I spent some time cycling and photographing motorsport in Spa-Francochamps, Belgium.
There was a plan for this blog post to be how amazing Belgium is for cycling, but Belgium weather scuppered those plans a little bit. Especially weather around the Spa-Francochamps motorsport circuit. Weather can change at the click of your fingers. You can leave the paddock in a t-shirt, but get to the other side of the circuit needing a thick winter jacket and hood. Clouds just roll in and out like waves in the sea.
Off what people told me prior to my trip, my image of Belgium cycling was long roads that were fairly flat. Yet I don’t think that exactly goes for the part of Belgium I was in. Travelling through Belgium the wide expanse of crop fields quickly turned to rolling hills covered in trees. The track itself is known for being technical to drive. It’s certainly the most hilly motorsport circuit I’ve ever been to.
I’d love to be sat here saying that I got the chance to ride around it, but I was there to watch the Spa Six Hours race. One of the biggest races in the historic motor racing calendar, teams race for 6 hours requiring driver changes and two fuel stops. The best part about it I guess is going back to the roots of motorsport. There’s minimal fancy equipment. The cars have to be original. Feeling the vibrations through your feet as they come flying down the pit straight is sometimes enough to kick the old adrenaline into play. It’s all systems go in the pits for 6 hours providing drivers with lap times and directing them when to pit. There’s no radios here.
Whilst the 6-hour race was the main event, the weekend was packed with other races too. The alarm clock for each day would be a car engine warming up. And I’m not talking about sitting there early in the morning waiting for the ice to melt off your car, I’m talking full on jump out of your skin wake up call.
One of the most memorable races for me was the Aston Martin Masters Endurance Legends Race, which was full of LMP1 and LMP2 cars. Essentially old Le Mans cars up until around the year 2012. Engines that echo through the forests surrounding the circuit and headlights that light up the sky like fireworks. After my brother and I had made our way up to one of the infamous corners, Pouhon, we could here the cars leaving the pits. It felt like we had the best seats in the house as we looked down on the pit straight and paddock area at the other end of the valley. We watched their headlights come around the circuit with the echoes getting louder as they came along the Kemmel straight. Suddenly they were in view, but quick enough it was back to watching they’re headlights break through the trees. It’s a spectacle I’m struggling to put into words if I’m honest, so hopefully I’ve done these amazing cars justice.
If you take anything away from this blog post, and you are a motorsport fan, I’d recommend going to the Spa 6 Hours endurance event. When the majority only watch the Spa 6 Hours, I’d really recommend heading out to watch the Aston Martin Masters Endurance Legends too. That spectacle topped Bonfire Night fireworks.
So I started this post talking about cycling didn’t I? Yet I’ve spent a most of it talking about cars…oops.
Not thinking the wet weather would pass anytime soon; I managed to get out on my bike on our first day in Belgium. The cars were out testing, so I thought it would be a good time to get out. I had no clue what the route had in store for me, but I forced myself to go out. It was probably quite stupid going out in such horrific weather on my own in a foreign county, but you’ve got to push the boundaries sometimes I guess.
I committed the cardinal sin of road by going out with a small rucksack, but it put me at ease that nothing could fall out of my pocket. I definitely wasn’t finding anything again if it did!
After some cyclocross-esque fire road riding, my route eventually turned to roads and landed me in the centre of Malmedy. After nearly turning back when the road became gravel, I’m glad I pushed myself on to get to Malmedy. Tall townhouses, a cobbled bridge bustling with flowers along it and a church steeple all came into view. I breathed a sigh of relief that I could hopefully complete the ride I set out to do now I was off the gravel roads.
Climbing out of Malmedy I was soon on a climb that I later found out was 9 miles long. Granted it was not as steep as Sa Calobra, but enough to get the old legs burning. The road just kept meandering up and up.
Eventually I’m on a road that seems to never end. I look ahead and I can just see a pin straight road lined by trees that will probably get felled at some point. Winds blowing at me. Rain is somehow coming at me from the left. Then there’s the small drama of my Garmin going to sleep. I knew roughly where I was going, but I hadn’t seen a road sign for a really long time…
Eventually a junction came into view with a village I recognised. I was starting to think I was riding into the abyss.
I didn’t think I could have beaten the mental capacity to get round Welsh Champs when everything seemed to be against me that day. But somehow a 28 mile day came close to 50. I’d followed the route, but there was an 8-mile ride to the start point and back because of the paddock we were in. There was no cafe stop, just a Clif Bar. (Ok there was an insta photo to take in Malmedy obviously). Sitting writing this I still don’t know where it came from. I haven’t trained for months. But I’ve never been so glad to hear the rumble of engines as I got close to the circuit again.
I had to ring my kit to get rid of the excess water. There were puddles in the bottom of my shoes. There were points where I didn’t think I enjoyed it, but looking back it puts a smile on my face. I saw more of Belgium than I would have if I hadn’t taken my bike. There wasn’t much chance to take photos, just grey sky. It was just a day I dug deeper than I thought I could.
It was a random weekend, so I guess that makes for a bit of a random blog post. If you’re still reading this rather lengthy post, thanks for sticking with me. My first trip to Belgium has been and gone. Who knows if I’ll head back.