If you’ve already read our ultimate guide to cycling in Flanders, then you’ll know cycling in Belgium isn’t for beginners or for the faint-hearted! While the climbs are short, they are often ferociously steep and conquering the cobbled climbs requires strength, skill and a dose of luck!
Here we share our tips for preparing for a cycling trip to Belgian Flanders, as well as our top tips for how to ride the cobbles!
- Get the miles in before you go – and make them as steep as you can. Some of the gradients on the roads around Flanders are well into double-digits, so it helps if you’ve ridden that kind of incline before.
- Practice – if you get a chance to ride any cobbles before you get to Flanders, do it. Read our tips below on how to ride cobbles!
- Kit – if you’re planning on riding the cobbles you may want to adapt your kit – see below.
- Gearing – while the hills are short, they are often very steep. If you’re concerned, consider your gearing before you go (no need to feel embarrassed – even the pros are on 11-28t or 11-32t cassettes for the Tour of Flanders these days!)
- Be self-sufficient – once you’re out of Oudenaarde (assuming you’re staying here), you’re quickly into very rural countryside. While cycling is hugely popular so in a real emergency, a local may be able to help you out – you can’t rely on there being shops to sell you food or bike parts when you’re out on the road. Your best bet is to be self-reliant. Check your bike is in good order before your trip and take a look at our packing list, tips on how to prepare for long rides and nutrition strategies to help make sure you’re ready for your trip.
- Plan – while the tourist board have made cycling around Flanders easier than in many destinations, thanks to the well-signposted routes, it still pays to plan ahead and decide which route you’re going to do when, as well as figure out how long it’s like to take, where you might stop en route etc. This will help maximise how much you enjoy yourself when you’re away. Our ride guides in our Flanders cycling guide have lots of cycling routes and all the information you should need. You might also like our pick of the best bike hotels in Belgium.
- Belgian signposts – it’s worth knowing that you may come across T crossings or roundabouts and see signs for “Town X” in one direction and “Anderen Richting” the other. This means “Other Directions” – so if you aren’t going to Town X, you are going the “Other Direction”.
- Don’t rely on petrol stations – some petrol stations, even on busy roads, have been converted to self-service stations. On occasion, we needed to refill bidons and made our way (occasionally off the route) to a petrol station, only to discover they only dispensed fuel!
- Belgium is not known for its tropical climate. It’s more at the rain, grit and dirt end of the spectrum. For those from the UK, the weather is not dissimilar in Belgium to what you’ll be used to at home. Whatever time of year you go, take clothes that will get you through all weather conditions. This article has more info on the best time of year to cycle in Belgium.
Rules of the road
- Cyclists enjoy greater rights on the road than in many parts of the world, and there are plentiful cycle routes and bike paths. There are some differences to the rules of that road that you may be used to at home, for example:“yield to the right” which means traffic from the right has priority, even if you’re on the more major road; and you have to ride on a bike path if there’s one available, even if it is located on the opposite side of the road (assuming it’s two way).
- This guide contains a great overview (including street signs) – read it before you go.
- Belgium is officially trilingual, with French, Flemish (Dutch) and German spoken. However, in Flanders, you’ll find Flemish is the dominant tongue and lots of younger people speak great English.
- Cash – it’s worth bringing cash for use in small shops.
- Friends – we mentioned that this is a very rural part of the world. If you can find a friend to ride with, you’ll have the reassurance of knowing that if something goes wrong, there’s someone there to help you out.
- Essentials – we always suggest keeping a small rear light fitted to your bike in case you run into dodgy weather. You’d also obviously be crazy to leave home without money, ID and your phone!
Tips for riding the cobbles
- Ride fast – there is no doubt about it, in order to reduce the vibration when riding over the cobbles the faster you can ride, the smoother ride. The theory is that you glide over the surface and aren’t caught at every bump and it does seem to make a difference in practice – but it is easier said than done! It may not be achievable for the amateur cyclist who’s tired after a long day in the saddle…
- Ride like a pro – to help prevent your chain coming off, the pros will tell you to ride in a high gear sometimes in the big ring when negotiating all but the steepest inclines. Again this is true, but it is reliant upon the ability of the rider.
- Ride on the crown of the road – as this will tend to be flatter and not broken or uneven as car wheels will not have damaged the centre line. Again, this takes practice and you need to be happy with the risk you’re taking in terms of other vehicles on the road.
- Avoid the cobbles?! Some riders try to ride on the verges at the side of the cobbled roads and whilst this is achievable it is dangerous as the surfaces are not totally sound AND you have actually come to ride on the cobbles!
- No sightseeing – eyes should be firmly on the terrain immediately in front of you. Try to pick your line in good time to prevent the holes and uneven cobblestones.
- Stay relaxed and don’t grip the bars too tightly. This increases the tension in your body. It’s good advice, but in reality, difficult to do!
- Ride with your hands on the bar tops, not the hoods or the drops – it is the most secure.
- Try to sit and put your weight over the back wheel. This will increase your ability to achieve traction particularly in the wet. Don’t try to climb out of the saddle – even the pros stay seated.
- Don’t stop (unless you have to!) on the steep climbs: chances are you will not get started again and will be faced with a long walk to the top!
Tips on clothing and gear for riding cobbles
- Make sure your helmet is securely fastened. It should be anyway of course (!), but it will jump up and down if not. For the same reason, check your glasses are secure and, if not, put them in your pocket.
- Bottle cages, bottles, GPS units and pumps need to be secure or you may lose them.
- If you’re taking your own bike, consider what sort of wheels you want to use – perhaps not your most expensive set?
- If you want to go to marginal gains, then consider a second wrapping of bar tape to lessen the vibration. Alternatively, you could try adding gel pads under your bar tape. If you give this a go, don’t do it in a last minute panic!
- Consider fitting 28mm tyres if your bike frame allows, as these will give you a slightly softer ride.
- Inflate the tyres to a slightly lesser pressure than normal. Again, this will help a little with smoothness.
Have you cycled in Flanders? Have you got tips to add? We’d love it if you commented below!
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