THE SECOND INNOVATIVE CYCLING EXPERIENCE IN BELGIAN LIMBURG
Following in the tracks of ‘Cycling through Water’ in Bokrijk, Visit Limburg opened a second major cycling experience in mid-June 2019: ‘Cycling through the Trees’ in Bosland, a cycling trail through the forest canopy, 10 metres above the ground. The trail, which is part of the Limburg cycle node network and can be found at junction 272, offers cyclists a sensational 360-degree experience. With this trail, Limburg, Belgium’s premier cycling province, steps up its game yet again as an innovative pioneer in cycling tourism. In the words of Igor Philtjens, the Limburg representative for Tourism, the President of Visit Limburg and the driving force behind the cycling projects: “This cycling trail is the second in a series of innovative cycling projects that offer an enhanced experience of Limburg’s unique landscapes along the cycle node network. With these new experiences, we demonstrate that Limburg continues to innovate in cycling tourism.”
What is ‘Cycling through the Trees’?
A unique cycling experience that has cyclists gradually cycle up in a circular movement, so they can enjoy a sensational 360-degree experience in the forest canopy. The trail is 700 metres long and 3 metres wide. It safely takes you into higher realms. Quite literally, because you cycle in a double circle – with a radius of 100 metres and a gradient of 3-4% – to reach a height of 10 metres. So you grow along with the trees and see, feel and smell the forest! A unique experience, close to nature, which is well suited for cyclists and hikers alike. You can follow the cycling experience on social media via the hashtag ‘#FDDB’.
Where is ‘Cycling through the Trees’ located?
In Bosland (Hechtel-Eksel) near junction 272 of the Limburg cycle node network. Bosland is the largest adventure forest in Flanders where children are the boss. This gigantic, 5,137-hectare natural oasis in the heart of Northern Limburg extends across the municipalities of Hechtel-Eksel and Pelt and the cities of Lommel and Peer.
Who does the project belong to?
‘Cycling through the Trees’ is the brainchild of Visit Limburg, the marketing organisation that supports tourism in Limburg. Its president Igor Philtjens came up with this original idea. The design was created by BuroLandschap – headed up by landscape architect Pieter Daenen – together with the architect’s firm De Gregorio & Partners. The project was developed with financial support from the Province of Limburg, LSM, VISITFLANDERS and the municipality of Hechtel-Eksel, in close consultation with Bosland and the Flemish Agency for Nature and Forests.
How does it go hand in hand with nature?
As was the case with ‘Cycling through Water’, this cycling trail offers a unique cycling experience in harmony with your natural surroundings. You experience nature very differently and become one with the forest. This forest mainly consists of coniferous trees that were planted to produce timber for the mining industry. After the mines closed, the trees were not felled. The province is now trying to improve the situation with a tailor-made woodland management plan. The smaller, indigenous trees at the lower levels of the forest are given more space and light to grow. The posts that support the cycling trail – 449 unique columns in weatherproof steel – symbolise the straight trunks of the pine trees, ensuring that the structure blends in beautifully with the environment. The felled trees were used to build the pavilion at the entrance to the trail, which serves as an information and resting point for cyclists.
How is sustainability emphasised in the project?
‘Cycling through the Trees’ was developed using nature as an ally. The emphasis was on respect for the forest, both during the design phase and in the project’s execution. The design is stunning, but it was secondary. It is first and foremost founded on a building principle that has maximum respect for the forest. Everything had to be built from one point, to preserve soil life, the soil structure and the roots of the trees. That is how the architects came up with the idea of a spiral. Thanks to a well-thought-through construction system, with one central building point, the architects were also able to minimise any tree felling. The structure was built in the workshop as much as possible and assembled onsite, like a large puzzle, using a 37-metre tall crane. It was also designed in such a way that no concrete had to be used. The vertical columns are set in a succession of foundations, reducing the impact on the natural surroundings. Screw piles were also used.
Why was the project built?
After the closure of the coal mines, recreational cycling tourism was one of the solutions to get Limburg back on the rails again on the economic level. That is why ‘node cycling’ was developed in 1995. Cyclists could map their own perfect route, from node to node or junction to junction. As such, Limburg pioneered cycling tourism. The province now has 2,000 kilometres of paved, safe and largely car-free cycling trails. And in the past 25 years, the cycle node network has also proven an important driver for the leisure economy. Limburg, which welcomes more than three million cycling tourists every year, is widely regarded as Belgium’s premier cycling province.
Since then, node cycling has been copied worldwide. That is why Limburg has chosen to step up its game. Igor Philtjens: “To maintain our lead, we continue to invest in the quality and maintenance of our cycle node network – along with Limburg’s 42 cities and municipalities. But we also continue to innovate: by creating better, rather than more kilometres. Because tourists are always on the lookout for an experience. That is why Visit Limburg has decided to ramp up the existing cycling network, with unique cycling experiences such as ‘Cycling through Water’ and ‘Cycling through the Trees’.” The projects are all part of the ‘Strategisch Actieplan Limburg in het Kwadraat’ (SALK): a strategic action plan that was drawn up to relaunch Limburg’s economy after the closure of the Ford Genk car manufacturing plant in 2014, which dealt the province another serious, economic blow.
How did the idea come about?
The idea originated during a study trip to Norway, where a Visit Limburg delegation was inspired by the Norwegian Scenic Routes: carefully-designed road trip routes that introduce you to the wonders of nature, in combination with art, design and architecture. These routes take you closer to nature, in surprising ways. These landscape interventions – which never devalue it – ensure that visitors can enjoy it even more. And that’s how they came up with the idea for doing this in Limburg, albeit by bicycle. Because Limburg also has very varied landscapes and the province already had a strong image as a cycling destination. This unique combination gave rise to this initiative by Visit Limburg, to create cycling projects in harmony with their natural surroundings, which promote more interaction with the landscape while cycling.
Igor Philtjens: “This gave me the idea of building a cycling trail through water, through the treetops, underground... All in strategic and iconic locations in Limburg, with plenty of potential to increase the interaction between cyclists and the landscape. And that’s how we are continuing to build our cycle node network of the future.” And what a success it is! Because the number of cyclists that visit ‘Cycling through Water’ and ‘Cycling through the Trees’ is continually growing. And the projects are receiving more and more international acclaim.
Which other cycling experiences exist?
The first project that Visit Limburg built in 2016 is called ‘Cycling through Water’ in Bokrijk: this cycling trail cuts through a pond, with water at eye level on either side, making you feel as if you are riding ‘through water’. You can see, feel and smell the water! In 2019, a second cycling project was inaugurated: ‘Cycling through the Trees’ in Bosland. A third project – called ‘Cycling through the Heathland’ in Hoge Kempen National Park – is currently being developed and is scheduled to open in the beginning of 2021. The renewed trail between junctions 550 and 551 lets cyclists enjoy the unique heath landscape. The highlight of this cycling experience is an iconic, 300-metre long cycling bridge which connects the National Park on both sides, bringing cyclists even closer to nature and offering stunning views of the landscape.