New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015 (Part 2)

Kevin Mayne, Director of Development of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) continues his guest blog on cycling in Belgium. Here he presents “Watching cycling with the Belgians – beer, frites and the most passionate fans in the world”

The Six Days of Ghent

In cold November take a daytime cycling tour of Ghent on your Blue Bike. Then for the evening book tickets for the Six Days of Ghent, the indoor spectacle of cycling that takes place at ‘t Kuipke, the indoor banked velodrome in the Citadelpark.

t' Kuipke Veldrome in Ghent

t’ Kuipke Veldrome in Ghent

Teams of riders compete every evening for a week to cover the most distance in a series of team races and other events. In between the elite races there is an undercard of promising under-23 riders and top women track riders, each with their own series. It is a spectacle that combines fast and furious bike racing with a touch of professional wrestling. Music, lights, colourful costumes, man to man combat, speed and risk. In short, cycle racing as a variety act, but with real speed and strength too. Not surprising that it is loved by the Flemish, cycling’s most passionate fans.

Fans watching the 6-day cycle race in Ghent

Fans watching the 6-day cycle race in Ghent

Have beer and junk food, shout for the local heroes or someone from your own country, sing along with the music and emerge after midnight feeling as if you have been to a rock concert with wheels. You will be joined by coachloads of Brits on an annual pilgrimage to this cathedral of cycling.

This year’s Ghent 6 is from 17th to 22nd November.

Cyclo-cross: A Flemish cultural experience

Long before mountain bikes, some Europeans were so keen to continue racing through the winter they went cross-country riding and running with their road bikes. Although at times it was popular in France and Switzerland and has a growing US following, Flanders is the spiritual home of veldrijden, meaning field riding.

Cyclocross at Namur Citadelle

If you can’t ride your bike up the hill… carry it!

From September to January the Flemish TV channels transmit the spectacle of running, jumping and woodland racing, ensuring that there is enough money to support a professional scene for men and women. All the organisers strive to give their events a unique character so the races pop up in some distinctive and sometimes spectacular settings.

Examples include the Duinencross Koksijde, set in the huge sand dunes of the North Sea coast, the Diegem Night-Cross which transforms an otherwise quiet suburb of Brussels into an amphitheatre of sport, or in a rare escape to Wallonia the Citadelcross, which uses the slopes of Namur’s giant fortifications. Other races take place on waterfronts and in national parks.

The Namur Citadelle and the World Cup Cyclocross

The Namur Citadelle and the World Cup Cyclocross

At the main races there is plenty of food and drink, big screens and even the sort of mass karaoke that seems to break out in Flemish after a few drinks. You have been warned!

Cyclocrossrider is an English language web site that gives a good introduction to the races and the news. The World Cup and Super-Prestige series are the main season-long competitions that feature the most celebrated venues.

The Spring Classics – and a visit from the 2015 Tour de France

The 2015 Tour de France is making one of its regular forays abroad, starting in the Netherlands and then travelling from Antwerp to Huy on July 6th. The arrival in Huy is a tribute to Belgium’s great contribution to road cycling, the Spring Classics.

The world’s top riders come to Belgium in March and April for a series of one-day races over the toughest terrain and in difficult weather conditions.

The Flanders Classics are famed for their terrible road conditions and cobbles, culminating with the “De Ronde” – the Tour of Flanders, this year on April 5th. After winding across the open country of West Flanders it heads into the Flemish Ardennes, the range of hills near Oudenaarde, south-west of Ghent. The race is superbly organised for spectators with shuttle busses to viewing areas at the top of the main hills. Away from race days, Oudenaarde has become one of the main cycling centres of the area with the Tour of Flanders Museum offering a history of the race, a cycling themed café and a starting point for numerous cycle routes.

Tour of Flanders on the Paterburg in Kluisbergen

Tour of Flanders on the Paterburg in Kluisbergen

After Flanders the races go to Wallonia and the “Ardennes Week”, mercifully cobble-free but with the tougher hills and valleys of the Ardennes. My favourite is La Flèche Wallonne or the Walloon Arrow (Wednesday 22nd April, 2015). The centre of all the action is the Mur de Huy, the Wall. Rearing up from Huy town centre this steep hill is covered several times in the race and then provides the final uphill sprint for both men and women.

La Fleche Wallonne, Mur de Huy

La Fleche Wallonne, Mur de Huy

Which brings us back to the Tour de France. In 2015 the Tour will also finish on the Mur de Huy, where local hero Philippe Gilbert will be out for a win in front of his adoring fans. Wallonia awaits!

Philippe Gilbert in action, Ronde van België, (copyright Jérémy-Günther & Heinz Jähnick)

Philippe Gilbert in action, Ronde van België, (copyright Jérémy-Günther & Heinz Jähnick)

Check out the Tour of Flanders Centre and La Flèche Wallonne

The 2012 Tour de France stage 1 in Hotton, Belgium. Fabian Cancellara in the yellow shirt.

The 2012 Tour de France stage 1 in Hotton, Belgium. Fabian Cancellara in the yellow shirt.

New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015 (Part 1)

Here’s something of a treat for Discovering Belgium readers: a guest blog by Kevin Mayne, Director of Development of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF). An ardent blogger himself (check out his fascinating personal blog, Kevin presents some of his cycling ideas on his “must-do” list for 2015. Actually he had so many great ideas that I’ve been able to make two posts out of it.

Firstly, why does Kevin think that Belgium is one of the world’s great cycling countries? “It combines some of the highest levels of daily cycling in Europe, a wide range of recreational riding and spectacular bike racing,” he says. “This means there is something for everyone, from short daily rides in the cities of Flanders to watching the world’s greatest riders tackling the climbs of the Ardennes. While we cannot ride all ride at that level the cycle races are also a great excuse to find some the less discovered areas of Belgium and to take in some of this unique sporting culture.”

With that in mind, here is Part 1 of Kevin’s cycling ideas for 2015.

Go Blue

1. Blue bike convoy in Brussels

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The rise and fall of the Belgian draft horse

These days, the tiny village of Vollezele, which lies equidistant between Halle and Gerardsbergen, is so small it’s hardly noticeable. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that from the 1880s until the 1930s Vollezele was not only bustling with activity but was indispensable to the nation’s economic success.

The origins of this remarkable story can be traced back to the 1850s, and one man’s vision. Realising that the industrialisation of Europe would require stronger horses to pull increasingly heavier machinery, horse-breeder Remi Vander Schueren started to interbreed the three types of draft horse existing in Belgium. The result was a single breed, which he named the Belgian draft horse.

draft horse 7His work soon paid dividends with the arrival of the magnificent stallion named Brillant. Between 1878 and 1884, Brillant was crowned champion at major draft horse competitions in Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Hanover.

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Mollekensberg: Sunken lanes, talking gobbledygook, and a useful tattoo

The official translation of a ‘holle weg’ is a sunken lane, and Gemeente Herent has produced an attractive little leaflet called ‘Holle wegen wandeling’ which takes you on a 7-km walk along the sunken lanes of Herent and Wilsele.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant morning – cloudy, windy, and cold – but I was in need of some fresh air after a hard working week, so decided to go sunken lane walking. I’d done half of the walk in the summer, hence some of the photos give a rather different impression to current reality. If you are planning to do this walk soon, wear rubber boots: it’s very muddy in parts!

It’s a circular walk so you can start anywhere, but I chose the Molenweg bus stop on Rijweg (choose your bus below) …

1…where I parked my bike…2…and set off:

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Finding a traditional Christmas Carol Service in Belgium

The traditional Christmas Carol Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of England’s most distinctive and successful religious exports. The service from King’s College Cambridge is listened to by millions of people all over the world.

It was first introduced in 1918 by the Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, in 1918. His experience as an army chaplain during the war had convinced him that the Church of England needed to introduce more imaginative worship. The Nine Lessons and Carols format is now one of the best loved services in the whole year and enjoyed by people of many different nationalities.

So if you are living in Belgium, where can you find a traditional Christmas Carol Service?

Here’s a short list of carol services taking place in December. Click on the name of the church to go to their website for their address.

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Nieuwrode. Combo pastry, and potatoes in the night

Starting point for this walk – as with so many others – is a church. This time it’s the church in Nieuwrode, a small Flemish village a few kms south of Aarschot. And like virtually all Flemish churches, it’s ridiculously large for the size of village, although presumably in the olden days it used to be packed full of villagers for the traditional Saturday evening Catholic service.

P1040368Then it’s time to head east with some glorious views from the Kriesberg over the surrounding fields. Thanks also to another sunny November Saturday!

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Patrick Damiaens – Master Wood Carver

A visit to Patrick Damiaens’ workshop in his home in Maaseik is a reassuring reminder that even in these days of mass-manufactured furniture, there is still a demand for the traditional skills of a master craftsman. Patrick is the only full-time ornamental wood carver and sculptor in Flanders, a unique position of which he is immensely proud. There are apparently a few part-timers and hobbyists, but no-one earns his living doing what Patrick does.

Patrick Damiaens wood carver studioWhat he does is certainly impressive. His specialty is carving the decorations on Liège-style furniture. This is a style that arose in the 17th century. It’s characterised by delicately carved intricate decoration and drew Europe’s top carvers and cabinet makers to the Belgian city.

Patrick Damiaens chairPatrick himself was educated at the Don Bosco Institute in Liège, where he studied ornamental wood carving for three years. That followed six years studying furniture making at the Sint-Jansberg College in Maaseik, Limburg province, which included a one-year wood carving course.

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St. Martha and Mary’s Church, Leuven

St. Martha and Mary’s is a small but vibrant Anglican church in the centre of Leuven. It doesn’t have its own building, but meets in the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Justus Lipsius College in Minderbroedersstraat 15, Leuven on Sunday evenings at 18:30.

The service is a mixture of ancient and new liturgy; the music incorporates old hymns and new songs led by a small choir; and there is a weekly, simple Holy Communion/Eucharist. The church is led by its chaplain, the warm and friendly Jack McDonald, and trainee chaplain Jane McBride. What I particularly enjoy about the service is the sense of peace as we come together in worship, the thoughtful and practical teaching, and the spirit of inclusion that the church offers.

Why I am blogging about St. Martha and Mary’s now is that this Sunday (Nov 23rd) I will be speaking in the service. I hesitate to say “preaching” because I am no theologian, so prefer to describe it as a “talk”. My subject will be one close to my heart: the Christian approach to environmental protection.

So if you are in the neighbourhood of Leuven on Sunday evening and want to join us, you would be very welcome. If you are coming by car, you are advised to park on St. Jacobsplein and walk the five minutes to the church.

Listen to the band!

Here’s a different kind of article. It’s nothing to do with country walks, but still falls within the objectives of “Discovering Belgium” as it deals with discovering an important aspect of Belgium: the community band!

5In cities, towns and villages the length and breadth of Belgium, the sounds of their rehearsals emanate from cafés, cultural centres and sports halls. Their concerts are frequently sold out well in advance, and they compete at – and frequently win – European and global competitions. They will strike up We are the Champions when their local football team wins the league, and Chopin’s Funeral March when one of their members enters his or her final resting place. They will hold up traffic as they march past, and cause little children to gaze with awe at their gleaming instruments and neatly pressed uniforms. They are the Belgian amateur community music bands.

7So popular are they that there is scarcely a municipality in Belgium that does not have at least one – and maybe even two or three. This is proved by the statistics. Take just Flanders, for example, which contains 308 municipalities in Flanders, yet the Flemish Association of Music Bands and Musicians (Vlamo) has a membership of 1180 community bands.

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An Armistice Day thought

I am indebted to my fellow blogger The Bruges Vegan for this highly interesting and relevant post on an additional and often forgotten consequence of the First World War – the millions of animals who suffered and died during those tragic four years.

The statistics are horrendous. Over 8 million horses and donkeys, and over 1 million dogs, died on the front line. The article I refer to above also brings our attention to the animals used for experimental reasons during warfare, and the destruction of the local fauna on the Western Front.

Picture 3035Of course, animals have always been used in warfare, from the massed ranks of the war elephants in various Indian wars, the machine-gun carrying camels of Persia, to the pigeons fitted with cameras during the Second World War. There was nothing innovative about the use of horses and dogs to carry weapons, ammunition, men etc.

But it’s the fact that these animals were obviously not kept or worked in humane conditions (not that the humans involved were in humane conditions either!). Another aspect is the huge scale of the deaths that are mind-boggling. 8 million horses died. Let’s try and put that into context. Imagine collecting all the horses within the European Union today and transporting them to Belgium and northern France. You would still only have delivered 5 million animals. So you add all the horses in Russia, but that’s only another 1.3 million.

Actually, between 1914 and 1918, the US sent almost 1 million horses overseas. Only 200 returned to the US.

It’s just another sad page in the horrific story of World War One.