Friday, September 24, 2010

Bike and Barge and Belgium Frietes (Fries)

With complete disregard for any athletic principle of the 'specificity of training', Dayton and I have spent the past week preparing for our three week walking trek across the reportedly hilly and rugged terrain in the south-west of France by biking the flat, even terrain of the cycle paths bordering the canals of the Netherlands. Not exactly the most appropriate training program but definitely a pleasant one.

More leisurely than physically challenging, our bike trip took us from Ghent in Belgium to Amsterdam. We were blessed with ergonomically comfortably upright sturdy seven-gear bikes and so we were never back-breakingly hunched over the curved handlebars of an 18 or 21 speed racing bike. Our daily schedule was as punctual as it was leisurely. Tea and coffee were laid out in the barge's lounge/dining room every morning promptly at 7am; the ship's bell rang out for breakfast precisely at 8am and we were packed up and on the bikes by 9am. All our gear (extra clothing, drinks and lunches) were stowed in a heavy duty pannier that clipped onto the back rack of our bike. Each days ride took us along the canals and the idyllic country roads, and through many wonderfully picturesque medieval towns and cities. The Netherlands is a very bike friendly country. Bike paths are everywhere. In fact, some roads have a substantial bike path on either side of a single lane road and it is the cars which meet head on and have to respectfully squeeze over and give way to one another.

It is great to have an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide to navigate the route and to let us know why the 'forward leading house' in Gouda is 'forward leaning', why the statue in square in front of the ancient Guild houses in Antwerp is holding a severed hand and where to find the best cheese shop or silver shop. Loek, our guide, sets a very easy pace, so easy in fact that there is no chance that we would ever intimidate the 75 and 85 year olds who routinely and confidently breeze past us, pedalling effortless as if they'd done this all their lives. Doh! And if it isn't a senior blasting past us, it's a young mother with one child set in front between her and her handlebars and one or two children set behind her or a cyclist texting or talking on their cell phone. Meanwhile we are gripping the handlebars with clenched gloved hands and heads protected by gigantic aerodynamic bike helmets. Despite the very reasonable pace of our daily bike ride being on a bike seat for five to six hours and cycling 50 kms a day still results, at the end of the day, in a very tender tush or, as I like to think of it, numb in the Netherlands.

The neighbourhoods and homes we've passed on our bike rides have appeared to be very affluent and I've particularly noted that everyone must have the same interior designer, subscribe to the same decorating magazine or have a passion for symmetry as almost every inside window ledge has a matching pair of something in the window; two identical vases, two candlesticks, two bowls or two urns. A very clean and neat sense of feng shui.

The ride into the busy streets of Amsterdam proved not as frightening as we expected. It was not the cars which were intimidating as much as the cyclists zipping in and out and across our paths. While we were trying to stay up with Loek and were still figuring out which green light was for bicycles, half of our group had missed the light. The sheer multitude of cyclists in Amsterdam is unfathomable; thousands and thousands and thousands of bikes.

And now, as we're mentally gearing down from this week's tour, we have to change gears, re-organize and re-pack and gear up for the next three weeks. Tomorrow, a flight to Leon in France, Sunday a train ride to Le Puy and then it's off our butts and on to our Camino.

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