Day #3 – Bomal – Soy – Achouffe – Mont
Number of Miles Cycled – 31.6
Number of Miles Traveled – 4,750
As quickly as we touched down in Bomal, extolling the qualities of Bressene and Orval, time and distance mandated we cycle on.
Morning preparations indicated we needed to collect mountain bikes, our main mode of transport over the next week, lunch for the day, and one Jeremy Pepper and his super cheap fare that left him stranded in Boston, merely arriving to Bomal one hour before our departure towards Achouffe.
The world moves at different speeds depending on where you find yourself that day. The American perspective of time is much different from that of Peru or Papua New Guinea or Belgium. My correspondence with Rent A Bike leading up to this day was much like that girlfriend in college, bouts of fervent passion and intense communication, followed by long, dry spells without hearing a word. Unless you’re Pepper of course, and like the New Mexican weather, it was constant dry spells. Considering my present company, I was expecting a small revolt if the bikes didn’t arrive at exactly 9:00. Much to my surprise, Rent a Bike dropped seven identical, bright orange VTTs, sized S M, L, to Chez Tante Alice right at our prearranged time.
Seven colorful bikes, seven riders, one trailer full of food and water, and a couple of years of touch and go planning, we took our mandatory “before” group photo, mounted our bikes, and set off. Suva led the pack with his modern navigation system mounted to his handlebars leading the rest of us fools blindly around the same curves Marie-France cornered quickly in her BMW the day before.
The months leading up to this trip, Suva’s one major concern was the major elevation gains the first day in the Ardennes, and just as quickly as Google directed Suva to turn left minutes into our ride, the Belgian geography introduced us to our first hill . . . at 14% grade. My bike immediately groaned at the stress of carrying me and 100 extra pounds of trailer at this exaggerated angle and immediately decided to drop some weight. The trailer pulled the rear axle out of the frame. Scuba Steve and I spent more time fixing and rigging the trailer than we had actually rode them. With that, I dutifully pushed my bike 150 yards up the hill.
The accordion that was our riding group experienced some initial growing pains without clear communication, and as life has taught us, clear, honest communication is the key. The seven miles to Soy required two plus hours of riding over country gravel roads, replete with postal drivers passing us at speeds unsafe for plowed fields, paved paths, and town streets. We approached the town protected by unusually muscular cows (steroid injections anyone?), we entered Soy later than expected, but as the act of travel often does, our delay presented an unexpected surprise.
Shortly before coming to Belgium, and this is one point I will give Pepper and his Eagle Scout personality complete credit for, he read about a small brewery along our route, Fantôme Brasserie. This was our first major stop for the day. Scheduled to open at noon, this time serving solely as a suggestion, it was still closed at 12:50.
The Fantôme Brasserie (honestly no bigger than an old school-house) gave no impressions of being a highly productive brewery. The windows were shuttered as worn out crates held up the walls of the brick exterior. Circling the structure was a young couple, possibly intimately or professionally, perplexed by the fact it wasn’t open. The North Carolina couple greeted us in rudimentary French, appearing thirsty for companionship from someone other than the other half of the traveling couple. These brewers were studying, this area wasn’t officially offered at TU during my undergrad years, Belgian beers and the unique process of cultivating them.
At the top of the hour, a disheveled man rolled up in an old red convertible with white wispy hair. He happily smiled and greeted the crowd of nine foreigners lurking around the shadowy entrance to his small tap house. The popularity of Fantôme morphed the size of the puny tavern with only two single spouts. On tap this day were the perennial Fantôme and the seasonal “Pissenlit” (dandelion) with a spattering of glasses against the cluttered back wall that hid the inner workings of his beers (the North Carolina couple eagerly requested an impromptu tour of the belly of the ghost).
Outside, we sat on a decrepit picnic table and benches enjoying two phenomenal beers with an equally well-balanced lunch of baguettes, Nutella, fruit, chips, and beer.
We didn’t arrive completely unscathed. Jason’s neon yellow jacket attracted every insect across the country, Suva’s rear tire groaned with each pedal stroke and bent spokes, and Jeremy had to cycle with only nine fingers.
If our first stop was any indication, this was setting up to be a superb trip. This scenic town housed the best beer I would taste the entire week. Honestly, I would have been content to amble away the rest of the day over beer and stories, but we had only covered a quarter of that day’s terrain.
From Soy, we set out uphill of course, on our predetermined route to Achouffe. As we crested the first residential hill, signs claimed limited access further ahead. We bypassed interesting road blocks to continue undeterred further uphill as a few spectators lined the road. At the top of the second hill, standing feet away from the black, charred stains on the road, was a fireman and police officer. A car rally was taking place. Just moments before, a rally car had crashed and rolled before catching fire. For some reason, the police officer wouldn’t allow us to pass, because he deemed rally cars taking blind turns at high speeds would be dangerous to seven orange bikes and one bright neon yellow jacket. In a mix of French and English, he suggested a safer route, which morphed into major roads, crossing over one Ardennes mountain range. The route out of Érezée morphed into a grueling climb, as recent spectators of the road rally, intoxicated from both the adrenaline, fumes, and booze, showcased their own car handling skills on the steep, curvy roads, as they shot past us like bullets from a gun.
Safely on the other side of the pass, we found ourselves exhausted next to an old World War II German tank. We were considering our next step, still being miles from Achouffe, at which point a father/son duo, from Germany of all places, pulled up in their red compact car. After a display of diplomacy and a show of kindness, they graciously crammed a lanky Scuba Steve and bike into the back seat of their car and hauled him to Mont.
By this point and nearly out of water, everyone was decimated and ready for Achouffe. Fortunately, Pepper approached a random house in the middle of nowhere which turned out to be a lingerie store, and requested to fill up on water. And after all the time we spent heading uphill, the last six miles were downhill with a castle hanging to the side encouraging us. We cruised into Achouffe drained, yet feeling a sense of accomplishment with the ride two days removed from transcontinental travel. To celebrate, we saddled up to Taverne de la Chouffe at the feet of the famed Brasserie de la Chouffe, and indulged on the fruits of our labor.
Previous Stop: Day #2 – Reykjavck, Iceland – Brussels, Belgium – Bomal