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Bike Touring Belgium & France: Our Planning Resources

July 24th, 2012 12 comments


We’ve just returned from a 2-week bicycle tour though southern Belgium and northern France. Here are some of the resources we used to plan the trip, plus a few thoughts on how it worked out.

Trip Overview: The goal was to cycle 550km from the Netherlands to a small town in northern France, where friends had rented a house for a few days. We hoped to camp most of the way. In terms of sights, we wanted to see:

Leaving the highest beer cafe in the Netherlands

The Route: This was our first bike tour with 5-month-old Luke. Our main priority was to find smooth, quiet roads. We used the following sources:

Putting all of this together, we came up with the route that you see below. It includes a train journey back home. You’re welcome to download the GPS track but beware: it includes all our wrong turns and detours! There’s also this relatively clean pre-trip plan.

How did our trip work out?

Highlights: We definitely achieved our goal of riding only on quiet roads and bike paths. We were often on dedicated bike paths and the roads we did use had very little car traffic. We felt very safe with Luke in tow. We also loved the area around Compiègne in northern France: it’s full of beautiful chateaus, forests and historic sights.

Lowlights: In addition to poor weather (just a matter of bad luck), here’s what we didn’t like so much…

  • Bike paths in Belgium weren’t always up to scratch. Sometimes major paths such as the RAVeL network were little more than a muddy track through the forest, and a poorly maintained one at that. The picture below illustrates our point. On one day, we spent more time walking than cycling. It wasn’t always so bad. Many sections were excellent but the inconsistent quality was frustrating.

Belgium's 'national' Bike Route
Walking and lifting our way along a bike path in Belgium. Photo by Alicia.

  • There’s little to see in southern Belgium. Once we left the Ardennes, we found very little to see other than the countryside. It was surprisingly hard to find supermarkets and other services without detouring to major towns. The whole area felt a little isolated and run down. Finding a nice cafe to have a coffee and a slice of cake seemed like mission impossible. This was very different from the cycling we’ve done in northern Belgium.
  • Coming back by train was a pain. It’s perhaps stating the obvious but getting a fully-loaded touring bike on a train in Europe is often difficult. Bike wagons may or may not exist, often involve lifting your bike up a steep set of stairs and can be crowded in the summer. We managed but only thanks to the help of many other cyclists along the way, and a good sense of humour. We were also lucky that the staff at two stations led us across the tracks to change platforms, rather than making us lug our bikes and gear up and down flights of stairs. We are seriously considering folding bikes (such as the Dahon Speed TR) for future tours of Europe. A reader also suggested that the Bicycle Bus (Fietsbus) would be a good option for journeys to and from the Netherlands.

Conclusion: Not one of our most memorable bike tours, though we are happy to have done it and we particularly enjoyed cycling in France. If we cycle to Paris again, we’ll probably plan a route along the North Sea and then south through France – and we’d get folding bikes for an easy train journey home.

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10 Responses to “Bike Touring Belgium & France: Our Planning Resources”

  1. The Soare family says:

    We are also a few hours ago, back from our trip to Paris. We subscribe your impressions. In the future we are planning to go to France and we’ll probably plan a route along the North Sea and then south through France. We like the camping sites at most there.

  2. Rich says:

    Great report. I did Northern France/Belgium/Netherlands recently (after Spain/France/England) and found some of the same complaints. Trains can indeed be a real pain to board/de-board, even in the low season. I recommend choosing the low season for a several reasons. France can also have some unpredictable “paths”. Either a push for cyclist-recorded path locations & conditions (a true GPS project) or the government completing this. Registered bike paths should be represented as reasonable or not. I also need my cafes. Otherwise it’s a day of hot cycling and camping while sticky. I’d join the army if I needed that.

  3. Dyak says:

    This is awesome. I mean such trip with little baby. We tried biketouring with our 1.5 yo daughter, but it’s not so easy in our area to travel with kid.

    • friedel says:

      I think touring with a 5-month-old might be easier than a toddler! Luke is not yet crawling, so he’s very happy to sit in the trailer and be relatively stationary at the campsite. Things will really get interesting when we have to stop at every playground on our route.

  4. The Soare family says:

    We do this kind of holidays for almost 4 years. The children are now 9, 7, 6 and 2 years old. To stop on a playground is not a punishment :). But this is true. The day km are 50-60. But is very nice and you have a lot of time to spend with your child.

    • friedel says:

      Stopping at a playground sounds like fun to us, actually! I just wonder if we will also manage to cycle. Seems like you manage it, so I guess we will too. On this trip we averaged something like 40km/day.

  5. Mohan Mahesan says:

    I am glad to come across your article. I would love to do this as well. My kids are 14 & 17.

    You are talking about ” route along the North Sea and then south through France” do you have a route planned? If so I would love to see it.

    • friedel says:

      No – we haven’t planned a route. There are many existing bike paths to choose from though; for example the LF1 / North Sea route. Just Google it.

  6. Hi Guys,

    So great reading about your latest adventures. I agree with your comments about getting on trains with fully loaded touring bikes. We had some problems ourselves though Germany was a dream in this regard.

    If you’re headed into France again, consider Normandy/Brittany. You may already have toured there but it was one our favourite destinations of our trip last year. Beautiful towns, half timbered cottages, great quiet roads and paths and of course the most amazing patisseries at each stop. We would return in a heartbeat.

    You all look so well! All the best

    Paula
    x

  7. Great blog guys, and it looks like fun. What a pity that the good old fietsroute.org does not work for southern Belgium (wallonia).

    Bilbo

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