Attempted cycle from Brussels to Amsterdam

On Monday 11th of February I caught a train to Brussels from London: my final destination was Amsterdam, but it was cheaper (£59 return!) and more challenging to cycle the last leg. The trip was fun, and shows how proper bicycle infrastructure can make long distance rides very appealing compared to places where big cities are connected only by fast direct roads or slow, winding paths. Read on and be inspired to make a long-distance bicycle trip of your own!

Route taken on Day 1, Brussels to Antwerp.

Route taken on Day 1, Brussels to Antwerp.

Preparation

Before I could do any pedalling at all there was a fair amount of bicycle preparation to be done in the UK. I picked up a cardboard bike box from Lansett Cycles in Sheffield to meet Eurostar’s luggage regulations (you must pay £20 extra to take an unpackaged bike).

Getting the bike in was more of a hassle than expected – the stem was jammed into the steerer tube and would not budge. In the end I gave up trying to remove the handbars and stem, and just turned them 90 degrees and forced them in. I had to cut an extra flap on the box for it to fit, but eventually it went in fine with the following measures:

  • Pedals off (and screwed into the opposite side of the cranks for safe storage)
  • Wheels off – I’ve put on anti-lock quick release wheels for Amsterdam so more hassle than it sounds
  • Saddle off (cannot slide seat-post down, as it’s also jammed)
  • Bar bag off and tucked neatly into the box

If anyone else is wondering how best to do it, my advice is just to go for it, but do try packing the bike before you travel, and get there well in advance.

I also prepared for the cold, as BBC forecast had the temperature hovering around zero. I had the cold, so went overboard with warm stuff:

  • Waterproof snow-boarding trousers, to be worn over normal trouser if it gets really cold
  • Purchased a new cycling accessory: fancy overshoes. I fully recommend these: there’s nothing worse than cold feet, except for wet cold feet, and these prevent both – plastic bags are a cheaper and more eccentric option!
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  • Two pairs of gloves – really glad I did this, especially when I lost one pair!

Other than that I just wore normal clothes that I would need for the next 3 weeks in Amsterdam.

The route

I brought my 4 year-old Garmin GPS along for this trip and sooo glad I did so, even if the map was crap. Of course you should have a good idea of where you’re going and nothing beats a paper map, but a GPS (or smart phone if you have one with battery!) can avoid so much time getting lost or peering into the map when you just want to GO GO GO.

I had been recommended to follow the LF2, a huge cycle path stretching 340 km North into Holland from Brussles. This was my general plan, but it deviated so far from the quickest route that I just took my luck with the Belgium cycle network going NNW.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Belgium bike paths. Although Holland gets all the attention for cycling, the Belgians have done a pretty good job with a comprehensive network of off-road paths covering most of the country:

Bicycle network in Belgium

Bicycle network in Belgium

This brings me on to route planning software… The excellent map above (which clearly shows the LF2) is from Open Cycle Map, and is pretty comprehensive. Unfortunately, the route planning options for OSM are still limited; I mostly used good old trusty Google Maps (that now has bike mode!) for my trip planning. You can export the route to a GPS via GMapToGPX, but I didn’t bother in this case, due to the very dense network.

The high population density means that you cannot just get on one path, put your head down and go. There are numerous options. So getting on a large-ish path was my priority. However, shortly after joining the legendary LF2 I left, as I discovered a more direct route. The exact route I took was saved by my GPS and can be seen on the wonderful gpsies site.

As you’ll see I covered a paltry 30 km on my first day – pathetic: I’m used to doing 100 km per day as a rule of thumb – could be Christmas laziness, but I blame the weather!

The next day was even lazier! After another 30 km to Roosendaal along the LF2 and more direct routes (gave up on the LF2 after it took me on a couple of huge scenic detours – great in summer, but not now!) I just got tired. My eyes grew big at the sight of a train station. “I wonder if any of those go to Amsterdam?” I pondered looking at the trains.

10 minutes later I’m sorry to confess I was on a train speeding North. Well at least I tried to cycle! More importantly I arrived on time.

Conclusion

I would definitely recommend inter-city cycling in this area: it’s flat and there are good cycle paths. At times the regimented nature of the paths (and the crazy reaction of drivers if you go on the roads) got to me a little – craved for some open roads and curved smooth tarmac. But overall it was an amazing experience.

It’s certainly more of a challenge getting between two major cities in the UK or less advanced cycling nations. That’s where the change is most needed. So, I’d recommend getting started in your local area, wherever you may be, before getting sucked towards the bright lights and seductive cycleways of the Northern European lowlands. In any case, the experience re-affirmed my resolve to do more long-distance trips and to get less lazy allowing 30 km plus distances per day!

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