Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where to stay

There are many good places to stay in Belgium depending on your personal preferences. If you like cities, Gent is your best bet. It is cheaper than tourist-overrun Bruges, a lot more authentic and a whole lot more cosmopolitan. It has a great university and two wonderful velodromes. One is the "Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx" along the Watersportbaan, and the other is the famous "Het Kuipke," in the Citadel park where six day races have been held in the fall since 1947.

Kuipke--the little tank

In many ways, Gent is the most attractive city in Belgium and it has long been my favorite. You can find good hotel deals on the outskirts, especially around the University hospital. That location has the additional benefit of being near the Schelde (Scheldt in English) river, where a long bike path (all the way to the French border) provides one of the best places to ride intervals.

Gent is also a great place for extended stays as you may be able to find student housing known as a "studentenkamer" or "kot," for a reasonable price. Gent is easy to reach by train and has it has the best public transport connections you can dream of. It is also where the E17 and E40 motorways intersect, the main arteries that go north-south and east-west.

When it comes to bike tourism, Oudenaarde and environs are tops. Oudenaarde is a somewhat sleepy town on the Schelde river that has seen a revival recently. Much of that is due to cycling and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. While Oudenaarde does not have the same selection of hotels that Gent does, it has a lot of vacation homes and bed and breakfast places that are geared towards cyclists. Oudenaarde also has cyclist housing,  great bike shops and tons of fabulous riding. Nearly all climbs and cobblestone sections of the Ronde are within easy riding distance from here.

Tourism East Flanders (Toerisme Oost Vlaanderen) has a website where you can find information regarding rooms, vacation homes and bed and breakfast places. There is a special option to find bike-friendly (fietsvriendelijk) places. One place that comes recommended is Hof Ter Kammen, a bed and breakfast near the Koppenberg.
Hof Ter Kammen

Geraardsbergen, home of the infamous "Muur" is another excellent location. Here too you can find great bike routes, good bike shops, and tons of vacation rentals.

The Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen

In Belgium lodging is nearly always sold "per person" instead of "per room," and most places include breakfast with a stay. For extended stays, vacation rentals are usually per week, or per month and typically you need to add a fee for utilities and a cleaning to the listed price. Regular houses are 3 year rentals, although you can find 1 year rentals in bigger cities. Student housing is more flexible (the academic year runs from October through June) and is usually negotiated on a case by case basis.

Belgium is a first world country and nearly everything you can find in the US you can find in Belgium. When it comes to biking there is absolutely no need to bring extra stuff, spare parts or lots of tools. All these items are easy to find locally at prices that are comparable to those in the US. Do not bring extra fancy, superlight race wheels to Belgium. Best is to bring a durable wheelset that you can train on and race on. There are no long climbs here but tons of bad roads and cobbles. The latter are favorites among race organizers so be prepared.

Unless you are sponsored by a deep pocket team, it is better to leave the carbon fiber stuff at home. Also avoid one of a kind components with proprietary nuts and bolts that are special order items.

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