Cycling in Brussels – and surviving to tell the tale

Blessed with a decent public transport network, cold and rainy weather, and incautious drivers, it is a wonder that any cyclists at all are seen in Brussels’ streets. Yet the “Bruxellois” are increasingly taking to the great adventure that is cycling in Brussels. You might be surprised, as I was, by the quantity of bright yellow or orange reflecting vests, helmets, trouser bands, gloves, the multiple lights and the somewhat combative cycling style of many cyclists.

With few (badly designed) dedicated lanes cyclists find themselves in the middle of the traffic, struggling to squeeze through rows of cars, ready to test their reflexes with any danger that might appear. A driver might simply open the door of their car without looking back (instead of practicing the Dutch Reach), another might squeeze you against parked cars. It is not surprising so many cyclists take precautions.

In the cold or rainy days I sometimes wonder why I cycle at all. But when I have to commute by tram, I very quickly miss my bike. The ambiance can be slightly depressing with all those sad faces staring into their phones (I also count myself among those). The tram is slow. If a car is badly parked, you might just be stuck for 20 minutes. It is also unreliable, like under the spell of a Brussels Murphy’s Law, when you need to get somewhere in time.

And I am not even considering driving a car! Brussels has been ranked as the 2nd most congested city in Europe and North America. In short, I save time, exercise and avoid the bleakness and crowds of public transport. But Brussels is an intimidating place to cycle! So some safety advice is in order.

Biking Citroen

Be seen! I began cycling without any gear. With no lights and a coat the color of the road, I got into a few near misses in just a few days. The lights and reflecting jacket did wonders. Keep in mind that Brussels’ diversity means that some might simply not be used considering bicycles in traffic. So go for it, make it bright, you will see an immediate difference.

Chose your route wisely. This can be the difference between a pleasant commute and a hellish ride. The most cycle friendly routes can be found here. But mainly, I just look for the routes with less traffic.

Mind the authorities. While you might be tempted to jump a red light, make sure there the signs allow you to. I once jumped a red light and got fined 165€ (the same as a car burning a red light…) by the police. Good news is Brussels is rolling out these signs in around 400 crossroads in the coming months!

Protect your head. Wear a helmet. Or don’t! I wear a helmet. If I was to have an accident, which seems likely at some point, it might save my life. Some studies seem to show however that helmet wearers cycle more dangerously. Up to you.

And try to stay civil and respect other users. In the aggressive environment we find on our roads, it is always good to keep a cool head. Getting worked up makes me drive more aggressively. While it is good for cyclists to claim their space, I have often listened to disparaging remarks from drivers about cyclists…

Cycling in Brussels is not for the faint hearted, but on top of saving time and money, you will get in shape and develop resistance to the cold and rain. So get a second hand bike at the Petits Riens, rent a Villo or get a brand new bike and give it a shot. And hold steady.