During my hitchhiking trip ( Hitchball 4000 race) to Lapland, between a beer and a burger, I had the pleasure to meet Benoît.
He had this funny looking bicycle dragging an almost three meters long trailer behind, covered with solar panels. Above it was proudly floating a belgium flag, which naturally brought me to start a conversation, you know, patriotism.
His name is Benoît, coming from Flanders (north part of Belgium), he decided to leave his flat, quit his job, so to say abandon his former life over there, only to discover the world riding his electric bike.
He was carrying his kit (clothes, camping tent, cooking equipments and even an inflatable kayak!) for almost three months around Europe only helped by his thighs strength (and yes, also by the sun’s).
He had built this lovely equipment and now was pedaling all day long with no particular destination, just for the sake of enjoying landscapes, meet people, sleep wherever he wants (wherever he could get invited) and seemed to wholeheartedly enjoy this adventure.
We were about seven hundred km away from Kurjen tila, I naturally gave him my phone number, just in case someday he went by Vesilahti, so that he could stay a night or two with us and tell us more about his incredible adventure.
A week later, I received a text, and with the community’s approval, Benoît came to visit us. After introducing himself to the village people, he then showed and explained his funny looking machine, shared a meal with us, had a good night sleep, and finally accepted to grant me this following interview over a morning coffee/tea.
Niels: Good morning Benoît, how are you? I know it’s early in the morning, but your project is really interesting and deserves to be acknowledged, and shared, especially in the kind of community we are a part of, which aim to a more sustainable way of life. May I offer you a glass of orange juice and ask you a bunch of questions?
Benoît: Goedendag Niels. All right, the pleasure is mine.
N: First of all, could you introduce yourself in a few words for our readers?
B: My name is Benoît Vanden Haute, I live .. I lived in Aans near Ostende, on the belgium coast of the north sea. I was born in the 20th of November 1982, and for a few weeks now I share my life with my solar bike.
N: Could me a bit more about how you got here with us?
B: So, and this is no april’s fool, I left on the 1st of April around 10 a.m. I followed the shores of Belgium and the Netherlands, then arrived in Germany. My direction was the north, I continued till Denmark, took a ferry and followed Norway shore, to finally come in Finland through Lapland.
N: Eh well, already a long way from home. If i may ask, how many kilometres are you trying to reach on a daily basis?
B: Depends, around a hundred km per day if possible.
N: That’s quite a lot!
B: With the sun charged engine, it’s almost easy.
N: All right, but still…
B: But then, I have no obligation, if the weather is too bad I can stop somewhere, If I find a beautiful place I can stay several days and use my kayak, if people invite me over I can stay longer, if the sun decides not to show up or if something is broken I might be stuck for some time … Lots of settings, but at the end of the day, I’m free !
N: OK, not bad, not bad … Do you already know where you’re going next?
B: Now, I’m heading south, then Helsinki. Then I’m going to Estonia by ferry and from there, passing through Eastern Europe countries … I don’t have a real itinerary. One day at a time, one kilometre at a time … I would love to be arrived in Venice for August as my brother has to meet me there.
N: Nice little trip around Europe and back home, then.
B: No no, that’s only the beginning I think. After this I would like to travel through America, from Central America to South, to North, to Canada etc … If everything goes well, I keep on doing this. The world is wide, I follow the seasons.
N: Your bike can be used as a boat also?
B: Nah, of course not. There are plenty of ways to bring it there. Either I buy a ticket on a cargo ship and travel between the containers, but it’s a bit expensive or I find someone who’s willing to take me and my bike through the Atlantic Ocean, and I would help him/her during the trip. With my experience it could be possible.
N: By the way, your experience, what were you doing before all this?
B: I used to be a Harbor master, I was taking care of a Marina in Belgium. I also worked for a little while in catering, I had a carriageable bar, I went to people’s home to make them cocktails etc … Furthermore, I have my international boat license and I’ve been sailing since I was child.
N: Got it, sea is no mystery to you. So, why this sudden life change pal?
B: Because there were no reason not to do it.
N: Haha, can you tell me more?
B: I had the same routine for ten years, I wanted to find a new job and to travel more … My flat is paid, I live thanks to this rent. I don’t have wife or kids, so, it was the good opportunity. I would not wait for retirement pension.
N: Ok Benoît, however there are other way to travel, faster, either by plane or by car by example… Why choosing the bike?
B: The economic aspect is of course important. Travelling doesn’t cost me a thing, I still haven’t had to pay for camping … I can live with almost nothing in my pocket, ride my bike for kilometres, on little crowded roads to see landscapes, away from highways, cities, and tourists.
Nowadays, the ecologic aspect is obviously super important. I travel thanks to a clean energy, almost infinite, as long as the sun shows up from time to time.
I’m able to carry a lot of equipments with me, it’s like having a car without the cost of gas and toxic gases. I believe it’s the best option regarding the “quality of travel/ distance / cost”. I’m not able to go as fast as a car but I’m in no hurry. Actually, I work out everyday, there only perks.
N: It almost sounds like everything was perfect, did you experience any problems?
B: To be honest since I departed everything is as good as it could. I haven’t had any major issue. My trailer got broken but I was able to fix it pretty easily. A wheel got broken also, but once again, someone stopped on the road and helped me out. And you have got to know, if I break something it’s easy to fix, or at least less expensive than a car part to replace!
N: Sure. You thought it through … You wouldn’t change anything if you could then? By the way, how did you have this idea, did you order this bike? It looks homemade.
B: I did a lot of research on the internet and found this concept of solar electric bike. I had a few basic knowledge about this matter. Therefore I ordered a decent electric bike, the solar panels, pieces for the trailer and assemble all of these together myself. I had a tiny issue with the electrical transformers, I had to get in touch with a guy who was part of the Suntrip Course (“Suntrip Race”) …
N: … I beg you pardon, but what is the “Suntrip Course”?
B: That’s a race from Lyon (France) to China by solar electric bike!
B: Yeah, it’s pretty insane. Anyway, this guy had done it and gave me some advice. He shared his knowledge and experience so I can have my own knowledge and experience! Back to your question, the only change I would make would be a way to seperate the bike and the trailer. Because now everything is attached together, which is sometimes not convenient, after all it is only a prototype!
N: You left without trying it out?
B: The departure was the try out!
N: Well, what an adventure! I have to go back to work, but before letting you go one last question. So far, what’s the best aspect, the best thing you have experienced during your journey?
B: Honestly? The landscapes are magnificent but it really is the people I meet. It’s incredible how people are ready to help me or give me shelter. How amazing is it to realise that nowadays that human solidarity still exist? All this sharing of experience, frankly, it is the most wonderful trip ever.
N: Well then, thanks Benoît, have a nice trip, and who knows, see on the road someday !
B: Tot ziens Niels, Tot ziens Kurki !
To follow Benoît during his journey, here is his blog: https://www.sunbiker.com/ .
Further informations on the “Suntrip Course”: https://www.thesuntrip.com/sun-trip-2018/lyon-canton/
Interview by Niels, translated from French to English by Stirven.