As I scoffed my breakfast at around 6:30am still half asleep, some of the revellers from the previous night’s festivities in the town of Aalst were only coming back to the hotel. They inhaled a breakfast and then dressed in various costumes, that I can only assume looked much better at the start of the night, made their way to the lift and the nights sleep they had missed out on.
I, on the other hand, had my mind on Brussels and southern Belgium beyond the capital but more importantly meeting the two girls who were to pick up the car back in Calais as soon as the rental company opened this morning.
I hit the road, first of all having to backtrack about two kilometres as I had neglected to restart my GPS tracker the previous evening after getting held up by the parade. It meant a small retreat back to the official end point of the previous day and a quick u-turn before starting the journey again.
The relatively flat terrain of northern Belgium was delightful and the bike path which was easily accessible kept me on the right track towards the capital Brussels. Around 9:30 Louise and Sara text me to say they had collected the car and were on the road and would be with me at lunch time we aimed for a town just south of Brussels named Namur.
I had been following directions from Google Maps all morning and had found myself on the approach to the city. I decided I was going to go right through the heart of the city, not a great decision in terms of speed as the city streets and traffic were guaranteed to slow down my pace somewhat. But I needed a bike shop to re-inflate the tyre after my crash the other day, I was also now riding without a spare tube. The two I’d brought with me when leaving the girls having both been used. The hand pump was only doing a certain amount of the job. It didn’t feel 100% comfortable as I rode. The first few bike shops I passed all seemed to be closed, eventually one kind person informed me that bike shops were closed as a rule on Mondays across the entire country. I pressed on regardless.
My phone led me into the Grand Place in the heart of the city centre where I stopped to take a few pictures and try to grab a small snack. There wasn’t really anywhere that looked affordable on a bike touring budget so I stuck with the photos and figured I’d find somewhere on the south of the city. I eventually pulled in at a petrol station beside the final bike shop that had shown up on my map. This one also was closed, and I decided to continue. The girls, with a dozen spare tubes would be meeting me 40km down the road in Namur
Call it Murphy’s Law or whatever you want but less than three kilometres down the road I was dropping into an underpass to cycle under the dual carriageway junction ahead when my front tyre hit a water grate hidden by leaves. I knew instantly it had popped the tyre, but for the first second or so I thought I’d gotten away with it. I was still going, maybe my luck had changed, but seconds later the feel of the wheel rim on the rubber told me I was in trouble.
With no spare, I had no way to change the tyre, alternatives flew through my mind, I tried contacting the girls to see if we could change the meeting point to right here, right now, but they were still hours away. I searched again online to find a bike shop that was open on a Monday, and eventually found a place that claimed to be open, almost five kilometres away.
I had no choice but to walk to the shop and pray that the information on their closing hours was correct. I started to walk the bike back towards the city, the google maps suggested route taking me on a hike through a very affluent part of the city over a series of hills. Walking up and down hills for the best part of an hour I was knackered by the time I reached the main road which the bike shop was on. I could see it on the left hand side a few hundred metres up the road.
It didn’t look too busy, no lights on, no cars parked near it and my heart sank a little. I walked over almost resigned to losing the bulk of the day when the door opened and a teenager, who turned out to be a member of staff came out of the door.
I ended up biting the bullet and with the chance to replenish my stocks I picked up three tubes, refilled my water bottles, purchased a Garmin GPS I’d been tempted to buy before leaving Ireland, but talked myself out of it as I wrongly reckoned it was a luxury item. I also picked up a better set of lights to replace the ones I was having problems with.
Half an hour after getting my energy levels back and with a whole different outlook on the day I got back in the saddle and retraced my way back to where I’d burst the tube.
The rolling hills south of Brussels were starting to take their toll when I pulled in to get some water and a quick snack at a petrol station. As I was sitting getting my breath back another cyclist came in, said hello and we struck up a conversation. His name was Pierre and he was on his way home from work in a local bike shop. If only I’d known a little earlier in the day.
He was headed in much the same direction as myself towards Namur but he said he knew a quieter route and he guided me through some quite back roads, towns and villages away from the main road. We had a great chat and he was very insightful on what was ahead of me, I was a little disappointed when we reached his home as I had really enjoyed his company.
After introducing me to his wife and child, he gave me a small present of a few tubes and some energy bars. He then accompanied me for another half hour or so back to the main route and gave directions to Namur where I was meeting the girls.
It was almost dark when I reached Namur, starving and not able to contact the girls I figured I’d simply find food and worry about finding the girls. I sent them a message but my phone didn’t send it before the battery died. I was getting very frustrated and started looking around as if the solution to my problem would be visible somewhere although I had no idea what I was looking for.
I glanced towards the kitchen door where my waitress had just disappeared with my order. I turned my head towards the window to my left and spotted Sara outside the window. I knocked and got her attention just as Louise turned the corner. I’m not sure who was more relieved to see the other.
I sat and enjoyed the meal and the company after two days on my own. We went looking for a suitable place to stay expecting to have about another three hours in the saddle it only being just after sunset, but we couldn’t find anywhere between 40 – 60 kilometres to the south.
Eventually we settled on Chateau de la Poste, about twenty kilometres south of the town, what I hadn’t checked was where exactly this was. Turns out it was in the hills which were to prove a constant feature of the south Belgium experience.
Leaving the city after dark I found myself along the river before the castle overlooking the town came into view. It was breathtaking, all lit up in the night sky. It reminded me of the beauty that was around everywhere if you went looking for it. I just needed one last effort with a decent uphill portion on windy roads in the dark to my bed for the night.
When I turned off the road into the hotel property I realised my luck had finally changed and we’d hit pay-dirt. A high end establishment, sat on a hill overlooking the Belgian valleys, obviously had a free room and had been released it at a hugely discounted rate on the internet when we had been searching in the area.
Being reunited with my bags and all my stuff was amazing, the option of clean clothes was a huge plus and I slept soundly once I’d plugged in all my chargers and electrical devices for the following day.