Monday, July 09, 2007

Belgian beercycling 2000: Belgian beercycling 2000: The final beercycle ride, and postscripts.

Kevin Richards, Bob Reed, Buddy Sandbach, Kevin Lowber and Roger Baylor somehow survived the rampant hospitality at Huyghe, maker of Delirium Tremens, and on Friday set off on a final ride before the 2000 beercycling trip drew to a close.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Brugge and the DTs.

Belgian beercycling 2000: A pause for perspective before the tour concludes.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Poperinge and Cassel.

Belgian beercycling 2000: An evening at Cave a Biere, Danes included.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Brewing day with Jean-Louis at Brasserie A Vapeur.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.

Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.

Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.


It was the year 2000, the anticipated Euro currency conversion was around the corner but had yet to occur, and for a final day of rental beercycling on a sunny Friday in Brugge, we chose to spend a few spare guilders in the Netherlands.

At first glance, it may seem that the Netherlands is too far away form the Belgium to make for a comfortable day trip, and in fact much of it is, but a non-contiguous slice of Dutch territory lies on the south side of the waterway known as the Westerschelde, or the mouth of the Schelde River as it leaves Antwerp for the ocean. This bit of the Netherlands is easily accessible by bicycle paths aimed east and north from Brugge, passing through the popular tourist village of Damme, along idyllic tree lined canals and through manure-caked working farms reminiscent of Breughel paintings.

Certainly it was the easiest of the trip’s rides, both because we’d developed legs (and posteriors) strong enough to navigate for longer periods of time, and owing to the perfectly flat nature of the terrain in the northernmost extent of Flanders. Hills and grades are almost non-existent, and the route is strewn with signs and so impeccably marked that we briefly became lost, anyway, perhaps stemming from the biggest impediment to progress during the ride: Too much DT on the Huyghe brewery tour the previous day, and too many post-tour restoratives at the famed t’Brugs Beertje specialty beer café upon our Thursday evening return to Brugge.

At a particularly confusing crossroads, a tractor-borne native pointed straight, and within minutes we were standing outside a café in the Dutch town of Sluis, and I was extracting a handful of colorful leftover guilders from a previous visit to the Netherlands in 1998 in preparation for the best we could do under the circumstances, a round of Heinekens and nibbles for all.

Since the food included herring, my day was complete.

After lunch, the ride continued to the northwest. For all of us, it was a first opportunity to experience the fabled infrastructure available to cyclists in the Netherlands. Paved paths follow alongside all roads, and clearly delineated lanes guide cyclists through urban areas. Sometimes there are intersections for cyclists that shadow the automotive ones yards away, and complete with their own sets of stop lights.

Soon we were back in Belgium, skirting just south of Knokke-Heist on the coast, and coming to the second objective: The sea and a convenient beach at Zeebrugge for a few minutes of sand and sea spray before turning due south along an industrialized canal for the ride back into Brugge and a second consecutive evening at the Beertje.

There would be a third, at the end of the full Saturday remaining to us, but the shared consensus was that the first-time visitors in the group were intent on sightseeing and shopping in the lovely if tourist-laden city of Brugge, so the rental bikes were returned and the cycling segment of the 2000 beercycling fact-finding mission concluded.

Except for Kevin Lowber, who had met us in Poperinge, the group had put in roughly 125 miles altogether, with perhaps half of that coming in two rides (Cassel and Sluis) near the end. In the touring years to come, there would be times when several of us approached 100 miles in a day, fully laden, but given our neophyte status in 2000, the inconsistent architecture of the rental bikes and the demands of food and drink, there was much to celebrate.

The journey was winding down. On Sunday morning, Kevin Richards, Buddy Sandbach and I boarded a train in Brugge and set out for Leuven, an old university city on the eastern side of Brussels that lies near the national airport where Kevin and Buddy would be departing Belgium for America on Monday morning. We’d booked a room in Leuven with the prospect of arriving and hopefully having enough time to attend a performance by the rock band Pearl Jam at the Werchter pop/rock festival taking place nearby, but Eddie Vedder’s group had canceled owing to tragic occurrences at another fest in Roskilde, Denmark a few days previous. Instead of concert-going, it looked instead to be a relaxed, “free” last day.

The commute from Brugge to Leuven hardly would have been noteworthy had not Buddy’s eyes (and wallet) been somewhat bigger than his luggage. He spent the afternoon and evening in Brugge frantically scrounging rare Belgian ales from various sales outlets, and broke away resolutely early from the closing ceremonies at Beertje to return to the hotel and find some way of packing them all.

There we revelers found him well after midnight, with bottles, toiletries and underwear heaped down the side of corridor, agonizing over the proper way to insure the safety of his souvenirs while flying home. Luckily, he managed to succeed in this aim, removing only a handful of bottles for ballast-lightening consumption in the process. Less fortunately, there were too few hours for sleeping, and as he realized come morning, a stupendous weight gain in baggage. It should suffice to say that splurging on a cab ride to the train station was much appreciated.

Still, even spared the burden of a cross-town walk, Buddy had three separate pieces of quite heavy luggage, and upon exiting the train in Leuven, he was not happy to discover that the station there is of archaic design, requiring the ascent of numerous steps to reach a passageway crossing over the tracks, not beneath them as is the case most of the time. With the assistance of two passers-by who evidently took pity at Buddy’s plight (or were eager to move him out of the way so they’d reach their train on time), he made it up, down, and over, collapsing into a waiting taxi for the ride to the hotel. Checked in, and with his larder thus preserved, he fell into a deep, evening long sleep.

Unable to wake him, Kevin and I explored Leuven, visited its brewpub, noted the presence of the industrial Stella Artois beer factory, mounted a hill for a look at the chateau originally belonging to Leuven’s local aristocrats, and eventually settled into handy café chairs to recap the first beercycling trip with a few final rounds of Belgian ale.

Verily, the beercycling cat had been let out of the bag, the touring genie released from the bottle, and a suitable tone set for future adventures. We’d hatched our Belgian scheme while seated at Polly’s Freeze, a local ice cream institution back in Indiana, and now, after achieving the goal, we were able to offer benedictions over Chimay and beefsteak in Leuven.

It only seemed natural to echo Bob Reed’s tip-off toast:

“Here’s to us … may we never quarrel or fuss … but if by chance we should disagree … &*^%$ you, and here’s to me!

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