Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Route III: The Wet Windy Low Countries

Part 2, day 2: A long way to Maastricht (continuation from Deutschland to Dutch)

Just under two days to get to Brussels, we wheeled our way out of the picturesque town of Venlo to meet the river Maas for the first time. A wide brown mass of the wet stuff running steadily north to the North Sea. Crossing river after river on this trip bought home how the Netherlands is, geographically speaking, a giant river delta draining northern Europe.  Funny, I had never thought of it that way before, but it is the Bangladesh of our part of the world, masked by the ingenious way in which the locals have crafted and tamed the land. Our brief stay in this country would follow the Maas 90km or so south to Maastricht for an overnighter.
After the delectable lunchtime beers in Venlo it seemed such a nice idea. Gently follow the picturesque river past sail boats and windmills all the way to our beds. Instead we got PAIN. OK, a touch of exaggeration, but certainly significant discomfort.

The wind had picked up and was blowing hard into our faces, south to north. There is a reason cyclists go so much faster when tucked down behind each other in tight formation peloton. Simple aerodynamics and I can tell you that for similar reasons it is at least twice as tough to pedal your way into a strong head-wind hour after hour.               

Yes the river and surrounding greenery were pretty, yes there was at least one Dutch windmill, but at the time I didn’t really care. Just head down, body tucked in and follow on the wheel of the guy in front. Fortunately the uber fit Uwe was happy to lead out most of the way, but we all took our turn.

To make it worse cold, driving rain kicked in. Two thirds of the way to Maastricht Erik decided enough was enough and, on passing a rail station with trains heading back east, bid his farewells. After briefly considering curtailing the day’s ride ourselves we fuelled up with cake and decided to push on with the original plan.
Leaving the river to the west, we hit out on what looked like a fast straight road. All good until it started to bend away from our destination. Running out of time, we cut back towards the river until we reached a canal, pushed our bikes up the steep grass bank siding and pushed on. Just at that bit of the day when saddle sore kicks in, we had managed to find a degraded, concrete/dirt path that rattled the teeth and rumbled the posterior.
Predictably the rain came down again, bringing with it a touch of self-induced misery. After an hour of staring down at the path in pot-hole avoiding concentration, we took a break from the downpour under an overpass, chomped some salami, checked a map and got ready for the final push.

Eventually the rain alleviated and we approached the outskirts of Maastricht. For the final couple of kms I was in a bright enough mood to take in some of the scenery and was positively buzzing by the time we found ourselves pedalling into the historic old town. One of the nicest things about cycling is that extra bit of energy the creeps in with the last squeeze of adrenaline at the end of a long day. Here it was accompanied by the quite beautiful combination of the river, the townhouses which lined it and the setting sun.
After a bit of a wild-goose-chase trying to find cheap accommodation around windy back streets, we ended up staying on a funky hostel boat. Not the most river-worthy of vessels, but it sold beer and seemed fitting after we had spent so much of the day cursing the river.

Predictably, a feast of a dinner and local bevies ensued followed by a tipsy tour of the city’s squares and alleys and some chilled out late night conversations on the high banks of the Maas. Then head first onto my rickety bunk, being lulled into a deep sleep by the rocking of the boat and mild exhaustion.

Part 2, day 3: Back to Brussels

Sore, very sore, but in good spirits. As always, Dave and I disappointed the Germans with our slovenly slow getting up. In my defence, my Celtic physiology requires a fair deal of talc’ing and vaseline under all that lycra to keep the chafe away. Not a pretty thought I know, but neither is turning those legs for hour upon hour in the rain with rubbed raw bits.

The sun was out and the road was flat as we cycled out of town.  Across into Belgium and it quickly took a turn for the worse. The rain burst out of the sky cold and almost horizontal. Doing the trip in late April was a risk, but this was a joke. We resorted to huddling behind a bus shelter (not for the only time that day) until it dried up. With pretty pissed off muscles I jumped back on the bike to immediately encounter a long, straight, slow hill. I thought Belgium wasn’t meant to have any of those. Were we not in the low countries? Our plans to take the scenic side roads dissolved with the wet weather as we unanimously chose the boring direct route to Brussels.

To the Belgians’ credit, the road was lined with a beautiful cycle path. As I have found in France, Germany, Holland and now Belgium, the people in the north-western part of the continent have a real respect for cyclists. Such a juxtaposition to the UK where cyclists are barely ever taken into account by road users or road makers.
In between the relative drudgery of the straight road, we passed through one small town after another. Names like Tongeren, Borgloon and Tienen. Alongside the odd bit of ugly dilapidated industry these were pretty enough places. Tongeren particularly stood out with an iconic statue that resembled Asterix in the town square. Some Gaul who stood up to Roman invaders.

Succumbing to the boredom we eventually took a detour through the countryside, finding tight winding roads, nice rustic views and small villages. All well and good, but we made little progress and jumped back on a straight road to Leuven, thirsty for our final night celebrations. The last time I was in this medieval town was as part of a school “economics trip” with my one lasting memory that of being nauseatingly hung over during a morning tour of the local Stella beer factory. Giving it a miss this time we instead found our way to the medieval town square, the Grote Markt. The highlight of the day. Multi-story guild-houses, a grand gothic town hall and an imposing church.

Our departure hastened by some annoying giggling teenage girls (the world is at times reassuringly homogeneous), we jumped back on the bikes and pointed our the wheels in the direction of Brussels. Some more rain, hiding in a bus shelter and hills later we were in the outskirts of the Belgian capital, freewheeling our way to the centre. It had been a fair bit tougher than expected, but we had made it. After last year’s multi-puncture shenanigans, not one between the lot of us…. bugger, spoke to soon, 350 km without a single bike issue and I get a flat on a steep downhill with the end in sight. I had to laugh.
Me and my bike were back where it all started 3 trips before. We rode into the centre basked in uncharacteristic sunshine. High funfs and the odd homoerotic but slap later (if highly charged NFL lycra wearing alpha males can do it, so can we!), we were in a bar with a giant, strong, cold Belgian beer. Then another bar, then another…
Good times. Paris to Hamburg complete and lesson learned about wet northern European springs. Dave and I have since decided to extent the Grand Tour to Lisbon to St Petersburg, so 1,100 km down, a long, long way to go.
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