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Having foolishly said that I’d try to ride a century this year I needed some practice, so last week we went on a short (60km) tour. Unfortunately yet another post about riding through hils and valleys woith the birds singing and the hills being alive to the sound of music et c, doesn’t make for interesting reading, but thankfully for the purposes of a good blog there was one problem. The Motorised cyclists are back.
I have two theories for the phenomenon of the Motorised Cyclist:
1. They’re out to get me: I’ve annoyed the local drivers so much that not content with making assasination attempts on the roads, they have commisioned bounty hunters to take me out on the cycleways as well.
2. In the spring, SUV drivers all over Stuttgart dig the bike out of the shed, blow off the cobwebs and pull on their high-tech cycling clothes, then then set off down the cycle trail, forgetting that it isn’t an Autobahn and the squashy obstacles are actually allowed to be there.
So, for example, as I slowed down to pass a family with a wobbly toddler on a bike, the air was suddenly filled with the sound of disc brakes, swearing, and bicycle bells as the
drivers cyclists behind made their displeasure clear. They swept past with the traditional greeting of “schiebeauszervaygettinkfurfastergopersonens!”, and they were gone.
Until the next slight climb where we passed them again.
*It was entirely a coincidence** that I decided to slow down a bit more at that point, just in case.
** Sort of.
We’re trying to organise ourselves to fly to Japan so my wife’s family can be reminded what she and the boys look like. I appreciate this won’t make us very popular in ecological circles, but I wasn’t thinking about carbon footprints when we met on account of her being so darn beautiful.
We checked out alternative ways to travel: eight days on the Trans Siberian railway sounds like fun but costs even more than the plane just between Moscow and Vladivostok and isn’t something to contemplate with three small boys, while cargo ships take about two months.
After listening to my whining for a bit a friend suggested we should go by bike, so I looked it up.
Google thought it would be a good idea to ride over the Alps and then take a ferry across the Mediterranean and Black Sea*. Google clearly thinks I’m fitter than I am. I told it to stop messing about and it came up with this one instead along the Donau/Danube to the Black Sea and then by ferry to Odessa, and across to the eastern end of the Ukraine. After that Google gives up: we’d be on our own through southern Russia, and Kazakhstan -Two places where I’m guessing there isn’t much cycling infrastructure- and then we’re almost there, just three thousand kilometres of China and a ferry to Korea and Japan.
Of course, we’d need a tent, and cooking things, and bags for the bikes, and bookings for the ferry, and several trains, half a dozen guidebooks, several hundred maps, and to learn the Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, Kasak and Chinese for how to say things like “Please” “Thank you”; and for that matter “Puncture (repair)” or “Bike Shop”
On the other hand it’d give us the ultimate answer to “what did you do in the summer?”, and given the length of school holidays we’d reach Japan in plenty of time for a cup of tea with Beautiful Wife’s family before starting off home.
Or we could just take the plane.
*Which it won’t embed, so you’ll have to follow the link.
It’s high time I took the boys camping again. This is last years trip with the Xtracycle and Bakfiets waiting for the home journey. The little bike in the middle was being used by Eldest Son at the time and will be passed on to his brother soon -which reminds me, I need to fix the gears…
Every journey south from here begins with a ride downhill and ends with a long slog back up. This is a fact of life, like death, taxes; and Mercedes drivers seeing pavements* as mere extensions of the road. On this occasion it was early morning and I wasn’t quite awake so I chickened out of the 500 metre hope-the-brakes-work-at-the-bottom race down the main road (11%) and the Scary Hill of Doom (So steep a gradient sign would frighten people). Instead I went via the indirect but slightly less precipitous route through the woods,
I was riding across several valleys, so I developed a ‘clothing strategy’. It worked (or rather didn’t) as follows:
Climb halfway up hill and decide I have too many layers. Get off bike; take off wind proof jacket. Realise bike is rolling down hill. Catch handlebar and stand precariously with one hand gripping handlebars while trying to extricate other arm from jacket. Try and regain control of bike. Fail. Using the one free hand, haul bike so it is at an angle to the hill. Remove jacket, shove same in Xtracycle. Get back on bike. Realise it is in high gear, pedal to summit slowly; wait for heart rate to decrease. Ride down hill for 100 metres. Stop, put jacket on. Reach bottom of cold valley, start climbing, repeat…
It was early on a Saturday morning, that’s my excuse anyway.
Breakfast. Normally there’s a view from here to Stuttgart (about 15km away) but the clouds were exceptionally low so you’ll just have to believe me.
Just as it’s a disaster for this hippy car-free cyclist to give motorists directions, it’s equally foolish for me to take directions from motorists. I learned this the hard way in Metzingen, where I wanted to go and see the ‘Seven Celts’ which are allegedly based on buildings put up by the original Celtic inhabitants of the town. Helpful people directed me onto a busy road where I ended up traveling three times as far as I needed to, although it did give me a great opportunity to practice vehicular cycling with irate taxi drivers.
After a further magical mystery tour of Bempflingen, due to their interesting ideas on cycle signage*** I arrived in Bad Urach late via several back roads, a builders yard, and the Magura Factory, jumped off the bike, took this panorama of the town centre, jumped on again, and set off for home.
The obligatory ‘Where I went on my holidays’ shot leaving Bad Urach. That’s a castle on top of that hill. Honest.
‘Radweg’ (‘cycle way’): creative signage on the way home, put up by a farmer who I suspect was fed up with confused cyclists knocking his door and asking the way to Reutlingen.
‘Where I went on my holidays’ again: this time in Reutlingen. When you live amongst towns like this, it’s easy to take them for granted. So I deliberately took photos.
Edge of village, 30 minutes late; 100km on bike computer; legs like jelly; Brooks saddle broken in; happy cyclist.
* Sidewalks, if you’re American.
** Taken while pulling wind proof on. Or off.
*** Or, it occurs to me, my inability to interact with signs, as I seem to have been struggling to interact with my own clothing. I’ll get back to you on this one.
On the hunt for a direct route south, I found the bridge over the river Aich. The massive concrete structure is the road bridge that crosses the same valley. Of course, it would make life a lot easier for southbound cyclists if we had a cycle lane on the road bridge instead of having to ride into valley, but that would require joined up thinking…
And while I’m in this slightly cynical frame of mind, a public service announcement for drivers, especially those in our local area:
In Germany, vehicles travel on the right. Therefore, when you are driving on the left because the right hand side of the road is blocked by parked cars, you are generally expected to give way to oncoming vehicles by pulling onto the right (ie. your) side of the road when a gap in the parked cars allows you to do so. This applies even when it means you may lose three seconds off your Very Important Journey, and even when the oncoming vehicle is one of those non-motorised things called a ‘bicycle’.
I mention this because the person riding the bicycle may -to pick a random example- be an awkward Brit who learned his vehicular cycling in places like the West Midlands, and who may not be willing risk being squashed in the 50cm (2 foot) gap you have left in the gutter, but may instead cheerfully plant both feet on the ground, regardless of irate hand signals from yourself and the lovely lady sitting next to you, and lean on the handlebars waiting for you to take your white minibus out of his way and proceed on your side of the road.
Thank you for your attention.
It doesn’t seem two years since Eldest Son was racing about on a little BMX dirt bike with no mudguards, but he’s now a pretty experienced rider and using a 21 speed hybrid over prodigious distances, and we (that is: ‘he’) decided he should probably have some panniers to add to load carrying capacity. There are real panniers on the market for small bikes, but that’s far too simple (or I’m too cheap) so I decided to use some army surplus canvas bags, much loved by students in the UK. These would cost less than the purpose built version, and would look very cool.
I would like to pretend I had some bags ‘just lying around’ but sadly I didn’t, and one of the continual problems of emigrating is that you sometimes don’t know the name for the simplest things. I couldn’t find a canvas backpack or even an Army Surplus Store on Google Germany. Funny how countries are different. There must be something like this locally, but I just don’t know what to search for. Mind you, judging by the amount of British students wearing ex-German Army coats, they may simply export everything.
We solved the problem by ordering four army surplus bags from a shop in the UK, and asking my parents to bring them when they drove over to visit. So much for our eco-credentials.
Fitting them is an ongoing process. Right now they’re fitted using the simplest method that occurred to me: running two straps through the rat-trap on the luggage rack and letting them rest on the frame. This causes the occasional problem with empty bags catching on the spokes, but with a load they rest well. Long term I think I may have to add a back board and some kind of attachment at the bottom of the bag, but that’ll have to wait until I get around to it. At the current rate that may take some time.
I’ll also have to catch Eldest Son first.
Trailblazing 1: I’ve been trying to find a direct route to the south that doesn’t involve death by hill climbing. I came through the town of Neuhausen auf den Fildern, which apparently has been in existence since 1153. It was technically part of Austria until 1802. There are lots more buildings like those in the picture.
We have villages like this all over the countryside here: there are worse places to live.
Beautiful wife has been making some comments about fitness, specifically mine, and at the same time eldest Son has been looking at the pictures I’ve taken on day tours and decided he wants to do some exploring himself. So I suggested we go on a long tour together. It’s a tough life.
We decided to go follow a cycle route along the Siebenmühlental (‘Valley of the Seven Mills’). This former railway line is a popular bike and walking route, so much so that it can get a bit crowded, but for its 20km length it descends gently. My cunning plan was that Eldest Son could get into his stride before anything more challenging turned up.
To cross tha main Autobahn to the south of Stuttgart we have to go through this massive car park on the edge of Stuttgart’s airport and exhibition centre complex. According to Wikipedia the construction cost 73 million euro, and has 4200 parking spaces. It ‘s always been empty when I went through it, which makes it a mighty expensive bike bridge.
A few kilometres later and we reached the top of the valley and the cycle way.
I was just thinking how this looked like some remote valley on the edge of the Alps, when a plane appeared about 50m above the trees on the final approach to the airport.
Autobahn bridge crossing at the other end of the valley, just before we left the railway and turned to follow the Aich river. We follow rivers because it’s easier than climbing hills all the time.
Eldest Son wanted to have lunch as close to the river as possible. Brooks saddle is getting more comfortable, slowly.
Afternoon riding towards Nürtingen. The cycle lane was less than perfect and at one point asked us to get of and push our bikes over a bridge, but at least we weren’t dodging cars on that road. (we ignored the sign too, rebels that we are)
I’d promised Eldest Son a 60k ride, so when it became obvious the planned route would only be 50, we decided to go a bit further. This is the old over the Neckar at a town called Wendlingen. Fortunately it’s now exclusively for bikes and pedestrians.
Cycleway in foreground, Autobahn on three levels in the background taking up most of valley. Am I the only person who thinks this is crazy?
I was a bit concerned about Eldest Son at this point because he’s covered 50k and still had at least 10k to go, including the worst of the climbing: unless you drive up a cliff on a ride, you always get the worst climbs on the edge of Ostfildern. I don’t know why I worried though, because Eldest Son paced me easily and even pulled ahead in some places. That was just the heavy Xtracycle holding me back, of course, not age or lack of fitness.
Final score according to bike computer in aging hand. Eldest son showed no sign of stiffness and has been seen looking at maps for new places to explore. I have a feeling we’ll be riding again soon.
It’s worryingly difficult to find a cyclists map to a reasonable scale, which was prepared in the last decade or so, and most importantly has some connection with actual geographical features. I’ve given up on finding all these on one map now, and carry at least three around with me whenever I venture far afield.
The first of these was bought soon after we moved in. It’s to a scale of 1:100 000 and boasts certain ‘special features’ such as trip destinations, places to eat, and recreational tips. Unfortunately accuracy isn’t its strong point. Several local cycle lanes are simply not there. Come to that, some minor roads and one entire town have disappeared as well. Our local government sells a much larger scale map (1:250 000) which may not show where to get lunch, but at least it shows all the local cycle ways. In fact it goes a step further and shows cycleways that aren’t there: I don’t mean lanes turn out to be unsurfaced tracks, more that they are a field: what the map (and some council members) insist is a cycleway turns out to be open land with the faint traces of a tractor crossing the grass.
Finally after some searching I’ve found the 1:500 000 Cycling and walking maps from the State Mapping Ministry, which seem to be reasonably accurate and show useful things like contour lines. They aren’t perfect, but at least they seem to actually show what is there, which is an improvement.
All this is a long way to say that I’m hoping to make a few longer-distance tours before the winter comes, so on the basis that the State Mapping Ministry seems to know what’s happening geographically rather better than anyone else, I’ve ordered a couple of their maps before venturing into the unknown. However, I’ll be carrying the others just in case, as well as a few emergency supplies.
If you don’t hear from me for a bit, don’t worry: I’m just lost.
The weather has improved. This is good news. Even better is that my camera battery survived the storm in the night, wrapped up in a ziplock bag. My shoes didn’t do so well though: despite being wrapped thoroughly in a large rubbish bag, my shoes feel suspiciously heavy and before putting them on I pour enough water out to make a small puddle on the floor. Squelch to the unheated shower hoping that’s not the way the day will continue.
We leave a bit earlier than the previous day, in sunshine, and with a strong tail wind. Everything looks great although we all know we’ll probably get at least one soaking by lunchtime. We’re following dykes again. I’m fascinated by these as they are almost unheard of in the south, certainly on this scale. They provide a dual purpose of protection against the river and a flat means of communication between villages, and all we have to do is stay on the top and they bring us where we need to go. Or that’s what we think until the road stops abruptly in a farm. We see a group of walkers appear from behind a woodland, and the path they are using appears to be bikable . More to the point no-one wants to ride against the wind so we manhandle the bikes straight down the bank -I’ll say this for the Bakfiets, it has good brakes- squeeze through a wood, and find ourselves under a signpost for the Rhine bike way. Unfortunately we annoy the walkers who don’t hear the bike bells, and shout at us that we should whistle. That’s a new one.
We cross flat countryside and roll through small villages with brick built houses which still remind me of the UK. We’ve learned that the showers are short lived, and we’ve been soaked and dried off so many times in three days that no-one even mentions it when a particulairly violent squall hits when we are about a kilometre away from the nearest cover. True to form, the sun emerges straight after the rain and we’re dry in minutes. I suggest to Alex I could have saved myself a shower if I’d known. He grins.
„I’m sharing a tent with you, so I’m glad you didn’t know“
Duisburg creeps up on us. We’re riding through a picturesque village when we turn a corner and there is a blast furnace at the end of the street. A few kilometres later we reach the river once more and suddenly we’re in one of the centres of German heavy industry. Duisburg exists by an accident of geography. It’s where the Ruhr meets the Rhine.The Ruhr isn’t the biggest tributary of the Rhine, in fact it’s the 6th largest, but when the only option was hordes over some pretty steep hills, it made a handy route across the north of the country. The fact this link also led directly to the longest river in Western Europe, giving access to the sea and the cities to the south was an even greater bon us, so so there has been a harbour in Duisburg since records began, and probably long before. In the 19th century someone a few kilometres along the Rhur noticed that if they dug down a bit, there was lots of coal for the asking. Coal is heavy stuff, so this would have been of limited use, but with a but with a nice big river to take it away on, there was money to be made: the Rhine/Ruhr area became the centre of German heavy industry, and Duisburg, at the junction of the rivers, thrived.
More recently the city has become known for its enlightened approach to cycling infrastructure, as we cross the Rhine into the city we find ourselves on the sort of infrastructure that you dream about when following narrow painted ‘bike lanes’ through the door zone: segregated from traffic, bright red, wide and clean. Even better, we get a great view of the point where the Rhine and Rhur meet, so we stop for a few minutes to look at the meeting point of these two rivers which have affected the history of Germany so much.
A few minutes later I lose a foot. Not personally you understand, but from the Bakfiets. I stop to take a photo, and when I lift the stand the foot falls off onto the road. On closer examination it looks like the bolt holding the foot was overtightened and split the rubber. The bike wobbles a bit on its stand without the foot but that’s the only difference, well, that and the fact that for the rest of the journey my progress will be shown by small scratch marks wherever I stop. I’m literally making a mark wherever I go.
We get a lot of time to appreciate the infrastructure in Duisburg, mainly because we get lost. I don’t know what it is with cities on this trip, we don’t seem to be able to leave without making a grand tour. After following the road we think is correct for several kilometres, we stop to ask for directions. The pedestrian we meet is helpful and gives detailed advice, but clearly can’t understand the map we’re using, which leaves us none the wiser. Finally after some more asking around we meet a restraunt owner who not only tells us where we are (on the Rhine cycleway) but also how to get out of this maze of streets and south. It doesn’t look promising. We end up on a road bordered by some pretty shabby apartments on one side and a massive steelworks on the other, but then we cross the railway, go through some woodland, and suddenly we’re in fields again. Duisburg has stopped as suddenly as it started.
However, all this getting lost and then finding the way means it’s now mid-afternoon and we’re a long way north of Düsseldorf, which itself is north of our campsite on the banks of the Rhine. Either we have to ride through one of the biggest cities in Germany in a few hours, or we have to try some wild camping.