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I’m catching up after being in Japan and then riding across Germany for several weeks, so the trip report is likely to be delayed a bit.
In the meantime, the bakfiets is seeing lots of use, from picking up a bowl of plums to rides like this one with the boys and one of their friends. What you can’t tell in the photo is that we are going downhill, and they are all jumping about and howling as if this is a rollercoaster. There was a small mobile party going on there. Okay, so I did make the bike slalom back and forth a bit, but it’s nearly impossible to tip the thing when it’s moving and full.
So far the reaction is mainly positive: almost everyone who sees the Bakfiets smiles, and drivers seem to give us plenty of space and little aggression. I’ll report on hills etc and stuff as I get more experience.
The Xtracycle should be getting some well deserved rest, but is still being used a lot, as it’s clearly faster than the Bakfiets for errands not involving large objects or small children, and I’m still more confident on that in traffic. I’ll be doing some trial run commutes with it as well soon, so expect more photos.
Long frustrating Monday morning trying to organise our route from Amsterdam and all the stuff included, and incidentally get ready for Japan. Finished with a short bike ride on the Xtracycle with our neighbours little boy on the back, giggling for he was worth.
My one English lesson at the moment is on Monday afternoon. Martin, my ‘student ‘, is a tad older than me. He’s a thoughtful man, editor of a national newspaper for the Forestry industry which is at the meeting point of industry and conservation and has a lot of knowledge and understanding of ecology and the ecological movement in a German context. His English is better than he thinks, and we usually spend 45 minutes talking about ecology and related matters and I get paid for correcting the occasional error. I’m not complaining, especially as he comes up with some pretty deep ideas.
For example, I’ve always seen environmental concerns as looking after the land, but as Martin points out, there isn’t any truly ‘natural’ land left in Germany, (or as he puts it: ‘There isn’t a square metre of the country that hasn’t been dug up at some time or other’.) He thinks that when many people talk of conserving the natural landscape, they mean preserving a culture they remember from their childhood. He’s not criticising this, in fact he sees it as important because if we lose this part of our culture as our lives become focused on cities, people lose touch with the land, and ultimately with their roots. It reminds me of Japan, where mass rural-urban migration has left dozens of forgotten farms in the jungles, and whole mountains are removed to make way for cities to expand because people don’t value the land except in economic terms.
On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that as soon as we start trying to preserve a culture we could be killing it, not letting it develop or change. We need to keep the rural areas alive and we’re looking at how we can do this as a family of artists. We’re looking at how we can live off-grid (Independent of mains and water) and learning about Permaculture farming, which could be a further development of our personal connection with the land.
We’re engrossed in the conversation when he suddenly realises he has to go and get his daughter from school. Leaving the house I become aware that my link with nature is calling urgently so I make a minor detour into the fields before riding home.
Once home I help wrestle the boys into bed, but it’s still daylight and warm, and youngest son keeps coming out to play. The day ends with me alternately shooing him back to bed and reading to the accompaniment of our neighbour playing Lloyd-Webber songs on their piano.
The alarm clock explodes at 0630.
My sleep-addled brain tries to figure why I set it for that time. Then something switches on and I remember I’m supposed to cycle to Gutenberg today, a small village cosseted in the limestone hills called the Swabian Alb. Gutenberg is a fairly normal village by German standards. Indeed the only reason that we’re going there is that it’s 80km there and back, and it is along a valley, so although we’ll be climbing about 300m to get there, it’ll be gentle and not murderous, and most importantly, downhill most of the way home.
There are three of us riding today: Andi, Alex, and I, and we’re supposed to meet at 0730. We’re an odd mix in many ways: Andi is chronically deaf, so he has to lip-read a lot of what we say. There is a difference in German between the pronunciation for Andi and Andy, but it’s lost on both of us, causing headaches for Alex who is by default the best linguist despite growing up in Romania until he was six.
Leaving Ostfildern is easy. It’s an 11% downhill, dead straight, for half a kilometre. The Körsch valley is clear and the sun is just escaping the hills as we weave through villages for about ten kilometres and climb up a mercifully short hill headed for Köngen.
The Swabian Alb aren’t tall but they are dramatic, and we get out first view of them at this point, made deep grey by sunrise and distance, rising out of the plains like a distant army. We’ve got to get there, and My stomach is reminding me that I neglected my breakfast. Worse, I neglected to pack any food in the rush of getting the boys ready for the day before I left. We’re approaching Köngen, where there is a grocery shop, and I ask if we can stop.
Andi laughs and rolls his eyes, Alex looks pitying.
“You poor old thing. Have you taken your tablets?”
Andi suggests we cross the river on an old bridge, now reserved for pedestrians and bikes. It’s very pleasant but unfortunately we end up on the wrong side of the railway and have to lug the bikes down through an underpass under the station. At the other side we follow the railway along the valley. The cunning plan is to stick to the railway so that if we have a puncture or similar we can leap on a handy train and go home. I already did this on a previous attempt to reach Gutenberg in September when I ran out of time at Lenningen and had to go home. I’m hoping today will be different.
We make fast progress, mostly along a mostly surfaced cycleway alongside the railway. After Kirchheim the towns become villages, and the broad plain narrows to a steep sided valley. We follow Feldwege from village to village, crossing the river on stone bridges. We pass the end of the railway at Oberlenningen, and the valley changes again, taking on a more Alpine appearance. We are into headwater country, and the previously languid river is now a collection of narrow, busy streams. Two more corners in the valley and we reach our destination of Gutenberg, which could audition for a picture postcard except that its only one of dozens of small villages with timber framed houses and picturesque churches. I insist on making a celebratory lap of the village square. The others think I’m mad.
Unusually there isn’t a severe headwind on the return, so we’re far faster than going and cross the Neckar by lunchtime. Andi and Alex, being German take their food and drink very seriously, so Andi buys bread and ham, and turns his bike into a small kitchen, while Alex looks for a Cappuccino. I’m not sure the cheap sugar filled plastic imitation he finds fulfils all his dreams, but it’s that or nothing. It seems to hit the spot too: for the next 15km he’s a speck in the distance, burning up the road on a caffeine high.
When we get back it’s early afternoon and the computer shows 81km. (ca. 50 miles). We don’t even have to drive around the village to make it tip over the 80 mark. Not much anyway.
‘Could you fix my bike?’ is becoming a more common question these days, and the latest request was a rebuild of two old well used bikes, which the owner wanted rebuilding into a decent commuter, preferably as cheaply as possible. This would be a challenge: one of the bikes was okay, if in need of urgent repairs, while the other was an unambiguously awful supermarket special with full suspension, shoddy components and a frame made of scaffolding.
First thing we did was take off any usable components from the suspension bike. This didn’t take long. Almost everything was either worn out or such poor quality it was unusable. The shifters turned out to be pretty good, which was fortunate as the front shifter was broken on the other bike. Andi also took the rear forks to some dark corner while muttering about a wheel jig. We then took everything off the other bike, repacked bearings, and swapped the shifter. It was all looking so easy, but then we found the cable to the front mech was 5mm too short, and this being a grip shift it took a lot of muttering to thread a new cable in.
German law states that a bike must have dynamo lights, so we (ie. Andi) somehow put together a system from the pile of bits that was once the supermarket special, and built a whole new bracket to fit them onto the MTB frame.
A new commuter, for the princely sum of €6.
Last weekend was warm enough to go out without a coat, so we had a with a picnic with friends outside of the village to celebrate Spring arriving. The Xtracycle brought Daddy, Middle Son, Middle son’s bike (we were a bit late and had to hurry) and some drinks, and these were joined by olives and nice cheese, German bread, and other niceness prepared by Beautiful Wife. The boys were torn between hunger and wanting to play and eventually the chance to splash about in the stream was too much so they made a good effort at flooding the surrounding countryside with a dam of sticks, stones and leaves while the Grown-ups talked, and came over to help move big stones and logs that were too heavy. In the end we all ended up playing.
Last week I was able to ride without gloves on dry roads, enjoy the sunshine and the silence you get when you aren’t splashing through puddles for the first time in about two weeks. The birds were singing, the buds came out on the trees and the promise of spring, in all its glory, hung in the air.
Last night it snowed. At the time of writing it’s late afternoon, and it’s been snowing all day, except when it’s been raining.
My friend has started planning a bike trip for summer. I mean, really planning it. He’s printed out a Google map with a route to Mannheim along the Neckar valley and then back overland to Stuttgart and he’s confident we can do the lot in about 5 days. I’m less confident: the total distance is just under 400km and we’ll have four nights and five days travelling to do it in. I’ve pointed this out, but he’s one of those breezy optimistic types and says that because the Neckar goes downhill from Stuttgart we’ll be able to do that bit really fast. There’s some truth in this because the Neckar pops out if the steep valley just north of the city, and loafs about in the rolling hills of the plain beyond, which means that whereas to the south we had to wriggle up and down the side of a really narrow defile just to track the river, to the north we can generally expect the going to be easier, and even if we cut the corner a bit than it will only be a fairly manageable climb before we come back down.
Or at least that’s how it looks to just beyond Heilbronn. Then we hit hills again, and the river is winding like a snake on steroids. That’ll be day two. Heilbronn to Mannheim is about 60km in a straight line. The river takes over 100km.
I’m hoping for at least a glimpse of where the Neckar and Rhine meet but Mannheim is an industrial city, so I expect we’ll not spend long there: besides we’ll have a schedule to keep. We need to go south, and apart from that we’ll need to spend the night somewhere.
After that we have a steady but gentle climb along the Rhine to a point north of Karlsruhe and then overland following the Google map. The map shows us travelling west-east, and crossing a lot of rivers going north-south. The final day would see us arrive on the western edge of Stuttgart, which fortunately isn’t a massive city, and home.
He reckons we’ll be doing 80-90 km a day. I reckon we need to negotiate.
The Xtra and I were coming back from the next village, well loaded with bread and other nice things. I was enjoying the feel you get from a loaded longbike and idly wondering how much I’d have to stuff into it to actually fill the thing, when I saw an older friend waving from the side of the road.
South German culture is very relational: when you see someone you will probably stop to chat and it, won’t be about the weather: I was asked where I’d been, why I was coming along this road, how the family are, (she saw them only three days earlier…) if Eldest Son is still enjoying school, if Middle Son is still happy in Kindergarten, how Youngest Son is finding being at home… This was not nosiness, you understand, but genuine interest. People here do care for one another, and have already offered help and suggestions when we needed it. This family have offered us the use of their car at any time. We’ve never needed it in four years but it’s a kind thought.
When I’d recovered, or possibly to break the flow of questions, I asked why she was here. She was standing by her car, and does a lot of work visiting older people who can’t get out much.
“I went for a walk.”
“I go for a walk every day to keep fit. Sometimes nearer to home and sometimes I feel like a change and drive over here for a walk. It’s such a lovely place to go and get some peace and quiet…”
We were about 1.7 km from the centre of our village via a direct, flat, and paved route. It would have taken about fifteen minutes walking to get here from our friends home: she was literally parked on the end of the cycleway/footpath. But instead she drove. By car it’s 3,4 kilometres, round three sides of a square. This means her car had polluted its way around our village, the edge of Stuttgart and into this residential area. As a catalytic converter is largely ineffective for the first 3 km or so, it may have started to work just before she turned the engine off.
And this, remember, to go for a walk.
And people think I’m odd.
I cycled home and unloaded the Xtra: Unloading took longer than the cycling. Just after I’d finished the phone rang. It was our friend again, now returned and wanting to remind me that if we needed a car to do the shopping, we only had to ask…
It’s getting colder: people look startled when they see a cyclist. Time to think about summer and plan some bike touring. Last year a group of us went south from here along the Neckar valley, through Tübingen and Horb to Rottweil and back north via Alpirsbach and Freudenstadt, across the territory of “Three men on a Bimmel”, which was a great experience for all except my ancient tent which averaged one hole per night and has now been retired as a play house for my three boys. This year we’re considering a four day excursion to the north, through Stuttgart and Heilbronn and through the Odenwald hills to the Rhine at Mannheim, which I think would probably take all four days. The route takes us through some dramatic scenery, but it would include urban riding, so I’m not too sure about this. I’m more for revisiting the south, or possibly heading east to Ulm, but as this latter idea will involve climbing over the Rhine/Danube watershed I’m not sure it will be that popular.
Someone suggested we raise money as we go. This seems a better idea than just going off for a ride but I’ve very little experience of this sort of thing: does anyone have any suggestions how we would organise this, get sponsors, etc? I guess we’d ask people to sponsor us by the kilometre, although sponsorship by vertical metres climbed could be lucrative be interesting, and someone suggested we should photograph the village name signs and ask people to sponsor us a euro per sign. I’m not sure I fancy stopping at every village though.
Of course this is assuming we can organise it around the trip to Japan we’ll need to make in August, or that I can get or borrow a new tent.
Moving house is a rare event here: unlike the UK where some people seem to move in rennovate, change jobs, or just get bored and move out after a few years, families here stay in one place, and often occupy several pages of the telephone directory. However, one of my work colleagues moved house a few hundred yards up the road this week, so the Xtra and I went along to help. As it turned out the local carpenter had loaned them a van so the Xtra was of limited use, but I at least got a picture in.
A bike ride is a perfect way for me to get involved with the boys and their friends, so I organised one with another grown-up for Sunday afternoon. Of course it also depends on the weather playing along and typically it snowed. I decided to take the bike out to check conditions. The front wheel was flat. First puncture in 11 years.
I fixed the puncture and tried to pump up the tyre. The pump broke. Car pumps are a bit weedy when it comes to high-pressure bike tyres and I’d bought a cheap one. Still, four years isn’t a lot- less than the inner tube, in fact. Fortunately a friend has a workshop with an air compressor, so it was a simple matter to go around and get them pumped up to the 65psi (4.8 bar) they work at. Then I went out to see if the roads were passable.
The lanes we were planning to use are for tractors, people and bikes, not cars. Locally they are usually paved but not cleared of snow and about halfway across the fields a gust of wind caught the bike and blew it sideways, leaving me a bit like a cartoon character who just realised they’ve walked off a cliff. Fortunately I landed feet first, but it occurred to me that small boys may end up going wherever the wind took them.
So I went to Eldest Son’s friend and suggested that we go, but around the village. Only then did I discover that he’d had a new bike for his birthday, and Dad having absented himself some time before, he hadn’t been on a proper ride yet.
So we went around the village, looked at the trucks by the print works, talked about how to cycle safely, had impromptu races, and one epic snowball fight in the fresh snow, and delivered one very happy snow covered boy on home ninety minutes later.