Off again for another adventure, this time into France and Belgium. We’ve been going cycling in June for a few years now, and settled into a fairly relaxed approach of cycling stupid distances with limited preparation, staying in cheap hotels that rarely fail to disappoint, and generally enjoying what the cycle paths of Europe can offer us.
We normally assign roles at the start of the journey, which this year were as follows:
- Myself – head of communications, largely driven by my pitifully small knowledge of the french language, but compensated by what I consider to be one of the best French accents in Norfolk, and a full set of Gallic hand gestures
- Mr Bean – head of navigation – as he had not only an iPhone with google maps, but a data plan that worked, headphones to take instruction from the phone, and an array of batteries that could keep us, or a small village, going for a matter of days
- Chuckle Brother #1 – the voice of reason, and deputy in both communications and navigation
- Chuckle Brother #2 – chief mechanic and head of security. More on CB#2’s particular talents later
Our bicycles for the journey were prepared as ever with some care – they tend to be road bikes, adjusted to within a fraction of a millimetre to deliver the fastest and most aerodynamic riding position, but then loaded down with not only a rider but panniers holding five days worth of clothes, energy bars, spare parts and whatever else it takes to get the four of us from point to point.
As a result, our perfectly balanced machines end up handling pretty much as you’d expect, if you attached the weight of two fairly hefty infants over the back wheel, and one over the handlebars. You have to be a bit careful of this lack of stability, as it means that your super lightweight bike ends up being both super heavy and completely unstable. And if your route takes you away from a road, then you have even more of a challenge…
Anyway, after a ridiculously early start, we arrived in Lille, and, to our surprise were reunited with our bikes, which, due to some odd complications in the way that Eurostar works, had made their own way there. The plan was to get out of Lille and head for Belgium, so Bean fired up google maps and we set off on the exciting prospect of exiting a large French city and not getting separated or injured.
The Lille town planners have done a top job in ensuring that all the main roads have cycle lanes, but unfortunately there are two separate systems, which may well be because of funding and the way that local government takes decisions. It’s almost as if one city council decided to have their bike lanes on the inside of the street , with cars and lorries hurtling by outside the cyclist, then either ran out of money, or power, or both, and another council came in and decided it was a much better idea to have the bike lanes on the outside of the road. Consequently there is a bizarre series of chicanes, where you swap from inside to outside, and vice versa, in the opposite direction to the cars and lorries. You’d think this would be ridiculously dangerous for all parties, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right.
We managed to get out of Lille in one piece, and started pedaling in the general direction of Belgium, and the specific direction of La Louviere, about 70 miles away. Google maps did a reasonably good job at first, taking us on little roads across the countryside and all was reasonably well. After about 10 miles of this, we discovered a bit of a flaw in google maps’ cycle routing software. To explain, here is a diagram showing a bicycle, ideal for touring the roads of Europe:
And here is a diagram showing what google maps thinks is a bicycle:
Really, some of the routes that google maps took us in were ridiculous – I don’t think you’d want to walk along most of them if you had a choice – here’s a picture of one of the more manageable ones (you can tell that from the fact that the bikes are upright):
Turning from a crumbling shale road onto another unmade track, CB#1 celebrated his birthday by falling off, although his bike had slowed by the time he went over, due to his front wheel disappearing into a gravel trench. As a result, it was one of those comedy falls that take place at negligible speed. However, comedy moment or not, nobody laughed. It was just the first fall, after all, and like punctures, you don’t want to laugh too loudly as it’ll be your turn next.
Eventually, we managed to find a road, and then into Belgium, where we hooked up with the Ravel bike network, which, all things considered, is a thing of wonder – a network of bike routes across Belgium, mainly on converted railway tracks and canal paths, but with a bit of consideration for the cyclist as well. We got onto the Ravel canal path at about 40 miles, and by 50 miles we were flying along, no other bikes on the path, nice flat tarmac and a slight crosswind. In a ‘this is the life I was keen to lead’ style, I decided to get to the front of the group and see how fast I could comfortably go, and, to my surprise, and possibly because we’d been messing about for so long getting to this point, felt pretty good as we got up to 20mph. At 52 miles, I looked at my watch and we were hitting 21mph, and at 53 miles we were easily hitting 22 mph. Nothing too exciting for a road cyclist, but a fair lick for a touring pace. The canal shimmered lightly as we whizzed past coal barges, and the birds were tweeting their merry Flemish songs in the trees to the other side of the path. All was very right with the world.
And then something horrible happened…