Belgium’s Ardennes Arbalete with Friends
Shirking short-haul planes for the summer, Cass Gilbert spends the time exploring his own backyard. Or at least, places that lie just a train or ferry ride away. Here are his thoughts on one of our favourite new routes from last year, Belgium’s Ardennes Arbalete, enjoyed with a group of global bikepacking friends…
Perhaps you’re like me. In my eagerness to explore the world and immerse myself in its distant and exotic wonders, I’ve sometimes overlooked parts of my own backyard. Or at least, those parts that lie just a few hours train ride away.
So, given the environmental cataclysm that we’re fast approaching, I set myself the target of completely cutting out my own plane journeys this summer. Despite the added expense and extra time, I started by taking a ferry to ride in the Basque Country, where I tackled the Vuelta de Vasco as a family holiday. Back home in the UK, I grappled with the often brow-furrowing rules regarding bikes on trains and got to know the Peak District, the Lake District, and much of what lies in between – more routes to come soon. And I took the train and ferry to explore my little island’s nearly neighbours: Holland, Germany, and especially Belgium – as seen below.
Perhaps my ignorance is understandable. I’ve not grown up following the Belgium Classics or counting down the days to the spring cyclocross season, so I’ve never really considered this petite little country – eight times smaller than the UK – as a cycling destination. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even heard of the Belgian Ardennes, tucked as it is on the German border in a south-eastern nook of the country. At least, not before the Ardennes Arbalete multi-day route was posted to this site. Turns out it was my loss!
As I discovered, the Ardennes is, in fact, a surprisingly magical swathe of deep forest, rolling countryside, patches of woodlands, perfectly manicured villages, and poignant, World War 2 reminders – be it small memorials tucked into hillsides, or mothballed US tanks proudly parked outside churches and even village high streets. The conditions under tyre are also just as varied; one moment, we were riding down a wide and sedate forest road, then grappling with a grassy, lumpy two-track tracing the edges of a field, before launching down a rocky chute paralleling a fast-flowing river, or later figuring out a way through some unexpectedly rooty and demanding singletrack. The inclines are steep and often unexpected, be it on singletrack or sunken cart trails – a far cry from the cobbled flatlands of the Flemish north. I can’t imagine a better way of getting a feel for it than this 365km loop, especially in the company of friends. Group trips seem to suit forest camping so very well.
As for ground covered, we opted for an easy pace, splitting the ride into six 60km days; plenty of time to picnic en route and surreptitiously seek out each night’s accommodation in the woods, protected from heavy dew and framed by the cloisters of oak, beech, willow, and birch trees. For sure, more mile hungry riders could comfortably cover the route in four days, if you’re riding in summer. But given our relaxed group dynamic – bouncing from coffee shop to picnic spot to village lawn to forest trail – we didn’t see any need to rush. Besides, for those who enjoy a Belgian beer or two, there are a couple of famous breweries en route, which had the US contingent of our bikepacking posse especially excited. In fact, UNESCO thinks Belgium beer is so good that in 2016 it inscribed Belgian beer culture onto one of their somewhat abstract sounding heritage lists, drawn up to represent the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.
What a multinational group we were – US, UK, and the Netherlands were represented, our paths coinciding via the sometimes complementary channels of serendipity and social media. Dutchman Bas had met Chris and Amanda on an extended cycle touring trip through Southeast Asia. I’d met this Pennsylvanian couple whilst they were exploring the UK. And we’d all crossed paths with Andy, via Instagram at least, who was on his second lap of Europe, penning the European Divide Trail. Not surprisingly, Andy’s the undisputed go-to resource for anyone with an interest in European doubletrack. As for me, I was en route back to the UK after attending Bombtrack’s yearly Groundwork event. After explaining my plane-free predicament, I’d even snuck off with one of the 2020 models, the Hook EXT – review to follow. Speaking of bikes and setups, a 650B setup with 2″ tyres is perhaps the perfect setup for the route, given the area’s wide gamut of conditions, especially when it veers towards the trail spectrum of unkept and chunky singletrack. I’d add that whilst I wouldn’t have wanted to go any skinnier in the tyre department, I’d have happily have run a lower gear range; perhaps a 34T mated to an 11-42T cassette, rather than the 38T that I was running.
But because a bike is a bike is a bike, we all enjoyed the pros and cons of our various steeds, be it Bas’s custom Surly Ogre, outfitted with bags he made himself, or Andy’s Bombtrack Beyond Plus 2 that he runs with Jones H-bars, or Chris and Amanda’s purple Salsa Fargos, the latter of which was recently featured in a Rider and Rig.
Not only did I enjoy riding this route immensely – especially in the company of friends – but it reminded me of the value in cutting down my own dependency on quick-fix plane trips and discovering places close to home. Especially, to some extent, those places that I’d never normally consider to be worth my time. It’s always good to be surprised; I realised that if a route appears on this site, someone who knows the area thinks it’s well worth riding. In the case of the Ardennes Arbalete, I’d certainly concur.
We’re planning a post on Responsible Bikpacking soon, covering all kinds of topics, from ideas on alternative transportation, thoughts on investing in gear and how best to maintain it, and flying responsibly. In the meantime, Europeans can check out The Man in Seat 61 for ideas on how to negotiate the many challenges of travelling on trains and ferries by bike, because for the most part, it can certainly be done.