Cycling in Belgium is a major leisure activity, and all over the country throughout the year, a number of recreational cycling events take place. I have participated in quite a few of these over the years, and have always found them to be well-organised and fun.
In this blog post I want to share what to expect should you decide to participate in one yourself, and give some suggestions for recreational cycling events to consider, either in the following weeks or next year (as many of these are annual events).
I’ll explain what happens at these events with a reference to a specific one in which I participated: the Fietseling, which took place yesterday (14th August). This is a recreational cycling event in the Hageland and Zuiderkempen: in other words around Aarschot and Diest to the north-east of Leuven.
Most of these events offer a range of routes. You simply choose the one that you are most comfortable cycling. The Fietseling offered routes of 20, 40, 60 and 100 km. Obviously the shorter ones are geared more towards families with children, while the longer ones are magnets for the more serious hobby cyclists, as well as the cycling clubs. Some events put on specific mountain bike routes.
The routes are always very attractive, taking you through the countryside on minor roads or village lanes.
At some events you can register prior to the event, but generally you just turn up and register on the day. With Belgian weather being so unpredictable, this definitely makes sense.
This is usually between 3 and 5 EUR, for which you get an entry card, sticker or wrist band to indicate that you have registered. The most important aspect of registration is that it covers your insurance should you have an accident, and gives you access to bike repair services during the day. You’ll also find that you will probably get any number of other items, which could include a tombola ticket, a drink, a snack and a small gift. At the Fietseling I came away with a cycling backpack.
At some of the longer and larger events your entry card will be stamped at various control points. If you hand in your fully stamped card at the end of the route you will get a medal or certificate!
I am always greatly impressed by the signage. At every junction there are clear signposts or stickers indicating which way to go. At the Fietseling I was also given a map which had all the four routes clearly marked in different colours, should I miss a turn-off and become lost. So don’t worry that you will end up in the middle of nowhere, wondering where you are.
Most of these events are circular, so you start and end at the same place. However, don’t think for a moment that it involves hundreds or thousands or cyclists all congregating together in one place ready to start at the same time. There are usually a number of starting points distributed all around the route. What’s more, there’s no specific starting time but a period during which you can set off. The Fietseling, for example, had five starting points. At each of these you could set off any time between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. So basically it’s a case of turning up at your closest starting point and setting off when it suits you best.
On the route
As there is a steady stream of cyclists joining and leaving the route, you never feel as if you are in a “cycle jam”. As the day progresses, some of the more popular starting points can get a bit crowded, but once you are on the route the numbers soon thin out, especially when the different routes begin to separate. I’ve cycled at events where over 20,000 cyclists have been cycling, without feeling over-crowded at all.
This is generally why I participate in these events. There’s really something quite wholesome and satisfying about cycling with so many other people. We all struggle up the same hills together. We all freewheel down the hills like kids together. We all make the same remarks and pull the same faces when we breeze past a pig farm. We all curse an uncaring motorist who speeds past us impatiently. We all smile at the friendly police agent as he/she stops the traffic to let us cross the road.
In addition, there forms an unspoken bond between cycling strangers who find themselves going at the same speed together. I in particular like tagging onto the coat-tails (not literally of course, although I’m tempted) of a group that overtakes me and who are obviously a bit fitter and faster than I am. For a couple of kilometres I keep up with them — before realising that they are definitely fitter than I am, and letting them disappear into the distance!
Each starting point (which you will pass through on the circular route) is generally on a market square. Here, various stands and stalls are set up so you can get a sandwich or a drink, or a burger and chips. The routes also often pass by cafÃ©s where you can stop for refreshments. However, these tend to get very busy as the day progresses. Generally on longer rides I take a picnic lunch. This can be eaten on specially designated picnic benches at the starting points, or on some random bench or log I come across on the route.
Some of the larger events also have refreshment stops underway where you can pick up a free drink — such as a fizzy drink offered by one of the sponsors. At one event free ice-creams were also being given away. (Unfortunately the weather was so cold and wet on that day that I would have preferred a hot soup!).
Basically you can take as long as you like to complete the course, although there is usually a cut-off time of 5 or 6 p.m. So if you want to take it steady, enjoy a couple of beers or coffees in a cafÃ©, and a lengthy lunch, you can. Personally I like to start early and finish early.
For the Fietseling, for example, my nearest starting point was Aarschot. I left home at 8 a.m. and cycled the 20 km to Aarschot, registered, and set off on the 60 km route at 9 a.m. I had completed this by 12.30 — including a lunch stop at 11 — and then cycled the 20 km back home, arriving at 1.30. So for me it was more or less a morning rather than a whole day, and I ended up cycling 100 km in total.
When and where?
This requires a bit of searching the Internet, as well as keeping your eyes and ears open. Ideally, it would be great to consult a single website that lists all such events everywhere in Belgium. But I haven’t yet found one.
Go Cycling also have a calendar of events that you can see for the coming 8 days or 15 days, or you can enter a postcode to find events in your locality. Most of the events, however, are geared towards racing cyclists, but interspersed you can find the more recreational rides.
The websites of the Flemish and French Cycle Touring Federations also have calendars with upcoming events, although again these are geared more towards the longer distances and towards cycling clubs. (Basically if anything is described as a Memorial or Classic, you know it’s geared in this direction).
Otherwise, it’s a matter of conducting your own specific internet searches. Checking out the websites of your local tourist office or that of the province in which you live is also worthwhile.
A few suggestions
Having said that, here are a few upcoming events you might like to consider.
Ronde van Leuven: 28th August. 6 start points. 20, 40 or 70 km routes.
The Gordel: 4th September. I’ve done this 100 km cycle around the perimeter of Brussels three times, and it’s fun, and very popular. Three starting points, in Huizingen, Wemmel and Jezus-Eik.
If you know of any cycling events coming up, or of any websites that promote such events, do add them to the comments below. Thanks.