Friday, 27 May 2011

Touring the Ypres Salient by bike

Before heading to Belgium in May 2011, I searched the web high and low for advice on how to tour the Ypres Salient area on a bicycle, and found very little information. So I write this for the folks who may be searching for the same info.

Can you tour the war sites in Ypres Salient by bike?

Absolutely, so long as you do some advanced planning. Planning on the fly is not that hard but with thoughtful advanced prep your time will be better spent. There are designated bike routes (I call them "fietsroutes") thought the Salient, though they are generally designed to ride from Point A to Point B, and not to hit the sights. Many (not all) roads have bike lanes, but there are a few roads you can't ride on. Some sights have bike parking. The land is generally flat, and the hills that are there are inconsequential (unless you were a soldier in 1914-1918). Distances between sights is fairly short. A 40-50 km ride will accomplish a lot.

The only thing to worry about is the wind, which generally blows west to east. Since the land is flat without many trees, there's nothing to stop it.

How do the Fietsroutes work?

Little green signs direct you to numbered intersections. For instance, the Ypres Train Station is intersection 30, the Menin Gate is 33. The numbers are NOT related to sights to see, but to places where path intersections occur. The maps show distances between the numbers, so you know exactly how far you are riding. In the field, you simply follow the directional arrows to the next number. It really is hard to get lost.

Where can I get a bike?

You can only rent bikes from two places in town, the Hotel Ambrosia or the Campground. The railway station did rent bikes, but they are not doing so as I write this in May 2011. The Ambrosia bikes are 6 speed, in very nice shape, easy to ride, readily adjusted and cost just €10 per day. A credit card number is left for a deposit. Wreck the bike and it's €350. You can call ahead and make reservations for a bike.

The campground is a little out of the way, halfway between the Menin Gate and the Lille Gate outside the moat, making it less desirable a rental spot for people staying in town.

What do I need to plan my trip?
  1. Knowing what you want to see. You can't see everything. There's 187 cemeteries alone. If you want to see the sites primarily devoted to the Canadians, or to the Austrailians, or a specific regiment or battle, plus add the famous sites or a museum or two, you can. But to see everything in the Salient would take months. To help you narrow it down, you need:
  2. The book "Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide - Ypres Salient and Passchendaele". I looked briefly at their Pocket guide and can't really recommend it as it omits too many important sites. From the full detailed guide, you can easily pick out the highlights you want to see. You will probably want to see more than you can (as we did). All I can suggest is either stay longer or prioritize.
  3. The best overall bike map for the area is the Westhoek Zuid Fietsnetwerk map published by Tourism Westhoek. This €6 plastic map (ideal for all weather use, and tough to wreck) covers the area around Ypres and basically all of the Salient. While it shows very few historic sites, at 1:50,000 it's detailed enough to get around on, and also to plan your own routes. It shows all the off-road and designated bikeways. It does NOT show the roads with bike lanes. I suggest getting one before you leave home, but you can buy them in the VVV office/In Flanders Fields Museum gift shop on the Grote Markt in central Ypres. The Ambrosia even has some for sale.
  4. The best map to identify the location of the sights is "Major and Mrs Holts Battle Map of the Ypres Salient". This map shows all of the sights and has a detailed road map, but none of the bike routes. These days, the map comes with the Battlefield Guide. The nice part about this map is that it shows every country road (but not the off-road bike routes, nor the roads inside the towns).
With this set of tools, use the Battlefield Guide to pick your stops Use the Battle Map to locate them, and mark them on the Fietsnetwerk map. From there it's easy to design your own routing, carrying only the indestructible Fietsnetwerk map and the Battlefield Guide with you.

The Battle Map is not plastic and barely weathers a day spent flapping in the wind before tearing at the folds, so don't carry it unless you have to. The Battle Map without the Battlefield Guide gives you no understanding of the sights, it merely lists them all. But you can't find the sights in the Battlefield Guide without the Battle Map, as the directions given follow a driving route that bikes generally can't follow. So you need all three.

That sound like work. Is there an easier way?

There are a few marked loops out of Ypres selected by and planned by Tourism Westhoek. One, the Peace Route, is about 40 km long. These routes have their own guide maps (and signposts along the way) and you can get them in the VVV office/In Flanders Field Museum gift shop. However, if you are interested in particular things, I guarantee that you will miss them if you follow these pre-planned routes.

At this time, I'm not aware of guides who offer guided bike tours. There are lots who will drive you around in their van. The funny part is the sites are sometimes so close together that the bikes beat the vans going from place to place.

I don't have a lot of time. What's close to town?

Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields", is a 40 min walk/15 min ride from town. The fietsroute would be 30-33-34-35-24 (stopping before you get to 24).

A very short loop south of town on the Fietsroutes will take you to Hill 62 and the Hooge Crater where you can see museums, monuments, important cemeteries, trenches, craters and shell holes, and would take a half a day at most. The fietsroute would be 30-36-48-47-44-42-55-56-32-33.

In fact, if you just rode out of town under the Menin Gate on the bike path on Menin Road, in about 15 minutes you will come to the Hooge Crater/Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood area. Just be aware this road (which has an on-road bike lane) is very busy.

What's it like to visit there?

Moving. See my post here.

Enjoy your trip. Ypres is a pretty little town, and the Belgian countryside is a great place to visit. Note that it is farm country, and sometimes smells like it.


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of cycling the Ypres Salient this coming summer. I have Major and Mrs. Holts Battlefield Guide Ypres Salient and Passchendaele, and I was thinking of following Itinerary One in the book, which is approx. 38 miles. How much ground were you able to cover on bike? I was thinking of alotting 2-3 days for the cycling tour. Do you think that would be enough time?

RyderDA said...

Our ride was based on Itinerary 1. The biggest differences were we added a run up to the Yorkshire Trench, and took a route via the canal back from the Hill 60 area rather than followed the road via Zillebeke. We also got to Essex Farm and toured the museum in Ypres on separate days (the museum is part of Itinerary 1, and Essex Farm and Yorkshire Trench are part of Itinerary 2). It was a one day ride, but it was a long day.

You could do Itinerary 1 in one day, but it's really a function of how much time you want to spend visiting particular things. The challenge with doing it in 2 days is how to split it up, because it's a big loop. and designed to be driven in a car, not ridden on a bike.

Riding the Fietsroutes would be a far more pleasant bike than being on many of the roads on Itinerary 1. For instance, you won't like riding the N303 from Passchendaele to Geluveld, and you don't need to, as the fietsroute there pretty much parallels the road on an old abandoned trail line. Major Holt's excellent guide is for driving, not riding.

So get the fietsroute map and you can work out a much better, more interesting and safer route that hits the same sights as Itinerary 1. You could ride it in a long day, but it would be nicer to take 2.

Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. Did you break the route out over two days or did you do it in one? My concern is how to do a 2 day tour without backtracking to Ypres. Or is that what you did? I was thinking of trying to rent a bike for two days, and then find somewhere to stay about half way through the route. Do you think this is possible or should I plan on doing it all in one day? Like you mentioned, there is very little information on the web about biking the salient. I'm lucky to have come across your site. If you have any tricks or advise you think would be helpful let me know. Thank you so much!

RyderDA said...

Don't worry about biking back to Ypres. From Passchendaele, if you were in a hurry you could get back to Ypres on the fietsroutes in under a half an hour (assuming the wind wasn't blowing 80 km/hr into your face). The Salient is small, which is one of the reasons it's such a good place to visit, and also such a tragic place considering how much happened in such a small bit of real estate.

In hindsight, I think spending two days would have been better, but I would base out of Ypres and design two day tripping routes using the Holt book and map, and the fietsroute map. There SO much to see, it's almost overwhelming. I go back to my main advice: know what you want to see, because you could spend a month and not see everything.

There are very few places to rent bikes in the Salient as I mention in the post. The Hotel Ambrosia is both a good place to stay and will keep a bike for you. We stayed at B&B De Nacht Watch, which was a great place, and about a 5 min walk to anything.

Happy to continue answering questions, so keep posting them!