Hot chocolates in the morning, a day spent leisurely working on the bike and devouring great banquets of food with good company by night. It’s pure bliss and dangerous. The days rolled on by while couchsurfing in Calais, Northern France, and I didn’t bother to count the number or take note of the day. I was more than content with my, shortly lived, French lifestyle of daily runs to the local bakery and every American show you can name with French dubbing over the top. I had absolutely no idea what they were saying but it felt to be an authentic experience none the less.
With the arrival of the box from Germany, the bike once again took center stage and I was back in bike mode. Up till now, I had always ridden a bikepacking setup where bag’s attached to every possible part of the bike made up the storage with which to carry everything I own. It’s an incredibly light and agile setup that allows you to ride some pretty technical trails while also carrying everything you need to camp.
No doubt, for weekend to even more extended trips (in summer) the bikepacking setup is great, maybe even unrivaled. I was a convert and proudly so, and up until now I never really saw the need to change. That was till I was introduced to winters in Europe, and more specifically WET winters in Europe. Half a day of rain here or there, it’s all smooth sailing and nothing to get worked up about. Now imagine day after day of constant, cold rain. When you wake up, raining, packing your tent and loading the bike, raining, riding from morning to evening, raining, setting up the tent, raining, going to sleep; of course it’s still raining. It’s after enduring this that I began to question my current bike setup. As all my gear in the bikepacking setup has a small specific spot where it's stored on the bike, it makes for some slow and tedious packing. That isn’t an issue on a warm summers day but swap to a windy cold day with rain and the issues begin to mount.
It was with a heavy heart that I let go of my pure bikepacking setup and opened up the box from Germany, containing a pair of Ortlieb Bike Packer Plus Panniers and a Blackburn Outpost Fat Bike Rack. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I opened the box: 1. The box wasn’t as heavy as I expected it to be, carrying it from the gate to the kitchen. That’s right, I was so eager for the box I even watched the gate and met the delivery man before he even reached it. The light feel of the box was a promising sign considering I’ll be carrying what’s inside many, many miles; 2. Everybody commented how big and heavy my current setup looks; what in the world will they think with me lugging around an extra 42L of storage space?
Installing the rack for the first time with my limited experience in them, I unwittingly put it on backwards! A quick google search made me realise and correct the error.
After a few days of testing the rack and new panniers I without a doubt felt the weight and added awkwardness of my new bag system. The pure bikepacking setup that once was will no doubt become ‘the good old days’ in very short order. Despite the drawbacks, I was very glad I took the plunge and now have: faster packing and unpacking, much greater capacity for food and winter gear, a safe place to store my laptop and camera and a little extra space for whatever I choose to fill it with.
With the new bags packed and final farewells, it was time to hit the road. As part of the usual process I have come to experience time and time again, it’s an emotional mix of wishing to stay endlessly ‘just a day more’ and longing for the road. Adventure beckons just around the next corner and so far I have always jumped on the bike to chase it. Who knows, maybe one day the calling won’t be quite so loud or full of potential and I’ll leave the bike in the shed and stay.
Heading east initially to cross into Belgium before making my way along the coast, I found numerous canals that zigzagged their way through the bordering countries. Perched along their banks are tall old derelict buildings built from a seemingly previous age. I'm a day dreamer and I like to think that they were once full of bustling activity and men making a living to support their family and village just a short distance away. Just a skeleton of the structures they built remain. Clear signs of autumn were also present, with many of the canal banks laden with orangey yellow tinted leaves.
Finding my way to Bruges, I was ecstatic to ride into town. I’d seen jaw dropping pictures online and honestly, there are plenty of days I get to cruise casually along dirt roads clocking up the miles. It’s not nearly as often I get to ride into an medieval town with a camera in hand and nothing more planned than capturing all the magical places I can find.
I was lucky enough to line up a couchsurfing host for the first night, a much appreciated break from the usual wet camping. Noella was my host, a retired sectary who lived in a modern apartment a short ride from Bruges. With its predominantly cream coloured décor, a sofa that seemingly invited you to take a seat and a kitchen that was acutely organised and clean; it was the kind of home that I hoped I’d find myself living in one day. Some of Noella’s old neighbours dropped by as surprise guests and with a night down at the pub, I was very thankful and enjoyed the time I could spend there.
The days continued to roll on by in Bruges as I would camp each night in wetlands and then ride into town to find and capture those hidden magical spots. Most of the days were wet and dreary so while they weren’t opportune for my camera, it gave me more time to explore the city and its fringes.
Not wanting to delay my non-existent departure date, I set off after a few nights to head north to Vlissingen in the Netherlands. Blessed with more insistent rain for the majority of the days, I stayed soaked to the bone. A morning met by some stocky tough looking locals in the field helped to lift my spirits before the next chapter of my trip would begin with a ferry ride.
Want to read further? See the latest published articles below: