a bee above the left eye.
I collided with a bee and it got stuck between my glasses so it decided to sting me, nearly came off my bike and it hurt like hell all afternoon.
D933 – Armentiers – Sore arse pushed for a while
Lomme bit rough, lots of high rises
19:18 hrs 13.08.14 Arrived Lille.

Lille and the Roundabout

By 10:00 this morning it was 23 degrees and sunny, I arrived in Lille town square at 19:18 with no clouds in the sky and the sun was setting, although a little breezy it was pleasant. I wandered the square looking for a place to put my bike and get a coffee, I found one outside Mister Coffee overlooking Lille square. I purchased a latte and a muffin although I paid an extortionate €7 I really enjoyed it. Whilst in the square I was asked twice what I was up to and after filming outside the opera house Fabian came over for a chat. I think all the gear on the bike and the fact I was talking to a GoPro camera attracted some attention.

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I sat on the opera house steps and updated my journal, the sun had nearly gone by the time I set off to find somewhere to sleep. As I headed out of Lille several cyclists pulled alongside me for a chat. One, in particular, was a character, his name was Andre and he looked like a professor you’d see in cartoons, he had bright orange goggles on and messy grey hair riding a knackered bike, however, he turned out to be a star, “oh you have your bed on the back of your bike” was his opening sentence, “where are you heading” I told him my plans and that I was heading to Belgium but was looking for somewhere to sleep, he said he lives in Roubaix which is on the way and to follow him, so follow him I did.

Along the way, he pointed out hundreds of places to wild camp and even a budget hotel for €20 a night (tempted). He was one to break a rule or two as we cycle the wrong way up one-way streets and even against traffic on the wrong side of the road, through subways over paved areas, we cycle for nearly an hour before saying goodbye. He pointed out the way or said I could go back a little and sleep in the cemetery as the residents are very quiet. What a guy.

I continued on the main road, mainly because it was downhill and I had little peddling to do, I eventually came to an industrial estate, Andre had said they were quite places at night and I shouldn’t get disturbed. I cycle around the estate and liked the look of a spot near the Peugeot dealerships fence until 2 extremely noisy Alsatians came running towards me luckily they were on the right side of the fence but I wouldn’t be sleeping there.

It was about 11 pm and I was getting tired but I had come to the other end of the industrial park, there was a roundabout in front of me and I remember reading about someone who had slept on a roundabout before, so I pushed my bike across the road and into the middle of the roundabout. It was perfect, large round thing in the middle of the road but was surrounded by a large hedge and had trees on, two were spaced far enough apart to set the hammock up. I had a great night sleep undisturbed. A few notes to self, use netting as lots of midges, have hammock a little higher so dandelions don’t tickle you at night.

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I woke at 04:20 but reset my alarm until 06:00 it rained from 04:30 – 06:00 but I was warm and very comfy. I balanced all my gear on the bike and went across the road to re-pack, luckily I noticed that I had dropped my sleeping bag on the Roundabout so managed to retrieve it.

I cycled for about an hour and a half before arriving at Kerk in Spiere just after the Belgium border, not that you notice borders in Europe, apparently, they have an arrangement. I stopped in a parade close to a wonderful old church, the sun was out and I needed to dry my gear. I stripped the bike, lay my tarp out to dry and adjusted the handlebars, seat and rear wheel, then had to adjust the gears again. I was in a good mood and wasn’t in any rush.

A bus pulled into the parade and the driver came over, in fact, everyone who passed me stopped for a chat but the bus driver, whose name was Nico was especially chatty and helpful. He stops here for 7 mins then drives for 50 mins waits 15 mins at the other end then comes back, he does this from 08:00 until 15:00 having lunch at the 15 min end of his run. He told me that Kierk was normally quite but as it was the school holidays it was even quieter, he had only 12 or so people on his bus that morning.

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After Nico had set off I made porridge, coffee, washed up the pots and pans, washed and shaved and got changed. I was there that long that Nico returned for another chat, he’s married with 2 children and we swapped email addresses to keep in touch. When I did set off following the main road I rested in a bus stop after about an hour, at Toekomstratt and Nico drove past in his bus No:85, beeping his horn and waving, such a nice guy.

I rode for far too long as I was exhausted, I came across a lovely town called Oudenaarde, I cycled through the square and filmed the fantastic architecture.

Belgium seems to be taking forever, perhaps it’s the saddle sore. I continued to Asst to look for somewhere to sleep, a motel would be good. I followed a canal thinking there would be somewhere along the bank I could sleep. I tried a spot in the wood but it was next to a motorway and had tall weeds and thorn bushes so I moved on, my arse is really sore and I’m getting grumpy as I can’t find anywhere quiet or dry.

I cycled to a lock and an industrial estate but there were lots of guard dogs, so I rearranged my panniers so I could set up camp quickly when I did find somewhere. I had to backtrack along the canal for about 30 mins until I was at a sports complex, I was tempted to pitch camp on the football field but it started to rain, so I waited under a tree until it eased and pushed on.

I could hear thunder and see lightning in the distance it was about 11 pm when I got caught in another storm and had to make a quick decision.

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Sleeping in a Car Wash!

I could see lightning in the distance and hear the thunder, it was already raining and I had a feeling the weather was going to get worse. I was on the main road heading out-of-town when the lightning was directly above me and the thunder was really loud, up ahead I could see the lights of a petrol station and knew I would have to take shelter, as I approached the wind picked up and it started to rain heavily.

I pulled into what was an automatic petrol station with no staff, it had a jet wash bay which was covered so I sheltered there. I watched the rain bouncing off the floor for at least 30 mins I even got my ground sheet out to wrap around me as I was cold. Another 30 mins past and the rain kept coming down, as it was midnight I decided just to sleep against the wall in the jet wash. I got my sleeping mat and sleeping bag out, lay my bike on its side and curled up under the groundsheet.

I had a terrible nights sleep mainly because I could be seen by anyone entering the petrol station. I did nod off but only slept for an hour or so. I packed up about 06:30 as I was freezing. I rode to Asse which should be renamed Ass because everything was closed and I couldn’t get any food.

I followed a cycle path which led me to a farm where a noisy dog started to chase me, I wasn’t in the mood and shouted at the dog which made it worse, so I ended up turning back. I stopped at a farm gate and decided to get my stove out to make coffee and porridge, luckily I managed to eat it and start to pack everything away before it pissed it down. I just pulled my ground sheet over my head until it stopped. I loaded the bike and noticed the chain had come off, so took all my gear off to fix it.

I had set my navigation App to local roads which are proving to take too long and I was about to pay the price.

Continue Straight On!

But it’s a corn field, now I knew the navigation App was set to keep me off busy roads and aim for cycle paths but a cornfield, okay there was a path and it had bike tracks on, so perhaps it was a short cut (by the way if a short cut is shorter why isn’t it just the way). What happened over the next 2 hours was going to be one of those life lessons.

  1. As a man, I admit I don’t ask directions, after all, I’m in Belgium and don’t really speak the lingo.
  2. Turning back was not an option, after all, I wanted adventure, plus I had watch Bear Grylls on Netflix.

Cycling through the cornfield was fine I just stayed in the middle of the track on the hump that’s created when tractors go up and down. In fact, at one point I had huge corn on one side and a field of Brussels sprouts on the other and had to chuckle that I was actually in Brussels as well as near Brussels.

I turned right and was parallel to a busy motorway and the track turned to grass with narrow bike tracks cut into it, I made the error of trying to ride in one of these grooves, got stuck and came off the bike with a big thud, I landed awkwardly on my side bruising a rib or two (still hurts a week later). I picked myself and the bike up, reattached the panniers and continued on foot. This was the point of no return but with hindsight, I most definitely should have turned back. The big clue that I should have returned the way I came was a guy covered in mud on a BMX bike flying past me shouting something in what I can only assume to be French or Flemish, I couldn’t translate it so continued on.

This is probably time to view the video as my description may not be as good!

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I had managed to get myself onto a Pro BMX track, think steep hills in a forest with mud everywhere. Remember 20 mins ago it had pissed it down. I went under the motorway and it got worse, at one point I came out of the forest onto the hard shoulder of the motorway and walked against the traffic to a clearing where I could see someone jogging. Luckily I didn’t get caught or killed. I managed to find an information board with a map of the forest and BMX track on and walked out into a lovely park. At last, I had arrived in Brussels.

Once I had escaped the grips of the forest I headed into Brussels town, my aim was to get to see the Atomium. I popped into a bus shelter to look at the map and figure the route out, it turns out I was very close and after a short incline, it was downhill most of the way. I found myself a sign with Brussels on it, so did a bit of filming and as the sky had gone a horrible shade of grey I knew I needed to find shelter and quickly. I passed another bus shelter but this one was full of people all looking up at the sky, no room for a fully laden bike and it’s rider, I pushed on and found a shop with a canopy, the shop was called Finitro, I stayed there until the worst of the downpour had finished. I then move to a nearby bus shelter, it was still raining, both the bike and I was covered in mud and filthy. I took the tent off the bike and sat on it for the next 2 hours in a bus shelter in Oude Afspanning, Brussels. I charged my GoPro and Tablet from the Power Monkey battery pack.

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Once the rain had stopped and the sun was out I followed a tramway to the Atomium, I’d never thought I would be stood here next to this monument, there were tourists everywhere and a queue at a waffles van, so I propped the bike on the back of the van and joined the queue. The sign on the van said warm waffles which I thought was excellent as no one could accuse the waffle seller of breaking the trades description act. “My waffles not hot”. ” read the sign and move on” perfect. The seller was called Richard and when I went for my second waffle we had a bit of banter, that I had cycled from London to buy one, well two of his waffles, Richard would also like to move to London, so next time your there keep an eye open for Richard and his warm waffle van.

There was a tightrope across two of the highest atoms of the structure. (I won’t say balls) and a tightrope walker sat on the rope at one end, I watched for 20 or so minutes but all he did was stand up and sit back down again. Either too windy or some extreme way to train new staff. Later as I was further away heading to the Brussels expo centre there were people abseiling down from the top ball to the middle ball. I would hate to have to clean the windows on that thing.

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Close to the expo centre was the Alliance hotel, I was filthy and knackered so thought I’d check the rate, which didn’t matter as it was full, Fatima Hidea the duty manager was very good and allowed me to use the facilities to have an all-over wash, clean my teeth and shave. I left the Alliance hotel feeling very refreshed.

As I write this it’s pouring down with rain but I’m in my tent. I tightened my panniers and headed towards a campsite, saw the sign for the Dowe Egbert coffee factory and passed a bike shop. The site was close to a sports complex and was quite small but it had everything I needed and was cheap. I slept from 17:00 until 21:20 then went to the site office to pay my bill, I hadn’t eaten so bought 2 bags of crisps, I slept again from 22:30 until 06:00 then rolled over and slept until 08:00.

I woke up achy and hungry so had a wander around then made porridge and coffee. The sun was out so I put the solar panel up, met a family from Bath who had been touring Europe camping. Later mum and the kids were walking close by and the young girl about 5 ish knew plants by name and saw a dragon.

I decided to stay another night and rest, had noodles for lunch then spent an hour or so sorting the tent out. I changed the shock cords as a few of the originals had broken or come undone. I lay in the tent all afternoon either sorting video clips out or snoozing. The wind had picked up and it had showered on and off, so not a day to be outside. I discovered a power socket in the shower block and charged the battery pack but it was incredibly slow. So when the sun finally came out I cleaned the bike, bent the front cog back into place, cleaned the chain and indexed the gears.