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As a mountain biking region, the Ardennes of East Belgium remain surprisingly little-known. With the Stoneman Route, however, a real challenge has been laid down. But it’s not all sweat and grit: the route passes through an area of spectacular scenic beauty.

Text: Fabian Teuber Picture: Thomas Linkel 

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Full speed ahead: the trails of the new Stoneman Route are a real challenge, even for professionals.

Just a moment ago, everything looked like a family-friendly Sunday outing. We went through the forest on woodland paths, across a clearing, and up a gentle ascent to a small hilltop. But now the trail suddenly starts descending almost vertically, between dense conifers and moss-covered rocks and around a tight bend. A network of gnarled roots covers the forest floor, and a rock wall opens up into a yawning ravine. For Sunday cyclists, this might be the end of the road, but Arne Janssens speeds down the path at breakneck speed without batting an eyelid. He has ridden this section dozens of times, but one thing now is new: it has recently been added to the route of the Stoneman Arduenna, a long, circular tour through the Belgian Ardennes.

Arne Janssens, who lives in Schönberg near Sankt Vith, is one of Belgium's leading up-and-coming mountain bike talents. Since 2017, this 20-year-old has been riding for Team Merida-Wallonie, and his ambition is to make the leap from amateur to professional. On his training circuits, he has already explored every trail, every path through the forests and over the mountain ranges between the Signal de Botrange in the High Fens in the north of East Belgium and Ouren in the southeast. "The greatest thing about biking for me is the freedom – you just jump on your bike and explore," says Arne.

And the Stoneman, says its inventor, South Tyrolean mountain bike pro Roland Stauder, is all about that: a sporting adventure in a beautiful landscape. Performance and technique are secondary. The original Stoneman in the Dolomites was followed by routes in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – and now in Belgium. The tours differ in terms of landscape: each has its own character and special charm. But all five have one thing in common: they are a real challenge, even for professionals.

East Belgium: mountain biking’s terra incognita

Among racing cyclists, the winding, hilly roads of the border triangle between the Eifel and the Ardennes have long been well-known, but for mountain bikers East Belgium is still almost a blank spot on the map. The Stoneman Aduenna will change all that, says Dany Heck, who is in charge of the project at the East Belgium Tourist Agency: Its 176 kilometres, with over 3,400 metres of altitude difference, the mountain bike marathon leads through the low-mountain region at the intersection of the Ardennes and the Eifel, from the moorland of the High Fens and into the higher-altitude terrain of Our Valley, taking in the lakelands around Robertville and Bütgenbach, through deep forests and past the high rock escarpments of Malmedy and Montenau.

The route has been officially open since July 2020. Arne Janssens knows what it can take out of you, but also what it brings: "Among the climbs and technical trails that push you to the limit, you get some beautiful views." It's still wonderfully quiet on the trails of East Belgium. On this day Arne has the track almost to himself. But that could also be due to the weather, because it has been raining since early morning. Muddy clumps of earth fly up from his rear wheel, water splashes out of deep puddles on all sides. After only a short time, he is soaked from head to toe and encrusted with mud; his bike doesn't look much better either. But this is the essence of the Stoneman challenge: rough, dirty, pushing yourself to the limit. Giving up is not an option, says Arne as he pedals on.

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Up to 3900 metres of altitude in one day

The Stoneman concept is simple – and at the same time almost impossible. If you want to be a "true" Stoneman, you have to complete the entire circuit in one day. The routes are between 120 and 176 kilometres in length, with up to 4700 metres of altitude difference to overcome. Those who succeed can take home the coveted Stoneman trophy made of gilded stones – a fitting symbol of something you have to be rock-hard to achieve. More realistic for the recreational biker are the silver and bronze trophies, for those who complete the course in two and three days. The starter card is stamped at checkpoints, and anyone who completes the route in a maximum of three days is considered a finisher. The route is signposted, and there is a sophisticated infrastructure around it - for example, through accommodation partners who offer bed-and-bike lodging complete with bike washing stations and tools for mountain bikers. In addition to the starter cards, GPS tracking and route maps, Stoneman Arduenna also offer starter packs with other useful items.

The trail leads through forests and meadows, past lakes and across streams. "The Arduenna is like a summary of the landscape of East Belgium," says Arne. But this mountain biker is also careful to emphasize his respect for this route: "Doing it in one day, that’s a huge challenge – but also spread over two or three days it's tough." Those who reach the Botrange plateau, the highest point in Belgium, can see the moorland extending into the far distance. It can be a lonely feeling. An intense feeling – a Stoneman moment. Comfortable it is isn’t, and overcoming that is what it’s all about.

More information about the Stoneman

The well-signposted route can be adapted to suit you own plans. Bikers decide for themselves where to start and how many kilometres they want to cover in a day.