A Think Week on a Bicycle in Flanders

If you’ve landed on this site, it is because, like me, you enjoy the beauty and adventures to be had on two wheels. In June of this year (2022), I had the privilege of doing a “think week” with Jamie Anderson, Bernard Moerman and Bernard’s wife, Ann at the Flandrien Hotel in the heart of Flanders, arguably, the cycling capital of the world. 

With Covid restrictions loosening, I had an urge to travel again. In April I saw a post on LinkedIn from Jamie about the Flandrien Hotel that inspired me to contact him for available dates. Jamie and I first met each other via our shared passions for cycling and business so I was happy to explore an opportunity to discover his cycling oasis in Belgium. Very quickly I arranged the details with airfare, dates, and logistics. 

You can read this earlier post about my first few days at the Flandrien Hotel.

I longed for those old European vistas full of mystery, romance, and history of monarchies, wars, and old-world architecture. I knew I’d enjoy rolling hills, tailored farm landscapes, twisty narrow roads, and ancient villages full of character.

Originally, I wanted to do more bikepacking adventures in 2022 but needed to shake up my season with something different to stimulate my mind with a new milieu and inspiring conversations.

When I first contacted Jamie he recommended I sign up for his Flandrien Leadership Program but the dates didn’t work. Instead, he encouraged me to transform my visit into a Think Week. Forcing yourself out of your natural environment sometimes puts you into a state of stimulation and surfaces new thoughts and ideas that you wouldn’t normally encounter. I’m a big fan of getting out of your comfort zone to discover how you respond to new challenges. You can also train your mind to lean on your core guiding values to navigate through the circumstances, or to have a harder look at yourself and what you need to change to create an inflection point in your personal journey’s trajectory.

And so, on the morning of June 12 I found myself in the courtyard of the Flandrien Hotel, in the tiny hamlet of Parike, Brakel, full of excitement for the nine days to come.

Day 1: Think Frame and Carbon Wheels

The first day started with setting up the Giant TCR road bike rental Jamie provided as part of his hotel bike rental fleet. Despite my luggage being lost, I travelled with my cycling shoes, helmet, kit, Garmin computer, and pedals in my carry-on and was able to ride from the first day. I didn’t want to risk any days of cycling to lost bags.

Before heading out on our first ride, Jamie gave me a tour of his hotel. As a lifelong cycling fan, I was in awe of his vintage collection of bikes representing significant technology evolutions over the past 50 years, and the hotel’s infrastructure to support cyclists during their stays in this bastion of cycling’s history. Each room is decorated in a homage to cycling’s greats with art depicting Moser, Anquetil, Merckx, and others. Everywhere I looked a cycling treasure inspired my imagination.

I didn’t want to fall victim to jetlag and insisted on riding on the first day in Belgium. After several bike adjustments we set off around 2pm on a short meandering and rolling ride through Flandrien farms. Right away, I knew the week wasn’t going to be like any other. Not only was the riding incredible and inspiring, but Jamie’s curious line of questioning immediately put me into a “think week” frame of mind. I appreciated his approach to posing the open yet tough questions. I can’t recall the precise words he used but I remember being transformed into a frame of mind I hadn’t expected on the first day. It set a think week tone for the week ahead.

It was a privilege to have a private guide point out the routes, the attractions, and to select the lines as we descended curvy and narrow farm roads through tight corners. At the end of my stay in Flanders, I noticed my average speed on rides with Jamie was higher than my solo rides. His local knowledge meant I didn’t need to faff around with my Garmin route planner or be more cautious on some descents. I also had to learn how to brake on carbon wheels with rim brakes. My road bike in Canada has aluminum wheels and rim brakes, but my gravel bike has carbon wheels with disc brakes. I didn’t realize how frightful it is to brake on carbon wheels with rim brakes. It felt like braking was just a suggestion.

Here is a link to the day 1 route: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93106577

After the ride, I cleaned up, had a short nap, and joined Jamie, Bernard and his wife Ann, co-founders of the Flandrien Hotel for a wonderful home cooked meal in their garden. With their pedigree in cycling and business I found myself sitting through hours of stories and lessons about life, business, overcoming, and friendship. These dinners would become equal highlights to the cycling while in Flanders.

Day 2: SIM Cards and the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen

On Monday, June 13 we set off to Oudenaarde, the finishing city for the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Jamie wanted to show me the famous square, the Flandrien cycling museum (Centruum Ronde van Vlaaderen), and recommended I buy a local SIM card for my phone.

Along the way we stopped at a café or bar that claims to be the David and Mathieu Van Der Poel fan club. It’s fun to see a culture steeped in cycling.

Jamie also pointed out the cycling infrastructure in Flanders. Intersections, roads through villages, and some larger roads all had protected cycling lanes ensuring safety for any kind of cyclist from children to professionals to retirees. He pointed out the Belgian drivers are very respectful of cyclists but on roads with dedicated lanes the drivers would make a point of telling you to get into the lane.

We eventually arrived in Oudenaarde and I found an Orange mobile shop. After patiently waiting nearly 45 minutes for two clients ahead of me, each buying new phones and signing up for new plans, I finally got my local Belgian SIM card for €15. It is highly recommended to use a local SIM card to save on roaming charges. I should have also had my Canadian provider set me up with an eSIM card before my trip, as my Canadian phone number wasn’t accessible with the Belgian SIM card. However, I wasn’t too worried as so many apps just use data to communicate, I think I only missed two calls while using the Belgian SIM card.

Luckily Jamie had several business calls to make and didn’t get too annoyed with the wait. After successfully installing the SIM card we made our way across the square and over to the museum (Centruum Ronde van Vlanderen) for a coffee and to peruse the collection and the shop.

Here is a link to the day 2 route: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93203630

Day 3: De Muur, the Bosberg, and Paradise

Tuesday, June 14 was to be my first day cycling on my own. I looked forward to a long ride to let my thoughts flow and be inspired by whatever landscape unfolded as a pedalled my way around Flanders. I chose a random 100 km route from Strava and discovered it took me over two iconic climbs, De Muur with the chapel on top in Geraardsbergen and the famous cobbled Bosberg climb. These two climbs came in the first 40 km and after that the route meandered east toward Brussels and then north to Opwijk before heading southwest back to the Flandrien Hotel.

Here is a link to the day 3 route: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93310317

I don’t know if I had any revelatory thoughts while out on the ride. However, the landscape continuously inspired me to keep pedalling and exploring what was to come. I was impressed with how quickly the landscape changed from rolling hills to relatively flat lands as I headed north. As the route turned back toward Brakel the landscape slowly began unveiling the rolling lands of Flanders.

I was also introduced to the kindness of Belgian farmers. At some point I ran out of water and found a farm with two guys fixing a tractor. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to me as I approached them. I quickly discovered they didn’t speak French or English, however, the older farmer grabbed both bottles off my bike and swiftly walked into his farmhouse and came back with two full bottles. He insisted, with his hand gestures, that I drink one bottle on the spot so that he can refill the bottle before I set off again. I was overcome with their kindness and willingness to communicate in gestures and smiles.

I knew I was in a cyclist’s paradise!

Day 4: The Baloise Belgium Tour

Bernard planned on driving to Merelbeke, the start of the Belgium Baloise Tour, a professional cycling stage race with many of the big world tour teams and several continental teams. I rode to the start line to capture some of the race atmosphere before riding back in time to watch the cyclists race by the Flandrien Hotel.

It was exhilarating to see all the world tour team buses, cars, cyclists, and their entourage gathered at the start of the tour in Merelbeke. I met up with Bernard within the team buses where he introduced me to a team manager. I then walked along the buses for a while before cycling back toward the official route until my Garmin veered me off to Oudenaarde before finally leading me back to Brakel. Fortunately, I made it back in time to watch the professionals ride by just after their feed zone or “zone de ravitaillement” section of the stage, where cyclists are handed bags (musette) filled with energy bars, gels, sandwiches, and water. Two of the Bora-Hansgrohe cyclists tossed their musettes to the side of the road. They were great souvenirs. I gave one bag to Alex Durant-Whyte, a young pro rider with team Zappi staying at the hotel.

Later that day, I watched the stage replay on GCN and discovered the TV cameras captured me standing on the side of the road – my two milliseconds of international exposure.

Here are the links to the two rides on day 4:

Ride 1: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93399229

Ride 2: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93409277

Day 5: Spaghetti Berg

When first planning my trip to Flanders I thought I would tackle the Flandrien Challenge, where one climbs 59 segments in 72 hours and once accomplished, you receive a personalized 3D printed cobble with your name on it and a place on the website’s hall of fame. Belgium found itself in an unprecedented heat wave and I wasn’t sleeping well so I lowered my ambitions to cover as many segments as I could in two shorter rides on the Thursday and Friday. 

From the hotel, I rode to an intersection point with one of the Flandrien Challenge routes I downloaded to my Garmin. Once on the route I enjoyed being guided along several famous bergs such as the Elvenrenberg, Vossenhol, Pottenberg, Molenberg, Boigneberg. Kerkgate, Eikenburg, Koppenberg, and Edelareberg. I got into the groove and slowly cranked the pedals to cover over 1200 metres of climbing in just over 100 km.

When I got to the Koppenberg, one of the famous climbs in the Tour of Flanders spring classic, I came across two Dutch cyclists. I rode alongside one until he tumbled over due to the climb’s steepness. I quickly checked that he was ok before riding on to catch his friend at the top. We then rode together for a few minutes before I headed back to Brakel while they continued on to Oudenaarde. It’s incredible to think of the pace professional cyclists set on these incredible steep and slippery cobbled climbs. 

Here is the link to the day 5 route and you’ll see why I named this day “spaghetti berg”:  https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93521153

Day 6: The Paterberg and Wallonia

I couldn’t let the week go by without riding the Paterberg. It is one of the last and most decisive climbs in the Tour of Flanders where the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, and many others launched their penultimate attacks to solidify their crowns in one of the most coveted spring classics. 

The route I chose took me along the top of the Paterberg climb so I was forced to descend the climb and with a maximum grade of 20.3% the descent was very scary. It felt like I could tumble over the bars with the slightest bump on a cobble and made the idea of climbing back up even more daunting. However, I powered through the climb at a very slow average speed of 8.8km/h versus the Strava KOM belonging to Jens Vanden Heede at 29.9km/h (as of November 2022). Either way, I was proud to pedal through the entire climb and imagine what it must be like to climb the Paterberg after over 200 km of racing as a professional. Insane!

Being French Canadian I wanted to spend some time in the French part of Belgium and meandered to a small town on the border of Flanders and Wallonia, Orroir. For the first time in a week, I saw French and Flemish on the menu and heard French spoken around me. I stopped at a café and ate a large lunch under a canopy while watching many cyclists roll by.

After lunch, I rode to one of the highest points in Belgium, Mont-Saint Aubert at 154 metres in elevation, where I found more cyclists and one of them graciously pointed out a waterspout in the church gardens to refill my bottles. I chatted with a French cyclist who lives in France and often rides into Belgium. It was good to use my French again and enjoy a friendly conversation.

After enjoying the view over the Wallonian landscape, I found the “fastest” route back to the hotel with my Garmin that guided me along some incredibly bucolic landscapes and at one point took me by an old castle complete with a moat. From the castle the route led me through a wonderful forest covered climb that kept going for about four kilometres and gained nearly 100 metres. I so enjoyed not knowing where the route would take me.

In all, the route had one of the biggest elevation accumulations all week, just over 1260 metres. It was probably the most enjoyable route all week with quiet roads, history, and amazing scenery.

Here is a link to the day 6 route: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93647122

Day 7: The Heatwave!

I woke up to temperatures in the mid 30s (Celcius). I hadn’t slept well the night before due to the heat and Jamie and I planned on riding together again. We decided it would be a day to rest until the afternoon heat subsided. 

We finally left the hotel for a short 25 km ride around 6pm. This was my first ride with Jamie since Monday, so we used the time to catch up and he asked me if I’d had any breakthrough thoughts or revelations. We discussed my plans to continue building a life where I would combine consulting, cycling, and family time to maximize each. I also defined a few boundaries for my consulting engagements such as working no more than 20 hours a week, only working with people and organizations where there is a cultural fit, and to ensure I can contribute from my core values of integrity and kindness. I know I still have a lot to contribute to the community, the cycling and business communities. But I also didn’t want to engage in any new gigs that would undermine my time with my family and take me away from cycling.

After the ride we went to an Italian restaurant in Geraardsbergen with Alex that was doing a Kermesse race training block in Belgium. Alex is from Australia and races with an Italian continental pro team. His team suggested he spend a month in Belgium racing the Kermesse series. Kermesses are Belgian circuit races that are instrumental and formative to young pro riders in building speed, peloton skills, and race tactics.

After dinner, we went to Bar Gidon, another cycling cultural experience. Bar Gidon is a temple to cycling’s history in the region and the home of the Remco Evenepoel fan club. As the Bar Gidon is right by the famous Muur in Geraardsbergen we drove to the top to enjoy the night time views over Flanders.

Here is the link to the short ride route on day 7:  https://ridewithgps.com/trips/93806486

Day 8: The Kermesse

By Sunday, June 19, I had already ridden nearly 500 kilometres over the past six days during one of Belgium’s hottest heatwaves and my legs were tired. My body needed a break. We also had an opportunity to watch Alex in a Kermesse not far from Brakel. Instead of riding to the Kermesse, Jamie and I jumped into his classic 1979 Peugeot decorated in the Flandrien Hotel and sponsor logos. I felt like a cycling relic on my way to a race. 

Here is a short video of the Kermesse racing by:

Often Kermesses are accompanied with town festivals. Sure enough, that Sunday the town was set up as a carnival complete with rides, food vendors, and games. The name Kermesses comes from festivals but now has two meanings – one for a bike race and one for a festival. Often they run together and sometimes there is just a Kermesse festival and sometimes there is just a Kermesse bike race.

On the way back to the hotel Jamie and I chatted about how lucky he is to live in Belgium and to marry his passion for cycling, business and inspiring others to find and define that next inflection point in their personal journeys. Tt was a privilege spending time with Jamie who is a writer, keynote speaker, European masters cycling champion, and a genuinely kind person. In addition, the daily conversations with Bernard and Ann invariably inspired me and confirmed I was on the right path.

Day 9: Some Meandering Adventures

By day nine I felt it was time to go home, but I had one more day before my flight. I really missed my wife and daughters and couldn’t wait to get home. I found it tough to motivate myself to ride but knew I would regret not riding. 

Instead of planning any routes I just got on the bike and rode until I found myself in Oudenaarde. Just as I arrived in Oudenaarde, I got confused on a left turn and rode the bike into a gutter and tumbled to the ground. When I got up there were five young Australian women on bikes asking if I was ok. I wondered if I died! But it was just a strange coincidence that I tumbled in front of them. I didn’t know they were behind me. Other than a scratch on my knee and a few scrapes on Jamie’s bike I was ok. But, I felt terrible for crashing Jamie’s bike. I followed the Australian women into the centre of Oudenaarde and discovered they weren’t just Aussies on a European holiday – they were in Belgium to race bikes!

Once in Oudenaarde, I went back to the cycling museum for a coffee and bought a few cycling caps as souvenirs. I then meandered back to the hotel to pack my bags and ready myself for a final scintillating dinner and conversation with Bernard and Ann.

Here is the route from day 9: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/94004403

Summary:

If you are at a crossroads in your career, or just need an escape to stimulate your body and mind in the cycling mecca of the world, I highly recommend a “Think Week” at the Flandrien Hotel. Meeting Ann, Bernard, and Jamie was one of my highlights of 2022. You won’t regret spending time at the Flandrien.

Additional Note:

I didn’t write about my conversations with Alex Durrant-Whyte, the Australian pro rider I met at the hotel. They were equally riveting and gave me so much insight into how hard it is to become a professional cyclist. His grit and determination are incredible.

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