We attempted an early exit from La Louviere; largely as we were keen to avoid any untoward geriatric female attention, although I assured the team that at 7 in morning, anyone we met would at least be fairly sober. As we grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel, however, there was a surprising amount of activity, the pinball machine was rattling away in a fog of cigarette smoke, and everyone in the bar seemed to be nursing the first beer of the day. No sign of Very Mary though, which was a relief to CB#1.
We escaped, and started heading South, following directions from our trusty google maps service. Unfortunately GM had more tricks up her sleeve today (Bean by now had started referring to GM as ‘she’ because of the satnav voice, and was beginning to have something of a tempestuous relationship with her), and we ended up being directed to a grass track, which took us past the awesomeness of the Strépy-Thieu boat-lift and then onto a mud track that was impossible to ride.
After the customary swear-fest, we dragged the bikes through the mud and forest and found a road, which we managed to stay on as far as Chimay. I only knew Chimay through the beer, which has a fearsome reputation (it varies between 7% and 9% alcohol content), and is brewed by Trappist monks. I think if I was employed for any length of time in producing and tasting this beer, I’d probably lose the power of rational speech, so it probably works quite well all round.
We didn’t see much of Chimay other than to have a fairly civilised lunch, as we just wanted to get this one out of the way. Bean and I were both feeling a bit fragile, and although we were both ok to ride, I had a horrible shooting pain in my left arm every time we hit any sort of a bump. So imagine my delight when we hit a section of cobbles that lasted for 3 miles. ‘You’ll always get cobbles in Belgium’, said CB#2, helpfully.
If you know you’re cycling and your geography, you’ll know that we were fairly close to the Paris-Roubaix route – this is a bike race, charmingly known as the ‘Hell of the North’, which has been run every year since 1896. It’s known as one of cycling’s toughest races, the course is 260km and normally has over 50km of cobbles. I was whining about 5km of cobbles, but the Paris to Roubaix riders are doing ten times that, and they’re racing at 25mph plus, in groups, often with the cobbles wet (the race is in April), making it even more perilous.
So complaining about the cobbles seemed a bit churlish, As did complaining about the whole pain thing. We were in Southern Belgium by now, just above the Ardennes, and quite a few times we’d get to the top of a climb, look to our side, and see hundreds and hundreds of war graves. These weren’t the big American and Allied cemeteries that are more in the North of the country and closer to Ardennes, they were more the local ones for French and Belgian soldiers whose bodies were repatriated – but the numbers were still pretty astonishing, especially for such a rural area. CB#1 reckoned that any one of those soldiers would have loved to be doing what we were doing, which was both a charming and a grounding thought, so with that in mind, we carried on pedaling and I ignored the small hammer banging the nail into my elbow every time we hit a bump.
About 80 miles all told, and we ended up in Charleville-Mézières, birthplace of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and home to a Soviet themed hotel and, as far as we could make out, no pharmacies. On the plus side, a skip and a jump from our gulag was the Place Ducale, which struck us as an excellent place to visit, drink a Rimbaud themed beer, eat mussels and be treated to a free concert from a Belgian heavy rock band. Four things there, very much in descending order of enjoyment.
We kept going South, the next day, rolling into the champagne region, and towards Châlons-en-Champagne. Bean was just on the point of divorcing Mrs Google Maps by now, so we pretty much did the opposite of everything she suggested, and stayed on the roads. Rolling was the right word for our travel – if you’d taken a knife through the route we took South, and looked at the cross section it would have looked like a corrugated roof. This made for fairly easy, if slightly monotonous cycling, and we decided to fox Mrs GM by taking a main road for the last 20 miles. Cyclng in the gutter of a main road is a challenge anywhere, it’s worse with crosswinds, and much worse with cars and lorries that seem to see you as a target rather than a fellow traveller. On the stretch we took, it was pretty busy, but we were mostly given a reasonable amount of space, and only got buzzed once (predictably by a hot-hatch full of yoofs) – it would have been a far worse experience in the UK.
Anyway, we got to Châlons-en-Champagne without incident, and then went out again, dutifully following directions to our hotel, which was not only in a different part of town, but also in a different part of the space-time continuum…