And now for something different… James Candon is an Irishman living in Brussels, this is the first of his new columns for IrishCycle.com with a different take on cycling than usual for this website:
Our house is in the middle of our street of variegated houses. I know them well but as I part on my journey east, new differences leap out at me in the crisp air of early morning. A corniche here, an art nouveau icon etched there above the fanlight of an entrance, wrought iron balconies or an elaborate escutcheon around a heavy mortice lock. I am by no means an early bird but mornings like these make me wish I was.
The goal of Aachen by night fall is the reason for today’s early rise. Aken or Aix la Chapelle are two of its names in other local languages. A stop off on the way to Cologne to collect a car, of all things. When I told them of my plan, people thought it was odd, but it makes perfect sense to me. A pretext to travel along the old lines between cities before the age of the engine, when the traveller, either on foot or by horsepower went directly from and through each town on the way. I can see the lay of the land from a perspective denied to most nowadays while taking valuable exercise for the mind and body. I must unfortunately complete the trip in two days when three would have allowed a more circuitous and quieter route.
Escaping Brussels, I have the Chaussee de Louvain practically to myself, which is just as well. While the Flemish part of Belgium is very progressive when it comes to infrastructure for active travel, the Brussels region and indeed Wallonia lag far behind. Painted lines are all that separates me from the rest of the traffic out to the city of Louvain/Leuven. The road is lined with ribbon development with vast fields of beet or wheat revealing themselves in the gaps.
Once out of the hollows and hills of Brussels the going is steady, flat for the most part and what breeze there is, is at my back. The road to Leuven is arrow straight and it is not long before I roll past the unmolested greening bronze statue of Pater Damiaan outside St Jacobuskerk in the city. He was a man who convinced the Catholic Church to allow him to become a priest despite his low level of education and is best known for dedicating his life to improving the conditions for the residents of a leper colony on an island in the Hawaiian archipelago. He lived and worked among them himself, ultimately succumbing to the disease. He was buried there but in 1936 he was reinterred in Leuven only, following the macabre logic of the church, for the remains of his right hand to be sent back to Moloka’I in 1995 after he was beatified. He was ultimately made a saint in 2009 and two miracles are attributed to him.
I push on through the historic centre of Leuven, not far from the Irish College just off Pater Damiaanplein. I dismount to walk along the cobbles in the shade and take in the views of the ancient light sandstone facades around the Grote Markt. A student town, the first time I heard the expression “breastfeeding a shovel” was on a school tour to the Irish College in 1988 when we were introduced to the participants in a project of what was then AnCO and which went on to become FÁS.
I am just nicely warmed up and fight the temptation to take a break for coffee. Nothing would be easier than to sit and watch the world of international students walk by here for a while. I race on through Tienen, sugar capital of Belgium. The sugar factory is quiet in the overcast sky and one wall overlooking a roundabout is dedicated to sugar-cube man, sugar’s answer to Michelin. When I first arrived in Belgium the only sugar you would see in restaurants was branded with the big T of Tienen but now with the broadening and deepening of the EU single market the sugar may come from France, been packaged in Germany, distributed by a Dutch logistics company with marketing from Ireland.
Outside Tienen I pass a Broodautomat – a vending machine for bread. Not a new phenomenon but strangely still peculiar only to Flanders as far as I can tell. I prefer a regular bakery myself, but these have been squeezed out of existence practically everywhere by the supermarket chains and ersatz bucolic joints like Le pain quotidien and Paul.
I ride the first of many kilometres of dedicated cycleway. Before long the steeples of St Truiden come into view. One could almost but not quite call this a steeplechase ride, and perhaps, if I were sitting about a metre higher in the saddle, I would be able to see the steeple of one town as another faded under the horizon behind me. The town is home to St Truiden Voetbalvereninging which has the same blue and yellow strip as my home county Roscommon and like the Rossies, it has been a long time since they have won any major title.
I am 64km into today’s 135km total and beginning to feel the need for lunch and a rest. So, I put the head down. It is in this part of a day’s cycle that the medicine of rhythmic motion begins to work. The body is well warmed up but far enough from being spent. The worries of the mind are swept to one side and my focus is entirely on the present, on the simple movement between start and destination.
Enjoyment and contentment on a two wheeled contraption powered by me with a little help from the wind. I burn into Tongeren just after 1pm (see photo of the church clock!) which leaves about 50km to cover during the rest of the day. Eminently doable.
The Grote Markt in the centre of Tongeren is flanked by restaurants spilling out onto the recently pedestrianised area. It is hard to believe that just a few years ago this was essentially a carpark! Now the entire area of asphalt has been replaced by cobblestones. Bicycles and ebikes are stacked in racks all around.
A statue of proud Ambiorix stands resolute facing the church. He was regarded by Caeser as the bravest of all the Gauls after coming to terms with the Romans following a bloody revolt over taxes. I choose the restaurant nearest the statue where I can keep an eye on my bike. It is a steel framed Croix de Fer with racing style dropped handles, disc brakes, 18 or 20 gears and compound brake and gear changing levers on the front. Some might call it a gravel bike, whatever that is. A solid rack at the back sports a single large Vaude panier. The cross bar has a small triangular pouch for some tools and spares with a separate mini panier slung across it of about 2 litre capacity for valuables and writing material. The whole lot moves with less than one horsepower.
In the restaurant, all staff sport face masks and a friendly sign translates the 1.5m distancing to their proclaimed more human terminology of “two cases of beer” apart. I enjoy a lasagne as my legs unwind and almost start to tick like a cooling engine. My feet hurt somewhat from the Shimano cleated shoes I have had for several weeks now. After about 4 or 5 hours on the bike the soles of my feet always begin to throb. I never have this issue when I use regular tennis shoes with clips over the pedals.
I make a mental note to ask my racing cyclist friends next time I see them but I think the failing lies in the very thin layer of cushioning between the skin of the sole and the angular metal attachment to cleat and ultimately the pedal. Could it be that the designer never cycles?
Tongeren claims to be the oldest town in Belgium and I don’t doubt that it has reasonable grounds to support its claim but I need to make it to Aachen this evening and don’t take the time to explore it further. This means traversing the river Meuse/Maas beside Maastrict and battling across the hills and into Germany. The heat of the day is building so I slip on the Shimanos and set off once again. After the rest, my feet are no longer in pain, but I can feel it is only a question of time before the throb returns.
The going is good, and I soon arrive at Riemst and the Albert Canal where I sidle sharp right briefly to take a look at the world peace flame. A flame ensconced in a vertical rectangular lozenge of glass surrounded by benches of glass and Belgian blue stone arranged in a square. A quiet enough place of contemplation 30 or so metres above the canal which runs perpendicular to my direction of travel and parallel to the Dutch border. The bridge across the canal is unusual in design. Cantilevered ochre steel girders drape from one side in the manner of a suspension bridge to carry its weight out to two thirds of its span. A spindly concrete pillar then rises up from the canal bank to branch in two and support two more branches of the boxy ochre metal which hold a long low-slung arch for the remaining length.
Shortly after the canal I passed into the Netherlands but there is no obvious sign announcing this fact. The road sweeps down and around a park and on to another bridge which rises gently across the Maas. This bridge has a lane for traffic in each direction with double girded crash barriers separating these lanes from wide cycleways both sides. The Netherlands feels like it is a generation ahead of Belgium in terms of active travel infrastructure and an epoch ahead of Ireland.
The road takes me eastward out of the city into rolling hills, the tailings of the Ardennes over the 20 or so kilometre strip that contains Maastricht. The hills are like undulations in a giant bedspread that has not settled, air-pockets holding up sections of it with gullies and streams in its creases and seams. Halfway up one such incline, I pull into the Netherlands American Cemetery to the smell of freshly cut grass just before the stroke of 17h00.
Suddenly the haunting peels of The Last Post echo from automated speakers through the broadleaved trees and bone white crosses ranked in parallax which themselves resonate with the pale potato blossoms of the fields beyond. Just over 10,000 US soldiers are buried or memorialised (for those missing in action) here. The skin on the back of my neck tautens and I feel a chill despite the glaring sunshine and 27 degree heat.
The road I am on now has been marched over and back by armies since the time of Ambiorix and the Romans through to the recent world war. Bar the cemetery there are no longer any traces of the enmity that caused such bloody conflict then. Further on there is once more no sign of a border and the first indication of Germany is rather that of the Vaals quarter of Aachen the city, followed by a sign for Aachen itself and then only a small sign indicating the imaginary line between the two countries.
The soles in my feet will take no more and even though I have only about 4km left to my digs for the night, I have to stop and remove the Shimanos and replace them with the clumsier but magically more comfortable Birkenstock sandals. All energy is gone and every crank of the pedals is a question of mind over matter.
I crest a long hill and take sudden heart when I spot the steeple of Aachen cathedral in the distance only to realise as it draws nearer that it is merely the peak of a dark pine tree. Nevertheless the road draws me down and around the dense city centre and in no time I am in Martin Luther Strasse waiting for the door to open to the bed and breakfast which is a modest studio on the third floor of a Grunderzeit house. I am looking forward to getting cleaned up and padding around the historic centre. More of which in the next instalment which will also see me cover the rest of the way to Cologne.
READ: Part 2: Aachen to the outskirts of Cologne