Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"Because it's there" and Other Good Reasons to Bike in Belgium

I'm on a train on July 25, 2019 - during one of the biggest heatwaves in Europe's history. It's very crowded. My 21 year-old Bike Friday New World Tourist is sitting ten feet away but I can't see it since it is buried under a layer of other people's luggage. The conductor is passing out water due to the near-intolerable heat in the compartment and I keep telling myself this is going to be worth the trouble.

Let me back up a second.

The 'this' I was referring to that day was Belgium. Because of the International Sketching Symposium - an event for sketchers and other artists that takes place in a different country each year - I was on vacation in Amsterdam* which made the Netherlands the 17th country I've ridden a bicycle in.  A day and a half into that adventure I decided I really should should go to another country. Not because I was having a bad time in Amsterdam but I figured Europe's compactness and trains would make a two-country vacation possible and give me an 18th country on my list. 

I looked at a map of Europe and the train lines. I had one day - no overnight - so I needed a country that I had never been to before that I could get into and out of easily, so I landed on Belgium. At first I thought I'd go to Brussels, but when I realized how impractical that would be I settled on a city I knew nothing whatsoever about called Antwerp.

Before riding to the station in Amsterdam at 8:50 in the morning, I determined the train I wanted to take was a Thalys train and would depart at 9:15, which would put me into Antwerp at 10:41 and give me a good several hours before taking the train back. I had to buy both a round-trip ticket and a bike pass for the Bike Friday. 

It started badly. I found I couldn't get on the 9:15 since bikes weren't allowed on the train so I had the choice of either ditching this foolishness in its entirety or paying 99 Euros for a round-trip pass to Antwerp with the outbound train that wouldn't get there until 11:23.

I choose to continue the foolishness.

The platform on the train was intensely crowded with scents ranging from the unpleasant to the hazardous. In the section toward the front of the train there were 8 seats and 14 people - three bikes including mine and a lot of luggage. 

And it was hot. 

The heat made the B.O. stench worse and definitely impacted a few people's moods. One particularly obnoxious man in some kind of sports jersey at the stop in Schippal boarded our section of the train by literally pushing his way past the female conductor, saying something like "My team is on board." His rudeness caused the use of whistles and a lot of yelling - and another delay. 

It was at Breda where the train crew passed out small bottles of water to everyone in our section. I downed it in just about one swallow and waited at least ten more minutes for the train to move again.

The delays put the arrival at quarter to twelve and even then I had to wait for my Bike Friday to be unearthed from the luggage pyramid it was trapped under. Finally free of the train, I headed out into Antwerp station...and the arduous parts of the journey to get there was all but forgotten. 

This is the interior of the station, and no photo I took of it ever did it justice. I found out later this station is widely considered to be the most beautiful in the world and that story checks out. 

I took a mental note of a Belgian waffle stand inside the station and promised myself I'd buy a Belgian waffle. When wheels hit asphalt and Belgium officially became No. 18 I bought a vanilla ice cream cone for 1 Euro and it was the best ice cream I had all summer. 

I didn't have a lot of time so I just rode straight out until I found a path by the water (the signs referred to it as The Ring) so I just picked a direction and rode in it.

Naturally I had to stop and look at the 'bike path' sign - the English Safety Bicycle is a universally understood symbol that is drawn many different ways by transportation departments around the world. Whomever did it in Belgium chose to put fenders on their version.

I didn't have to ride much longer until, on the left side of the trail, I found more artwork.

Because size 451 tubes are hard to find in most bike shops - here and abroad - I carry at least three plus a fresh patch kit every time I take a trip. I also carry an entire spare tire in case of a catastrophic puncture. You can also see a tiny roll of duct tape hanging beneath it (you never know). 
The original plan was to pose with this mural with the bike like I had at the Antwerp Station, but I just couldn't make it to the bike before the timer went off. 

Continuing in the direction I chose, I found a really interesting drawbridge that opened like a sliding van door on rails that were set alongside the road.

As fascinating as it was, I didn't feel like waiting for it to close, so I turned around and opened the throttle on the path churning out miles.

The trail got further from the city and more remote, but I followed a bend and wound up back in Antwerp, where I found a place to have a late lunch.

The outdoor cafe was especially nice because it was shielded from the brutally hot sun - and it faced this.

With temperatures over 100, I headed back to the station the long way back along the path. I made such good time I kept going - past the mural and across the drawbridge that had been opened earlier.

I didn't see any other riders while I was out which didn't surprise me since it was so hot. But there were still people out and about, determined to be outdoors.

After riding several more minutes through a lot of empty fields overlooking windmills, I doubled back toward the city and left the path to roll through Antwerp. I stumbled across a sign that said "Welcome People of Tomorrow!" and the greatest "cars beware" sign I have ever seen.

Finally, I made it back to the train station - not two hours after I had arrived in Antwerp. 

I had ridden in a new country. I ate a great ice cream cone, I had a peaceful lunch. I saw a cool mural. That would have to do.


Just like I rode the Bike Friday from France to Germany to fetch a pretzel, this waffle - which was fantastic - was as good a reason as any to bike to Belgium.

Even though I had my ticket I needed to confirm something about my train, so I got in the information line. It was there that I saw an ad campaign that needs to exist in the United States. 

When I ride and take a train to work on my folding bike, I like to think I am equally handsome.

I boarded the train and sat in the same bike section I had when I was outbound, only this time it was a lot less crowded.

The two bikes on the left belonged to two German women who were on a big road trip together. We talked bikes for a few minutes even though neither spoke English very well. But they understood the hand gestures I made describing how my Bike Friday folds up and liked my high-speed video of the fold I had on my phone.

A guy with a Cortina hybrid boarded at Rotterdam and chatted briefly with the women before silently reading a book. At the Schiphol airport he wordlessly offered me some of his water when he noticed I had run out. At the same stop I helped the German women unload their bikes, and we all wished each other happy travels before the train continued on to Amsterdam. 

I rode a grand total of 15 miles. I could have ridden longer and further if I decided not to go to Belgium but I just couldn't miss the chance even in a heat wave. It's a testament to the power of rail - which I use most of the time for getting to work in San Jose - so consider using one when you want to go a bit further than you normally go. The price of adventure is always worth the ticket. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

*I still need to write about that trip!


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