We got spoiled in the Netherlands: bike lanes two meters wide, perfectly paved, geography so flat it weirdly feels like downhill. This past week the Real Bike Tour began: ten hour days in the saddle, nights spent camping, sometimes legally. We dirtbag it up, crusty with sweat and sunburnt, perched outside supermarkets while we devour the day’s bread and cheese and whatever bottom shelf booze tickles our fancy. Does this grassy knoll have Wifi?
On our Couchsurfing host Claude’s advice, we followed a canal out of Brussels all the way to Charleroi. Claude is an experienced bike tourist, who goes on a month-long tour every year. She’s in her sixties and smokes like a wet campfire. Our Belgian biking goddess. In Charleroi we stayed with an ex-hippie-gynocologist, Claude’s friend Daniēle, and her son Renaud. Daniēle is also a bike tourist, and recommended we follow La Sambre all the way to the French border. Those were two lovely sunny days, pausing for Belgian beers, filming with cows in the background. We took the advice of several cyclists along the way and discovered some hidden locales.
Then we crossed the border. Macadam gave way to dusty gravel. We bid adieu to La Sambre and struck south through a regional park. The hills immediately took our breath away and we were forced to stop in Solre-le-Château, many kilometers north of where we had aimed to spend the night.
Madison boldly approached a kindly old couple in their driveway. “Je voudrais bivouac en your jardin,” I overheard from my side of their hedge. I leaned on my bike, shaky-legged, utterly weary. There’s no way, I thought, no way they let us camp in their yard. We’re currently the dirtiest, sketchiest tramps in northern France. But not only did they welcome us into their garden, they upgraded us to their grown daughter’s former bedroom and fed us savory crepes for dinner. Plus, they had WiFi. Christian and Annie were their names, our French angels. Christian even poured out a knuckle of his Canadian whiskey for each of us. We communicated via Google translate.
More hills hailed us the next day, but somehow it was easier, a rhythmic monotony not at all boring. In Brussels, Claude had shared with us why she likes to bike: “It’s the perfect speed. In car, you go too fast, by walking too slow. But by bike it’s just right.” Our hands are calloused, our thighs mighty. We paused at the crest of every other hill to choke down tepid water, then pedaled on. The horizon, a never-ending series of ups and downs. Metaphors for life and all that. Exercise breeds endorphins. Most people go to the gym to feel this way. How lucky we truly are to experience the European summer in such epic fashion.
In Montcornet, we found a secret alcove and camped. In the morning we awoke to the patter of raindrops on the tent. The moment we had scrambled out and covered our precious belongings under the tarp, it stopped. We stepped in our pedals to attack the first hill and the twentieth. We competed with an onslaught of eighteen-wheelers to get to Reims, which blew past in a backlash of choking wind, like one hundred sheets, fresh from the drier, snapping in your face. Better hold on to those handlebars tight!
Remember how in Groningen we felt so awkward and large? Now our road-fellows are cars and trucks and we feel puny and exposed, fragile as insects caught in a tornado.
The downhills are straight terror, especially since after 2000km our brakes are in shoddy shape, worn to the quick. We’ve flown at over 40kph, every moment building more tear-wrenching speed. And we have mass, self-propelled hulking weight that drags us to a crawl on the uphill, but urges acceleration on the down. On those steep declines, an errant gust from a passing truck could knock you off balance, a surprise pothole spell death. But you dare not check your speed because straight ahead lies a climb and if you don’t go into it with as much speed as possible, you’ll be in for a hillish nightmare. Shut up, I have been waiting a week to write that pun.
We made it to Reims in a state of winded elation and spent two nights Couchsurfing with some lovely people. Olivier, a friend of one of our hosts, joined us for our first day from Reims to Paris, and took us via a trail we would never have discovered if we had routed ourselves. We coasted through glorious Champagne country, rolling hills verdant with perfect rows of grapes of wealth. We happened upon a Sunday faire by the canal and paused to pop a bottle of bubbly. It cost 22 euro. YOLO. The canal flirted with La Marne, and Madison and I boldly stripped naked and leapt in. TWICE.
Olivier cycled with us as far as Château Thierry and caught a train back to Reims. Mad and I made some friends at a campground just out of town, and were invited to pitch for free. I found a hedgehog and shocked everyone by petting it. Mad snuck over to McDonald’s and pre-loaded a song which made everyone laugh. They were most impressed with us, despite our lack of gainful communication. Everyone loves a chick on a bike, it would appear. We’re not your average tourists. We are bike tourists. Bike tourturists.
We left early the next morning and followed a list of small towns I’d scribbled on a scrap of paper, like a scavenger hunt. We bumped into a couple tanned and smiley British bike tourists cycling our way, shared an elated ten minute conversation at the top of a brutal hill, and determined to ride together. Ninety seconds later one of them had a flat tire. That union may have been too good to be true, but we let their positive energy carry us all the way to the Parisian suburbs. 40km out of the big city and it started to feel congested. We’d been warned by Claude that the way into Paris was not very cycle-friendly, but we found a canal and followed it literally all the way to our host’s street. From Champagne country to being champions of pain.
By now we’ve fallen off our bikes a couple times, our legs are a patchwork of bruises and sometimes chain grease tattoos. My hands are veined with raw strength and my sock tan is so pronounced you’d swear most of it must be dirt. (Some of it is.) We roll into town and immediately devour 1500 calories without chewing. Michelangelo could sculpt a statue of my derriere and they’d install it in the Louvre. The brutality of physically transferring our bike-homes from one end of Europe to the other is both exhausting and exhilarating. It’s a miracle that we spend so many hours a day sitting, yet we’re covering kilometers. Handlebars make for very cool desks.
Still, we need more than the bikes to fuel us forward. We need Self-Made, our documentary film project about the European Fab Lab phenomenon. We need the community interest, the mission. We’re not making a feel-good film. We’re crafting a genuine discussion of the positive twenty-first century we want to live in. Fab Labs have a role to play in the global collaborative economy. We know what’s possible today. So what’s possible tomorrow?
One thing is certain: The bicycle will continue to exist, and thank goodness for that.