Sunday started like always – I came in to Lola just after the doors opened, ordered a cup of coffee and waited for the rest of the group to come in for the usual weekend ride. I was excited, but also a bit worried. For a moment, I really wanted to abandon my plans and go for a ride around the block instead. But I took the last sip of my coffee, set up the navigation, took in all words of encouragement and pats on the back and started cycling according to the route that would bring me to Bruges at the end of the afternoon.
Even before I left the city centre, I could feel a pretty strong head wind. This, in combination with the fully packed bike, aroused some serious doubts in my head: was I really prepared to cycle for so long, physically, mentally? Was my bike good enough? How am I going to manage cycling for so many days on my own? And probably other hundred questions.
I wasn’t sure where this idea came from in the first place. It started with an invitation to Calais, long night talks accompanied with just enough beers to boost my inner cyclists’ self-esteem and the finish of the Tour. All pieces have fallen into place and the trip reached its final version of a solitaire bike packing trip to Paris and back. Just like that. It took me probably around a week to plan the route and decide on what to take with me and I was ready to go. Or so I hoped.
I wanted to challenge myself, to get rid of some frustrations and bad memories, to forget, to start fresh. I was running away for a while, to figure out everything that happened in the course of the last year or so and to process it. I was taking some time for myself and it felt good. I was on the way to Bruges.
Let’s get this party started
The Hague – Bruges – Landrethun-le-Nord
The ride started well. I put my favourite playlist on, took few deep breaths and soon enough I relaxed a bit and started enjoying the views around me. The surroundings were mostly flat, typically Dutch, accompanied by lots of bridges and dikes. I took two ferries, one in Rozenburg and the other one in Vlissingen. I came across lots of nice broad cycling roads and, maybe except for the wind, I was enjoying it a lot. After a short stop at a snack bar to fill up the stomach and water bottles, I went further to Bruges.
I was impressed by the cycling infrastructure in Flanders. Cycling alongside the coast on spacious paths far away from cars was a real pleasure. Just before entering Bruges I cycled for quite some time alongside the water and I came in to the city centre just before six to find myself in the middle of the Belgian National Day celebrations. The atmosphere was great, and the tiny but beautiful city centre was full of people. After having a nice dinner (mussels!), a compulsory glass of Brugse Zot and a chat with some people at the restaurant, who wanted to hear the whole story about my solo bike travelling, I got on the bike again to meet my first hosts.
In a house just outside of the city centre I was welcomed with a true Western-Flemish hospitality and immediately felt like home. I was offered not only a warm shower and a cold beer but even a jacuzzi! A very lucky start of the trip.
In the morning, after a lovely breakfast and a good cup of coffee, I got back on the bike. This time I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up, as I didn’t manage to find any hosts so far. The wind blew even harder than the day before – the wind gods clearly wanted to make sure that I am good enough for this challenge – but Normandy absolutely stole my heart. The views, the sun, the space – I was getting a real holiday feeling as I cruised through the landscape without hurry.
During the day I got an offer to stay in Boulogne-sur-Mer, but I also got a message from my friends that my room is ready, one day earlier than expected. So I left the path alongside the cost and went straight to Landrethun-le-Nord. Leaving the coast and cycling to the south brought a change of a landscape. I cycled into rural areas, with no cycling paths but calm regional roads and after a long, mostly straight and pretty boring part, I reached my second destination.
Recovery in Chênelet
I was invited to stay at Les Gîtes du Chênelet by people I hardly knew. We’ve met in Italy a few months earlier, talked about cycling and before I knew it, I was on my way to visit them in their holiday location in France. I would stay here for a few days.
I was introduced to the concept of Chênelet – a learning enterprise where people are offered integration programmes and job trainings (based on local industry and resources) in order to help them return to employment. Renting holiday apartments (les gîtes) provides additional income and more job opportunities. Among other things they are specialized in producing juices, soups, jams and… chocolate. All in all, it is a really cool concept that empowers local community (for more information, check: https://www.chenelet.org).
As I immediately fell in love with the area, I couldn’t stay away from my bike for very long. On both “recovery” days I did some short trips cycling between small villages and the coast, searching for bakeries and cafés and filling the afternoons with interesting discussions, great food and the Tour’s Alp stages on tv.
Soon enough I discovered what I forgot to do before the departure. I haven’t checked my shoes and my shoe plates appeared to be too damaged to use anymore. It was just another reason to get on the bike again and cycle to Boulogne-Sur-Mer in search for a bike shop.
Spending time in this small paradise made me think that although this journey was meant to help me forget things, I started to feel a need to remember as much as possible: how it feels to cycle every day, the stunning views, the interesting conversations with newly met people. I didn’t want to forget anymore, I wanted to collect all the memories instead.
Chênelet was amazing and I would love to spend some more time there, but I also couldn’t wait to get back on the road again and reach my final destination – Paris. Before I realised that cycling more than 160 km during the heatwave wasn’t the wisest idea, it was too late – I said goodbye to my friends, packed the bags, put the water bottles in the freezer and set up the alarm clock on 5 am. I wanted to get to Amiens before it gets seriously hot, although when I woke up it was already 27 degrees. Despite that the ride started pretty well. The roads were empty if not counting some wild rabbits and deers. I was really glad to be on the bike again. Because of the heat I tried to cover as much distance as possible in the early morning hours. To stay hydrated I followed the golden advice from a friend – when I ran out of water and there was no café or store on the way, I was looking for… cemeteries. No kidding, you will always find there a tap of cold, clean water, which can save you on a very hot day. If you dare to disturb their “residents” or the family members visiting them…
The heat was getting worse and worse and cycling became a real struggle. I can’t recollect much from that afternoon, except from that I was desperately looking for a place in the shadow to stop and that I was pouring water over my head all the time. The asphalt was melting, I could smell it and feel it sticking to the tires. I remember being angry with myself – I shouldn’t be cycling at all on such a warm day. It was stupid and probably even dangerous. The navigation was leading me through the main roads, between cars and trucks spreading even more hot air around, but I was too tired to look for an alternative route through better, calmer and covered roads. So, I kept trying to get through the heat, counting kilometres, stopping at almost every village to make my clothes wet and fill up the bottles, up to the moment that I couldn’t cycle anymore. I gave up. I stopped at a small tobacco shop in Beauval, only 20km from Amiens, I asked the saleswoman for a taxi number (which she looked up in a telephone book, which I didn’t even know still exist) and half an hour later I was heading to my Airbnb in the north part of Amiens.
After an ice-cold shower, I decided to go for a quick walk around the city, mostly to see the Notre-Dame d’Amiens – the second most beautiful cathedral in France (beautiful indeed!). I fixed myself a quick meal and after a short chat with my host and covering every piece of my skin with the after sun I went quickly to bed to recover from that hellishly hot day.
I woke up the next day to good news – that the temperature went back to normal – and bad news – that there are heavy storms to be expected. I was picturing myself standing on the side of the road and waiting for storm, lightning strikes and heal to stop. Actually, there was another good news. After all the struggles in Normandy and the heatwave on the last day, the wind gods decided to support me a bit with the tailwind. At last! After struggling for days, I almost forgot how it feels to have wind in the back.
The weather was constantly changing, resulting in lots of impressive cloud forming. The heavy storm was definitely coming but bearing in mind the heat from the day before, I was almost glad about the promise of the rain. The ride was going smoothly, the rain was coming and going and after covering more than half of the distance for the day I stopped at a bakery in Beauvais. I was enjoying a delicious warm quiche, drinking coffee and waiting for my clothes to dry a bit. I got some interested looks from the people cueing for a freshly baked baguette and before I knew it, I was sharing my cycling story with the whole bakery.
After twenty more kilometres or so I came across a group of… other bike packers! Not the older couples on their trekking bikes that I saw a lot on the way, but the light-packed road cyclists. I speeded up, introduced myself and from now on there were four of us on the way to Paris. They took a ferry from the UK, arrived at Dieppe and started their cycling from there – an impressive ride of almost200 kilometres. At that moment I realised that solo travelling, how awesome it was, was at times a bit lonely. Soon enough I appeared to be a very useless addition to the group, as I got my very first (and last!) flat tire – when everyone was getting hungry, in the middle of a busy road, without a safe place to stop and change the tire. Obviously.
With some ups and downs we arrived in Paris in the middle of the afternoon rush hour – which made getting though the city not only almost impossible, but also very irritating. Tired, but happy, we arrived at the Eiffel Tower and after having a beer we said goodbye and went other ways to find our next accommodations. I was about to take two days of rest, wandering around, eating far too much of delicious food. Paris sera toujours Paris…
La Grande Boucle
That weekend Paris was clearly taken over by the Tour fans, lots of them on the bikes. It was a real cycling feast. On Sunday morning I came across the amateur ride on the Champs-Elysées. For a moment I was wondering about signing up but decided that riding there in the crowd of people (also on city and electrical bikes) wouldn’t be that much of a fun. I had a great time with my best friend that came over to Paris for a few days and I was looking forward to seeing the finish of the Tour in the evening.
And there it was – the finale of the Tour de France. When we get to the Champs-Elysées the caravan parade has already started. The atmosphere was tense, and the Colombian fans were dominating the streets, wearing yellow, singing and waving the flags.
It was my first ever glimpse at the professional cyclists, racing nowhere less but in the middle of Paris. Paris, where I came on my bike for the second time. For the first time with a big group and this time all alone, starting from the very front door of my house. Moreover, I realised that it was exactly two years ago when I bought my road bike. Two years ago, on the last day of Tour de France. Two years and more than seven thousand kilometres further. I didn’t realise that when I was starting that trip. It stroked me then and there – on the Champs-Elysées somewhere between the third and the fourth round. However cliché it might sound, I was pretty damn proud of myself.
Back home in four days
Paris – Montbrehain – Roubaix – Antwerp – The Hague
Saying goodbye to Paris is never easy for me, but this time there was another dimension to it as it meant that I have reached the half of my journey. From now on I would cycle for four days straight. I was afraid that more than 500 km of cycling and two days of extensive walking through Paris (I clearly overdo the sightseeing, as my phone counted in total more than 60.000 steps) will kill my legs and that I will have some serious troubles getting back on the bike. Surprisingly, nothing was less true. Apparently, my body got used to the daily efforts and I felt really confident. Moreover, I got used to the rhythm, getting up in the morning, packing up, saying goodbye and taking on a new challenge every day. I didn’t want to stop.
Paris on a Monday morning was a bit chaotic but getting out of the city centre went far better and quicker than I expected. Soon, I was riding on empty roads alongside Le Canal de l’Ourcq.I had planned a long ride of almost 190 km, so I decided to keep up the speed and reduce the stops. The ride was going really well, and the route was diverse – it led through the forests of Compiegne and lots of small villages. Some of them were bruising with life and full of people, while other looked empty, almost abandoned.
This long, but nice route brought me to a very special location in Montbrehain. I was really lucky to be able to spend a night in a stunning country house with a top floor fully adapted to host bike packers from all over the world. I was welcomed with home-made bread and fresh vegetables straight from the garden. The owners had a guest book that went a few years back, full of pictures, postcards and words of appreciation. I was more than glad to contribute to this collection.
The next day’s ride has taken me to Roubaix, partially through the “mythical” roads of Paris-Roubaix and their (in)famous cobblestones. Riding there was so much fun, although it would have been even better without the extra weight on the bike. It was a nice ride that passed by really quickly, probably because it was 70 kilometres shorter than the day before. My hosts in Roubaix were a family of four that gave me so much warmth and love, that I literally didn’t want to leave. The youngest member of the family expressed it in the best way by saying that I should stay there for “one hundred thousand days.” My heart melted. It was probably one of the most difficult goodbyes of the whole trip. Although all my hosts were amazing, there was a difference in being hosted by people who are cyclists themselves: as they tend to ask lots of practical questions about your journey and can relate very well to your struggles and how you feel.
I was leaving Roubaix with a strong feeling of wanting to remember it all – every ride, every road, but even more, every person and their story. I was amazed that people would open their houses for absolute strangers and are so welcoming. As if it was the most normal thing in the world. I couldn’t be more grateful.
On my way to Antwerp I started encountering more and more other cyclists, on their own or in groups – once again Flanders proved to be a cyclists’ heaven. The route was partially based on the parcours of the Tour of Flanders and to be honest, neither I or my bike were prepared for that. My legs were tired, and the bags started to feel too heavy. The bike has had enough as well – there was an issue with the gear changing and I ended up climbing Paterberg having only the big plate available. I was taken over by a local on a MTB bike, who climbed cobblestones flawlessly and stopped for a chat. After my clumsy way up, I could only impress him by counting the number of kilometres I had done in the last week. ‘Bon courage’ he said, and off he went.
Yet, another reason to go back there next time and smash it.
The first thing that caught my attention in Antwerp was a bike race, the Na-Tour Derny Antwerpen, that was held in the heart of the city. The last night of my trip was a fact, when I get to my last hosts, a Flemish-French family living in the eastern part of the city. We filled the evening with good food and late-night talks. The closest I was to the end the more melancholic I felt.
The last day was probably the least pleasant as I wanted to get home, was starting to get tired of being on the road for such a long time. Moreover, the landscapes were not that new and interesting anymore and I ended up looking straight and trying to get through the last kilometres as quick as possible. The weather wasn’t helpful at all, it was all grey and cloudy, and it was raining a lot.
Initially, I wanted to go home without making a stop, but somewhere near Rotterdam I ran out of energy and decided to have a lunch. After the last ride, tired but satisfied, I came to Lola, to end the journey where it all started.
It took me one whole day before I realised that this journey wasn’t a dream, but that it actually happened. It seemed all so unreal. I was away for 12 days. I spent 8 days on the bike. I covered more than 1100 kilometres in over about 48 hours of moving time. I stayed at 7 different locations hosted by people that, except from one, I had never met before. Maybe I was really lucky, but all of them were absolutely amazing and took great care of me. I was hoping for a safe space for me and my bike, but they gave me far more than that.
I left all negative memories somewhere on these empty roads and I filled the space with new, amazing memories, views and stories. There are no words or photographs that can describe it properly. You had to be there. So if I can give anyone an advice I would say: go out there and explore. Create your own adventure, make it how big you want it to be. And come back and tell people about it. Who knows who you will inspire.
It was essential for me to have a good playlist that would get me through the most difficult moments. Here are some of my favourite picks for long days in the saddle: Long Roads