MTB on the GR5 – Part 1
Mountain bike tour on the Grand Randonee 5 from Genk, BE to Ettelbruck, LU.
The Grand Randonee 5 (GR-5 or alternately Europe 2 route) is a 1500 mile hiking trail that starts on a beach along the North Sea in The Netherlands and winds its way through mountains and forests (and hundreds of cool small towns) to the Mediterranean Sea in Nice, France.
It crosses through several major and minor mountain ranges – the Ardennes in Belgium, Luxembourg and France, the Vosges in the Alsace region in France, the Jura mountains further south along the French/Swiss border, before finally climbing into the French Alps.
Being a novice mountain bike tourer, I opted to tackle the northern Ardennes. This wet, hilly region in south-east Belgium and northern Luxembourg boasted of delicious food, Belgian beer, cool towns, and green forest and countryside. Oh yeah, and some stellar mountain biking with relatively short, punchy climbs; chill, flat areas; and techy/scrambly downhill sections.
Day 1 – Flanders, Flats, and Flat!
I woke up at the hotel in Genk, inhaled a great breakfast, and hit the road. Literally, the road. The first several miles were on mellow road-race-bike-friendly tarmac.
Within an hour, I had gotten to the good stuff. As you can see, it had rained a bunch the night before and the trails started out sloppy.
Really sloppy. Also, this area of Belgium is pretty populated and the GR-5 used a bunch of farm trails, construction access roads, and other multi-purpose non-paved roads.
I was changing out a massive blowout caused by a rogue rail-road tie in my rear tube, when I spotted a thumb tack in my front tube. Oh and while I was blowing that rear tire back up, I ripped the presta nozzle off of the tube and had to change that one out again!!! Three tube changes in the first 15 miles was not a good start.
I decided to take a detour to Maastricht, Netherlands which promised the nearest bike shop so I could buy another tube since I had burnt through so many so fast. The Netherlanders really do all ride bikes.
The road out of Maastricht turned into a paved bike trail along the Meuse River that separates Belgium from Luxembourg, turned into double track, turned into some great single track and sunny skies. These were the first actual hills of the ride. A few steep rocky ascents and equal descents were getting me excited for the next few days when I would really be getting into the Ardennes.
I stopped for lunch and a Belgian Brune and a champignon salad later.
And I came upon some World War 2 tanks, bunkers, and signs that I think warned of live land mines.
I made sure to stick to the path for the next few miles. Getting close to Liege, my destination for the night, I ran into a rain storm. The weather had promised 90% chance of a storm all afternoon. There was some drizzle for an hour or two. It looked ominous though.
I made it into Liege not feeling too bad, got some dinner at the local Carrefour, and headed to bed. The detour into Maastricht brought the total to 60 miles on the day that was made doable by the relatively flat terrain. Strava says I climbed 3,100 feet over those 60 miles.
Day 2 – Losing my way, and a bog
Buoyed by another breakfast, I blitzed out of the hotel and back to the trail. Without realizing I had gotten on the wrong GR route.
As it turns out there are many (dozens?) of Grand Randonnee routes that criss-cross Europe. Many are marked with the same red and white trail blazes as the GR5:
I had gotten on something like the GR 534 that seemed to have petered out in some farmer’s corn field. I realized this after catapulting off of my bike and into said corn field. I limped back to the road and used my trusty Garmin Edge to help me navigate back to the start of the route.
After 12 miles of hard biking on trails that were clearly not meant for bikes, fields without trails at all, and a few busy suburban roads, I was ecstatic to get back on the ACTUAL GR 5.
See what I said about green???
These trails were AWESOME! Great mile long stout climbs, mellow traverses in wide-opened fields to catch my breath, and then back down through some narrow gullies that appear out of nowhere with gnarly looking rocks to catch my fall. Thankfully I was able to keep the rubber side down through these bits.
Through Spa (home of the famous Spa-Francorchamps race track), up a local mountain bike park and into the marsh/swamp/stagnant lake from hell. It was 2 miles of walk-a-bike through some gross knee deep muck, mud, and stagnant water. I made it through, but morale was low.
A fun, wet single-track descent brought me into Stavelot (still in Belgium) where I would be sleeping for the night. Oh yeah, and Rose would be joining me!!!
I was pretty exhausted. 44 miles of some really challenging riding left me beat! Strava says 5,600 feet of climbing.
Check out the next part in this series: Part 2 – MTB the GR5