When you ride down this bike path in a woods in rural Belgium, the path gradually rises in the air—and at its highest point, around 32 feet above the ground, propels you through the canopy of pine trees. The path, called Cycling through the Trees, is one of a handful of breathtakingly unique experiences that the Belgian government has created to draw people to the countryside and get them on bikes. “With these projects, we want to increase the interaction even more with the natural beauty of our landscapes while cycling,” says Igor Philtjens, the regional minister of tourism and chairman of the tourism agency Visit Limburg, who led the creation of the new path through the forest.
In a region that was once known for coal mining, the trees in this forest were originally planted for use in the mines. By clearing away some of the coniferous trees—not native to this area—the new bike path helps make room for some native trees to come back. But the construction process also avoided any unnecessary impacts on the trees, with a design that could be built from pieces made in an off-site workshop and then assembled, Lego-like, in the woods. “All phases of the project, from design to construction and use, happen in harmony with nature,” Philtjens says. The Belgium-based landscape architecture firm Burolandschap led the design, collaborating with architects from De Gregorio & Partners.
The ride down the path is “magical,” says Philtjens. “You can smell, hear, and feel the forest . . . The experience between the trees is really special. It allows you to gradually observe the different stages of the forest, each with its unique characteristics. If you listen carefully, you can even hear special bird species that you would never otherwise encounter.”
The region first built its “cycle node” network, where riders bike from point to point on sprawling recreational bike paths, nearly 25 years ago. But more recently, the government started adding new destinations to draw more visitors. First was Cycling through Water, a path that cuts through the middle of a pond, making it possible to ride next to a swan at eye level. The forest path was completed this summer, and another new path in a national park is now under construction. (Both Cycling through Water and Cycling through the Trees were among the 15 projects chosen in this year’s Bike Architecture Biennale, a selection of the best places to ride a bike in the world.)
Belgium, like the neighboring Netherlands, already has high cycling rates, and the Belgian city of Antwerp is rated as one of the world’s best cities for biking. But the new projects are designed to encourage even more people to ride more often. “It is extremely important for the well-being of our own inhabitants,” says Philtjens. “We want to give them the opportunity to relax and unwind close to home in their spare time, and encourage them to take their bike as often as possible in everyday life.” Since its opening in mid-June, more than 180,000 people have visited the new forest path.