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.

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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 🙂

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
  

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 🙂 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 🙂

Houston

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Once again, not the one you know 🙂 Houston-we-have-a-problem is in Texas. In the US many different places have the same name as some other place here or in Europe, or maybe even elsewhere. Anyway, I reached Houston after a long ride.

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That was 66 miles / 106 kms from Marshfield, with no real other solution on the way. For the rest of Missouri I’ll do shorter rides, I’m accumulating fatigue again a bit too fast.

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I’m still in a French countryside lookalike ! Hills, farmlands, cattle… Even some of the grass grown here comes from France, as a farmer told me. The climate around is very similar, except for humidity probably. But today that wasn’t an issue. I’m very lucky as there is a week of lower than usual temperature around. Same as for Nevada. I also have to see a day of rain. Fingers crossed.

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The road to Houston was a little bit flatter today. According to Rick, a cyclist doing the TransAm one month per year at a time, the hardest part is right up ahead. Zhang from the Chinese team seems to confirm 🙂 Well I’ll do all that much slower.

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I still have that tense period when I start the day. There’s this little voice telling me I won’t be able to make it, 60 miles is too much, I’ll fall from exhaustion, freak out in the middle of nowhere… Even after 5000 kms it’s still there bugging me. For sure I don’t want to end a ride in the evening, but my brain can’t get around the fact that riding 5 hours at 12mi/19kms/h makes me reach my destination at some point. I’m still looking for immediacy, speed, just like we are used to everyday, especially on the web. Needing time to go somewhere doesn’t compute.

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Still, I’m moving forward. Half of Missouri done now, Illinois in four or five days, depending on where I take the next day of rest. That might depend a lot on the tv channels selection ! 🙂 It’s really terrible around here : tele-shopping, prayers, old series, weather forecast… When I’m really lucky I get Adventure Time. I’ll watch all seasons when I get back, this show is totally surreal and awesome. I’m even starting to get used to 10 minutes commercial breaks every 10 minutes. You can get used to anything anyway, except for boredom. That’s why Hell is actually a grey empty place. A big Lake of the “please wait” loading circle, forever.