March 26, 2024

Road Cycling as I Like It

My take on cycling in a flat-ish country.

A bike is a tool to commute, exercise, explore... and feel good, above all. For years, I had the pleasant feeling of cycling associated with mountain bikes; however, moving to Belgium, a place not renowned for mountains, prompted me to search for cycling joy in a new form. The country is famed for road cycling — which is what I ended up trying to embrace. Here's a bit of a context and how it went.

Whether people want to go out for a workout or to get somewhere, the local infrastructure for cyclists includes impressive, dedicated bike lanes like this:

Example of Belgian "Bike highway."

Example of Belgian "Bike Highway." Very cool!

If one shares the road with cars, drivers are respectful. As such, it is common to see all ages cycling – this wouldn't be the case if the roads felt dangerous.

It is not rare to see children cycling in car traffic in Belgium.

It is not rare to see children cycling in car traffic in Belgium.

I also noticed specialized trash cans designed for cyclists here, a sight familiar from the Netherlands and Finland. And if those are the countries to compare your country's cycling experience, you know that it's doing something right.

Heavy bike traffic.

Sometimes, cities close arterial thoroughfares to cars and open them for cyclists. It is pretty popular.

While many cycle only as a means to get to places, the sport also has a huge following.

Jef Scherens wins the 57thTour of Leuven on 15th August 2023.

Road racing draws crowds in Belgium. Pictured is Arnaud De Lie winning the 2023 Memorial Jef Scherens race in Leuven.

Okay, let's get to the business. I got myself a road bike.

Instantly, I was blown away by how effortless it is to cover the ground. There is no suspension and burly tires to steal the energy between you and the road, so when you press the pedals, the bike launches like a rocket. However, while the ease of getting places is amazing, it does not automatically equal the most fun for me. It is like when driving: a motorway might be practical to get somewhere, but it is nowhere as delightful as a winding mountain pass. Something was missing.

"Perhaps I need a community," I thought. While I also like to cycle by myself, when I got in touch with MTB-minded folks in Scotland, we ended up sharing many adventures that were much better because of the new friends. "Maybe I could do the same with roadies here."

Grey cooling towers and grey cyclists during a grey day, a pretty good day!

I contacted a local group if they plan a journey that I could join. I got an answer in no time: "Sure, how about a 160 km loop on Saturday?" (That's 100 miles, for my imperial readers.) I responded that I would prefer something shorter, and again, I got a positive reply. The new plan had around 80 km. "Excellent," I thought, and on Saturday, I met them at a gas station near the city exit. We exchanged greetings and set off. Immediately, it was clear that this wouldn't be my usual leisurely outing through the countryside.

The group took off in a fashion that felt like commencing a Tour de France stage. As they sprinted away, I put effort down but struggled to keep up the alarming tempo. Thankfully, just before leaving the city, red traffic lights allowed me to rejoin the group. Between attempts to catch my breath, I expressed my concerns about the pace, and the others assured me they would slow down for me. Yet, they picked up speed again as soon as we resumed. Terrifyingly, they maintained the momentum even as we encountered a hill and quickly disappeared into the distance. As the saying goes, what goes up must go down, and since I am on the heavier end of the spectrum, gravity helped me to close the gap. Yet, when the road leveled, I found myself falling behind once again. It was an ongoing struggle, and folks had to wait for me at a few turns. Finally, at 50 kilometers, they lost their patience; we parted. That way, they could finally raise their speed to what they consider acceptable, and I could survive to tell the story.

Phew! During those 50 kilometers, I averaged 27 km per hour (roughly 17 mph for 30 mi.) It was easily the fastest 50 km on a bike I ever did to date, but it was way too slow for the group. My eyes opened to a new perspective on cycling speeds. For example, I never cared for aerodynamics on a bike, but now I understand why others do. They move at a pace where it makes a difference.

De Lie flies through a turn in Tour of Leuven '23.

No picture from the group ride because I had enough on my plate just to keep up. So, here's another picture of De Lie from the Memorial Jef Scherens race – the course was 192 km long, and he averaged 43 km/h. Impressive!

After the group vanished on the horizon – this time for good – I reflected on my experience and compared road cycling with mountain biking: 20 km/h can feel rapid over rocks and roots but sluggish on the pavement. MTB obstacles are stationary like trees, but on the road, one navigates between (sometimes unpredictably) moving bikes and cars. Additionally, if MTBikers challenge themselves to get down some rocky sections, they'd likely wear more protective gear than when road riders push their limits. I can imagine getting used to these, but ultimately, I take pleasure in discovering my surroundings, and when one is on a mission to go fast, stopping whenever encountering something intriguing becomes inconvenient. I concluded that the pursuit of speed might not be for me and decided to take quiet gravel paths to take me home.

Gravel road, take me home, where I belong.

"That is more like it!" I thought.

Suddenly, the road surface deteriorated, and I had to fight through a substantial mudhole.

Mess of a road.

The floor is lava game: bike edition.

What could be seen as a hurdle by some, I did not mind. I like it when one has to do a bit of balancing to overcome obstacles that wouldn't be possible if they'd just passively sat on the saddle; thus, crossing the puddle without putting a foot down left me with a grin.

Consequently, I recognized that I'd more likely find my Belgian riding heaven in the forests than on the tarmac, and once at home, I opened a map and found some crooked trails in the woods nearby. Yet, that wasn't smooth sailing either. Forests next to big cities tend to have restrictive access, and bikes were prohibited on most of the trails I marked.

You shall not pass!

I get it; walking on the same course where a bunch of racers train sucks, just like cycling on a bustling autobahn would. Yet, the trails looked like they would have enough space for both bikers and walkers to coexist in peace; all it would take is for people to be considerate of each other. But since humans have yet to agree on a universal definition of "considerate" (along with terms like "freedom" or "rights"), these signs of dos and don'ts have to do in the meantime. The e-bike advent, when one doesn't have to be fit or experienced to go quick, isn't helping this case either. Ah well. Still, it is all right: eventually, I found plenty of beaten tracks that require responsiveness to the terrain. Yey!

Then it clicked! It is the overall package that makes cycling here fantastic: If I want to see people pushing the sport, there are many opportunities.

2023 European Gravel Championship, Oud Heverlee.

Riders race the 2023 European Gravel Championship in Brabant Forests.

The sport's popularity trickles down to normal users like me through respectful drivers and infrastructure that allows me to have fun while commuting and to arrive at splendid sights.

Lake Gileppe

The country might not be equally technical to hillier ones, but that means I can convince friends who aren't keen cyclists to join me on two-wheeled adventures, even off asphalt.

While we can just cruise from point A to point B, every stick or pothole can be tackled with some creativity. In the end, everyone can have a blast.

The combination of slick tires, rigid frame, and drop handlebars can make a bland terrain engaging, and before I know it, I am smiling like back then:

Lake District, Some years ago.

I would be lying to say that I never miss mountains, but it is fair to say that Belgium provides a solid cycling playground...

.. where I found road cycling as I like it.

Wheelie in a tunnel.

Tap here for a few more snapshots of Belgian cycling adventures:

Bike packing is also a thing.

Packed bedroom on the go.

Bike stop at the highest point in Belgium, Signal de Botrange.

More tunnel wheelies.

Ride on!

If you liked this post, you can find my other articles in the Blog Archives. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Collections, Stories


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