Belgium on wheels.
By Renée S. Gordon
“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need…roads.” —Back to the Future II
Modern Flanders, a region in north Belgium, is one of the most historic, beautiful, architecturally distinctive and intriguing regions in Europe. The name is derived from the County of Flanders, a medieval principality that existed from the mid-800s to 1795 and was made up of Northern Belgium and a portion of Northern France. Flanders is bordered by the Netherlands and a North Sea shoreline that extends 42 miles. Because of its strategic position in the heart of Europe, the area has been involved in every major European conflict, including both World Wars. Despite years of occupation and carnage, Flandriens have maintained a distinct character and culture that is both unique and accessible.
Nestled within this region are some of Belgium’s most recognizable cities, Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Ghent, as well as numerous small towns and villages. Rivers and canals abound and in many of the cities bridges provide access to medieval town centers that appear to be suspended in time. There are 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, including those located within the Flemish border. The art displayed throughout the region made it a prime target for Hitler’s Nazi art thieves.
With all that Flanders has to offer it may still come as a surprise that the region is a European cycling capital for both professional and amateur cyclists. It is possible to cycle a widespread system of routes that are meticulously marked and created to maximize traveler’s ability to visit remarkable locations and take in breathtaking vistas. Official cycling networks are numbered and designated with rectangular signs; routes are designed to be flexible enough for individuals to make informed choices about the path taken as well as the level of difficulty and duration of the ride; no route is so fixed that riders cannot alter their course at any time.
Basically there are two types of routes: the Main Cycle Paths (MCP) and the Long Distance Routes (LDR) that encompass the entire region. There are approximately 1,864 miles of MCPs and 746 miles of LDRs. One of the most popular cycling paths is The Coastal Route, which is renowned for the loveliness of the landscape along the 54 mile coast from De Panne, abutting the border of France, to Knokke Heist near the Netherlands’ border. At one time the Flemish Coast was the playground of European royalty and summer homes of the wealthy lined the shore. De Panne has 33 percent of the region’s sand dunes and has been used as a movie stand-in for the Sahara Desert.
Oudenaarde, on the Scheldt River, is ground zero for cycling in Belgium and an essential part of the international cycling race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders. This year’s race marked the 100th anniversary of the race that has been held annually since 1912 (with a four-year break during WWI). The one day, 162-mile race is the country’s largest sporting event. Throughout the years the route has changed; this year it began in Bruges. The race has always been noted for its level of difficulty. A portion of it is run on cobblestones (kasseien), it is not cancelled because of weather conditions, and there are 19 steep climbs known as slipways. In 2004 women were finally allowed to race (but the amount of their prize money is less than the men’s). This is the first year the women’s race has been televised.
Thousands of spectators line the streets and it is estimated that more than $8 million is generated from food and beverages on race day. The race was originally 200 miles but it was shortened to increase the excitement. Riders must maintain a speed of 25-28 mph in order to be competitive. Sixty-eight Belgians have won. No American has ever won.
The Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, in Oudenaarde, houses a museum that offers an excellent overview of the race and allows visitors to experience the race through interactive exhibits and a 13-minute panoramic movie. Highlights of a tour include “feeling” the bumpy ride over the kasseien and standing atop the winner’s stand for a photo op.
Located in nearby Roeselare is the region’s most comprehensive museum dedicated to the Tour of Flanders, the Wielermuseum. The original Roeselare Cycling Museum is being renovated; temporarily the galleries are situated inside the deconsecrated Father’s Church and I can’t imagine any venue that could better display the artifacts, photographs, memorabilia and trophies, presented thematically as, “Cycling is a Religion.” Ten chapel-galleries trace event history and 14 interior stations display memorabilia and personal belongings. Highlights of the museum include a collection of historic bikes, but the real must-see is the gallery devoted to doping and the Lance Armstrong affair. Visitors enter a confessional booth and view Armstrong’s confessional interview with Oprah. The museum shop is the best place to find the perfect cycling souvenir or gift.
“Bike to the Future” is on view in the Design Museum in Ghent until October 23, 2016 and it is the perfect way to complete a total Flandrien cycling experience. This exhibit showcases 111 cutting-edge bicycles and related gear including environmentally friendly Japanese bamboo models, solar bikes, prototypes and the world’s first 3D technology designed and printed helmet. The IMF Foundation co-sponsors the exhibition and special emphasis is placed on the potential for bicycles to change the lives of people in countries without transportation systems. There are several interactive stations and information is available in English.
Whether you are a professional cyclist or just a wanderer on wheels, you have not experienced cycling and its culture until you have cycled in Flanders.
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– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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