Before giving away who arrived first, prepare yourself for a bicycle adventure between Ghent's Woodrow Wilson Square at the city library (better known as the 'Zuid') and the VRT buildings in Schaarbeek, eastern Brussels.
Ghent-Brussels is quite a distance: almost 60 kilometres between the 2 city centres. I have the choice between following a straight line (along the old national roads called 'steenwegen') and a more pleasant course, taking smaller B or C-roads belonging the Flemish cycle network (you can prepare a route between two points via the website fietsnet.be).
I am tempted to pick the second option, but this would mean I would have to cover between 10 and 15 km more. If I want to make at least a small chance (imagine the E40 Motorway between Ghent and Brussels would be blocked for whichever reason, and the train suffering a long delay) I'd better not lose too much time. And even so, if my colleagues arrive first, I'd better not be 'hours' behind. It's just a matter of pride. The die is been cast: let's take the steenwegen, just for this occasion, and see how it works out!
Take a risk if you want
The first part of the journey stars well. The N9 linking Ghent to the city of Aalst and next to Brussels in a straight line, has an excellent separate bicycle way for several kilometres, until past Melle. It's in Oordegem that the problems start.
Cycleways in Flanders can be surprisingly different in quality, going from 5 stars to zero. Changes often take place right at the border of a municipality.
In Oordegem centre, cyclists are taking a real hazard if they follow the rules and ride between the white dotted lines that mark the cycle strip (long photo below). Road works must have taken place at one stage but the resurfacing was not properly done. The potholes are enormous. Earlier, a lorry was blocking the cycle path (small photo), but this will not be anything typical for Belgium.
This must be Belgium!
Having avoided a flat tyre (or worse) on the poor stretches around Oordegem, I have to get ready for the city of Aalst. It's a cold, grey morning and an eastern breeze is blowing against me. The Met Office had announced a couple of sunny spells, but where are they? It's only 14 degrees Celsius and feels rather cold on the legs.
A small mistake brings me to the Aalst outer ring road instead of the city centre, so I miss the Belfry for a selfie. In Asse, already close to Brussels, I've had it with the N9 and make a short detour via Brussegem to enter the capital via Wemmel and the national sports stadium on the Heizel grounds.
This brings me to a location well worth a picture stop: a cycle path that ends abruptly onto the wall of a house, just north of Asse. This must be Belgium! (photo below).
One last challenge
We are approaching our final destination as we cross the big R0, the Brussels Outer Ring Road, in Wemmel. This is a spot that sees one of the most frequent jams in the country, but when we cross the bridge traffic is fluent. Not a good sign, considering my car rival.
Brussels is okay, it's just a matter of not losing your way and watching out for traffic that can come from all directions. One more challenge is waiting as I climb further along the Josaphat Park, with the VRT Tower standing proud in the background: the huge Meiser roundabaout, always tricky for a cyclist. I nearly collide with a car that wants to leave the circus and turn right, but reach the VRT safe and sound.
Distance: 62 kilometres, total time 3 hours, 10 minutes. Too many picture stops, no doubt, and just too many traffic lights jumping to red. My colleagues must have reached the VRT a long time ago, for sure.
It had started in Ghent at 8.35am, half an hour later than planned due to, it must be said, our car participant Fabian who arrived late due to the jams. My other colleague, Rik, took public transport to the Zuid Square and also arrived on time, although he had to get up early for this.
We feel like the 3 (former) Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond when we start, although only one of us is taking a motorised vehicle and a normal one as well, a middle-class Peugeot.
Rik eventually had to be content with second place in 1 hour and 34 minutes. He had no delays and even enjoyed a fast connection at Central Station taking Bus 63 to the VRT.
Fabian came first in 1 hour and 20 minutes without any major congestion problems except for Van Praet. The car has clearly won it, although colleagues coming from Ghent by car on a daily basis often complain of longer travel times exceeding 1h20 in the middle of the rush hour and when the weather doesn't cooperate.