Cycling east in northern France and Belgium

Cycling east in northern France and Belgium

The border to Belgium finally opened on June 15. It had been closed for nearly two months. The scenes of barbed wire on country cycle paths were surreal. During the days of recovery, when we could finally go out of the house and our neighborhoods but not yet cross the border, I came to realize that, despite living my first twenty years in Lille, I often did not know where the border to Belgium was. In fact for the most part, the border between northern France and Belgium is an invisible line between a sugar beet field and an onion field, or between two slightly different shades of grey on the pavement.

Leaving my childhood home

On June 15 the border was finally opened, and on the 16 I was cycling east, actually rather southeast, loosely following it, taking pleasure in moving back and forth between two countries that were culturally not so different. I had finished packing in the morning, weighted my bags, containing a total 25 kg of clothing, camping gear and other diverse equipment. To this one should add 15 kg of steel put together in a sturdy pedaling machine and another 65 kg of flesh which they say is mostly water. That’s 105 kg, plus 3 to 5 kg of food and water. Somehow this seemed little. I had carried more, even much more, on shorter trips. For a while I wondered: did I miss something out? But no, it was impossible. My gear had been ready for three months. Over the years I had made a very detailed list, completed or reworked over multiple previous trips. I actually never felt so well prepared.

I cycled out of the Lille metropolis following canal de Roubaix, which on the other side of the border becomes canal de l’Espierre, then turned south to cycle up the Scheldt River (Escaut) to Tournai. Naturally I took a slow pace, one I knew I could keep for days. The wind was from the southwest, so I sometimes had it quarter in my back, sometimes quarter upfront. My decision to leave had been hasty, my direction dictated by the current geopolitico-pandemic status. At this time of the year I felt like cycling north to a cooler summer, but Sweden had not applied a lockdown and in turn Nordic countries were slow to open up again to foreign tourists. For a while I thought that all I had lived, especially all I had lived recently, had been setting me up for this journey. I just felt like I could travel longer and farther than ever before.

I biked across the Belgian Hainaut and the plain of the River Scarpe, through the notorious Trouée d’Arenberg where I attempted a few metres on the famous cobblestones only to write about it in this blog. By evening I reached Le Quesnoy where I set up my first camp. Hundreds kilometres for a first day after three months of isolation and little sports felt much too long.

South of the North

On day two I continued my journey across the southeastern part of the Nord department. The landscape became more hilly and the open fields where replaced by a bocage that was more alike my image of England than the typical French countryside. The roads were quiet and hedges offered a good protection from the winds. I really enjoyed cycling across the hills of Avesnois, marveled at the fact I had ignored a landscape so different yet so near from my childhood home.

The rain started for real when I crossed the French-Belgian border for the third time. Surprisingly it just gave me a boost. I took out the plastic case I recently revamped to set up my phone on the front pannier, and put my brand new rain pants on: Scotland taught me how miserable it gets without them. And I just felt invincible. This is what three months of lockdown do. The pavement was smooth and the road cutting straight through the woods along an old railway. Ravel, the cycling network of Belgium, is truly amazing at times. I originally planned on camping in Chimay, but the rain was pouring and I just did not feel like stopping here, so I cycled on. The Ravel stopped abruptly in Aublain, and I continued on roads to Olloy-sur-Viroin where I caught up with another beautiful cycle road, climbing up through the woods to what would be my first little pass at 370 metres.

The road then dived steep into the Meuse River valley, a deep meandering gorge cutting south to north through the entire massif of Ardennes. With the rain still pouring I decided to push on to my uncle’s house in Nouzonville, arriving a day earlier than what I had planned. I probably would have enjoyed the ride more at slow pace the next day, but the prospect of eating dry and sleeping under a roof took over. In total I cycled 154 km that day. Surprisingly my legs were fine, but my body used to the lockdown life was drained. I could definitely not keep up such a rhythm for days in a row.

Family break in the Ardennes

I spent the next couple of days in the French Ardennes. These were incredibly resourceful. Exhausted by the long day of cycling in the rain, I slept better than I had for months. I stayed at my uncle’s place. We went for walks in the forest, visited my grandparents and cousin, watched a wasp putting a fly to pieces in our place, and picked cherries in the tree yard.

As a kid I hadn’t paid much attention, but as an adult I admired their ways to live. They grew their own vegetables, collected rain water and composted waste for the garden. After months of isolation, my grandparents were visibly pleased to receive visits. They prepared good meals for us and too easily forgot that I had slept in a busy camping two nights ago and potentially carried the virus on me.

The days were so comfortable that I even thought of just stopping here and starting a new life in the Ardennes. I would buy a small house near the forest, with a garage for my bike, grow fruit trees and start my own business or something. But no, I was just at the beginning of the journey. I had decided that I needed at least ten days of cycling before deciding if the bike touring life wasn’t fun.

The route (2 days, 254 km)


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