Belgium’s vibrant bicycle initiatives

In today’s bicycle-crazed world, it is often difficult to separate style from substance. Belgium however, what with its strong heritage in the field, boasts many people, places and projects dedicated to bicycles and everything that revolves around them, from community-centered repair shops in Brussels (Cyclo, anyone?) and cycle-ready hostels in Oudenaarde (The Chain Stay) to leasing initiatives in Ghent (Bike for Business). In a bid to highlight four notable players making waves, we speak to a manufacturer, a publisher, an organiser of fringe sporting events as well as the city of Antwerp’s bike sharing scheme to capture the vibrancy of a scene in full expansion mode.

Writer: Marina Kazakova
Photographer: Joke De Wilde

Achielle, the manufacturer

Since opening its doors in 1946 in Zwevezele, West Flanders in the Oosterlinck family home, Achielle – a three-generation family-owned business – has been building what are generally considered some of Belgium’s finest bicycle frames. In business for 70 years, its mix of products – from classics and e-bikes to limited-editions – are all made by hand using skills passed down from one generation to the next. Every single Achielle bicycle is crafted by a team of nine dedicated artisans who take pride in humanising each bicycle using many of the techniques and materials which have remained essentially unchanged since the brand’s early years. Built in the company-owned 6,000 m² factory – every bike bears its own character and is as distinctly unique as the owner who drives it.

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Brothers Peter and Tom Oosterlinck, 32, are the third generation owners of the retro-bike business, having taken over from their father Jan who himself took over from the eponymous founder, Achielle Oosterlinck. “In the late 40s, before the Second World War, my grandpa lived in the village of Zwevezele and worked at the local bike shop as a technician. After the war, he decided to start his own bike repair business. Within the first decade of being in business, the frames established a reputation for themselves and the business became a major supplier to the myriad of local bike shops. In 1963, Achielle opened the Dija company that specialised in building bicycle frames and, 13 years later, he acquired the ground for a future factory in the current location of Pittem. “Since purchasing it, the building was renovated six times and grew from about 100 to 6,000 metres,” states Peter. Then, in the 90s and faced with mounting global competition that resulted in most European and Asian frame manufacturers switching from steel to alloy tubes, Achielle stuck to its guns. “In the 00s, it was really hard to continue competing with huge Asian manufacturers. By 2006, I had graduated from Ghent University with a diploma in industrial automation and, based on my knowledge in the field, I insisted on investing in new machines in order to fulfill market demand. As a result, my father and two of us built our own production machinery. Nevertheless, our business faltered and I realised it was time to change course now or risk going out of business. So we decided that, instead of building frames for other brands, we’d launch our own. Hence, in 2007 we started assembling bicycles and, as a tribute to our grandfather, we settled on the name Achielle,” explains Peter.

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We do not just build bicycles, we build your bicycle

He still fondly remembers signing his first customers on. “I took the yellow pages, wrote out the addresses of all bike shops in Belgium and Southern Holland, sent hundreds of emails, got three answers, sold four bikes at first, then five, then 10. I was unbelievably happy just from the fact of having a client and being officially in business,” smiles Peter. “It was difficult to convince clients to buy our ‘basic retro-style’ bikes, but we had the right product, story and time to succeed. What’s more, we were also lucky to coincide with the return to all things vintage that suddenly appeared on the horizon.”

Peter goes on “at Achielle, we do not just build bicycles, we build your bicycle. Each and every Achielle is made to order. You choose your model and then begin designing. You decide what to add and what not. You start by choosing one or several colours, then determine the number and type of gears, the kind of brakes, the colours of the tires, the saddle and even the colour of your chain. Our configurator enables you to explore all possibilities. A few weeks later you can collect your own Achielle at your dealer’s,” says Peter. Today the brand sells 2,500 custom-designed twowheelers per year, with each and every component produced in neighbouring European countries. Although a business with an eye firmly set on the past, this year marked the first e-bikes having been put into production. “Peter always generates great ideas. It usually takes him seven words to describe them and for the rest of the team it requires at least seven months to bring them to life,” says Jan Oosterlinck of his son’s endless creative streak.

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Brussels By Bike, the publisher

The story of “Brussels by Bike” is one of how a group of people bound by their passion of promoting urban cycling has flourished to become a vibrant platform for Brussels residents and visitors to get the most relevant bike stories and information. On the ground floor of a narrow townhouse in Brussels’ Ixelles district is a coworking space of several creatives, among them the “Brussels by Bike” bunch.

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“The idea of Brussels by Bike, one of the many ongoing projects of our non-profit FABE, came out of a conversation I had with a friend from Switzerland who has been living in Brussels for a few years now,” starts Brigitte, the 30-year-old former architect and urban planner turned manager and co-founder, together with four other urban planners, of the platform. “He cycles every day and he was quite frustrated. We were talking about the quality of public space in his country and he confessed he didn’t like Brussels, that nothing is being done for cyclists here. I couldn’t agree with him, so I started a debate with everything I knew about cycling in Brussels to defend my city. He looked at me in astonishment and said, “This is amazing, nobody knows these things”. That is when I understood that the perception of the city is formed according to what you know about it,” continues Brigitte. “If you hear about all the cool stuff, you will see Brussels as a nice place to live in. If you only see traffic jams and dirty streets, you will have a miserable stay for sure. Knowing about other cyclists and initiatives will give you another perception. It will help you as a cyclist to get through the day.”

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The perception of the city is formed according to what you know about it

And that is precisely how “Brussels by Bike” came to life. It’s not that Brussels lacked a bicycle scene, it was the lack of a platform uniting its existing one. “Following the conversation with my Swiss friend, we decided that day to make a platform to show the cycling culture of Brussels in order to help other cyclists. We wanted to highlight all the people involved in bikes and also make a city guide with all the good addresses, activities, associations, so that people could find their way to cycling,” adds Brigitte. The team analysed the current media landscape around cycling in Brussels, and grew confident that their project could find enough room to grow. “The biggest problem we spotted is the negativity around cycling in Brussels. If there’s an article about it you can be sure it will say it’s dangerous, difficult and there’s no infrastructure. Even cycling organisations share articles about accident numbers, and even though they mean well, it’s still not the way to get someone to hop on his or her bicycle. People are afraid of using a bike in the city. We wanted to give the other side of the story. First of all, it’s our story, it’s us riding and enjoying it. We wanted to share that through a positive attitude. Secondly, a lot of people cycle. Why don’t we make portraits of people we meet on the streets to show that normal people do it. We try to inspire people through these stories.”

Indeed, Brussels by Bike’s editorial philosophy is to develop constructive and positive coverage. They don’t criticise, they don’t advocate, they don’t lobby, they don’t do politics. They really strive to inspire people. Brigitte continues, “We try to interview people from all walks of life and aim to document different ways of using bikes commuting, leisure, sports. Bikes bring people together. We see this with the do-it-yourself shops that are becoming meeting places for example and where you can have a drink and meet very different people. Cycling events are also very open and diverse, people interact easily. We see something good happening in Brussels and it’s not based on statistics – it’s concrete. And we want to show that through our articles. Brussels is a city with a 30-year delay when it comes to mobility compared to other big cities. Basically you could say a lot remains to be done. There is a lot of potential in Brussels. If we were in Amsterdam, this project wouldn’t be necessary.”

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Velo Antwerpen, the enabler

Dimitri Rondeaux is operations manager at Velo Antwerpen, the city’s famed bike sharing system that is made up of a network of 150 stations and 1,800 custom-designed commuter bikes. “It begun as the inspired initiative of Ludo Van Campenhout, who was vice mayor at that time and also responsible for mobility issues. He was thinking about how to develop a sustainable transportation system in the city and how to effectively integrate bikes into it,” says Dimitri.

More than 34,000 people have already signed up to the platform as annual members

The benefits of bike share to a city are plentiful. Users benefit from the flexibility of travel within a multimodal transportation system and are not responsible for bike ownership nor maintenance. The city maximises the utility of existing bus and rail infrastructures and the need to construct costly new road infrastructure. Fewer vehicle miles travelled means less wear and tear on public roads, reducing the financial cost to the city for road maintenance and repair. A reduction in motor vehicle congestion saves commuters time, reduces fuel wasted in traffic and decreases the economic costs of congestion. And, long-term, cities can reduce the amount of land necessary for vehicle infrastructure such as parking lots and garages. With good planning, more bikes on the roads can serve to calm traffic and decrease accidents. Advertising behemoth Clear Channel won the tender and, in June 2011, Velo-Antwerpen saw the light of day. Dimitri notes that what made the collaboration between the city of Antwerp and Clear Channel different from similar partnerships was that both parties aim to build an attractive city for tourists and residents. Clear Channel does not exploit the media space on bikes and stations, but considers the project as a whole process of long-term relationship building with the city.

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“Our bicycles are engineered especially for urban use. The design is developed by Clear Channel. Each vehicle is assembled in France. High-end components (Shimano gears, expensive lights, good tyres) definitely make the cycling experience better,” observes Dimitri. And it is precisely this attention to detail that make the city’s ubiquitous red bicycles so beloved both by locals and visiting tourists. Indeed, the initial success of the project comes as little surprise – despite typical Belgian weather conditions, more than 34,000 people have already signed up to the platform as annual members, with 12,000 people on the waiting list. Another system expansion is already planned and will extend the service to the surrounding districts of Antwerp.

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Brussels Bike Polo, the promoter

While less popular than other bicycle sports, bike polo has a growing and dedicated following. Since 2009, its members have been meeting in car parks or on concrete fields of Brussels to play urban polo with bikes. Why, you might be wondering? Well because, as they put it, “it’s fast, addictive and slightly dangerous.”

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Lucas Majard is one of those frighteningly free people who form the ‘Brussels Bike Polo’ community. He is 25, from a small village next to Reims, North-East of France. He came to Belgium a few years ago after his graduation to work as an engineer. “I started bike polo in 2010. My brother and I participated in a small tournament in Nancy. We customised a Decathlon road bike, took another heavy 90s MTB bicycle with us to be on the safe side. But as it turns out, we ended up playing with the other randomly chosen bike and won the competition. What convinced me to keep playing? First, we won the tournament and I really enjoyed playing. Second, we were hosted by really nice people and the ‘people factor’ definitely made me stay. In 2014, I came to Brussels where I met a community of about 20 bike polo players, who train weekly on a ‘real’ court. They’re actually some of the best European players. That’s when bike polo took a bigger part in my life.”

We want to create a solid base in collaboration with local administration, to finally get bike polo out of its current “underground status”

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

“You can play with whatever bike you want, however the key characteristics are: the bike should be ‘quick,’ capable of short cornering and good acceleration as well as deceleration,” says Lucas. “It must be solid and robust enough: yes, the bike will fall, hit other bikes, be hit by a ball or a mallet. Robust means you want to have as little mechanical problems as possible.”

Today, a little less than 1,000 players represent bike polo in Europe. Belgium’s bike polo scene is a small world: about 50 players, mainly represented by Antwerp, Ghent, Aalst, Namur and, of course, Brussels, where they have the biggest community of almost 20 players. “We play on street hockey courts when there is one, or we build the court with wood boarders on a clean, flat and hard surface. We try to have one regular training a week in Brussels. We used to have a spot in Tour & Taxi agreed with the manager of the place, but last summer they asked us to leave. Now we are training at the place that we are squatting… We are currently facing a problem of ‘where to train’, as well as the problem of the official support by local authorities. I think the challenge of every club is to bring in new people. Without city events and without a good place to train, it’s hard to attract freshmen. If tomorrow these 20 members disappear, Brussels Bike Polo will probably disappear for a few years. We want to avoid this, we want to create a solid base in collaboration with local administration, to finally get bike polo out of its current “underground status,” adds Lukas.

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Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH