After our miserable day biking to Apeldoorn we decided to employ train travel to help us reach our next destination – Lander’s home in Aalst. Without too much hassle we were able to find the right train that would take us from Apeldoorn to Rotterdam where we would switch onto the train to Roosendaal. The train travel was pretty easy. We just purchased an extra ticket for our bikes on the machines at the station and loaded the bikes into a carriage with a bike symbol on it. We had to take all the bags off to jam the bikes into place but with two people the tetris is a lot easier than it would be alone I imagine. The second train was a little more difficult because we had to hold the bikes across the door and move them every time people wanted on or off. We were in the bike carriage again but for some reason a person was sitting in the seats that fold up to give the bikes room and wouldn’t move for us. We aren’t sure if we were getting some kind of train etiquette wrong, or if they were just being obtuse.
It was raining and cold when we arrived in Roosendaal but we rugged up for a short ride into Antwerpen. As soon as we crossed the border into Belgium after about 10km we lost our nice separated bike path and were riding on a narrow road without a shoulder. Had it been warmer and less rainy we would have used the gps to plot a back route, but we were just keen to get there. Unfortunately we misjudged our speed and it started to get dark with another 15km to go. Not only that but we were committing one of the biggest warmshowers sins and arriving much later than the time we’d agreed with our hosts. Riding through the outskirts of Antwerp in the dark seemed creepy – we were left wondering if Belgium has a larger than usual population of hoodie-wearing, beer-toting, loud-mouthed men. Eventually we pulled up at the haven that was Quinten and Saane’s house and were ushered inside, shown a warm bathroom with a hot shower that made our feet throb as they defrosted and a cozy bedroom.
We were Quinten and Saane’s first ever warm showers guests and they were fantastic. They cooked us dinner and we talked for hours about cycle touring, teaching, being grown ups and Monty Python. It was one of those great occasions where we felt like we were at a good friends house, not with complete strangers. I love warmshowers for this reason, everyone we hosted in New Zealand were fantastic and felt like friends, and the few places we’ve stayed at on this trip were the same.
We slept soundly and didn’t even hear them head to work in the morning. We had some more cycle path for our journey to Aalst, and Lander had pointed out a route that mostly followed an old rail track which made riding a lot more pleasant. It is easier to forget the cold when we can ride side by side and distract each other. The highlight of the day was meeting a woman on the path while we were stopped for a break. She did not speak much English but we could tell her we were going to Aalst and that we’d been biking a long distance. For some reason she asked if we were biking to Compostella, and we said no, Aalst, but she was pretty insistent so we just said yes, thinking perhaps that’s another name for Aalst (Belgium towns have a Flemish and French name). She was really amazed and told us we were awesome as we rode away. Talking to Lander later we discovered the path is part of a trail to Compostella, in Spain, so we’d just told the lady we were planning on riding to Spain. Oops.
Lander was super generous and hosted us in his tiny studio loft room in Aalst, even giving up his bed to sleep on a mattress on the floor. He showed us around his city of Aalst and took us on a trip to Ghent to show us around the old buildings and introduce us to the local beer there. Ghent is a student city and while we were eating our Belgian fries in the square we watched dozens of drunk students in various states of dress chanting up and down the street. Very reminiscent of Dunedin.
The highlight of our stay with Lander was the trip to the 6 days of Ghent. This event has been run since 1922 on the 167m velodrome (much shorter than an olympic standard one, and with steeper banking). At UCI track events the center of the track is reserved for riders, coaches and team managers. At the 6-days the riders get relegated to tiny cupboards at the track side and the center is transformed into a standing bar/party zone. There is loud music, flashing lights and plenty of crowd interaction. The races are different too with lots of madison slinging and James’ favourite the derny racing where riders each follow a motorised derny to race. There was a huge difference from the track world cup the week beforehand.