Day 5 presented the option of riding a metric century – 100 km, or 62 miles (more like 63 along this particular route). Alan and Mitchell were enthusiastic about trying this. Sharon was not. My knees were not loving my bike so I thought I would do the medium option of 27 miles & then get back to Bruges to the Memling museum. And Alexander was a little apprehensive about even the short option, which at 20 miles would be a personal best for him. But there would be a van support stop at about 13 miles where he could call it a day if he were feeling tired. So we decided at breakfast that I would stay with the slower riders, allowing Mitchell and Alan to start out at a faster pace so their 63-mile day wouldn’t be so long (we’ve all been riding together in the morning, but often have not reached lunch until well into the afternoon).
Things did not start well. William slammed his finger in the door when we were leaving to go downstairs to the bikes, so I spent the route rap comforting a howling boy while his brother ran downstairs to get ice. We went down and caught the tail end of the explanation of the day’s ride, got snacks and water and maps, and did one last bathroom stop, and when I came out, Sharon was gone. She had left with the first group of riders, which meant that Alan was going to have to ride at her pace to guide her on the turns because she has never learned to use the maps or directions. We got everything together & got on out of town, & I called Sharon and told her to stay put and wait for us so that Alan and Mitchell could go on at a century pace. We were at most 10 minutes back. She agreed & said she was at the 7.8 km point on the map. Sit tight, I said. We’ll be there soon. I lied.
Meanwhile we were following Evan out of Bruges, but he had decided to take us across an “easier” bridge. Once he deviated from the directions, the rest of us were at his mercy. We rode for a while – we were with Nancy and Emma, Rob and Mary. We rode under a bridge with mirrors to help us around the corners. We got onto a route signed 70, meaning we were heading for knotpoint 70, as the directions said we were supposed to. But we stayed on it for ages. “Rob, we were only supposed to be on 70 for 0.7 km!” “Don’t worry, we’re taking a different way & meeting up with the directions up ahead.” Finally we reached knotpoint 70 and were directed to 73 or 75 as our bike path choices from there. Neither was on the day’s agenda. It appeared we were lost. I called Sharon to tell her we were going to be longer than expected. Then I tried to go into the woods to pee & ended up in a nettle patch. We got on our bikes and headed back the way we had come. Evan tried to access GPS but the T-Mobile network was down all over Belgium; none of the rest of us had a smart phone. And the section maps we had were useless. We were off the map. We stopped at the first turn point, a couple of km back. I thought that might have been where we missed our turn (though of course I had missed the route rap). Evan rode up to where the next landmark should have been and didn’t find it. We headed back into town. We went under the mirror bridge in the opposite direction. We went across another bridge. We went back across. On a crowded footbridge Evan was swinging his leg over his bike to dismount, hit my hand and went down. He was having a bad morning and apologized about 100 times for getting us lost. Nancy kept urging that just go back to the hotel and start again, and that’s basically what we ended up doing – after a 19 km tour of the Bruges suburbs, we found ourselves back at the 0.5 mark on our directions. So I spent all day subtracting 19.
Meanwhile, poor Sharon has been waiting for us for ages, and we’re still 7.3 away by her reckoning. We continue on. William asks how far we’ve gone. “You don’t want to know,” I said. But he insisted, and I told him. 12 miles. On we rode, this time finding all the markers we had missed on our first several attempts out of town. Carmen and Evan rounded up Sharon; I had ridden right by her because she was nowhere near the 7.8 km mark. On we rode.
We stopped at a bathroom marked on our directions, where I flipped the page. “Oh, we’re really close to the van support stop,” I said. But my directions didn’t match what we were riding. Then I realized I had turned a full page ahead. We were 12 miles from the van support stop – not anyone’s definition of really close. But the boys were troopers. A few miles on, Alexander said, “Don’t tell me how many miles we’ve gone until we get to the van.” Smart boy. If he’d known he was already past his personal best, he would have freaked out. But both boys biked really strongly, and when we finally reached the castle where Carmen and the van were waiting, they had ridden 24 miles. And if it had been another 10 miles away, i suspect they would have gone on without complaining. Sharon and the boys all got into the van to ride to lunch (it was, in fact, well after noon by this point), and I chose to ride another 7 miles to the end of the morning option – not 32 km, but just over 50. There I waited for Rob & Mary to join me on the shuttle to lunch, and Emma and her mom rode on.
Lunch was on a canal boat in the town of Dijksmuide, which is primarily noted for having been on the front lines during World War I. There is now an enormous peace monument there which houses a WWI museum. Since Sharon and the boys had already eaten by the time I arrived, they visited the memorial while I had green vegetable soup and goat cheese salad for lunch. At 3:15 we got into a taxi to head back to Bruges, but first it stopped at the Trench of Death, as the trench along the IJsmuide canal was nicknamed. The sandbags have been recreated in cement, and the site is haunting, but it doesn’t come near evoking the mud and stench and fear of the trenches in action. An unbelievably stupid war – as Skip always says, it does not bolster one’s faith in humanity.
Again, we were back in Bruges too late to hit a museum. I went to the Begijnhof, which used to be a religious community of law women devoted to good works. Now apparently Dominican nuns live there. It’s very peaceful, organized around a tree-filled courtyard. I went into the church where the nuns were singing mass. About a dozen voices but they sounded almost professional. Then one of them went to the lectern and began saying the service in Flemish. I had never seen a woman say mass. I tried to sketch the nuns in their habits against the gigantic baroque altarpiece with its twisted columns, but it was not my finest attempt.
I made of point of getting back in time for the beer tasting at 6. We sampled five Belgian brews out of the thousand or so beers brewed in the country. And they take their beer seriously. Apparently if you order a certain brand and they don’t have the glass specific to it, the bartender will suggest you choose something else. We tasted a kriek (cherry beer), a blond, a dubbel blond, a trippel (dark), and an ale-like brew, the latter two crafted by Trappist monks, who make the most exclusive beers in the land. All were delicious after a long day of cycling, and many of those partaking, including the 13-year-old boy from New York, had biked all 63 miles. I think the lad deserves a beer after that. Max’s little brother Sammy also biked the whole way. Impressive kids. Mitchell, Alan and Peter, a patent attorney from DC, were in the first group to finish the century; in fact, they got back so early they didn’t know where to put the bikes. They had a tailwind back into Bruges and really flew. Dinner was at the restaurant right next door to our hotel; the food was so fresh we had to order in the morning so they could buy the ingredients. When the waitress asked if I wanted beer or wine, I asked what she suggested, and she said, “We are a beer restaurant; we select beers to accompany the food.” So I went with beer. The main course beer was 8.5% alcohol – practically wine anyway! It was a long meal; I should have looked to see if they had the Slow Food snail of approval. They ought to, if not. The boys were tired and went off to bed early, so we spent a little time after dinner chatting with our fabulous guides. Evan kept apologizing. Evidently it’s the first time he’s ever gotten anyone lost on a Backroads trip. I’m guessing he’ll never live it down. But despite the frustrating beginning, it turned into a marvelous day.