elite cycling circles, the 160-mile Tour of Flanders, which celebrated its centennial this spring, is one of the world’s most famous bike races. It’s also one of the toughest. The no-holds-barred contest up West Flanders’ steep, cobblestoned hills prompted one exhausted winner to compare the race-called “Vlaanderens Mooiste” or “Flanders’ Finest”- to the Stations of the Cross.
Thankfully, for most visitors to Flanders, cycling is a breeze. On terrain that’s largely as flat as a pancake, the bicycle-obsessed Flemish have laid out thousands of cycling paths. “All the Flanders territory is covered by a very fine grid of bike routes,” explains Peter De Wilde, CEO of Visit Flanders, the national tourism office for Flanders and Brussels. “I’ve been told you can see it from the moon. And it’s a flat territory, so biking there is really very nice.”
Given Flanders’ compact cities, filled with castles, churches and other historic sites, and its nearby green meadows and meandering tree-lined canals, bikers can experience the best of Europe in a short time while sharing the Flemish passion for their national sport. “Seeing Flanders on two wheels is one of my favorite things to do,” says Liliane Opsomer, Deputy Director of Visit Flanders. “Marked pathways lead through historic cities and villages only to be topped by a nice refreshing brew at the end of the ride - that’s my kind of fun. My favorite route: Bruges to Damme along the canal with a lunch at Farmhouse De Stamper.”
Cycling Through Brussels and Mechelen
Most visitors to Belgium fly into Brussels, Flanders’ largest city and the European Union’s capital. Like neighboring Flemish cities, Brussels is relatively small and compact. The 3 1/2-hour Brussels Bike Tour (www.brusselsbiketours.com) takes in the iconic Grand Place, St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and the world-famous statuette, Mannequin Pis. The tour includes a stop for frites, or Belgian fries. The company’s afternoon Brussels Craft Beer Tour (www.brusselsbeertours.com) makes stops at Cantillon, the 113-year-old brewery known for fruity lambic beers, as well as at several beer bars.
For rentals, Villo (www.villo.be) has 180 bike-rental stations, each about 800 feet apart. You pay for hours used - the first half-hour is free - then return your bike to a nearby station. At Brussels train stations, CyCLO (www.cyclo.org) rents Blue-Bikes (www.blue-bike.be), city bikes, and folding bikes by the day or week. Pro Velo (www.provelo.org) provides bike rentals as well as guided tours. For handicapped riders, Almagic (www.almagic.org) rents tricycles, hand-bikes and other special equipment.
Beyond the city, the 37-mile Promenade Verte, or Green Trail, connects parks and nature preserves. Regional trails, or Itineraires Cyclables Regionaux (ICR), are outlined in La Carte Velo (Bicycle Map) available at bike-rental stations in the Brussels’ Centraal, Luxemburg, Midi and Noord train stations, at La Maison des Cyclistes (Rue de Londres 15) and at CyCLO (Rue de Flandre 85).
Only 11 minutes north of Brussels Airport by train, Mechelen, famous for its carillon music, is now also renowned for its Kazerne Dossin, a major new Holocaust and human-rights museum built at the site where thousands of Jews were transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II. With traffic restricted in Mechelen’s center city, visitors can freely cycle past old and new historic sites. Outside Mechelen, extensive cycling paths wind through verdant countryside, many along traffic-free waterways and dikes. A top destination for recreational cyclists is Drie Rivierenpunt, the point where three rivers-the Rupel, Nete and Dyle-meet.
In and Around Antwerp
Antwerp, Flanders’ second-largest city, has long been the capital of Belgium’s fashion industry, center of the diamond trade, and birthplace of major Flemish painters like Peter Paul Rubens. On September 28, with the opening of the new Red Star Line Museum, tracing the 19th-century immigration of Eastern Europeans from Antwerp to the U.S., the city adds yet another feather to its cap. Saturdays and Sundays, from June through September, explore the sights on the three-hour, guided Antwerp By Bike (www.antwerpbybike.be) tour.
The Beers of Antwerp (www.beersofantwerp.be) website describes three 18 to 31-mile beer-cycling tours. The Duvel Route, named for the Antwerp brewery famous for its golden beer, takes in breweries and historic sites in the Scheldeland tourist region (www.scheldeland.be). The Trappist Route visits the renowned Westmalle Trappist Abbey where, connoisseurs say, the world’s best beers are made. The Bollekes Route takes riders to the De Koninck brewery, several venerable beer bars, and sights like the Sint-Anna Tunnel, which runs beneath the River Scheldt.
Cycling trails travel south through the Scheldeland tourist region, north toward the North Sea and marshy polder villages with age-old windmills, and northeast to the Campine region (www.antwerpsekempen.be) where more than 1,200 miles of cycling routes lead through heath landscapes, pine forests and quaint villages.
Bruges and Ghent
In West Flanders, about 35 miles southeast of Bruges, lies Ghent, an historic university town of cafes and canals. For most of the Tour of Flanders’ hundred-year existence, Ghent was the race’s starting point, and Gentenaars remain obsessed with cycling. In fact, Ghent has one of the region’s best online route planners in English (http://fietsrouteplanner.gentfietst.be). And bike maps are available at the Visit Gent information center at Sint-Veerleplein 5.
Max Mobiel (www.max-mobiel.be), with outposts in the main Gent Sint-Pieters rail station, the Gent Dampoort and the Gent Centrum city pavilion, rents city, tandem, mountain and electric bikes by the day, weekend, week or month. For the best selection, reserve online. Bikes also can be rented at Biker (www.bikerfietsen.be) right in the city, or, a short distance away, at Het Verzet BVBA (www.hetverzet.be) in Deinze and PDG Bikestore (www.pdgbikestore.be) in Drongen.
There are four main city Cycling Routes of 6-16 miles: Route 1, Religious Heritage, takes in the city’s many churches and abbeys; Route 2, City of Green, visits Ghent’s many parks and cultural institutions; Route 3, Origins of A City By Water, includes stops at various historic sites, and Route 4, Green Belt Around the City, visits the lush parklands ringing Ghent. Booklets are available at the tourist office for a small fee. If your bike has GPS, routes can be downloaded free in gpx format.
Beyond the city, one popular trail is the Chateau Route along the banks of the River Scheldt to medieval Laarne Chateau as well as later manors built by wealthy industrialists. Farther afield, Countrywide Cycle Routes, known as LF Routes, include the Flanders Cycle Route (LF5) from Bruges to Thorn in the Netherlands, and the Scheldt-Delta Route (LF30) from Oudenaarde to Kruiningen in the Netherlands.
West of Ghent is Bruges, long famous for its moody canals and medieval sites. Over the past 15 years, it’s also been famous as the Tour of Flanders’ starting point. Quasimundo Bike Tours (www.quasimundo.com) runs a 2 1/2-hour, family-friendly Brugge by Bike tour. The four-hour Border By Bike tour travels north toward the Dutch border taking in the nearby village of Damme, Oostkerke Castle, and various canals, bunkers and windmills.
Two other outfits have bike tours through the nearby countryside. Pink Bear Bicycle Co. (www.pinkbear.freeservers.com) has A Perfect Morning in the Country, a 3 1/2-hour jaunt to the medieval market town of Damme and various polder villages, with a stop for beer and waffles. The Green Bike Tour (tel. 32-50-61-26-67), leaving in the morning and returning in the early afternoon, takes you through the countryside to Oostkerke via Damme.
From Bruges, riders can follow the Canal Bruges-Damme to the medieval town of Damme, 30 minutes away, or cycle in 45 minutes to the Belgian seacoast. A 2 1/2-hour ride from the city is Flanders Fields, the peaceful, flower-filled U.S. military cemetery that will be the focus of upcoming World War I centennial celebrations in 2014.
For more info, visit www.fietsroute.org and www.visitflanders.us