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When we think about cycling in Flanders, most of us envision tackling the cobbled climbs of the Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont. And, of course, the countryside around the Flemish Ardennes region is a must-do for every cyclist who visits Belgium. But even in the more built-up, central part of Flanders between Brussels and Antwerp, a lot of rides can be made where you can explore the country roads between those larger cities. For instance, only a 20-minute train ride from Brussels Airport, you can find a beautiful ride starting from the Peloton de Paris café in the center of Mechelen.
Founded in 2014 as the first real cycling café in Belgium, Peloton de Paris combines bike repairs with a coffee bar. It has gradually evolved to become a favorite hangout spot for many riders in the region where like-minded cyclists meet for a coffee (or Belgian beer) and then go for a ride. Besides the coffee bar, Peloton de Paris also offers its own range of cycling apparel, casual wear and a bikepacking range, along with custom-made bicycles from brands like Bellé, Jaegher, Eddy Merckx, Open Cycle and Ridley.
The game plan for our recent ride was to meet at Peloton de Paris at 9:30 a.m. with two friends, Willem and Gilles, and to first enjoy an espresso at the bar. As usual, Willem was fashionably late, but to make up for it he brought some of his homemade cookies. According to him, they are made using an old family recipe but we all know he just mixes together everything he can find in his kitchen and puts it in the oven for 20 minutes to see how it turns out. Pretty good this time actually.
We waited a little longer than usual because some rain came down and we didn’t roll out from the shop until 10:30. This time of the year, the weather can be unpredictable but according to the forecast there’d be no more rain for the rest of the day, so we left without our rain gear. A strong wind coming from the north made the temperature drop to about 8 degrees Centigrade (mid-40s Fahrenheit). Gloves and toe covers were a must-have on this ride and a mid-ride coffee stop would be welcome, so we decided to make a 70-kilometer ride toward Leuven and back.
Before exiting Mechelen, we passed the city’s spacious marketplace and the Sint Romboutstoren—the cathedral’s 97-meter (318-foot) high tower that dates from the 14th century. While most tourists visit the more famous cities of Bruges, Ghent and Brussels, Mechelen has a rather unique vibe. It’s smaller than the neighboring cities of Antwerp and Brussels but thanks to its size, it’s still very cozy. The geographic benefit and atmosphere of Mechelen encourages many families to move there, making it one of the fastest growing cities in Belgium.
We first rode to the Dijle River and took a 5-kilometer stretch of car-free concrete road next to the water that took us to the small village of Muizen. One of the major benefits of Mechelen is that nature is close by, and after five minutes on the bike you can find yourself in a peaceful environment between fields next to the water. On crossing the bridge at Muizen, our route turned onto a perfect gravel road toward Werchter, where the annual music festival Rock Werchter takes place in June. These local strade bianche next to the river are smooth and perfectly rideable even on 25mm tires.
After little more than an hour, we were surprised by a heavy rain shower. We took shelter at a bus stop and 10 minutes later we were back in the saddle. A small detour took us to the Don Jon Ter Heyden, a 30-meter (100-foot) high medieval tower, before cruising into Leuven.
After 40 kilometers of riding, we reached the city of Leuven—which will be the epicenter of the UCI world road championships later this year. Before tackling one of the short, steep climbs on the worlds’ course, we stopped for a coffee at Noir, one of the best coffee bars in the region. Even though our bikes were wet and dirty from the gravel roads next to the water, we were allowed to take our bikes inside—better safe than sorry. We didn’t want to leave our bikes outside (unlocked) in a student town like Leuven. Kris, one of the owners, treated us to an espresso of the week, with rich aromas that he described as “a combination of dark chocolate and gummy bears.” Kris is also one of the driving forces behind Tāne Roasters Collective, so he’s experimenting quite a bit with different blends, roasting and brew methods.
Besides coffee, Kris is also passionate about cycling, and he organizes some gravel rides with the crew of 666GRAVEL in the region of Leuven and the Meerdaal forest. He’s not the typical bike-race kind of guy. He’s a gravel rider who doesn’t believe in clipless pedals; restores his old BMX bikes to have fun on the dirt tracks in the woods behind his house near the Flanders/Walloon border; and believes bike rides should take no longer than two hours.
After being caffeinated for a second time, we headed back toward Mechelen. We rode out of Leuven on the Wijnpersstraat, which is one of the climbs the riders will face a few times during the worlds in September. The Wijnpersstraat is just 350 meters long but has an average grade of 9 percent, with a steepest pitch of 14 percent. It might not be the hardest climb but it made our blood flow a little faster after our coffee stop. From the top of the climb, we descended to the Vaart, a canal that has a car-free bike path next to it and continues for 25 kilometers into the center of Mechelen.
On the last part of the ride we faced a strong headwind. Willem decided to set the pace and Gilles and I were trying hard not to be blown away and stay on his wheel. At an average power of 300 watts for half an hour, we were glad when the Sint Romboutstoren came back into sight, knowing we could soon remove our wet shoes and take a warm shower.
This wasn’t an epic ride, but it was a feel-good one. There’s nothing better on a Monday morning than cruising with your friends on smooth gravel, taking a coffee break and indulging the Flemish countryside. Because even a wet day on the bike is better than a warm day in the office.
PELOTON DE PARIS
Hoogstraat 49, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium; pelotondeparis.cc