A large swan and her young relaxed in an eddy of the Rhine River. I lowered myself to the banks' edge and slipped my calves into the icy river, trying not to disturb the swans. The turquoise water was freezing, fresh from sliding off the Alps into this corner of Switzerland. After weeks of biking, I relished numbness it brought to my legs. I leaned back and gazed appreciatively upwards into a clear blue sky. A rare site on this trip, especially since our month crossing Belgium and France was cold and wet, motivating us to buy another blanket and spend as much time in heated bakeries as possible.
Now, on my right, my dad was digging out his hammock, which had spent the last six weeks stuffed in the bottom of his pannier. “Yay!” I cheered. Between moisture laden clouds and campgrounds with no trees, the hammock had become a bit of a three-pound joke. My dad grinned as he attached the hammock to two beech trees and gracefully dropped in.
“Play with me Mama!” my son, Zion, yelled to me. We had only been at camp for a few minutes and he’d already managed to find some sand buckets.
“I’ll be right there,” I yelled back and giggled. I’m not sure why I thought I would have an abundance of time to ponder life on this trip. Travelling with a six-year-old was and entirely different experience to the hours of writing, yoga and meditation I had ridiculously thought I’d have. By the time we finished biking, setting up camp, playing and reading his books, there was no energy left for anything except cuddling and listening to rain splatter on the tent fly.
“Mom!” Zion yelled again and I pushed myself up. With so much time spent on bikes, we always tried to play with him. And truthfully, some days it was exhausting. I struggled with the guilt of needing my own time to re-energize, but still wanting to keep him entertained and happy. But I was definitely becoming an expert sand castle builder.
Sometime later, my husband came by and I mentioned, “We should go see the ruins.”
“Noooo,” Zion complained. His lips formed a pout but he still looked so adorable with his bright blue eyes beneath a large yellow brimmed hat. I know our son never asked for this kind of trip and I wondered if he will grow up to love riding and exploring as much as his parents.
“Grandma will buy you an ice-cream.” I hold out my finger for a pinky promise. (Bringing your parents on a cycle tour has great advantages.) Before we left, I change Zion's socks. His feet were white and wrinkly and I failed to remember the last time we’d made him take a bath.
A few minutes from our camp were ruins from the Roman Empire dating back to 300 years B.C. We walked up to a 2000 year old amphitheater as the sun lowered and Zion licked his ice-cream.
The history was astounding, with the Romans, the wars, the pride, the discomfort, and we tried to take it all in as we move through Switzerland and then into Germany. The hills came as we navigated our way from the Rhine towards the beginnings of the Danube River. In the town of Tuttlingen, Germany, we found the most incredible pool with waterslides. Zion got clean, splashing for hours. My mom and I snuck upstairs where we stripped off all our clothes to experience our first nude sauna. Testing out many different saunas and baths, I felt exposed and vulnerable, yet confident. It reminded me of this entire experience of travelling with my family; how I often questioned my parenting choices and other times relished in the answers.
Cycling on the Danube flats, I was curious to see how long we would follow the river and how much it would change along the way. At the moment, it was narrow and calm and winding towards a slender gorge. Zion’s arm shot up in the air, showing off his one-handed biking skills before racing ahead with my dad. I laughed as they yelled out their nicknames for eachother; Joe Cool and Freddy Fire. As well as playing games of Twenty Questions and I Spy, we had been through three books of knock-knock jokes, and sang all the songs I could think of. (He’s not much of a fan of my singing, unfortunately.)
“Look a beaver!” My mom pointed and I jumped on the opportunity to keep Zion entertained and by telling him everything I know about beavers. But as we moved through limestone cliffs topped with majestic castles, I found myself craving to see around the next corner. As much as I stayed present in my life, I still often failed. There was always something enticing me to check it out. Zion, though, lives in every minute as if it’s his only.
He doesn’t quite grasp that if we bike faster, we will make it to a beach. That if we pack up our tent and ride on, we will make it to a waterpark in the afternoon. And because of this, I try to experience the moments. I strive to savour life at his pace.
An older gentleman from France cycled with us for a while and Mike conversed with him in French. I was able to catch the gist of their conversation as he asked about Zion’s school. I understood Mike as he explained that Zion is in kindergarten and it’s okay he’s out of it for a while.
“Ecole de vie!” The French cyclist shouts and smiles! “School of life!” And I can’t help thinking that he meant it for all of us. And I realize that perhaps, I have had time to ponder life on this trip after all.
People travel and crave movement for many reasons. Whether it is for a change from the usual, for a sense of adventure, to see what’s around the corner, or to see how other people live. For me, a treasured moment of travelling by bike is drinking sunrise coffee outdoors in a new place, while listening to birds sing.
We had already camped in France for weeks, but the thrill of the morning bakery van honking and playing music like a Canadian ice-cream cart brought me and my son, Zion, running every time.
First light was beginning to peek over the hill beside Le Doubes River, and only us and other eager bike-tourists awaited the campsite bakery delivery. Together we peered at the offerings and inhaled: the thick, sweet bready smells alone were almost enough to satisfy our hunger. I purchased five croissants, three baguettes and two chocolate éclairs. This haul would maybe last my family for the day. I laughed and thought about the new spare tire growing around my waist, which may just be my favourite French souvenir.
My mom and I walked over to our bikes and delicately squished the baked goods into her front panniers. Hand-washed laundry hung from multiple different straps of our bikes. The sky was clear and after a lot of cold spring rain, a day where our laundry might dry was exciting.
“Excusez-moi, you’re touring on an E-bike?” A French man in a tight yellow and black cycling jacket interrupted my musings.
“Yes, I am.” And I checked out his bike too, as it seemed to be the thing to do.
“You are too!” I exclaimed.
“Oui! It’s the best, I travel with it every year,” he told me. “Next year, I’ll ride to Vienna.” He paused, already dreaming of his next adventure I supposed. “How are you liking your CUBE bike?”
“I love it!” I beamed. “My family and I have followed La Meuse River South and we’re now veering to the east and hope to make it to the Rhine River in a few days.”
“I’m Jean-Paul,” he reached his hand out. I took it and then introduced my parents and my husband. We were all ready to ride, except my son, Zion, who had jumped off his own CUBE bike and was now standing beside me.
“How many kilometres are you getting each day on that battery?”
“Well, depends how much my second power source is helping out!” I motioned to the attachment connected to the back of my bike and squeezed Zion’s shoulder. Zion tucked his head into his arm a bit, being shy. “I average about 80 kilometres on a battery,” I then said. “Some days though, my legs are not good and I keep it in Turbo-mode. It also depends on the hills. Yesterday was a doozy,” I admitted.
“Are you finding charging stations easy?” he asked. I was. And Jean-Paul was clearly happy to chat with me. I felt like the cool kid talking about e-bike cycle-touring. He was the first person I had met on the trip also travelling with a pedal-assist.
“I bought a second battery in The Netherlands so I wouldn’t have to stress about keeping it in Eco-mode,” I told him. “I’d been concerned about finding enough places to recharge but that hasn’t been an issue.”
Jean-Paul smiled knowingly and then turned his attention to Zion.
“How old are you son?”
“And you’re biking too! Extraordinaire! What is your favourite part?"
“Finding new swimming pools and playgrounds,” Zion said. “And when I can bike on my own.”
“Are you biking on your own today?”
Zion picked up his bike with a cheeky smile and we chorused an au revoir to Jean-Paul as we pulled out onto the path.
Le Doubes River was full of locks, cranes, herons and ducks. Eventually, the path turned to road and we wound our way through a village with a statue depicting the devastation of WWII. There is always much to learn from the seat of the bike.
That evening, in the downtown of Mountbeliard, a family took us into their home and gave us beds for the night.
“This house is older than Canada,” I told Zion as we explored all the floors and rooms. In fact, the house is older than when Jacques Cartier sailed up to what is now called Canada and claimed the land for the French, I realized.
On the very edge of France in another campsite, Zion and I found Jean-Paul again. He was stooped over packing his bike wearing the same yellow and black jacket. Croissant crumbs sprinkled the ground.
“It’s my last day, today. I head back home by train.” He looked happy to see us and wistful at the same time. I imagined his mind had already gone towards his next trip. The next time he will feel like an explorer. The next time he will push out of his comfort zone or meet new friends and have Canadians run up to him at a campsite. Perhaps by leaving, he also realized how much he loved his home.
I know I felt nostalgic as I nibbled on my last French Fraise Tartlette. Later that afternoon we arrived at the Three Countries Bridge. Zion led up the ramp to the single span bridge over the Rhine River. We signalled him to stop midway. His front wheel was now in Germany, his back wheel leaving France and on our right was Switzerland. I wondered where my next morning coffee would be savored and if Switzerland would still have bakery delivery trucks. My family and I still had a lot to discover.
My families’ tire prints squished into the track and left a groove behind us. Beginning in Amsterdam, we had stepped on our pedals, pushing off into the uncertain. Yet, we moved easily towards The North Sea. Balancing a bike is so effortless. My son, Zion, just turned six and is on a brand new CUBE Acid 200 bike. He loves it because it’s blue.
“I don’t have gears Mom!” He yelled as he flew in front of my husband and parents. “Instead, I have engine changers! Watch this!” I watched him gear down, stand up and pass what seemed like thousands of Dutch cyclists. I gave my husband, Mike, a look that questioned: “What have we gotten ourselves into?” But I knew. We were three generations embarking on a 110-day trip across Europe.
I also knew that when I am outside, I’m the best version of myself. I am free, wild, happy and fulfilled. Dr. Stuart Brown says, “Play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation.” Play for me happens in the wilderness. And much of that play for me in my life was epic experiences. Big remote races around the world that lasted for days.
My legs have been in pain for a year now. Instead of obtaining women’s records, on good days I can bike easier flat rides, while on bad days I can’t walk. Before buying my CUBE Reaction e-Bike, if I biked two days in a row, then I usually couldn’t ride for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know anything about pedal-assist bikes when my husband, Mike, first introduced them to me.
“Katrina, I think we can still go on a cycle tour if you try an e-bike,” he had said, passing me a print out of what can only be described as a “granny bike.” (Not a Cube). I was skeptical. The whole idea of it was strange to me. Even the fact that it was Mike wanting to go. In our relationship, it had always been me pushing to bike, striving for more and further. When I was eleven I read a brilliant novel, The Power of One, and came away with the lesson, If you want something bad enough, just make it happen. Work hard, train hard and fight for it. But since my injury I was handed the question: “But what if what you want is never going to reach reality?”
I had identified with being an athlete and a hiking-guide. I had identified with being outside and spending as many days in a tent as I could. But now the athletic dreams and goals I had for my future most likely wouldn’t come true. So what could come true?
The granny bike wouldn’t do, but when I first rode the Cube Reaction on icy winter back lanes in Canada, joyful tears froze to my cheeks. It gave me the feeling I had been seeking. Freedom. I could bike again.
By the time we reached the fragrant tulip fields in Holland and slick cobblestone of Belgium, any anxiety and fears we had from cycle-touring as a family or concerns with my legs were squashed into the dirt and spun over by new tread. We plugged in my battery each night while camping or in small villages at lunch. Some days, I could survive in Eco-mode and other days I needed Turbo-mode to make it to our next campground.
A month into our cycle-tour, I looked down at the map attached to my front handlebar bag. We had cycled amongst windmills, ate our share of chocolate waffles in Belgium and then biked down the La Meuse River in France. Leaving the river, we aimed for Switzerland. Navigating from a combination of paper maps, apps, Google and intuition, I didn’t always get it right. Trees became thicker and soon petered out to nothing. A dead end. No go. Must turn back. But I’m stubborn and got off my bike to nose around anyways, before breaking the news to my family, “Right-o, we have to turn around.” Nobody complained.
“But mom, are we going the right way?” My son asked, attached at that moment by the Follow- Me-Tandem.
“Well, honey, sometimes our paths turn into dead ends.” And I took the opportunity as a teaching moment. After all, my husband and I did take him out of kindergarten to bike around Europe with my parents. “The thing with dead ends is we can always turn around. We can start over. There is never anything wrong with coming up with a new plan,” I told my son.
The hill we had easily careened down earlier at 40 km/h was now a steep uphill and I heard Mike switching gears and huffing from the effort. “But mom, this hill’s not that hard at all,” he replied as we pretty much flew past my mom heading up. She laughed. It was moments like this I know she is happy for us, and also maybe a little bit jealous of my ride.
My bike on Turbo-mode made hills much easier. My legs, like life, needed a reset too. I had reached a dead end in their normal use and now ride a pedal-assist so I can start over and continue doing the things I love to do.
I thought I had to recreate what adventure was for me, that it had to become a state of mind and involve smaller movements, rather than a metaphor for epic and ridiculous. But the thing is, riding my Cube e-bike gives me as much joy as any other bike I have been on, perhaps even more so. With the power of one-battery, I can play.