3.21 miles, 89' Elev Gain, 6.9% max grade, 11.2 mph Avg (click for route map)
Technically the bike tour was not 100% over, we still had 3.2 miles left to cycle to drop the bikes off in London. Our Eurostar train back to London did not depart Brussels until 12:52, so we had the morning to wander and explore. Brussels is a bit of an odd city, to me it felt like it lacked an identity, the Grand Place and museums are about the only "attractions". It was still pleasant enough to wander around though, and check off the list.
|Jardin du Mont des Arts|
We had all arranged to meet back at the hotel at 10.30am, half of the group decided to walk to Midi station (30 min walk), the other half chose to take the overground train, it was a pleasant walk along wide boulevards that actually reminded me a little of Paris.
The Eurostar check in was quick and easy, bar passport control/customs confiscating CO2 canisters, we had time to hang out a little while sipping coffee. Boarding was on time, as was the train departure. Last time I traveled on Eurostar it was on older trains, the new trains are very nice and seemed smoother. The negative side to the journey was our group booking gave us all seating that faced backwards, this made a few passengers a bit queasy.
|St Pancras Eurostar terminal|
We arrived into London on time, collected the bikes from Eurodispatch at the rear of St. Pancras Station, and loaded up the gear again. My job now was to navigate all but 4 riders (2 were still in the Netherlands, and the other 2 were heading to London train stations) back to On Your Bike. The first shock was how much busier London is compared to Brussels, but thankfully bicycles still are taken care of a little (designated bike lanes, waiting boxes at traffic lights, and super highways). The trick to cycling in a busy city is to be a little more aggressive, but remain cautious. It is very handy I found to have double sided pedals with a flat side, all the stop/start can catch you out, as one person found when still clipped into their pedals, falling sideways.
After 3 miles we had successful made it back to London Bridge unscathed, it was actually a fun experience cycling across London, especially after 3 days of very subdued canal paths. We all checked our bikes back at the bike shop, then split into different directions, I myself headed to Marylebone and back to rural Oxfordshire.
Planning & Booking:
The planning for this tour started in January 2016 (T-15 months), initially it was just an idea in the making, and before doing anything we needed a sense of how many people were interested. We only publicized the idea to a select group of riders that all knew each other, just to make it easier.
It was not until June 2016 that I started to make inquiries on bike rental, and we made a provisional booking in late June, and final booking with payment in September (T-7 months). All of a sudden this European mini tour was real, I was excited and nervous at the same time.
Flights started being booked from August 2016 onward, and accommodation for the tour I started researching and booking in November 2016 (T-6 months). The last pieces of the tour booked were the Eurostar and ferry crossing, those typically always are available.
The hotel research took some time, mainly because we needed twin rooms (to keep costs lower), we needed availability of 6+ rooms, and we needed a hotel that could safely store 13 bikes. Would I change any of the choices having now stayed at them, I am not sure I would, we had very basic at the Youth Hostel, up to 3-4 star in Bruges, Gent and Brussels. The Youth Hostel was probably the least favourite accommodation, but it was in a perfect location to roll out from in the morning.
The first mini-tour I did in 2015 was from London to Paris, it was then that I discovered having a very reliable GPS is almost essential; back in 2015 I used my older Garmin etrex Vista, while reliable it did have its limitations, like only excepting 500 track points, and having no way to navigate a track. For this 2017 trip I used both a Garmin Touring with TCX files, and a Garmin Oregon with GPX as backup - both worked flawlessly, and both had Openstreetmap data.
I did also carry cycle specific maps and michelin maps as a backup, and did print cuesheets, although my conclusion is the cuesheets would of been of little use.
Unlike in 2015 when I used a hybrid bike and full panniers, for this trip we decided to go light(er) and use regular road bikes, and Apidura Bikepacking gear. I was thoroughly impressed with the Apidura pack, even with a entire day of drizzle, everything bar the tip that took the brunt of spray stayed dry - and this pack is not rated as 100% waterproof. You do have to pack light, but you can certainly pack enough cycle gear to cover most scenarios, plus a change of clothes for the evening, and wash kit etc. Extra pair of shoes is a little trickier to get in, unless they are flip-flops for example.
|Bike kitted out with Apidura bag|
Riding with a bunch of folks you know, or thought you knew is an interesting experience, and probably vastly different from riding in an organised cycle tour with strangers. Then again, perhaps there would be similarities, especially when it comes to the "non-riding" time, people tended to have some alone time, or create little sub-groups for socializing. We all got on very well, but it could of been a vastly different experience.
Cars definitely rule London still, but bicycles are slowly edging their way in. In Belgium, particularly Bruges and Gent, bicycles most definitely own the road, and they do not stop for anything - including busy road crossings along canal paths - c'est tres bonkers!.
Be sure to order "Tap" water at restaurants, otherwise you will be charged ALOT, also most restaurants in Belgium will only accept one check per table. This policy did cause some issues, and if I were to do another tour like this, a group kitty may help, and also to remind riders to carry cash. or at least a way to withdraw cash. Credit cards in Europe, and even England are not quite King yet, especially in small villages, cafes etc.
Riding in Belgium is VERY flat, but the canal riding is beautiful. Day 3 of the tour was possibly the easiest 60 mile ride I had done in my life, despite the weather, it was an incredibly fun day!.
As road cyclists you get used to riding at average speeds of 15-20 mph, bicycling touring is a whole different ball game. Even with bikepacking gear vs panniers, our fastest average was 13.9 mph.
Finally, would I ever do this again, ABSOLUTELY!.