Its our third day in Belgium and Andrew is still trying to find some reason to like the place. I'm always gladdened to be in the Land of Eddie Merckx, but the riding is a stark contrast to the idyllic cycling of France and its wonderful ambiance.
The roads are rough and architecture cold, the people not so warm and there is a prevailing industrial decay. There are a lot of burly, thuggish characters and drivers that are not only inconsiderate but down right hostile. The worst was a genuine neanderthal who roared past us at high speed, swerved towards us and to top it off squirted windshield wiper fluid at us. It could not have been a more hostile or premeditated act. We've also had to divert from all too many roads that bicycles aren't allowed on as if we were in Germany. One driver, very concerned for our safety, leaped out of his car and told us we were headed towards an autobahn. He wasn't angry at us, just highly concerned.
But what may frustrate Andrew the most is how hard it is to find water. Cemeteries are rare and public toilets even rarer. Back in Australia he says everyone has a faucet on the front of their house that any cyclist is welcome to use. So far he has only spotted two faucets in all of Belgium on houses and both were non-functioning. When we finally saw a faucet on the outside wall of a cemetery this afternoon, he was certain it would be disabled too, but but we lucked out on that one.
In our first two days in Belgium the only two times we have been able to fill our water bottles were in garages--the first at a bus depot in the early evening with no one around and the other at a mechanic's garage in a small town. When we tried the mechanic's faucet just inside his door, rusty brown water poured out. "No wonder they don't have faucets here," Andrew said. "No one uses them."
Camping too is much more of a challenge than France. One forest we ventured into had an army jeep with recently cut branches covering it. There was also a camouflage mesh blocking a trail. We quickly evacuated that site. Still, we've had two pleasant nights of camping, one in a pear orchard and the other in a semi-wilderness a mile off the main road. Andrew startled a deer drinking from a stream as he wandered the site. It was the first time he's ever been barked at by a deer.
Another reason to have doubts about Belgium is that we see signs for golf courses here, unlike France. France may have a golf course or two, but I can't ever recall seeing one. We both regard golf as less than a sport, practiced by those who think it lends them a sense of importance or superioirty. Since Belgians feel dominated by France, they have a ned to play golf as it makes them feel a little better about themselves.
Our first impression of Belgium, other than the immediate deteriorating road surfaces, had us thrilled to be here. Tournai, the arrival city for the second stage of The Tour, just across the border was grandly decorated celebrating its honor of hosting The Tour. A gigantic yellow jersey hung from the town's central tower with a "J 12" under it, meaning 12 days until The Tour arrived. They were truly looking forward to the event to have a count down going.
The tourist office offered a 24-page pamphlet of all the activities associated with The Tour. The City Hall had an exhibit of Tour bikes and jerseys including Cadel Evans' time trial bike and Eddie Merckx's bike from the 1972 Tour. At the entry to the exhibit was a Peugeot bike from the 1966 Tour, the only other time Tournai had been a Ville Etape. There were photos from that year and photos and memorabilia from the entire Tour's history. It was one of three exhibits around town devoted to The Tour.
Our arrival in Belgium coincided with the first warm day in our first week of riding together. For the first time we saw women walking around in summery clothes, not bundled up. Andrew thought Belgium was a land of great feminine beauty, since it had all been under cover in France since his arrival. But not even that was enough to win him over, especially when the weather turned cold and with it disappeared what feminine charm we had seen.
We were hoping Seraing would be another greatly decorated Ville Etape, but all it had honoring The Tour were banners across a bridge and along the city's main street. We could hardly believe Seraing was chosen as a Ville Etape as we cycled into this industrial wasteland of a city on the outskirts of Liege. It was truly like being in Poland or Gary, Indiana.
Before we head into Liege tomorrow we will pay tribute to the Stan Ockers monument about 15 miles from here. He finished second in the Tour de France twice and was a world champion, but died in a cycling accident. His monument is at the top of a climb on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege route, one of the five great one-day races known as Monuments of cycling.
Our last day in France we paid tribute to Lasalle Duclose, two-time winner of Paris Roubaix, riding a stretch of cobbles named in his honor. Photos available at http://fatseas.com