With routes to choose, equipment and bikes to research and hunt down, visas to obtain, and shots to inject, most people agree on one thing. A trans-continental cycling trip is not something to rush into. The general advice is around 12 months of planning and preparation, including test rides. General advice? Ha! I laugh in the face of general advice! Two and a half months would be plenty. To make it more of a challenge we decided to sell just about everything we own, and take Zoa’s two dogs along for the ride. With friends and family unable or unwilling to look after them, Jack and Paco added 60kgs to our luggage in one hefty swoop. No problem. (I didn’t realise at the time that most people aim for a total of 20kgs of luggage.)
With Zoa finishing up her job at jumbo beer company, my life became the life of a secretary. Posting ads, taking phone calls, sending emails , researching, and making coffee in provocative outfits. The more I learnt, the more I realised I didn’t know. It appeared braking was no longer achieved by pedaling backwards. All new discs, hydraulic fluids, levers and cables might be involved. Then there were the extra cogs, whole different gears to worry about. I had already tried to ignore them once before. On a brief stint of volunteering in Yorkshire, England we were provided bikes to make the 5km trip from the house to the farm. To the delight of my fellow volunteers I drew the short straw and was assigned the pink girls bike. But I didn’t care, the sunshine, the breeze on my face was wonderful. What had I been missing all these years? Then there was a hill. Too embarrassed to ask about how gears work I pressed on in high gear. I pulled away from the pack, feeling strong, feeling proud. But my stamina faded before the hill did, and panting furiously, legs aching, I came to a stop near the top, getting off to push the remaining metres. Everyone else overtook me, seeming fine, but I felt like vomiting into the rows of vegetables for the rest of the day.
As far as motivation goes, the end of a rental lease and looming homelessness is a pretty good one. So without hesitation I began the quest to find the replacement for Duster, my childhood bike. Zoa, blessedly, was already equipped with a Cannondale touring bike and a trailer strong enough to hold Jack, all 45kgs of him. Her Cannondale didn’t resemble Duster at all, with dropped handlebars like a racing bike, clip-in pedals, and my old nemesis, gears. Like a toddler being handed the keys to a semi-trailer, I nervously mounted the saddle and took her for a test spin into the countryside. With an aching back I arrived at a series of small hills, and once again I went up in high gear. With shortened breath and the onset of heart attack, it soon became clear I couldn’t keep this up. The genius of the bike’s design had the gear levers at the bottom of the dropped handlebar. I was having a hard enough time balancing in this new, awkward position, without reaching even further down. One attempt at changing gear had me veering wildly to the side, scuttling into a low hedge and landing in a field. Bruised and aching, I vowed to find a different style of bike.
With a lot of research and much persistence, I found my dream bike. Long-tailed, green, and with curves that could make a grown man blush. The ‘Big Dummy’, a new design from US frame manufacturer Surly, is made for heavy or cumbersome loads that would previously have required a bicycle trailer, or a car. Unlike some of the other utility bike options, it is one strong, solid piece of steel, yet still light enough to climb mountain ranges (as the guys from Riding the Spine proved, with their on/off-road adventure from Alaska to South America). Perfect. Unfortunately it seemed to be everyone else’s dream bike too, and countless phone calls and emails around Europe, and the world led to the same answer. Sorry, sold out, a new batch is expected at the end of the year.
So my attention turned to the next best option, a second hand touring bike and another trailer. I became a regular on ebay, Dutch online marketplaces, Belgian classifieds, and UK cycle forums. The best of the bunch was a solid second hand Dutch ‘Koga Miyata’ touring bike on ebay. As good as new, perfect size, unpretentious black frame, leather Brooks saddle and some Ortlieb panniers to go with it. So I was thrilled to see off a last second bidding frenzy to ‘win’ the bike, at a massive discount from its retail price. Lady luck was smiling at me, it was meant to be. At least that’s what I thought until I find out that lady luck was smiling to somebody over my shoulder, and the bike had been sold to someone else while I was organising the payment. Bitch.
Deflated, my new searches continued to hit dead end after dead end. Second hand touring bikes are not a big market it turns out. It seemed I would have to compromise and pay more than I wanted for a new bike with a setup that I wasn’t entirely thrilled with. I test rode a new Santos Travelmaster, another Dutch bike, and it looked like the next best option. Zoa rode it as well, and suddenly realised that the Dutch might know a thing or two more than the Americans about designing a comfortable touring bike. So with time running out we were now in the position of neither of us having bikes for the trip, and also needing to sell one. Increasingly frantic, I returned to my search for the Big Dummy, calling lists of Surly dealers across the world. Same old story. Until, finally, magically, the golden ticket! A bike shop, (ironically in Zoa’s hometown Van Couver, Canada) with 1 left in my size. Possibly the last available in the world.
For Zoa, the search was much easier. As long as she had butterfly handlebars and a shiny brass bell, I had artistic license to build the rest. With the carrying capacity of the Big Dummy and her trailer, a standard touring bike would be fine. I found a Surly ‘Long Haul Trucker’ frame closer to home in Germany. A rock solid, olive green, steel frame well up to the job. Screw it, if we were going to custom build one bike, may as well do two. Many hours of bleary eyed internet research later, second hand and discounted parts were coming in from all of Europe. It was hard to keep track of it all. One Sunday afternoon on a trip up the canal to the pub we met the Chimay Boys, Jan and Pascal. Pascal was flamboyant in his crisp white shirt, tight pants, colourful socks, pointy shoes, spiky hair, and shiny jewellery. Jan was quieter, a gentle giant, dressed in sandals, an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt covered in flecks of paint. A Belgian odd couple. They insisted they introduce us to their good friend ‘Chimay Bleu’, a 12% Abbey beer from near the border of Belgium and France. Many rounds later we had ended up getting to know them and their friend quite well. But then from the depths of my buzzing mind I remembered the back rack! I had a second hand back rack for Zoa ending any minute on ebay that I was hoping to make a last minute bid on. So I drained the last of Chimay, bid my friends adieu, and straight lined it down the canal as quickly as possible. (Ok, it wasn’t quite a straight line, but I did pretty well not to end up in the canal either.) Fumbling with the keys while doing my pee jig, I rushed inside and turned on the computer, taking it into the toilet while it loaded up. Double relief. Still 15 minutes of bidding left. Another victory! I’d almost ‘won’ enough components for 2 whole bikes.
If you have ever set eyes upon a Belgian tourism brochure you could be forgiven for thinking their finest delicacies are beer, fries and chocolate. What they don’t tell you is that across the nation hunched behind keyboards and counters in departments and office buildings, is an army of artisanal bureaucrats serving up the most delicious of Belgian bureaucracy fresh every day. ‘I’m sorry, you cannot possibly receive a pension sir. The records state that you are officially dead’. ‘I’m sorry madame, your passport shows you to be Ms Orböm, not the Ms Ms Orbom on your identity card, we cannot issue you a marriage license.’ So with little time to spare I found myself clambering between the freight trucks and forklifts of Brussels airport being ping ponged from one department to another seeking THE STAMP that would release MY PRECIOUS!!! I studied his face as I handed over the growing mound of paperwork. Bald, creviced wrinkles, and sunken eyes. This one must have been here a while, maybe he can give me THE STAMP. Glancing up, he paused seeming to savour the moment, ‘Only one person has the authority to stamp your form. He will be back in two hours.’ Like a hungry Oliver Twist I naively asked if please sir, can you issue THE STAMP? He stared at me like I was requesting a kidney transplant and returned to his desk.
Before long the day of reckoning had arrived. With our lease finished, it was time to load everything we owned onto our bikes, and pedal into the sunset. But we were still a few sandwiches short of a picnic, 2 bikes short of a cycling trip. Lacking vital components, and some important gear, we gratefully took up the offer from our friends Colleen and Andre to camp in their backyard. It would give us a chance to finish off the bikes, organise our bags and panniers, and would be a fun, easy way to test out our new nylon house.
The following day we were welcomed into the garage of Reinoud, a Belgian cycling enthusiast with a taste for Surly’s. Despite Zoa and Reinoud’s wife being suspicious (‘why on earth would a total stranger offer to build a bike for free?’), here we were with a frame and hopefully enough components to turn it into a bike. I came across Reinoud’s posts on an internet forum, and after emailing back and forth for advice it was clear he knew his stuff. As a child he and his father would take in stray bikes to be stripped down and re-built. We watched as he built Zoa’s bike with skill and a great attention to detail unmatched by most professional bicycle mechanics. A beautiful, shiny, sexy green machine was born. One down, one to go.
From then on a rain cloud settled over us, and the novelty of the pitter pattering on our tent roof soon washed away. We found small moments of entertainment reading the labels inside the tent. ‘WARNING! Death by suffocation is possible… Possibility of falling rocks, tree limbs, lightning strikes, flash floods, avalanches, strong winds… Anchor your tent properly at all times to reduce the risk of loss or injury to the tent or occupants.’ But as time dragged on we were becoming too involved in the lives of the slugs slithering across our tent roof – dwelling too long on which constellations their silhouettes reminded us of, and spending too much time discussing their cultural habits and projected slide paths. Having seen The Shining several times I knew a thing or two about cabin fever, the axes and the bloodshed. Without any firm walls to throw a tennis ball up against, it appeared that tent fever was already well on the way. What had we gotten ourselves into?!? Suddenly the vision of a carefree, wandering life was become a nightmare.
Luckily, before any blood was spilt, or deaths from suffocation, we got the call we were waiting for. My precious had been put together by the local bike shop, and was ready to pick up. After screwing a perfectly sized basket onto the snap deck we strapped Paco in and cycled away, relieved to be finally moving towards brighter horizons. On the first corner the snap deck lived up to its name, snapping off, sending Paco and his basket on a way flight to the ground. Shaken but unfazed, with a few reinforcement straps Paco the Test Pilot was happy to get back in, and the adventure was ready to begin.