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Tough birthday present

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This story is writtin from Olivier's perspective.

Dad's face is fire-red, he's pedaling the lightest gear, but we're barely going forward. It's almost thirty degrees. At this crawling pace we are like chickens being slowly grilled in an oven. Only in the descent it cools down a bit, but we continue to cook on the next climb. Dad is suffering a lot while we cycle at his pace without any effort. This has been the case for the last two days, but today his energy barrel is completely empty. During lunch he stared at us, exhausted. He tried to eat a small piece of baguette with avocado. Then he plopped down on a bench. After lunch he dragged himself over every little climb. On the very last hill, he barely gets up. He hangs over his handlebars, ready to vomit. "Three more kilometers, downhill," I try to tap the last of the energy from the barrel. A sigh and dull eyes are the response. The south of France is far away.

A year ago, my father turned sixty. I gave him a gift, a father-son trip, but not just any trip. I wanted to travel with my father the way I traveled the world for four years, on human power. Dad was allowed to choose the method of travel, the country and the length of time. Six months later, Mom and Dad visited us in Sweden where we were writing our book. Dad briefly returned to his birthday present. "I think I'll opt for a bicycle trip," he told me. Maxim, my youngest brother, was there too and was also keen on such a cycling adventure. Then our other brother, Simon, should join as well. The father-son adventure suddenly became a father-three-sons adventure. In the months that followed, we discussed everything via Zoom. We were in Sweden, Simon in Switzerland, dad and Maxim in Belgium. The ideas became a plan. We would cycle from Belgium to the South of France and follow the Green Way to the Mediterranean Sea. 1,300 kilometers in 17 days.


With raincoats, sandals and poncho we wait under the carport. It has been raining incessantly for two days with major flooding in the south of Belgium and the Netherlands. Today, too, they are predicting a full day of rain. "It can only get nicer," I say with a smile, but that doesn't convince Dad. I'm sure he hopes the sun will start shining soon. The first sixty kilometers are flat with the wind in our backs. The rain isn't too bad and barely three hours later we're already in Maastricht. There we see the first signs of the floods. The river Maas has burst its banks, the caravans on the campsite are almost completely under water. Garbage cans, wood, cupboards, buckets and plastic chairs float on the water. It must be havoc upstream. At night we sleep in the garden of a Welcome To My Garden host, a concept where you can sleep in someone's garden with a tent, for free. The man himself is not at home. His son's house is completely flooded, the water is more than a meter high in his house. We put up our tent, put on dry clothes and crawl into the tent satisfied after dinner. Dad is being pulled out of his comfort zone on the first day. Cycling 90 kilometers in the rain, not being able to shower, sleeping in the tent, no power outlets. Yet he doesn't complain for a second.

It rains all night, but just as we get out of the tent, it seems to stop. The sky is still gray, but the weather forecast predicts a dry day. Today we cycle through the Ardennes. It promises to be a tough day with lots of climbing, a good test and especially a good training. On the way we cycle through the havoc wreaked by the flood. We have never seen this. The water is higher than the second floor in some places. Streets are full of debris, cars on top of each other, containers hanging in trees, windows are broken, trees uprooted. People walk down the street with buckets and a shovel. We see caravans smashed against bridge piers, canoes folded in half around a tree. We cycle here for fun, are on vacation, while these people have just lost part of their lives. We'd prefer to stop and help for a few days, but we continue. The Ardennes hills are tough, but we all cycle up smoothly. I have planned a short day - just under 60 kilometers - to let the body get used to it slowly. At half past three we are already at our destination, the garden of another Welcome To My Garden host. Their garden overlooks the hills beautifully. We clean the dirt off our bikes, lubricate the chain and adjust the gears a bit. We are allowed to shower, the sky slowly opens up a little and the first sun on this trip appears. We have already forgotten yesterday's rain.


We continue cycling through the Ardennes and gradually roll into Luxembourg. The hills here are less steep, but the daily distances get a little longer again. One of the lessons in our book is: the journey is the training. We are convinced that excellent fitness is not necessary for a bicycle journey. The body trains along the way and slowly gets used to the long days on the bike. For me and Zoë this adjustment period usually lasts three days. From the fourth day on, we notice that our bodies get stronger and we are not so tired anymore. Dad needs more time. On the fourth day we arrive in Luxembourg city. We find a small campground that has just reopened. The owner tells us that three days ago the campground was completely flooded. Electricity does not work and there is no drinking water. Since today the showers are working again. We pitch our tents and sit down in the camping chairs. We have been showering for a long time when Dad finally finds the energy to get up. At a snail's pace he walks to the showers. "Oy," says Simon, "He's tired." A little later, Dad comes back from the showers as reborn and we forget about that fatigue.


We leave Luxembourg and cycle into France. The landscape changes into rolling hills with vast agricultural fields. Each time we descend to a village after which we have to climb steeply to the top of the next hill. Dad is having a hard time and suffers. He tries to follow his three sons and says too late that he is actually very tired. We know that there is no campsite on the route this evening. We will wild camp at the next village. We are lucky. There is a picnic bench next to a soccer field, sheltered under the trees. Olivier asks the neighbor if we can pitch our tent for the night. "No problem, there are often cyclists here. You can find drinking water at the tap in the cemetery," says the neighbor immediately. We shower with our large water sack, eat pasta with cream sauce and have a bottle of wine for the evening. Ignace still has enough energy for a day on the bike, but is looking forward to the rest day.

"I am feeling better again," Dad says after fifteen minutes. We descend three kilometers to the campsite in Lunéville. He has just enough energy to set up his camping chair. He sits down and immediately falls asleep, no energy left. Tomorrow we'll have a rest day here, but I doubt that one rest day will be enough. In the evening Maxim, Simon and I go for a drink in town. Dad is already asleep in the tent. We agree that after the rest day we will cycle slower and that Dad can set the pace. "Would Dad be happy with his birthday present?" I ask in conclusion.

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