Day two was better. We had way more sleep, took our time getting out of camp, and more thoroughly evaluated the damage to my disc. It was not really starting to hit us that we were in France. Not Berkeley, not Caloveras, not Fairfield or some other far flung, but vaguely local place, but in another country. Passports stamped kind of other country. We were camping in a lovely place, still not actually that far out of Paris (about 40 miles or so). Still close enough to have their air traffic flying over our heads, which was disruptive to the meadow-like place where we were camping.
It should be noted that if you are camping in France in the summer, you should get ready to meet a lot of really wonderful Dutch people. They fucking love camping. In France. And they really like Americans. Which was awesome. We were surprised through the entire trip to find how many people didn’t really care about what we were doing. There was a group of kids who came up to us, curious about what the hell we were up to, and were floored to find out where we were headed by bike. But for the most part, people were fairly nonchalant about it. Except the Dutch. They loved that we were riding to Amsterdam. It was like having an endless parade of Dutch Aunties and Uncles pulling for us.
We rolled out of camp, and got ourselves on some proper bike routes. Which is another thing. There are multiple types of roads in Europe. One type is called the A-road – approximate to a US freeway. They are huge, multi-laned, and terrifying. We had the displeasure of getting routed onto one for a couple miles. Uphill. Google really fucked us on that one. B-roads are slightly milder, C-roads are not for regular people, and D-roads are what long-distance cyclists are recommended to use. They are smaller highways, generally two lanes, running between towns and cities. They are the side-streets of the long distance travel world. Our route was comprised of roughly 90% D-roads (excepting when we were in actual cities and got routed onto A-roads or weird gravel tracks). What we didn’t know about them going in is that they are not that well paved on the shoulders. The shoulders, which are about as wide as a bike tire, and too far over to be useful. We had enough headwind and enough new weight on our bikes to have trouble holding a line, making very small shoulders even more useless. The other thing about D-roads they don’t warn you about is the traffic. There is a surprising amount of it. Generally you are given the idea that you are on quiet roads, meandering gently between towns. Except that there’s a lot of traffic. And that passes you by at about 60mph. On one road, R told me (well after the fact) that the same car almost hit me. Twice.
As we started to travel further and further north, we found ourselves well outside of what R calls Tourist France. Fewer and fewer people we encountered spoke English, and we spoke no French. This wouldn’t have really been so much of a problem, if this part of France also had places to eat and get water readily available and didn’t require us to ask people where they are. No. Seriously. If you plan to ride through northern France, you should be sure to bring enough food and water for a few days because there are spaces where consecutive towns do not have a bar or cafe or store. Not a problem so much if you are driving, but certainly one if you are riding. It is very much a problem. We intentionally stayed clear of larger cities, which was a mistake on our part. Often we would find cafes that just didn’t have food. Despite saying they did.
The towns, several in a row, that didn’t have food or water, combined with being on the D-roads which took us far afield of the direct routes between cities, it became very difficult to reconcile time and distance. Keeping in mind that what takes five hours in a car takes a couple of days on a bike already makes things more difficult. But by day two, we were already forgetting how far we had been riding, or for how long. The days were easier to break down in miles than by anything else. The biggest hurdle (other than my goddamn disc) was mental. Fighting the urge not to push through the miles and just enjoy the ride. Which was made harder and easier by the fact that we had no idea how many miles we had gone or how long we had until the next town. All we had to go on was the campsites we were going to on any respective night. Since we abandoned our pre-planned route, we didn’t really know where we were going.
We built a deadline for ourselves mid-way through the trip in the form of R’s partner, who was meeting us in Bruges, Brussles. This was both a blessing, and a curse. On the one hand it made us push through and not sit at camp sites bonding with the Dutch. On the other hand, we had pressure on ourselves to not get lost (which we did), to not sleep in (which we did), and not take long rests (which we needed to, but didn’t). One complication was the disc brake that was so aggressively un-trued that the front brakes had to be completely opened. Which would have been fine, if we had not had to climb our way out of a river valley, and then drop back down the other side. On a loaded touring bike. This was probably the single moment when I was most concerned for our safety. Luckily, the town we rode into didn’t have a single traffic light light, so there was no reason to need to stop quickly. We did pass a man in a hat with a large feather in it, who was just taking a stroll, who I wish I could have stopped quickly for. Because he looked wonderful. The man who eventually fixed my bike spoke no English. And as we have established, I speak no French. Two people who don’t speak the same language trying to fix bike parts was pretty exceptional. Lucky for us, bikes are universal, as is the love for them.
The second night, we spent in a hotel. We felt like we were cheating, but it was so nice. Way too nice for us. And the proprietors were so nice to us, giving us a room for the night and a safe place to lock up our bikes. In the morning we got the bike fixed, and got back on our way, which led to our first real understanding that stocking up on food would be important.
The further north we rode, the less English was spoken. Days passed, and the only people we had any real discussions with were each other. The rest was pointing, smiling, sighing, and confusion. So when we finally found a cafe that served water, we stayed a while. It was an insanely hot day and we were both having problems not overheating. While we sat there, sweaty and disgusting, drinking our tepid, carbonated waters, we met what had to be the nicest Dutch people in the world. He was a civil servant, she was a librarian. We talked to them for hours. Pushed our camping plans and mileage back for the day. When we finally parted ways, we were so happy. Bolstered by the interaction. Thank god for those Dutch people.
The most northern parts of France are mining country, and we had heard from folks on Facebook and other travelers that camping in that part of France was a little sketchy, so we decided to skip it. We hopped a train, which was an adventure onto itself, and took it to the sea. After days and days of humid, disgusting weather, we were so happy to see the ocean. All the towns were so pastoral, and suddenly we were in the middle of a touristy seaside. It was overwhelming and wonderful.
We rode another 20 miles into Belgium – our first international border crossing on bikes. It was a tremendous victory.
Almost immediately the road quality improved. And we got separated bike paths. Not just lanes, but paths. It was like arriving in the promised land. The cycling infrastructure was incredible, and the whole way through Belgium, all we heard was that we hadn’t seen anything yet, and we should wait for The Netherlands. Our first day in Belgium was like a dream. A cold, damp dream. But still, a dream. It was so relaxing after the nightmare that was the roads in France. I could feel a weight lifting off my shoulders.
Our final push to Bruges kept us along a river. All. Day. We rode beside a river. On a path that cars where not allowed to drive on. It was the most relaxing day we had in days.
It was around here that we took our helmets off and secured them to the backs of our bikes. We felt silly riding in Belgium with helmets on. Even the road cyclists abandon them. The riding is so safe, that its hard to imagine needing them. We had a beer with breakfast and took off for the last day of just-us riding, to head into Bruges to meet R’s partner. We would spend a full day there before taking off again. R’s partner would head down to Paris, where he would spend the six days it would take us to ride to Amsterdam.
Bruges was beautiful – it was better than expected. We spent it all three of us together, and then we spent the rest of the time apart. I got to be a tourist, rather than a traveler, for a few days. I sat in cafes and wrote letters home while drinking large Belgian beers and staggered around avoiding horse drawn carriages. A full day in Bruges, in a hostile with a bed and a shower, And then back to the road!