Spring Classics in Belgium
September 29, 2011 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Belgians or Cyclists or Belgian Cyclists: Help me plan a spring trip to Belgium.

So, the UCI has just announced the 2012 calendar and I'm planning a trip to Belgium this April. I'd like to attend one of the Spring Classics, as well as visit several different cities (Antwerp, Bruges, Liège, maybe Ghent), and do more standard touristy things (art museums, beer, etc.). I'm looking to spend a week or so, but I want to take a pretty casual pace. Is this reasonable? Which Classic should I attend (right now I'm debating between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège)? Which is the easiest to watch? What is the best time in April to go? Early or late in the month (I understand that April was unseasonably warm last year)? How difficult is it to book during this period? What other suggestions would you make?
posted by TheWhiteSkull to Travel & Transportation around Belgium (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can address a few of your questions.

Regarding the cities you name: Bruges is lovely (though thronged with tourists); Antwerp is interesting; Liège is... Well, it's got an attractive new glass-and-steel station building, and some striking war monuments. A friend and I visited a couple of years ago, and when we told our Dutch colleagues we'd been, they looked aghast and asked "Did you get mugged?". I would happily go back to Bruges or Antwerp, and I definitely want to visit Ghent, but I see absolutely no need to return to Liège. (Sorry, any Liégeoises who happen to be reading this.)

I don't think you'd feel rushed if you visited Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent in the course of a week. They're not far apart by train. Spending just a couple of days in each might leave you wanting more; it's up to you to decide whether that's a bad thing.

As for the weather: I'm a little further north, but the forecasts tend to be similar. Early April is generally still quite chilly - for me, it's usually still winter coat weather, though past hat and glove season. So I'd go for late in the month, when the flowers are out and the weather's warming up. Also, bring a raincoat. April this year was indeed gloriously, unseasonably nice in the Low Countries; usually, "April showers" is a phrase with resonance.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:35 PM on September 29, 2011

I just wanted to come in and cheer on Ghent. I love Flanders ("Flemish Belgium") and I feel like Ghent is a very nice compromise between Brugge (loooottss of tourists, but it deserves them because it is totally cute and unique) and Antwerp (feels very new and much bigger).

One thing that may be interesting to keep in mind with Brugge, is that there is a lot more to it than the city center. The first time I went I thought it was a very small town. Later, visiting with a Flemish friend, I learned it is actually a quite large city and is about the equal of a county seat!

If you decide to stay longer, or visit a more geographically concentrated area, consider something near the coast (Oostende, Dunkierke (where they pick seafood on horse-back! see the recent NYT article)) or if you are into history a place like Ieper (totally destroyed in war and rebuilt based on photographs!).

ManyLeggedCreature gave a good summary of the weather - it'll probably be chilly and grey, so great for riding unless it is raining. And it probably will off and on.

Other suggestions? EAT THE SPECULOOS. Speculoos cookies, speculoos spread (crunchy and plain), speculoos genever, speculoos ice cream, speculoos in dark chocolate speculoos in milk chocolate. Also try the chokotoff spread. Annnd there are some good cheeses. Get a waffle, but only natuur (nothing on it). Only tourists buy waffles with piles of bananas and whipped cream. And admit it, you want to go to the frituur at least once.

I don't even know what a Classic is but I would choose the Vlaanderen one just because it is in Flanders. The other part, well, dat is hem allemaal gelijk. Actually I recommend these cities discussed above over Brussels, even...
posted by whatzit at 3:43 PM on September 29, 2011

I used to work for a bike tour company that has since developed a couple tours in Belgium. You could get destination ideas from their Belgian tour itineraries - they don't have any actual tours running during that time. (In addition to the all-inclusive tour thing, they sometimes arrange bike rental, luggage transfer, route planning, etc., for self-supported bike tourists in Italy/France; if paying for such things interests you, it might not hurt to ask if they have contacts/ideas for similar services in Belgium.)
posted by richyoung at 4:40 PM on September 29, 2011

The Ronde might be awesome to watch in 2012, because they decided to make the course run the Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont 3 times each. So if you got there early you could park yourself on a hellingen and watch the race pass you by not just once. Plus, it's fuckin' Flemish SuperBowlNewYearsHalloweenBirthdayFourthofJuly all rolled in to one.
posted by entropone at 6:03 PM on September 29, 2011

I did a ride from Antwerp to Brussels to Namur to Rochefort to Luxembourg in three days and I was stopping to sightsee and in pretty bad shape (for a cyclist). I wasn't particularly thrilled by either Antwerp or Brussels, but Namur is absolutely gorgeous and Luxembourg (though not actually in Belgium) is fascinating. The Namur to Luxembourg leg through the Ardennes is far and away the nicest riding I have ever done in my life. Plenty hilly though.

On a separate trip I had occasion to see Bruges and Liege. The former is pretty but really feels like a tourist trap more than a real city. The latter is surprisingly ugly and feels very much like a real city. I bet you could have a really good time there if you knew a local.
posted by 256 at 6:09 PM on September 29, 2011

I've visited Bruges as a cycle tourist, and was there only briefly, but have fond memories. It is quite touristy, but still lovely, well worth a day or so. Cyclepaths are everywhere, if you'll have a bike. I missed going to the Groeningemuseum and have been kicking myself for it ever since.

If you enjoy bike racing and want to catch some more, perhaps less thoroughly well-attended events, there are frequent pro-am races all over Flanders, in the Kermesse and Criterium formats. The latter are especially convenient for course-side viewing from the tables outside a cafe or brasserie – something impossible at a UCI Pro race – so if you can make it a happy coincidence, I'd recommend it. For a calendar of races you can query this site (English manual here) though it's rather user-unfriendly, even with the instructions.
No question the Ronde will be the race to catch this year, but either that or Liege would be a fantastic show. You'll need to get to the course very early for a good spot.
posted by $0up at 7:01 PM on September 29, 2011

The route of the 2012 Ronde is new and controversial because of the omission of the famed "Muur" [van Geraardsbergen]. (Note the guys with paper pro cyclist masks carrying the coffin!)

The 3-lap format does make the Ronde's roadside fan experience more alluring, and the fact that people are marching in the streets to protest a change in the course indicates you're going to be in passionate company if you're out to watch the race. Personally, though, I'd be tempted by Paris-Roubaix, too. Your parameters put you in the neighborhood (well, just across the border) around the time of the 2012 Paris-Roubaix (set for April 8, looks like).
posted by richyoung at 10:53 PM on September 29, 2011

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