Day 16, Sun 20 Sep, Kortrijk to Roubaix to Paris.

Breakfast was a simple affair. I went to the kitchen for my tray which contained the cutlery, butter, jam and milk. The rest was on the buffet – cereals, apples and oranges, yogurt, bread, ham, cheese, and a choice of hot coffee, tea or chocolate. Not a bad spread for a hostel.

There weren’t too many guests that day so it was a nice relaxing breakfast. I took my time…in fact, I overdid it and was told by Johann that checkout was 10am and it was already close to 10.

As I readied to leave, Johann once again came to my assistance, giving me a small map of the town with directions to get out of it and, a list of towns to tick off on the way to Roubaix. Thanks Johann, you’re a godsend.

My first samaritan of the day ... all colour-coordinated, too.

You know when you're leaving town.

Just outside Kortrijk, I couldn't help noticing that things got a little automated. Drank = drink, snoep = snack, brood = bread.

Cobbled roads on the French side

From now on, I would be cycling along main roads, although still on designated sections marked for bicycles. It was faster though. It took me only about 2 hours to ride the 30kms or so to Roubaix. Somewhere in between, I’d crossed into France, and the signs had changed abruptly to French.

Another sign that indicated that one had left Belgium was the general cleanliness of the town. Roubaix was scrappy-looking. Rubbish was everywhere, and some of the houses looked drab and rundown…. even the people looked different.

I had just entered Roubaix, and at this particular roundabout over a canal, 2 opposite sections of it could be elevated to allow boats to pass through. Not the most convenient of arrangements, as traffic built up about 100 metres or so.

Not sure of directions, I asked this friendly French boy and he drew me a map to get to the velodrome.

Finally, we're getting somewhere...

I circled around a bit and finally made it to the velodrome. It wasn’t some grand piece of architecture but it was hallowed ground – having been the finishing point for the infamous Paris-Roubaix Race for the last 119 years. 250km and some of it on cobbles that were so bad, people just didn’t use it in normal times.

(Read more about Paris-Roubaix race here)

The main gate was closed but not the side gate, which was strangely open. I saw a group of cyclists already inside. There were Brits, from Cycling Club Hackney, and they were here for the same purpose as I was.

Their leader, a guy by the name of Keir, was a bit apprehensive about us all riding the track and said we’d better not, and that somebody might be watching and all that, because normally velodromes aren’t just open like that. So we just posed a bit at the trackside.

The boys were a bit cheesed off that they didn’t get to ride after coming from so far. As for me, I’d decided that as soon as they were gone, I’d go ahead and ride it anyway. After all, the worst that could happen was probably somebody telling me off, and it would be worth it, too.

I took to the track just as they were leaving and as soon as they saw me on it, they hesitated going off. I could tell the boys were telling him ‘See, it’s alright, let’s do it’. Next thing I knew, 2 of the boys zipped past me ( a fully-loaded tourer is like an elephant lumbering along while the thoroughbreds went past me like lightning).

The sidegate was open, so I went in.

So did this group of pilgrims from Cycling Club Hackney, England.

Happily trespassing and doing a ceremonial lap in the velodrome (see video below)

A giant piece of ‘pave’ at the main entrance to the velodrome

With that crossed out of my things-to-do-list while in Europe, I headed for Lille, about 20 kms away, to take the train for Paris. (I was behind time and I had no choice but to take the train other wise it would be another 3 days on the road and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Paris).

To get to Lille, one simply rides on the Grand Boulevard, an old road that has dedicated tram lines, cycle paths and a dual carriageway, all flanked by beautiful trees the leaves of which were already changing colour, covering the street below with a golden blanket. I rode a little slower to enjoy it.

On the extreme left is the road for cars, followed by trams, then a fast road cars again, then the 2-way cycle path, then another road for cars.

As I was riding along, a cyclist came up to me with the usual ‘Bon jour.’ I bon jour’ed back and we started chatting. His name was Jean Chevalier, he was on his way home from his work as a communications executive with a bicycle manufacturer, and he was another like-minded soul. He started telling me about his ambitious plans for a long cycle tour that would be taking place early next year – India and across Australia.

We chatted almost all the way to Lille and he decided that he would take me to the train station, and help me buy a ticket. I love it when I meet such people on the road. They really do make my day.

Like elsewhere in Europe, bikes inside train stations do not raise any eyebrows.

The picturesque town of Lille.

Lille's main square.

The non-stop train to Paris cost me 64 Euros (ouch), including bike, of course, and it took a mere 1 hour 4 minutes to cover the 220 or kms.

The carriage for cyclists offers a special room to store bikes, hung up by the front wheel (I'd forgotten to take a picture).

A fellow tourer (enroute to Spain) who was on the same train with me.

It felt great to be finally stepping out onto the Parisian streets --- it was busy, noisy, colourful and beautiful.

Enroute to the campsite at Bois du Boulogne on the eastern side of Paris, I stopped to take in the sight of Arc de Triomphe, basking in the warm glow of a setting sun.

Tomorrow, I do the tourist thing, along with the thousands of other visitors from all over the world.

Distance today:: 62
Distance to date:: 878

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Kortrijk-Lille)
Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Paris train station to Bois du Bologne)

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Day 15, 19 Sep, Brugge to Kortrijk.

Camp Memling is a lovely campsite, especially the park filled with tall and matured trees next to it. Maybe that’s why it was a little colder than usual. Today was time to change direction to Roubaix, France by way of Kortijk,  a small Belgian town almost on the French border where I would certainly have to stop for the night.

It was a late start for me today, taking my time packing up, talking to fellow campers ….

After relocating to the tents-only site.

Yes, that is a mini coffee press on the table:) Little luxuries like can help start the day on the right note

These 4 French boys were quite hilarious...using pet-food bowls to eat their cereals.

I wasn't about to pass this up ... plucking an apple from the tree next to my tent.

The day before I had also been talking to another cycle-tourer at the campsite, Luc, who was on the last leg of his tour which started in Denmark. His home is in Kortijk and fortunately for me, he had a proper cycling map of the area. He was kind enough to write out the numbers of the cycling path points for me, all the way to just outside Kortijk where he lived in a town called Bissingen.

At first I had asked Luc if I could ride with him but according to him, ‘I’m a lonely rider…I go, I stop, I like that’. Ok, I get the point. In fact, I know just how he feels. No wonder he was so quick to give me the numbers.

It was the shortest route to Kortrijk and the scenery was downright boring, bland and uninspiring. It was also hot (almost like in Malaysia), and there was no cool wind either. Farms, farms, farms and more farms – mostly corn, except for a lovely break from yellow to purple when I passed a lavender field. The ride itself is only worth this paragraph. But…I did see a couple of interesting things.

My first 2 angels of the day...putting me on the right track to ...

no. 70, the first of a series of numbers I had to follow to get to Kortrijk.

It started out pleasant enough

I even came across an ancient mobile home...check out the chimney.

Numbers galore ... now we're getting somewhere.

Riding through a very posh neighbourhood

Then the rest of the day was riding past farms, a lot of it yellow fields of corn

Except for this brief break of purple lavendar.

The first of 2 weddings I would pass that day.

This one was a wedding for a fireman. The wedding party immediately struck a pose when I took out my camera.

Another church later, I saw this antique bus dressed up for another wedding.

Luc’s numbered cycling paths ended at Bissingen and from there I decided to follow the main roads (in Belgium and France, you are allowed to ride on main roads, except highways, of course. Don’t even think of it in the Netherlands). When I reached Kortrijk, I set about looking for a youth hostel, as there were no campsites in this town. Here, I was surprised by the helpful, friendly nature of the Belgians.

First, it was this friendly Belgian driving a van. He stopped his vehicle and got down to help me with directions,

then it was a bus driver who shouted instructions for getting to the centre of town as he slowly passed me,

then it was this lady who sensed that I was looking for the hostel and called out to me while pointing in the direction of the hostel, ‘Sleeping? There, there.’Then she said, ‘You follow me.’ It was only a short distance but she led me there anyway. Then she told me, as we stopped there in the middle of the street, that she had adopted 8 Vietnamese children! I guess my Asian features aroused her motherly instincts and made her want to help me.

It never stops amazing me … all these wonderful people who helped a stranger in their land. I also learnt that if you stopped in your tracks and look at a map long enough, someone will eventually ask if they could help you.

I was also surprised at the size of the hostel. This was no Lonely Planet type of hostel. This was more like YMCA. I decided to take a room instead of a bed in an 8-bed dorm since it was only 9 Euros more, and I craved peace and privacy. It was a lovely room – small, spartan but clean, and most of all, the windows opened up to a lovely view of trees, not buildings.

Johann, the manager there, was just so helpful, checking me in, explaining to me where to go for dinner, explaining to me where to get the tray for the included breakfast, where the breakfast was served (in a huge multipurpose hall complete with a bar), and after I checked in, locking up my bike and things I didn't need to use, in the store-room.

The spacious multi-purpose hall also served as a cafeteria for breakfast.

Tonight, I would have a good night’s sleep and tomorrow, I head for Roubaix, France and the Velodrome Roubaix, where the Hell of the North race finishes.

I’m so excited 🙂

Distance today:: 77km
Distance to date:: 816km