Let’s make it clear from the start: cycling in Flanders, Belgium, is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re the type of rider that doesn’t cycle in winter because it’s too cold, stop reading now.
Cycling in Belgian Flanders is tough. Full stop.
But if you’re what some would call a ‘proper cyclist’, who loves the sport and its history, and you like to test yourself, both mentally and physically, then a cycling trip to the Flanders region of Belgium should be on your bucket list.
Written by John Vicars
Have you ridden the Flanders cobbles?
Most road cyclists, let’s say 90% as a guess, have only ever ridden on asphalt. They may have ridden thousands of miles - but it’s always been on asphalt.
To experience the ultimate challenge in this sport, you need to have ridden the cobbles.
And not just any old cobbles: you need to have ridden the Flanders cobbles of Belgium. The locals refer to these cobbles as Hellingen. The first four letters of that word are an apt description.
Where is Belgian Flanders?
If you say you’re going cycling in Belgium, many road cyclists would assume you’re heading to the cobbles of Flanders, since it’s home to some of the most famous and best cycling in Belgium.
However it's worth knowing that Belgium is split into two regions. In the north is Flanders (where they speak Flemish). In the south is Wallonia (where they speak French). Though “Belgian cycling” and “Flanders” go hand in hand, there’s also excellent riding and a huge amount of race history in the Belgian Ardennes, within the Wallonia region (but we'll save that for another guide!).
What’s cycling in Flanders like?
This is the land of the Flanders Classics, the Tour of Flanders, Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen. As you drive into Flanders you realise that you have arrived somewhere special. This is Quickstep country where half of all local cyclists seem to be decked out from top to toe in the blue of the elite Belgian outfit, all seeking to be the next Gilbert, Lampaert or Alaphilippe. The flags of Flanders (yellow with the black lion of Flanders) are omnipresent in a region proud of both its heritage and its cycling.
Base yourself in the Oudenaarde (pronounced Ow-den-arder) area and you’re perfectly located to access the cobbled climbs and narrow lanes that have been made famous by the annual Tour de Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) race.
Here you can immerse yourself within the history of the sport at the wonderful Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde, understand what cycling means to the average Belgian (it’s as big as football is in the UK), enjoy the delights of Belgian beer (and there are plenty), taste the widely available local frites, pretend you’re Peter Sagan or Greg van Avermaet as you grind your way up the iconic Koppenberg and ride the bone-shaking cobbles, climb the steepest bergs, cope with the howling crosswinds, brave the often inhospitable weather and negotiate the narrow twisting lanes. Do this and, at the end of the day, you can call yourself a Flandrien.
Flanders, Belgium: cycling pilgrimage for the road bike fanatic
Flandrian cycling is a test against the terrain and the elements (as well as your bike handling skills). You begin to appreciate at first hand what the professionals endure during the Belgian cycling Classics as they grind their way up the bergs and along the narrow twisting lanes for over 200 kilometres.
So come and test yourself in the cycling heartland of Flanders and ride across the hallowed ground where legends are made.
Want to know more about Flanders cycling?
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to plan unforgettable cycling holiday in Belgium: we’ve got detailed information on the best Belgium cycle routes plus where cyclists should stay, when to visit and where to rent a bike in Oudenaarde.
Read on and plan your next cycling adventure.
Flanders cycle routes
As you look around the Flandrian landscape, you could be forgiven for momentarily mistaking it for the flatlands of Norfolk or Suffolk in the UK.
Of course, the big difference is that here, the benign topography is interspersed with very steep bergs (i.e. hills).
Generally speaking, the bergs (mostly cobbled) are not long in length; the Koppenberg is only 0.63 km for example, but the steep gradient provides the added difficulty as bike wheels struggle to find traction on the lumpy cobblestones, particularly so when wet. Even the longer climbs such as the famed Oude Kwaremont (which even has a local beer named after it!) is only 2.5 kilometres in length.
What’s it like riding cobbles?
To ride the cobbles you need character.
From the very first turn of the wheel, you experience a feeling that you have never had before whilst riding a bike. Your whole body vibrates alarmingly, your helmet starts to bounce up and down and your forearms start to ache. You struggle to control your front wheel as the gaping holes and undulations of the Hellingen take over.
Despite everything you’ve been told, you start to grip the bars tighter and tighter as your heartbeat exponentially increases. A complete revolution of the wheels take an eternity as the savage inclines of the bergs start to kick in, the back wheel starts to skid from underneath you as your grip on the stones lessens. All this as you battle the lactic acid in your legs, perhaps driving rain and a solid headwind.
We did warn you this wasn’t going to be easy!
Check our Tips for riding the cobbles article for more information on the experience!
How to find the best road cycling in Flanders
As with everything connected to the very organised world of Belgian cycling, there are a number of very well signposted routes from Oudenaarde. These enable those who want to do their very own Tour of Flanders to cycle around the area and sample some of the legendary bergs that are steeped in Ronde history.
Rather than do the whole route in one (circa 250 kms) three colour-coded routes have been created which start and finish at the Ronde van Vlaanderen Museum in Oudenaarde. This means the route is divided into three manageable chunks and if you don't happen to have a tour of Flanders route map you can still easily navigate your way around.
We loved these Oudenaarde cycling routes as they were very easy to follow and on good roads. We felt that we were experiencing Belgian cycling the way that you were meant to.
The three routes have been split simply into Blue, Yellow and Red. They all represent a challenge and are appealing in their different ways.
Before tackling any of these routes, check out our tips for cycling in Flanders.
- Distance: 116km
- Elevation: 1,360m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 78km
- Elevation: 780m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 104km
- Elevation: 770m
- Epic rating:
Family cycle routes/easy rides
The Leopold Hotel, like Oudenaarde itself, sits on the banks of the River Schelde. Walk out of the main entrance of the hotel, turn left and some 25 metres later you are on a cycle path network that runs either side of the river.
Ride to the north and you will eventually reach the Belgian city of Ghent (approx 35 kms away) famous for its velodrome which hosts the annual Ghent six-day track cycling competition.
Or venture to the south and cross the border with northeastern France where another famous velodrome is situated: none other than the one in Roubaix (approx 40 kms away) which is always used to conclude another cycling classic, the legendary Paris-Roubaix.
Our trip took us north for 15 kms on very flat asphalted terrain before we crossed the river and rode into the quaint little village of Gavere stopping off at the De Post Brasserie for lunch and then returning on the eastern bank back to the hotel.
If you don’t want a hilly ride or just want to take things gently then this is a very easy route along a very pleasant river path up and down the river. There are numerous crossing points along the way so you can shorten or lengthen your ride as you wish.
We were told that there is a regular chain gang ride every Saturday morning featuring a number of local professionals from the various Belgian cycling teams who ride from Ghent to Oudenaarde and back.
Pro races, Tour de Flanders sportive and other Flanders cycling events
The Belgian cycling Classics
For many cycling fans, the season officially starts in late February of each year, as attention focuses upon northwestern Europe and a series of races known as the classics, many of which are on cobbled roads.
The key races on the Belgium cycling race calendar run something like this:
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The first Belgium race of the season is traditionally Omloop Het Nieuwsblad which starts in Ghent and covers 200 kilometres across Flanders and incorporates the well-known climbs such as the Muur at Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg. Along with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne which follows a few days later these two races are referred to as “semi-classics”.
As the title suggests, this race starts in Kuurne and heads out to Brussels and returns to Kuurne after 200 kilometres having incorporated climbs such as the Oude Kwaremont and the Kluisberg.
Towards the end of March, we see the first of the real warm-up race for the Tour of Flanders in the form of E3 Harelbeke. It starts and finishes in the town of Harelbeke (25 kms to the west of Oudenaarde) and features many of the climbs and bergs associated with De Ronde including the Taaienberg and the Paterberg. E3 Harelbeke opens what has become known as Flemish week. This is the first of the four “cobbled classics”.
E3 Harelbeke is quickly followed by Ghent Wevelgem, a race over 250 kilometres which is peppered with cobbles and climbs and prone to experiencing strong winds. This is the second of the “cobbled classics”.
Dwars door Vlaanderen
This semi-classic is the last warm-up race before De Ronde and it takes the riders over much of the Tour of Flanders route including climbs such as the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont.
Tour of Flanders (De Ronde)
On a Sunday in early April each year, the Flanders area stages the biggest and most famous of the races in Belgium. Riders leave the Belgian city of Antwerp and ahead for Oudenaarde across 250 kilometres of gruelling terrain. De Ronde is one of the 5 cycling monuments and is of huge importance to Flanders. It is played out in front of big crowds who line the route and brings massive economic benefit to the region as well as preserving the culture of Belgian cycling. To win De Ronde is enough to make a career and become a national hero. Belgian cycling champions to have won the Tour of Flanders in recent years include Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen. This is the third of the “cobbled classics”.
The “cobbled classics”
These comprise four races: E3 Harelbeke, Ghent Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. The first three all takes place in Flanders. Paris Roubaix takes place in France.
Tour of Flanders Sportive route/Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo
The world-famous Tour of Flanders Sportive (Ronde van Vlaanderen Cyclo) takes place each year on the day before the professional riders race on the same roads for the prestigious title.
The event sees 16,000 cyclists from all over the world set off over bergs and cobbles on the same Flemish roads where history has been written for over a century.
Amateurs completing the Tour of Flanders sportive can choose between distances of 74, 139, 174 and 229 kilometres. The longest route will largely mirror the course of the professionals and start from Antwerp, the other three courses start and finish in Oudenaarde.
They ride in order to conquer the famous climbs and bergs that are unique to this part of the world and so that, for at least a day, they can call themselves a Flandrien.
Where to stay in Flanders (for cyclists)
In our view, the best place to stay whilst visiting the area is the city of Oudenaarde. It’s an hour’s drive from Brussels Airport or, if you’re coming from the UK, just under two hours from Calais.
Oudenaarde: the perfect base to explore the main cycling routes in Flanders
Oudenaarde is a small city in the Flemish province of East Flanders. The municipality has a population of around 120,000. Sitting on the banks of the River Schelde, the town is a very compact conurbation centred around a beautiful market square which is home to the Sink-Walburgakerk Cathedral, the town hall (see photos in the introduction) and the Tour of Flanders Museum.
On the perimeter of the square are old-fashioned guild houses interspersed with a good selection of bars, restaurants and cafes. The Leopold Hotel (more on that below) is a stone’s throw away from the market square and is ideally situated for meals and the museum.
If any location deserved the title of ‘capital of the cobbles’ then Oudenaarde would surely win hands down. The Tour of Flanders race has finished there since 2012, and within a handful of kilometres, you will find the famous climbs of Achterberg, Edelareberg, Kattenberg, Ladeuze, Volkegemberg, Wolvenberg and the iconic Koppenberg.
Everything about the cobbles and the bergs seems to revolve around Oudenaarde.
We’d highly recommend a stay in this lovely small city that feels more like a large town.
Our choice: Leopold Hotel
We stayed at the 4-star cycling themed Leopold Hotel. Its boutiquey 58 rooms are situated just 250 meters from the Tour of Flanders Museum (which is where all three colour coded, and signposted cycling routes start and finish).
There’s plenty of car parking and bike storage is also available together with track pumps and power washers. The breakfasts are exceptional (buffet style), the public areas are tastefully adorned with cycling murals and the bar is well stocked with Belgian beers. What more could you want?!
What we liked
Country Lodge Hotel Moriaanshoofd
The Lodge Hotel is known as being a cycling-friendly establishment located around 8 kilometres away from Oudenaarde and the start of the three colour coded Ronde van Vlaanderen routes. It’s a 20-minute drive away from Ghent. It’s set in picturesque and well-manicured grounds and we’ve heard it’s used by Quickstep and other World Tour teams when they’re in town. Secure bike storage is available on site.
Bike hire Oudenaarde
Bike rental is available from a number of different cycling specific shops in the Oudenaarde area. We have always taken our own bikes and so haven’t tried these firsthand.
If you have hired bikes in Oudenaarde, please comment below to tell us your experiences.
BIKE RENTAL SHOP
Bike rental Oudenaarde
Asfra Flanders Cycling
Carbon bikes with Shimano 105 or Ultegra from €30/day.
Can rent GPS, repair kit, pump.
Tour of Flanders Museum
Specialized Roubaix with Shimano Ultegra from €75/day.
Includes GPS unit, helmet, pedals, shoes and a shower afterwards!
Bike rental Ghent area (north of Oudenaarde)
Specialized aluminium and carbon bikes from €24/day.
Can rent pedals, helmet, lock and repair kit.
BMC bikes including Ultegra Di2, Ultegra and disc brakes. From €50/day. €150 deposit.
MTB and e-bikes also available.
Kortweg Cycling Travel
Gaversesteenweg 81 3B
Merckx bikes supplied with saddle bag. Prices on request.
Electric bikes only from €30/day.
Can also rent bike travel cases and towbar carriers.
Best time to visit Flanders
With a similar climate to the UK, in purely weather terms, the best time to plan a cycling trip to Flanders is from late April to September.
However, whilst average high temperatures in early Spring only range from between 11 and 15 degrees, many cycling fans visit Belgium at that time of the year to combine their cycling trip with watching the famous cobbled races (more on those above).
Tips and articles
The expansive town square (‘Markt’), 300 metres from the Leopold Hotel, is lined with cafés and bars. We enjoyed excellent evening meals here, at Wine and Dine and Brasserie de Cridts . Both served very good quality European style food at reasonable prices. There was a good mix of local customers and tourists and the staff were very friendly and welcoming, speaking good English. The steaks and frites were delicious.
The Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen (AKA Tour of Flanders) Museum was a highlight of our trip. Read this article to find out all about it.
A good read before any trip to the area is Edward Pickering’s terrific book entitled ‘The Ronde’ which takes the reader behind the scenes of the race.
Simon Warren’s “HELLINGEN A road cyclists guide to Belgium’s greatest cycling climbs” is also a useful reference book to the specific climbs and cobbles of the area. You might want to check out the Hellingen app too.
Belgium cycling maps
A wealth of information about cycling in the area and an assortment of cycling route maps can be obtained from the reception area of the Tour of Flanders Museum.
Good to know
Read our tips for cycling in Flanders before you go. This includes our suggestions for how to ride the cobbles and the sort of kit you should think about bringing with you to ensure you are in the best possible position to fare well on them.
Belgium is not known for sunshine - horizontal rain and howling wind is more it's kind of thing. Pack accordingly.
The area of Flanders is very rural (not dissimilar to the Lake District in the UK) and shops, cafés and restaurants are relatively few and far between. Some do not open during the early part of the week or in the winter. Make sure you take plenty of food etc with you and make the most of the towns that you pass through on the various routes such as Ronse (Blue), Geraardsbergen (Red) and Zottegem (Yellow). There’s more information on these in our ride guides.
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Tour of Flanders red route
Tour of Flanders blue route
Tour of Flanders yellow route
(and why you shouldn’t miss it)