The people of Belgium have a strong affinity for cycling, but it is an almost religious devotion for those in the Flemish region. In Flanders, there are numerous designated bike paths that are clearly marked and well-maintained. Entire towns come to a halt for cycling races and there are even sculptures of bicycles placed in fields. Posters of renowned cyclists can be seen throughout the streets. Cycling is deeply ingrained in the culture here – if you listen closely, you can hear the constant sound of a well-oiled chain on a metal cog.
Therefore, cyclists hailing from this region, known as Flandriens, are considered some of the most resilient on Earth due to their extensive experience enduring harsh conditions of wind and rain in this exposed, flat country during the colder months. They are also admired for their skill in staying balanced on the challenging and hazardous cobblestone roads.
Oh, those damned cobbles. Known locally as pavé, the geometric blocks are merciless and many have been in place for hundreds of years. They are the diametric opposite of the velvety smooth ride you get with tarmac. But it’s this unforgiving hardness that appeals to cyclists, and these sections are still associated with many of the classic spring cycle races, held in March and April, mainly on Belgian soil: nightmarish epics such as the Paris-Roubaix.
“Remember to bring a gumshield next time to protect your teeth from the intense vibrations,” advises a friend after enduring grueling hours riding over uneven cobblestones, dodging bikes and bodies that seem on the verge of falling apart. However, I have decided to skip the cobblestones completely next time – luckily, that is an option. You can choose from various routes of different lengths and terrain, or simply ride at your own pace in this incredibly bike-friendly country with its impressive network of bike lanes that seem to go on endlessly. It is a dream come true for English cyclists used to navigating sharp curbs, obstructive street objects, and aggressive drivers fueled by anti-LTN sentiments.
We’d rolled off LeShuttle at Calais the day before. Half an hour from Folkestone and then just over two hours to Brakel, a small town in the south of Flanders, handily placed for the Ronde van Vlaanderen loops, three circuits of the region: red, yellow and blue, between 80km and 115km, each carefully planned to ferret out the steepest of hills in this flattest of countries, and all punctuated with sections of teeth-shattering cobbles.
The Flandrien Hotel in Brakel is a paradise for cyclists. It offers secure storage for bikes, a designated area for maintenance and tools, laundry services, and a pressure washer. A breakfast high in carbohydrates is provided and continuously replenished. The communal breakfast/bar area is adorned with numerous vintage racing bikes, perfect for bike enthusiasts to admire.
However, we embarked on this journey for the exhilarating experience of riding on the notorious cobbled roads. Therefore, we are determined to complete it. The first day consists of the 115km red route, which includes the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen – a well-known feature of the Tour of Flanders. This section of the route is narrow, winding, and uneven, with some areas reaching a steep gradient of 20%. This causes the tires to lose traction on the slippery surface, making it a challenging ride. At times, it feels like you can barely keep your balance and the final push to reach the viewing platform above the chapel is precarious, leaving you on the verge of flipping over backwards.
Fortunately, starting at this peak, the path descends through rural areas, passing through fields and small villages on peaceful roads. The initial day concludes with us relaxing in deckchairs, enjoying the warm afternoon sun at the Flandrien Hotel. Not everyone completed the entire 115km, but the following day will give us another opportunity as we tackle the 102km yellow route.
The beginning and end point is located in Oudenaarde at the De Ronde Centre. The center offers a café, bike shop, occasional complimentary maintenance, and shower amenities for cyclists. You can leave your bikes unsecured on the racks and they will still be there when you return from exploring the center’s exhibit on the local cycling history. This is also where you can have your name featured on a plaque on the wall – simply complete the Flandrien Challenge on Strava by conquering 59 mountain and cobble segments in less than 72 hours. I noticed there were still many spots available on the wall…
The cobbled sections make up the yellow route, with some stretches spanning 2.5km. These rough roads continuously jostle and knock water bottles loose, and even pose a risk of chipping teeth. It can feel like holding a jackhammer instead of handlebars. However, the occasional smooth sections provide a welcome relief, like sinking into luxurious silk sheets in a boutique hotel after a tiring day.
On this occasion, the majority of us complete the entire course successfully – and even our bicycles make it through. However, for me, that’s more than enough cobblestones for one lifetime.
Scenic routes: three historic and picturesque cycling days out in Flanders
Peace route, 45km
The Ypres Salient was a heavily contested region during WWI and offers many notable sights. The tour begins in Ypres and travels through battlegrounds and burial grounds, such as Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passendale, the German Soldatenfriedhof in Langemark, and Essex Farm Cemetery in Boezinge.
The route to Ghent Castle spans 48km.
Traveling along the Scheldt river in western Belgium, this path includes numerous impressive residences and châteaux, such as the picturesque moated Laarne Castle, constructed during the Middle Ages. It also leads past the castles of Destelbergen, Heusden, Beervelde, and Lochristi, while also guiding you through the scenic park and nature preserves of Gentbrugse Meersen and Kalkense Meersen.
Flanders coastal route, 93km
This 93km coastal route, created as a part of a larger project called the Flanders Route, aims to establish eight new long-distance cycling routes. It showcases beaches, dunes, and woodlands, passing through Zeebrugge port and ending near the Dutch border. The route promotes wildlife conservation.
To find out about additional biking paths, visit fietsroute.org and cyclinginflanders.cc.