I almost didn’t hear the snoring and after a few seconds I fell into a deep sleep. And yet, there were more than 150 of us in the room… When I say the room, it was a gym, the only place large enough for the nightly rest of the 185 or so participants in this Dynamobile 2016 that I had just joined halfway through.
Dynamobile is a cycling event that has been gathering, for 22 years, more than 100 cycling fans who, most of the time starting from Brussels, ride 600 km in 10 stages every year towards the end of July. This year, the itinerary linked Paris to Mont-Saint-Michel, following a greenway called the Véloscénie(1). It is with great joy that I found, among the 185 brave cyclists, many friends with whom I had already cycled during previous editions. But let’s start from the beginning…
A LITTLE HISTORY
It all started in 1993. That year, German environmentalists organized an action called Auftakt (musical prelude): four groups of cyclists converged on Berlin to make their demands heard and 4500 people, who came by bike, gathered in Magdeburg during a big environmental festival. Six Belgians joined the column from Aachen and found it exciting. The following year, together with Dutch and Germans, they repeated the experience under the name Grenzenloos/Sans Frontières. The Belgians were this time more than 50 and, starting from Brussels, joined the neighbors in Aachen and visited Germany and the Netherlands before returning to the starting point. I participated in the first stages and keep a vivid memory of this adventure, somewhat chaotic, but animated by the ardor of young militants coming from the East and the North.
In 1995, the Belgians organized themselves: Dynamobile was born. The initiative was taken by activists of the cycling cause, supported in the first years by SCI (International Civil Service), GRACQ (Groupe d’Action et de Recherche des Cyclistes Quotidiens), the Ligue des Familles, members of the CSC… Dynamobile was going to be organized progressively, more and more professionally, I would say, even if this term is not appropriate for a self-managed initiative An ASBL was created and since then has two objectives: « the pleasure of riding together in a warm atmosphere » and « to transmit and defend the idea that the bicycle is an intelligent and essential means of transportation in the current organization of travel » (Denise Maerevoet, president for 15 years).
Many have acted so that Dynamobile lives and prospers on the roads of central Europe and I will give a special mention to the Degand family who with Philippe and Denise, their children and grandchildren, cousins and friends, were and remain a pivot of this modern day « vel’odyssée » (here I am frankly lyrical…). For all the details on the women and men who have dedicated themselves to make this project exist, read with fruit the book by Bernard Ide and Anne Gilbert (the new and third president of the ASBL, who has never seen a man at its head…) The fabulous history of Dynamobile.(2)
The peloton dropped anchor in 220 stage towns; roads, tracks and paths were trodden in Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and England… Hundreds of officials were met during the stages. Burgomasters, mayors, aldermen, ministers(3) who, often in a very sympathetic way, welcomed the cyclists (generally exhausted, but always combative) in their stronghold, were challenged: « Say, that intersection over there is a real trap for cyclists; it should be landscaped… »; or « Your town is very pretty, but if you did a little better job of developing the towpath, you’d probably see a lot of tourists coming by bike…« And there have been better road improvements, and while there is still much to be done, cyclists are beginning to be taken into account. In Wallonia and France, the RAVeL (Réseau autonome des Voies lentes) and other Voies Vertes (Greenways) are multiplying. The local and regional cycling associations (which often guide and host Dynamobile) are at the origin of this awareness, but we want to believe that our peloton is no stranger to a certain sympathy that the cycling cause meets more and more widely, where we are.
Dynamobile has always operated in total self-management. Few organizations have developed without any permanent employees. This is the case of Dynamobile and it works thanks to a solid investment of more than thirty people. Some of them have devoted almost half a time to it for several years. Beyond what it brings to its protagonists, this autonomy has obviously a financial advantage: the 10 days of cycling cost to the participants less than 300 euros, accommodation, food and transport (obviously) included (price even less for the children).
Thus, within Dynamobile, we have seen the emergence of certain specific « professions »: itinerant drivers (those who recognize and trace the routes), signallers (those who are posted at quiet crossroads to direct those who are left behind by the head of the pack) (average speed of 13 km/h), road captains (those who are posted at dangerous crossroads to regulate traffic). The latter stop the cars, ask them (nicely and politely, although without any legality) to let the bikes pass and to start up again carefully and slowly if they have to overtake or cross the caravan; then, when the bike-duster arrives, they jump on their bikes and go back up the line of bikes, which sometimes extends over several kilometers, to go and take up a post at another crossroads. The one who regulates the train and arranges the signallers and captains is the platoon leader, a position of responsibility that requires a certain authority, because some young people full of energy sometimes want to go faster than the music, which is the best way to get lost. This controlled spreading technique allows everyone to participate in the hike. The ages of the participants range from 22 months (baby in a cart attached to the back of the bike) to 80 years old and everyone finds their place, at their own pace. Rare are the abandonments, except for a fall, which inevitably happens from time to time: 22 years at 150 over 600 km, that’s still 2 million kilometers traveled (if, if, calculate). There were never any serious injuries. But you can guess the number of punctures and breakdowns. Here too, autonomy is a must, because a bicycle-mechanic is just ahead of the bicycle-feather and helps in serious cases or those who are not very handy. At the stage, dedicated mechanics help (sometimes until late) to put the tired bikes in order. And if a van and a car with a trailer follow to collect the disabled or broken down bicycles, almost nobody carries their luggage (sometimes very heavy with the sleeping equipment).
AUTONOMY AND CONVIVIALITY
If Dynamobile is an example of a growing initiative that should be included in the logic of the transition, it is because of the desire for autonomy through « mastery of tools » that it carries. Not only is the movement done on vehicles that can be used by their users, but the stewardship (the mother of victory of all armies in the field) is also managed by the collective. A mobile kitchen on a truck accompanies the peloton, but, every evening, a team of about ten cyclists ensures the « pluche », the setting up of the tables and the dishes. The meals are vegetarian. The kitchen has always been run by Dutch speakers: Rampenplan (disaster plan), Kokkerellen (to cook/« to fight » in the sense of brawl) and today the team of Har and his sons, this Dutchman who is a bit of a bear, a convinced vegetarian and hates food waste (you should see how angry he gets when some people take too much and empty the rest of their plate in the trash). He has a knack for recycling « unsold » food and putting it into the next day’s meal. It must be said that it is not always easy to anticipate the demand, because after a few days, some incurable carnivores sneak out in the evening to taste the local specialties, often meaty. Har does not take his potatoes from home, but buys local food.
The supply in the regions crossed is also the will of the Solar bar: a bicycle of the 1930’s (it was non-obsolescent in those days) pulls a trailer on which a solar panel feeds a fridge filled with lemonades and local beers for the evening (as there is hardly a region which does not have its craft brewery nowadays, the discoveries are numerous). The beer is in competition with the « wine stand ». The success of these two « businesses » (at low prices) belies the imbecile belief that voluntary simplicity is synonymous with asceticism. The atmosphere that reigns on the evenings of the stage shows the opposite: the joy of living is omnipresent. I was watching with pleasure the twenty or so people who were singing in chorus: happy smiles and eyes shining with pleasure let us see what the sometimes somewhat theoretical notion of « conviviality » can mean. If Karin’s guitar and Philippe’s songwriters give rhythm to the evenings, there are also more cultural animations. Thus, this year, a historian made a presentation, with slides, on the Mont-Saint-Michel which made us find the comments of the official guides of the Mont, two days later, a little indigent.
SOLIDARITY, THE KEY WORD
There is a broader social spectrum in the pack than in many other transition initiatives. The bike brings together workers, employees, teachers, shrinks, retirees, soft mobility pros, ex-deputies (ecologists of course…), prison guards, gardeners… And these social differences exchange, dialogue and help each other. A nerd needs a handyman to fix a broken chain, a city dweller is happy with a florist’s explanations to name the plants on the side of the road… Talking while pedaling is conducive to confidences: just as the shrink and his patient exchange better when they are not facing each other, talking while looking ahead (it’s more prudent) favors rich and deep exchanges Didn’t Antoine de Saint-Exupéry say « To love is to look together in the same direction »?
The common life of Dynamobile naturally gives rise to great solidarity. A translation of this solidarity is the presence of people called « less able ». I remember a one-legged man who was sometimes difficult to follow. Tandems allow some people to realize a dream that they could not achieve alone. Daniel and his slightly handicapped daughter are, on their tandem, among the « pillars » who make Dynamobile. This year, Claude, who is blind, played the role of the apparently very efficient engine each day with a different driver. It was a pleasure to speak with this elderly man, the driving force behind the exemplary complementary currency project, the « Blé » exchanged at the initiative of Grez en transition(4).
Over the years, a special audience has been created. One evening, I invited to discuss the topic « Are dynamobilians growth objectors who ignore themselves? And the thirty or so courageous people who agreed to talk between 10:30 a.m. and midnight, rather than going back to their bunks for a well-deserved rest, convinced me that I had the right title. A participant had been to the international summit of the degrowth in Leipzig and a Frenchman had with him 5 copies of the magazine La décroissance; 500 grams of degrowth literature on his bike for 600km, if that is not militancy…
THE ROLLING TRANSITION
A micro-society is carried on the roads, which, during 10 days, lives and concretizes ideals sometimes theorized elsewhere. And it’s successful: dozens of applications are turned down every year; enthusiasts anxiously await the opening date of these registrations to make sure they don’t miss the boat. Some people even wondered if two Dynamobile events should be held over the summer. Rather unrealistic and as the atmosphere is excellent and quickly smoothes out the inevitable small frictions of a common life, there is not even the prospect of a schism which would create, as in so many organizations, a rival dissidence.
I think Dynamobile deserves the title of this article. As Mr. Jourdain was writing prose without knowing it, hundreds and hundreds of lovers of the little queen have practiced, for the last two decades, experiments that foreshadow a way of life that growth objectors and other transitioners dream of seeing become widespread in our societies. Certainly, 10 days of vacation, even militant, between people selected by a voluntary approach, is something else than the whole society. But it is by acting, by creating, that we learn and that we prepare the concretization of what some call utopia.
- Ide Bernard, Gilbert Anne, La fabuleuse histoire de Dynamobile. Une rando à la gloire et au service du vélo, Bruxelles, 2015. On peut le commander sur www.dynamobile.net
- Quelques responsables politiques qui ont entendu les demandes des militants du vélo : André Antoine, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, Charles Michel, Jean-Michel Javaux, Richard Fournaux, Philippe Courard (une étape en 2011), Isabelle Durant, José Daras et Adelheid Byttebier (toute l’édition 1995!).