MEET JO VERWIMP, KING OF THE CYCLE ROUTE
There’s much more to cycling than riding a bike … like being a one man cycling encyclopaedia of Wallonia.
I met Jo in Luxembourg, just across the border from his home country, Belgium. A neat white beard and patrician features topped off by a white cap, Jo personifies leisurely touring cycling. Often to be found mounted on a Brompton, he is a one man cycling-tourism agency for the French-speaking part of Belgium and its neighbours. In fact, he has already uploaded over two hundred of his favourite routes onto a website (over 140 000 views so far) and speaks with gentle authority on all things Wallonian and cycling.
“You see a lot of cyclists in Flanders,” he said, “But we have just as many good routes in Wallonie, and more variety.”
We were cycling part of EuroVelo 5, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. “For the British,” I replied, “It is easy to get to Flanders and it has so many associations with the Great War.”
“But in Wallonia," says Jo, "There are gorges and the hills of the Ardennes, and it is bordered by so many interesting places, like - Nordrhein-Westphalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Picardie, Pas de Calais.”
He continued, “Flanders has the dense Fietsnet but twenty years ago Wallonia started developing a cycle network on former railroads and along rivers and canals. This is called ‘RAVeL’ (Reseau Autonome des Voies Lentes) Literally, the Autonomous Network of Slow Ways”, but maybe better rendered into English as Leisure Cycling Network. Jo also pointed out that, whilst rail fares are very reasonable for all in Belgium, those over 65, such as he, can travel to any destination in the country for just over €6.
Jo, though, is no stay at home. “I taught mathematics and physics in a secondary school in the Congo from 1966-1971. I had no car; the roads were awful. Nevertheless most Europeans had one. By bike, however, I could get to otherwise inaccessible places. So I cycled from Bandundu to Nioki, along small tracks in the tropical forest. And continued by boat to Inongo – returning by plane, together with my cycle. Later, I cycled along sections of the bank of the River Nile. That was pretty unusual at that time - especially on a folding bike.”
“There is a variety of landscapes and cultures within two hundred kilometres of where I live now, so why do I need to travel further nowadays? You’ll find some good routes in Luxembourg here Wallonia is so much closer and I can use train and bike to explore pretty much as I wish. The RAVeL network is still expanding. Remember that in the 19th century Wallonia and England were the most industrialised countries in the world; consequently there were plenty of of canals and railways. However large parts of Wallonia remained rural. There are plenty of forests and unspoiled nature, in a hilly landscape.”
Jo’s philosophy is that as life is short one should cycle the best bits. Thus, I asked him about the best of the routes he had created on the routeyou website.
“If you have three days, cycle from the city of Dinant to Namur, capital of Wallonia, and further to Huy. This is along the Meuse river. Industrial world heritage can be found on the Canal du Centre near La Louvière: four nineteenth century ship lifts - still working (for tourists), and an new one (for commercial traffic, replacing the old ones). Each of the old lifts raises boats some 20m up - the new one 80m.”
“Another route, with something similar is on the Canal Brussels-Charleroi: the sloping lock of Ronquieres ; a sort of inclined plane. raising boats some 68m)”
“If you have more time, cycle on the the Vennbahn: 127 km from Aachen (Germany) to Troisvierges (Luxembourg) but mainly located in Belgium. It is the longest former railroad in Europe transformed in a tarmac cycle road.”
“Just over the border, in France, is another beauty: La Voie Verte de la Meuse, an 87km greenway between Givet and Charleville-Mezieres.”
For the sake of brevity, we will halt Jo there. As his love of cycling in Wallonia and across its borders runs freely, let’s get on with riding the routes. So, take the word of Jo Verwimp and head for Wallonia and its near neighbours. He has convinced me!
www.routeyou.com/nl/group/view/8092/fietsen-in-combinatie-met-openbaar-vervoer has 222 routes in Belgium and neighbouring countries, combining cycling and public transport. Jo often uses a folding bike, but Belgian trains are generally bike friendly (bikes can be hired at some stations, too). Cross-border trains may have some restrictions, especially express services. In any case, you can always ride your bike.
PUBLISHED AUGUST 2017