Sven Nys, the Belgian cyclocross legend who retired this week, is a beast. This past fall I watched as the 39-year-old, literally sick that day, finished third in the grueling Ruddervoorde Superprestige, close behind two elite racers who were nine and 19 years younger than him. It was an especially inspiring sight for me, a 41-year-old American with a wrecked knee, a janky ankle, and a week of cyclotouring Flanders ahead.
Earlier that afternoon, I'd left the little medieval city of Bruges, Belgium, to get my first world-class cyclocross fix watching Nys battle it out, mud-and-blood-style. In case you're unfamiliar with the sport, cyclocross is a mostly off-road form of lap racing that covers mixed terrain—grass, mud, sand—and requires riders to negotiate obstacles like steps and hurdles, often with bike in hand. Standing by as Nys essentially thrashed the field was a mesmeric experience that left me not quite knowing what to do with myself afterwards. I'd just gotten off a plane from the West Coast that morning. I'd been awake for forty-something hours. Food seemed an alien thing, plus I'd just hydrated with approximately five glorious Belgian beers. At least my leaden exhaustion, larded with intoxication, enabled me to blend into the crowd perfectly. Loose and slo-mo in their convivial fanaticism, most folks appeared to be just a wee bit polluted.
Here in Belgium, the cultures of bikes and beer are both intertwined and nationally preeminent. The most striking difference between the professional bike-racing scenes of Europe and America is that in the States you're most likely to get a handful of lycra-clad "hard men" with early-onset osteoporosis showing up at races to compare notes on strength-to-weight ratios and to insta-share shitty photos. While in Europe—and especially Belgium—you are without a doubt going to get co-ed gangs of rowdy, sud-swilling, chain-smoking fans cheering, betting, and generally getting nuts. Inside 15 minutes near the open-air pissoirs, I witnessed actual mudslinging, a brief comradely fight, an apparent fainting, some nonchalant, almost stylish puking, and men and women in multiple modes of non-latrine-related undress. Nobody batted an eye. Cycling is beautifully blue-collar here. It reminds one of NASCAR, with Flanders as its Appalachian womb, the place where hell on wheels and alcohol yoke up like a dovetail joint.
Not that anyone could tell from my beat, dopey-eyed exterior, but I was so excited I wasn't able to sleep for another 12 hours.
I'd come to Belgium's historic Flanders region to cyclotour the countryside and link up some of the greatest cities in Europe under my own power. As someone who, maybe like you, spends way too much time in thrall to screens while sitting on my ass, I try to heal myself once or twice a year by making a weeklong date with a bike and a destination—ideally someplace replete with great beer, great eats, and great cycling—so that I can see the world while sitting on my ass.
For me, traveling in this mode is a truly cathartic experience, one that transcends active play and competitive sport to become real-world mode of transportation. Unlike with car or train travel, when on a bike you are not at rest as you make your way toward new experiences. You're wayfaring, working, and sightseeing all at once. And as you slowly connect the dots on the map, you are often exquisitely alone. This stew of fresh experiences, athletic endeavor, unhurried travel, and meaningful solitude is one of the things that keep me going. It's a fantastic way to stock the library in my personal mansion of the mind.
Flanders, the mostly Dutch-speaking northern chunk of Belgium, has always been high on my list of dream destinations. Arguably the finest athlete in the history of cycling, Eddy "the Cannibal" Merckx, hails from Flanders. The Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders, is one of professional road cycling's most beloved and prestigious classics, a one-day race that will sees its 100th running on April 3 this year. The Ronde is a big party and a big show, known for its ability to cripple egos as ferociously drug-addled cyclists fight it out on the way up and down and up the steep cobbled roads of the Flemish Ardennes again and again.
Ghent, the largest city in East Flanders and a favorite stop on my tour, has long been a hub of cycling. It's home to the historic six-day races at the 3,000-seat Kuipke, a hallowed velodrome in Citadelpark. (Unfortunately, the Kuipke will forever be linked in my mind with the tragic tale of Jack the elephant, who according to local legend was sold by the ailing Ghent zoo nearby about a hundred years ago and ended up strangled and butchered for his meat.) Besides a grand old wooden cycle track possibly haunted by the ghost of a murdered pachyderm, Ghent also boasts the 4,100-seat Vlaams Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx, a newish modern velodrome where racers from all over the world come to compete.
As much as I love to watch top athletes try to kill each other with bicycles, I greatly prefer riding at my own leisure and stopping whenever I please to sample tasty beverages and cheesy comestibles. Luckily, Flanders exceeded my already high expectations. You will have heard of Belgian chocolate, but the beer is something else. Many refined palates have determined the planet's single finest beer to be the Westvleteren XII, a lovely and complex liquid orgasm brewed exclusively in the 178-year-old Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus, in Vleteren. Lighthearted notions of drunk monks notwithstanding, Westvleteren XII is rigorously, passionately, and scientifically engineered to leave the most hypercritical of beer nerds incapable of shutting up about it long enough to actually drink the stuff. A bottle of "W12" is pretty hard to come by, but you'd think it was a Cheval Blanc 1947 the way people just stand around in awe of it.
I had expected a virtually nonstop rash of awesome beers, but one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises I encountered as I pedaled from one magnificent medieval city to the next—Bruges, Poperinge, Ypres, Oudenaarde, Ghent—was that Belgians take food very seriously. In Flanders, I discovered, good food is a way of living it up. Americans absolutely suck at this. Sometimes we forget how easy it is to eat well, like, regularly. Holes-in-the-wall in small Belgian villages will serve up, say, a sublime venison carpaccio paired with a hyperlocal beer that puts most American microbrews to shame. I honestly had no idea, but Flanders deserves to be famed as a gastronome's voyage d'une vie, as the French say.
Another surprise was the terrain. Besides the storied Flemish Ardennes, I expected a land of endless flat polders, like the neighboring Netherlands. But my ride took me over a great mix of hill and dale and farm and trail, providing a refreshing change from the surfeit of lovely but relentlessly horizontal landscapes so often torn by headwinds as you trace canal paths near the coast. On those windy days—as I lugged all my stuff in panniers that turned me and my bike into a 250-pound kite—I sometimes wished for a less ambitious itinerary. The inner whining always quickly passed, though, as I found yet another new experience around every bend and over every hill.
Some days were tough, and some were long, especially when I'd try to cram in too many pit stops and photo opps. But there's a meditative quality to those trying moments. Your focus shifts. You remember that there are really only two ways to join forces with a bicycle: you ride it (think Sven Nys and Eddy Merckx) or it rides you. In the former situation, you may be only slightly more than half in control, but you effectively become a cyborg, a machine symbiote using a complex tool to go beyond your physical limitations. In the latter, well, you're not, but the endless spinning and incremental progress put you in a sort of Zen state. You know that, in the end, the bike will get you there, just not yet. You're on the way.
Not to get all sappy, but Flanders ended up being, for me, my most well-rounded cycling adventure—not too hard, not too easy, and full of everything that can make travel the silver-bullet antidote to anxiety, cynicism, apathy, and existential ennui. Each day required little more than hopping on a bike, keeping my eyes open, and indulging in the landscape, the food, and the beer. And the fact that, though I had hit pause on my manic, overstuffed other life, nothing went off the rails, fell off a cliff, and ended up as a heap of flaming wreckage.