It must have been the claustrophobia of staying on a houseboat with three other people. "I'm not taking the bus with you," I told Matthew. "I'm getting a bike."
"As in, a bicycle?" He seemed incredulous.
"I'm fit enough!"
"Henri," he tempered his tone, "you're talking about riding a bicycle from Amsterdam to Paris. You haven't even bought travel insurance."
"I will", I promised. So I bought a bicycle. Though I never did get around to buying travel insurance. Feel free to criticize the manner in which my oversized German military backpack is strapped on; I am the first to admit it made for a treacherous wobble and eventually it had to be turned sideways to be at least somewhat functional.
Next, I bought this cycling jersey at the Amsterdam flea market, but it turns out Löffler is a German company. Still, the psychedelic design seemed an appropriate souvenir from a country where all manner of silly substances are on offer.
I am not a practical man, and within a few kilometres of leaving the city I realized I had no idea how to get to Rotterdam. My sense of adventure is based on concept, not practicality. As dumb luck would have it, I bumped into an American woman named Amanda who was also travelling by overly laden bicycle and who knew the way. "I was recently fired from my job in London," she lamented, with a calm resolve and a face not dissimilar to Jodie Foster.
My stay in Rotterdam was extended by an extra day, due to the fact that my back wheel hadn't been built properly. Many of the spokes were so poorly attached to the nipples, it was a wonder I made it those first 65 kilometres. I finally set off to Antwerp ("you're putting the twerp in Antwerp!" messaged all my most clever friends) without my American guide and, despite a nice selection of cycling paths, a whopping 120 kilometres to travel. Remember, I am a cycling enthusiast but by no means experienced in long distances like this. It was also incredibly confusing to navigate the intricacies of the "designated cycling route" in a country where I know no language other than my own. At one point I found myself on a freeway, praying that a transport truck wouldn't drag me under and prematurely end my trip/life (travel insurance wouldn't have been much use then anyway!). Then again, I got to take a sweet little ferry across a canal. Getting to Belgium took me most of the day.
Antwerp to Brussels was another 65 kilometres or so. Although I was starting to feel mild trauma in my legs, my crotch was relatively intact thanks to a well-crafted leather Brooks saddle. I marvelled for far too long about Europe's love for cyclists, as most routes had dedicated track of red brick to mark their reign. It was musings such as these that occupied my thoughts as I had been travelling for a few days now, and hadn't spoken out loud much. On the bike I was listening to the same simple playlist of Toronto favourites - Petra Glynt, Bizzarh, Lido Pimienta, Phedre - and felt intrinsically linked to the artistic scene back home despite the incongruous juxtaposition of soundtrack and scenery. The bicycle became a meditative space for me, a propulsion forward that was both exhausting and liberating. Certainly, I met some really interesting people and felt drawn to stay for longer than one night; mere hours after arriving in Brussels I was watching an amazing band from Switzerland at a packed bar. But ultimately I knew that this journey was one of internal discovery. I was determined to continue until I found France.
I finally reached that border I so eagerly sought, but not before I was punished for my rambling approach. Little did I know as I left Brussels at that my day would turn out to be a 140 kilometre affair, as I meandered from village to village, cyling path to highway shoulder, Ath to Tournai and beyond. Some of the designated routes turned to ugly mud and it began to rain. I knew that once I reached my destination - Roubaix, France - I would most likely continue on to Paris via train. I felt a little disappointed but also relieved that I could bring an end to a conceptual whim based on a reasonable understanding of my limitations. My legs would not fully recover for another two weeks.