Ghent is one of the best cities to feel Europe’s cycling culture. The Flemish city in northern Belgium hosts races like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and its famous Six Day, and always puts bikes first.
If there’s one time of the year to visit, it’s during the Spring Classics season, this year from late March to mid-April. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad starts and finishes in the city centre, this year seeing Sep Vanmarcke topped King Tom Boonen. The Tour of Flanders starts to the west in Bruges and finishes just south in Oudenaarde. The Ghent-Wevelgem, despite the name, starts just to the south in Deinze and finishes in Wevelgem after climbing the Kemmelberg. There are countless other races nearby, too.
“I live in Ghent. The city is close to Izegem, where I lived when I was racing as an Under 23 rider,” explains American Tyler Farrar.
“These are practically my home races. I know the climbs well because I have fighting up them in different races since I was a junior. I have done them all at one point or another.”
Farrar lives in the heart of the city and is often seen walking or riding through the city. He hit the headlines last year when he won a stage of the Tour de France in Redon. He has also won a stage in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. In Flanders at the start of this month, he rode all day in an escape and eased the pressure on his Garmin-Barracuda team-mates.
“This week is what spring is all about,” he says. “Personally, for me, these races are all important.”
Farrar only raced his first Tour de France in 2009, not the edition that visited his adopted town. After its Grand Départ in London, the race’s second leg finished just outside Citadel Park. Belgian Gert Steegmans won that day ahead of Quick Step team-mate Tom Boonen and gave the locals even more reason to party.
Tucked amongst the trees, just off to the left of the finish line is the Kuipke Velodrome. It’s famous for the Ghent Six Day track race, which cycling legend Eddy Merckx won four times and more recently, Brad Wiggins. Organisers annulled the 2006 edition due to Isaac Gálvez’s deadly crash.
Paths and shops
Bike paths connect the entire city, running conveniently from the train station, though Citadel Park and into the centre. Racks are abundant, too, allowing an easy stop and lock to take in the sights or jump a train.
“Here they are used to the bike,” says Frank Botterman. “The philosophy of the city is actually to put the bikes in front. It is a way of slowing down cars in the city.”
Botterman owns The Biker, one of the coolest shops in town for city bikes. He opened it eleven years ago when most other shops were still focused solely on racing bikes. His small claim to fame is being the one who introduced Ghent to the bak fiets, or bikes with two wheels in the front for carrying loads (including children).
“More and more, over the 10 years, people are on bikes,” he continues. “It’s 1) for the environmental reasons and 2) people are poorer! The crisis. Plus, there are traffic jams. Women buy more bikes; men still have the car-macho mentality, unfortunately.
“Bike theft? It’s a problem and the police do nothing. But, theft comes along with having so many bikes. You have to consider that there are about 60,000 students in town, each one uses a bike.”
Ghent has population of around 235,000. When you look around, it feels as if half the population is riding around on the paths with fixes, road bikes or beat-up steel cruisers with (legally required) lights and bells.
“Utrecht [in Holland] is ‘the bike city,’ though. Ghent could learn a lot from it. Our city puts in €5m a year to bike lanes, etc; Utrecht does 10x that – €50m!”
Botterman attends regular city council meetings with the other shop owners to represent cyclists’ needs. He says that his shop, Plum and the other shops work together to help promote Ghent’s culture. Pay him a visit, say hello and rent a city bike for €9 a day.
If you bring your own racing bike, head out Ghent on one of numerous canal bike lanes. The main one, south to Oudenaarde is always flowing with cyclists, including professionals Farrar and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil). They sometimes join the 9:00 ride, which starts under the Adolphe della Faillelaan bridge.
On the way south, you’ll see a memorial to Wouter Weylandt, who died last year in the Giro d’Italia. He was a local and used to be a regular rider in the group.
“I got my start racing on the canal,” says Martin De Hemel as we drafted in a 30-man group. “If you come out on Wednesday nights, there’s an unofficial race.”
De Hemel, as with most Belgians are fluent in Dutch, French and, thankfully, English. He helped me pass the time on a cold day, explaining how he’s back at it after a broken leg.
You could join in for the 50 kilometres down to Oudenaarde and back, or say ‘ciao’ in Oudenaarde and head into the hills. To the southeast of Oudenaarde, you’ll find all the famous cobbled climbs, like Koppenberg, Kwaremont and Paterberg. This year, the Tour of Flanders hit the Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs three times each.
Before heading back to Ghent, stop by the Ronde Museum in Oudenaarde. Former pro, Freddy Maertens runs the place and can tell you about the race’s 100-year story.
Ghent offers places to see during your city cruise and to relax afterwards. Sit along the Graslei canal, visit the Bue The Warrior’s graffiti walls or sip a Belgian beer outside the Marimain. The Graslei is a tourist favourite and you’ll understand why with the views of the city’s towers and classic homes.
Bue The Warrior offers a different experience. His street art can be seen in New York City, Mexico City and Barcelona, but his best collection is in his hometown of Ghent. After a short time riding the streets, you’ll start to see his colourful happy creatures popping up everywhere.
Stop what you’re doing at head to Marimain at 14:00. The sun hits Marimain’s steps at that hour and locals gather like cats, but with a beer in hand.
Like in most Belgian cities, the small breweries have all closed in Ghent. However, Gruut is reviving the tradition and its beer can be found in Marimain. Order a local Gruut and relax with the cats.
At night, there are two must-see spots for the cycling-minded: De Karper and Velootje. Ghent native and OmegaPharma professional, Iljo Keisse is always at De Karper because Ronnie, his dad, owns it. It’s steps away from the velodrome, filled with cycling memorabilia and always has races on the television.
Velootje boasts 100 bikes from the owner’s collection, an open fireplace, cosy seating, a lot of dust and warm, over-priced beer. It is a must-see for one taking in Ghent’s cycling culture.
The classic season has passed, but it’s never too early to make plans for next year.