Friday, April 3, 2009
Chasing De Panne, Part I
The goal was to see the start and finish to Three Days of De Panne's stage one. Seemed like a good way to ride around the Flanders countryside, see the ocean, and get a feel for their trains.
A great thing about travel is that you're often forced out of your comfort zone. It can be what makes travel challenging. The simple things you take for granted, can suddenly get pretty hard.
As anyone who has chased bike racing around Europe can attest, until you get the hang of things for both a region and a race, most of the adventure is just getting to see the event. That's why I'll stick to telling the travel adventure first, and race reflections second.
My first mistake was assuming that since the race had De Panne in the name, the first stage went there. Should have been paying more attention. While the stage started in Middelkerke, right on the water, it finished in Zottegem. That meant I'd be riding west from Brugge, then east. Only it was a long haul from Middelkerke to Zottegem. Seemed like it would be at least 100km. That would be on top of the 32km to the coast. And my plan was to race the next day. So it was ride to Middelkerke, ride to Oostend, train to Gent (through Brugge), then ride to and from Zottegem, which should be about 25km each way.
As easy as it is to get around urban and suburban Brugge, it is hard to go from one place to another. There aren't an abundance of street signs offering up road names. Circles don't have any compass-point directions or roads that have directions in them. There aren't many signs giving directions to a particular town, unless you're on a main road, and you're looking for the next town. And despite the relatively small size of the region, people don't seem to know their way several kilometers radius past their home or office, even the police.
I'd leave at 9am. Get to Middelkerke around 10:20, allowing for getting lost a bit, snack, lounge, check out the circus that is racing in Flanders. Then after the start, speed to Oostend, grab a little lunch, get to Ghent around 1:30 or so. Be in Zottegem by 2:30, see the race pass through around 3, check out Zottegem, maybe sit in a bar, eat frites and watch the stage on television, see the race finish, ride back. If the race was moving quickly, I'd be back in Brugge by 6.
According to Google Maps, the ride to Middelkerke should be about 20 miles. And it looked like a pretty straight line. But I couldn't print out the directions. No problem, there's a gas station down the street. I'll buy a map of Flanders there on my way out the door. Looks like it's en route anyways. Riding to Oostend should be easy. Should be 4-5 miles. Just go north along the coast. Zottegem similarly easy. Ride South from Ghent. Fifteen miles. So 55miles for the day, and so long as I'm timing things right, I should be able to spin easy the whole way.
The race would be moving quickly. The day dawned warm and sunny. Great conditions for a fast race.
When I tried buying a map of West Flanders at the nearby gas station, they were completely out of Michelin maps of Belgium. They did have much of the rest of Europe, though. Guess people don't need maps to get around.
So I figured I'd head west. I had a rough map of the region I brought from home thanks to the Belgian tourist office. Just needed to find town names at roundabouts now and again. Could always head for Gistel or Oostend and correct myself once I got near those place.
Not so easy. As I tried heading west, I kept on getting diverted south. When I passed a second gas station a few miles later, I bought a map. Of Belgium and Luxembourg. That's all they had. Huge mother. Got to Zelegem. Saw signs for the police station. Turns out there's a bike shop across the street. Closed Tuesdays. So I asked the police. First response when asking directions to Middelkerke by bike. "You can't get there from here." But people were asked, and they showed me the way. They had me going further south before going north, then west.
I started on the recommended route. Veered off a few miles later, when I saw I could go through Aartrijke en route to Gistel. Could have gone directly from Zelegem, if only the police could have figured. There was an open bike shop there. The guy gave me directions through Gistel. Looked easy.
Special thanks to BKW friend JP for the post and images. Check back for Part II.