Biking in Belgium

Written by Dave
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Fietsknooppunt KempenSo you’ve decided to take up the challenge and you get yourself all outfitted with a new bike, and then the Belgian sun makes a rare appearance and you’re rearing to go out for a ride…

But where? How about just about anywhere! Belgium has some of the best networks for cycling in the world, offering paved, accessible, well-signed and maintained routes throughout the country. Yes, throughout the country! Cycling is one of the few true Belgian national values, though of course, even in this regard there are some regional differences to get to know.

In Flanders, cycling follows the comprehensive Fietsknooppunten Netwerk, or the Cycling Interchange Network. You’ve probably seen these signs around from time to time – the green numbers pointing every which way throughout Flanders – and the system can be a little confusing if you don’t know exactly how it works. The Interchange network was adapted from the old system used below ground in the Limburg mines. Numbers refer to junctions between different pathways, and signs between junctions show the fastest way to get there. In the cycling version, the junctions and signs have been laid out to indicate the most scenic, most bike-friendly paths between two intersections.

To plan a perfect Flemish bike ride then, all you need to do is pick a string of junctions and then calculate the distance and follow the signs. The network has been so successful, it even extends over the border now into the Netherlands. To pick a route, you can either buy a map at a local Flemish tourist office (ask for the 'Fietsknooppunten Netwerk' map) or you can go online and click your way around the interactive map of the network.

A personal recommendation – the rides around Ieper/Ypres offer a great way to see some of Flanders’ most historic sites up close and personal, the way only a bike can offer. Biking is also a great way to explore the North Sea coast, or to visit some of Flanders’ Trappist breweries (Westvleteren for one is a rare treat).

And of course Wallonia has no less by way of biking, even if cycling there can seem a little more daunting: even at its worst, Flanders has little that can compare to the hills of the Ardennes.

Want to learn more about biking in Belgium?

Maybe you want to rent a folding bike for a week and try biking to work before you decide to buy your own? Or maybe you just want to learn more about the environmental benefits of cycling? Here are some great places to start (and of course, there is more on our website).

Fortunately, at least for those of us who aren’t quite up to trying out for the Tour de France next year, the largest Walloon cycling network manages to keep things relatively flat and family-friendly. This is the RAVeL network, which was established in the 1990’s to try and make the most of what was by then a surplus of unused former railroads and canal tow paths. Through a rigorous process of environmental preservation and route cultivation, almost 900 kilometers of former railroads and canal tow paths have now been converted into beautiful paved bike paths, often passing through extensive stretches of nature reserves. The RAVeL network is divided into four different bike paths that cross through every province in Wallonia. Through the REVER initiative (Reseau de Voies Vertes), the network is even in the process of expanding into France and Luxemburg as well. To find out more about which route passes nearest to you and which offers the nicest bit of cycling, more information is available on the RAVeL website.

By way of personal recommendation, the RAVeL 2, which follows the valley of the Meuse through Dinant and Namur on its way from Mariembourg to Hoegaarden offers some really beautiful riding.

And lastly, Brussels is no small fry in this area either. In fact, the brand new 'Promenade Verte' which officially opened with a party in May 2009 offers a sixty kilometer route through some of Brussels’ most beautiful parks. The path really shows why Brussels is one of Europe’s greenest cities, and if you pick up a Brussels cycling map (see the article on cycling in Brussels) you can join the route wherever you feel the inclination. And of course, all of these choices are well serviced by rail connections (see tips on bikes on trains below) so you can start or stop wherever the inclination hits you, and cafés galore, so when the weather is perfect you can stop and enjoy that other Belgian specialty – a local beer on a sundrenched terrace.

Though of course, if you’re rolling well, why stop at the borders? Belgium’s coast also shares a part of the North Sea Cycle Route, a network of over 9,000 kilometers including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the coast of Great Britain. If you can manage to bike the whole route, and you have your trip posted on their online wall of fame, do us a favor and let them know Sunbeams sent you! Happy pedaling!

Bikes on Trains

For those of us without fancy folding bikes, getting our two-wheelers around by train can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately though, with a little know-how, it’s not nearly so difficult as it may seem. The first thing to know is, no matter how much your bike may feel part of your body, it needs a separate ticket. These are available at any ticket desk as a one-way trip or all-day pass. To board the train, bikes can be loaded at any Belgian station with the exception of Brussels-Central, Brussels-Congress, and Brussels Kappellekerk, where the stops aren’t long enough to allow for loading and unloading.

You may want to avoid peak hours as well since things can get a bit hectic then and spots for bikes aren’t guaranteed. When the train pulls into the station, just get the attention of one of the conductors and tell them you want to take your bike on with you. They will lead you to the bike carriage and load your bike for you. You just tell them when you want to get off and then go find a seat to enjoy the ride…

This article was originally published in the May 2009 edition of the Sunbeams newsletter.

 

 

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