Home to the Ghent Six Day and the opening cobbled classic of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent is the unmistakeable capital of cycling in northern Europe.
The birthplace of Bradley Wiggins is a beguiling mix of ancient buildings and youthful, creative energy; its cobbled squares and narrow streets are full of quirky shops, cafes and restaurants and echo to the chimes of the city’s three towers and the trundling of its trams.
The city is also now home to a thriving foodie scene and, of course, its bars are a focal point for fans of Belgian beer.
Trek-Segafredo rider Edward Theuns, member of the unofficial ‘SVGG’ – Sport Vrienden Groter Gent (Sport Friends of Greater Ghent) that includes fellow professionals Bert De Backer, Nicolas Maes, Iljo Keisse, Tiesj Benoot, Dmitri Claeys and Otto Vergaerde – guides Rouleur through his home town.
A small city of just over 250,000 people, ten minutes riding from the centre of Ghent will plonk you firmly in the flat, Flemish terrain of windswept fields and concrete lanes.
These are the roads that put hairs on your chest; where careers are forged, where dreams are both created and shattered, and where generations of riders have come to seek betterment through battering in the Belgian kermesse scene.
Head south along the Schelde for 30km and you arrive in Oudenaarde, the gateway town to the cobbles and bergs of the Tour of Flanders (although any ride in Flanders is likely to see you stumble across an unclassified strip of kasseien of your own).
“You can ride with Het Schelde Peloton on the canal path,” says Theuns. “They leave at 9:00am every morning. But those guys basically race and it can be pretty dangerous.”
A better ride for the uninitiated, he says, is the group ride from the Van den Hauwe bike shop in the suburb of Melle. “Wednesday evenings, around 7:00pm. And the shop just happens to be a Trek dealer!”
No-one comes to Flanders for long, alpine climbs. Theuns does his prescribed climbing efforts on hills in Oosterzele or Edelare, the latter just outside Oudenaarde, “not a big climb but it takes me four minutes. It’s hard to find a long climb in the area.”
In Oudenaarde however you’re a stone’s throw from the Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg and all the key roads of Flanders’ biggest one-day races.
“Bert De Backer is always looking for good coffee,” says Theuns. “If we do a coffee ride with the small group of pro riders in Ghent, we go to Caffé Rosario. It’s run by a guy with Italian roots; it’s a really nice place.”
Beyond Rosario, which is located right in the city centre on Emile Braunplein, another pro pick is a café called Clouds in my Coffee, situated just out of the city centre on Dendermondsesteenweg.
“It’s got a back garden where you can put your bike and it’s next door to Alberte, a nice restaurant where you can have tapas light dinner or lunch,” Theuns adds.
Equally you could certainly do worse than head to Bar Bidon on Bisdomkaai, where of course you could always kick back in the sunshine with a Leffe.
“Both do good Flemish style food and you can eat things like stoverij – Flemish beef stew – and waterzooi – a soup or stew native to Ghent made with chicken or white fish.”
For a lighter lunch head for Foyer, the restaurant on the balcony of the NTGent theatre which overlooks the square in front of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.
Le Botaniste, a cafe in a former apothecary’s shop on Voldersstraat, is fully embracing Ghent’s ‘Veggie Thursday’ initiative by serving great vegetarian lunches all week washed down with organic wines.
Foodies will enjoy the ‘Flanders Kitchen Rebels’ project run by the local tourist board which picked 25 Flemish chefs all aged under 25, six of which cook at restaurants in or around Ghent.
The most celebrated bike shop in Ghent needs little introduction. For a certain generation Plum is an institution, now housing a mini-museum of bikes from the days when Marcel Desnerk would make frames for many a pro, including the aspiring riders that used to stay in the grubby flat above the shop.
Those days are gone, and while Plum is still going strong as your everyday local bike shop, the Ghent retail scene has moved on.
Blanco – which describes itself as ‘bike luxury’ – deals in exceptional vintage bikes and equipment and an eclectic mix of new products and is well worth a visit. It’s owner, Thomas Wittouck, recently curated the ‘Bike to the Future’ exhibition in Ghent’s design museum.
“I just like bikes a lot, and I like working on bikes,” he says. “I started the shop so that people could actually come here and see and feel the stuff they were buying.”
No trip is complete without a visit to the top of the belfry and the cathedral, which houses the renowned Ghent Altarpiece: a vast piece of influential Renaissance artwork that is currently being restored bit by bit in a working exhibition at the city’s art museum in the Citadelpark.
For another traditional Ghent experience head to the Groentenmarkt and try the ‘cuberdons,’ a local fruity sweet nicknamed ‘Gentse Neuzekes’ or ‘Ghent noses’ due to their conical shape (or maybe because they have enough artificial flavours and colours to blow your nose off).
“There are two guys who sell them on the same street and they call it the ‘Nose War’ because they are always competing with each other,” Theuns says.
“I remember one time there was an actual fight and the mayor banned them both from selling on the street for a week.”
When you’re not riding, take a stroll along the Graslei (“where Tyler Farrar has an apartment”), visit the daily markets across the city and take a boat trip along the rivers and canals which crisscross the centre.
It’s hard to miss the Gravensteen castle, a child-friendly jumble of neo-gothic restoration with crenellations and fortifications turned up to eleven.
Just outside the castle entrance, explains Theuns, is Julie’s House, a cafe “which does amazing cupcakes, and Nicolas Maes’s wife works there too.”
A good night out is part of the Ghent experience, with a thriving music scene and hundreds of bars serving hundreds of Belgian beers.
For a distinct cycling theme to festivities head to De Karper, a sports bar run by Ronie Keisse, father of Quickstep pro Iljo and host of the Ghent Six after party.
Theuns recommends Overpoortstraat as the place to head to for a good night out. “All the pros head there after Nationale Sluitingprijs Putte Kapellen, the last race on the calendar.
“People are really proud to be from Ghent. We’re spontaneous, we’re social and we have a very particular accent – we say our ‘R’s like the French – so you can always tell when a cyclist from Ghent is being interviewed on TV.”
The nearest international airport is found at Brussels.
The fast train to Ghent Saint Peter’s station takes 30 minutes from Brussels Midi, where you find the Eurostar terminal for connections to London St Pancras via Lille plus trains to Europe.
Two hours from Calais on the motorway, Ghent is easily accessible by road but parking in the city centre is very hard to come by.