All good rides end with beer. Even better rides end with beer and frites. The very best rides end with Belgian beer, frites and mayo. I carried my spoils to a spare table, wobbling across the shiny floor in sodden SPDs and with stiff legs. In the warmth of the event centre, the mud and grit that was plastered to my face had already started to dry; I could feel my face-pack cracking as I shovelled in hot, greasy carbs as quickly as possible. Chips consumed, I lifted my head from the intense concentration that I had been applying to eating and surveyed the scene around me. Waterproof jackets hung from the backs of plastic chairs, dripping silty brown water into pools around the legs. Hollow, red eyes blinked from behind their own muddy camouflage. For the umpteenth time that day, bright sun tore through heavy storm clouds. Looking through the window, I could see the rolling Belgian countryside highlighted in gold.
It was a stark contrast to less than 12 hours earlier. Driving to the start in the dark, my riding mate, Chris (of Lyon Outdoors the UK, distributors of Bombtrack Cycles, who had kindly invited me) and I had a quick stock-take. It was 6am, still pitch black, and rain pounded off the windscreen as we tried to navigate unfamiliar roads. We agreed that stoke levels were no more than moderate. It was one of those days that had you not already committed to a ride – with all the associated peer pressure that brings – you’d peer into the dark, maybe check the forecast and pop the kettle back on. I’d barely feel guilty. As it was, we pulled into a sodden field and tried to fettle bikes in the shelter of the back of the van.
I was riding a Bombtrack Hook EXT. I saw it for the first time the previous evening, and was yet to swing a leg over. Pre-ride prep involved adding pedals, dropping the stem a smidge and raising the seatpost. What could go wrong? It was only a 170km ride on unfamiliar terrain, coming immediately after a leisurely week’s holiday of too much French wine and cheese. Hopping on the bike, I nearly sent myself over the bars after 30 seconds. Euro brakes, innit? The rest of the day was spent muttering “left for front” to myself.
Shall we back up a little before the start? Why was I in the middle of nowhere in Belgium, about to start the longest ride I’d done for a few months? 2017 marked the first year of the Dirty Boar. Pinning things down a little more, we were to ride in the Haute Fagnes region, part of the province of Liege. The route itself wandered across into neighbouring Germany, although there was no way to tell. It also passed the highest point in Belgium, at 694m. Those crazy Belgians even built a stone staircase, 6m high to reach the magic 700m mark. The route was to take gravel roads through the abundant forests, but also small farm lanes over bergs and through small villages. Four hundred people had entered and now gathered in the dingy pre-dusk at 7am. Legs shuffled as we tried to maintain a bit of warmth in the cold and unrelenting rain. I was keen to get moving, yet apprehensive at the thought of enduring hours of this. Had I worn enough? Would my legs mind that I was writing cheques that would stretch the bank account to its absolute limit?
As always, these concerns could get tucked away into a quieter corner of my mind once we set off. The sky was slowly but surely growing lighter. Charcoal clouds still clung to tree tops, but there was enough light to see the track by as we began descending fireroad, gathering speed, shivering. Most tried to avoid the first few puddles, until we reached one that tested the definition of puddle. Pond? Lake? Who says Belgium is landlocked? It was borderline sea. After that soaking, the straight line was simply more efficient. Shoes would be filled with cold, gritty water; legs and bums sprayed.
Chris and I settled into a steady pace, chatting, allowing many others to pass. The rolling terrain absorbed us as we passed through thick forest, climbing and descending, occasionally breaking free on to farm edges and moors of high grasses. At some point, it stopped raining. Watery sun warmed our backs. It was still early September and we relished the heat that the very late summer sun brought. A multitude of languages and accents drifted across from the groups we passed and were passed by; Brits, Americans, Belgians and many other Europeans were represented. Diversity of rider was only matched by diversity of bicycle. From bodged road bikes through to the seemingly ubiquitous full-suspension fat bike, all niches were covered. Handmade steel, carbon fibre. Singlespeed, 1x, triple. Flat bars, drop bars, flared bars, Jones bars. Minimalist and stripped back, and carrying enough for several nights away from home.
Thirty kilometres in, and my stomach growled. Thanks to a late arrival the night before and a mental blip, we’d forgotten to buy breakfast supplies. A couple of cookies each were stuffed down, but this was not the fuel for a Big Day Out. Luckily we weren’t far away from the first feed station. Waffles and bananas and cereal bars were stuffed down my neck, more tucked into my jersey pockets. Conversation was put on hold for a few minutes. At some point around here, we met Konrad. He was riding at our pace, and his impeccable English was significantly better then our German. A Dusseldorf native, he runs a bike shop there and was a relatively recent newcomer to ‘cross and gravel riding, coming from a road background. Konrad would be come our third team member. New friends always come easy when bikes are involved, doubly so if there is a headwind.
On the occasional flat sections and on exposed tarmac we worked together as a group, sheltering in wheels, hiding from a buffeting, sapping (if not wildly strong) wind. Our scenery was constantly changing, as was the weather. More storms blew across at exactly the point I considered removing my waterproof. Instead, I zipped it back up to my Adam’s apple. By 100km, the terrain had begun to take its toll on our group. Climbs were rarely longer than 5-10 minutes, and many were much shorter. They ramped up quickly though, sapping momentum and gradually draining power from the legs. Feed station two and more food was shovelled in. Fuel to the fire, triangles of ham and cheese sandwiches were eaten two-by-two.
Psychologically, we were on the home straight. Physiologically, legs felt rejuvenated, and we moved with a little more pace, chased by another rain shower, sheets of which pursued us. Our flight was futile, and it wasn’t long before I could feel rain drops pounding off my back and helmet. We climbed, climbed some more, leaving dark, verdant forests behind, our track took us on to exposed hillside, still gradually gaining height. Views stretched around us – I had completely lost any sense of direction or where we had come from. Twists and turns in the forests meant I was simply looking for the next arrow to follow, with little in the way of landmarks to reference. It was a refreshing change to look across a landscape with newcomer’s eyes. It is maybe human instinct to look for what is familiar. Much of the forest felt familiar; the tall conifers and access roads could have been in Kielder, Wales or Dalby Forest. The high moorland reminded me of the Dales, or even Hebridean peat bogs.
The long climb gifted us a long descent, never steep, eking out every metre gained. High speed, tucked low on the drops and bunny-hopping waterbeds, we flew, watching the kilometres tick by rapidly. As fun as this was, a simple thought niggled at the back of my mind: we started our route with a descent. It may have been dark, but it felt as though we were at the highest point in the surrounding area. Surely this could only mean a climb to finish? I pushed the thought away and concentrated on enjoying freewheeling while I could. We dropped through a sodden gorge, with river in spate. Fords were mostly impassible, so we dismounted and tottered across slippery wooden footbridges. The rain returned, more torrential than ever, and my stomach rumbled once more. I still had a pre-packaged waffle sitting inside my jersey pocket. It felt like too much effort to dig behind my back and retrieve it. I simply wanted to be home and out of the rain. We began to climb. Steeply. Swinging the chain into a welcome 42t, I winched my way up, battling for grip, legs stiff but still happy to keep turning towards those frites.
Cresting the climb, the rain eased as wheels touched tarmac. A few pedal strokes later and we rolled under a small finish flag. It was a suitably low-key ending, and the weather encouraged us to keep moving, following our noses towards the promise of warmth and food. Crud-encrusted bikes were unceremoniously dumped outside and legs unfamiliar with walking creaked inside.
Belgian Beer 101: brews are rarely weak. Apparently the specially selected Dirty Boar offering had an ABV hovering around the 8% mark. A second was thrust into my hand before I’d finished the first. More weary bodies entered and were revived; the noise level in the hall grew. Laughter and clinking bottles could be heard above the chatter about mechanicals and mishaps, wrong turns and mates’ races. A third bottle of beer and some bar snacks appeared then disappeared. It looked like a long night ahead when we ducked out with floaty heads and limbs like a new-born lamb. I climbed into the shower with all my riding kit on, letting the scolding hot water strip away the worst of the ingrained mud. Watching half of Belgium’s forest tracks drain down the plug hole I stretched, embracing the feeling of comfort and warmth.
I would like to apologise to the B+B owner for the state of the once-white bathroom suite. I tried my best to clean up the mess, honest. I would also like to apologise to Belgium. I can’t believe this was the first time I have visited this beautiful little country. I was struck by the contrasts in landscape across such a small area, and will return to visit some of the more iconic locations. I will, of course, also return to the Dirty Boar. The weather surely can’t be as bad next year?
Full Disclosure: Bombtrack and Lyon Outdoor covered the cost of Tom’s trip and lent him a Hook EXT gravel bike for the event. The bike was perfect for this kind of ride – so much so, we will be getting in a carbon version to fully test later this year.