Sweden or bust

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I’m going on the road again in a few days! This time, moving from Paris to Stockholm – a little less than 2000kms.
I had actually thought about going along the Danube this year, all the way to Romania. Maybe next year (if there’s no sign of the red army yet).

This was before I found a new job in Stockholm ๐Ÿ™‚ So, I’m actually moving to a new country, and as I will be starting early September, I thought, why not go there by bike ? I have one month, and that’s precisely the time to do the trip.

That decision was less than a week ago, and I want to leave on Monday. So, many things to be done in a very short time, including putting in a safe place all the stuff I won’t be needing in the short run.

I also decided to make the trip without my trailer : it mostly carries camping equipment that I seldom used. So, it’ll be a small backpack only. More on that later.

I’ll try to post a note every day, as usual, as I cross northern France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. If the first two trips were about home and love, this one is sure to be about work ๐Ÿ™‚

Doing things for the last time (again)

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Here I am again, a few hours and a night before leaving. Enjoying the fantastic view of Paris I have from my place. Kinda the same feeling I had two years ago before going to the US. Everything packed in small boxes, the apartment empty, and my riding gear in a small (very small) pile.

There’s one big difference though. This time I’m actually going somewhere, to a new job, which comes with a new place to live. Last time I was going into an adventure with no precise goal, and knowing I would come back. This was a transition with no precise next step. Here I’m moving to a new country, and without a clear view that I would be coming back. A one way ticket somehow.

This makes the journey much less of a challenge, than what will happen after it. Moving to a new country, a different culture, and starting a new job. The culture shock, and the risk of getting lost in translation are quite noticeable.

Still, a one month ride is nothing to sneeze at ๐Ÿ™‚ Yestersay I did the first long ride for a long time, and I feel I’m really rusty! It will take a few days one the road to get back in shape.

I’m eager to get started ๐Ÿ™‚

Escaping Paris

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First day of the trip, with the biggest challenge being to leave Paris in a reasonable time. And then go far enough to call it a day.

I left early, right after the movers got my boxes, around 9am. Everything went as planned and could have been perfect, if I had not badly crashed my laptop yesterday evening, right before shutting it down for a month. The apartment is now empty, all clean, nothing left behind. Not a lot of people in the city at this time of year.

When you reach the road sign that you just left Paris, there is still a solid hour before seeing more fields than houses. That’s about the time it took me going north, including with the gps insisting I turn right directly into the corn field “it’s a shortcut promise!” I also went west of the airport, with planes flying over for a large part of the way.

And then I saw this

  

If you look closely, just right of the middle on the horizon, above the 2+1 wheat stacks, there is a kind of small Tetris bar. That’s the Montparnasse tower, the highest office building inside Paris. And then, farther to the right, closer to the water tower, is a small pointy thing : the Eiffel Tower. Completely on the right is the Defense district. These are all the buildings I could see from my place, except I was now 30kms away north. Probably the last view of the city for some time. Well, I’ve lived here for almost 19 years, and wanted to see something different.

Going back on the bike after a year with very few trips was tough. I made the mistake of riding for more than three hours with no stop, and when I did stop, I was exhausted. I knew the first few days were going to be hard with close to no warmup. I really need to make a real, small break every hour. The road is not difficult, in overall good conditions, and I even had a bike lane in some parts – a real treat outside of a large city in France.

The last part of the ride was in the forest of Compiegne, a typical French forest with straight paths and roads for miles.

  
Compiegne is also the start of the Paris – Roubaix bike race, with nice nicknames like “Sunday in hell”, or “the hell of the north”. Very promising, as I’m going exactly in this direction ๐Ÿ™‚

The French desert

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There is a saying in France, that this is country is “Paris and the French desert”, underlying the emptiness of the countryside, compared with the capital. It’s vastly insulting for anyone not living in Paris, and overall, quite true.

I went today from an average city, around 100k people, to, arguably, the middle of nowhere, and traveled through the northern parts of the country. The weather was aptly rainy, a constant drizzle. But mostly I went through many small villages, and did not see a soul.

These French villages, and I lived in one until I was 18, are charming,  lots of old houses, the town hall converted from the old school where boys and girls were segregated, and the flower pots all along the way. And ye old church, of course. But when you get through one, you hardly see anyone. People take the car when they need to go anywhere (an American habit, now that I think of it). You are so far from anything useful (by French standards), that you can’t walk there (and people don’t bike in these areas). So, they don’t walk the streets, and you don’t see them. They’re either home, or someplace else, but definitely not walking in their village.

  
Thanks to my trusty google maps gps, although still trying to make me use non existent or unpaved dirt roads, I didn’t really get lost. I even followed a canal for one hour, with a dedicated bike lane, smooth and flat, a cycling delicacy. That came to an end rather abruptly, as expected. And so I went back to small roads circling through ghost villages.

While travelling through the Somme area, I was reminded that this is the place where my grandfather fought in the First World War, one century ago. He had a war journal that I typed into a website some time ago. If you want to read his story, you can find it here :

http://www.muad.com/andre/andre.php
  

Detour day

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This has been a day of rain, mud, getting lost in small villages again : in a word, the French North.

I spent almost seven hours to reach my target, when less than five were expected. I wasn’t in an open desert, but in a densely populated part of the country. What happened was that I tried using the roads the gps was suggesting. Right after leaving in the morning, I went from a small paved road, which transformed into a dirt road, into a bumpy mud road. And as I was expecting, I fell – almost. I was going slow enough to avoid an accident. I continued by foot for a long time before reaching a normal road again. Not an unpleasant experience, and as I was just starting my daily trip, I took that sequence lightly.

Still, after that, I stopped at every village or so, to check the next destination, and find that on the road signs. And for each stop I needed also some place to get protected from the constant rain, falling ever since I woke up. There’s a saying that if you can’t see the church in this part of France, it’s raining. And if you can see it, it’s going to rain. I was soaking wet for the whole day. I did have a fancy rain cloak, bought in LA actually, but after five minutes it was more effective in keeping pockets of water all over me than anything else.

Moving from village to village was ok, until I had to follow mandatory detours for road works. At this stage I didn’t try forcing through the construction areas as I did in the US. Maybe I should have. I was going slowly, but overall still in the right direction. And as long as you set close milestones, you feel like you are making progress.

I finally reached Douai, an average town that was about the middle of the trip. I was lured by signs of a nearby McDonald’s “unique in the region” (uniqueness of a McDonald’s is in itself intriguing), did a large detour around the city and never found it. Back on the road.

The last half of the trip was also filled with unnecessary detours. At one point I noticed I was going off course, went back, found the small road I was supposed to take, and ended up with the choice to once again take an agricultural road, or more or less go east or west and go back the way I was coming from. And I chose to get through a cobblestone road, very typical of the region. After 10 meters I was on foot again to avoid breaking down my bike. The road ended in another mud sequence.

Time was passing by, I was surviving on a banana and a few cookies, and enjoying the few minutes when it was not pouring heavily. It was like 2pm, probably two more hours until I reached the destination. Any bakery in this village ? No, all closed from noon to 3pm. Oh well.

  
I started seeing signs for the patchwork of towns making up the Lille metropolis, and I was finally there. Not too tired but still happy I was done. 90kms planned, certainly more than a hundred done. For this trip to Sweden I stopped counting distance up or down, or keeping track of speed. I’m only checking I don’t get lost, and I get to arrive whenever I can. No rush, no pressure, no stress. I’ll be there at some point.

This whole day was also in itself a detour : I decided to visit a branch of the family. My aunt, her daughter (so my cousin) and her family here. People that I had not seen for around 30 years! We are literally all splattered over France, still, as you can gather, we don’t visit each other often. My cousin has a daughter and a son of less than 30 years, hence, I had never seen them.

  
My aunt, now 85, recognized me immediately, my cousin too, and I got to know her children. It was nice being with family, even distant, a feeling closer to home than a hotel (although in a hotel I would tend to remain hours in the shower). We talk about trips, life in the region, the US, comics… I also remember that it was here that I played the first video game of my life, Pong, when I was probably 8. I knew it was the future when I saw that ๐Ÿ™‚

Belgium

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 I crossed the border into Belgium this morning, a solid two minutes after I left. Anyone can get through. We have to build a wall!

  

The border between our two countries has been a virtuality for some time already. Border posts are now a tourist attraction, and controls are done randomly, mostly on the highway, by chasing vehicles. How will they do once trucks, first, will have no human onboard anymore? Special police shortcut tools to take control? Corner the vehicle to force it to stop? Talking about automatic cars, I read a joke recently. The saddest part about them will be mid-trip death, when your pizza delivery guy, or your friends, arrive dead at your place. Awkward start for the party! Maybe you’ll be able to simply send the car back. “The pizza was cold, and so was the guy delivering it”

  
So I crossed the border unchallenged, and was quickly pushed into another canal bike lane. I actually followed it for almost all the way to Gand. That meant a flat, rather smooth lane, with no vehicle and no signs, for 60kms. Lots of cyclists, maybe 30, so 30 more than in France. Vive la Belgique! And no rain or wind. I was there in three hours.

  
Speaking of death mid trip, yesterday’s rain claimed the life of my iPhone charger cable. I thought the phone was safely in the plastic map holder on my bike, but over the day it had became a pool of water. I stored the phone inside my (only) bag between clothes. But the cable was already damaged. It was functioning erratically in the evening, and was dead in the morning. I realized that on the way, and it became the top priority. Without my phone, no gps, no map, no way to find a place to sleep or eat, no calling for help! I couldn’t get lost today, but yesterday I would have never reached the end. I did a quick stop at Oudenarde, which was supposed to be my finish line today, before I decided to visit the family and push further north.

  
One problem down, the next one, while riding along the canal and the barges, was the brake pad on the back wheel. It was so worn out it was screeching on the wheel itself. I found a shop easily in Gand. Still, I had left the bike to be revised completely a week ago in Paris. The guy there was arrogant even for a Frenchman, advising against self sealing tubes, that do not work, for instance. They only carried me through the whole US, but what do I know. Another professional who missed one simple checkpoint on what is overall very simple mechanics. So people in Paris, avoid Rando cycles – at least the repair shop. The quest for honest specialists remains open.
  
I arrived in Gand early, a little after noon. I was there with no idea yet of where I would stay, which is an unbelievable low level of planning for me. Thanks internet once again for good last minute deals.

  
The city center is really beautiful, maybe even more than Brugges. It feels more like a living city, complete with a small castle, a typical Belgian city hall and market place. And of course, canals everywhere. I will stay in Antwerp one day to rest, I hope it’s just as nice.

Anvers et contre tout

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Today I continued to enjoy the delight of riding a bike in Belgium – bike lanes everywhere and a good weather. And cities close to each other!

It was another very fast ride, from Gand to Anvers (or Gent to Antwerp). But I was worried about the path offered by google maps : I was to follow the N70 all the way. In France, following such a busy and large road on a bike is a death sentence. There is no shoulder, cars and trucks drive fast, close to you, and generally don’t leave you any space (although actually most did after leaving Paris). You just avoid such roads in France, even if that means ending up in mud bloated fields of potatoes.

  
But you have to trust Belgium. There was a large, protected and clear bike lane all the way between the two cities. All the way! Unheard of in France. Even in the countryside, in villages and smaller cities, bike lane. And one that was designed by people who had really used a bike : smooth transition between roads, no potholes, no detour at each crossroad, clear signs on the road… That was a real pleasure to use, and I reached Antwerp in less than three hours. Not a really picturesque road though, but that’s ok.

  
  
Arriving in Antwerp, the path was going over a river (l’Escaut), and I was looking for a bridge. But it was a pedestrian tunnel! Antique wooden escalators, where you have to keep your bike balanced, then maybe a kilometer of a small tunnel, and you end up in the city center. A unique experience.

    
I aimed for another bike shop first, to leave the bike until tomorrow and have the chain replaced. At this rythm the bike will be brand new before Germany! The guy in Paris said the chain was almost dead but it should be ok for the trip. With his overall attitude I didn’t feel like pushing him to change it, but I’d rather have it done. Then I wandered a bit in the city, where I was reminded that this is the world center stage for diamonds, and for Orthodox Jews that go with the trade.

  
Tonight I’m staying with my first Warm showers hosts! Lene and Rudy have a bigger-on-the-inside house that they are refurbishing. And in a quiet part of town, a valuable bonus.

  

Baggage

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The people I come across are amazed by how little baggage I carry around, for a one month trip. As it’s a resting day, I’ll detail the choices.

I had several options to carry stuff around. That would decide how much I can carry. I still have my trailer, and I thought maybe I could take it, and carry with me everything I would need before moving to Sweden completely. But that meant a lot of things useless for the trip itself – and also reducing the volume to one big box (versus seven sent in parallel to my trip). I thought I could go with back panniers, but how do you carry them around, anytime you park your bike somewhere ? Then I thought I would take a backpack, but having something weighing on my back for one month was a bit worrying. Plus what I wanted to put in the backpack was actually lighter than the bag itself, and was mostly rain shoes.

Having a large front pannier, I tried stuffing it all inside, and taking the rain shoes, and not the baskets. By losing the equipment that was not totally necessary, it would fit. There’s even a lot of stuff that is here but hopefully will never be used.

Clothes : one set of all-weather shoes (like heavy sandals), a cycling short, two shirts, three briefs, and a set of non-cycling shirt and short. A cap and the helmet, glasses. The socks are actually “butt-cushion”

Tools : pliers, a tube sealing set, Swiss Army knife, and a spare screw for the seat post (it broke twice earlier this year – it’s only 7mm thick steel after all – and a screw type that is close to impossible to find btw, I had to go online the last time, with the only shop in paris now closed), plus a spare tube sticked to the bike (and a small pump)

Hygiene : a hotel shampoo bottle, a perfume bar, toothbrush and paste, and skin cream (once again for the butt)

Protection : two pepper spray cans, a fancy kway that is not waterproof, a first aid kit on the bike, plus a whistle tied around my neck, along with the bike lock key

Official : passport, driving license, ID card, credit card, a few coins, pens. I keep all of this with the phone in the belt holder, so that it’s on me the whole time 

Electronics : iPhone, iPod, kindle, plus their charging cables (all different…)

I also carry around a few chocolate bars and bananas whenever possible, plus two water bottles.

That’s about it, and I could probably cut that in half again. I decided to get rid of the video camera (so no movie this time), the iPad (could have replaced the kindle), more clothing, a lot of tools…

  
This could qualify as ultra light cycling, but the people doing that are completely self-supported, meaning they have some camping equipment (a rain cloth usually, to sleep under). Still, I have like only two kilos on top of the bike weight.
In the end, I’m not really sure that the weight difference is sensible. When the road is flat or goes down, it would be barely noticeable. Is there a degree or two more that I can climb now, that I wouldn’t with a 40-pounds trailer ? Probably, but I’m not convinced. What is sure though, is that now, I can stop, lock my bike, take the front pannier with me, and I can go anywhere on foot in two minutes, and not have to worry much about what’s left one the bike and could be stolen.

  
Another sure thing, is that you get used very, very fast to live with a lot less. As long as there is a connection :]

  

Holland

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I reached Holland today! Another country, and a quarter of the way done.

Starting from just outside Antwerp, I wanted to end up at Lommel, a small Belgian city close to the border. The biking conditions today were so great, I decided to keep going until Eindhoven. It was another dedicated bike road by a canal, hundreds of other cyclists, no rain, no heat, a little wind. This is just perfect. You can keep going for hours.

  
So when I was close to Lommel, and it wasn’t even 1pm, I thought I could easily go for another couple hours. I wanted to write at some point that, as in a project, you should stop at the planned milestone and not go further, to avoid ruining it, and I do just the opposite. I snatched the opportunity to enter Holland today.

  
After my first break, this is the start of the second leg of the journey. About a quarter of the distance has been done, just under 500kms, in a week. This is good as I have only four weeks to reach Stockholm ๐Ÿ™‚

  
The Belgium – Holland border is just as simple as with France : a simple sign with the country speed limits, and that’s it. What remains the same here is the bike lane system : both countries have a list of points placed on the map, and the road between two points is deemed good for bikes. So you end up with a network where you can easily find a path. And there are lots of signs to make sure where you are and where you go.

Tomorrow I’ll see if Germany abides by this system. I’ll just be scraping off the east of Holland, going through Germany, another stop in Holland, and then it’s Germany all the way to Denmark.

Germany

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I stopped at Germany at the end of the ride today, although I will go back once to Holland tomorrow, before going into Germany for good.

  
This back and forth is really due to the strange border between the two countries, when I’m the one going almost straight forward.

  
As I’m in Germany today, let me spill my German jokes right now, because really they’re the wurst.

How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, the others didn’t get there was a joke.

But seriously, did the Germans ever have fun? Well they had fun once, but no one liked it.

There is hope though, there is hope for the future, as even if you’re very kind, German children will always be kinder.

Finally, tell people you love them today, as life is short. But shout it in German, as life is also kinda terrifying.

  
Now that’s out of the way, a little note about the ride. I left Eindhoven knowing it should be raining early afternoon. I did get a little bit of rain right before the border, but only ten minutes. Not, like, for seven hours straight! The sky was grey but it was ok, still nice bike lanes all the way.

  
The path took me through little Dutch villages, which were completely empty, like in France. They did look a lot nicer though. Most also smelled like shit, sorry to say, due to the extensive fields all around, and the copious amount of manure sprayed upon them. Hey you can’t have it all.

   
 As I reached the border, I passed these two tractor-wagon contraptions, handmade RVs of a sort. And a little later I was in Cleves, yes, just like the princess. As usual I strolled through the local supermarket. You can learn a lot about a town, region or country from that : the wealth, standard of living, social classes, how organized and clean people are here, what is important to them, what they put forward, if they are tricksy or protective… It’s a good snapshot of the people.

Plus you get to buy chocolate.