After finding my bearings so that I would be cycling in the right direction, the route I followed would take me along the Belgian coast, through Ostend and then inland to Bruges. I would cover approximately 45 miles (70km) hugging the shoreline and cruising the very scenic canal.
I remember that first day, and maybe the next two that followed it, to be very nerve wracking and stressful. I really did not know what to do with myself other than peddle. I had no idea where campsites were and I was too nervous to stop and ask for help or directions. For some reason the potential language barrier was daunting.
In those first days, without really stopping to take it all in, let myself breath or adjust to my new routine, I just kept peddling. I was enjoying the bike ride, but off the saddle I just remember feeling lost.
*The first official picture taken from my bike, not sure what or where it is!**
The long, straight and dead-flat road along the coast to Ostend was somewhat featureless, except for the old WWII gun emplacements that dotted the shore, and of course the occasional holiday makers strolling along the beach. The coastal breeze filled my lungs with salty sea air, and paired with the misting of clouds overhead I was staying relatively cool in the push against the headwind. I had prepared a little by taking the fully laden wagon out for a few rides in the weeks before, so at least the weight of the thing wasn’t a shock to me.
I had managed 20 miles before forcing myself to stop and eat small selection of cereal bars and a banana. I then cycled all the way through Ostend without even coming up for air. I remember feeling anxious whenever I thought about where I was going to be staying, or if I was going to make it to Germany in time, or at all. So I just kept peddling.
My roughly planned route was: Brussels – Amsterdam – Frankfurt – Munich. Not the most direct route, but I wanted to visit more than two countries. I also had friends who wanted to meet me in Amsterdam for a weekend which I was looking forward to.
The coast line had transformed into a canal that would take me all the way into Bruges. By this point my legs were shot, my brain was tired and I just wanted to get where I was going… wherever that was.
Despite the developing clouds over head the canal was very picturesque, and despite the picturesque-ness of my surroundings, I did not take any pictures…I must have forced myself to take these two when I arrived in Bruges, however they won’t be winning me any awards.
Bruges is a very pretty town, honest!
On my journey here I hadn’t passed a campsite, or even noticed signs for a campsite. I was done for the day though. I got some takeaway fries for dinner and checked myself in to the first b&b that I passed. I showered and collapsed onto the bed, then turned on the Belgian TV and became somewhat overwhelmed.
I cried myself to sleep that night, feeling so lost and confused. I’d quit my job and left the country with little more than a bike that was over loaded with camping equipment.
I had no idea what I was doing or what was coming next, and to be honest it scared me.
I awoke the next morning feeling almost refreshed after what I would consider an exhaustive first day. I was eager to get back on the bike and become lost in the meditative rhythm of peddling before repeating worrisome thoughts breached my consciousness again.
My ride that day would be a long one. I had arranged to stay with a friend for a few days in Brussels and I was very eager to see a familiar face. I managed to cycle 72 miles (116km) from Bruges, through Ghent to the outskirts of Belgium’s capital city. But my legs gave out 6 miles (10km) from my destination.
My intentions to have a better second day failed me. I peddled and peddled and peddled, barely stopping for a break and obsessing over the thought of reaching Brussels before nightfall. I had yet to learn that the journey is just as important as the destination. I had also yet to heed Howard’s advice of listening to my body.
On the small break that I did take, I must have looked in a bad way. I had stopped in a small village that was roughly halfway through my days ride when a very kind lady bought me an ice cold bottle of water from her house. She spoke no English but her miming was unmistakably that of an exhausted boy on a bike. That lifted my spirits enough to continue the second half of my day with some enthusiasm.
Hardly any pictures were taken that day – none so worthy as to waste my online storage space by uploading them anyway..
I rode straight through the city of Ghent, again without stopping and when I finally did give in to my tired, beaten legs, I was riding a very unattractive path next to the highway. Once more, defeated and close to tears, I stopped at the next available place to get my head down, a highway services hotel. My bike was locked outside, my stuff dragged into the hotel room, then I peeled off my sweat drenched clothes and took a shower. For dinner that night I managed 3 bites of the most suspect veggie burger I have ever eaten.
“What am I doing?” I kept asking myself…
I put on a happy voice for a phone call or two I made back home to let those close to me know that I was still alive. Then, the same as last night, I gave into fear and frustration and wept until I must have fallen asleep.
This may not be the exciting start to an adventure that some of you might have been expecting. But this is my start and my story. Writing this now I can safely say I am a very different person to the one who set off on that bicycle in 2015, and it took that leap of faith into the unknown to change me for the better.
Some say that life starts at the edge of your comfort zone, and believe me, I tripped, fell and went flying over the edge of mine in those first few days.
Want more? Read the next story – Brussels and Beyond.