(admission – almost none of the photos in this are mine – thanks Google Image)
So I ve just got back from 4 days mountain biking in Belgian Ardennes near the towns of La Roche en Ardenne, Malmedy and (in particular) Houffalize. Now, regular followers of the XCO (cross country olympic) World Cup will need no introduction to Houffalize, but Belgium has a very bad reputation in the UK, for reasons that I simply cannot fathom, so maybe a brief introduction is needed.
The Ardennes are small range of hills in the south of Belgium, probably most famous in the UK for the 2 “Band of Brothers”episodes that deal with the Battle of the Bulge and “Baastown”. They are naturally heavily forested but in most cases the tops of the hills are used for farming, both crops and cows. Cyclists will know them as the backdrop for the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Leuk-Bastanagen-Leuk) and Fleche Wallone races.
Belgium is well known world wide for being the home of cycle racing and many of the towns or villages have some form or mountain bike trails which are well marked and well mapped (in this respect they are exemplary).
The Ardennes are very different in appearance to the ‘bergs in Northern Belgium/Flanders, the landscape of which tends to be heavily farmed, flat fields and industry (and is possibly where Belgium gets it’s bad reputation in the UK from). Although in my experience the language spoken was pretty fluid, the region is ostensibly French Speaking. Towns are commonly sleepy affairs that all appear to be almost too new.As one might expect from a country famed for it’s beer, you re never short of bar in a town centre. I don’t know how “rich” Belgium is as a country, but it gives the impression of being somewhat sort of cash, especially when compared to it’s much richer (and highly taxed) neighbours. Any genuinely old buildings seem to be in very poor condition (as are all of the roads) and are being replaced by shiny, new “old buildings”. Given it’s recent history however, that might not be so surprising…
Let’s go biking…
Now, I would like you, dear reader, to keep in mind that I had a very nice four days and I enjoyed the riding I did because what follows (in parts 1 and 2) is going to turn into a bit of a rant. The weather was decent enough bit not spectacular. Day 3 in particular was very wet and muddy (no complaints from me)…
Every route (bar 1) that I rode – EVERY ROUTE – went UP through the forest, usually on a piece of double track or fire road and came DOWN a fire road or a road! Now, unless the world of mountain biking is totally different in Belgium that it has become in the rest of the world, this is insane! The rest of the us have woken up to the potential of specific mountian bike trails that are as fun on the way down as they are on the way up. It’s even spawned a new form of the sport – Enduro MTB – Now am I seriously the only one that wonders what is going on here?
I rode Routes 2 and 3 at Houffalize on the recommendation of the shop. The climbs are often nice enough, roads through farmland or tree line avenues give way to fire roads which in turn give way to tracks that look steep rocky and rooty but are in fact very much rideable. Everyone likes an ego boost every now and again! However, the descents on both of these routes go down wide open fire roads or (sin of sins) tarmac roads.
Route 6 at Houffalize is a nice route with some nice technical bits that have you thinking, the bit of singletrack that runs alongside the road is as good as any man made bit I ve ever ridden and the last descent down off of the top of the XC course is really nice too (more on that in part 2).
If Houffalize Route 6 is the exception to the rule, then the type example of the target of my rant is Route 2 at La Roche en Ardenne. It is only a short route (15km) and starts up a nice road through forest and farmland, then turns off onto a really nice bit of singletrack which goes down for 500m or so. It then turns up a bloody vertical fire road (which seems to be famous on Belgian and Dutch MTB forums – with good reason) which in turn, turns off into a really nice bit of climbing singletrack that meanders up through the forest. It was evening by the time I rode this and the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out and it was a lovely moment.
This went on for a good proportion of the routes total kilometre and then returned to the village down a tarmac road! Those of you who follow me on facebook may have some idea of how miffed I was!!
Well, was about to take everything back, took a pic of some lovely, sinuous singletrack – a sort of singletrack/privateer magazine cover photo shot…
Guess what way the route rode it…Your right
After near 10km climbing, guess what it used to come down?…YES!! A FUCKING TARMAC ONE!!
Seriously, what the flipping flip!!!!
I started on Route 3 at Malmedy on Day 4 and I confess that by then my legs were shot so I pulled off and finished up on route 2. However, the ascents/descents so are were very much fitting the profile of the trip so far (which made my decision easier I must say). Funnily enough though, this led through a really nice bit of rooty single track which was a really nice challenge. Even better, there was a local DH track on the final descent which i did instead (to remains myself that how ever much I watch it on the telly, I can’t ride DH!!). That was an excellent end to the trip.
I really don’t want to be Nationalistic or over patriotic about this, but someone should take whoever plans these course to the 7 Staines or Dalby Forest in the UK and show them what Mountain biking can be like. The rapid growth and success of cycling in the UK can be attributed directly to the growth of trail centres where people can ride clearly marked and beautiful trails.
In fact they don’t even need to learn another language, bring them to the man made mountain bike trails in The Netherlands that have been built by small, local bike clubs such as MBC de Noordikers at (in my very limited experience) Noordwijk, Zandvoort or Zoetemeer which are fantastic trails made on Landfill sites (Zoetemeer) or sand dunes (the other two). I have to confess I had to eat a large amount of humble pie the first time I rode these trails as I was expecting something very simple and boring, but in fact are all really good, challenging and exciting trails.
I don’t want anyone to think centre in Belgium should be so designed, a balance of natural and artificial riding is what is needed but given the potential available, there could be so much more.
Just to make it clear, I had a good time for 4 days and I really enjoyed the area, the people were friendly (save one prat of a campsite manager) and the riding was good, but….To put it simply, it just feels like a massive wasted opportunity!
This rant will continue in Part 2…