The quick blast of the siren made me jump. I had just been warned by another cyclist that I was going the wrong way on a one way road and had managed to get off the street and up onto a crowded sidewalk. Rick had already dismounted when I was waved over by the police.
Speaking in Dutch, he motioned that I was going the wrong way. I nodded. He kept talking and talking. Finally I was able to interrupt with, “English?” He sighed and looked to his partner. She said, “You are going the wrong way. Bikes and cars. They are the same here, in Belgium”
Over the first few days in Belgium, the realization hit me in waves. First, with the lack of greetings between cyclists, then, with very crowded cycle ways and finally, with the police. Currently, there are an estimated 5 million bicycles in this small country. Riding on two wheels is not special in Belgium. Cyclists are a dime a dozen.
There are a lot of rules here. In Portugal, Spain and France cycling rules seemed more recommendation than law. In fact, when I was trying to figure out a plan to take our bikes on a city train in Paris, one French man said, “Of course you can take it. No one will tell you no. They don’t care.“ Same with riding on sidewalks, through alleys, down hiking trails, really anywhere a bike could fit. Bring it into the hotel lobby. Park it in our unused ballroom, or broom closet or front entry. Talk about feeling special. I was even told that if a car hits a cyclist in France, it’s always the motorists fault. This would explain the exceedingly cautious wide berth we were often given when sharing a roadway.
But back to Belgium. With so many bikes, it makes perfect sense to have some rules. So I looked them up after my police incident. For example, If there is a bike path (of which there are literally thousands of miles in the country), you must use it. If not, use the roadway abiding by all rules that apply to a car. What it does not say is that when you are on a bike path it is almost scarier than the road! So many cycles, including the speedy electric ones that wiz past you on lanes that can be as narrow as 24 inches wide.
The good news is that these paths whisk you through some of the most hair-raising parts of cities and freeways and cloverleafs and overpasses and in at least one case, under a river.
You read that correctly.
On our third cycling day in Belgium, we were starting to feel a bit comfortable with the whole bike superhighway thing. In fact, we had taken the F-104 from Brugge to Ghent the day before. This literal bike highway (Fietsstraat) sees hundreds of thousands of cyclists yearly. Don’t believe me? Check out the digital sign that records it. These are found periodically along the major routes.
So, when we got on the F-4 from Ghent to Antwerp the next day (Am I sounding like a Californian yet?) we felt pretty confident. As we approached Antwerp we got a little turned around as we came to the river. How do we cross it? Generally water crossings are along an overpass but today, the blue navigation line guided us to a tunnel. No problem, we had been through a few tunnels, but this one was different. Heading down steeply, I felt a little uneasy in the enclosed space. And then ahead of us a line of bikes and what looked like an elevator. We queued up and I said to the man ahead of me, “Excuse me, we are new here. What is this?” He looked at me with surprise and said, “It’s the elevator that takes us down to the tunnel under the river.” I must have looked shocked because a few other riders joined the conversation. I asked, “What do we do? Is it easy to figure out?” The man softened a bit and replied, “Just get on with us. It is easy.” I commented that this was so cool and brand new for us. This statement made another man scoff, saying, “The engineering is stupid!” But the conversation ended abruptly as we squeezed into the tiny elevator that barely held 5 cyclists and our bikes. The small box then descended slowly at an angle, like a funicular. It reminded me of the crazy elevator in the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The one that can go in any direction depending on the buttons you push. It felt very surreal.
And then the doors opened to a 500 meter long tunnel ( US translation: about 3/8th of a mile). It felt way, way longer and even more surreal. I rode fast, thinking of all that water above my head.
Dead stop on the other end for the elevator ride up. Turn left up another tunnel and we were suddenly in Antwerp.
And in the midst of our cycling re-education, we’ve seen some really beautiful cities.
Brugge. A gem of preserved perfection.
Ghent, the unexpected highlight combining classic sights and artsy grit.
Antwerp, a real city with real people, a “diamond” in the rough.
I’ve enjoyed our time in Belgium. I’m not sure what I anticipated but I’ve been completely surprised.
From what I hear, the cycling part may have just been warm up for the Netherlands.