An Englishman abroad mountain biking in Belgium.

This is an old report that I put up onto my original website. Apologies for re-posting it, but I think one needs to publicise other places as being good to ride....

It rained. We caught lizards.

"Why Belgium again? This is the fourth year in a row you've been there; aren't you bored of it by now?"

We often get asked this question. 100% of the people who ask generally either go camping in the UK, or go to the same holiday location in either Spain or France every year. One guy who asks has been going to the same town in Cyprus for near 40 years every summer. I'm a little tired of defending poor old Belgium to people that either sit in a field for two weeks, or spend ten days smashed on sangria in a pool side bar. We've done the Rockies in winter and -20C, a tour of Iceland, plus New York for a weekend type holidays more times than I care to remember. Las Vegas? Tick. Skiing? Tick. Regular cheap tourist deals to the former satellite states of the Soviet Republic? Tick. Done it. What we are tired of is the "holiday on a plate" type situation, where as a tourist you are pre-served your two week's activities at the time of booking, or get met by a tourist rep and coach at the airport. A friend of ours once went to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon for two weeks; he arranged everything here in the UK. Flights, car, where he would be staying each night, what he would be doing each day right down to where he'd be eating each night. What's the point of that? Boringsville. We like to look and find stuff now. Prior to the kids coming along we used to just get flights out, and that was the extent of our organising. Now with kids it's a bit hard turning up in, say, Lisboa at 3am with no accommodation organised. Hence why we've use the Ardennes and pre-booked rental homes as a base for exploration [ click here to see where we stayed ]. And anyway I like the cycling there! Did you know that up to 15,000 cyclists turn up to Sunday mountain bike rides? That Houffalize is home to world class mountain bike racing? You didn't know that did you?

Enough defending the place. We like it, and don't care if you don't understand our motives for going. On average in any given year we seem to spend a month in Belgium; either the coast or the Ardennes. We'll also go elsewhere during the year, but invariably wife will re-book Belgium at some point. There is also a fundamental reason for this; children like a bit of familiarity until they are about nine or ten. We're providing them with a nice base for the rest of their lives. Er, I hope. Also for our Christmas break we really can't be arsed driving miles, and we can be on the coast in Belgium in less time than it can sometimes take to drive to somewhere interesting in the UK; like Reading or Swindon.

This year we've chosen to sample the Germanic side of the Ardennes up near Spa. Why? 'cause my wife spotted a 'designer' house she liked the look of, and she fancied exploring Germany a bit more. It's also on a posted MTB route, so good to go for me. Generally find parent's happy, kids happy too. And this year I have my happy i-gotU gps device so that I can show you my routes. This I can tie in with my photographs. And, well, even though we like the Ardennes it isn't actually that big. In three years we've done most of it and probably know it better than most Belgiums. Actually scratch that last statement; I'd say we definitely know it better than 90% of Belgium people.

Oh and the best bit is that it is relatively cheap to rent there. Far less than it would be in the UK, and you get an architect designed home as well. To be brutally honest, I think we've kind of done Belgium now. Although a pleasant enough place, the Eifel region of Germany holds so much more of interest and is actually fairly accessible from the UK. My wife has actually gone out and bought a German phrase book; she's never done that before. The other reason for moving on is that we've realised we are as ignorant as pig shit when it comes to life in Germany in general. Sure we've been a few times, possibly my wife has spent two weeks there in total, and myself six weeks, but most of that was either in shitty Berlin, surprisingly dull Aachen oron a NATO base in Munchen Gladbach.

But the main question really is what bike to take. One ride posting on the web gave a ride of 40km as having 1,500m of climbing. Ouch! Of course that also means 1,500m of descending! Having ridden in Belgium I know that the rides are a mix of miles of fire roads, steep climbs and virtually unrideable descents. In other words none suited to any particular UK based rig. The Belgium riders themselves ride what are essentially cyclo cross bikes with suspension and disc brakes; i.e. short travel, lightweight mountain bikes. Now my Tassajara fits that description, but I'm addicted to my Pace, and I have a soft spot for the Klein Mantra I have. Decisions, decisions.This is not helped by the fact that one does not know the terrain until one actually gets there. You try finding the equivalent of an OS map in your local WHSmiths. In the end I took the Pace, and as usual it was compromised. The locals seem to be edging towards 100mm full suspension bikes - as indeed are most sensible people. The Pace was fine on the little downhill bits, but a right faff going uphill. Right kind of weight, but too high at the front.

Getting there.

We drive. Er, on motorways. That's all I'm going to say; go get a map. Of note this year was that I've finally given in and bought a carrier for the bike; it now goes on the roof-rack instead of being dismantled into little pieces and then hidden throughout the car. It was always a bit boring putting the thing together on the first day of any holiday. Not to mention wife finding a rear mech in her laundry bag. Wife, bless, the week before - the week before I add! - went out and bought a bigger ca, which we picked up the day before we travelledr. So we packed it full, much to the amusement of our builder neighour. He saw me putting onions into the boot, so I told him I was off to France. He was even more amused ten minutes later when we returned to pick up the tickets that we'd forgotten.

The drive down by the way is boring, made fun only by late lane changing Belgiums. They'll be doing 47mph, you 95mph. Two car lengths away, they move in-front with a flick of the indicator. Or the other joy is when you are doing 70mph and one sweeps in from an interchange doing a good 120mph and attaches themselves to your bumper. In the UK people do this all of the time, but here you'd have happily been driving along near vacant roads for 20 minutes when somebody does it entirely at random. Kind of spoils that happy reverie you'd gotten yourself into.

This year wee took a Renault Scenic as our mode of transport. Well we had no choice really, this being the car we own. Very comfortable to drive, and relaxing on the motorway. Bit thirsty if you've the petrol version as we have, and the 1600cc could do with more power in the hills, but we're pleased with the thing. It certainly took all our crap.

The Ardennes.

We're up near Malmedy this year - essentially Spa-Franchorchamps and the Nurburgring, and you know how hilly those places are. Our house is on top of a 500m hill; I can see for 40 miles. Well actually what does that mean really? If I look up I can see the sun, and that's 93 million miles away. Anyway, I have a bloody good view. The area is awash with money. It's not lying on the floor, but the people appear very affluent. They are also hugely friendly, so instantly we prefer the Germanic side of the Ardennen. Mind we've yet to order in a restaurant. Everybody knows what fun that can be. My wife once mistakenly ordered calves brain. That was a joy. She looked like vomiting, so we had to swop. I'm sure that's the only reason women get married. It's patently not to have huge amounts of free sex. I suspect it is either to swop out gross food stuffs or get rid of Daddy long legs.

Of course being up on top of a 500m hill means a) that I'm stuffed bike wise on the way back from each ride and b) we cop all the rain. At least one can see it coming so there's no surprise when it does start to rain. Every single ride ends with me being a sweaty mess.

The other joy of being perched high up is the weather. As I write it is blowing a gale, we have horizontal rain and, mid to late August, 10:00 hours and it is 7 degrees C.

Insects. A subject that anybody who holidays in areas with lots of livestock will be familiar. Flies we have in abundance, as we do mosquitoes. But this year we have Daddy Long Legs in abundance. Actually given that here some are as thick as a pencil perhaps they are called Daddy Fat Bastards? On our car we had one bug splatter that looked as though somebody had thrown an egg at the car. Huge it was. Gross.

Things to do other than riding a bike in the rain.

Man, where do I start. Much of what there is, is hidden behind a language barrier or bizarrely written brochures. Museum of clothes driers anybody? A fascinating study of washing through the years. I like that. Means you have to look and find. I've collected some websites for you to look at...... But one warning; generally after 19:30 the Arden closes shop. Nothing will be open and there will be nobody about. Especially on weekends. No Belgium person in history has ever had less than 12 hours sleep per night. If anybody wants to invade Belgium, do it after 7pm when the army goes to bed, but bring your own food. In all honesty, whilst annoying it is no different to being in Wales or Scotland so one can work around the odd closing times. Just bear in mind that an area may well be totally closed; no petrol stations, corner shops or fast food outlets. You soon learn to fill up when you see a petrol station or supermarket open.

One word of caution; the Belgiums are into events. Some of the smaller towns close to host cycling or auto events. Quite frankly this is brilliant. Imagine waking up to find classic motorcycles streaming by, or 15,000 mountain bikers, or a big cyclo cross event..... Excellent! During the summer there are always cyclists around so you could ask them for local routes.

Malmedy is really where you want to go for finding stuff out, for restaurants, a good Trek based bike shop [that bizarrely does not stock local maps] and food as it has a large Carrefour. Don't bother paying to park in the town centre as it is free just outside. Literally; it is free to park on the side streets just off the main drag. Oh and if you have children under 9 there is a good playground with cafe and toilets. Waimes has all the car dealers if you need auto work. Malmedy is also actually home to the F1 track, even though it is allegedly at Spa-Franchorchamps. Don't believe me? Tell you what; I'll park at Malmedy and cycle to the circuit. You can start at Spa, and I'll let you drive. I'll get the beers in! Mind it'll cost you £400 to get in on the Sunday.

Without fail I buy an eight euro map from the local tourist centre [well there'd be no point buying one for Nairobi now would there?]. The mountain bike routes are all posted. See for information. There is a four cross and downhill track at Saint Vith, allegedly although I suspect it has yet to be built as of 2010 as I couldn't find it. They do this a lot; publicise something in a brochure, and when you get there find it is proposed subject to funding. But that's being negative and unfair to a land that is in many ways leaving us behind. Did you know that here, in addition to most towns not only having signposted MTB routes and designated maps, they can provide you with a pre-programmed GPS device and handlebar mount? Too tame? Then try MTB based geocaching. Or if you are fit there is a 190km posted route, the Grande Traversee des Cantons de L'Est, or unfit then do the Descent des Fagnes, but you'd need a lift back.

One interesting place to visit is the little town of Gerolstein in Germany. Not much there, and generally most people pass by on their way to the Nurburgring. This is fine; we pass it by now also. However, we always without fail stop by the station, cross the road to the little park. There is a natural spring. This spring produces fizzy, mineralised water that is alleged to be especially good for cyclists. Whatever, but there is a simple joy in filling up every water bottle with rather lovely mineral water. Generally there is a queue of locals. Of course you could always use the town as a base in and of itself. It has everything you need [well apart from a bike shop].

This is a rather bizarre, but lovely wildlife park in Daun, Germany. As per the UK you drive around inside an enclosure. Unlike the UK, here you are allowed to get out of your car and feed the animals. Adds an element of excitement to things. The cafe, interestingly, sells in season game. Great! You look at the animals then eat them. I like that. There is a large playground for the children, overlooked by the cafe. You eat, they play. Outside the facility there is a fun sommerrodelbahn - a metal toboggan run. Our kids loved that.

food less food


My personal favourite. We'd seen it advertised in the tourist information places, but quite frankly a boardwalk through a peat bog didn't sound too interesting. It doesn't does it? Only coming back from Eupen I saw a path going off to nowhere. It ended up as one of these boardwalks. Well that was it; we spent three days exploring them and each boardwalk was utterly captivating. My children particularly enjoyed capturing the little viviparous lizards, of which there are hundreds sunning themselves on the wood planks. The one shown here was especially friendly and kept coming back, being quite happy to be handled by all of us.



This is a lovely little wooded area to take the children, as it has a rather nice cafe attached to the playground! Essentially it is a guided walk through the woods with several playgrounds. The cafe has a BBQ on weekends, and serves strong beer. All very civilised, and getting more and more popular with the English oddly enough.


Mountain Bike related websites; Germany and Belgium. for details of the bike parks at Ferme Libert and Ovifat, both former ski slopes. Uplift facilities provided - you don't often see that now do you? Over in Germany try for slightly more adventurous events and a North Shore boardwalk section near the town of Daun.

Driving stuff.

Need I say anything about the Nurburgring? Well actually I should. I'd imagined a place of constant activity; of cars haring around all the time. They don't. I knew nothing of the 'ring prior, so we went into the visitors centre. £50 later we were in.... to what is a big motorway service station. Hmmm, so out we went and asked about public viewing of the track. More money required, and under no circumstances could one enter otherwise. This sounded odd to me as I know the track can be driven on as if it were a public road. Turns out there are two Nurburgrings. One the F1 track, the other that we all know and love. This I found out you access through the town of Nurburg. So if you go, check to see if anything is on and give the visitor centre a miss.

Naturally our 1600cc Scenic now sports a Nurburgring sticker.

Of course the main thing one should be doing here is bringing a big motorbike or two seater sports car. The roads are excellent; twisty and fast. Hit the German Eifel region near Gerolstein and some roads are virtually race tracks. We mistakenly got onto one and it was like being in a family hatch back at Brands Hatch on race day. You rarely see Police and there are no speed cameras. Most restaurants have bikers welcome signs outside. If I still had my motorbike this is the place I'd come to no doubt. You could be a real loon here and nobody would know.

We actually found Germany to be the more interesting place to visit this year, especially the little town of Monshau. This town obviously depends entirely upon tourism for it's income, yet the people there are not at all stuffy about it in the way that a town in the UK would. Everybody gets welcomed as if they've lived there all their lives, and you don't feel ripped off as the prices charged are entirely rational. The town is stuffed full of people making food from scratch, much of it a speciality to the town. Be warned that some of the stuff, especially the cakes, is, ahem, wierd. The houses are very medieval in look, so utterly photogenic. It helps that two small rivers run through the town, and have been adorned with iron sculptures. The town lies in a valley and is surrounded by steep hills on all sides, all of which are covered in pathways clinging to their sides. Every which way you go it is just lovely. Well worth a visit. And don't worry about getting bored looking at the place, as the castle holds any number of cultural events. One suspects that the place can get very busy, but it never felt crowded when we were there. Try and get there early, as parking is limited.


Plopsa land at Coo.

If there are four of you and you have around two hundred euro's burning a hole in your pocket then you could do worse than visit Plopsa Land. There are four of them in Belgium and the Netherlands, and they are a kind of mini theme park. Water slides, toboggans etc. but geared towards children of 1.2m and taller. So 5 to 95 then. Be warned, even on quiet days you will queue for over an hour for the popular rides. Luckily there are a few other distractions so no need to spend more than four hours in queue's during a typical visit. Our personal favourite was the large toboggan ride, although this can easily be spoilt by following a slow person down. The train through the animal park is pleasant and a good excuse for a 40 minute sit down. Quite a few locals use the place as a park for their kids as there is no entrance fee to get in. We did this on day one, and our children were happy to play on the small beach, on the playground equipment and to feed the goats and fish. Naturally this will all stop once they realise how good the rides are. Be warned that the sweat shop is expensive, and under no circumstances go near to the pick and mix.

If you go on-line prior to your visit they do discount coupons of 20%, or you can buy an annual pass. Obviously you'd have to really, really like Plopsa for this.

Property rental.

we use Ardennes-Etape, and they have been pretty good. The houses are described well, although their actual locational instructions on the web could be better. It's a bit like booking a house here, and it "being in Surrey" somewhere. But mainly they are cheap compared to the UK. Our 6 bedroomed luxury house was cheaper to rent than a caravan in Clacton. Even adding in the ferry and fuel costs it was still cheaper. Shit caravan in Clacton near to where the local alcoholics hang out or the clear, fresh air of the Ardennes / Eiffel mountains? Easy choice for me. The only real downside being the high deposit, plus the high cost of fuel and water. We regularly blow £300 just on heating on Christmas breaks. That hurts. The Germans tend to use the larger houses as family gatherings, and it is not unusual to see three or four complete families sharing a single home. Boy would that be a cheap holiday.

As a rough guide the Southern Arden are the more photogenic of the two areas, but more rural in nature and have closer ties with events of WWII [a rotting tank in every town]. The Northern Ardennes are less photogenic, richer, more modern in approach and possibly a bit more like a holiday in Wales. Also in the Blue Ardennen you are closer to Germany and the Eifel Mountains. Bit more to do here, but not as pretty!

I'm surprised not to see more UK registered cars out and about, although we have seen more and more over the years. The area is as good as mid-Wales in terms of views and wetness, cheaper than the UK in more respects and a bit more of an adventure given the language barrier. Perhaps mountain bikers are not that adventurous after all? Actually perhaps Belgium is a bit boring, and perhaps people do really like to spend their holidays around a pool rather than trying to find open shops or working their way around a foreign language? Personally a poolside holiday sounds like hell to me. I'd rather travel and take the risk of a new place being dull than actually booking into an all-in-one, everything included poolside holiday. Mate of mine went to Cuba once with his wife; they never left the hotel complex as by the time they'd finished breakfast it was time for lunch. After lunch as the drinks were included, they were too pissed to go anywhere. Can you imagine such a thing?


Generally you cannot trust the town itself to be open when one arrives, let alone the shops. Arrive on Friday afternoon in some areas, and you'll probably not see the shops open until sometime on Monday, possibly as late as Wednesday. Some places you'll never see open, and I'm guessing that these are hobby businesses that only open when a big cycling event comes to town. Restaurants? Open weekends? Forget it unless you are in a tourist trap like Spa on race weekend. So we take enough food to see us through for the weekend, and if we find a shop open we stock up fully as you never know when it will re-open again. Bit like camping. And when you do finally get to eat in a good restaurant, well the wait is always worth it even if only for the adventure of not knowing what you've actually ordered. Generally one is happy with the food. For one the beer, and secondly the food is invariably very, very good even in backwater places. The Belgiums like to put quality stuff into their guts fair play. Most supermarkets stock excellent quality food, so you're never wanting. Although having said that the food is rather expensive, especially meat products. A small basket of goods that would cost £35 at home will hit you £70 easily here. How about for apples for £2.20? Or petrol at 15% more than the UK? Honestly how do the Belgiums afford to live here?

It seems that the southern Arden closes pretty much most of the time. However, the Northern Blue Ardennes is slightly more rational when it comes to opening times. I guess this is probably due to the large Carrefour forcing local shops to open otherwise they would lose business. Also we are 12km from the Grand Prix circuit so that has bearing here. There are few fast food shops, and certainly no home deliveries. You want to eat, you cook it. This area is popular with German's. They arrive fully stocked with food and do not even venture out to the local towns.

Strangely the area is well stocked with kebap shops. Not kebab, kebap.

Naturally ordering food in Belgium is easy as it is all French based, same as home roughly, although you can have little adventures in more local restaurants. But venture East into Germany and boy do you have fun. Most meals seem to involve a calves head, or bull's testicles, so one generally sticks to the same order wherever one goes. Ours kind of involves us muttering kaffee and pointing to somebody eating a sausage. And yes, we're always stuffed if nobody is eating in the restaurant when we arrive. Our children have learnt quite quickly to either go hungry or stick to street vendor ice cream. Adventurous little blighters. In one cafe my cake was full of broken up cough sweets. I'd have thought it a practical joke, yet this was their main product and they were alarmingly busy. Bet winters are fun in that town. In Eupen I had an onion pizza. Raw onion on a pizza base. I ate it, but, well, I'd not order it again.

But be warned; smoking is more than tolerated here. Anywhere you go, somebody will be smoking. Museum, cafe, pub. Anywhere really. You can even get sweets to encourage the little ones to take up the habit. Joy.

I do get some stick from the Belgiums for suggesting that their towns will be closed, and there will be nothing to do. One even stated that bored Netherlanders come here for something to do of an evening. Yeah, right. The Belgiums have a reputation for being wild, party loving people. Unlike those "stick in the mud" types from Amsterdam? Basically there is little to nothing to do after 8pm. Fact.


Dour but not actually unfriendly. Bit like being in Yorkshire then. All dressed smartly, no baggy arsed jeans here. Most speak English very well. They seem to like sleeping as most Belgiums I know go to bed before 8pm, and will be asleep Sunday afternoon. If you are used to going out of an evening, then go to a different country is all I can say. Even in big tourist towns in and around the Arden you'll struggle to find anything open after about 7pm. This is both refreshing and irritating in equal measure. Refreshing if you have small children, but annoying if you actually want to go out of an evening. Really I have no idea what many of them do of an evening; watch telly I guess. We got here on a Friday afternoon and the local pub was open then. Bit too early for a beer, so I mentally said that I'd take us out Saturday for an evening stroll and pop in for some beer. Did the stroll, pub shut. On Saturday evening? I guess one explanation for the quietness is possibly that they are just not here. In Belgium you are apparently guaranteed by law to have a pay rise each year. This would be expensive, so a lot of companies give additional leave instead. So instead of a 2% pay rise you get 5 days? Or a 1% rise and 3 more days off? Ten years down the line you are on full pay, run a business on the side yet still get 70 days annual leave? Can't see it myself, but for many industries this is apparently true. Would explain why car dealers are closed on Saturday, pubs of an evening and restaurants during the holiday season. For the main part the towns seem dead for most of the day, which is very odd. One is left bemused as to where they get their money from; probably fiddling the books in Brussels or skimming some of the Germans as we are not too far away from the industrial areas of the Rhine. Most local business seems of the hobby variety, and here I include those right up to the level of car dealers. I'm not saying that the Belgiums are lazy or work shy, just that they don't seem to need to do much of it. Pretty utopian if you ask me. They'd be horrified to be asked to work in the UK.

One last point on local pubs. Closed Saturday night, open during church hours on a Sunday. Go figure.

In all fairness when we hit Germany most of the tourist regions were dead there too. One suspects that the UK is out of kilter holiday wise with Europe? Either that or the Germans were out making more money. Perhaps our population density in the UK is such that our places always have customers, whereas here once the tourists go then there isn't enough local support to warrant remaining open? Certainly most retail shops didn't specialise. The bike shop would also repair lawn mowers; the toy shop stocked magazines and artist materials; some cafes sold furniture. Most looked as though they just shut shop.

Don't believe the hype about those continentals that are better than recycling than we are. In Belgium everything goes in the same bin. Some places will tut at you for not putting your apple cores in with the collective pig food bin, and there are wine bottle bins everywhere, but that's it. They don't recycle. Yet pop into Germany and they'll give you discount coupons for most things, especially plastic bottles. I like that. In the UK it is some kind of religion to recycle; you do it for the misery of it, not reward yet at the same time whilst you are impoverished somebody somewhere is making a killing financially from your gestures. Germany, you do it, we'll pay you. Cut the crap. Both of these explanations may also explain why there are no charity shops either here or in Germany. The Belgiums don't believe in charity, whilst the Germans get paid for their tat. Either way it means that whatever you see people with, it has been bought new. Hence why they always look better than us? One suspects the Belgiums are playing catch up with the Germans, and are probably hugely in debt. Personally I applaud a lack of charity shops. Once you've been in one, you'll never forget the subtle smell of wee.

One thing the Belgiums do do well is not forget the war. In every town there will be some small museum to American slaughter and winter hardship. Each museum will have no information on what the Belgium people did in the war. I've no idea what they did other than collect broken bits of tank afterwards, or be shot indescriminately by the Germans. Go to Germany, and as Monty Python said - don't mention the wars. They never happened, right? Not our fault.


Belgium has it all. They win on the house front. Glass box for a garden shed? Check. Double wide, double height glass wall because there is a nice view? Check. 60ft wide patio? Check. Imagine a flash James Bond house, and you have the modern houses being built here. All for half the price we'd pay in the UK.

Having said that, given that most Belgiums drive everywhere for anything I'll bet any money most do not know who their neighbours are or what they look like.

What did I take?

A 140mm hardtail for starters. Wrong choice; 100mm full suspension bike gives a better all-round ride and more options in terms of what trail choices one makes. Problem for me being that I don't own a medium travel full suspension bike and pretty much have no need for one back in the UK.

Normal trail tools and spares. In addition: track pump, spare inner tubes and no-tubes sealant, chain and fork lubes. Two sets of spare brake pads, although I'd strongly suggest that you start the trip with some new ones fitted, and take your old ones as spares. I had a right faff trying to fit new pads out on the trail. Bring loads of zip ties. I also took a full cleaning kit, although I never actually used it. Somehow cleaning your bike on a Sunday is fine, but when you'll be getting it muddy again withing 24 hours it all seemed a bit pointless. I did clean the chain, and wash my rotors, but that was the extent of my cleaning.

Oh and I also took a spare saddle. In 17 years of mountain biking I have never damaged a saddle, so I brought a spare with me? Go figure.

But dear Reader do you now that the main reason for bringing trail tools and spares is to repair the stuff that gets broken in the rental home? We invariably break something, and rather than lose the £500 deposit I repair and make mend. One year I had to put back together the drum of a clothes drier, which meant dismantling the whole machine. One year it was the dvd system. Another I had to get cut a piece of glass to repair a fridge, and this year we've broken the two childs bikes that came with the rental. One suspects that in each instance said items were already broken by previous tenants.

The rides.

Can be hard to find. They don't have bridleways for a start, more old farm tracks that don't really go anywhere. Furthermore come August it is hunting season after 6pm. Lovely. You're out in the woods, next thing you know you're face up against an armed man in full cammo gear. And you've just frightened his deer away, the one he's been stalking for 2 hours. Some towns do produce maps, and these if you get them are always excellent. A little ambitious though - many of the rides will be 40 miles long. One of the tricks I found was to follow the events they do. These tend to use trails made specifically for the event, so far more interesting and a bit "local" if you understand? A quad bike would have forged a path through woods, weeds and fields. The guided routes of the maps can either be very tame, or leave you standing there wondering how people ride them. I stood perplexed looking at 15m of slate that was effectively the slate layers, but end up so you had a series of knife edge ridges of varying depths. But then you remember that we are mountain bikers, whilst they do cyclo cross. In other words they generally assume you'll get off and walk rather than attempt to ride it as we would. Once you adopt that mentality, then the 20cm wide wooden bridges are less daunting, as do the vertical drops.

One thing; if you are a UK rider and take your normal bike over, you'll be over-biked for 99% of the time. Generally no place for full suspension or 140mm hardtails. For most of the rides you'll need to have a ligtweight, short travel open framed bike with skinny tyres, 140mm discs or even cantilevers. Roads, tracks and carrying your bike are the norm. Having said this the Germans are beginning to influence things. Up at Saint Vith there is a North Shore section, four cross track and a downhill run in a trail centre. My ride here the other night involved a bit of boardwalk over some peaty bog land. Bit different to Surrey I can tell you.

So, what's the riding like? Like Welsh trail centre's only more natural. No rock beds or crushed stone here. Natural. And hard. A normal Surrey ride involves 2,000m of climbing in 24 miles. Here in 28 miles you'll do 4,500m of climbing. Through managed forest, so often deep muddy ruts and smashed tree stumps. It's hard work. The trail will be muddy, full of pine needles, covered in tree roots, crushed slate and big bits of harder granite rock. Traction can be hard to find, and going downhill sounds painful as your chain slaps around. I love it. I've never been a fan of trail centres as you can always ride them, no matter what the weather. Sounds odd that, but for me mountain biking is me against the elements, the trail and my own skill. Plus at trail centres I tend to look like "old man with all the kit" and this isn't a look I like.

The Southern Arden seems to be characterised by huge group rides. You'll not see less than ten or fifteen people out for a ride, and they'll be on either carbon hardtails or supermarket 40lb pieces of shit. The Northern area is more like the UK. Lots of solo riders on varying bikes. This suggests to me that no particular bike suits the terrain. Have a full suspension for the rooty, rocky downhills but then you're stuffed on the 30 degree upslope or the 5 mile road section. This variety I like. Few cars means that the road bits allow you cover ground in safety. This does mean that any tyre you use at home will be more than adequate here.

Of course the fire roads mean that you can get a little complacent. I fell off big style one night exactly on a transition point from road ride to technical singletrack. My UK specific wide bars were just too wide for the trail head gap, and I'd not allowed for this. Naturally I was alone, with no mobile and miles from home. So you have to ride at 90% unless you have a bail out plan. Er, I tend not to so I'm a bit of a muppet there. My fall wasn't serious [bruised knee and suspected fractured rib] so I got away with it, but just be aware you're miles from anywhere with no support.

Personally I find the local routes adequately interesting enough for a two week holiday. I'd probably be bored of them if I lived here, as they are more like permissive rides through forestry land than naturally evolved and evolving trails that we have in Surrey. Here also the rides are direction specific, so a bit odd in one respect. Think of them as natural trail centres? But unlike trail centres, where you can ride a route in its' entirity, or mix and match best bits, generally here the routes have few cross over points or common ground. Once you start one, you've moved away from the others. In a way think of the routes as following the leaves of a clover plant. This isn't helped if you just follow the route signs on the ground, as they are direction specific. Buy a map, study it and you'll soon spot the rather pointless fire-road climbs.

On sunny days you still get mud here, and it is of a funny type. Leaf mulch mixed with mud mixed with crushed slate. I rode here one especially wet year and wore my entire transmission out in two weeks at one hour per evening. And I rigorously clean my bike, with lube sessions afterwards. Oh and by entire transmission I do mean the lot including the rear mech, front and rear rings, plus the chain. Mud here is a serious challenge, and the guide books warn against going out unprepared. If it's muddy, either double your ride time or just pick a shorter route. In winter forget it, you'll be off your bike and on skis. Cross country skiing is big here, and you'll have whole families out.

One note of warning; well two actually. Sometimes the triangular route guides fall off the trees, or can be hidden when subsequent signs are put up by non-cyclists. Secondly some of the specified routes can be, er, well really, really boring. Think roads. And I have a third; rain. One day we must have had a foot of the stuff. Honest; local floods were reported on the tv and the rivers were in flood. Wet it most certainly was.

And don't fret if you've not bought a bike with you pet. There are lots of places to hire bikes; at Coo they do circa 2004 Specialized full suspension bikes for about £20 a session. Given that you'll be on new trails, the old school V-brakes are not a worry as you'll be travelling at sub light speed. Most bike shops could sort you out with something.

Waimes / Thirimont circular.

This is only 13km in length, but has almost 600m of climbing. It thus seems far, far harder than the short length would suggest. It's not overly interesting to be honest, and perhaps only 500m holds any challenge, and then only if you deliberately seek the more challenging lines or up the pace. But for a post dinner ride it is harmless enough, and does work a sweat up. Be warned that if you attempt it late summer the muck spreaders will be about. Bad karma. Hardly any traffic at any time, virtually no people and only one dog.

[Click here for my route ]

Unofficial Thirimont.

Of course you cannot keep a good mountain biker down. Often once you've been in an area some time, and have kept your eyes open the tell-tale signs of slightly nefarious MTB activity rears its' head. Tyre tracks, bits of chalk on the floor or spray painted emblems on roads all add up to some much better routes. Ideally if you see a local event advertised, either enter it or follow sections of it the next day. Chalk diagrams have a habit of being washed away quite quickly here. And because few people ride around here, the rides can feel very virginal, as if you are the first person through there. Be warned though, as the "locals only" routes really cab lead you well away from anywhere that people go. Posted MTB routes are quiet enough, but if you go off piste in a million acre forest and have a bad accident, i.e. one where you can't walk, you'll probably not make it through the night. I mean it; off piste routes in Belgium are for the brave or stupid. I fall heavily into the stupid camp, but even then I'll not go so far into the woods that I couldn't drag myself back to a road. And I hear you say "take a 'phone you muppet!" Yeah, right. Like a mobile doesn't even work on Headley Heath so it ain't gonna work deep in these valleys.

You may be surprised to learn that my route was only 14km long, yet involved 1.2km of vertical climb. I've managed to plot a route that avoided the worst of the fire-road climbs, yet retained the best downhill bits. Now the short distance is entirely a factor of my having been here ten days; give me a bit more time and I'd have plotted a good 3 hour route. This 14km is a nice one; a bit like just riding Leith Hill.

Now dear Reader please consider that last paragraph. 1.2km of climb, in 14km? 1.2km is 1,200m or, wait for it, around 3,600ft. That's the height of mount Snowden. If you don't like hills, then don't come here is all I can say. However, look at it another way. That's 3,600ft of descent. Off road. Now do you see why I like the area? And descents here border on being technical; this ride had a good 800m of truly horrid tree roots to contend with. My fork's have 140mm of travel and I used it all up coming down on quite ridiculous 200m section. And I don't mean one hit, then wait a few metres for the next whilst carefully picking a line. This was full on, close packed trees on an off camber slope covered with exposed roots and a slate / gneiss bedrock. My forks packed down and my rims made contact with bedrock. You went where the trail sent you. It was unpleasant but brilliant fun at the same time. My route was designed to make the most use of this section.

[ Click here for my route. ]

Places to avoid.

Eupen. Good for pizza, but a town without a heart. Feels like some kind of provincial French town. We didn't even bother with the chocolate museum as it just looked like a shop.

Waimes - too small.

Saint Vith is borderline for me. Friendly place with a big supermarket, lots of restaurants and excellent play ground for the kids. It just felt like an ordinary town though. Nothing wrong with it, just nothing exceptional either.

So, is it any good?

Ooooo, the $64m question. Well, yes and no. Once you've found a route that suits your XC style then the riding is as good as anywhere. But. Well the hills are a killer as you can easily have a 300m climb back to base. Plus even though I ride solo at home, in the UK you are never alone. You pass people on the trail, or there are people in the cafes. Here you never see anybody and there are no cafe stops out on the trail. I like to see other people fighting the elements and their personal demons. Damn it, I like people to see me doing the same. I also like to see and look at other bikes. What are people riding? I expected this holiday to see people out on a range of fine German bikes. So far I've just seen Trek bikes out and about. Good for Trek [and gosh aren't they making some lovely bikes?] but bad for being different.

I like riding the Ardennes, and will look back fondly on my experiences here. In terms of the actual riding there are few negatives, and even those were largely down to my misunderstanding the terrain. For instance it is fine my having a southern UK attitude, where I expect to be able to ride anywhere anytime I like, but here there are days even in high summer when you'll have no access to the trails due to extreme weather. In August I was out one day and it was 8 degrees C mid afternoon. Hence the road and cyclo cross routes in some areas; they make do. As an introduction to riding in Europe the area is excellent. You learn to be self sufficient, and it must be said one learns to ride. Fine being at home and having an easy option if you can't be arsed or have had a skin full, but here you have no easy options; you have to ride.

The best riding is undoubtedly in the Southern Ardennes; La Roche, Houffalize or Bouillon. They hold world class events at Houffalize, so you can be assured of the riding. Houffalize is indeed lovely, but difficult to like as it shuts so often and it is in the middle of nowhere. La Roche and Bouillon are big tourist towns, so have more to offer when off the bike. Malmedy, Spa and Liege up in the North are all far better towns with much more to do, but the riding isn't so good. They have lots of fire road climbs followed by essentially straight runs down the hills through the trees. You can easily climb 800m or 900m in 20km, yet be constantly within the trees so have no view of the stunning countryside. They don't seem to have grasped the nettle fun wise here.

But things are looking up for Belgium. The subversive element are creating some good rides in the forests. And here I mean good as in Leith Hill good. Yet they are just too remote, too unpopulated for the novice to ride. Personally I like that as it challenges both riding skill and navigational judgement. Ride them in small doses, take full winter kit, build up a GPS picture and tell somebody roughly where you'll be and you should be OK.

Hate to say it, but a tourer or fast road bike would be excellent choices.

Belgium is much maligned by the English as being boring. It is if you need to be entertained all the time, but if you are self sufficient and are happy to do your own research then it does have a lot to offer. Overall it is a bit like having a holiday in Mid-Wales I'd say. Hard to get to, difficult to like but stunning at the same time. Personally I'd like to have ditched the mountain bike, ignored Belgium, and have brought a Lotus or a big motorbike; man that would have been a good holiday. Fast local roads, welcoming local pubs and a trip to the Nurburgring. Bring it on! for all your t-shirt needs.