cycling utah October 1999
Belgium is a cycling superpower
By Rob MacLeod
I am not usually intimidated by big hills. I figure that anything less than one kilometer in length just cannot be that hard. But this one was definitely different.
To get to the base of the climb the course first circled the village of Grammond (Geraardsbergen in Flemish). It was almost like riding around the top row of seats in a stadium and gazing at the court below, then dropping straight down a big aisle to get the lowest point. The last stretch was off the main road and through a pedestrian zone, just barely a lane wide and tightly lined on both sides with spectators and shoppers wondering what all the fuss was about. A terrifyingly fast pace was necessary to maintain position for what lay ahead.
The view from the bottom of the village did not provide any encouragement over what I already knew from the course profile; only 825 meters long, with 9.2% overall grade, but a max of 20% and on some of the worst cobbles Belgium has to offer. The origins of the name were also clear now-the "Kapelmuur" the Flemish call it because you pass a church, and suddenly you become tempted to pray, but for strength and luck not salvation of your soul.
The first part of the climb was tolerable, rough, but easier than it looked. But behind the church was the part that only hikers usually tackle, the 20% grade on the terrible medieval cobbles. I tried to keep momentum, but kept getting forced to the edges by the steep off-camber slope and jarring ride that reduced what little traction there was. Then I joined the others and walked, ran, slid the last 20 m to the summit, hopped back on, and tried to make up lost time.
The Bosberg was next. Here the maximum grade was only 11% and I was ready. At the base, there were two riders still ahead front of me. I caught them and started to pace my way up, not sure if I could risk a real attack on the rough stones. The first rider dropped quickly as we hit the steep section, the second hung for a while then drifted back, snapping the invisible cord that connects climbers. By the summit, I was alone again and heading for the finish.
Little flights of cycling fantasy are hard to avoid when you ride the roads of Flanders. This is, after all, the home of great riders like Eddy Merkx, Eddy Plankaert, and Johan Museeuw. This year again it was the Kapelmuur that allowed the winning threesome of the Tour of Flanders to break away and fight out the win in a final sprint. Or perhaps it is the chocolate or the beer that induces heroic dreams. Either way, being in Belgium with a bike and some free time is quite simply as good as it gets.
The goals of this trip were not just to retrace the routes of famous road races but to view Belgium through a bike advocate's eye. Does cycling in Belgium work for the commuter, the family, the cycle tourist? Are there facilities, rules, or customs that could find a place on this side of the water and make our lives as cyclist safer and more enjoyable?
The short answer is "all of the above". But here are some highlights that seem especially promising.
The roads: Roads in Belgium are numerous, full of curves, sometimes hilly, and almost always well maintained. The network of small highways and farm roads can get you anywhere you need to go, although seldom by the most direct route. It is almost hopeless to really keep track of where you are on Belgian roads; at best, if you are lucky, there is enough sun to keep some general direction (next time, I will mount a compass on my bike!).
My typical strategy was to just ride the most interesting looking roads, picking my way through frequent intersections so as to keep a general direction until half of my ride time was used up. Then I found a road large enough to have signs, compared them against my Michelin map (a must for Eurocycling), and figured out where I was and how to get home again. Numerous map checks later, I usually made it. More chocolate and beer...
The cobbles: Cobbles have achieved a level of high engineering, almost art, in Flanders. Almost every village has a strip or two of cobbles and they are well maintained, although of varying ages and degrees of jarring. After a while I realized that cobbles really are there to calm traffic and they work very well. In some places, the cobbles are truly savage, of the sort that makes the Paris-Roubaix race so famous.
The most modern and effective traffic calming measure are speed humps with sharp transitions at either end of the ramps and a smoothly cobbled, flat, elevated section in between. Easy to absorb on the bike and definitely rough enough to wake you up in a car.
Bike routes: As near as I can tell, any road that is not a major interstate style highway is a bike route. Many roads had striped lanes, the "Class II" routes we all know. Others, especially those in the larger towns, had very smoothly cobbled, red brick bike paths. As usual, these can be a little scary, but drivers and pedestrians alike seem to show the respect necessary to make these paths at least usable. The surfaces were always impeccably maintained and smooth enough even for skinny tires.
In the resort towns along the sea coast, there are networks of very well marked, usually asphalted bike paths. Riding these on a weekend is both inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring to see so many folks of all ages and physical shapes on clunky bikes enjoying wonderful recreation. Terrifying to watch the near misses of riders passing, overtaking, and doing all those bizarre things that bike paths are famous for encouraging. The only solution? More chocolate and beer.
Helmets: There is a clear trend toward more and more helmet use among the "racing" cyclists who ride the roads. The Sunday recreationalists, on the other hand, do not seem to know helmets exist, and I guess your average Giro might look rather odd when combined with the fancy skirts, hiking knickers, and other street clothes sported by most of these folks. Trying to disguise yourself as a regular Belgian is almost impossible, so best forget about it and wear what you like.
The law: One of the most impressive ways that Belgians recognize the importance of cycling is a recently passed traffic law. In the case of an accident between parties of different transportation modes, the more dominant, i.e., dangerous, mode is considered at fault. A car hits a cyclist, the motorist is to blame, no questions asked. A cyclist hits a pedestrian and the cyclist is responsible.
This law-and the attitude that lies behind it-create one of the most unusual sensations as a cyclist. For once I had the feeling that I was being noticed-I was never "invisible", as so often seems to happen in our automobile-centric society.
With its scenery, rich history, supreme food and drink, extensive road network, and enlightened attitude to cycling, it is hard to imagine a better place to ride a bike than through the countryside of Belgium. And did I mention the chocolate and the beer? If there is a caveat, it is perhaps the weather, which can be truly miserable. But then you just head for home or a warm pub and watch live coverage of the day's bike racing or soccer matches. And make the hard choice between the chocolate and the beer...
Coming home again was a rude awakening. On my first training ride I buried my front wheel in a six-inch depression in the pavement, did a flying forward flip (rated highly by all who saw me) and rolled hard on the pavement. My helmet preserved whatever ability I have to think and my fractured wrist is well along toward healing. The bike is a little scraped up but still rolling. And that was all without chocolate and beer.
After the fog in my head cleared, I realized that I probably missed the crevice because after riding on decent Belgian roads, I had lost the habit of looking down as much as around. Then I started to wonder why it is that we have to put up with so much as cyclists. We have poorly designed roads, we have drunk drivers and bike thieves, and we even have to deal with road craters that will dump us if we fail to steer around them.
How long would we as motorists put up with having our front wheels swallowed up and being thrown from our vehicles if we did not dodge barely visible obstacles? Imagine a road grate capable of snagging car tires and then imagine how long we would tolerate them in our roads. Why can we not expect that roads be maintained for safe bicycle use? We pay just as much, often more, for city street maintenance as most non-cycling motorists even though we create no measurable road damage. Maybe it is the head injury, but I have not been able to figure out good answers.
Elections are coming soon. Ask your local candidate what he/she thinks about bikes. Ask them why we, the world's last superpower, cannot do as well as a little, insignificant country like Belgium. Then cast your vote. For good roads...and decent chocolate and beer.
Editor's Note: Rob MacLeod is the chair of the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee, a trustee of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, and former president of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club. His other job is as a professor in both Bioengineering and Cardiology at the University of Utah.