Mike In Europe: Beginning My Bike Tour – From London to Maastricht
Cycling from London to the Netherlands through France and Belgium on a Surly Cross Check. The start of my European bike tour.
Leaving London I had very little in terms of a plan for where I was going to start my European bike tour. I knew I was going to take a ferry somewhere to the mainland of Europe and that was about it. In order to jump start my journey towards Dover I opted to take a train a bit of a ways out of London proper to speed things up and decrease my chance of forgetting what direction I should be cycling on the busy streets. After buckling my new Surly Cross Check into it’s seat on the train and sleeping for an hour I hopped out at a random town I cannot remember the name of and started pedaling towards Canterbury. A few short hours later I pulled into town and checked into the hotel where I roomed with two other cyclists. John was from outside of London and headed back home. Heinrich, a retired lawyer from Rotterdam, was also going home after 4 weeks cycling around Scotland. A short 25 or so kilometer ride would bring us to the ferry port in Dover for the two hour ride to Dunkirk. My plan and decision of destination just sort of fell into place based upon my company. Why not head towards The Netherlands? They seem quite cheerful, speak perfect English, and cycling is essential to their daily life. Heinrich’s description of his the time he cycled the Camino de Santiago de Compostela while carrying some historical document which gave him access to staying in various Abbeys inspired me but I will remember most his simple words of advice. “Enjoy your freedom and most of all enjoy conversation.” Soon after we exited the ferry he veered Northeast toward home and I headed Southeast towards the Belgian border.
The flat terrain and cycling lanes made the 70 Km that afternoon go by in a flash. As I approached the Belgian town of Ypres I broke out my GPS recently loaded with a full map of Europe from http://www.velomap.org/ to check for campgrounds. Just like that I was directed turn for turn through the old streets to park near the center of town. I was able to get a hot shower and put up my tent just in time for the steady rain that fell all night long. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more convenient campsite. If this is what cycling around Europe is going to be all about I can get into this. Mixing these types of campsites with some stealth camping is all I could ask for.
By this time I had settled on a short term goal of Maastricht, Netherlands and eyeing my giant paper map I saw that Brussels would be an almost exact midpoint stop for a two day ride. This time I left the navigating up to my GPS set on bicycle routing mode. This was pretty straight forward for the first several hours before hitting the northern reaches of the Ardennes hills. I was under the impression Belgium was flat, it’s not. While not quite mountains the rolling hills seem to roll forever. I would later see a book detailing the area I went through as a classic hill climbing area for European cyclists. I would also later learn that bicycle routing mode in Belgium will send you into the cobblestone roads of the hills and you will meander through them forever. It was beautiful terrain however if your goal is to avoid traffic and highways it is not exactly necessary since all but the very biggest Interstate like highways have cycle specific paths along side them. I pulled into Brussels around 9 pm and was greeted by a guy from New Zealand who had just cycled from Asheville, NC to San Francisco. You can easily put in some distance this time of year since the daylight extends easily until 10pm.
Waking up to heavy rain and wind I decided it was a good a time as any other to take a day to explore Brussels. My impression riding in was not the best. It seemed dirty and I was probably tired but I didn’t want to like it. Given some time to explore the city a little better my opinion changed. Leaving town toward the East the following morning I really saw a better sampling of what Brussels really is. You really need to get out of the tourist center of these places to see it’s best side. I know this but there are always situations that give you a good reminder.
Brussels Eastward to Maastricht seemed like an endless string of affluent towns strung together. Audi, BMw, Mercedes dealerships, bike shops, organic bakeries, and beautiful houses the whole way. I think everyone in the more rural areas of Belgium is rich. I noticed a missing cable end and frayed brake cable and within minutes I past right by a bike shop and had it fixed for free in minutes and was on my way. In the larger towns of Leuven, Tienen, Sint-Truiden, and Tongeren it was what I guess is market day as the town centers are full of venders and beer drinking and ice cream. The towns were perfectly spaced for the need to get off the saddle for a few minutes and push through the crowds. I could have routed around the crowds, but why?
A perfect day of cycling came to an end as I crossed into The Netherlands and rolled into Maastricht. I had a multitude of campgrounds to choose from and I had made good time and would have time to check out the town that evening and get a big meal. Now to just get into a campground and set up. One after another the campsites suggested by the GPS turned into dead ends. Then the rain and hunger set in after several hours of wandering from one side of the city to the other. Ok, eat and then worry about where to stay. Oh, where is my bank card? Did I leave it in Brussels or did it get stolen? Where is this rain coming from? Ok, I need to check into this missing card thing so maybe I’ll just check into the hostel for the evening. Nope, it’s completely full and now raining even harder. I gave up trying to be frugal and just wanted to get out of the rain and eat so I splurged at a decent hotel. Finally dry and fed I checked online to see that the contents of my traveling bank account had been drained but someone shopping at the mall in Brussels. I still have no idea how I lost the card but I was luck to catch it early enough that the charges had not posted yet. The money has been returned and I do not have to deal with the paper work of disputing fraudulent charges.
So, just one more night in Maastricht to arrange the shipment of a replacement card and then it’s South towards Luxembourg. In the meantime and inbetween passing rains showers I am exploring the vast and impressive system of bike lanes around the city. They really are impressive and I get the impression that bike lane layout comes first and then roads second. Cyclists always have the right of way and there is no question about it here.
I think the most memorable aspect of this past week is that as soon as I left the ferry in Dunkirk I have rarely if ever left a bike lane or path. I have been able to cycle via bicycle specific lanes from France, through Belgium, and into The Netherlands. I don’t get the impression this will change for a while on my very vague general direction of travel.
Some other thoughts
- I am loving my Surly Cross Check. It seems perfect for this type of tour and I am equally happy with pannier setup. It felt funny at first but I have really gotten used to the ride.
- I think I was spoiled by the warmth and friendliness of the people of Mexico and Guatemala. I wouldn’t say I have encountered rude peope but it’s just different here. You are just one of many thousands of cyclists here.
- Other bike tourists don’t even look at you when they pass. Must be just the number of us/them. Again, just very different than the encounters with others in Central America where passing another cyclists could very well lead to an evening of Mezcal.
- This Summer in Europe doesn’t seem very Summery at all.