As I rolled over in bed for the second or third time too many on Friday morning I pondered the famous psychology experiment by Walter Mischel where a group of kids were offered a Marshmallow and then told that they could have a second Marshmallow if they waited alone for a period of time. Those kids that waited went on to be more successful, in general, than those who scoffed the first Marshmallow. I fear that I would very much have been one of the scoffers.
I was already a day late starting this trip. I had finally had it confirmed that my contract in The Netherlands would not be renewed (no surprise given the current state of the Oil & Gas industry, but still a bummer) and the 3 days leading up to the Ascension Day Holiday (always a Thursday) had been a mix of panic, thankless job applications and distractions from any sort of bike packing planning. Thus on Thursday I woke rather late and still had a list of adult stuff to do before trying to turn my concept into an actual plan.
When I lived in Wales, my BFF and I would do a regular ride on Wednesday evening after work (cunningly called the Wednesday Night Ride or WNR). Although there were others who would join if they wanted to, the thought for each of us of depriving the other of the WNR usually meant that we got out every evening rain or shine (or snow and moonlight as it often was). Currently I lack an Adventure Buddy who keeps me from being a responsible adult and so often it can be a challenge to take the first step out of the door and actually get away even though I know that when I’m out, all of the stress and strain of modern life will melt away. One of those boring, successful children would no doubt have been up at 6am on Thursday and on the road by 6.15, scoffing their 2 marshmallows on the way out…
The original plan I had in my head was to get the train to Maastricht and ride the GR5 down through the Ardennes into Luxembourg. I had got the idea off the Bikepacking.com website which had a small feature from a rider that had done the same thing. The GR 5 is part of a network of walking paths that criss-cross Europe (though mostly France – GR = Grande Randonee, = Big Walk). The GR5 runs from Hoek van Holland to Nice and they are marked by a series of red and white blazes on trees, fence posts, road signs, stones or anything else available making for, at least in principle, an easy to follow trail.
However, because life, spending the 80 odd euros it would cost to get me and the bike to Maastricht and then back from Luxembourg meant that a slight change of plan was in order so I shifted the trip closer to home by moving it further up the GR5 into Flanders. With that, I took the cheaper and heavily delayed train to Bergen op Zoom. The gpx file of the route it had taken me an hour to get onto my Garmin was useful to ride the short distance from the station to the trail, but subsequently turned out to be totally useless. (As I went on diverged further and further from the marked trail, eventually ending up tens of kilometeres away. Whoever made that route on Bikemap.net, it is useless! I would eventually find a promising looking version of the route from the website written on some of the blazes but by then I had no way to put it on the Garmin). This led to me somehow doing a lovely 20km loop which eventually, comically so, took me right back to where I had started. No matter, it had been a nice loop. As I tried again I discovered just how different the marked trail differed from my GPS track resulting in countless U-turns and a lot of frustration. The blazes are designed to be seen when walking and so are not always obvious from a bike or at bike speeds. This means that if you lose concentration on the bike for even a few seconds you can very easily end up off the trail, and once you re off, there is no option but to backtrack until you find the last blaze and start again.
Eventually I found myself on the right trail and heading in the right direction (with the abuse of a woman I had cut up mid U-turn ringing in my ears). The weather was stunning and under a bright blue sky, with my garmin heading up over 30°C I meandered through the fields and woodland paths mostly off road. When the trail is clearly marked it really is a very nice way to make your way through the countryside (though note that it is far from direct. If you want to get to Nice quickly there are far quicker ways, but that is not the point of the GR network). The route takes you through the countryside along back roads, fire roads and in a few cases singletrack footpaths and tends to skirt the edge of a village every 10km or so so that you can quickly divert to a shop or bar for a refuel should you need to (which if you remember it’s a walking path would be every 2-3 hours or so). Toward the end of the day I found myself riding past the Westmalle Abbey and at about 7 decided enough was enough and stopped for the day. Having just made the closing time of the local shop I found a bar and had a few of the famous local beers and watched the sunset over the Abbey. As the light ran out I re-found the trail and rode through a wood in search of a likely looking spot to make my bed. I eventually came across a small picnic area backing on to a farmhouse and stables and decided to call that home. Sweltering in my bivi bag having finished off my rather unsatisfactory rehydrated “hotpot” – read bad smash with brown bits pretending to be “meat” – I drifted off to sleep to the lullaby of the nearby motorway.
Sleeping so close to civilisation meant that I had to be up and away early the next morning. The trail started winding through fields in the early morning light and was really rather pretty, but eventually spent 20 odd kilometers ploughing through small towns and villages which weren’t so fun. However after an hour or so it opened out again and the trail wandered off road through woodlands and marshlands and a few hours before lunch even began to undulate. I stopped for lunch by the Abij van Averbode and found a bakery/charcuterie with fresh bread, local pate some wonderful cakes and cold drinks. Getting going after that was a slight challenge I will admit but the trail stayed off road and interesting which made it easier. There were even some hills I had to stand up to descend! A first for me on a loaded bike and I have to say I was surprised how well the bike behaved on technical (‘technical”) descents. Though it obviously doesn’t leap out of corners with a snarl like an XC race bike, it is certainly not like riding a tank either.
Having lost the trail yet again close to Lummen (3 options, 2 crosses on the obvious options, and the other option didn’t lead anywhere), I decided I’d had enough and broke free of the trail and headed north up toward the closest official bivouac site. I had wanted to try one of these out for a few weeks. I stopped off to pick up some supplies and a jar of Carrefour’s finest Stovevlees (I know, in the sea…) and headed on to the road. The wind had got up by now and made a nasty cross/headwind which I will confess made the 40km road trek somewhat unpleasant. The terrain was just rolling enough to prevent any rhythm and my shorts were starting to chafe places that ought not be chaffed. I will confess to shouting a few expletives into the wind at a few points as the count down of kilometers on the Garmin seemed to run slower and slower.
The evening sun was just starting to set as I chalked up 150km and rolled into Opitter and straight up to the first bar I came to. 2 of the local specialties slipped down with ease in the evening sun. The old lady in the Frituur ladled frankly too many chips onto my plastic tray and squirted a large dollop of mayonnaise onto the top and I swung into the garage shop to buy a few more cans of beer (yes, in Belgium you can buy beer in petrol stations). I rolled the short distance to the Bivouac site and was impressed with what I found. There was a decent sized platform with a small roof over one corner, several large stacks of firewood, a few picnic tables and even some specific poles for hanging hammocks. Given that relatively few people enjoy microcamping or bivvying it was impressive to a site so clearly designed with us in mind. Even the long drop toilet was relatively clean.
I was concerned to see a group of local youths turn up armed with cars, motorbikes and not a small amount of beer. Clearly they were not expecting to see me there and I listened in on their befuddled conversation,
“Dude, someone’s here!”
“Another person is in the campsite.”
“I know right?”
Luckily for me though they moved off elsewhere and save for a few moments of accordion pop floating over the trees they didn’t bother me too much.
Alone again, apart from the midges, I sat in the warm evening, heating up my stovlees in batches and burrowing in to my mountain of frites.
The next morning I actually slept to a reasonable hour and was woken by a group of mountainbikers on the trail that ran through the site. Bivvying outside of these bivi sites is illegal in Belgium and The Netherlands but, as in most places, if you wait until dusk, clear off at dawn and clear up after yourself you are usually left alone. However, this time I was in a legal site so I could have a “lie in” under my little roof until it got too hot to stay in my bivi bag and then have a leisurely morning making espressos and packing up. I took advantage of the location and did a loop of the Mountain bike trail before finding the local bakery to sample their race cakes before cranking out the 40 or so km to Eindhoven where I had decided to call it quits at 300km for the weekend.
Thoughts on GR5 and bike choice
Be under no doubt that I enjoyed the weekend and the riding very much, although not mountain biking in the way that most UK or US riders will think of it, it was still very good fun picking my way through the Belgian countryside. The riding was varied and entertaining and had I continued further south (something I think I ll do one day) would have become a lot more varied in height and technicality too. The GPS for the Flemish section can be downloaded here – http://www.groteroutepaden.be/en/route/45/gr-5.html – For an introduction to offroad bikepacking to people in the BeNeLux, I can recommend it!
For a lot of the Flemish section, a Mountain bike, even one set up for XC, was overkill. One of the new fangled monster cross bikes or a Gravel bike with 40c tyres (albeit tyres with a bit of tread as it was loose and muddy in places) would have been good for 95% of the route, only giving a little bit away to a mountain bike on a few sections where the GR5 actually went on single track paths. I suspect that further south a mountain bike would be needed again. Something like a Salsa Fargo or Cutthroat would be perfect!
Not to be down on the bivvy sites but although they are supposed to be inaccessible to cars to discourage parties. I can’t see how this deters many people and certainly hadn’t stopped these guys turning up in a car and on a moto. I’d be nervous staying in one close to a town at the weekend. I suspect during the week you’d be fine. They are a really nice place to stop.