European Bike Trip
the life-changing magic of pushing petals for 6 weeks
Today marks the start of my third European bike tour (map).
Beginning from my friend Alex’s house in Porto (Portugal) I’m headed up to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) where I’ll meet a few other friends. Together we’ll bike east on the Camino Francés (i.e., the Camino de Santiago), and then I’ll continue on to Toulouse (France)—4 weeks in total.
In celebration, I’m sharing something I wrote last fall, just after finishing a 6-week bike trip from Germany to Portugal (itinerary).
Click here for photos (both past + current trip).
YOU SELL THE CAR. You pack everything into a 5’ x 5’ storage unit. You fly to Frankfurt. You recover the bike that you bought last summer to compensate for a failed relationship with a German schoolteacher. You start riding south.
You’re off on another adventure: an end in itself, but also a convenient way to avoid paying rent, to deny the approach of winter, to cross weeks off the calendar that others dedicate to jobs, kids, spouses, houses.
You’re 39 and still living like 22, dashing across the world to hike and bike and bum and couchsurf. To visit old friends, to make new ones. To pine after beauty, to seek transcendence. You still believe in things like transcendence. Are you allowed to keep living like this? Maybe, just maybe, a sufficient number of pedal strokes will reveal the answer.
Your friend Penny joins you for the first stretch, southern Germany through Switzerland. Together you battle mud and gravel along the Rhein, cleaning your bikes with a garden hose (borrowed from a friendly man) and a power sprayer (borrowed from an unfriendly carwash attendant). You spend the night with Anna and Rolf, a couple you met through the website Warmshowers, which is Couchsurfing for bicyclists. You make raclette together, melting cheese over little pickles and onions and bits of meat, and sleep on a futon in the living room. Rolf and Anna won’t become your friends, but they enjoy hearing your tales and dreams and the attention you give them. You are a welcome novelty, and this earns you a free night in the hyperexpensive utopia they call Switzerland.
Penny pushes her pedals alongside yours, over rolling hills, through bouts of autumn rain. You two had a brief thing last year, you stayed in touch, she stored your bike, and now you quietly ask yourselves whether the past thing might become a current thing. But you’re in perma-traveler mode, and she’s in mostly-one-place mode. (Some might wonder why this may prevent you from having another brief thing; she certainly wonders.) In the end you do what always do: you push her away, with terrible tyrannical sweetness, to protect your autonomy. You notice her sadness, and you’re sad too—but you also project forward, with terrible tyrannical clairvoyance, to the inevitable arguments about sticking around and committing and growing up, and you don’t want to grow up, you want to find your fellow irrational-insatiable-wanderer-with-peter-pan-syndrome, the one with a few nomadic existential crises under her belt already. (Penny, for her part, wonders if she’s had too few existential crises—and contemplates the tragi-comedy of having a crisis due to lack of previous crises.)
But those thoughts will only come later, after Penny has taken the train back to Germany, as you glide down the Rhône Valley, fueled by sun and tailwinds and pan au chocolate and long lonely kilometers. Only after you discover this perfect balance of introverted days and social nights will you begin to accept that maybe this biking life is sustainable, like, long-run sustainable, a prospect that energizes and terrifies you, because maybe you’ve really, finally, truly, gone off the deep end.
Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal. The weeks stretch on as you push farther south, chasing the October sun into November, a sun that miraculously stays bright enough for t-shirt weather yet low enough to dispense with sunscreen. Your life becomes a blur of bike lanes, bugs bouncing off sunglasses, and little moments you record on your phone in a desperate bid to remember:
A construction worker yelping as you almost run over his fresh paint.
An electric fence shocking you as you back up for a photo.
The school-crossing guard scolding you in French for not acknowledging her little red sign.
Macklemore playing in a rural grocery store populated entirely by shuffling geriatrics.
Getting led into impossible situations by your cycling app: an estuary, a bamboo plantation, active train tracks.
Chasing a dog who stole the cap to your chain oil; petting a cat that seemed to be waiting (just for you) on a picnic table; nearly clotheslining a dog that dashed across a bike path with a thin, nearly-invisible leash.
Receiving the suspicious sideways glances of clerks and security guards as you wheel your fully loaded bike into their stores.
Following gaping mouths and squint-eyed stares of old men turning their heads as you roll by their small-town perches.
The kind man at the outdoor cafe who helps you order lunch, tells you about the hidden Roman ruins you’re riding past every day, and then about his longtime desire to take his family on a classic American RV western road trip.
The little girl in Valencia laughing at the “vos sos un oso perezoso” t-shirt you created.
The parents walking their little kids to school in Granada, and then walking each other home after, laughing like little kids.
The joyous, dolled-up teen girls practicing a dance routine in the middle of the Lisbon bike path.
The woman reaching on tip-toes to pick a eucalyptus leaf for a young boy.
You are observing the best parts of humanity, or at least the mundane and non-controversial ones. You are consuming little news and a fraction of your normal screen time. Your body is a flywheel furnace and you are eating whatever you want, whenever you want, feeling forever radiant and healthful.
True, your mood dips most afternoons and occasionally you rage at trucks and e-bikes and oblivious pedestrians on their phones (the whole world is on their phones) and gross seaside tourism (looking at you, Benidorm) and those f*cking psychopaths walking solo through wide-open rural areas with face masks on, but mostly you’re immersed in the tragically beautiful boring agnostic cobblestone life of small-town Europe.
You stay with old friends and feel the pang of loss as you cycle away in the morning. You stay with new friends and develop a new camaraderie, born of the fact that you biked across Europe to see them. You encounter fellow cycle tourists and get hosted by complete strangers and it all accretes into a bedrock of hope and trust and faith in humanity:
Lilli and Elena, the 19-year-old Germans on a two month, €10/day cycling trip, knocking on random doors to ask to pitch their tents.
Jean-Marc, the 73-year-old Frenchman about to ride 10,000km across Saudi Arabia and Oman, who advises you that you don’t need to have kids to feel complete, but you absolutely do need to feel useful and of service to the world.
The 36-year-old Russian Couchsurfing host in Portugal, collecting signatures to transform inner Lisbon into a car-free zone while simultaneously working to dislodge Putin from Russian politics. (Q: What are you working on today? A: The revolution.)
The 38-year-old Eritrean immigrant to Switzerland, quietly watching the Geneva sunrise through his kitchen window.
The 30-year-old Spaniard who can finally afford her own apartment—and all she wants to do is chuck it and travel. (Her three rules: Clean up your messes, sign the guestbook, and don’t flirt with me.)
Rafa, the Sevillan airport border guard, prospective round-the-world biker, overly generous Warmshowers host, and unabashed Trump fan.
Pedro, the Andalusian biker in an olive grove, carrying a trailer and food and water for his dog Mara, who desperately wants to bite my face off.
Rashika, the British Indian you meet in a flamenco cave, stumble into again at a kebab shop, and almost kiss at a bus stop.
Thunderstorms flash off the coast of Spain, a tree grows through a cracked boardwalk in Portugal, waves lap the south of France, and every day ends with riding into the sunset. The world is fine, you realize—and by extension, maybe you are, too.
Yes, you still argue—internally, every morning—with the one giving you the silent treatment. You still worry about money, career, dating, loss of hair. But it all melts away when an old friend hugs you, when a host accepts your request, when you bike through the smell of fresh bread, when you hold a handstand for 8 seconds, when you speak with a group of teens who genuinely want to know how couchsurfing works, when a 24-year-old American confides her misgivings about falling in love with a Frenchman, when a retired environmental lobbyist joins you for 50km of cycling before cooking you a grand pasta dinner, when you sleep on a catamaran with the family of a former student, when you make plans to take a ship from Montpellier to Reunión Island with your friend’s sisters (to visit your friend, on Reunión Island), when you have your mind changed about churros and hot chocolate, when a beautiful stranger takes you home in Barcelona.
If this isn’t life, then what is? If this is your brand of weirdness, why not own it? Your self-consciousness and continuous drip of low-level anxiety doesn’t disappear, but they do dry up a little more with each hour in the sun, with each new face, with each destination reached. You’re doing it, you tell yourself. You’re doing something. That’s better than nothing.
Now keep it up.