Category Archives: Cycling

Cycling Day 40: Chapelle-Saint-Lambert To Borgloon

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

Kevin Mayne and his wife Cheryl have been great hosts. Not only did Kevin make the effort to come and ‘collect’ me on Friday afternoon after I cycled over the border into Belgium from France but they wined and dined me like an honored guest. Kevin was a fantastic guide around the Waterloo battle field – his father is a history teacher so it is in his blood – and Kiwi Cheryl has such a relaxed manner that anyone would feel at home in her company. My weekend was time well spent as well as time well spent not cycling. Many thanks to both of them and I can only apologise for not having taken the opportunity of buying a couple of bottles of wine to replenish their stocks when I had the chance on Saturday morning in the local town. 

This morning, Kevin offered to cycle with me again – an offer I was glad to accept – as far as Leuven. I’m usually a bit of a contol freak when it comes to route finding but once in a while I’m happy to let someone else take charge, especially when they know the roads as well as someone like Kevin. I could sit back, enjoy the scenery and soak up the sun; the good weather seems to have returned, at least to this part of western Europe. We shared a coffee (well, we didn’t, we had one each but you know what I mean) before Kevin headed back along the route that we had come and I was once again left to my own devices. This has happened many times before after having been looked after for a day or so by a local and there is always a slight sense of unease for the first few moments. I feel like a bird that is about to fledge from the nest, albeit one that has already fledged from the nest on numerous occasions in the past. I was somewhat aided in this transition back into the ‘unsupported’ world this morning by the young guy who had been sitting next to Kevin and myself in the cafe in Leuven. He was wearing Lycra – see the picture below – was clearly a cyclist and we chatted for ten minutes or so about my plans for the next few weeks and months. It was good to see that I could still cut it as an independent traveller!

Up until this point I had simply been following Kevin’s arse. No navigation had been required by me, just a willingness to put faith in someone else’s knowledge of where we were going. Post Leuven of course, it was me in charge again. My cycle could be summarised as follows: 33, 73, 87, 86, 92, 91, 34, 35, 13, 64, 60, 59, 58, 50, 21, 51, 187, 188. To a Belgian or Dutch cyclist, that might make sense. To most other people, probably not. All you need to do to navigate from place to place in Belgium and The Netherlands is follow the numbers. It’s a brilliantly simply and effective system. For the first time since leaving Tarifa on the 9th April I was able to put route finding aside and simply follow the signs that corresponded to the string of numbers above. Wonderful! I didn’t get lost once.

Sint-Truiden was, however, a bit of a disappointment. No campsite, no reasonably-priced hotel… I sat in a bar and listened to an annoying young woman rant in what sounded like coarse Dutch. The bar woman laughed when I asked if she spoke English. The drunken customer told me that British beer was crap. Did I really want to spend a night here? I went to sit outside to study accommodation options. The only one that was worth considering was 15 km away. It was worth the extra hour of cycling.

For some reason I find these end of day summaries much easier to write when I’m on a campsite, my preferred option. Tomorrow that’s my plan; a campsite. But hang on… BREAKING NEWS!!! This seven country trip across Europe has just become an eight country trip across Europe; tomorrow I’m going to Maastricht in The Netherlands. That will be country eight! 

Waterloo, Belgium

It seems appropriate on the day of the Eurovision Song Contest to visit the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Let’s face it, it’s a field, but what is more interesting – very interesting – is the brand new and excellent visitor centre built underground, the round panoramic attraction built to mark the first centenary of the battle and the mound of earth built by the Dutch shortly after the battle upon which they put a large statue of a lion. There are 225 steps. I counted them. And a good view of the, err… field. A short distance from the permanent attractions are the stands in the process of being erected in the lead up to the 200th anniversary (and reenactment) of the battle on the 18th June. And just for the record, Napoleon didn’t surrender. Oh yeah… (repeat and fade…)

Cycling Day 39: Maubeuge To Chapelle-Saint-Lambert

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

A little delayed, here’s the write up… 

I set out all my bits and pieces of paper on the an outside table of a café in central Maubeuge to sort out what could to be sent back to the UK. I also spread out the map of southern Belgium on the floor beside me to see if I could cut off any extraneous parts; I could so set about the job with my Swiss Army knife. Back at the hotel I had persuaded the receptionist to print off the instructions that Kevin Mayne had emailed the previous day with directions to get from Maubeuge to his house to the south of Brussels. The plan was for him to meet me half way after he had finished work in Brussels at lunchtime and caught the train to a convenient place. It seemed like a good plan. 

After a quick visit to the post office, I was off, along the Sambre river in the direction of the Belgian border. A pretty stretch of canal, well signposted (even with the Eurovelo 3 symbol) with interesting factual information about the industrial heritage of the area through which the canal was travelling. I arrived at the final town in France – Jeumont – determined to finish writing up cycling day 38 before I entered a new country. It put the cycling on hold for an hour or so but needed to be done.

But where did the new country start? I suspected, rightly, that by continuing to cycle along the river, no mention would be made of the border so it was down to Google Maps to tell me when I leaving France and entering Belgium. Almost immediately the tow path seemed to go from good to not-so-good. A sign of things to come? Kevin’s instructions were to follow a series of Ravel (“randonnée vélo” or “walking cycling”) routes but I misinterpreted the first one that I saw choosing to carry on cycling along the river rather than turning left into the town of Erquelinnes. No great harm done; I soon realised my error and weaved my way through backstreets to locate the Ravel. 

It was difficult not to be impressed with the routes. Ravel 101 was a disused railway line with a good quality Tarmac surface having replaced the train tracks. This took me as far as Binche where I needed to change Ravel but not after a short pause for lunch in the town itself. €3.70 for a baguette sandwich and a drink seemed cheap compared to what I had become accustomed to in France. Binche was, alas, cobbled and I winced as the bike juddered over the little square monsters. I always put my later spoke problems in summer 2010 down to earlier cobbled-related cycling in places like Lille in northern France. 

Next up was La Louvière and again, a Ravel route had been lined up on the instructions. Then the phone rang; Kevin had arrived in the main square. It didn’t seem a difficult prospect finding him, but of course it was. I cycled along various promising looking streets but there was no square at the end of them and no Kevin. I phoned him back. “Look for a red brick church”. I found one, but not the right one. The only people in front of my red brick church were a group of homeless people. I didn’t know too much about Kevin but I did know that he wasn’t homeless. I asked a guy with only a few teeth who was stopping traffic for children to cross the road if there was another red brick church in La Louvière. He told me I wasn’t in La Louvière… 

This was going from bad to worse. Fortunetly La Louvière wasn’t too far away, I cycled there, found a red brick church and an English bloke called Kevin. A coffee was much needed and we found one in a nearby street where we had a good chat. I had first been in contact with Kevin a few years ago when embarking on the previous Eurovelo cycles. He is currently development director at the European Cyclists’ Federation but prior to that was the chief executive of the CTC. He moved to Belgium about three years ago to take up his current post.

The remainder of the day was spent following. My direction-finding skills could be put to one side as I Kevin was able to guide us to his home in the countryside south of Brussels where we joined his Kiwi wife Cheryl for a slap up meal, more chat and a good night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed. 

Cycling Day 38: Seraucourt-le-Grand To Maubeuge

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

It was a late finish today – back in Maubeuge! – so I’ll write the prose tomorrow or later tonight. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures…

I’m back! It’s now Friday morning and I’m sitting outside the Café de Paris in Jeumont, my final  town in France. More about today later but I’m determined to catch up on yesterday before I cross the border into Belgium.

For the third day running I had no fixed plan as to where I would be staying later that day. Actually that’s not true. I had no plan, fixed or not. Obviously my direction of travel was dictated by the border crossing into Belgium about 10 km to the north east of Maubeuge but apart from that I would just be making things up as I went along. 

Saint-Quentin was my first stop or rather it was after a minor detour to the Decathlon store in the suburbs to buy camping gas (at last I can heat food again – the previous night it had been cold ravioli from the can…) and cycling gloves to replace the ones lost in Paris. Gas, no problem; gloves, well, they had lots of them but none with the little loops that allow you to pull them off very easily. I can’t understand why they are not more common and certainly non of the Decathlon gloves had them. I’ll keep looking when in Belgium.

I sat for a while just off the main square in Saint-Quentin sipping a coffee. The town has a nice centre even if some of the northern suburbs are a bit drab. Just as I was getting up to leave a bearded touring cyclist past me. We struck up conversation; his name was Frantz from Denmark and he was on his way to meet his girlfriend in Paris. We were following similar routes so it was a good opportunity to exchange info about places to stay. Alas he didn’t recommend the campsite he had stayed in the previous evening – “a bit rough” – and I don’t do “rough”. Intriguingly he dampened my high hopes for cycling conditions in Denmark warning me about the lorry drivers. Isn’t Denmark supposed to be cycling nirvana? Anyway, the chat cheered me up somewhat despite the comments about Danish cycling and I set off again in a much more enthused mood than that in which I had arrived in Saint-Quentin. 

My Rough Guide only mentioned the town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis as a potential place of interest along my vague route. Matisse had been born there and there was a museum housing some of his work (the third largest collection in Framce!). It seemed like a good plan to aim in that direction so via a slap up Super U lunch in Fresnoy-le-Grand (which curiously described itself as home to ‘l’émail’ on the sign; I tweeted my perplexity only to be informed that the word has nothing to do with email and everything to do with enamel, Fresnoy being home to a Le Creuset factory, apparently) and a cycle through Bohain-en-Vermandois (don’t worry, I’m struggling to pronounce these place names as well!) where Matisse grew up – ‘la Maison de Matisse’ if difficult to miss – I arrived in Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Did I have time to stroll around the museum? After some thought, a visit to the tourist office across the road to enquire about camping options – ‘sod all’ the polite lady could have said had she it been so polite – and an offer by the nice lady to look after Reggie, the answer was ‘yes’. 

Matisse clearly loved his grandchildren – the ceiling from his studio where he had painted them was one of the exhibits – but as to whether he would have enjoyed the hoards of primary school kids in his museum is open to debate. It gave the place a ‘lively’ atmosphere and actually, they were quite cute giving me bemused looks as I wandered around in my cycling apparel. A few photos of his work below but none of his famous stuff is in the museum. He donated a lot of it himself back in the 1950s and I couldn’t help wonder whether it was the stuff he couldn’t flog. Interesting nevertheless but it would have been nice to see just one piece that produced the ‘ahhh…’ reaction. 

Backon the bike it was already 4.30pm and I still had no idea where I would end up. I looked at the map. Maubeuge… The crossing point between my 2010 cycle to Italy and thus cycle to Nordkapp. Google suggested about 40 km. It had a municipal campsite. With no better ideas, I set off. It was nice to finally have a destination in mind and I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘chase’ of the early evening cycling. I can’t quite believe I was getting excited about arriving in Maubeuge again – I had disparaged the place in the first book – but I was. Now in the ‘Nord’ département of France – my final département – the countryside was more interesting than it had been earlier in the day and the towns better kept. 

Upon arrival in Maubeuge I was delighted to spot… a sign for the Eurovelo 3 cycle route, the first since leaving southern Spain! Maubeuge was already going up in my opinion. I spotted the hotel where I stayed back in 2010 – the ‘Moulin Rouge’ I dubbed it at the time – and had a celebratory beer in exactly the same spot in the bar opposite. See photos in the previous post. Nothing much has changed!

Camping? I had gone off the idea. The site was a few kilometres out of town and it was getting late. The Moulin Rouge? Cheap but… Mmm… All that red decor again? The Ibis down the road? They got my business. Booked online I turned up five minutes later. The unpleasant receptionist refused to deal with me until the email had arrived confirming my booking. My offer to show her my confirmation email was turned down.

“So… what shall I do?” I enquired in French.

“You can wait here” she snapped.

“Will there be anywhere to store my bike?”

“Your bike?”

“Yes, it’s a vehicle with two wheels” I quipped and pointed in the direction of Reggie through the window. The woman ignored me.

Fortunetly the four guys sitting drinking beer in the reception were a bit more chatty and I passed the next few minutes in conversation about where I was going and where I had been. They were impressed. Then the email arrived…

Not a cheap night – I ate in the restaurant down the road where I had earlier had the beer – but it was worth it for the good night of sleep. I’ve impressed myself with my ability to stick to the camping in recent weeks so the overall budget hasn’t really been squeezed. 

Next up: Belgium! 

(P.S. Forgot to mention the war cemetery. This time it was a commonwealth one but… the graves on the right – see picture below – were for German soldiers. More research needed!)

Maubeuge: Crossing Points

2010:

 
2015: 

 

Cycling Day 37: Pierrefonds To Seraucourt-le-Grand

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

Don’t worry; until earlier this afternoon I’d never head of Seraucourt-le-Grand myself. It’s not too far from Saint-Quentin (and don’t worry, even French teachers like me pronounce it that way as well!) More of my destination in a moment. 

First up today was, of course, a visit to the chateau in Pierrefonds. Fascinating place with a bizarre history. Originally constructed in the 15th century, dismantled (partially) in the 17th century and rebuilt in its unique, almost kitsch current style by Napoleon III in the 19th century. I loved it! Much more interesting than Fontainebleau a few days ago and much, much quieter at 9.30am. I was the first person through the door and there wasn’t anybody behind me for quite some time. How wonderful to have the place to myself. Much more of the story of Pierrefonds and its rebuilding in the book but in the meantime you can enjoy the pictures in the previous post.

I had left the tent erected back at the campsite while I visited the castle. It must have been rained upon and then dried at least two times during the morning. That pattern of weather was to continue for the rest of the day – rain – shine – hot – cold – repeat… However, once I had uploaded the pictures of the chateau back at the campsite, everything was dry and I set off, continuing along the road that I had been following yesterday in the vague direction of the Belgian border near Charleroi. Once again I had no idea where I would end up.

The first heavy downpour came not long after I had climbed the hill out of Pierrefonds. Hail was a bit of a worry but it only fell for a brief period; the rain was, alas, a bit more persistent. However, after around 20 km things had brightened up significantly, so much so that I was able to once again start looking around and appreciating the environment through which I was cycling rather than cowering behind the hood of my raincoat. One of the first things I noticed were some neatly arranged black crosses in the sloping land to my right. My initial reaction was to assume they were supporting crops of some kind. Then, of course, the more rational explanation came to mind; a war cemetery. The black crosses indicated a German rather than an Allied one.

I’ve seen German war cemeteries before on school trips to Belgium. They are very much more somber places than those of the victors. It would be wrong to say that I ‘like’ or ‘prefer’ them but I do find them perhaps even more moving. In the small patch of ground nearly 2,000 soldiers had been buried. Their cause was ultimately defeated which makes their deaths even more futile, even sadder. It was interesting to note the handful of Jewish grave stones; people fighting for a country the leaders of which would soon turn their backs against such people. I sat for a few moments on the steps leading back to where I had parked the bike and thought about it all. Life, war, death. I also took a moment to think about a school friend who passed away only last week. He too had died tragically young. I shed a tear for all of them. 

Back on the road the weather was still annoyingly changeable. It’s worth noting that I don’t tend to take pictures when it’s raining so please don’t get the impression from the pictures posted here that I am over egging the whole thing. Rain, shine, rain, shine… The climatic cycle continued.

In Biérancourt I finally decided to do some serious thinking about accommodation options. A Google search threw up a site in Setaucourt-le-Grand with some good reviews so I decided to head in that direction. Navigating using the paper map I didn’t have too much trouble joining up the small towns and villages before eventually, at around 6pm, arriving at my destination. At 67 km it was only a little short of my target average distance of 75 km so the current average – which stands at 73.6 km per day wasn’t dented too much. Despite the little flies that are desperate to have a piece of my flesh the campsite – Camping Vivier aux Carpes – is  a very nice setting by a small lake and is predominantly British campers in the motor homes. 

Other things to note? A few curious signs: Cuts and L’Aventure (which is where I’ve been apparently), and bricks. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Belgium, everywhere I go… Brick houses, poor quality roads and young men in crappy little Citroëns, Renaults and Peugeots trying to prove their manhood by driving fast. It’s a very curious thing that I noted when I cycled through these parts back in 2010. They are still at it. Grow up boys… 

The Curious Chateau Of Pierrefonds

Colour where needed…