A Minimalistic Cycling Adventure
My first bikepacking adventure last August. Taking me from The Netherlands through Belgium, France, England and home in 8 days.
Setting out for a long ride, or rather a consecutive number of rides through three different countries in eight days. Well seven, one of which was a rest day. It hasn't really sunken in yet while I head out from my parents place just a kilometer shy of the Belgium border, last August. Am I really just doing this? Well apparently so.
And to think it could have been so different, I could have gone to Firenze with Fabiënne. Looking at Renaissance art and architecture, eating gelato, pasta and drinking that delicious espresso that they sell on every street corner but especially her. Instead I choose bike, road, adventure and solitude. It wasn't an easy decision. Far from it. One of the hardest ones ever I've made. Was it the right one? I doubt that sometimes. The end of last year and first part of this year have been anything but straightforward.
Stage One: Heikant - Ypres
Pressing start on my cycling computer, clipping in, the first pedal strokes of the day. The bike feels different. Slightly sluggish. 2 to 3 kilogram of baggage will do that of course. But I'm actually bikepacking! Finding my rhythm with a nice steady pace on Flemish jaagpad roads with sunshine is a good sign for the journey ahead.
This day will be a day of new. Especially in regards to some of the Flemish sights I'll take in, having never visited this region of Belgium before. History was made here, marked with the graves of an entire generation. Poppy territory.
Ghent is my first destination or rather waypoint. Not much new on the way, although riding just besides the motorway is always interesting to put it mildly. "Please don't kill me" pops in my head a few times. First refuel stop. I've had better lunches but need to press on, no time to go into Ghent to get proper coffee at Pedaleur de Flandre.
Cobbles, crooked concrete slabs, weirdly indicated cycle paths, no cycle path to speak of and the like. You can face anything and everything cycling Belgium. Nothing is smooth. It has its charm but not when you puncture. A nail. Through the sidewall and out the other end. This however won't put a dent in my mood. Not today.
The World War I memorial might however. Sanctuary Wood Cemetery (CWGC). Signed my name. Walked along gravestones. Felt uncommonly surreal. Mount bike. Cycled onwards to Ypres. Passing a stationary indoor trainer outside. Contrasts.
The first stop for night just outside of Ypres with Dorien.
Apparently a frequent cyclist herself. Common ground is a great start for conversation. First however: time for a shower and a kind request to wash my kit. Repair the punctured inner tube. Start my recovery with a shake and yoga. I head back downstairs and meet some friends of Dorien. Just arrived from a multiday trip on e-bike from Rotterdam via the Deltaworks to Ypres. We talk a 'bit' about cycling, especially 'bout cycling longer distances and Rotterdam. All this while getting fed with melon and ham. Friendly bunch.
Enough talk however. I came here to cycle. Wanting to catch The Last Post at The Menin Gate. Dorien lends me her bike for this. Even with the wobble in the big chainring, it still managed to get me into the city. The ceremony was slightly disappointing. Too busy with rows of tourists to see anything, the trumpet roll call was impressive as was The Menin gate itself. Serene. Time for pizza.
Stage Two: Ypres - Folkestone
Late start. Dorien left a message on the table. Breakfast is sorted.
Pack, strap and go. Lots of riding via primary roads, plenty of gaps to jump over on the bike path. An old man in Houtem attempts to give me directions. Cryptic communication with no teeth ensues, points me the righteous way. I enter France and the roads change to thought inspiring ones. L'arbre, les oiseaux, la ferme, la route, le vélo.
What more do you need. The route changes into beautiful farmland roads that slowly take me onward to the dunes of Dunkirk. Beaches steeped in history. Hunger beckons me onward and inward to a beach restaurant on Boulevard de l'Europe. 50 km in, 75 km to go excluding a ferry.
Onwards to Calais. Passing beachcabines (right word?), ships and other maritime goodness. Some interesting roads too. Some of which shouldn't be attempted by the faint of heart by bike. One such undertaking is a 80 km/h road for cars and lorries but also little 'ol me on a bike. Riding as much as possible on the right of the road, the white line as a guide. Fingers-crossed. I survive. Time for crêpes to ease the nerves and soothe the stomach. Calais has a decent city centre for a bit of a rest, just before I board the ferry to England.
The ferry crossing to Dover is certainly entertaining. People watching makes it so. Hikers, students, lorry drivers, motorcyclists, bicyclists but especially pensioners. I aptly name the ferry the retirement home in my journal. The white chalk cliffs however make it worth the crossing.
Disembarking, preparing for nightfall and finally doing some climbing along the cliffs towards Folkestone on the National Cycle Route 2 (NCR). An amazingly beautiful route with a view of the English Channel on the left and lush green hills on the right. Beneath me my bike is just coping with the gravel and I love it. Ahead another climb ensues, but pays dividends with another amazing view of the sea and ahead Folkestone, my destination. An early warning system on top of the hill made of concrete faces the sea that predates radar and uses a concave design to focus sound. Enhancing the ability to hear a plane from a vast distance. These structures come in different shapes and sizes are named Sound Mirrors. The descent into Folkestone is amazing and a well deserved kinetic reward.
Arriving rather late at my first ever Warmshowers host I'm welcomed by Daniel and his girlfriend. I jump start my recovery. Afterwards we share dinner. Amazing how friendly people can be to a total stranger. These kinds of experiences are precious. The homemade food is delicious and we share conversation about what we do in life, our passion for cycling. They leave me with their cats for the night, having a cabin in the woods for themselves to get away from Folkestone.
Washed my kit, did the washing up and then it was time for bed.
Stage Three: Folkestone - Hastings
Slept in and had breakfast with my hosts. Treated them to stroopwafels for the stay. Headed for Dungeness as recommended by Daniel. Riding along the coast for most of the day. Some rain but managed to avoid most of it. Plenty of wind too as a reach the lighthouse and stop at The Britanica Inn for pizza. Should NOT have stopped here. I could have gone swimming in said pizza. Coffee is pretty decent.
Onward to Rye which takes me through lovely and deserted country roads with lush greens to an amazing countryside dotted with old churches and stone walls that have been around for ages.
Have yet to find a blackberry bush that bares ripe fruit. National Cycle Route 2 is still the best though. Such an amazing route with everything I want. I opt to wash away the bad memory of the pizza at Hoolie Cafe near the Rye Surf school. Delicious food, excellent coffee and enjoying it while looking at kids learning to windsurf. Takes me back 30 years to Veerse Meer.
Battery Hill is a doozy. Definitely a tough little climb at 1.7 km with an average gradient 7.7%, max at 13.8%. Putting some Belgium climbs to shame. Hastings is within reach however, my stop for the day. Jinx! A flat. Quickly swap out the inner tire and climb some more.
Sweaty from the amazing weather but mostly the climbs I ring the doorbell and get welcomed in by my host. Water & tasty dates await me accompanied by stories about Iran, a country I hope to visit one day.
A shower, some yoga and a walk to the nearest supermarket follow in quick succession. Hastings seems like a nice place but it's time for sleep, no time for Battle.
Stage Four: Hastings - Brighton
Going downhill is always fun, but to get breakfast more so. The owner of the Bullet Coffee House was just setting up but allowed me to grab a streetside seat just shy of the beach. Asked for her recommendation with cycling in mind. Opted for vegan lasagna. The best breakfast ever! Bought some sweet cakes for the road and headed out.
Met some cyclists on Brompton's along the beach route before Bexhill-on-Sea and chatted a bit. Swapped stories and Strava nicknames.
Drizzle hit me just shy of Polegate but the trees of Lullington Heath shielded me from most of it. Beautiful trees and winding roads through this dense forested area. I needed lights here. The thick trees give way to wide pastures illuminated by sunshine. The coast was close and Birling Gap with the chalky Seven Sisters looming in the distance.
Climbs are abundant heading back into the countryside which is covered by small churches. Slowly the digital compass needle pointed back towards the sea and it's seagulls that had woken me early this morning. N-roads are getting boring again but they did bare fruit. Ripe black berries! I grabbed a hand or rather mouthful and rinced them off before replenishing my sugar reserves. Inland the farmlands with pastures and wild flowers danced on the seabreeze. Brighton just over the next hill.
Coffee at Pelicano on Sydney Street with it's sick display of cakes and the like was a joy. Shared a picture with Catherine whom I would be meeting up with in London. Ed, my second Warmshowers host, indicated that he is home from work. Slurp up the last bit of coffee and start my way into Brighton, uphill of course. A reminder of Hastings. Ed and his girlfriend Sarah welcome me in and we talk a bit before I shower, wash my kit and sort my gear out.
Ed fixes my tire, which had a big gash in it. He shares some of his likes and dislikes about London, my destination for the next day. With his know-how he replaces my route and throws in some nice surprises too. I reciprocate with inviting Sarah and him to stay in Rotterdam in the future. We go out for pub food, which they opted to pay for (Thanks guys!). Eating and talk about life, having kids or not, the geology of England and a good recipe for overnight oats.
Stage Five: Brighton - London
Early rise. Excellent breakfast. I'm sold on the overnight oats!
Rainy outside though. First time I don my overshoes. Ed guides me the first handful of kilometers through the back hills of Brighton.
We say our farewells and I continue on solo-style via his Meridian route. My cycling senses start to tinkle. These roads require a backlight, certainly with this visibility. I grab my trusty Flare to ease my mind. I mount my bike again. I soon find myself entering another forested area. Love these areas plus the isolated roads are a feast for eyes. This region also boasts some wine vineyards enclosed in beautiful handmade wooden fencing. The route takes me through narrow shrubbery enclosed byways. The canopy above grows thicker and I ford the Twyford. This is is why I ride. It's so quiet here. The only sounds are those of birdsong, rustling leaves, a spinning of the bike chain and my steady breathing.
West Sussex greets me with a handful of gummy bears which I buy in a corner shop. Note to self: Gummy bears are great fuel. A little further on I stop in Sunnyside for lunch between pensioners doing the same. The road beckons again and I accept it's invitation. Winding roads without cars and finally the warmth of the sun. Cows moo their hello to me as I snap a few photos. Titsey Hill kills me. Thanks Ed! The route leads me into London via suburbs but avoiding all traffic lights. Thanks again Ed! The Prime meridian takes me to Greenwich Observatory. Time to head for the Greenwich foot tunnel that leads in, under Thames and out the other end. I text Denny my Live Track link so he can follow my exact location, while I head for the Bacardi HQ.
I haven't seen Denny in about 15 years, we used to work together in Champs Disques & L'Entree in Hulst. Good and crazy times were had. As I round the corner I see a guy that looks a lot like him waving at me. He hasn't changed that much, a little balder and some more Denny to him now perhaps. Still the same friendly and generous guy I remember though. He stores my bike and we head for the Bacardi HQ offices for a drink and a chat to catch up and recall late nights in a disco and bar that only exists in our shared memories.
While in London I've also arranged to meetup with Dave, a friend I made during my travels in and around Australia. He even invited me to crash at his place. So kind. We meet up with in the HQ lobby just after the rain has stopped and I say my farewells to Denny.
Dave and I cycle to Peckham during rush hour, crossing the Tower Bridge of course. I feel like a bicycle courier, so much fun. His home is rather lovely and I'm offered a welcome refreshment. Recovery time again. Shower, yoga and shake. But also homemade kombucha, rather a sour taste but a good kind of sour. We chat a bit and go for a bite to eat, ending up at a really good Persian place, Persepolis. Tasty food, interesting flavours and most definitely too much. We end the day at a rooftop bar, so many of them here.
Slow start of the day. We head over to Brick House Bakery for breakfast. Very nice bakery for breakfast, with a lively atmosphere and especially popular with families. Pity it had to close down recently due to rent issues. Walk around the neighbourhood for a bit. Get a spare outer tire just in case Ed's patch work fails. Arrange to meet up with Catherine. Another friend I made in Australia and still keep in contact with. We meet up at her office so I can stow my bike. We end up at Tate Modern which reminds me somewhat of our Kunsthal. I especially like the power station building, it's vast as it's used to house the generator. We grab a drink and bite to eat. Some good conversations ensue. Reminiscing about Ozzy but also sharing our current lives. Catherine shows us around and gets us into the Olafur Eliasson exhibit. Dave has to go. We grab a burger at the very bustling Borough Market. Ending up near the river to share a beer.
I end the day with a bike ride to my stay for the night in the north of London. The ride is straightforward with only the part along the River Lee as a highlight. The houseboats and a bit of gravel road are a treat. Funny enough I'm more tired from this day than any other.
Stage Six: London - Cambridge
North bound today but not before breakfast! I hop over to Hopper & Bean for another vegetarian meal to start the day. Halloumi ftw! Doppio doubly so. This place feels a bit like an American dinner but done right. My stomach really enjoyed the lighter kind of breakfasts for longer rides and vegetarian options provide that easily. |
I feel like this is going to be a great day in the saddle.
Lots of cyclists out. It must be Sunday then. I meet several that enjoy some of the hillier parts to the north of London. Even some on the way to Cambridge. After a few talks I always end up going at my own pace, which is generally faster. Hartham Common is quite lovely, especially with all the sluice gates. Short on water & food I buy a few packs of crisps at a local pub. I get my water bottles topped up. The wheat farmers are watching sports and we end up chatting a bit about my route and their work. I stop again at a petrol station for gummy bears and pastel de nata. I opt to stop again for lunch at Teacakes at Shepreth. Lovely and delightful place with good food and coffee. But no scones, I was looking forward to scones!
Not much further and Cambridge welcomes me, I cycle around for a bit and head for my last stay in England just outside the city.
5 minutes after arriving the heavens open up. Glad to be indoors but I still decide to go into the city by taxi. After my recovery routine of course. See some sights like the older parts of the city but mainly the Botanical gardens. Worth the effort as they are especially beautiful after the rains and almost devoid of people. Walking feels good, the change of movement is welcome. Cambridge has plenty of waterways that are mostly used by moorhens but also people for recreational punting. I opt for Italian pasta instead and go to bed early.
Stage Seven: Cambridge - Harwich
Last full day on the bike. Bound for the North Sea and the ferry at Harwich. Early rise as I want to be able to take my time today. Possibly even avoid most of the rains that are expected. The roads out of Cambridge are superb and even get some off road sections. Jon Hopkins helps me through the first kilometers. Ridiculously photogenic farmlands. Rolling roads. A dead badger on the side of the road makes me sad. Looks almost alive. The church, St. Peter and St. Paul, in Lavenham is spectacular. An elderly gentleman provides me with a few stories about the Church and the village. Local know-how is so good. I go for a proper meal Number Ten. Very good food and a bit high chair for me in my cycle kit.
The sky turns dark with some rather dawning clouds while I cycle in the opposite direction. My legs take me through narrow roads between farmlands and villages I've long since forgotten the names of. I lose the race. Overshoes on, rain jacket zipped up. Rain pours down. I reach a container with a chippy in it. I opt for insta-hot-chocolate and never tasted something so soothing. Lorry drivers come and go. I charge myself and my phone for the last part of the day.
Komoot sends me on a wild safari ride. Finding a proper road seems a goal of the past. Instead a trench filled with a mix of leaves, tree bark and sand have replaced the road. This is not where my road bike excels. Far from it. After what seems like ages I reach the road again. Left cleaning my caliper brakes with a pointy stick. I make a mental note to update Komoot (I did).
AONB. What? Yes, AONB! Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
An apt description. This is indeed an area of such beauty. Riding here is a dream. To the west of Manningtree I enter Dedham Vale AONB. So much fun to ride on gravel roads with nature every which way you look. Flora & Fauna. I've ridden through several of these areas during this bikepacking trip and they never fail to impress. I highly recommend them! Manningtree provides me with another opportunity to grab some fruit and water at a cornershop. But also a view over the confluence of River Stour and the North Sea. Canada geese and a random swam take advantage of the low tide to feed. Geese seem to always remind me of fancy people by the way they go about their business.
I climb another hill, nearly there...nearly. The dark clouds seem to gather behind me again. Not this time, I think to myself and push on. I pass wooded areas, small towns, the dock cranes looming ahead of me. I cross a roundabout that seems familiar. Red Hook seems a long time ago. Only yesterday really or was it 5 years, who can remember?
Time to wait for embarkment. The rains drenches the people who are not enjoying a warm chocolate milk inside a franchise coffee shop. It's a waiting game now. I talk to Paul and Bennett. Two Americans that are also crossing. One rides a MTB, the other a Surley with slicks. Both riding to Berlin on asphalt. Interesting choice. We continue our talk outside the cafe. I share some pointers about The Netherlands, routes to take and introduce them too Komoot. We agree to eat together on the boat after waiting some more.
Embarkment commences. Road bike on deck. Cabin fever. Shower & recovery. Dinner time with my new American cycle buddies.
We share a beer and stories about daily-non-cycle-life. Sleep.
Stage Eight: Hook of Holland - Rotterdam
Disembark from bed. Shower. Dress to impress. Say hello to my bike.
A constant friend that never lets me down. Disembark from the ferry. The sun and Dutch landscape of Hook of Holland greets me.
I have to admit, I've missed the flatness of it all. The smooth tarmac most certainly. Potholes, we haven't got a clue do we England?
I follow the Nieuwe Waterweg to the east and get a nice sailing experience due to the wind. 35 km/h is a nice cruising speed. After 75 minutes I take another shower. At home. After 802 kilometres and 5551 meters of elevation.
This is a lengthy post, I know. I'm not sorry. And to conclude it I have some take-aways from the 8 days on the road. I guess you could call this a tl;dr. Did you just skimp ahead?
- National Cycle Route; take this route, you won't be disappointed
- Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; go here for nature
- Warmshowers hosts are amazing period, maybe people are too; I will certainly visit more Warmshowers hosts.
- Komoot work very well, but local knowledge more so
- Bikepacking is tones of fun
- More photos you say, here you go