‘Cycling through the Heathland’ is a 4 kilometre cycle route that traverses the only national park in Belgium. You cross the Mechelse Heide between cycle nodes 550 and 551 on the cycle node network. Rural views across the heathland are interspersed with rugged pine forests. One of the highlights of this route is a 300 metre long cycling bridge, which forms a feature in the landscape. Just like a roller-coaster, the cycling bridge is made up of a fine-knit structure of beams and columns. Between the wooden structures, a concrete cycle path gradually rises (maximum 4%) to 6.5 m high then descends after 30 metres.
The walls of the bridge offer a nod to Limburg’s mining heritage and are made of local pine wood. The ‘cycling pontoon’ thus clearly refers back to its environment; a culturally historic landscape in which masses of pine trees were planted in order to fulfil the demand for wood for the coal mines. The weight-bearing structure was made of Azobé, a very strong wood variety. At the top of the cycling bridge, you have a broad view of the national park. In the distance, you can see horses grazing and various other animals in their natural habitat. The cycle path, at 3.5 m wide, offers plenty of space for cyclists and walkers to pass each other in two directions.
‘Cycling through the Heathland’ cuts through the Hoge Kempen National Park. It’s an exceptional connection because you cycle right through the Mechelse Heide which, at 700 hectares, is one of the largest areas of heathland in Flanders. In the north, you cycle on a path filled with stunning views of the heathland. The new, iconic wooden cycle bridge forms a genuine feature in the landscape. The cycling bridge also provides a safe crossing point over the ‘Weg naar Zutendaal’ and offers a beautiful view of the natural environment. In the south, this construction was incorporated in an old tree lane and, from here, connects to the existing cycle node network.
In order to ensure the cyclists can enjoy the full outdoor natural environment, the entire process was completed with absolute respect for the flora and fauna. This is the only way to guarantee that landscape experiences and cycling experiences reinforce one another. This region offers a habitat for the smooth snake. To avoid hindering the migration of the smooth snake, it was taken into account in the design of the cycle path and the bridge. First and foremost, the bridge could not create a barrier. The foundations are not, therefore, laid in one long foundation beam, but on individual footings. The space between the footings, in turn, allows the snakes to easily pass under the bridge. Also, black asphalt was replaced with grey concrete which heats up less quickly, to avoid encouraging the smooth snake onto the path to sunbathe. Finally, the banks on either side of the cycle path never exceed a height of 1.5 m.
Even under the cycling bridge, there have been adaptations to reduce the impact on the landscape and increase the safety of road users. The ‘Weg naar Zutendaal’ was narrowed near the cycling bridge so the land could be given back to nature. The wide central reservation was allowed to once again become part of the natural landscape.
First, the cycle path from interchange 550 to 551 was laid. This used an existing road, the ‘Weg naar Heiwick’, half of which was paved and then covered with a new top layer of gravel to form the cycle patch. The cycle path is marked out using large boulders from the gravel pit near the path itself. In the longer term, the access to this gravel pit will also be reclaimed by the natural environment.
The cycling bridge was prefabricated as far as possible and then assembled in situ. During the works, no lighting was used, as this could have disrupted animal species. Work was also halted during the breeding season. A few trees were cut down in order to accommodate the bridge but this will be compensated by means of new woodland.
After the closure of the coal mines, recreational cycle tourism was one of the solutions for getting Limburg back on its feet economically. To this end, in 1995, the cycling interchanges were developed. Cyclists could outline their ideal route, from interchange to interchange. Limburg thus became a pioneer in cycling tourism. In the meantime, the province has created 2,000 km in paved, safe and largely car-free cycle paths.
In order to retain our leading position, we will not only continue to invest in the quality and maintenance of our cycle path network. We will also continue to innovate: not necessarily by adding more but certainly by creating better kilometres. After all, tourists are seeking experiences. That is why Visit Limburg is creating another layer on the existing network with unique cycling experience: ‘Cycling Synergy’, a strategy whereby unique cycling experiences allow visitors to enjoy Limburg’s landscapes in a new way.
Role of the entrant in the project: client
Architecture offices involved in the design: Maat_ontwerpers in collaboration with Bart Lens
Project location: Weg naar Heiwick, Maasmechelen, Belgium Design year: 2017
Year Built: 2019-2021