Ritchey Local Rides - a series on the Ritchey Blog where Ritchey ambassadors, staff and friends from around the world give a little glimpse into their favorite local rides – what they've ridden a lot during pandemic lockdowns. See more here.
Words and photos by Jeff Lockwood.
When the world locked down sometime in the middle of March 2020, the restrictions here in Belgium were quite tight. With just about all citizens begrudgingly honoring the new rules, an eerie atmosphere cast across the country. Streets were empty, most stores were closed, and people were scared. Fortunately, when the Belgian government issued its brief and direct statement announcing the restrictions, it was careful to mention the importance of physical movement for society's well-being. The directive explicitly stated that walking, running and cycling were not only still permitted, but encouraged.
Riding, even if it had to be alone and close to home, would certainly allow me to dispense with cold uncertainty and fear by clinging to the warm and familiar embrace of my usual routes. Yet, spicing up those loops with some variety would be necessary in my efforts to fully exorcise negativity while also exercising positivity and the legs. Almost immediately, I linked together a few of my regular rides to create one special route that nicely combines a variety of riding surfaces, scenery, and almost everything else I love about cycling. Windy, straight tarmac sections to challenge my resolve. An option for endless gravel roads. A climax of flowy and delicious manicured singletrack to enflame my soul. And a few hours outside.
I clip-in on the sidewalk in front of my house in the Zurenborg neighborhood of Antwerp. Normally, I might meet some riding comrades on the Dageraadplaats half a block behind my house. But this is pandemic times. I roll alone through the neighborhood, past rows intricately-detailed houses from the turn of the century, carefully avoiding getting my front wheel stuck in the tram tracks, which would surely end my ride after being quickly and embarrassingly slammed to the cobble stones.
Within minutes I cross the Singel and ride over the Ring highway before turning left onto the first bit of fietspad (dedicated bicycle path) that windingly parallels jammed automobile traffic on the Ring.
I spin a high cadence northward, interrupted only by bicycle- and pedestrian-specific traffic signals. As I roll away from the city, the Albertkanal on my right is less than 30 meters away. The blue dome of the Sportpalies sits across the canal, and I think about what it was like when that building was a major velodrome. Soon enough, the stench of a water treatment plant punches my olfactory receptors and I'm grateful for my mask to filter out SOME of the hellacious odor.
My route then turns right to climb the bridge that spans the confluence of the Port of Antwerp, the Schelde river and the Albertkanal. The horizon offers up the outline of oil refineries and huge cranes unloading super-sized freighters of their bounty bound for all points in Europe. I ponder that many Ritchey products found in shops across Europe might very well be floating below me as I cross the bridge.
This northerly trajectory continues along the fietspad, and the last interrupting traffic light is behind me - until my return journey, of course. This particular fietspad runs along a major north/south railway. The Thalys - connecting Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam – shares tracks with commuter trains that constantly rumble past. During the week, my daughter sits in class a few blocks west of here.
I soon weave through a few kilometers of a dense suburban Antwerp village before being spit out on a long, straight bit of rural tarmac that is constantly battered by cross- and/or head-winds. It's short, but brutal. Always. On one side sits an endless stretch of farmland and a small horse-training corral. On the other side is more open farmland. There's no hiding from the monotonous and constant gusts.
Respite comes at the end of this road where I hop on a dirt footpath that goes on for about one kilometer – pushing past the western side of a small bit of forest. Maybe 100 meters to my right rests the remnants and memories of the soccer pitches where I played and drank beer every Saturday for about 10 years. I miss those days a lot.
I cross the main artery out of the village of Stabroek and put my head down for another stretch of bruising, windy country road before turning left to parallel the Belgium/Netherlands border situated a few hundred meters to my right. Another right turn onto a car-less road and then left again with the invisible border literally an arm-length away.
Enough of the tarmac. I immediately turn into the forest onto the first open bit of gravel or trail I see. I'm now in the Netherlands - improvising my circuit, using my internal compass to aim north and west until I come across a familiar gravel road or see a blaze for a trail.
Soon enough I'm immersed in the flowing singletrack of the Moretusbos. The undulating trail courses through the young forest, and the beauty of the carefully curated trails always takes my breath away. The green and purple blazes give me about twenty kilometers of meditative and challenging flow. I push hard, carve, sprint, coast and try to gap the few small rises along the trail – all of which were cut for mountain bikes but still super fun atop the dirtydropbargoodness of my Ritchey Outback.
Flush with excitement, at peace with the day, pumping with adrenaline and my muscles a bit tender and lungs full, I gently embark on my journey back home – starting with the endless gravel paths and roads that criss-cross this area of the Netherlands.
Too soon I'm back in Belgium, mostly riding my outbound route in reverse. A few hours after I started, I roll back across the Dageraadplaats. The cafes are closed, and I wish I could spill a recovery beer or three with some friends but I know I will at least rest better having just enjoyed this precious time.
This is all a scene that I've written, revised and acted out for the past ten months or so. I'm familiar enough with the plotline by now that my legs can mouth along with the dialog of the topography while my lips sometimes echo the conversations being played out in my mind. Everything about these days, and these rides that punctuate them, are part of a physically and mentally demanding drama. But performances like these are salvation. Soothingly familiar. Uniquely satisfying.