Life in Belgium

Training in Belgium

Navigation in Belgium

There are no straight roads in Belgium, so getting lost is going to be part of the adventure. I would always recommend bringing a map (or gps unit) with you, and familiarizing yourself with the name of where you are staying and the main towns near to where you staying. Signage in Belgium can be a bit ambiguous at times, and you don’t typically receive directions via a street or road name, but instead by direction. Ie. you go to the town of X and then direction of town Y to find your way to town Z where you stay.

When you come to a T intersection or roundabout there can sometimes be signs for “Town X” in one direction, and the other directions a sign for “Anderen Richting”. This literately translates to “Other Directions”. So if you aren’t going to Town X,  you are going the “Other Direction”.

Rest and Over-training

The biggest battle people seem to face when in Belgium is either doing too much or too little training during their time here. For everyone out there it’s different, some can handle and thrive in hours upon hours of long riders, others need specified training and scheduled racing, and even others do well just killing themselves with tons of racing and then a bit of rest to peak. It’s best to find out what kind of methods work best for you before you come to Belgium, but do realize it’s a different game in Belgium, so you may need to adapt your ways some, even if proven in racing in your home country.

Be sure to monitor your weight, morning heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns and other factors you find useful. These variables will help you determine and recognize the patterns in your health and fitness. At the end of the day YOU NEED TO LEARN your body and it’s signs. Be honest with yourself and push yourself hard when you need to, and be sure to rest when you need to.

Nutrition

Being in the land of beer, chocolate and fries can be a dangerous thing, but it is still possible to eat well on a small budget. Be sure to invest in quality meats and vegetables. Try to buy fresh over canned or frozen. Also avoid as much “pre-made” meals as you can. As a cyclist you will have the free time to make good, healthy home-made meals with little effort or skill. We do not recommend changing up your diet too much from what you would normally eat at home, which may require a little creative meal planning if you are working within a tight budget.

There are endless resources out there on the internet on how to cook for cycling. If you want a book on these subject we suggest:

Training Around Belgium

The best places I’ve found for doing consistent paced efforts are the canal roads of Belgium. They are long enough that you can do easily 30 minute steady TT work without ever once having to stop. Plus they are closed off to traffic, very rarely will you come across vehicles along the canals.

There are hills in Belgium (contrary to popular legend) and you can find them in West Flanders in the region of Ieper and in the East Flanders area just to the south of Oudenaarde. With a little planning and some route following you can make some hard hilly rides to help give you that extra little kick in the races that you might be lacking.

Belgium is also home to some long slow 5k climbs in the Ardennes region (Wallonia) of Belgium. It’s possible to reach this area via train (you will have to pay to bring your bike on board). Liege and Spa are some good places to start from. Be sure to check out the courses of Liege-Baston-Liege and La Fleche Wallonne to help you find the best climbs in the area.

Cyclist’s Rights in Belgium

Cyclists enjoy much greater rights on the road than in other parts of the world. Here cyclists enjoy protection on all roads (less highways), and there are plentiful bike paths for them to ride on. The only rule to really remember is that you must “yield to the right” which means to any traffic at a four-way yielding intersection you stop for the traffic coming from your right. You must also yield to pedestrians in walking paths. When entering a round about you must yield to traffic in the roundabout, and please signal your intentions. Pretty much everything else is the same as most normal countries.

It is also important to note that you MUST ride on a bike path if available, even if it is located on the opposite side of the road (it will be two way). Bike paths are either in red or green and there will be signs directing you to them most of the time.

Emergencies

Crashing

This is something that is going to happen … eventually. I’ve had years where I had one small tumble, to years I broke bikes and collarbones. In every race in Belgium there is an ambulance that will follow the race. If there is a serious problem this ambulance will transport you to the nearest hospital. If you are bruised, but ok, you can go to the medical team at the start/finish area of the race. They will help fix you up and clean your wounds. Once at home you can find all the medical supplies you need at your local pharmacy (in Dutch an Apotheek).

Pharmacies (Apotheek)

Can be recognized by their green cross and found in almost every town in Belgium. Their hours are generally the standard work hours and one day off in the week. When the pharmacy is closed you can always find another one in the area open. You will need to go to the pharmacy for almost any medications as regular stores are only allowed to sell select herbal medications.

If it is the weekend you will have to see the schedule on the door of the pharmacy for the nearest open pharmacy in the area, which all work on a rotating basis. Or you can use this online form to find out which pharmacy is open or on call (you may have to phone a number after hours). Be aware that the pharmacy may look closed, but is in fact open, all you must do is ring the bell on the door.

Hospitals

The hospital system in Belgium is top-notch, something I can personally vouch for. If you need to go to hospital, and it is not life threatening, it is best to get there on your own as an ambulance will be expensive. Once there they will need your ID (passport), medical insurance information along with your overseas and local contact information. They will not ask you for money up front to treat you, but will send you a bill afterwards. Most all doctors speak English (in the Flanders region) and will be able to assist you without problem. Be aware that if you ask for a private room it will cost you more (but the extra cost is not so great). The two other options are two person and four person rooms. Also, if you use the TV you will be charged for its usage, the same goes for the telephone. If you will be staying for more than a day visit be sure to have a friend bring all the needed toiletries (plus a towel and cloths) as the hospitals don’t provide much, if anything, for toiletries. Also make sure that the hospital has your home address on file (and not just your temporary Belgian address), as some correspondence may be sent after your departure from Belgium.

Doctors

Doctors in Belgium are very good and will even make house calls to see you when sick. You can find the local doctor on call by calling the local “Wacht Dienst” number if it is an urgent need. You can ask local riders and racers if they know someone who works with cyclists (a regular doctor, not THAT kind of doctor) and use them. These doctors know what you can and can not have as a rider if you need medication for a cold or problem, plus the generally are cheaper than other doctors. You can also refer to this search engine to find a doctor in your local area, you just have to fill in your town and/or post code.

The local “streekkrant” flyer / free newspaper or municipality website will have a listing for the “Wacht Dienst” number so you can contact a doctor.

Emergency Phone Numbers:

  • Police  – 101 – www.fedpole.be
  • Ambulance or Fire – 100
  • Accidents – 112
  • Red Cross – 105  – www.redcross.be
  • Child Focus – 110 – www.childfocus.org
  • Poisons – 070 245 245 – www.poisoncenter.be
  • Burns – 09 240 34 90

Insurance

Be sure to take out a good travel insurance policy for your trip or carry a good health insurance policy with international coverage. It’s a small investment that will give you piece of mind when traveling. It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN. Most travel agents offer comprehensive travel insurance for a very cheap rate that will cover almost all situations you can face. I advise that you take out a policy when coming over to race as the small investment is well worth the peace of mind.

Carrying Emergency Contact Info

Always carry your vital personal data and emergency contact information with you at all times. Think if you were to be alone on the road and hit by a car and were unconscious; what information you would want someone to have. I personally photocopied my passport, drivers license, health insurance card and then wrote on it my local address, phone number, my parents address and phone number and an additional phone contact in Belgium. Then photocopied that page a number of times. I kept a copy of this with me at all times on the bike in a plastic bag, gave a copy to my team director and also one to my roommate. This way if things went wrong, people knew who to contact and what information to give.

As always, be safe and keep the rubber side down.

Living in Belgium

Below are our tips on living in Flanders (Vlaanderen) and Belgium, with a heavy influence towards those who come here to race bicycles in Flanders and Belgium. You will however find many of these apply to general living in Belgium questions.

  • Where to live in Belgium
  • Housing in Belgium for cyclists
  • Language
  • Food
  • Cell Phones – Keeping in touch
  • Transportation
  • Money / Paying for things in Belgium
  • Travel and Free time in Belgium
  • Bike Shops in Belgium
  • Carrying ID in Belgium

Where to live in Belgium

One of the biggest factors to think about is where to live in Belgium. First off, you are going to want to live in the Flanders region of Belgium, which hosts most of the countries bicycle races. Within Flanders you have three major cities, Antwerp, Gent and Brugge.

Brussels can work, but doesn’t have as many races in the area or as many good roads for training. The Walloon region of Belgium has many races, but they are usually spaced farther apart from each other than in Flanders. Also, the Walloon region is French speaking and tends to have fewer English speaking citizens.

Some things to think about when choosing a place to stay:

  • What sort of access to shops do I have?
  • Are there cheap food shops (Aldi/Lidl) within a close riding distance?
  • Where is the closest bike shop? Theater? Train Station? Cafe/bar?
  • Will there be places in the town for me to relax? Do laundry? Find internet?
  • Do I need a car where I live?
  • How far are good training roads? (ie. canal roads, hills, etc.)
  • How far are most races from where I live?
  • Do they have many races in my area?
  • Do I have access to a place to store and wash my bike?

In my experience East Flanders has the most bike races, and the Flemish Ardennes (Vlaamse Aredennen) is the best place for training with a great mix of flat canal roads and short hard hills to do power work. The largest city in the East Flanders area is Gent and has been a long time favorite place for many foreign cyclists. Oudenaarde is where The ChainStay is located and has a great balance between the location to races, awesome training roads and a city that is large enough to have everything you need but small enough not to be too “distracting” to a young cyclist.

Housing in Belgium for Cyclists

This is probably the biggest problem one usually faces when traveling to Belgium. There are several different options you have when coming, all with advantages and disadvantages. There are several different programs throughout Belgium, which offer housing and accommodations specifically for foreign cyclists. They can be anywhere from free (for riders with good results who race for a team) to over 5000 euros for a 6 month stay. All offer various levels of support and accommodation. Ask for photos of the actual room you will be staying in as the level of accommodation can vary from place to place.

There are also short term furnished vacation rentals or furnished apartments available, but they are often at least 900+ Euros a month and usually not located in the best areas of Belgium to stay and train.

Another option would be to rent a place in Belgium, but be aware that most landlords usually ask for a minimum 3-year lease. In larger cities 1 year leases are more common plus there are also options to find “student kamers” which are anywhere from 250+ Euros a month and only 6 to 9 month agreements.  For rentals there is typically a two-month deposit plus the first month’s rent paid up front when you sign the lease, these apartments are usually not furnished (often without even lighting fixtures). You will also have to add the utilities to the rental, which typically carry a minimum one-year agreement. So we don’t often suggest renting unless you plan on staying a year or more.

It was because of these reason I started The ChainStay to accommodate cyclists looking for housing in Belgium. We are not the cheapest of the housing options, but we are the best, and include many things that often go overlooked by those finding housing. We strive to make your stay as stress free as possible, and allow you to race to your full potential.

Language

Belgium is officially trilingual with French, Flemish (Dutch) and German spoken here. French is spoken in the Brussels region along with the Walloon region of Belgium. Flemish is in the Flanders region to the north along with Brussels, while the small region next to Germany is German speaking.
In Flanders however a large majority of people under 40 have a very good command of the English language, and most shop keepers in the major cities will all be able to communicate in English because of the large volume of tourism. Many Flemish television channels also show programming in English with Flemish subtitles. This multi-linguistic society is yet another reason why many cyclists come to Belgium.

Food Shopping in Belgium

Belgium is renowned for three things culinary: Beer, Chocolate and Frites. As the country is quite internationally diverse you can find a wide array of international foods and stores depending on the area you are living. The most common chain stores to find international brand names are Delhaize, Carrefour, GB, and Colruyt.

Colruyt is the cheapest of all the larger stores. While the cheapest stores to shop for food are Lidl and Aldi. Lidl has more name brands and a bit more variety, but the cost is just a little more. Aldi is the cheapest, but lacks variety at times, but still has everything you would need to have a healthy, cheap meal if you take your time to plan out different meals with what they provide.

Also be aware that there are MANY local butchers, bakers and green / vegetable shops where you can get things fresh, at a good cost and top quality. Shopping at the town’s weekly market can also be a very affordable way to purchase fresh quality ingredients.

Cell Phones – Keeping In Touch

The communication network in Belgium is first rate, but also can be expensive at times. The use of pay phones (if you can find one) usually requires that you buy a calling card and even then rate is quite high. I would suggest avoiding them whenever possible.

Most people who come to Belgium buy a cheap mobile phone (or have their international tri-band sim-card phone unlocked) and buy a cheap pre-paid sim card. This will allow you to make calls in Belgium, but moreover, receive calls for free. Most plans only require a top up every 6 months and can be a very economical way to have people call you and be able to keep in touch. The most common pre-paid plans are:

The cheapest way to stay in touch is by using Skype. The service will allow you to keep in contact with friends and family for free if they use the service or you can call for extremely low rates to both cell and land lines.

International calling cards are also available, but be sure to dial the 0800 number attached with it, and not the local number as local calls in Belgium cost money and are not included with the cost of your phone plan. Calls from a land line to a cell phone are also charged at a higher rate.

Transportation

Belgium’s public transport is world class and all of it’s highways are toll free.

Within Flanders you have several choices for local transport. You can of course walk or ride a bike to most places you will need. If that is too far you can also catch a bus or tram (when in a bigger city) to your desired destination. For longer distances there is also a very integrated train system within Belgium with several international connections.

The cheapest way to travel on De Lijn, the bus and tram service, is with a “lijnkaart” which is 9 euros for a 10 trip pass. You validate it using the little yellow box on the bus or tram. For the rail service in Belgium the use of a Go Pass is your best bet if you are under 26. The Rail Pass is for people over 26 years old, and like the Go Pass, it allows you 10 one-way trips to any where from anywhere in Belgium for a low cost. If you trip is short you might be better off buying a normal ticket. You can also pre-purchase your train tickets online and print them out.

Car rental in Belgium is available in most large cities and can be found for as cheap as 25 euros a day. You are generally required to be 21 years old and hold a valid drivers license recognized in Belgium, but specific rules are varied.

Flying to Belgium is usually done through Brussels International Airport (BRU), but be aware you might be able to find a cheaper (and sometimes direct) flight to airports such as Amsterdam (AMS), Paris (PAR) and London (LON). All of which are a short train ride away, but be aware of the extra cost (and time) required to get to and from these airports. For flights within Europe to Belgium there are several smaller airports, mainly Charleroi (CRL) serviced by Ryan Air. There are also small charter airports in Oostende (OST), Antwerp (ANR) and Lille (LIL), France. These airports usually require a bus ride from a main train station to reach them.

Transportation Links:

Money / Paying for things in Belgium

Belgium uses the EURO as do most of the other EU countries. The biggest problem you will face is the lack of business accepting credit cards. It is always best to carry cash with you and never plan on being able to use your credit card at local shops. The reason is most shops use a debit system called “Bank Contact” for transactions in Belgium. Also, some places that accept Credit Cards require you to have a SIM chip (with pin code) embedded for you to be able to use it. Things are getting better each year, but credit cards are not as common of a payment option as they tend to be in places like the US.

You can also set up a Belgian account if you will be here for a while and get a debit card (bank contact card) for free or a low cost. This might be the most convenient option if you will be here for an extended period of time.

Money exchanging can be done at most banks around Belgium, but rates will vary, so do a bit of searching around. Do avoid exchanging any money at the airport as you will not receive as favorable a rate as you would at a bank.

Travel and Free Time in Belgium

There are lots of great places to visit in Belgium. You can research which ones you would like to visit the most:

There are also lots of great beer breweries you can visit including Stella, Palm, Westmalle, Orval, and Brugese Zot. For a complete list see: http://www.visitbelgium.com/beer.htm#breweries

From Belgium you also have plenty of great cities less than three hours away to be able to visit.

If a longer trip isn’t for you there are many things you can do in your free time.

  • Movies – Kinepolis is the largest theater chain in Belgium, but there are many local theaters in the area you can also try. – http://kinepolis.be/
  • Tour of Flanders Museum
  • Bars/Cafes – Many great little bars and cafes where you can sit down and enjoy a coffee or a beer.
  • Beach – The beach is usually only a quick train ride away and you can enjoy a day in the sun and relax. The most common places to visit are Oostende, Blankenberge, Knokke and De Panne.
  • Restaurants – Plenty of great places to sample in Belgium and if there is a type of food you want there is a restaurant for it.
  • Festivals – There several to choose from: Gentse Feesten, Pop Rock, and Rock Wechtwer – http://www.2camels.com/festivals/belgium.php

Bike Shops in Belgium

The best bike shop as far as cost is Van Eyck in Aalst, Belgium. Their prices are very good and they have a big sale in July and January. “Solden” or sales is a Belgian wide sales month where shops are allowed to sell at lower than normal price on all of their items.

You can also look to mail order places in Europe including Chain Reaction, Wiggle, Total Cycling and even Amazon.

Your local bike shop can be a good and cheap source for parts. Just a quick introduction to the owner and some short conversation can lead to a much lower cost on things (especially tires and tubes). It’s a good idea to develop a relationship with these shops because they can be super useful when things go wrong and you need something quick

Links:

Carrying ID in Belgium

In Belgium you are required to carry ID at all times. What I always did (as I didn’t like to carry my passport all the time) was to carry a copy of my passport and other important ID’s on a piece of paper. I did this around town or when on my bike when not too far away from home. Other times I always carried my passport, like when visiting a larger city, or going to a larger interclub race.

If the police do stop you for some reason and ask for ID your drivers license is not considered ID (as it is in the US) so it is important to have  your passport (or a copy) with you. Always have it when crossing a border, even within Europe. While the boarders are now open, that doesn’t mean that there are not random boarder checks (which DO happen).