Friday, 24 August 2012

Gent - City of Cyclists, Streetcars and Drunk Chainsaw-wielding Madmen

Last weekend I took a train to Gent, with a plan of meeting fellow New Zealander and cyclocross rider (amongst other things) Darryn Medhurst. He had invited me to stay a few days and go for a couple of rides - around his local off-road trails and then as part of a Sunday morning bunch road ride.

The country has been under a heatwave for the past week or so, and everyone here has been going on about it. They express surprise at the unseasonal temperatures, and with some irony their lamentations of how it was too cold in the preceeding weeks have been tempered by complaints of it now being too hot. The Goldilocks of the meteorological world.

Anyway, it was a stinking hot day so leaving the comfort of the countryside behind me I headed into the heat and urban haze of Brussels, waiting only briefly at the station to catch a connecting train to Gent. For all the country's passion for cycling, and its generally excellent infrastructure around cycle lanes and paths, there is little facility for taking bikes on the train. Luckily I had two pretty empty trains, so just took it on and rested it in the aisle by my seat.

A few hours before leaving Enghien to catch the train, I had noticed a broken spoke on my rear wheel. It definitely hadn't happened while I was last riding it, because the wheel no longer turned without touching the brake pads. It makes me sad when spokes break while not in use, as if the wheel has been suffering quietly, putting on a brave face only to crumple when the pressure gets too much. I didn't like the idea of riding it in this state, as it has a fairly low spoke count, so I was lucky to have Darryn pick me up from the train station in Gent, and lend me a wheel for the weekend.

Bikes, trams and... drunk men dressed up as Australians or Brazilians

We went for a two hour road ride that evening, up towards Holland and around through Zomergem and back, following canals and generally quiet calm roads once we were out of the city. It was a fairly casual ride until at one point Darryn was putting his drink bottle back into its cage when he must have suddenly hit a bump, throwing his balance out. He landed with his chest over his handlebars, his weight so far forwards that his back wheel was coming off the ground. For an instant he seemed somewhat in control - first ever nose manual I've seen on a road bike - despite the awkward appearance, but it was only a few brief seconds. Then he landed heavily on his shoulder, on a patch of sandy tarmac, narrowly missing the grass verge. It had happened so suddenly, yet was very drawn out once it started, meaning I had time to manoeuver myself out of the way behind him. Somewhat dazed and confused, and as I found out over the course of the coming days, in quite a bit of pain from his ribs, he was at least well enough to continue riding.

Back to some tranquility

If we thought that was going to be the excitement over for the ride, we had another thing coming. Heading along a cycle lane back towards Gent maybe half an hour later, we were approaching an intersection where a small lane joined us from off to our right. There was an old, wild, slightly frantic looking man riding a bike towards us down this lane. When I say riding, it is in the loosest sense of the word, as he was perched awkwardly on the saddle only just directing his momentum - struggling against physics with one hand on the bars steering and braking as he headed straight towards us, while in the other hand... a chainsaw! I couldn't believe my eyes. He was drunk as a skunk, yet somehow he did indeed manage to stop - the bike that is, while the chainsaw and his arm came flailing around in front of him as he struggled to put a foot down, almost dismembering Darryn and myself. Of course, the chainsaw wasn't going, and he'd even taken the time to put the safety cover over the blade, but I couldn't have been more shocked even if it had actually been running.

We had a nice cruise along the canal back into town, re-running through the scene in our minds, and chatting about plans for the upcoming cyclocross season. Darryn, I later found out, had been a very successful road and track racer in the 90's, including being the NZ junior national champion. Despite living in Flanders for the past decade or more he only got into cyclocross last year. As we crossed the canal and wended out way through a few intersections (the cycle lanes tend to go up and down over the kerb, around bus stops and next to pedestrian crossings - nice to be separated from traffic, but very confusing with paths crossing, things coming at you from every direction and with different give way rules to NZ) I felt like stretching my arms so took the opportunity on a calm section to sit up and take my hands off the bars for a few seconds.

(Photo taken at a later stage)

Immediately I found a cop on a motorbike beside me grunting at me with an angry look on his face. I tried to use body language to show that I didn't understand, as his bike was so loud. This just seemed to anger him even more and he really shouted it at me now. I told him I didn't speak Dutch, so he asked me where I was from. I still didn't know what he was on about, assuming that perhaps I had inadvertantly gone through a red light at some point. But no, he was telling me to put my hands on the bars saying "I think that in New Zealand it is the same?" in a very aggrieved tone. By this stage I had acquiesced and put my hands back on the bars, so I nodded trying to get him on his way. I don't really know whether it is in fact a rule, but I've never heard of anyone being pulled up for it. I think it was more a case of his day not being the holiday that it was for most other people, and a fairly heavy dose of pent up resentment. He also had a patch of facial hair above his top lip, but it was more of a common or garden moustache, and not particularly magnificent.

Cambridge Terrace, Wellington 2015?

We had a nice evening BBQ with Darryn's family, basking in the night time warmth (I think it got down to around 25º overnight). The next morning I changed tyres and we headed out for a ride on some of the local off-road trails. I was feeling a bit fried, partly due to the temperature at that moment but also the lack of sleep from the heat during the night. I only have my designer Italian sunglasses over here at the moment, and they are quite a dark tint. So although they're great for riding in the sun, (or for doing anything that requires style in the sun) transitions into shady leaf-strewn paths and 4x4 roads with big piles of dumped bricks can make for a bit of blind riding. Lifting my glasses would mean I got dust and insects in my eyes, while continuing to wear them made me worry I would puncture if I couldn't see properly. I probably worried about this too much, and combined with trying to keep up with Darryn on his home circuit meant I had just a bit much going on in my head. It was a nice ride, and definitely a good way to see what the conditions of some of the early cross races are going to be like - at the moment everything is so dry and dusty, sandy even.

Later on Saturday we went into town to look around and have something to eat. Darryn showed me a building with the remnants of a bygone era still present:

Within the grey horseshoe at the top

After some poor service we had a very belated meal at faits divers, a restaurant I probably wouldn't recommend - especially if you have children who can't wait an hour for food. We then headed across the canal to a really nice place with a bar, dancefloor and a huge sandpit and playground for children. I don't remember the name of the place, but it was relaxed and really made it feel like the summer you wish for all through the winter months.

In the morning on Sunday I forgot to change my tyres over to road mode again until the last minute, meaning we were running late for the bunch ride. We met Gabe, a friend of Darryn's, part way there and after a brief team time trial along the canal we joined onto the back of the bunch as it made its way south towards Oudenaarde. There weren't as many people as Darryn has expected, but he'd warned me that they can get a bit carried away racing each other on the run back into Gent along the canal, especially in cross winds. It was a calm day however, so I kept up in the first 20 or so riders and enjoyed the early, more sedate part of the ride.

As we neared Oudenaarde we encountered a few hills, none of which were steep but a few that dragged on for quite a long time. A couple of guys jumped off the front - one of whom I later found out has been busted for doping 5 or 6 times, and used to win Kermis races in solo attacks 60km from the finish, charged up out of his brain. He's a bit older now, but nonetheless keen to give it a good go over and over. As the hill wore on I found myself at the front setting a pace just above comfortable, pulling those two back in. I was feeling good, and still able to take turns at the front once we'd reached the top, rolling along undulating roads and back down to the canal.

The pace on the return leg did definitely step up, but not by as much as I was expecting and it was quite a steady tempo, only occasionally upset by someone having a bit of a go off the front. I managed to hold it together near the front until people started to sprint at the end, which I wasn't interested in doing. I was intrigued by the company we had on the ride, as I was aware that pro's often come along. As in New Zealand, there are many people who wear replica team kits, but some people look so smart and slick with all the gear and muscles and no hair that you have to check the bike to make sure that all the parts fit with the team to be sure whether or not they are actually part of it.

Iljo Keisse at the front right in genuine Omega Pharma Quick Step

Incidentally I saw recently what Quick Step actually is when I was taking out floorboards and putting in new parquet at my friend's cousin's place:

Floorboards - though apparently bottom of the line!

Back in Gent in one piece I was able to relax a bit and watch some of the Vuelta a España before heading to the train station once more. I wasn't as lucky with the return trip to Brussels, because seeing it was a weekend day and very sunny everyone had decided to go to the beach. The train was packed when I tried to get on with my bike, so after initially starting at the back, I passed each door only to see the entranceway full of people staring back at me. As the whistle went to indicate departure, I was running along almost at the front of the platform hoping to find a space. I looked to the conductor, who just looked back cocking his head and shrugging as if to say bad luck mate. So I just grabbed my bike and jumped up onto the train via the closest door. The entranceway had a bunch of people in it, but we shuffled around and made space for everyone.

I hadn't had time to get my ticket before jumping on the train, so was just planning on paying the collector when he came around. The train was so full though, and the trip only about half an hour, that I never saw anyone and got off in Brussels unattended to. I then got on the connecting train to Enghien, which was surprisingly (for 8pm on a Sunday night) a double decker. There was hardly anyone else around, so I had plenty of room for the Yeti and myself to stretch out. Again noone came to collect the ticket I hadn't yet purchased, so I happily strolled from the train out through the station and back home, glad I'd taken the opportunity to jump aboard in Gent rather than waiting an hour for the next train, and saving myself about €15 in the process.

I have to thank Darryn for his generosity, it was great staying with him and his family. I have a much better picture of the scale of the cross scene around Flanders now, and I will be much more prepared for the inherent dangers of riding in and around Gent.


  1. Nice one, Alex. You sound like you're absorbing the experiences and learning heaps. Keep it up, and keep those wheels tuned. Miss you, Oli

  2. Well done, Alex - so far. Given the attention you attracted from the local law enforcement just for your 'Look, Mum, no hands' riding, perhaps you should take care when making free with public transport that they don't also monitor the cycling blogs of indigent antipodeans. Should we agree on a code for you to use in future to disguise such revell-ations? And what's the outlook for repairing the wheel?