My favorite mode of transportation is by bicycle. It has always been and probably will always be my bike. It has a greater range than going on foot, allows me to carry things with me if I have to, is silent, allows me to zig-zag through traffic jam, crowded areas and small alleys, but most of all: makes me feel the wind (and sweaty). Ever since I started working closer to home seven years ago, I started feeling much better before and after work. Before that, I used to commute by train, and sometimes car—a painful daily process of one and a half hour multiplied by two. Although I loved my colleagues and my work there, it was detrimental to to both my physical and mental health. I’m now glad I can take out my bike every single day.
But most of these bike rides on well-known routes happen almost automatically, while my thoughts are jumping up and down like a crazy maniac, still uncontrolled and still everything but mindful. I sometimes even catch myself going in the wrong direction after coming back from a short ride. While these hard-wired routes are fine to get me from point A to point B (and to get my blood flowing), they do little to peak my curiosity for discovery.
Limburg, our province, is known in Flanders as the “cycling paradise": it’s full of lovely only-for-cyclists pathways accompanied by big Plane trees on both sides, well-protected from cars, or very often even completely inaccessible by anything on four wheels. Flanders is littered with numbered plaques that indicate connected cycling routes, interspersed with junctions between these routes, called Fietsknooppunten in Dutch (cycle junction points).
Sites such as fietsnet.be make it easy to visualize and plan your cycling trip, although recently, I’ve become a fan of randomly finding a number and simply following it to another. I have lived in Hasselt all my life and I thought I was well-acquainted with the local cycling network. I was proven wrong. Simply following a few of these plaques brought me to places I’ve never been before, or small alleys or cycling paths I didn’t even know existed. I’d call that Accidental Discovery By Bike: a new hobby I picked up during COVID times, as my daily trips to and from work are reduced to taking the stairs in our own house.
It feels a bit like exploring a library by randomly wandering around and reading covers to see if it suits your current mood. I make the same decisions at the junction points on which number to chase next. Even though it guides me through many familiar roads, the in-between sections are the most compelling, where I get to play the explorer. The explorer that didn’t really pack to see the unseen, that didn’t really plan to leave the house for months to come.
I discovered many small companies that put up tiny banners or just a single A4 print-out on their home window. I learned that we have too many hairdressers in the neighborhood, but not nearly enough independent book and game stores—although I stumbled upon Collecthors' operating quarters. I finally found a route to our previous neighborhood without having to cross busy streets. I noticed installing security cameras is a booming (but very questionable) business. I never saw that many houses and apartments for sale. I tried following a couple of experienced cyclists powered by electric bikes on the local bicycle highway (that’s right, it’s called a highway!) but gave up after two kilometers. I sometimes jam my breaks to let geese pass.
Last year, I rented a bike in Portland, Oregon, one of the supposedly most bike-friendly city of that state. I’m not familiar with Americas' bicycle rule set but I can tell you that it was weird to see streets without a designated portion reserved for bikes. I did also discover a “few bikes may use full lane” signs that Peter Rukavina wrote about, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to cycle at ease in an unknown country. At one point, a bus driver yelled at me “You have to stop!”, so I guess I did something wrong. For me, it somehow wasn’t as inviting to bike though the city as it is in my home town. Plus, the roads from Downtown to the beautiful Portland Japanese Garden were against me: very hilly compared to Flanders' flatlands!
Here, the full cycling lanes are distinctly marked:
Hard to look past. Not the prettiest color, either—luckily, it’s sometimes seen as a “temporary” solution or “experiment”. You know, the one that gets forgotten and stays that way forever. At least until skid marks make the pink harder and harder to see, or until there’s another local political election.
Peter’s experience with these lanes is also far from optimal:
My strategy has always been to ride such that they simply can’t pass, and while this keeps me safer, it also means I need to gird myself against the palpable “how dare you!?” actions is frustrated drivers: the engine-gunning, the creeping up almost close enough to touch my back wheel, the sudden acceleration when finally freed from my annoyance.
As much as I appreciate giving cyclists an advantage, I still prefer divided roads separated by a good amount of firm shrubberies and trees—or better yet, a bike-only shortcut or two.