Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Route I: Tour de Wallonia avec Lycra (part un)

Each year I try and do something new to differentiate it from the last. Life flits by at far too quick a pace and this seems to at least break things up while throwing some new angles into the mix. After many an hour exploring different options and enjoying some procrastination, I knew it had to be cycling. Like every other kid, I used to pedal around my neighbourhood, but an accident which showed me the white of my elbow had curtailed such activities somewhere in the late nineties. Now was the time to correct that and all I needed was a way to nail it down.

The plan. Buy a half-decent bike to guilt me into a two-wheel commute and find a willing conspirator and a couple of tickets for us and our bikes to one place and back from another. Quite dauntingly, the more than able conspirator was Steve (daunting as he has in the past cycled from the top to the bottom of France, is, and I imagine always has been, fitter than me and has a faster bike to boot). London to Cornwall was ruled out on the grounds that English motorists hate cyclists, London to Paris on the grounds Steve had done it before, so…. Brussels to Paris was born. Nothing could be easier than jumping on the Eurostar at St Pancras, easing the journey to Brussels Midi with a couple of beers and rolling back onto the train at the Gare to Nord for the return journey. Except that is for the 350 odd km straight line distance between the two.

Brussels, Wallonia (French Belgium)

We were buzzing as we jumped onto the saddle and meandered our way through the old streets of Europe's bureaucratic capital. It always surprises me just how pretty parts of this city are. Many may ridicule it less if they wandered through the central square and surroundings alleys on such a barmy summer evening. We were even greeted by a local fair complete with flicking lights and roaring sound. I had to keep repeating “drive on the right, drive on the right...” Certain continental habits are important to remember!
This pleasantness was interrupted by a bucketing storm which forced us into hiding with a beer and a big helping of pasta. A bit of sleep, some more carbs, a squeeze into the lycra (first time for me - I am sure you will agree it shows of my curves) and we were off. An old canal runs from the centre of Brussels out roughly in our intended direction – South-East-South. Just two turns out the front door of the hostel we bumped into this waterway and, by fortunate chance, a German who was to brighten up the next few days. The first cyclist we passed was a relaxed looking lanky individual complete with mountain bike and large panniers (bike bags). Well of course I said “hello” and was greeted back with a jovial “hallo, where are you going?” I of course answered “Paris”, he replied “me too” and quite a coincidence it was. Jan had set off from Berlin a few weeks back and gave us a run down of his travels to date as we followed the canal out of the Belgian capital.

The streets fell away leaving flat countryside interrupted by crumbling industry. Despite the huge effort which went into digging these canals, much of their use fell by the wayside with the propagation of the railways and later highways. This, and no doubt other factors, has left a peaceful setting of greenery and wildlife. Gulls, ducks, swans, basking cormorants and a rodenty thing which ran across our path.
At one point, national stereotypes sprung true as wafts of chocolate filled the air. A smell of dark, beautiful stuff protruded from one of the remaining canal-side factories. On and on we cycled until we reached a marvel of engineering. As I am sure you know, canals have to run very near to flat. In much of the world this is solved by systems of locks, but here a particularly large change in altitude is fixed on a grander scale. The canal runs into a slope raising what looked like 100 meters over half a kilometer or so. Boats float right up to the slope, at which point the part of the canal which holds the boat is literally shifted out of the main body of water and dragged up the slope on a railroad. What a feat, and time for us to part ways with the canal.

Belgian beer and a tumble

As we banked off to the East, I realised we had cycled further than I had ever cycled before. It was very much time for lunch. After a few more kilometers coasting down windy country roads banked with corn, we found ourselves in the small town of Le Roeulx. Our day cycling through Wallonia would not be complete without a Belgian beer or two, so we parked up the bikes on a lamp-post and our bums in a bar. We had been fortunate. Not only did the place sell St-Feuillien Blonde (World Beer Awards 2010 – best Abbey/Trappist Pale Ale), one of the oldest beers in Belgium (c. 1125) and, more importantly, delectable, but the barman was charming. He even let us make our own sandwiches in the bar as we chatted about this and that and were generally glowing with the joy of a morning's physical exertions being washed down with premium beer. As it turned out, the beer was perhaps a little too premium...

Rearing to go, we jumped back on the bikes and cycled out of town past the St-Feuillien brewery ( Next thing we were hurtling down a hill at 50 odd kmph in the lightly spitting rain. A real rush. At that speed you can feel the air pummelling into you as the landscape shoots past in a blur on each side. Then from behind...skid...crash...yelp. I slam on the brakes and almost lose control as I swerve to a halt. After no incidents in however many days since Berlin, a couple of strong beers and our company had led to Jan losing control and skidding down the hill with a clatter. A nasty fall. Scrapes to the hands, elbows, knees and forearms were largely superficial, but a deep scrape to the abdomen was a bigger concern. By huge fortune we were within sight of a pharmacy, so I ran off and, after surprising myself with some semblance of the French I had neglected since school, returned with some proper bandages. Jan was in a bit of shock, but was able to soldier on after a lie down and a first aid session.

I was somewhat concerned about him, as the scrape to his chest was a deep, seeping round wound 10cm across. We took it slower, but decided to push on to the French border as rain closed in. From there we made it to our intended turn off and followed a long straight road as the day faded. The serial rise and fall of this old Roman road had taken it out of us and the steeples of Bavay, our final destination for the day, was a sight for sore eyes.

Except for Jan's injury, we had had a great day. We had churned up 126 km of road and I already knew this cycling thing was for me. Our “no real plan” plan had led us to this random town somewhere in a random part of France. We piled into some steak-frites and vin rouge and looked forward to the next leg of our journey.