It shouldn’t have taken me more than 20 years in Brussels to discover the joys of getting around town almost exclusively by bike, or of exploring the city, the surrounding region and the rest of Belgium on two human-powered wheels.
But life sometimes shifts gears on you, and here I am, more than 3,000 kilometres into the Covid-19 era, spending most of my spare time seeking out new routes to tour and then conquering them.
I’ve entered an alternate universe that has always existed all around me. It is one whose waypoints are marked with little green coded signs and whose scenic side roads, canal towpaths, gravel forest trails, dimly lit tunnels, and car-free ferry crossings offer more than just transportation and cardiovascular exercise but also a few hours of what feels like freedom.
Over the past 18 months, my bike – a basic Decathlon vélo-tout-chemin I bought years ago to use up some eco-cheques – has switched from something taking up space in the hallway to an extension of my person. It serves my daily commute and gets me around town on errands and social calls, but it also has been my vehicle for exploring everything from the stately woods of Brabant to the fietsroute fields of Flanders to the industrial wastelands of Vilvoorde. Most days I can’t wait to ride it.
I’ve never been much of a car person, always preferring to travel in the city on foot or public transport. But like many other people during lockdown, I have increasingly started to rely on my bicycle as my main way of getting around.
For and against…
Why did it take so long to make the switch? Consider this partial checklist of excuses I had for years of not commuting by bike:
- It’s too dangerous: Brussels drivers (aggressive, incompetent, empowered by the world’s craziest traffic rule), a lack of respect for cycle lanes or cyclists as humans, a lack of cycle lanes in general, and the prevalence of tram lines and potholes all make biking in the city a daunting prospect.
- It’s too hilly: Flanders may be flat, but Brussels is not. While there’s nothing approaching l’Alpe d’Huez in town, there are plenty of deceptively steep inclines. I live at the bottom of one and its existence long dampened my motivation to start each morning commute with a vigorous 10-minute cardio workout.
- The weather is crap: Enough said.
One by one, each of these obstacles has been overcome – mostly in my mind:
- It’s still dangerous but getting a lot better: Brussels has become more bike-friendly in recent years, and especially since lockdown. There are more cycle lanes and crossings, and clearer indications of where riders can follow the best routes through town. But much of the new “infrastructure” looks haphazard or temporary, and often it is ignored by motorists. While I’ve found a route to work that is generally hassle-free, there are still a few places where traffic mayhem gives each trip a frisson of mortal danger, turning the daily commute into DeathRace2000.
- It’s not that hilly: Even on a non-electric bicycle and even for me and my dad-bod, the hills of Brussels and the surrounding region are pretty manageable. I find the morning workout kind of invigorating.
- The weather is crap: Some things you can’t change. But with the right waterproof gear even riding home in a downpour at the end of a long workday is not too bad.
Once I got past those old excuses and started to build confidence and stamina, the bike took on even more importance in my life — especially when teleworking was the rule and commuting was not an option.
On weekends I began exploring some of the terrific trails and routes in the regions around the city, starting in the Forêt de Soignes and gradually scoping out longer trips of 20-40km at a time. That may not sound like much, but for a 54-year-old who survived a health scare a couple of years ago, it felt significant.
My first real challenge came last November when I decided to ride the Promenade Verte, a 60km hike-or-bike circuit around Brussels. The route offers a kaleidoscopic view of the city and its suburbs, linking 14 different communes and covering landscapes as diverse as residential streets, dedicated cycleways, forest trails, park paths, wharves, and even a stretch of service road behind the IKEA loading dock in Anderlecht. You get a little bit of everything Brussels has to offer.
The loop took me about six hours including some rest stops and a diversion when I got lost by the Audi factory after having missed a trail marker (some of them are hard to spot, which adds to the adventure). It was exhausting but rewarding and I plan to make the trip again, perhaps counterclockwise this time.
I’ve been mainly a solo rider, preferring to set my own pace and stop where and when I want to and just enjoying the sights and sounds of the ride. Figuring out how to use the fietsknooppunten system – which links nodes around Flanders, the Netherlands and parts of Wallonia (though not, annoyingly, in Brussels) with pleasant cycle segments, and allows users to compose easy-to-follow routes in a network covering more than 50,000km – was a revelation.
Part of the fun is unlocking the secret knowledge shared among riders who trade lists of node numbers for especially cool rides. Now, armed with the fietsroute planner and signed up for various apps and lists (such as Bike for Brussels, which emails a different route every week) I keep taking on new, longer, more challenging journeys.
Further and further
One recent Sunday I dragged a friend on a ride to Mechelen and back, following the canals on the way there and getting somewhat lost in a suburban wasteland of abandoned warehouses and broken tarmac on the way back. At 95km it has been my longest ride so far – and part of a training regimen I hope will end with a one-day ride to the Belgian coast.
How much has cycling culture changed me? Not completely. While I may sound almost born-again about biking in Brussels, I’ve yet to transform fully into a MAMIL, the fabled Middle-Aged Man in Lycra. The Belgian hinterland cycle routes teem with packs of MAMILs on weekends, and I’m quite used to seeing older gents in form-fitting gear whizz past me as I trundle up a semi-challenging incline.
But I’ve held out so far against equipping myself with too much Lycra. I tend to favour clothing made for hiking, loose-fitting with big pockets. I may not be aerodynamic but at least I’ve kept my pride.
In all other respects, though, I’m a convert. Fill my water bottles and pack me a sandwich, and I’ll head out in just about any weather. My quest for the best routes is so all-consuming that now, even when I’m in a car, I find myself looking for the trail markers.
By Craig Winneker