Host to some of the finest one-day classics on road cycling's calendar, Belgium offers an intriguing choice for a holiday on the bike, both on and off road.
Why go cycling in Belgium?
With a population of just 11 million people, Belgium punches above its weight in the cycling world. Home to two of road racing's most famous one-day classics, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the country is also the spiritual homeland of cyclocross.
The landscape is strikingly varied. With the flat terrain of Flanders in the north giving way to the hills of Wallonia in the south, a lip-smacking menu of riding awaits. With quiet canals to freewheel beside, cobbled streets to bounce across and forests to tear through, you’re sure to find something here to satisfy your cycling legs. And when the riding is done for the day, you can refule with a plate of frites and a couple of Belgium's famous beers.
Road cycling in Belgium
Birthplace of the greatest road cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, Belgium's road cycling heritage is arguably without equal. Since 1960, the country has won more than a third of cycling's five most famous annual one-day races, known as cycling's monuments.
Add the 18 Tour de France victories that the country boasts, and the fact that a Belgian has been crowned world champion 24 times in the past 75 years (a strike rate just shy of one in three), and you get some understanding of just how ingrained cycling is in this country's culture.
If you have the legs and you're up for sampling a little of what the professionals face during the Ronde, then base yourself near Ghent and construct a route that takes on some of the infamous cobbled hills that feature every year on the route of this great classic. They may be short, but what they lack in length they more than make up for in gradient.
The Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, max 11 percent) and Paterberg (0.4km, max 20 percent are both in the town of Kluisbergen, while the Koppenberg (0.6km, max 19 percent), is a bike pump's throw away in Melden.
Another 25km to the east is the Muur van Geraardsbergen, also known as the Kapelmuur. The Muur has featured in many past editions of the Ronde but was dropped from the route in 2012 to the consternation of many. It is one of cycling’s most revered places and remains a must for those looking for a little of the true Ronde experience.
Starting and finishing in Ghent, a 130km circular ride via Deinze, Waregem, Kluisbergen, Oudenaarde, Geraardsbergen and Oosterzele, will give you the chance to sample all the above climbs (with options to add many more). Spread it over a few days, spending a night in any of the above, for a more leisurely experience.
If that all sounds a bit like hard work then stay in the north to enjoy peaceful canals, quiet country lanes and, most importantly, flat routes. A great option is to cycle the three stunning cities of Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. Start in Ostend and take a short diversion to the handsome seaside town of De Haan, before heading south-east to Bruges and Ghent, finishing in Brussels. Avoiding the main roads, the entire trip is about 145km one-way – perfect for an easy five-day jaunt.
Mountain biking in Belgium
In the 1990s the Réseau Autonome de Voies Lentes was established in the Wallonia region of Belgium. RAVeL, literally translated as 'Autonomous Network of Slow Routes', created a network of off-road routes dedicated to walkers and cyclists, utilising tow-paths, disused railway lines and other trails.
There are a number of options available, including Route Two, which runs north from Mariembourg to Hoegaarden. It's a ride of just over 115km that takes in sleepy villages and the hills of Hesbaye. Along the way there are castles and gardens to explore. Visit the RAVeL website for more information.
If cruising leafy off-road tracks is too low-octane for you, then head to Belgium's only trail park. Called Filthy Trails, the park is situated in the Maasvallei, a 250-acre expanse of forest, lakes and trails near Maasmechelen.
Photo by Landscape Magazine: www.landscape-magazine.com
The park has options for all mountain-bikers, from downhill demons to enduro enthusiasts, with all abilities catered for. For beginners, there is the Snaketrail, an easy route on which to practise riding berms and drop-offs.
For those who like to feel the air beneath their wheels, there are the aptly-named Flight and Wings trails. The park also has five cross-country routes, ranging from 5km to 13km, again offering something for all levels of rider. See the Filthy Trails website for more information.
What non-cycling activities are there?
A little bit of culture should be high on anyone's list while in Belgium – it has many museums and galleries to visit. Among the more offbeat are the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, 30km south of Brussels, dedicated to the creator of Tintin; the Centre of Comic Strip Art, housed in the Waucquez Warehouses in Brussels; and the Gueze museum, dedicated to all things beer.
When's best to go?
Spring through to early autumn is best for cycling, avoiding the cold and dank Belgian winter. To understand Belgium’s cycling culture, a trip in late March or April, to coincide with one of the spring classics that brings thousands Belgians out on to the nation's roadsides, can't be bettered.
Away from cycling, if you're in Ghent during mid-September, look out for the OdeGand, a day of music on the city's canals for which one ticket gets you into more than 50 concerts, spanning everything from flamenco to classical. Alternatively, if chocolate is your thing, head to Bruges in April for the annual chocolate festival Choco-Laté.
How's best to get there?
Belgium is a relatively small country with a great road and rail network, so it’s easy to get around. Gateways into the country include the international airports in Brussels and Antwerp, the seaports at Dunkirk (30km east of the Belgian border) and Zeebrugge, and the international rail station in Brussels.
Bruges, Ghent, and Mariembourg all have domestic railway stations, while the station at Genk is just 15 minutes from Maasmechelen. Check the b-rail website for advice on taking your bike on Belgium's trains.
Where to stay
In Ghent, sample some Belgian luxury in the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. The hotel has 158 rooms right in the heart of the city – doubles with breakfast start from €139. A cheaper option is to try a hostel. There are 11 in the city with prices from €21.50 pppn for a private room – see hostelworld.com for options.
Brussels has a huge selection of hotels for all wallets, but you can also camp. Just on the outskirts of the city is the Camping Caravanning Club Brussels. Pitches start from €10 for a tent and two adults.
If you're heading to Maasmechelen for the mountain biking, try the Basil B&B. This restored townhouse has six bedrooms with doubles from €100 including breakfast. Alternatively, camp at Camping Soetedal, from €21 for a tent and two adults.