(analogue photos by Andy Clydesdale - clydestale.tumblr.com)
Every time I prepare for a cycling trip I set expectations of how the ride is going to be. As I hadn't been doing any long distance cycling in the 5 months since the trip in Tsushima, Japan, I thought cycling to Brussels would be a wise choice to ease back into it. The route we planned out (London to Harwich, ferry to Hoek van Holland, cycle down to Brussels) is pretty much flat, so in theory this ride should be an incredibly easy one, especially compared to some of mountainous rides in Korea/Japan. Well that was what I had hoped for. As is always the case, this cycling trip didn't turn out to be exactly what we were expecting.
Clyde's steed. It's a lot lighter than mine. He left me in the dust.
The target date to arrive in Brussels was the day before New Year's eve. We were going to visit an old friend of mine, French Al, who has been living there for several years. I had never visited Belgium before so curiosity dragged me out there. All I knew about Belgium is that it is flat and renowned for producing amazing beer, Belgian fries, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Eddie Merckx. I can't say that I had heard any positive things about the country, but I thought it would be worth giving the place a chance. Cycling through Holland en route would give us both a good opportunity to compare the neighbouring countries and the novelty of being able to say that we had cycled through 3 countries in as many days.
Day One: London (Dalston) to Harwich
On paper we knew day one was going to be the most difficult day. For starters it was the longest day of the trip, turning out to be about 86 miles/138 km. Although it was not going to be particularly hilly it certainly wasn't going to be as flat as the Dutch/Belgian leg. The most direct route to Harwich is along the A12/A120, but it is a nightmare dual carriageway which might as well be a motorway, so we opted to explore the side roads. We had the names of a few towns scribbled on a piece of paper and some offline maps on my ipod to guide us. For Holland and Belgium we had an old road map.
Only the latest hi-tech cycling apparel for me.
The first town we stopped at was Epping in Essex. We hadn't stocked up on any snacks so we swung by Tesco. We were freezing! Despite the temperature being pretty mild, it rained constantly for most of the day and by this point we had already become saturated. We were both wearing boots as we thought that they might keep our feet warmer than trainers. Well it turned out that neither of our boots were waterproof in the slightest and by the end of the day my toes had turned completely numb.
"Secret Nuclear Bunker" just over there. You need to drop an adjective there mate!
"Home Rule". There are a lot of English flags and national pride in Essex.
I was given a pair of waterproof trousers for Christmas as a gift in preparation for this trip, but I was too tight fisted to go and buy a jacket that would do the job. Instead I chose to wear my girlfriend's cheap anorak which inevitably disintegrated on day one somewhere between Epping and Chelmsford. All the buttons broke off rendering it completely ineffective, so I took it off and got a good soaking before we sought shelter in a Wetherspoons pub in Chelmsford. Never have I enjoyed being in a Wetherspoon's pub as much at that moment. It was warm! They served tea! I could ram an English breakfast deep into my belly and best of all I could take my boots off for a while.
During our lunch break we changed our socks for some fresh ones and Clyde ran off to Marks and Spencers to get some plastic bags to put on our feet to keep the water out. It made a huge difference and the "homeless from the ankles down" look grew on me.
Next on my list of priorities was to get a jacket that worked, so we rode around Chelsmford city centre until we found Mountain Active, an outdoors shop. They had a bunch of jackets on sale. A blue one jumped out at me, but it barely fitted onto my frame, so I had to settle for a hi-vis day glo one instead. Well, beggars can't be choosers and I had no choice. Great. Now I look like a community support officer, or a 90s raver propelled into the future as a cyclo-geek. To be honest, I've got used to the look and it keeps the cool kids away so I can't complain.
Fine dining Essex style. "Boss Hoggs".
On the approach to Harwich we made the decision to stop off at this pub in Little Oakley, "Ye Olde Cherry Tree". We had several hours until our overnight ferry was due to leave and we were knackered. It was time for a drink. The pub got our immediate seal of approval. The locals looked safe and there was a roaring fire next to the bar. Off came our boots and socks and without any hesitation - or protestation from the barstaff - and we laid them out next to the fire to dry off. It felt divine! We sunk three bitter shandies and scoffed a load of scampi fries before heading down to the ferry terminal. The last thing we wanted was to get too drunk and miss the ferry. There would be plenty of time for drinking in Europe.
I expected the ferry to be a dreadful experience in a ramshackle cabin with a prison bed. That couldn't have been further from reality. The beds were so comfortable and the shower was powerful and hot, so we got to thaw out before hitting the hay. There wasn't much chance to enjoy the cabin though as we both passed out pretty quickly despite the desire stay up and watch Gremlins.
Day Two: Hoek van Holland to Breda
The ferry ride was about 7.5 hours long, so we arrived just before dawn. The first thing that struck us about Holland was how cyclists are treated so well. Even leaving the ferry we were prioritised over all other vehicles. A tall, friendly Dutch guy halted all of the lorries and waved us through, telling us to go past all of the cars to the front of the queue for immigration. I was flabbergasted. The Englishman in me was expecting to be told to get in line! All throughout Holland drivers would wait for you to pass as you approached a junction, even if you were nowhere near it. The attitude was the same all across Holland and Belgium with few exceptions. It was in stark contrast to riding through Essex.
As we disembarked the ferry we looked across the water at an vast industrial nightscape akin to Blade Runner. After getting some pastries for breakfast and stocking up on snacks in Aldi we set off east along the water towards a dazzling sunrise. Holland is peppered with wind farms and it's easy to see why. It's bloody windy! The ferocious wind came as a bit of a shock and it completely changed the nature of the ride. What we once thought would be a stroll in the park turned into a constant uphill battle. Of course there are no hills in Holland, but when you cycle into the wind it is just like struggling up a hill, except that there is no downhill to compensate for it.
We took our first break of the day in Vlaardingen to grab some coffee and get some advice about crossing the water. There was a table of guys drinking water and a loner at the bar having a coffee. He poured a shot of some liquor into his coffee. It seemed like a great idea so we asked for the same. It was a grand idea and went down a treat, setting us right for the day ahead.
It turned out that the only way to cross the water to head south is through the Benelux tunnel. I didn't like the sound of that. It conjured up images of riding along side speeding vehicles in a dirty, noisy environment. In reality there was a separate tunnel for cyclists which was void of traffic and best of all, wind! It couldn't have been better.
The frustrating thing about cycling to Breda from Hoek Van Holland is that you are always within spitting distance of Rotterdam. As you make your way you circumnavigate from the west of Rotterdam to the south east. You constantly see road signs showing you the distance to Rotterdam and that number never seems to increase. It's really deceptive. You feel like you're making no progress at all when in fact you are making plenty. You can always see a road sign for Rotterdam even if you are going in completely the opposite direction, so you end up regularly question your navigational choices even though they are bang on. All the way to Brussels we were being taunted by road signs for Rotterdam.
As we started riding in a more southernly direction the headwinds became fiercer and they began to take their toll on us. The only break we got from the wind was if there happened to be a row of houses. Suddenly we would accelerate for a short while until the houses disappeared. This was not a common luxury as we were riding along country roads for most of the time. Fatigued, we decided to take a late lunch break in Barendrecht.
Clyde ordered some kind of mega steak burger.
Even the windmills were struggling!
Just in the nick of time. We found a colourful, portable urinal storage facility in the middle of nowhere. We probably weren't supposed to use them, but when nature calls...
It should have been so easy (sigh). We were constantly battling against invisible monsters.
We rolled into Breda completely shattered shortly after dark having ridden pretty much the entire day. We had covered about 93 km/57 miles, but it felt like a thousand more. We knew nothing about Breda except for its position on our road map. It was a Saturday night when we showed up and the bars in the town centre were bustling. It's a quaint place with cobbled streets and some lovely old architecture and a magnificent cathedral.
We got approached by a man and his family to see if we needed any help. We clearly stuck out, probably in part because of my day-glo cycling jacket! He pointed us in the direction of a hotel. It was expensive, but we were shattered and in no mood to go accommodation hunting. We forked out about €100 for a twin room, which is a lot in my opinion, but considering it was our only night in a hotel it wasn't too bad. The TV entertainment consisted of the Darts World Championship, some British police chase program and a Dutch comedian. We obviously didn't understand a word of the comedy, but we were in stitches. We were in Holland after all!
This look of fatigue has been dubbed the "Breda stare". We went to a Turkish restaurant, wolfed down some shwarma lahmacuns then grabbed a couple of beers. Predictably we crashed pretty early.
Uniqlo long johns. Couldn't live without them.
Day Three: Breda to Brussels
The rain pounded on the windows and rooftops all night causing us great alarm. Wind is one thing. Rain and wind is a different monster entirely. By the time we set up our rides it had stopped, but I didn't want to be too optimistic.
Clyde prepares for another day of pain! Bring on the wind and rain.
The back of Breda cathedral.
The Hotel de Klok, where we stayed. They put out a massive spread for breakfast, so we made certain that we got a good filling and filled our pockets with snacks to last us the rest of the day.
We managed to make our way out of Breda easily without any problems. We weren't really sure where we were going and pretty much just followed a compass south east. I can't stress how useful a compass is, especially when there are no mountains or landmarks to help with your navigation.
On Sundays the country roads of Holland and Belgium swarm with cycling clubs out on rides. We were left in the dust by plenty of old fellas on wheels. We crossed into Belgium soon after we set off from Breda, but there were no signs or indications that we had done so.
Out of shot my bike is falling over at this exact moment. Kick stands are useless in the wind.
We stopped off in Lier for a quick break to map check and drink some glühwein. We looked like tramps compared to the rest of the clientele.
The glühwein really boosted our morale and energy levels. They even gave us some malty tasting profiteroles with it. Everything seemed much easier after drinking this stuff. It had a kick. Isotonic sports drinks? No thanks. I'll make mine a glühwein.
We didn't stop in Mechelen, but it deserves a mention because it has an impressive square. It was the last major town we passed before Brussels.
The rain finally decided enough was enough and starting peeing on our bonfire about 10km outside of Brussels. Approaching the city on the N1 is a pretty miserable entrance. Once we got closer to the centre I attempted to dust off my french skills and put them to good use. They've deteriorated quite a lot in the 6 years since I last used them in Paris, but they were better than nothing.
Moment of glory?
We made our way across to southern part of the city from Schaerbeek, past St Gilles towards Albert. It was a bit of a trek in our state. Brussels has hills! The first hills we had seen in two days. The streets are cobbled and there are lots of tram tracks to avoid. God forbid your wheels get caught in the tracks! Drivers in Brussels are a little less aware of cyclists than in other parts of the country as well. After two days of worry free cycling it was time to stay alert. Clyde was beginning to get a bit delirious and started seeing things. I think he started hallucinating, imagining that there were cyclists on the road that weren't there.
After 107km of cycling it was a wonderful feeling to arrive at French Al and Alice's apartment. I hadn't seen Alan for six years. Nothing had changed! It's always a worry when you haven't seen somebody in years that it might be a bit awkward, but everything resumed as it should starting with a few drinks out on the town. After showering and devouring a giant bag of "pickles" crisps we jumped on the tram to Bourse.
Pissing dog sculpture.
First stop was a bar with some strage decor.
Westmalle = rocket fuel!
The Orval was a step up in taste.
Duvel! The last stop was an arabic bar. I don't think they really wanted us in there.
On the way back to French Al's we jumped out of a cab to visit a night shop for some "essentials"...
1) Bicky crisps. I had never heard of a Bicky before. This was my first taste of it - in Lays crisp form. I think Alan is laughing because he knows I'm going to get hooked on them like a crack addict. Thank god they're not available in the UK.
2) Cara Pils. Nobody in Belgium wants to be seen drinking this filth, so we thought we should sample it. I mean just look at that design!
Behemoth and sinister candles.
With Jenny on the other side of the ocean in Arizona, it's time to make a new pal... introducing Rufus!
Perhaps I liked Rufus more than he liked me.
Walkies and time for a trip to Aldi.
Alan took us down to this Bicky/Fries merchant by Barriere. It's just a roadside street vendor, but it's immensely popular. The queue was massive and we just made it in time. They ran out of food shortly after we got in line. If you're wondering why Clyde has got his leg in the air, that's because he's mimicking an odd man we saw earlier in the day. This goofball was practising high kicks and shadow boxing with a signpost. Then he went over and stood guard to the entrance of a park like he was security, all the while supping on an energy drink.
Bicky and Fries. Pure junk food heaven. It's no wonder I shot up to 82 kg over the festive season! Apparently all the bars at Barriere are obliged to let you bring in your Bicky burgers. This was the perfect stomach lining for the night ahead: NEW YEAR'S EVE!
Get used to this look.
One of my favourite parts of the night was riding in the back of this van trying to stay out of view.
We headed over to a party at a nightclub inside and old church. They had sold out and tickets were about €30 anyway. Xavier spotted a gap in the barrier by the toilets, so we made a dash for it and snuck into the party for free!
Clyde took a photo of some policemen on their horses and set off a trend.
Pure class. This is the last bar we hit before heading home.
ACAB gets global.
My steed...Django. Named after Franco Nero, not Tarantino.
FINAL WORDS: Don't forget to factor in the wind and NEVER underestimate it.
Oh, and I do not recommend doing a 300+km cycle trip if you haven't ridden a bike in 5 months. My achilles was wrecked for a while after this outing.
Thanks to Alan and Alice for being excellent hosts! See you soon.