It wasn’t quite the epic that was initially planned, but it was an adventure to be sure. Our Trappist brewery ride got cut essentially in half from fierce weather, overall fatigue, and a series of mechanical failures.
I spent the better half of my first Saturday morning with a good case of jitters. I hadn’t done any real distance riding for the better part of a year and was second guessing my fitness level. Mandi drove us all out to Rochefort from Brussels that morning so we could get a proper start from the town. The abbey is closed to the public, but pretty much everywhere that sells beer in town has it for a steal. We picked up a full case of it “for the road” at a little over 1 euro a bottle (it retails for like $10 in the states).
After a decent breakfast, we headed out. The rain started within 15 minutes. Within 30, it was dumping as hard as anything I’ve ever had to ride through. And the winds… oh, the winds. Welcome to Belgium.
The first day had way more climbing than any of us were expecting. We weren’t exactly in the alps, but each climb was stiff enough to suck the energy out of my wet legs. On every one, I was handily dropped. As soon as the pavement turned into gravel though, I was back at home.
Ken was smart enough to buy a GPS before the trip. I’ve talked a lot of smack about GPS use on rando rides, but we would have been hopelessly lost without it. Half of the streets didn’t have any proper signs, some in the middle of the woods and down dirt roads that looked like they might have been driveways. Google’s bicycling directions has a sick sense of humor sometimes.
It’s hard to explain just how gorgeous the route was though. Our entire ride from Rochefort to Orval was pretty much stunning. I tried to get out of my tunnel vision once in a while to enjoy it.
We had gotten a fairly late start, so daylight was fading fast towards the end of our day. The other guys smelled the finish and picked up the pace. I was digging hard to keep on their wheel, but I eventually got dropped. It was raining steadily and getting darker and darker. It was a miserable final couple of kilometers. I was never so happy to see a finish. I couldn’t get out of my (extremely) wet clothes fast enough.
Orval has never tasted so good. Ever.
The prospect of sleeping in the van that night terrified all of us. The rain wasn’t letting up and the inside of it smelled like a locker room. No rooms in any adjacent towns were available and we were looking to be out of luck. Mandi (seriously an amazing manager/driver all trip) managed to find a B & B just across the border in France that night. It was in a tiny town not even on our Michelin map. It ended up being pretty horrible overall, but worlds better than the alternative.
I nearly wept when we woke up the next morning to another late start, 2 more flat tires, and even more rain. This ride was determined to break us early and often. We drove a bit to get back on route. As soon as we got back on the bikes, the rain and wind hit even harder. There was nothing we could do but just laugh about it. It was a moment that went from bad to worse to hilarious. Everything settled down after about an hour.
Day 2 consisted of a roughly 60 mile ride from Orval to Chimay. We guessed it might take us 5 hours or so, but the weather and even more mechanicals gave us an extra hour on that. Many of the “bike paths” along the way were flooded out dirt roads. We couldn’t really keep a consistent pace. Still, all of the farmland was gorgeous and even the low points were pretty awesome. I made sure to bring a couple of Rochefort bottles in the handlebar bag this time around.
The last few turns on the cue sheet pushed us into some logging roads. It got more and more rural as we rode along though. At one point we had to pass a gate that held back car traffic. Pretty soon we were at a deadend with a wall of woods in front of us. We could clearly see that we were right near the Abbey on Ken’s GPS, but had nowhere to go. We tried other paths, but they all lead to even worse conditions like tennis ball sized rock paths. This meant a 10km backtrack to the main roads in order to ride to the finish. It was another excited finish celebration. 60 miles never felt so long.
Mandi was there and had booked us all a room (the last available) above the tasting room. It had 2 twin beds inside of it. The 5 of us were about to get “fresh”.
Chimay was a serious highlight of the trip for me though. There was a giant maze out back made of beer crates and a whole playground set. We had a little too much to drink and eat and then ran around like little kids before crashing hard for the night.
Tommy, one of the riders on hand, had been having reoccurring knocking on his wheel all day. It turned out that there was a loose lock-ring that required pretty much immediate fixing with a tool that none of us would have ever though to bring on the trip. We decided to drive out to a small (non-Trappist) brewery called De Dolle on day 3 and try to find a bike shop on the way. On paper, it was supposed to be our longest day and all of us were fairly relieved to not have to get back out in our still soggy clothing. Sleeping in never felt quite so good.
We took a tour of De Dolle that was lead by the brewer’s elderly mother. She was a firecracker and full of strong opinions on the entire brewing process and the Trappists in general. It was fun to hear the opposing opinions of every particular brewer. They all seem to be sure that they are doing everything “right”. De Dolle was certainly a highlight though. We spent a long time on site, playing ping pong on their table and generally relaxing all around.
We holed up in Ghent for the night, an especially lovely city, grabbing a ridiculous fondue dinner and settling in.
Our second day in Ghent was spent trying to find a bike shop in town. Little did we know, almost nothing in Belgium is open on Sunday. There are tourist places here and there, but the local businesses are basically all shut down. After a ridiculous amount of walking through some shady areas, we finally found one on the outskirts of town. The wheel was fixed in literally 10 seconds. The guy already had the tool in a vise when we got into the shop for some reason.
Our day was mostly “lost”, so we opted to make the most of it in Ghent and drove out to Westvleteren the following day. The 4 of us guys struck out solo that evening for what felt (the next morning) like a whole lot of drinking at a new favorite bar called t’ Dreupelkot. The bartender was almost a characterture. He was short and round with thick glasses and shakey hands from years of alcohol abuse. A single pour was never missed on his watch though. You could tell that he was completely at home in the haze of the 10 euro Cuban cigars he was selling.
The next morning, we drove out with Mandi to Westvleteren. They are easily the hardest of the Trappist beers to get stateside. Even the locals are restricted to a case per car (license plates checked) every 6 months. For whatever reason, they have the honor of a perfect beer rating with Beer Advocate. After a solid week of drinking phenomenal beer all around, I can easily say that it’s not really worth the hype. I certainly wouldn’t pay any premium prices for it at this point. I really enjoyed an aged version on my last trip to Antwerp, but the fresh stuff doesn’t hold up at all. Still, it was a lovely tasting room and a fun morning all around. We settled back up in Ghent for a third and final night. It is probably my favorite city of the entire trip.
We hit the road again on bike to ride from Ghent to Antwerp. The plan was to get to a world famous bar called Kulminator and then ride an extra 20km to Westmalle.
This was our only hassle free day of riding. We had no headwinds or rain to really speak of and most of the path was on roads or paved bike path. It was nice to finally keep a decent pace with the guys. That said, one of my pedals felt like it was going to fall off all day. My bottom bracket had exploded at some point through all of the mud, rain, and bumpy pave/gravel. It felt pretty serious, but I was convinced that I could nurse it through the day at least. I wasn’t ready to break down in the middle of the Belgian countryside with no cell phone reception. The worst part was that I was just starting to feel like I was getting back into riding shape. Still, it was a lovely day and nothing could get me down.
Antwerp was a bit harder to access than we thought it would be. We hit a massive river and seemingly no way to get across to the main city. I tracked a woman down who pointed out the elevator that we needed to access. It led to a major foot/bicycle path underneath the water. It was a stunning highlight of the ride.
We rolled into down around 2, but Kulminator didn’t open until 4pm. An executive decision was made to head out to Westmalle first. A bit of lost was gotten, but we eventually cobbled the route together properly. There was a line of cars for the abbey, so we just got into the tasting room right away. It was cold and sterile. The beer was decent, but this particular destination was probably my least favorite of the trip. Regardless, Kulminator was our final destination and well worth the wait. I remembered loving it on my last visit and nothing has changed.
We stayed the night in Antwerp at a hotel with a ridiculous view of the central train station. Antwerp always has a place in my heart. I had plans to get a hold of Chris’ friend Paul that put us up last time we were in town, but things got away from me almost the entire trip. Not having easy access to a phone and wifi really cut off my contact with the outside world over the two weeks.
Up next were the final two (6 and 7) of the Trappist breweries. We went up north, just over the Netherlands border La Trappe. Not only is the beer outstanding, but the tasting room is gorgeous and the tour is top notch. We were lead along by an ex-bar owner talking about what he is obviously still very passionate about. The whole place had a ton of charm and was up near the top of the list of favorite locations. We spent more time than we thought we might there, but every moment was worth it.
By the time we left, our final destination Achel was already shut down for the day. We made up for it by getting into one of the local bars to drink some instead. It wasn’t exactly a rousing finish, but there were no regrets. When all was said and done, it was a shorter ride than I anticipated, but still filled with success and memories that I won’t soon forget.
Like Mandi told me, there is a difference between travel and a vacation. This trip was firmly in the travel column. Huge thanks to everyone for taking me under their wing on this trip. It was impulsive and a bit crazy, but it was everything that I needed.
Note: this is strictly a ride report. I’m hoping to post again soon and touch on the rest of the trip.