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a bike on the lake

Grey weather, autumn Sunday, not quite midday. On the blue-grey waves of the Lac du Bourget, three ducks and a sailing boat. We have a date. A date that has no real time nor even place. But we are there. Because today Félix and Chépa are putting a bicycle-canoe-trailer into the water.

I’m not sure that Felix, shaking unfamiliar hands and kissing twenty familiar pairs of cheeks, really knows how he got there. His cheerful voice breaks imperceptibly with emotion: “You’ve come!” Two metres away, Chepa, his plump red hen, is pecking in her pen and doesn’t really care. It’s out of the question for it to go to the water.

Pedal stroke on the pier. Félix and his joyful, colourful gear take to the water. “Pinch me, I’m dreaming”, blows a stunned passer-by, white bun and pursed lips. We hold our breath. “Mum, do you think it will sink? Pedal stroke, no need for a paddle. And then it floats! Everyone on the pontoon is holding their breath. Félix and his trailer-bike-canoe are floating. A paradox, coming from the man who likes to say, with his mischievous and slightly blue eyes, “let it flow, it’ll be OK”.

Chépa, la poule compagnone de route de Félix
La caravane de Félix sur le point d'aller sur l'eau
Premiers tours de roue dans l'eau pour Félix et son vélo-canoë-roulotte

For the last three and a half years, Félix Billey, twenty-eight years old, has been riding the small roads of France and sometimes even of Switzerland. At his own pace, without haste nor goal. According to the encounters, the weather and the troubles. Sowing a contagious joy, and with only one rule: “when it rains, I don’t ride”.

It's crazy, isn't it ?

When we met, he had his hands dipped in carbon fibre. It was in a shared habitat, planted on the heights of Chambéry, which decidedly welcomes passing outsiders . Félix had been there for almost six months and was polishing the wheels of his caravan. After having completely renovated the hull of his strange trailer, in order to make it waterproof.
If you ask yourself why, he will answer with his giddy smile: “well, why not?” If you go deeper, you will learn that the idea was inspired by one of the local inhabitants, a dreamer with an engineering background.

And if you think that Félix is having a good trip, you are mistaken. His heavy, slow, and funny-looking bicycle-canoe-trailer-wheeler is his home. His daily life is made up of all sorts of things, but mainly a lot of little things. It’s a way of life.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Amused, from the top of his six-foot height, he awaits the reaction of his sentence in my haggard eyes. “Wanting to move your house is unimaginable. At least before I did it! At first, I didn’t believe in my thing for a second. But after all, what was I risking by trying?” So he did it. He drew what he had in his head, imagined his ideal, and let himself go.

He carries around much more than imagination

The idea for the trailer was born in 2018, during a trip which Felix cultivated a small buried dream. “I wanted to live off of nothing, on an adventure, in nature. I must admit that it didn’t quite work out the way I’d imagined, but anyway.” On his return, he began to build his mobile home. A bamboo frame with resin joints, covered with a yurt canvas. A carbon, wood and fibreglass frame. The insulation is basic, made of survival blankets and thin sheets of crinkled cork. As far as furniture is concerned, there is a bed, a small lamp powered by a solar panel, and a wood-burning stove that serves as both a heater and a cooking plate. In the corners, here and there, a guitar, scribbled leaves. And complicated plans in pencil. The door handle? A box of cachous, “a gift”. Because Félix, who lives without money, on donations, gleanings and muddling through, never asks for anything.

The construction of his trailer, which he alternately calls his house, his convoy, his vehicle, his palace, his shell, was long. He worked on it for almost a year. But it is not so much the technical challenges that slowed him down. A wood engineer by training, he has more than just imagination. An inventor and tinkerer, since 2014 he has been designing and manufacturing bikes that don’t look too much like bikes. First it was a “quadri-tandem” that came out of his parents’ garage. A sort of rosalie, which requires four pairs of legs to function and on which he even installed a pizza oven. “We used to bake marshmallows and hand them out to passers-by while riding.” At the instigation of his twin brother, Tom Billey, the funny bike also became a performance venue, from which two summers in a row violin, accordion and tap dancing concerts emerged. “Anything was possible”.

It’s not surprising to see him embark on a bike-canoe project, made during his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Technologies et Industries du Bois in Épinal, between 2014 and 2017. At the beginning, it only has four or five gears and a single skid brake on the steering wheel, which is at the back and also acts as a rudder. “It becomes very hazardous as soon as you get up to speed. The fact is, this bike is designed to go slow.” Improvements were made as the bike was broken, met and used, using only salvaged parts. “A lot of things had to be changed, the bike takes too much effort. But I have to say I didn’t design it to pull my house in the first place!”

Today, the canoe bike has two mechanical disc brakes, a cassette with only the large sprockets worn out and no less than four homemade chainrings. And after having broken the main axle of his bike twice, he even started to build a differential. A complex part, custom-made with the help of a craftsman framer, Julien Fritsch. But between breaking and floating, Félix chose. And the part remained on the workbench.

Let me know and we can slow down

Physically speaking, no difficulty for Félix either. I understood this the first time we went riding together, at the foot of Mont Granier. Me on my ultra-equipped gravel bike, him on a friend’s creaky old racer. Halfway up the first hill, I turn around, a little breathless: “Let me know if I ride too hard, we can slow down”. He looks on in dismay and doesn’t say a word. Yes, because Félix and cycling are old friends. And there’s little chance that he’ll ask me to slow down, as good a slow rider as he is.
As a teenager, he used to go out with his brother, fishing rod tightly tied to the bike, homemade flies in his pockets, to go fishing. And to find the right spots, he had to travel long distance.

“We could ride 100 kilometres to find a nice river. In the end, we would ride all day to fish for an hour. But it was great, and with the bike I discovered a real form of freedom”. Later on, he would ride the 1,200 kilometres from Paris to Brest back to Paris without any difficulty. But if Félix knows how to go the distance, he doesn’t chase kilometres. In fact, he sails without a speedometer or GPS. Since his departure, he estimates that he has not covered more than 2,000 kilometres. “You have to admit that watching the rain fall doesn’t help. But then, I have nothing to prove”.

The real difficulty lays in the unanswered questions. “I was kind of wondering what the hell I was doing. I was 24, living with my parents and people were constantly warning me. Long story short, the bare minimum became too much.” And if he does end up giving his first pedal stroke in February 2018, it’s only because he got locked out of his house. His parents were on holiday and he didn’t have his keys. “I said to myself, now’s the time, I’m leaving. Otherwise I would never go. I left just like that, with almost nothing. I must admit that I thought I would come back after three weeks, disgusted and with my bike folded”. But the story turned out differently.

With a smile on his lips and laughing eyes, Félix ruffles his already tousled brown hair. “For people, I’m an original, sometimes even an outsider. But I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this and to meet people. Strong and sincere encounters, as evidenced by the emotion of the people around him today, eyes moist and hearts beating. They watch him and his poetry walk away, as he sings, guitar in hand, comfortably installed in his caravan, which is now floating: “I’m moving into my new house, there’s no concrete, no foundations, only imagination, my solution…”.

Felix in the garden of Vélorizons