Day 14 – Givet, France to Antwerp, Belgium – 109 miles

Today was going to be a day of a big push, as if the other days had been a doddle. Antwerp was in a straight line to Europoort, Rotterdam and I knew that if I reached it I’d have a good chance of reaching the ferry for the Tuesday night sailing.

I was up early and away before 8am, I left the campsite quietly. I like the thought of all the other sleepy campers waking up to peer at my space noting I was long gone. It wasn’t long before I reached the border and said goodbye to France. The plan was to continue along the Meuse river to Namur. From here I’d head in a north easterly direction through Belgium. It was a cool and overcast morning: no complaints as flat and cool is a winning combination for making progress.

Lots of layers to hopefully peel off as the day warmed. At one urban traffic junction I was asked by other cyclists if I was Croation? I proudly declared I was English and as for football I supported Leeds United…”Marching On Together” into the Premiership

The river seemed to be widening and the altitude fell to 80 metres. There were still plenty of weirs and locks for barges to negotiate. I say barges because a few commercial boats were now to be found as we getting into Belgium.

The first large town to come into view was Dinant. It looked a resort kind of place all nicely perched alongside the river. I looked around for a bike shop or even some breakfast but I had come up against the dreaded ‘Monday closing’ situation with Belgium. It wouldn’t be a distortion to suggest that whenever I’ve been in Belgium I cannot remember, apart from Bruges and Brussels, all the shops ever being open. If they’re not shut they all open late at about 9.30am. Hopeless.

The home of the saxophone – lots of models painted in national colours (including those EU stalwarts… Malta)

A popular Ives household pastime is naming famous Belgians. No, Hercules Poirot is a fictional one, it’s not an easy game although Eddie Merckx quickly comes to mind. I can only think of one popular music artist. However, born in 1814 in Dinant is Adolpho Sax. He invented the saxophone in 1840 and the rest, as they say, is rock n’ roll. Needless to say Adolpho didn’t create this masterpiece on a Monday.

The cycle path had been asphalt all the way from Sedan but now I hit some loose gravel and some ‘pavé’ for sections. The pavé can be translated as cobbles or ‘f@*king cobbles’ as I was heard to opine to another couple of tourers coming toward me on the bone jangling surface. They laughed at my observation. I was also worried that the vibration would make my rear wheel worse.

It was still an attractive ride and flat as a pancake. Because the settlements were closer it was more interesting. Soon I was in Namur and at the end of the path (for me). I found a bike shop that Google suggested was open but it wasn’t and now after a sandwich and a coffee in the centre headed across country to Belgium.

Belgium and Holland have a developed infrastructure for cycling and there are lots of routes. All these routes are denoted by numbers signs. I don’t think I got a lot wrong but having a map of the routes and directions would have helped. Trying to work all this out on a small mobile phone screen is not ideal.

One thing that surprises me is the number of serious lycra clad road cyclists, that is, not kids, commuters or elderly shoppers, who use these paths. The routes are bedvilled with tight corners and junctions. To add to this is the height of the kerbs you regularly have to ride up over. I ride a 28mm wide tyre and it was just enough in most instances to achieve the task, but on a road bike with something thinner it is a crashing affair. It may also explain why 28mm wide tyres are becoming increasing popular on road bikes.

An easy route to follow, wherever it goes!

I was using the routes and my Sat Nav programmed with the large towns ahead. When I got within a mile or so I’d re-programme to another town. By doing it at this point I’d not be taken into the centre of the town. As you can see there was bright blue skies by the time of the afternoon and I was going well.

Fragrant dung to my right

It was still on my mind to get the rear wheel fixed. I’d been lucky so far but for how much longer? About 40 miles from Antwerp I cycled through a small settlement called Bierbeek and found an open bike store. I say ‘store’ because it was a splendid retail outlet with all types of bikes. The owner/mechanic was much in demand as mainly pensioners looked pensively at their steeds and he advised on various solutions. Queuing outside the store was the order of the day and eventually my turn came up. I was now in a Flemish speaking part of Belgium and felt explaining things in English would be better understood. This is because if you don’t speak a language other than Flemish then you’re limited outside of the region.

He tipped the bike with all the luggage attached upside down and took off the wheel to fix it. He was helping me as regards the job of unpacking the bike but in doing so he trapped my phone/camera in my handle bar bag and so no piccies! In the time he took to fix the wheel, sell inner tubes, bike locks and deal with queue hopping pensioners I looked at his selection of bikes for sale. It seems clear that the Belgians will spend proper money on a bike. The electric bikes were expensive but all robustly made and brands I respected. It also brought to mind all the teenagers I saw riding bikes. In the UK it would be on an old mountain bike or a sleek lightweight carbon road bike. Here they rode ‘sit up and begs’ with no loss of credibility. They were forms of regular unsexy transport and had to be fit for purpose, reliable and suitable to cope with the terrain.

It seems the cycle routes liberated teenage girls. They bowled along zooming past me in their glad rags on these classic bikes. Not only was the route traffic free but they obviously felt safe even as the evening wore on.

Anyway I smarted a little at €30 for a new spoke and the wheel being true’d. It must have taken him 10 minutes actual time doing the job. Next door there was a supermarket and I bought some pastries to help me get through to Antwerp. Now I needed to get going.

More canals to follow

The route was laid out beside canals or rail tracks as I started to close in on the city. It was getting on. I’d actually ride for over 10 hours today and get to the hotel at some time past 8pm. These routes get more demanding from a navigation point of view and more interesting as you enter residential areas. The outskirts of Antwerp eventually gave way to a busy built up area. The type of cyclists changed, not least the large number of ultra-orthodox jews. These were youngish bearded men in black morning coats and hats who pedalled as fast as the other travellers. A quick bit of research shows this community lives in the centre of the town, which was where I was headed.

Eventually I got to the Ibis Budget and asked for a room (€51). There was a little surprise that I hadn’t booked in advance. However, I felt confident that there would be rooms at the time of the pandemic, I was correct. So a quick shower and then out into the centre for some food. There must have been some further lockdown in Belgium as there was no inside dining as well as the obligatory masks inside premises. It was too cold to sit outside: I bought some fast food and ambled back to the hotel and spoke to Anna. She needed to book a ferry and I had one more very long ride to Europoort.

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