1988 Europe Bicycle Trip – Part 3

…continued from 1988 Europe Bicycle Trip – Part 2

[Wednesday] 8/23/88—Got up at 6:15, 45 minutes after the alarm went off, just couldn’t get up. I think Bill had the same problem. Anyway, by the time we got all of our gear packed and were ready to take off, it was 7:30, rush hour was in progress. Our initial plan was to try to get in 50 or 60 miles. This day turned out to be everything but the plan. Right away I got some surprises about cycling as transportation. One thing I had not thought about was the weight that the gear would add to the bike. It was nearly impossible to even lift the bike. It was still very rideable, but I had to be careful about turns, braking, and going over bumps. During the first couple hours I kept running into bugs that needed to be worked out. First, a substitute bolt that I used on mounting the rack proved unsuitable. The weight of the gear put a lot of stress on it and worked it loose, and it jammed in my chain. I was able to retighten it, but it was bent and needed periodic tightening. I’ll have to replace it when we get to Amsterdam. Next, I discovered that whenever I hit a hard bump, the panniers would come partially unhooked from the rack. This was really agravating as hard bumps are fairly common, especially with all the cobblestone streets. I had to stop and rehook them half a dozen times before I learned how to avoid the bumps. At one point early on, my rear tire looked severely deflated and was causing a lot of drag. I thought I had a flat, but I pumped it back up and it held air the rest of the day. At this point I was asking myself if I was seriously crazy for attempting to travel Europe on a bicycle. Eventually, however, all the bugs got worked out.

After we fought our way out of rush hour Brussells and found a road heading north, we set out for Antwerp. The ride there was rather dull. It’s fairly industrialized in that area and the countryside was not too pretty. When we got to Antwerp, we lost the bicycle path and ended up wandering around in the heart of the city trying to find it again. What a pit of a city! I would not recommend Antwerp to anyone. Its basically an industrial port and had very few interesting buildings. We wandered around, got really disgusted, and finally found the path on the north side of the city. We lost it for short periods before we finally got out of the metro area, it was very poorly marked.

Once we got into Belgium north of Antwerp area it was spectacular. The highway and path were straight and good and the country was very pretty. Lots of hardwood forests along the road, some very expensive houses being developed in the area. The forest really reminded me of how I would picture a temperate rain forest. Lots of ferns, moss growing on the trees, dense undergrowth. Some areas were pure canopy of Scotch pine (or similar sp.) with an understory of English oaks and a ground layer of Rubus sp., very pretty. Rhododendrons are widely planted in the area and do fabulous. They are often planted as hedges and grow 12–15 ft high, just a solid mass of glossy foliage. Many of the homes landscape among the forest in a naturalized way using rhodos, beautiful. I would love to see this area in the spring during the rhodo bloom period. Interestingly, I saw very few azaleas. We then crossed the border into The Netherlands, it just got even more beautiful. In addition, the path for bicycles was much better, better marked, wider, and more complete, not disappearing in the small towns. We stopped and had lunch at a little deli style restaurant in Rijsbergen, an absolutely delightful little town south of Breda. There were many nurseries in the area, and all the houses leading into and out of town on the highway were exceptionally landscaped. The town itself was very clean, charming little buildings with lots of plants in the windows. The owner of the restaurant used to live in Quebec and took a lot of interest in the U.S. and where we were going. We had meat & cheese on delicious, fresh-baked bread with french fries every bit as good as those I had last night. Spending money here is much easier than in Belgium since 1 US dollar is about 2 Guilden (guillders) so its easy to convert. Lunch for both of us was only 17 G.

We then headed on up into Breda. By then we had decided to try to go as far as we could todayin an effort to reach Amsterdam in two days instead of three. That would give us more time to spend in Amsterdam. Breda was about the halfway point (about 70 miles from Brussells). Once again, the bike path was incredible and guided us through the city with signs and markers. Somehow though, we still managed to get lost. We missed the last sign before leaving town and added about 10 miles of backtracking to our trip before we found the path in the next city. Breda is a pretty good sized town, but it was very charming and clean. It was here that we began to see lots and lots of bicycles. Big groups of kids would ride by on them. Older women and men riding from work or from grocery shopping. And all the bicycles were of the touring style with fenders, chain guards, horizontal handlebars, a bell, and only one or three speeds. We definitely did not fit in, especially me with my cycling clothes and helmet. I got a lot of looks. We were both pretty tired by now but we had decided to try to make it to Gorinchem. Utrecht, an outside possibility at the start, was deemed too far.

After leaving Breden, it started to rain, hard, not the drizzle that we had on and off since lunch. We waited under a bridge for it to stop. In the meantime a small group of kids stopped under the bridge. We were unaware if we were going the right way so I tried to ask them where the right path was. They didn’t know English, but when I said Gorinchem, they understood. The rain never stopped and finally the kids decided to go ahead anyway. They motioned for us to follow so we did. We got soaking wet but at least we found the right way. By then we were dog tired, and the rain didn’t help, but to make matters worse, we got lost one final time to go along with Brussells, Antwerp, and Breda. When we finally rode into Gorinchem, we had been on the road eleven hours and covered over 80 mile! (The 80 miles is the interstate distance, we did a more circuitous route, not to mention all the backtracking from getting lost, so we actually covered closer to 100 miles!) We were beat, then we had to find a hotel, after covering most of the town, we found what must be its only hotel. Bill asked if they had a room (yes), how much was it (80 guilders), I take it!

We felt better after a hot shower and dry clothes. We ate dinner at an Italian restaurante (irony) and had pizza which was adequate, then we went back to the motel and called it a day (I won’t say what else we called it). At least we covered 2/3 of the distance from Brussells to Amsterdam, so we have a much shorter ride tomorrow and we’ll be in Amsterdam fairly early in the day tomorrow. That will give us 3 full days to spend there. Here I was worried how Bill would o on the bicycle and we cover much more ground that I hoped. I don’t think he enjoyed it all that much and I can’t say I blame him with the rain. But it was his idea to go so far. I think he just wanted to get the biking part over and get to Amsterdam. That’s fine with me. We’ll both sleep well tonight.

To be continued…

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 1988, 2013

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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