One of the coolest website out there when it comes to cycling around Brussels isFietsnet.
Flanders has its entire territory mapped out for bike routes. I have not figured out exactly how the routes are selected, but in my experience the roads are mostly small country roads with little traffic. You also have to use the occasional bike path on larger roads or ride through neighbourhood streets. Each intersection of bike routes is marked by a “node” on the map (the little red numbered dots):
The idea is that when planning your ride, you will write down the various nodes you will have to go through to reach your destination. When riding, you simply follow the shields along the road, which indicate which way to go to reach your node.
Once you reach your node, the same principle applies: you will have to choose the next node to go to.
To make this work though, you need to plan your trip in advance. You can either get a map. La Maison des Cyclistes near Place de Londres sells them. You will need a few to cover the area around Brussels, as they are relatively detailed. But you can also use the above-mentionned Fietsnet. The advantage of the latter is that you can click on the nodes to choose your route and Fietsnet calculates the distance for you.
A few tips:
- All roads part of the network are cyclable, but some of them are gravel roads. Which are a real pain in the arse to ride with 700C road bike tires. Most of these patches of gravel roads are marked on Fietsnet, in orange (“Oranje trajecten zijn onverhard of ongeschikt voor de racefiets”). Some of them are not. Which is why it can be useful to have a map with you to find your way around those gravel roads. Otherwise, just ride through them and hope you don’t get a puncture (which is what I do…).
- The shields along the road are easy to spot, when riding a city/hybrid bike at a confy pace. When riding your road bike, you are usually zipping by and are focused on the road. You might miss the shields, especially until you get used to spotting them. They are usually attached to the side of the road before intersections, but sometimes only attached at the intersection itself. If you can’t see a shield for a few intersections, that means you are off track. Which makes a map useful to find your way back. But I usually just go back on my track and have never gotten really lost.
- Write the nodes down on a piece of paper (business cards work well), and tape it to your handle bar. Some also tape it to their water bottle. That way you don’t have to get out a paper out of the jersey pocket each time you forget which node you are aiming. They also make special cards and card holders for the network:Knoopunt. I guess it can be useful.
- Nodes are often non-sequential. In other words, you will often have a route which will look something like: 68-12-11-45-71-56. Hence the importance of writing down your route.
Walonia also has a system, RAVeL (Réseau Autonome de Voies Lentes). It follows a different concept, to which I will revert some other time.