it was friday afternoon and from all corners of the uk amosroadclubbers headed to dover. four and a half hour queues on the m25, massive tailbacks on the m11 – bank holiday traffic! desperate measures lead to experienced amosroadclubber chris navigating from cambridge to dover via the shard. finally we arrived and 18 of us found ourselves in an italian restaurant with a reservation for 11. they coped, we packed in the pasta and off to bed full of anticipation about the days ahead.
day 1 – route
saturday morning. we cycled to the ferry (follow the red line) at top speed only to be told there was a delay. half our party set off on the more punctual p&o while the rest of us waited eagerly. a smooth crossing, a frustrating wait for every car and lorry to exit before they would let us leave, and we were in france. the rendezvous with the van and the p&oers was perfect and the amosroadclub was ready for the grand depart, straining at the leash like donkeys on blackpool beach. the first group set off; the second group set off; mike stayed behind for those on the later ferry. the phone calls started within 5 minutes as our foolproof instructions proved to be not foolproof. eventually the first kilometre was successfully navigated and we were off on route to messines. apart from various disobedient teenagers cycling off at tour de france pace and leaving their ailing parents miles behind, the first 30km or so were flat, beautiful and uneventful. mike, dean and ben reeled in the peleton and we cycled as a group to watten where chris introduced us to the pleasure of cheese and grated carrot baguettes.
suitably refreshed we set off with renewed vigour. we knew that the one big climb of the day was still to come at cassel. soon enough the climb arrived and heads down we set off up the hill. it was a sharp climb but mercifully short and the obligatory nuts, raisins and jelly babies soon got us back in one piece at the top. amosroadclubbers lucas and nick arrived having left calais much later than everyone else and after a couple of laughable mishaps with clipless pedals later we trundled into town for coffee and mars bars. we had received word that the advance party had taken beer but we opted to play the long game.
onward to belgium but before the border debutant amosroadclubber ben had too close an encounter with a lamppost. as the only member of the party who had opted to ride without a helmet it was just as well that we had taken the precaution of including two doctors in our group. the group split since it was clear that first aid was likely to take some time. the first splinter group was led by mike who made the childish error of not taking any notice of who was in the group before setting off. unfortunately this resulted in another first-time amosroadclubber john falling off the back of the group and eventually being picked up by sarah the van driver.
the miles passed and so did the hours. the seven-thirty dinner at the hostel was looking increasingly unlikely but the prospect of that ‘ice cold in alex’ moment with a belgian ale at our journey’s end kept us going. finally we arrived in messines. sadly it took us a further 15 minutes to find the hostel but we got there in the end, found our room and then the bar (in that order amazingly!) suitable refreshment occurred and at about 9.30 we all assembled for dinner, our amazingly hospitable hosts at the peace village having delayed the food for a couple of hours (a theme appearing here?) the first awards of the year generally involved mocking all of us who had had clipless pedal mishaps, the fact that amosroadclubbers pete and iain had seemed surprised on the friday evening that the saturday morning ferry was full (and they hadn’t bought tickets) and others too numerous to mention.
everyone retired to the bar to plot day 2.
day 2 included 3 rides to choose from. the ride involving a lot of cobbles only had one taker so the 35 of us split into two parties:
the idea was that whichever group you joined we would meet up to eat in ypres in the evening and experience the last post ceremony at the menin gate.
after a hearty breakfast we were invited by our hosts to make up packed lunches for the day. mike and nive were a little surprised because we hadn’t ordered them* but we put it down to linguistic barriers and pressed on. debutant amosroadclubber zak introduced us to a new method of transporting hard boiled eggs by removing the inside of a baguette and replacing the bread with the aforementioned eggs in a hot-dog style. as a trend it didn’t really catch on but his loving family came to regret zak’s love of hard boiled eggs in the day to come!
i can only really comment about the beer route which took us to watou via poperinge. we made our pilgrimage to st bernadus which was shut but we took some pictures anyway. onward to the real purpose of our ride, the legendary st. sixtus’ abbey, westvleteren where the rarest and, some say, the best beer in the world is brewed. the brewery was shut but, oh happy day, the visitors centre was open and selling beer in the restaurant. there are three varieties of westvleteren, the 5, the 8 and the 12. needless to say we tried them all between us with mike and neil braving the 12.
the next hour or so passed in blissful monk-induced ignorance, when we came upon the ‘cultural’ group coming the other way. the ‘cultural’ peleton was a disgrace to witness with a good 15 minutes separating the lead group to the ‘lanterne rouge’. they had had a great ride via passendale and tyne cot where we were heading next.
visiting tyne cot was a very moving experience. there are 11,956 commonwealth servicemen of the first world war buried or commemorated in tyne cot cemetery, 8,369 of these are unidentified. the inscription on so many of the graves reads ” A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God“. despite the fact that their bodies could not be identified the soldiers had an identity – they were known by god. I felt a strong resonance between what was written there and the work of the amos trust with forgotten and ignored communities the world over and especially their work with street children.
after tyne cot we raced to ypres and met up with the cultural group to enjoy local delicacies such as spaghetti, macaroni cheese and omelettes. sarah asked the waiter what was in the beef stew – the answer (of course) ‘pork’!
suitably fed and watered we made our way to the menin gate for the last post ceremony which has retained both dignity and solemnity despite the many tourists that snap away each day.
time to head back to the peace village. chris ‘tom tom’ rose decided to lead one group with assurances that he knew the way and raced off in a vaguely southerly direction. it became apparent to those of us further back in the field that we had lost contact with chris and his team of crack sprinters so a few of us took the seemingly-sensible option of cycling along the road that linked ypres to messines. we didn’t hurry but somehow got back to the hostel approx. 30 minutes before chris and some very disgruntled teenagers finally appeared. as is so often the case with the amosroadclub, the fable of the tortoise and the hare, or in our case the tortoise and ‘les coqs massives’ is found to be firmly based on reality.
to make matters worse, the bar was full of a group of marauding morris dancers from the uk. we could have spoken to them and shared stories of amos and it’s fine work, but instead we took beer to the dining room and sulked. much as i am in favour of all forms of folk dancing being exiled from england and sent abroad, it was regrettable that they had to end up in messines! fortunately the revelry came to an end before too long and several of us took up residence in the bar, together with the fridge key, for longer than was really sensible!
* the unexpected packed lunches it seems had in fact belonged to the morris dancers so there is some justice in the world (for both parties)!
day 3 route
monday morning saw elie’s translation skills establishing that we could make ourselves packed lunches without depriving any morris dancers of much-needed (if not deserved) sustenance.
we set off almost on schedule. the first part of the day was beautiful; quiet country lanes followed by canalside paths. the sun was shining and life was good. mike was nearly taken out by a low-flying pheasant! we made good time until stopping to see the yser tower in diksmuide. we had lunch in the german war cemetery at vladso which is a touching memorial against the madness of war. every flat tile bears the name of 20 soldiers. 25,644 soldiers are buried here. ‘the grieving parents’ by käthe kollwitz is a tribute to her youngest son who was killed in this region.
we decided that there would be two routes into bruges, one slightly longer than the other. we parted company in torhout after waiting for a party of about 100 pensioners cycle past. the ride into bruges was beautiful. wind in our faces for the first hour but the last 20km were along the canal with a following wind. we had agreed to meet up in bruges at 6pm so we had time for coffee, beer, ice cream, waffles and pancakes along the canalside before our triumphant entrance into the city. sadly jack got a puncture approximately 1 minute after our restart so it wasn’t quite the champagne-sipping moment we had hoped for.
finally we arrived and met up with the second group who had thoroughly enjoyed their ride into the city. we were reunited with bags and everyone went off to find accommodation before the celebration meal that evening. thanks to richard we were booked into cambrinus where we enjoyed great food and drink. the beer menu was astonishing and many a new variety was sampled. after a great meal, a few speeches and many backslaps we all headed to the main square where we spent some time together sitting on the church steps full of food, beer, good times and the satisfaction of knowing we’d had a great few days together. everyone seemed reluctant to get up and go (although this might have been due to the ale) as if the magic would be broken. however, the bonds that hold the amosroadclub together are strong and although we parted sad that we wouldn’t see each other for a while we were all optimistic that we would ride together again in the future.
check out the gallery for links to photos from the ride.