Thursday, 15 November 2012

Tribute to Enghien

My first port of call when I had just arrived here in Belgium was the town of Enghien (in English and French, and Edingen as it is known in Flemish). Hosted by the great Koole family, who have always put the family in family friends, it was in all regards with a warm and enticing welcome that I was met. From the family lunches in the sun, with clear skies and 30ºC+ temperatures, to the myriad of small country roads and treelined lanes down which to ride my bike, the first couple of months were most definitely a welcome relief from the drizzle and grizzle of a wintry Wellington.

I'm a big fan of cats, in particular cats in unusual or unexpected surroundings. I couldn't resist taking photographic evidence of some (or all) of these chaps and chappettes, so please have patience while I briefly indulge my passion for the local talent.

Alcoholism, particularly binge drinking, is a real problem with the local cats in this part of town
Stealthy and sneaky, the jungle cat prowls the corn fields.
The cold steely gaze of eyes that have known nothing but years of incarceration

As I started to explore more widely around the area I encountered a vast array of historic places, ancient cobbled roads and a ménagerie of animals that seem to be commonplace here on people's property, but would rarely be seen in such a context in New Zealand. Let me guide you on a typical ride through the countryside of my Belgian initiation, replete with all my favourite local man-made and animal quirks, along with plenty of other curious inexplicables.

I caught this guy staggering around drunkenly, disoriented and clearly lost.

One of my more regular sections of road for training took in a beautiful, quiet tree-lined boulevarde near Bierghes, between Enghien and Rebecq. Judging by the size and architectural nuances of the housing constructions it was obviously where many well-to-do's choose to live. There's nothing like living in the forest, at one with nature. That is, only once you've cleared the section of hundreds of mature 30m high trees, planted grass, and erected some of the most industrial-looking metallic walls known to man.

There's actually a Zebra in there by the door, with a baby. Of course.

The typical Belgian horse. Although it could well be a Trojan horse...

Cycling in Belgium enjoys a status similar to that of car usage on the road. It is an everyday activity for many people, especially elderly ladies who you see loading up their panniers with groceries every time you head to the local supermarket. There are often many options for navigating via cycle paths, small roads between main ones, as well as recreational routes through scenic landscapes. Sometimes I didn't feel like wearing a helmet, and would take the opportunity to feel the wind through my hair unimpeded, savouring the sense of freedom that it inspires.

It's often quite surprising to find out exactly what some of the sponsors of professional teams actually do. Some make jeans, watches, or GPS units, others are car rental companies and many are banks. This one was a revelation, and I found it while ripping out the old 19th century flooring of the house of my friend's relative. This was to be the replacement! 

I always find it interesting to read the graffiti in foreign languages, occasionally being able to make sense of what I see. However it seems tagging in English is the cool way to do it. As always with a second language mistakes are inevitable, and an essential part of the learning process. They also make for good comic moments when on display in public:

better luck next time

Dangerous intersection - not one staked out by pirates with a map showing hidden treasure.
Not being one to ever let the opportunity for a predictable joke pass by unsaid, this was too good to refuse.
You are so silly!

Come on now, don't be silly.

If ever I was riding past the main motorway to Brussels at about 2pm I would witness the passing of the French TGV, the high speed train from Paris. In some ways it was impossible to miss, due to the volume of the noise it creates rushing through the air. But on the other hand, if you didn't look up at the right moment it's actually quite easy to miss because it just passes through so quickly. Add to this the occasional fly-over courtesy of the local Belgian Air Force jet flighters, and humans' ability to make very fast machines that make lots of noise and are very expensive to run was most explicitly displayed. Only for very brief moments however. Then, like the children playing on the church organ after mass getting overly enthusiastic and physical with the instrument, the dusty velvet would once again be draped over the keys, and hushed tones would issue forth about it being time to move on.

My favourite aspect of a regular ride I did had to be a road sign by the motorway offramp near Rebecq. Well, it was actually three road signs. And each actually had about 10-15 smaller signs on it. I marvelled at how much new information I was able to garner at each passing, yet never really having the time to take in anything that I saw in the time I had. I could just imagine people in their cars leaving the motorway, only to find themselves confronted by this scene. The frantic darting of their eyes as they try and take everything in, hurriedly looking for their destination while the pressure of being at an intersection and having cars queued behind them fuels their growing unease. There is so much there that apparently must be pointed out immediately, from a piano shop to a removal company, even an abandonned velodrome. And that's only the first sign. They almost need to have a cafe alongside, so you can take your time to find the place you are looking for, maybe have a coffee while doing so. But then they would most likely be closed when you visited, as it would probably be lunchtime. Or it would be a Sunday, when everything is closed. Or a Monday, which is sort of like another Sunday. If indeed it was a day that they were open, by the time you'd finished reading the sign and worked out which way to go, they probably would have long since closed for the day.

Christmas trees already in September? Looks a bit like a permanent sign...
I had one puncture in all my rides through August and September. Despite potentially having clocked up a few thousand kilometres, among which many were over cobbles, my tyres held up extraordinarily well over some very rough terrain. The one time they couldn't quite handle what was thrown at them, it was fairly evident why. I have had a more impressive object go through my tyre before, but that was passing through an industrial part of town as a cycle courier in Wellington years ago. This nail was a good 4-5cm long, and on a fairly innocuous stretch of cycle path just outside of Enghien.

It reminded me a bit of this guy, from the Kiwi Brevet back in February, at Castle Hill heading towards Arthur's Pass. Both prickly characters, in their own way:

Lastly, where would we be without thousands of small breweries scattered all over the countryside? Not Belgium, that's for sure. I have found a few in my travels, the wares of which I have even managed to taste on a small scale.

Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast

Brouwerij Roman, near Brakel.

Brouwerij Den Herberg, Buizingen.
I have since moved to the town of Oudenaarde, in the heart of Flanders. Close to much of the cyclocross races, the only hills in Flanders and a long flat stretch of calm canal road, it is ideally situated for the life of a cyclist. Like everywhere in Belgium, there seems to be roadworks taking place on every other street. But it's a nice place and I am happy to be here.


  1. Larry really enjoyed that read ! Keep up the good work and good luck Zarkhov .. I mean Zander

  2. Hey, cool blog! A few months ago I got into watching cyclocross, really awesome sport. I also went to Hoogerheide for the really cold finals of the UCI Worldcup and saw you there; you did well!
    And hey, I don't live that for from your place.. Galmaarden, between Edingen/Enghien and Geraardsbergen/Grammont. You really picked out one of the best places to live when doing cyclocross! Did you check out "Brakelbos" in D'hoppe/La Houppe near Brakel?