V – Velo
Vélo in French, fiets in Dutch and velo in Leuven (or so I heard somewhere) – means bicycle.
One of the first things that I loved about Leuven was the fact that the best way to move around is by bicycle. Everybody has a bicycle. Some people have 2 or 3 among a city bike, a road bike and a mountain bike. Or a bike at the train station or the student residence and another at home. They’re everywhere in this country and seem to be more generalized when in the more “low-country-ish” areas.
Bicycles are very useful to cover short distances, but some people actually commute 30 or 40 km every day by bike. They’re also an important part of leisure life, as bicycle trips are a national favorite and any competition involving cycling earns a lot of attention. In the summer, the Belgian highways become full of trailers with bicycles hanging in the back heading to their holiday destinations.
When I read those advocates and opponents discussions about commuting by bike, I find them really weird. Since I came to live here I find it rather natural and don’t see why people don’t do it and cities don’t prepare for it in more and more places. Of course it’s annoying when it’s too cold or pouring or when you have a meeting and don’t want to show up all sweaty and stinky. But it’s cheap, eco-friendly and really fast and your efforts with be awarded with better physical endurance and nice looking legs and bum, especially if you go up hill often (at least for me it works).
It’s a way of life. In the humid suffocating heat and in the cold of deep winter, against the wind struck rain and on icy pavement, day or night, people cycle from home to work, then to the supermarket or the pub, maybe stopping at daycare and packing a bunch of kids in those little baby trailers or on a baby seat attached behind the saddle. There are the ones with flowers and ribbons and colorful saddle bags, the really old ones rented for cheap from the University, the ones with a furry saddle cover, the shiny fancy ones, the squeaky ones, the cracking ones, the blinking ones, the electric ones, the ones with a box in front to carry children, gear, groceries and even dogs… And, of course, there’s a bike thief mafia to go along with them, breaking the hearts (and wallets, sometimes) of affectionate owners.
I suck at cycling. I’m hesitant and clumsy and I have a helmet shaped like a watermelon and records of several crashes (always alone, embarrassingly fortunately) to prove it. That’s how my fancy bike turned into a cracking bike… I swear I didn’t see the lane was covered in ice!