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Today everything is different: the rain has been replaced by sunshine, the sky is blue, and even the yesterdays side winds are behind us, literally: we’re riding due east so they should be pushing us along today. There is one thing missing: Travis. To lose what is effectively 33% of the group by day 2 may seem careless, so let me explain…
Alex and I set off from the campsite at about 1000 for a relaxed detour around Wijk. I wanted to think deep thoughts about our journey where the Rhine-Amsterdam canal meets with the Rhine, and I’d promised Eldest Son I’d take a photograph of the ferry. Travis, on the other hand, wanted to think deep thoughts with his coffee and journal. We didn’t have mobile phone coverage in the Netherlands, but I was on the Bakfiets, and Alex was on my Xtracycle, and we were going around three sides of the village whereas he would be going directly east, so we were pretty sure Travis would get there before us.
I didn’t get any deep thoughts at the river. We loafed about at the junction taking pictures of the ships, I went down to the river for the promised ferry pictures, and, then we found ourselves on the old side of Wijk, and stopped and wandered into the town to take some photos of the streets and the windmill, and some of the house boats in the harbour, one of which I’d buy tomorrow if I had the money, and could swim.
So that’s how you find us on the dyke road towards Arnhem missing one of our group. Not that we were concerned about this. I’ve long known people have different riding styles. Mine is to hit about 18km/h and keep churning out the kilometres. Travis rides in a series of sprints, stoppng every few kilometres to enjoy the view, and racing on. We typically pass each other several times during the day, so we figure he will pass us, or we’ll find him on a bench. He knew where we were going and the route was well signposted. We keep going at a sedate 15-18km/h through pretty villages, remarkably like villages in the UK, without the traffic, and along the dyke of the Rhine towards Arnhem, stopping periodically to take pictures, get lunch, check for mobile phone coverage and on one occasion to send a postcard.
Arnhem is the destination for the morning. It’s the site of one of the hardest fought battles of the Second World War. On the 17th of September 1944, British, Polish, Canadian and American airborne troops landed around to capture of the bridges and hold them long enough for land-based troops to come and relieve them. Operation Market Garden was supposed to allow the Allies a route over the Rhine, directly into Germany and end the war within a year. Apparently some soldiers, believing they would be part of an occupation force in Germany, packed leisure things in their kitbags. The Allied troops met far stronger resistance than expected, including several divisions of German and Dutch SS troops, and German reenforcements poured into the area throughout the nine-day battle. The allies lost somewhere between 15000-17 200 troops, and the German forces 10000. There’s a memorial just below Arnhem bridge to troops from both sides, and this morning someone set up a table decked in a British flag, with photos, books and some of the things the troops were carrying, like a shaving brush. I never liked war memorials in the UK -they always seem a bit triumphalist- but this one is quite moving and personal.
Still no sign of Travis, but a few kilometres beyond Arnhem, we find a Mammoth looking as if it was waiting for us to pass before crossing the road to find a bit of tundra. Unfortunately he (or she) is only a sculpture, placed next to the bike path, and as the information is all in Dutch, we don’t know why.
Suddenly we ride through some trees and over a narrow bridge, and there in front of us was the Rhine proper, much wider than the northern ‘old’ Rhine we’ve followed until now. It’s here that according to the map, we should cross to the south bank and enter Germany, but we are planning to save a few Euro by staying on the northern bank and cross using a bridge at Emmerich in Germany. Hopefully said bridge will have a bike lane.
Now the other side of the river is a different country, and we follow the dyke expecting the usual European Untion ‘Welcome to Germany’ sign when the border turns north. Unfortunately when we reach the border, there’s nothing of the sort: the only sign says „Diversion“ in German, and behind this there is a hole where the bike lane should be.
We end up following a very unusual street: houses on the left are in the Netherlands, and those on the right are in Germany. Road markings are a mix of the two countries and Dutch and German street signs vie for attention. I wonder what it is like to live here- how do you talk with the neighbours? Do the two sides have seperate rubbish collections?
Just after a Dutch post box we turn right, into Germany. A few kilometres further we find our first major obstacle, a sort of wicket gate for bicycles which is too short for an Xtracycle or a Bakfiets. We consider the situation. To go back would mean a long detour and a busy road, but we can’t lift the bikes over the wicket. After looking around it dawns on us that the fence alongside is made of plastic and wire, designed as a portable electric fence for cattle. It isn’t electrified…
Five minutes later we are riding along the dyke.
After another quick fencing operation and a wiggle over some traffic lights, we arrive at the bridge in Emmerich, which fortunately has a bike lane. Even better, we have a signal, and can call Travis. It turns out that he’s behind us, still in the Netherlands.
While Alex directs Travis to us I make a futile attempt to find a place for the night. When I return I find Travis tired and annoyed. I understand this: I’d be annoyed in his position. Unfortunately there’s nothing for it but to push on for the last few kilometres to the campsite. On the positive side the tailwind is still with us. Just as we are approaching the campsite we pass the massive bulk of the former Kalkar SNR-300 fast-breeder nuclear reactor. It was built from 1972, cost billions of Euros to build and run, and never produced a single watt of electricity. The project was cancelled in 1991 and the place was turned into a theme park called „Wunderland Kalkar“ Obvious when you think about it. I was hopeful it might have slogans like „You’ll glow after staying here!“ but unfortunately there isn’t (there was never nuclear material on site anyway) Just an open gate and a bicycle sign advertising the cafe.
Finally we arrive in the village our campsite is in. Then we have to find the campsite. This is not helped by the owner assuming we came by car and giving directions from the Autobahn. Then the rain hits again. We find a campsite, not the one we booked, but by then we don’t care. We throw the tent up as fast as we can, tying the guy lines to the bikes because pegs won’t hold in the soggy ground, and insert our soggy selves into it.
We add up the miles and I’m astounded to find we’ve managed a cool 110,99km, my first metric century. Suddenly it all feels worthwhile, to me anyway.
We join the sleeper train in Plochingen at a cold 1 am. I’ve never been on a sleeper train before, and it’s a lot more comfortable than I expected. I wake occasionally at stops, and signs in the gloom show names from our maps like Koblenz or Bonn. At Amsterdam we detrain and squeeze the bikes in the lift. Unfortunately when we arrive on the bottom floor, we can’t get the bikes out again, and we have no alternative but to let the lift go up again and restart the entire process, to the bemusement of a lot of commuters.
We wander out of the station past the famously huge multi-storey bike park. The sun is shining and the skies are clear- until we get about 100 metres into the city and the rain pours down. We eat bread huddled under the awning of a bakery, hoping it will lay off a bit, but eventually we settle for a gentle drizzle and walk to the Workcycles shop which is full of bikes of all shapes and sizes.
The Bakfiets looks pretty mundane surrounded by the various creations around it. I take a test ride which is a bit unnerving at first, mostly because of a close shave with a street cleaning truck. It appears Amsterdam drivers are the same around cyclists as others elsewhere in the world, judging by the amount of near-misses I have. I manage to find time for some pictures though, including the mandatory boat-and-canal shot:
We’re just about to set off to see Amsterdam when the rain starts again. It’s even harder than last time and after about twenty seconds we’re as wet as if we ‘d gone for a swim in the Canal. There’s no way we’re going to get to all he tourist spots in this weather, but I make a quick personal pilgrimage to ‘De Waage’, for reasons I’ll explain another time.
After an interesting if unintentional detour around the suburbs of Amsterdam we reach the Rhine-Amsterdam canal by accident. We’ve dried off nicely by now, and as we begin to follow it south, we immediately run into more foul weather including what feel like hailstones. We ordered the Bakfiets with a raincover, the better for keeping the boys dry on the way to Kindergarten, etc, so everything in the bike is kept dry, but the cover itself seems to think it’s a sail. The bike keeps drifting towards the left, and Every now and again a bigger gust of wind comes along in a spirited attempt to blow me into the canal. Several times it’s so extreme I lose control and have to jump off the bike and the bike and put the stand down. I’m so slow, I’m getting overtaken by canal boats, which is embarrassing.
This is prbably the worst day to try and ride a Bakfiets across country, and by lunchtime we’ve barely made 30 km and I’m full of doubts: Can we make it home? If so, what then? Can my wife handle this heavy bike? What about the traffic and hills which are in abundance in Stuttgart?
The city of Utrecht offers relief from the wind, and lots of people are remarkably willing to stop and help three soggy english speakers out. One friendly commuter tells us he’s headed the same way and with a brisk “Follow Me” he shoots off into the swarms of cyclists with us following as best we can, over level crossings, through intersections, and down cycle lanes we probably wouldn’t have found ourselves, and wouldn’t have had the courage to trust if we had. On the other side of the city he points at a road with absolute authority, tells us “That’s the quickest way to Wijk bij Durstede…” then vanishes home before we can ask who he was. I wish we had found his name, if only to say thank you: I think we’d still be going around the city now if it wasn’t for him.
We take a short break to eat sandwiches in a doorway while another storm rolls past. We reckon we are about 20 km from Wijk, where there is a campsite for the night, if we can find it. The screaming rain eventually abates to a grumpy drizzle, and we follow bike lanes all the way to Wijk, which we chose because it is built on the junction between the Rhine-Amsterdam canal and the northern Rhine river itself, the route which we’ll follow most of the way into Germany.
Having found Wijk, we have to find the campsite. Fortunately the pedestrians of Wijk are as kind as those of Utrecht, and we have no shortage of help. Eventually we find a narrow lane running through the fields which we are assured is the way to our campsite, and sure enough after some nervous riding in the gathering darkness we find a sign, and then a friendly farmer who not only shows us a place to pitch the tent but also a ranschackle but waterproof shed to store the bikes in. We’ve had three soakings already today, and the wind is trying to carry the tent into the next field, we squeeze ourselves, the bikes and the tent into the shed for the night.
It’s about 10:00 by the time we are ready to crawl inside the tent. We’ve covered 77,74km in five and a half frustrating hours. Go to sleep wondering if this was such a good idea.
It really is happening.
The hallway is full of stuff ready to grab when I go through the door, the bikes are packed and we are ready to leave for the night train to Amsterdam.
Tomorrow morning, all being well, we’ll pick up the Bakfiets and start coming home. I’ll get online when I can and try to at least post occasionally on Twitter when we cross the border into Germany and the phone contract works.
Time to get an hours sleep before we have to leave…
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.
I had a cold coming on, I’d been working all weekend and would be working all evening. It seemed a far better idea to go out and get some fresh air than to keep going all afternoon as well. So I got on my bike and randomly set off for Hohenheim, the next town.
I went out, down another Scary Hill of Doom, across the valley and back up to Hohenheim, about two kilometres and 200 vertical metres (down and up) away from our village. Hohenheim is centred around the former ‘hunting lodge’ of the Royals of Württemberg. It is now the state university for agriculture, so the house and gardens are kept in immaculate condition and have whole sections showing how the earth looked say, 100 000 years ago.
The idea was to go through Hohenheim, up to a town called Degerloch, round the end of the valley I’d just crossed and back through the forest and home. I had just over an hour before I had to pick Middle Son up from kindergarten. No worries.
Hohenheim is a student town. And where you get students, you get bicycles. I hadn’t thought of that, but there they were: I saw more bikes in three minutes in Hohenheim than I would in a week at home. It was like I’d accidentally arrived in Copenhagen. I rolled down the main avenue, availed myself of the sort of bike path we can only dream of in Ostfildern and then realised I’d been so busy admiring the facilities I’d missed my turning. By the time I’d regained my route (Naturally it was uphill) I was getting tired and a bit concerned about the time, so I resisted the temptation to take pictures and pushed a bit harder in the direction of Degerloch.
Of course the thing about riding alongside a valley is that it’s not as flat as you think: rivers have tributaries and here, they are steep sided, like the one I had to cross now. Going downhill was fun, but the endless 15% climb the other side wasn’t, and worse still, I was losing time- only 30 minutes to go and I was less than half way around. Probably not the best moment to stop and take a picture on reflection. Ah, well…
The road to Degerloch dates from the time when the royal family needed a direct route from the palace in the city to the lodge at Hohenheim and it’s as straight as an arrow so I made better progress. I turned to cross the head of the valley with 20 minutes and mostly downhill to go, ran back through the forest and along a (mostly) excellent bike path to reach a Feldweg to our village, crossed yet another valley with the clock showing five minutes to pick-up time, and rolled into the village at a speed which would probably get me thrown out of the slow bicycle movement and narrowly missed a kerb while racing a couple of residential roads to the Kindergarten, only to discover I was the first person there. My watch was several minutes fast. Still, I was breathing easily, if a little rapidly, and thinking more clearly than I had all day.
I was thinking I need to allow longer next time.
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.
Pedestrian and bike bridge over the Neckar river near Tübingen: you can find it here on Google maps. It’s the sort of infrastructure that is fairly common in a lot of places in Germany, and this one was pretty crowded with cyclists when I crossed it last summer. On a route like this it makes very sound business sense: tourists carry money and tend to eat in restraunts, which is why in Germany restraunts place signs by bike paths.
Unfortunately Ostfildern doesn’t invest in such things: you can’t fit a Mercedes over it, you see.
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.
It’s gradually dawning on me that if I want to have a longer bike ride, the only way this will happen is if I start at an unsociably early hour in the morning and brave the cold. So on Saturday I took my startled Xtracycle off on an excursion into the dark. The goal was a small village called Gutenberg at the foot of the Swabian Alb: a steep range of hills rearing out of the plain bewteen Stuttgart and Ulm. I figured this was a reasonable distance with some climbing, and hopefully downhill on the return. It followed a railway for most of the time, which meant I could hopefully catch a train some of the way home if I was getting too far behind schedule .
The route started with an 11% drop into the Koersch valley (Körschtal) which cleared away any latent drowsiness, and I followed the valley for 10 km through the darkness, before reaching the cycleway up onto the plateau beyond. Having stopped at the top to take a picture -not remotely because I was out of breath, honest- I covered crossed the higher ground as the sun rose directly ahead. By now the great limestone tsunami of the Swabian Alb was silhouetted in the far distance. Which was pretty awe-inspiring, not least because I realised for the first time how far away they were.
I dropped down into the Neckar Valley (Neckartal) at a place called Wendlingen, crossed the river and found the railway. According to the ‘cyclists’ map I was carrying, there was no way through here, but the ADFC (German cyclist’s federation) website has a very comprehensive Google-based map which shows a route. I decided to trust the ADFC. I was aiming for an abrupt ridge called the Teck, which was the southern side of the small valley I hoped to follow right up to Gutenberg. The idea was that I’d find the cycleway up the hills for future reference, do a victory lap around a hotel in the village, and come back but I was beginning to wonder if this was going to happen. It was proving hard work, which isn’t a great surprise as I was going uphill, and I was losing faith in the map. I kept repeating the mantra- “It’ll be downhill coming back” but as I passed by the castle perched on top of the Teck the time display on my camera was showing 0800, and I could see that I wasn’t going to make it to the head of the valley and back home before ten. I pressed on, but by the end of the railway at Oberlenningen the station clock was showing 0830 and my goal was hidden away behind a shoulder of hills. I’d have to abandon pedal power to get back in time. The train was due to depart at 0839. I punched my destination into the ticket machine as the train started its engines, growled at the machine as it printed oh so slowly, shoved change and ticket into a pocket and yanked the bike on board just as the doors closed.
After the long ride uphill, being whisked back homeward at 80km/h was a bit of a shock, and I stumbled out onto the platform in Wendlingen with a sort of “How did I get here?” feeling. It left me with an hour to get over the last hills and race along a valley that’s always longer then I think, climb back up the other side and roll into our village. I actually arrived at 1025, but don’t tell anyone.
So close and yet so far… I’ll try again. Maybe this weekend…
I’ve been using a backpack for load carrying on my bike for as long as I can remember but I was tired of carrying textbooks, shopping and whatever else I needed on my back and arriving with a damp shirt, so a couple of weeks ago I finally converted my beloved 11-year old Raleigh sort-of-a-mountain-bike-but-with-thin-tires into a load carrying longtail, and joined the growing ranks of Xtracycle users.
If you’re wondering, an Xtracycle is a frame that shoves the rear wheel backwards by about 30cm and gives you space to add a set of load carriers and a deck. I fitted it immediately before the bike tour, which is against all the advice given for touring as it meant I was relying on an untested piece of equipment to get me around the 300km and back home without dropping onto the road. Fortunately it behaved impeccably throughout: I was usually the last to arrive anywhere, but that was more due to the physical state of the rider than the bike. (Note to self: Build up fitness levels up a bit before attempting to go riding again with people ten years younger)
So far it’s made a big difference at home too: instead of eating food trucked in from goodness knows where by the local supermarket we’re starting to pick it up from the local farm; we can take things to people without using the bus, pick up garden tools, and go for picnics, and I can give my family rides- although we need to work on that as we’re a bit wobbly at the moment.
I hesitate to use words like ‘empowerment’ because it sounds like I’m about to go and hug the nearest tree, but it does feel like we’re being part of the solution. We’re reducing emissions and noise pollution, and reducing our dependency on oil.-and is it a coincidence that most major wars in the last century were fought over oilfields?- so going shopping has become a radical empowering, peace-encouraging, friend-making health-improving; world-changing act.
I’ll keep telling myself that as winter approaches. That reminds me: I need to get mudguards.