A September weekend in Calais has become a tradition for RCC. So when the Hotel Meurice changed hands, we had to look for another centre. Luckily, Mike O was on the case and the result was a fantastic weekend of cycling in Flanders bracketed by rain that most riders missed - apart from Mike and those who decided to cycle to and fro the hotel!
The Calais trip has been an RCC staple for seven years now. We loved the routes but they'd become a little too familiar so this year we went for a complete break and booked into the Hotel Au Tonnellier in Bergues, a picturesque Flemish town south of Dunkirk. The hotel was built in the 18th century, rebuilt after WWII and renovated recently. The rooms were great and the trip included excellent dinners and breakfasts.
However, one had to get there. Originally, the weather forecast for the whole weekend was the drreaded BBC 'double raindrops' with thunderbolts thrown in. In the end, however, this sorry forecast didn't transpire for those who drove there who were greeted with mainly sunshine, warmth and the usual Nord-Pas-de-Calais winds.
"Which idiot said ‘Let’s park the cars in Dover and cycle from Calais to the hotel" Mike O was heard to say. Four of them (Mike plus Charl J, Andrew S, James F- the fearless four??) were cycling the 30 miles from Calais to Bergues, in a strong wind (fortunately on our backs) and torrential rain. The rest of the party crossed through the tunnel and drove there, keeping dry.
Everyone woke on Saturday to sunshine. We split into a fast group and a steady group plus me (the slow group) and headed for Ypres. After a leisurely coffee and cake stop plus a mandatory visit to the famous Menin Gateway, in view of the strong wind, the Steady Group decided to cut off 30k and take a shorter ride to Nieuwpoort and then home via Veurne, another delightful Flemish town with a cobbled centre, completing a 80 mile ride.
The faster group made it to the Grand Place in Bruges for lunch, stopped in a bar on the way back to watch Froome win the Vuelta, and arrived back shortly after us having ridden the planned 100 miles.
On Sunday morning, another glorious but slightly windy day greeted us. Both groups headed out fo a ride in the sun through quiet lanes via Esquelbec that eventually saw us climb the glorious cobbles to Mont Cassel for coffee. We then returned to Bregues for a leisurely lunch. The fearless (foolish?) four then had a dry ride to Dunkirk until we reached the port when the wind and rain hit us.
Pros and Cons
PRO: The hotel (brilliant!), the weather (if you chose to drive to Bergues), Bergues itself (lovely town), venturing north into Belgium, the food (glorious throughout), the cost (relatively cheap!), cycling infrastructure in Belgium which is massively pro-cyclist.
CONS: The weather on Friday and Sunday post 4pm. Sections of Belgium where they didn't bother with tarmac but went for concrete slabs that you feel every 5 yards, wind, wind and more wind... although many of us had the most incredible 40kph zip across the countryside for 15km back to Bergues once it was behind us!
And for a bit more perspective from those who regretted their 'cycle there' choice... this from Charl...
“Calais/ Dunkirk 2017 was a mixture of experiences. First arriving in Calais was like an amphibious invasion relived. The four of us bracing torrential rain and wind; losing Mike after getting off the ferry. Then shortly afterwards three of us came off our bikes by hitting a curved train line crossing. Cycled the 30 miles to our hotel in pelting rain and wind. Only thing I had dry at the hotel was my mobile phone.
However, the main day - Saturday - was a pleasure but I tell you what Belgium is flat (enough said). The Sunday was very nice a short sunny cycle up cobbles to Cassel .
Once everyone else left us to depart home, it left only the four of us to cycle the long quiet eerie roads to Dunkirk port; quite a place, like something out of Madmax. Hell broke loose when we arrived at Dover port hour. Had a two hour delay sitting outside the port with 40mph winds and heavy rain. Getting back to our car was an experience never to be repeated. Big lorries dominating Dover port wet roads and spray as if Mike and I were just a bit of debris to be tossed about. Hell on earth does exist!!!”