I rode this in 2016 – Rohnny and his brother Francis ran it again in 2018, and it look as though it’s on again in 2020. I’m quite tempted, it was a great ride.
Belgium, Land of the Chip
I entered Rohnny’s Borders of Belgium 2016 early, as I’d missed the previous versions in 2012 and 2014. I love cycling in Belgium, from the canalbanks and cyclepaths of Flanders to famously friendly Limburg and from picture-perfect Brugge to gritty Antwerp. We’d get to see all of it, and all of the different cyclescapes of Belgium.
The ride was set up with a range of different options, Ryanair-stylee. At its most basic, you could enter the ride for 10 Euros and make all your own arrangements out on the road. However, for those who entered early enough, Rohnny, his brother Francis and family laid on accommodation, food and bag drops at the controls. I booked every option.
There were about 90 riders at the start – loads of Brits, obviously loads of Belgians, a few random others, and a few Germans including Heinrich, the utter misery of a recumbentist. We were chatting about how so few Belgian cyclists had waved or nodded at us on the road, and I asked his opinion: “Hey Heinrich, do German cyclists wave or acknowledge one another on the road?”
“NO, I WOULD NOT LIKE THAT”, came the booming Bavarian reply. On the ride, we waved to everyone, and called it the Heinrich manoeuvre.
We asked other riders about their plans for the ride – with a 2pm start on Thursday afternoon, and no manned control until 560km, the majority seemed to be planning to ride through the first night. Fast Bruno had booked a hotel in Roubaix (240 km) for a few hours’ kip, Tom the Velomobilist just rode straight through, going Full Euro (bib shorts and nowt else – it was a popular look in the 30-degree temperatures we were having).
I rode with Rob Wood and Dale Ramage, and we carried bivvy bags so we could have a couple of hours’ kip to break up the first night. Given the pan-flat nature of the start, this seemed entirely possible, and we hooked into a large group until the first town. We peeled off to top up our bottles, and to escape the large group, which seemed to be teetering on the edge of catastrophe, blatting along two-up on narrow bike lanes and overtaking slower cyclists, of which there were plenty.
We settled into a steady rhythm around the Belgian coast through Knokke-Heist and past the ferry port at Zeebrugge where we’d disembarked a couple of days ago. De Panne was actually a control, though the official cafe was closed, and we wrote our back-up info answer on the card. The card was an interesting difference from UK audaxes – you wrote the controls and times in yourself rather than it being pre-printed. Yet more different was that De Panne at 140 km was the first control, and the next control wasn’t until Houyet at 450 km.
That took some getting used to – we stuck to the (mandatory) route, but we rode 450 km with no more than a bit of information from the monument at De Panne, and it was almost a relief to get a proper stamp at Houyet the next day. Pity poor Rohnny, who had no idea where any of his riders were between setting off and the sleep stop at 540 km – that’s a 24-hour window where anything could happen.
Night came, and we expected few or no places to eat en route. Ieper/Ypres was probably our last chance to eat, and we all ordered varieties of kebab in the Last Chance Takeaway. We needn’t have bothered, as we hadn’t reckoned with the multiplicity of vending machines in the tiny villages, vending everything from fresh bread to roast chicken, strawberries and, in the middle of the night somewhere in ridges of Wallonia, enough fresh veg to form the basis of a nourishing stew which Dale brewed up on his stove, an hour or two before our bivvy stop in a quiet churchyard. Quiet apart from our snoring, that is – Dale said it was so loud that he feared we’d be found, but I was too fast asleep to notice. Dale had been careful to bed down at a spot away from Rob and I, but apparently not far enough.
Come morning, places started to open, and we ran into Lindsay and the slightly bonkers German Sounds for Children rider. I wanted coffee after only a couple of hours’ kip, so it was lovely to walk into a garage and get a big hug from Lindsay. Not from the German fella, though later on he did say that he’d seen me sleeping, and also that he’d also videoed me sleeping, which is the most sinister thing anybody said to me on the ride. Imagine it in a German accent to feel the true horror. He packed in the end, after trying to blag a lift from Chris Smith, who was trailing the route to offer support to Lindsay and sarcasm to the rest of us, and who had no space in the van for an extra bike (he said).
The roll of the land became far more noticeable. A deceptively easy section along a ravel, or old railway line, led us gently into the proper hills, and after crossing a valley, climbing a 10% hill into a town, then up and over a ridge, down into another valley and up again, Dale declared “that’s it, I’m calling this the Ardennes”.
Not only was this definitely the Ardennes, it was definitely warm. We did have a bit of kip in a shady spot along the ravel. We had the time, and it was lovely, especially for the likes of me who are acclimatised to UK weather and consider temperatures in the high teens to be unreasonably warm. We weren’t the only ones to spend the afternoon napping in the shade, and finding a quiet corner was tricky amongst the snoozing crowds of randonneurs.
I’ve ridden in the Ardennes before, and the long ridges and broad valleys were no surprise to me. The secret to easy riding is to follow the ridges, or follow the valleys, so naturally enough we did neither as we were following the border. There were some big valleys, and an especially big, big valley to cross. Rob was good enough to provide a running commentary on the upcoming hills from his Garmin, even after I asked him not to.
The sleep stop at Habay broke up the hills nicely, and Rohnny’s hospitality at Habay was excellent – loads of food, beer for sale, and he gave us the penthouse suite. Solo riders had a room to themselves! Like a lot of hilly places near populous areas, the Ardennes is a mix of wilderness, remote communities and tourist hubs. My Belgian mate had told me there were bears in the Ardennes a few years ago, though I decided not to mention this to my riding companions. We didn’t see any bears, but in the pre-dawn on the edge of a sleepy tourist town, the three of us had to brake sharply to avoid a herd of wild boar bursting out of the hedgerows in a regimented line from largest to smallest like an Asterix cartoon. The fifth in line performed a scrabbling u-turn in front of my wheel before retreating – probably muttering “these cyclists are crazy” to itself.
Welcome to Germany (or not)
Another ravel didn’t lead us out of the hills as the first one had led us in, it was merely a lull amongst the hills and the heat. Dale went for the world’s most tenuous claim to have visited Luxembourg, nipping off over the border and searching in vain for a Welcome to Luxembourg sign. I visited Luxembourg too, not to mention France, Germany and the Netherlands, at least according to my mobile phone provider. Later, we entered Germany properly, but not before entering the German-speaking part of Belgium, where I’m pleased to report that the German approach to customer service thrives, and peremptory demands for exact change and refusals to top up water bottles for free are the cyclist’s lot. We controlled in Monschau, which was a frustrating chocolate box-looking tourist hell under the blazing sun, at the foot of a narrow gorge surrounded by medieval buildings where no wind blew to ease the heat, and the sound of oompa bands lingered in the air. We ate an overpriced meal in the unpleasant heat, then when we left the Altstadt and climbed the hill, we found an entire, proper town where the real people live with loads of supermarkets and even a McDonald’s.
We stopped at a handy Aldi to top up with suncream and snacks. Despite the grotsome nature of Monschau and the lack of shade, Aachen was appearing on the roadsigns, and as well as sounding like a Dutchman clearing his throat, Aachen nestles up against the Dutch border, and we all know that the Netherlands are flat, so our mood was uplifted even as our wheels were downward-headed. We knew we were about to start leaving the hills and back into Flanders, where the roads are flat and the cyclepaths are easy.
And this was where Rob’s freehub decided to give up the ghost. The thing had been grinding away for ages, but as we could do nowt about it, we chose to ignore it and hope that it would last the ride. It didn’t. Rob could nearly ride his bike, as long as he didn’t mind stepping off, lifting the rear wheel and unjamming the chain after every half-turn of a crank. He was, I think, resigning himself to checking into a B&B in Aachen and training it back to the start, but he’d reckoned without the intervention of Our Mr Smith, who not only came out to meet Rob en route, but lent Rob the bike he’d brought with him for the odd chance he’d have for a bimble himself. We had checked with Rohnny that this was OK and permissible within the rules, and of course, since Rohnny is a top bloke, he merely told Rob to do what he needed to do to keep riding.
The Miracle of Lommel
Dale and I left Rob to wait for Chris, and left him without Hope (Rob refused to let Dale lend him one of his spare lights). Despite the delays, we had plenty of time in hand, we were about 100 km from the final sleep stop at Lommel and about 250 kom from the finish. Confident we’d finish in time, we went in search of chips in Vise. After ten minutes, we found a tiny friethuis on the edge of town, much to the annyance of the young lad serving us, who wanted us to get out and harrumphed and cleaned around us until we went to finish our chips outside. He probably had a date – everyone else was enjoying their Saturday night in Vise, but we still had 200 km to go.
The section after Vise was all canals. Big canals, carved ten metres deep into the surface of the earth with gaping cliffs reflecting the arc lights and running lights on the massive container ships. The still, dark water made me very uncomfortable, and I asked Dale to ride between me and the water. In reality, it was a good surface and a wide path, but even so. Then the water was at both sides. I just concentrated on the pool of light in front of me.
We expected Rob to catch up in Lommel after we’d been abed for an hour or two. but as it turned out, he was there five minutes after we arrived. I hadn’t even had time to grab a beer when he rolled up out of the darkness, and I spent ten minutes gaping at him before I could really believe it. I didn’t think we’d faffed all that much, but clearly queuing at two different friethuisen before getting our chippy goodies had given Rob the edge, as he simply hadn’t stopped. It was a heroic effort.
The True Belgian Experience
I had a change of clothes at Lommell, as did Rob. Dale, I believe, wore the same clothes throughout. I’m not here to judge.
With 150 km to go and time in hand, we were relaxed about the finish, and I was looking forward to riding through Antwerp again, especially the tunnel under the Scheldt.
Second breakfast came in Turnhout – at Barzoet, which was also the answer to the info question. According to one of the local riders, this translated as The Pub’s Kiss. Though I misheard this as The Pup’s Kiss. Either way, it was too early for booze for me – not for some of the locals, mind, whom we saw supping on beers at 7 am.
I had to wait until Antwerp for beer – the route took us through the middle of the city, across wet cobbles and slippery tramtracks. It was brilliant. We stopped at a bar for food, where the waiter refused to serve me the beer I first ordered as it was too strong, instead relegating me to a local brew which was a mere 8%. And we spotted the living meme sat nearby, who very obviously disliked us trying to take photos of him, so we had to stage ride-pasts with him prominently in the background.
The finish was due west dash along the Flandrian canals into Antwerp, straight into a headwind straight off the sea. It really is flat around there, and there‘s none of the UK topography which creates gust and swirls and shelter. Along the canals, I saw one lass going the other way who used her brolly as a sail.
Someone somewhere had flicked the switch on for WIND, and it was a solid wall of effort to fight against. Rob said after the ride that his favourite part was seeing Dale’s enjoyment of the whole thing. It’s fair to say that Dale loved loved loved the finish, due west into a headwind straight off the sea. He was having a blast, shouting about echelons and cadging a tow off a handy local, then taking turns with him into the wind.
The highlight was the gangs of locals out on their Sunday morning club runs – every group was dressed in matching kit, right down to the socks and aftershave.
And that was it! We picked up Lindsay on the way and finished with a comfortable three hours in hand in mid-table obscurity, and cheered the rest of the riders in while we tried to run through the range of Belgian beers on offer at Puyenbroeck. Rohnny had even arranged for cyclists to be able to use the pool in cycling kit for just one day – Dale and Lindsay went Full Euro, and went for a dip.
It was my favourite ride of a year with lots of great long rides. I’d recommend it for anyone thinking of riding in Europe, and my top tips would be to enter early and take advantage of all of Rohnny’s organisation rather than trying to make your own arrangements, to build up time in the flatlands to make up for the hills out east, and to ensure that your bike is thoroughly serviced before the ride (sorry, Rob). Oh, robust tyres as well – there are a fair few cyclepaths which are fairly well-surfaced, but they still have more detritus on them than most roads, and there were a fair few punctures. But ah, those vending machines.