When Hélène met François, she’d been dreaming of a long-distance bicycle trip for years. I think the fact that François was an experienced cyclist just maybe added to the attraction. Within 18 months, they had sold almost everything they owned, and loaded what they couldn’t or didn’t want to sell into their car, parked it in a safe place, and were gone.
Hélène Burgermeister and François Pigeon are both originally from France. It was their first joint bicycle trip, and her first big trip. Their rides were mountain bikes: Hélène’s a hardtail and François’ a trusty unsuspended. They left on July 31, 2015 from Whitehorse and arrived in Panama City 10 months later, in mid-May 2016.
François is an experienced cyclist already having traveled from Patagonia to northern Peru, and from Vancouver to Alaska on his own – over 25,000 km.
Not so for Hélène. Their first idea for a trip together was to go from Siberia to Europe. Hélène considered it but, in the end, was not convinced.
“For my first trip I didn’t want to do it… we’d been together less than a year and a half.” What if they didn’t get along and she found herself alone in the middle of Russia? They decided on the somewhat tamer route, because it was without the greater language and logistical difficulties.
Traveling on the cheap meant they camped wherever they could find a spot, and that included a soccer field, and a baseball dugout. In the United States, they took advantage of many hospitable backyards courtesy of a network of hosts from WarmShowers.org, a site that connects cycle tourers with beds and yards, and of course, warm showers. In Mexico and the rest of Central America they mostly camped and stayed in modest hotels when safety, filth and fatigue insisted.
There’s a lot to see and experience between Whitehorse and Panama City, but for Hélène, the high point of their trip was a month spent on the Continental Divide Trail. The section they rode ran from Whitefish, Montana to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a distance of something over 1,000 km.
The route was approximately 75 per cent gravel roads and 15 per cent single track trails, with occasional bits of pavement. Stunning landscapes, great weather and no traffic meant blissful riding. When they did encounter people (which was infrequently) they were happy to visit and share stories. There were no pushes to get to the next campground or town, they could just camp wherever they wished.
It wasn’t all easy going. Hélène described her worst day as one in Guatemala. They had planned to do 60 km and ended up doing only 35, all of them at about 7 km per hour or worse, pushing the bikes up 10 km of hills.
“We got to a town around 1 p.m., had lunch, and decided to take a hotel.” When they turned off the lights, the cockroaches converged. In desperation and ingenuity, they set their tent up on the bed and slept in that, the tent hanging over the edges of the tiny bed. With their bicycles and all their gear taking up the floor space, they had to turn sideways to just get to the bathroom. They were so tired they slept despite it all.
I asked Hélène when and where they were planning to go for their next adventure? She laughed and said, “We have to work a bit now and make some money!”