The ABC of finding my way to road cycling and the unique Belgian bike culture.
I moved to Flanders this year, and the local government's tourism agency says that I am in "The mecca of cycling, the paradise of beer." They might be onto something with the second claim; according to the Association of Belgian Brewers, there were 408 active breweries in 2021. But how about the cycling part? That's what this post is about.
Even before moving here, I knew that there are only a few countries with a huge passion for cycling sport as Belgium has. I'd consider myself enthusiastic about bikes, so being in a country stoked about cycling must naturally fit me, right? Well, I do end up with a similar smile as they do, and that's what matters.
However, I like mountain biking, while most locals are keen roadies. Even if they go off-road to ride cyclocross, they do it with alien bikes and clothes to what I know. It is a different world than what I am familiar with, and so, searching for that cycling heaven brought adventurous moments and took some time to get used to.
My first Belgian cycling experience was in a city. Before coming here, I used bikes to do commuting, do grocery runs, and get around cities in a few countries. The infrastructure for cycling was different in each of those places, and so were the bikes. In Belgian cities, many people cycle on Dutch-styled bikes. They are durable and comfortable, and look like this:
Since the Dutch cycling infrastructure is so developed, it would be logical to think the Dutch-styled bike would be the pinnacle of urban mobility too, but I am not sure it is universal.
The frame design of these bikes hardly changed since the 19th century. Look at the English bike below and compare it with the modern-day bike above. They look nearly the same!
Modern bikes have improved practicality and safety with better brakes and added lights, a lock, a rack, and sometimes gears. But they are about as heavy as those old ones — which is a lot. To make things worse, many have hub gears and dynamo that create noticeable drag. It might work in the Netherlands, but there are hills in Belgium, and climbing them on these bikes is a pain even with the gears.
The Dutch cycling paths are also unbelievably smooth, so when you ride a heavy and comfy bike, it doesn't even feel like cycling; it feels like being on a couch. But Belgium is notorious for its cobblestones, which can pull some nasty tricks when wet; or worse, icy. And if one responds to a sudden change of traction like when sitting on a couch, they might learn the hard way. I didn't end up on the ground, but I had a few close calls.
It is not just me; some winter days in the city were carnage. It reminded me of the place I went to college in the US: the people equally struggled on frosty roads. But they drove a car instead of cycling, so when they crashed, it often resulted in damage worth thousands of dollars. When I saw people crashing here in Belgium, they just got dirty clothes.
Don't get me wrong, the Belgian cycling infrastructure is still very good, and the city bikes are excellent for their intended purpose. They cover short trips with ease and more cost-and-time effectively than using a car. They can also carry a remarkable capacity. The other day I took two big boxes and a backpack with a combined volume of nearly 400l to a post office. To put it in perspective, it is more load space than the booth dimensions of the Ford Focus, as well as the Volkswagen Golf. Of course, a bike wouldn't cut certain applications, but for the absolute majority of cases, it is well-sufficient.
But one area where the city bikes are not good is when you want a proper biking action, which comes with responsive handling and ease to cover longer distances. Besides the weight, I struggled to adapt to the bikes' contact points: the curved handlebars might be comfy but aren't the best for balancing, and the brake levers are designed to be grabbed by three fingers, which is more than you want for retaining secure grip on the handlebars.
I am used to riding my bike with my index fingers always on the brakes while holding the handlebars with the remaining fingers. Here is how it looks in practice when riding a staircase in an abandoned military missile base.
The three-finger design compensates for weaker brakes by applying stronger force on the lever. However, with the slow city bikes, one-finger braking would produce enough stopping power, if the finger could use the full leverage. But should I want to use my index finger to do so on the 3-finger lever, it is so close to the fulcrum that it doesn't work. An option is to use a different finger, but it is not ideal.
And then, the pedals have a slippery rubber finish. That said, I conspired about which components to replace to mitigate these issues almost immediately after I got my bike. But then, I realized that the moment I would have solid contact points with the bike, I would ride it as my mountain bike, and the inevitable would happen: the wheels or the frame would give up, and I would whack my face to the ground. Hm. I will keep the slippery pedals.
The less confident handling and the mentioned drag that makes it feel like you go uphill even on a completely flat discourage longer rides. Suddenly, I found myself not motivated to go out. At first, I thought that it might just be a defense for being lazy. "There are always reasons not to do something cool, enough with rubbish excuses!" I spat and went to grab the bike. After around ten kilometers, I approached a modest hill. Halfway through the climb, people on road bikes flew past me as if they were on e-bikes. Meanwhile, I felt the blood vessels in my eye popping and thought that a stroke is coming. Clearly, this wasn't the cycling paradise I looked for.
So, the next chapter was to try my beloved mountain biking here. A local organization organizing MTB rides had an open event with rental bikes, allowing those who don't have their own to join. Something not to be missed! Excited, I signed in, got to the meeting point, and picked up a bike. The group leader told us about the route, and off we went.
After months on those curved handlebars, going back to straight ones felt strange. Almost as if I forgot how to corner. But before we reached the woods, it all came back, and I felt amazing! The weather was fab, and the forest, Oh, terrific!
The ride started on a wide, smooth trail.
It was enjoyable, but it was like riding in a parking lot. Then, we stopped, and the group leader warned us of a "steep, technical section" ahead. "Yes!! Bring on the paradise!" I euphorically exhaled and braced for roots, rock gardens, and drops. Well, there was none of that. The local definition of steep and tech is very different from mine.
While it might not quite match the joys of mountain biking in Scotland, or other places with actual mountains, it was well fun. And then, the ride brought an unexpected bonus: We stopped again, and those who wanted could join a friendly race. Now, I am not big on competing. I tried it ages ago, only to see loads of angry, stressed, and frustrated people. That's literally the opposite of what I like when riding a bike, so I haven't raced since then. I care less about how fast I go, as long as I have fun. But here, folks smiled, and the race was, indeed, just for fun. A bit hesitantly, I decided to join. The organizers marked a course, and people set off individually for a timed run. I gave it a shot, and when everyone finished, the timer said: "The tall guy won," and pointed at me. Haha, no way!
Yeeeow... I rode around 35 km over uneven terrain that evening, yet it felt about as much as 15 km on the city bike. Yep, the equipment does make a difference. "But what if it was on a smooth surface?" I began to wonder. This segues to the Belgian domain:
Coming to Belgium came at the right time for me. If I'd come, say, two years ago, I wouldn't be interested in road cycling at all, because most countries where I lived before had roads full of cars often with drivers that disrespect cyclists. I saw no appeal in cycling in such conditions. But then, I did some road cycling (although not on a dedicated road bike) in Brittany last year, and it felt so good that I thought I'd be willing to immerse myself in this branch of cycling, should I ever live in a place similarly suited for road bikes. And out of all places, I ended up in Belgium. "Okay, let's try it!"
I looked into renting a road bike, but surprisingly, unlike the city bikes available for decent money everywhere, rentals of road bikes are rare, and when I found some, their pricing was ridiculous. But after recalling my recent positive cycling experiences in Finland and the Netherlands, I felt confident about the chances that I'd like it, so I thought I'd buy one. It was a minefield too. Solid bikes that fit me well are hard to find used, and the new ones can easily cost more than a month's salary. I wasn't ready for such an investment; clearly, compromises were to be made. Long story short, I went retro. Look at this beauty!
I paid less than some companies charge for two days of renting a high-end road bike, or five days for a standard one! "If I ride it for just a week, I already make money." I thought.
How is it? Well, my initial stage was far from serene. At first, I felt like I was riding a scaffolding with bolted wheels. The steering didn't want to do even remotely tight turns, the cobbles were terrifying even when dry, and the brakes didn't add confidence either. However, when I pressed the pedals, the thing just went like a rocket! Unbelievable! I took it for a spin on some smooth, car-free cycling paths near the city, I did 20 km, and it felt like nothing. "This is promising!" I thought and looked forward to the next ride.
The following day I dropped a pin on a map to a place that I had never been to.
It started on another smooth path away from cars — so far so good. But then, the asphalt changed into unpaved singletrack. I didn't expect this, but it turned out to be the best thing that could happen. The tight and bumpy path required me to focus on handling, so I got much-needed practice on how to ride this thing. Wow, this was great fun! What would be a boring traverse on a mountain bike turned out to be the thrill of thrills on my day-old road bike with ludicrously narrow tires and handlebars. And it only got better when I entered a forest. I was sold. Let's go!
By the time I emerged from the woods, I felt much more comfortable with the bike. Thank goodness, because I joined a car road. But it had minimal traffic, so I could continue building my confidence without stress. Then, there was a hill. I got overtaken by roadies again, but I didn't feel like a stroke was coming my way this time. I had spectacular fun instead. And as a bonus, I explored a new area while purposefully lost, and even found an ice cream shop.
Where is this leading? Will I be talking about watts and owning an aero lycra suit in a few months? I don't think so. However, I also didn't think that I would ever find road bikes exciting not too long ago. We'll see. But what I am certain about is that I will still be able to find that smile on my face, even without mountain biking.
So, that was my ABC of the issue, now I am ready to explore the rest of the alphabet.
To finish the article, here are random cycling photos that I took in Belgium. Enjoy: