Monday 26 May 2014

Rocketing westward

Guud morneeng, ladies and gentleman, I am Claude, your train managaire... And so ends my lightning tour (OK, very slow lightning tour) of Belgium by bike. What was particularly surprising to me was how difficult it was. I thought, eh, one kind of difficult day of hills then two easy peasy days of flat. 83 mi, 69 mi, 75 mi. Hah. I wasn't counting on having the wind against me or having a strong crosswind every day, especially the last day, nor had I properly remembered the soul destroying nature of Belgium's crappy concrete roads, cobbled roads or mandatory bumpy brick bike paths. Still though, with the exception of the cobbled roads, one of which I had to walk to avoid killing my skinny wheels, the trick is really just to slow down and accept that it is going to take a long time. That can be a hard proposition. Much as I bitch about the shitty nature of British roads (and drivers) there is actually a lot more freedom to ride like a bat out of hell. That said, in Belgium I was passed by a number of very fast groups of road cyclists and saw one road race. Where the the roads are good, they are very, very good, which is more than I could ever say of Britain and with the exception of Brussels, which seems to be a bit like cycling through Tijuana, the drivers are pretty universally courteous. It probably helps that a lot more people cycle... One of the things I love about cycling across Belgium is the complete hodgepodge of building styles. There seems to be a complete lack of any planning consistency. Sure, put your castle next to my supermodern house next to that barn next to a faux chalet attached to a brick Victorian house with a windmill in the front garden. Anyway, I was very glad to get to Brussels, quite late, as I was about to fall over by that point. Off course, I was a bit disappointed to not be cycling the next day. I did have a lovely relaxing day with Alex though. Went with him to vote (compulsory, automated and tied to his ID) then did the gym, had a very yummy lunch, coffee and chat while watching passersby. Spent a slightly surreal evening watching Flemish election results, which a little bit like watching very Dutch looking people speaking Glaswegian after suffering a stroke that affected my ability to comprehend language. So, a good time! And now I'm heading back west on a delayed Eurostar full of irritating Australian tourists that don't seem to comprehend the idea of an "indoor voice". Ah, back to Britain!

Friday 23 May 2014

Blobbing in Bruges

So, in a slightly surreal twist, I'm listening to some Southern girl twanging away on a Flemish language station blaring from across the street. I'm in the very spacious attic room, on a king bed, in a tiny b&b I seem to be sharing with a group of Parisians. Today was day two of my three day ride from London to Brussels. 83 miles of hills, rain, headwind and traffic yesterday, 68 miles of flatland, one 9 mile dead end and hiding out from monsoon rain today. I think I got here just as my resolve crapped out. Yesterday was just relentless. It really is gorgeous cycling to Dover, but it is insanely hilly and full of annoying southeast England drivers on tiny roads. I sat out one thunderstorm only to be utterly and completely drenched as I reached Dover with the setting sun. It did make for an impressive arrival at the waterfront, but it would have been a little more impressive were I not shivering. The hotel was right on the water. Nice enough, with, well, a ferry crowd. There were a lot of people at breakfast at 630 this morning. The ferry, that's always an adventure. Weaving through the labrynthine loading area, playing dodgem with Polish truck drivers. The bikes all get on first, ahead of the mass of cars and trucks. It's kind of a bizarre experience pedalling into the cavernous and empty car deck, this time with two packs of cyclists visiting war sites across Belgium. One of them I kept seeing all day today. They were faster than me, but I had a Garmin. The ferry ride itself is quite relaxing, 2 hours. The crowd is an odd mix off Eastern European truckers, families with small children and the sort of people that would take Greyhound. Little chance of drowning in that gene pool. It's a bit of a Kodak moment as the ferry pulls out of Dover, white cliffs bright in the morning sun. It's not quite as glamorous when the ferry pulls into Mordor, I mean, France. For one, it's dead flat, with scrubby dunes and 10 miles of flame belching refineries, brick plants, shipyards and general industrial horror before the marginal improvement that is Dunkirk. It really is the ass end of France. Still though, the roads are smooth, which is more than one could say of England. Thinking I was being clever, I took the coast road up the dunes, only to discover a very stubborn automatic drawbridge that wasn't going to respond to my bike. Given that I hadn't seen another car for about half an hour, there wasn't much choice but to schlep back 4.5 miles against the wind and head inland. Anyway, heading northeast again, I think I was cruised in the dunes by a dogwalker when I stopped to pee, but he was French, so you never know. Then on to Belgium, past a bunch of burly looking French customs agents waiting to pick off brown people at the border. I'm not sure, but that area seems to be like Belgium's Florida, with an endless line of atrociously ugly condos fronting the sea, backed by farmland dotted with small towns and churches. Quite the contrast to France. I had to sit out two thunderstorms. Nothing quite says suck like cycling across a flat plain in a heavy thunderstorm. Eventually, I turned inland from the coast, finally making it onto a small, sensible road. It is always nice cycling out of the UK, where they actually put in sensible infrastructure. I got to Bruges just as I was about to get delirious and possibly even crabby. Lots of money and excessive cuteness here. And a very expensive and seriously delicious dinner, made possible by a sudden downpour. Funny how that works. Walked around Bruges some after and resolved to come back. It is very hard to imagine the pleasant farmland around here as the final resting place for millions. Suppose that's why it's important. Anyway, must go to bed before brain falls out. More tomorrow!

Sunday 18 May 2014

Backwards, southward

So, I'm on a train again. Sounds like a country song. It does seem to be the only place where I actually get around to writing anything. My well meaning attempts to keep a regular tab of the daily ridiculousness of life in local government seems to have gone approximately nowhere. So anyway, I just spent the past two days cycling over hill and dale in the north of England. It was officially a trip to go see Jerry in Newcastle, as he's over to dig holes in the ground, but it was also a thinly veiled excuse to get out of the smog and curse at but secretly love monster hills. Jerry is over to take part in a archaeological dig near Hexham. I cycled past it, by chance. It looked a bit like a small castle with an allotment next to it, tucked in amongst sheep and tour bus parking. No data service on mobile phones. Not sure how Jerry, who is as big of a Facebook whore as am I, will survive. We shall see. Anyway, it sounds interesting but also sounds like a bit like Tom Sawyer and the whitewashed fence. Sure, come dig holes in my field and pay me. Anyway, I am always struck, on these cycling forays around this silly island, both by the fact that the road must go directly up the hill rather than around it, by how desolate one can feel in the middle of a densely populated island and by the fact that cyclists really do seem to all congregate around certain, well known routes and in packs rather than branching out and exploring the thousands of little dinkyshit roads to nowhere. I stopped at this overcrowded teahouse at the top of a pass in the Pennines (it's Britain... There has to be an overcrowded teahouse at the summit) and there are huge packs of cyclists and motorcyclists. Short of some usually disappointing potential serving (motorcycle leathers really should be banned as misleading under the trading standards act) I don't get the thrill of riding a loud smelly machine over a mountain. Either be comfortable and drive a car or test your endurance and ride a bike. A real bike. Maybe I'm just disappointed that most of them looked like overstuffed sausages. Whining aside, I have to say these bike rides tend to restore my faith in Britain and make me confident I picked a good place. It's hard to remember that sometimes amongst the benefit scroungers and general ickiness of Woolwich. I met a retired couple from Australia cycling the length of Britain, two middle aged guys doing a coast to coast cycling Tour du Pub and a rather dishy individual today who just did a 112 mile race in the Yorkshire Dales. Much respect. I also saw probably a few hundred squished animals along the road. Mostly bunnies. Serious critter carnage. And got rather little sleep last night in Newcastle, as my hotel room, which came equipped with earplugs and a fan, couldn't compete with the general drunken mayhem that passes for classy entertainment in Newcastle on a Saturday night. And back to work tomorrow for a big two day work week before the Chelsea flower show and cycling to Belgium. Yeah, I suppose life is OK. ☺