Ever since I had left Lille, I had thought of Zurich as a final checkpoint. Zurich was the last place on the road where there lived friends or relatives. Besides, the experience from previous tours had taught me that I usually spent my first three days on the bike in physical exhaustion, then got into some sort of physical shape, but still needed about another week of cycling to reach some sort mental stability. When I reached Zurich, I had been in the bike for eleven days.
Gearing up for the East
I ended up staying a full week in Zurich, again much longer than I had planned. Since I had called the city home for four years, it was full of friends, and the streets were bursting with familiarity. What surprised me very much though, is that unlike all places where I had traveled in the previous days, Zurich seemed completely ignoring of the ongoing epidemic situation. People wearing masks were an exception rather than the norm, shops had not been re-arranged like in other countries, and if people had ever changed their habits, this was already a thing of the past. On the other hand, it was summer, and the city was bursting with life. I realized how I had learn to love how the city was built, how the streets had more trees than cars and how the four-story buildings accommodated a high density of population while leaving room for communal spaces.
I was hosted my friend Yang, who occupied a fantastic flat in Wetzikon, 30 km east of the city. Yang was an expert bike tourer. She had been cycling in much of Europe and central Asia, lately including the Pamir and Karakoram highways at the western edge of the Himalayas. So I was coming for guidance. Her first advice was to get a proper saddle. So following my painful experiences in Alsace I bought a new saddle, a Brooks B17, which is perhaps the most classic bike touring saddle. At first it felt hard like stone and slippery like wet soap.
I picked up the compact camera I had ordered in Strasbourg, a Canon Powershot G5X. It felt tiny compared to the Fujifilm X-T1 that I had used for years, but also highly unfamiliar. On the other hand, I bought a mini tripod that would fit in my handlebar bag, and this felt like a huge advantage over a heavier camera. I went to try this setup at a small waterfall near Wetzikon. I was disturbed by the colours, so different from the Fujifilm, but amazed by the stabilizer. I quickly understood that it would take me some time to get used to it.
Becoming a digital nomad on two wheels
I took the chance to be in a familiar place for more shopping. I replaced my broken rearview mirror, bought a water filter, a backpack for city life and short hikes, a more comfortable sleeping sheet, and headphones so I could listen to music every now and again. I also bought a travel insurance, which I had not taken the time to do before leaving. Yang was more busy than I had thought, but when she was here she cooked gorgeous meals to me. Most often though I had the huge flat for myself, and took the opportunity to do some distance working on the balcony.
Yang’s second advice was to give away nearly all of my gear except for my toothbrush, but on that we did not agree. Bicycle tourers come in all shapes and sizes : four-panniers long-haulers, mountain bike packers, credit card racers. In Zurich though, I was happy to carry a laptop with me. Just two days after leaving northern France, I had received news that had felt incredible. Someone asked me for work. This in is itself was not unusual. The better news was that the company was ready to pay. And all I needed was my laptop, a power plug, and the hard drives I was mindful enough to bring along in my bags.
Becoming a digital nomad on two wheels had been a fantasy of mine in the last couple of years, but everyone around had dissuaded me to try that. Colleagues had advised that it would be highly unsustainable to work on the road, while fellow cycle tourers thought I should put work aside if I were to leave on a longer tour. Of course, the little work I did while in Zurich would not sustain me for long. It did not even pay the new gear I had bought. But it taught me a powerful lesson : distance work while riding was possible.
A first lesson on loneliness
When the sky cleared up I went to the shores of Greifensee to see the Alps. In the light of the evening sun, they looked so near and thick. I was planning to spend several days in the mountains, cycling one pass after the other. I had crossed the Alps by bike several times before, but perhaps never with so much luggage. On the other side of the range lied an entirely different universe: southern Europe with its Mediterranean food and olive trees.
I said goodbye to my friend Morgane. She had been constantly supporting along the roller coaster ride that the last couple of years had been. Now she was going to visit her family in France. It was her first time traveling since the lockdown, and would most likely be a difficult one. I could not meet all friends and colleagues while in Zurich, but really enjoyed the moments with those I met. At the same time though, I knew that I had already slipped out of their lives. I was not living in Zurich any longer. I was not living in any town now: the road was my home.
And so it was that in the most familiar of places I began to feel the greatest burden of long-distance bike travellers: loneliness. At the same I also understood something that I thought important: loneliness is a craving. All cravings have a trigger, and the familiar streets and sounds of Zurich had been the trigger for me. And so after a week of city life, I felt great urge to get back on the bike.