Predictably in love: cycling through Germany

img_0052My impression of Germany prior to cycling through it was largely based on their football team: admirably practical, tactical play, if on the dull side. My first impression of the country itself was formed by the villages along the border. It suffered in comparison with the instant bicycle-heaven which the Netherlands presented: practical, reliable, but fairly solidly dull.

Why? In practical terms, I suppose that the cycling infrastructure budget is more stretched. The paths are often shared with cars (the Netherlands wouldn’t allow this…!), the sign-posting isn’t as sharp, and, of course, there are a lot more hills – nothing to do with the infrastructure, but perhaps means catering for cyclists is less of a top priority. While cycling is only one specific aspect of life, from the perspective of someone who has just learned to ‘think as a bicycle’ in the Netherlands, the cycling scene understandably formed my first impression of the country as a whole. Of course cars and bikes can share the roads – they’re going in the same direction. Why shouldn’t they?

Germany’s almost defiant practicality does, however, grow on you. If you open a map, someone sees a lost person and comes to give you directions, because that’s why you do with lost people. Passing cars give you an invariably accurate 1.5 metres space, because that’s the amount of space a bicycle needs if it falls over sideways. Roads are clean, ‘cause everything is recycled – rubbish is, after all, rubbish. And as you cycle through the impressively industrial vineyards along the lower Rhine, you can almost hear the conversations of the original farmers: “Oliver, there is a hill in the way of our vineyard!” “Well, Karl, build a vineyard with a 40% gradient, then.”*

While in the Netherlands and Italy people reacted to my long-distance solo cycling adventures with a mix of admiration and terror, there was a refreshingly practical response in Germany. “Need to get 100 km away? Okay, pedal for 100 km. Then you’ll be there”. Although I appreciate both responses, it is nice to talk about the practicalities rather than the justifications of doing such a trip.

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Some dogs can’t go as fast as bicycles, but they can fit in bicycles. So why WOULDN’T you have a dog trailer?

 

And amongst this practicality, there is beauty. Or perhaps this practicality actually lends itself to beauty. Particularly in Barvaria, which I am told is the richest area (so perhaps has more money to invest in frivolities such as paint), the streets are stunningly colourful. All the houses are different hues, yet they also complement each other perfectly. Karl and Oliver seem to have discussed, as civil neighbours should, what colour to paint their adjacent houses for the good of everybody. Because why wouldn’t you?

These elements took me a while to appreciate, but their consistency grew on me. There wasn’t a day in Germany I didn’t see a landscape and a town that I admired. And it’s nice, as a cyclist, to be able to rely on things: a water fountain in a village, a public toilet in a square, a local bakery open on a Sunday morning.

It was also in Germany that I parted ways with my initial companion and alternating camping and couch-surfing. This may also have accounted for how Germany grew on me gradually. After the first few days, following my companion and doing little else but cycling and sleeping; I felt like I had existed in Germany for four days, but not actually been to Germany. When I had the freedom to stop and explore places and meet people, I started appreciating the landscape and the culture properly.

The first city I explored was Cologne or Koln. The famous cathedral is awe-inspiring, as is the view from its top spire. A few stops down the line was Worms, the city with a fantastic name, an invisible (read: bombed) medieval past, and a generous couchsurfer with four cats. In Speyer, I experienced my first Eiscafe (a café dedicated to ice-cream. Winner.) – which served “spaghetti” ice cream. The cycle paths were reliable; the weather was warm. By the time I was greeted by my second Couchsurfing host in Karlsruhe, I was hooked on the country.

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Watch this space: future German midfielder in the making. And my “Drachen” mascot Dunstan, of course.

In Karlsruhe, my couchsurfer’s two bright, polite and energetic boys didn’t let me leave until I had played football with them. I should have been prepared for this: two German boys, aged approximately 7 and 10, would most likely be very good footballers. But I am equally predictable: if there is a way to my heart, football will seal the deal. By the time I left Karlsruhe, I was very much in love with Deutschland.

Sadly, that was my second last day in Germany: one stop opposite Strasbourg and then it was in to Switzerland. But I can reliably predict that I will be back.

* I apologise for any racial stereotyping seen here. Names taken from the 2002 German National Football Team…

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#germanydontneednofilters

Germany: Cycling Solo (or choose your companions wisely!)

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And just like that, the Netherlands turns into Germany. No passports required!

It was a hot, dusty day on the banks of the river Rhine. I was tired from more than a week of back-to-back long cycling days, sunburned, and vaguely disorientated about where I actually was in the world and what I was doing there. I saw a camp site at the side of the river near the German city of Koln, and threw my bike down. “Right, I am stopping here”, I declared.

I started this trip with another cyclist. We had chatted on a cycling website and wanted to do a long distance cycling tour at the same time, so coordinated plans. We met on my second day in The Netherlands and headed down the Rhine on the Eurovelo 15. Now that same companion was looking at me as if to say “Stopping now? But it’s only 2pm…”

Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice guy, and a good cyclist. However, cycling with him really made me reassess what is important to me on a cycling trip.

I thought I was fairly easy-going about travelling companions, and had described myself as such on the forum. I guess spending 24/7 with another person, though, really tests if this is true or not. And at the end of the first week, my companion probably disagreed with my ‘easy-going’ assessment of myself. I, too, realised what was important to me, and that there are probably a lot of thing which I can’t compromise on.

Firstly: SLEEP. On my previous cycling trips, which have only been a couple of weeks long each, I’ve set an alarm and started cycling at about 7am. However, knowing that there was a few months of cycling ahead of me, I knew I needed to recover properly every day. This meant that 7am was unrealistic, particularly as I had to factor in the half-hour or so of packing the tent away and prepping the bike, half an hour to do the life administration of showering, brushing teeth, getting dressed, and twenty minutes to do the all-important task of eating a breakfast fit for a cyclist. I wasn’t prepared to get up at 5.45 am to fit all this in for a 7am start.

I suppose I could have reduced the time to do all of this, eaten some bread and bananas on the road, and only showered at night. The tent and bike prep invariably gets quicker as you get used to playing pannier tetris and learning where everything goes. But for me, it makes for a very grumpy cycle if you leave feeling unprepared in the morning.

Which leads me on to my second uncompromisable item: BREAKFAST. I like having a breakfast first thing which sees me through until early afternoon. My companion preferred to stop for a bakery breakfast mid-morning. This is great… if your budget allows for it, if you are at a location where you can find a bakery, and if you don’t feel hungry in the first hour of cycling. Alternating breakfast techniques would have been fine, and I really should have more assertively suggested this. However, as it was, our trying to incorporate both of these breakfasting habits just held us up on the road more than was necessary.

And then, of course, there is more obvious one: SPEED and DISTANCE.

I cycle regularly, but not these kind of distances. For this, I trained largely on the trip itself. In the Netherlands, we were doing 80 km a day. In Germany, I had built up to about 110 km a day as standard. My Garmin suggested I’m most comfortable at a decent 21km per hour speed. But if something interesting comes up at 60km, I don’t mind stopping – similarly, if I need to push on and cover 140 km, I suck it up and pedal hard at 30km per hour.

However, while stats are interesting, I am not touring for the kilometres, but for the

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Koln: no spectacular paths (or weather!), but definitely a turning point in the journey

journey. My companion wanted to do 100km fairly religiously, at a few kilometres per hour faster than me. Sometimes, this meant we missed the nearest convenient campsite and ended up cycling further than ideal. There was also somewhat of a religious routine when we got to a campsite: pitch tent, cook dinner, have a beer, sleep. Now, I like all of these things. But I wanted to throw a few articles of “explore local cathedral”, “find local pizza place” or “attempt to speak German terribly” in there too, when time and money allowed. I guess you could say I am inflexible on maintaining a degree of flexibility in my trip. But the time I got to Koln, I felt like I hadn’t even been to Germany.

So this is why, one day later, my companion decided to push on as I saw the city for a day. He was anxious to cover more ground and start earlier in the mornings, and I wanted to explore the city. We didn’t meet again for the duration of the trip (although in the end he only reached Andermatt, our destination, one day before I did. Them beer slow you down I guess!). Travelling with him wasn’t unpleasant, but it was restrictive, and we probably both felt better for cycling on our own.

And then I started to actually see Germany… (to be continued!).

 

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“I cycled lonely as a cloud…” (and had a lot of fun doing so!)

Think like a Bicycle

Stage one of the Eurovelo 15: Netherlands, from the Hook of Holland to the border with Germany

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Shamefully, I have seldomly picked up a (virtual) pen and paper yet on this trip, so I am writing this entry with a lot of hindsight. However, this gives me the opportunity to introduce the Netherlands not through my over-awed first impressions and delighted cyclist selfies, but through recalling one particular conversation which I had a month later, in a little hut in the Swiss Alps.

I stayed in this hut for two days, along with an Australian, and Egyptian, and Susanne, a Dutch woman. We had no electricity, no internet, tremendous views, and naturally flowing conversation. Speaking to Susanne about starting my trip in the Netherlands, I said I had found not just the cycle paths, but also the respect and awareness of cyclists from drivers, stunning. She was unsurprised. “We grow up on bicycles”, she shrugged.

For a moment I smiled, remembering learning to cycle. I think I had ben about 6 then. I remember the stabilisers either side of the bike, progressing to a wobbly few metres through a rural Irish back garden, pushed by my father and once by my uncle. Finally, I took to the road. Although long-distance cycling touring has only been a part of my life in the past few years, I thought that I, too, could count myself as growing up on a bicycle.

That view was soon corrected.

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Waiting to cross the road in the Netherlands…

“As soon as we’re born, the bicycle has a baby seat. As soon as we can sit up, we are in it. Out on the front with our parents. We are dropped off at nursery on bike. By the time we start school, we should be able to ride independently. So, we are on a bike as we are learning how to think. We learn to think as a car driver a lot later. When we drive, we don’t think about bicycles… we think as bicycles.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of biking through the Netherlands. I started at the Hook of Holland, having got the overnight ferry. It was a smooth crossing throughout which I slept soundly. Disembarking the ferry was similarly smooth – none of this waiting for two hours to go through security. A simple passport check and a smile at the ferry terminal and I was free to cycle all over Europe. And then the thunderstorm hit.

Great start. Of all places, I sheltered in a small fish shop which happened to have a coffee dispenser. Five minutes in the Netherlands, thunder rolling in across the harbour, I wondered what on earth I was doing.

Half an hour of fishy mooching later, the thunderstorm has cleared to drizzle, and I started cycling in to Rotterdam for my first camp stop. I typed Rotterdam into my borrowed Garmin, checked Google Maps on my phone… and then realised there was a sign directly outside the fish shop with “Rotterdam: 45” written on it in small red letters. Hmm, better check the Garmin anyway, I thought. How could I be sure that the route was suitable for bicycles?

Ah. Yes. The fact that “45” had a little red bicycle next to it. Right.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of cycling signs. I followed the blue cycling signposts from Dundee to Edinburgh on one of my earliest long cycles. It should be about 70 miles… unless you follow the little blue signs. Keen to show off every village, church, sheep and (notably, when on a bicycle) HILL in the county, these signs are great if you want to do a 10-mile cycling trip. Not, however, if you have an element of getting-to-a-place-before-dark on your itinerary. 95 miles, including heading over the Forth Road Bridge after sunset, isn’t so fun.

But the Dutch do not think of cycling as a site-seeing pastime. No, they think as bicycles. And a bicycle, it seems, is a natural extension of yourself to allow you to get from A to B as comfortably and as conveniently as possible. The signs led me straight to Rotterdam without a hill to speak of.

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A hill in the Netherlands

Because of this, though, Susanne told me, you don’t get many long-distance cycle tourists from Holland. Of course, people cycle as a hobby and a past-time, but going outside of the country is intimidating. It’s an adjustment to come to a country where you have hills to deal with, and where you might have to share a road with cars. Most people, she laughed, don’t know how to change gears and have crap bicycles, because there’s no need to invest in one with gears they’ll never use.

Of course, she was exaggerating. I saw plenty of expensive bicycles and cyclists who considered themselves too athletic for the cycle paths, so joined the main traffic. But from the Hook of Holland to Nijmegen on the Dutch-German border, my wheels didn’t touch a ‘mainstream’ road. I was on purpose-designed cycle paths the whole way – not, as in the UK, indicated by a white painted line on the road which cars can choose to ignore, but with at the least a strip of grass separating it from the road. The cycle paths are often two-way, with clearly marked lanes and bicycle traffic lights. Don’t indicate or filter properly? Expect to be angrily ding-dinged at. And throughout the country, my Garmin told me I had gone from altitude -2 metres below sea level, up to +15 only. And that was over a bridge…

And although I was only in the Netherlands for five days, I definitely got used to these perfect cycling conditions. After day 1, the weather Gods decided they’d had their fun with me, and although it was early September it was as if cycling through summer – too hot at times. I was sad to leave the Netherlands, but I took some important lessons with me. Always keep your rain gear handy. Cycle in the correct lane at all times. Wear your helmet only if you want it to be painfully obvious that you’re a tourist. And don’t think about bicycling. Think as a bicycle.

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Hint: it’s a canal, not a lawn… bridges and bicycles in the Netherlands. Take your camera!

How a martian helped me cycle across Europe

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It is a running joke between me and everyone that I have seen a woeful amount of films.

Disney? Not unless it has an animal as the main character. ET? I thought he was a robot until recently corrected. And you can guarantee any jokes about Back to the Future, Titanic or Superman will go straight over my head.

I don’t like sitting still. Even writing this blog entry is punctuated with me getting up, making a cup of tea, going to stroke the cat, going to microwave said tea because I’ve spent too long stroking the cat, texting my friend Karen a picture of the cat being stroked… and so on. Watching a film has too much sitting around, and not enough feline distractions, to hold my attention.

So when I find a film worth talking about, you know it means something to me.

Last year, I saw The Martian at the cinema. To be honest, I only went because some friends were going, because they are better at the whole sitting-still-thing than I am. Little did I know that three hours later, I would be bouncing down the cinema stairs, ready to cycle round the world.*

First things first: it is a fantastic film in its own right. My sarcastic sense of humour found it genuinely hilarious. As a bit of a geek, I loved how it incorporated logic. None of this super-hero nonsense which my imagination doesn’t stretch to, or unexplained aliens. Simply how Mark Watney, human being, could survive on Mars until rescued.

There is one particular scene in it which hit home beyond the sarcasm, though. After (spoiler alert – but you could probably guess this part anyway) the protagonist successfully gets back from Mars (surprise!), we see him talking to his students. He speaks of how he started to build his shelter, cultivate his food supply, create his communications with Earth, and carry out all other necessary Martian survival antics. It seems overwhelming, he suggests. What do you do to even start to make this happen? Well, it’s not rocket science. You just begin. To quote: “You just begin: you do the math. You solve one problem. And you solve the next one. And then the next. If you solve enough problems, you get to go home.”

Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what you have to do with planning and going on a massive cycling trip. And this line was what made me actually start to do it.

You research bicycle panniers. You do the math(s). You find that you can save £50 if you get the panniers second-hand. You can buy a second-hand tent with that £50. The tent doesn’t fit in your panniers. You solve this problem: two bungee cords. You buy a map. The map is too heavy – find electronic resources. You speak with others who help: your uncle gives words of wisdom, an acquaintance will join you for the first week, a colleague lends you two power banks to keep your maps alive. You plan the route. You book the ferry. And once you’ve done all that… well, you’re not just beginning any more. You’ve involved too many people to pull out. You’ve committed. You haven’t even left the country, and yet you have to go.

Except, unlike Mark Watney, you don’t get to go home. Or at least, that’s not the destination. Even better. You get to go on the cycling trip of a lifetime.

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All packed up and good to go.

*Cycling around the world will happen… but this particular just begin has just been a trip around Europe. So far…

It’s Downhill Forever

bikeA re-post from my personal blog from 2013.

Someone in my hometown of Blairgowrie, mid Scotland, said in jest that I couldn’t cycle to London.

Challenge accepted.

Obstacles? Time, money, resources, commitments. The life that get in the way of doing amazing things. I didn’t even have a bicycle at the time. I booked two weeks off my uninspiring Pharmacy job, bought a £50 second-hand bicycle from a man in a nearby town who couldn’t physically cycle any more, borrowed some panniers from a friend, and set off.

I didn’t tell many people I was doing the cycle, I think because I was trying to claim a bit of the world for me. I think that’s what a lot of people cycle alone: they want to do something amazing by themselves, for themselves. The only people I told were the friends I was going to see along the way – my brother in Edinburgh, my friend in Newcastle, my Grandmother and Cousin in London.

I cycled Blairgowrie to Edinburgh on the first day after work, cycling from 5.30pm til 11.30pm, complete with a sunset over the Forth Road Bridge. When I got to my brother’s, he looked at me: “do you want food? Of the actually edible kind, or of the GIVE-ME-CARBS-NOW kind?” I was eating the pasta as it was cooking. Half-cooked pasta is delicious when you’ve just cycled 70 miles after a full day at work.

The next day, I left about 3KG of stuff at his, deciding to travel with as little as possible. He accompanied me cycling for a day. Scotland lives up to it’s mountainous stereotype. We were pulling up one steep hill for about an hour, including one break. I was thinking WHY THE HELL AM I DOING THIS, particularly when overtaken by motorbikes – that’s the way to travel.

And then I heard my brother, cycling in front of me, giggling. I looked up. We were at the top. Rather than being a steep downhill descent, there was a long slightly downhill road, miles long, disappearing into the horizon. He was cycling no-hands, shouting “IT’S DOWNHILL FOREVER!” Giggling like children, it was no-hands it the whole way down.

The most interesting day was in Newcastle. There, I met a friend who I’d known about a year. And when I say known, I mean spoken to online. That was surreal, and I felt weird meeting up, but it was impossible not to suggest it: we’d skyped a lot, and he was also a long distance cyclist. There’s no one I admired more. We clicked instantly. It was amazing how comfortable I felt around him. He asked if it was weird meeting him. I replied it wasn’t, for me, and asked the same back of him. “No, but I have to keep imagining a Skype box around your head to normalise myself…” was his unforgettable reply.

The worst part was the third day. The road felt sticky. The last six miles made me physically sick. But thereafter, my body seemed to accept that my brain was going to make it do this, like it or not. I met wonderful people in Youth Hostels – the volunteers who had opened a bare YHA hostel in the middle of no-where in Lincolnshire just ’cause I had requested a room, and the cyclist from Bradford in his yellow lycra who saw my panniers in the hostel and said they were good ones. Did I have a very posh bike? He asked. I borrowed them and had a second hand bike and was cycling to London, I explained. “You’re cycling to London in a summer dress?! I’m just going to Leeds and I’ve spent a fortune on padded shorts!” he shook his head. “Your stupid. I admire you so much!”.

The most magical moment was in Ely. I had written a university history dissertation on the monasteries of Ely and Ramsey two years previously, although I’d never been to either. They were both fairly en-route by the time I got to Cambridgeshire, just adding 12 miles to the day’s track. Ramsey was forgettable – none of the tenth century monastery was visible. Ely, however, was incredible. I had studied the tenth-century monastic reform, and a part of that study had included the musical developments of both places. When I got to Ely, there was a choir assembling to sing Evensong. I’m not religious, but it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life: sitting in a place I knew so much about historically, but had never seen before, listening to the songs that would have filled the place in the tenth century.

My Newcastle friend and I texted throughout, which was great support, having someone virtually by my side throughout the journey. That was until he decided I couldn’t be in his life as “just a friend” any more. I think he expected me to pull the brakes and cycle back to Newcastle. Sweet, but not right, at the time. A week previously, this would have upset me.  “I’m sorry for spoiling your trip”, one of his last texts read. But instead of upsetting me, this made me smile – it was impossible for one person to spoil this trip. Throughout my journey, I re-discovered the world, and travelling, and history. I re-fell in love with independence, and opportunity, and with so many people I’d met along the way. Of course, there are still what-ifs and maybes. But for a life-long love of cycling and completing a journey, it was a worthy trade-off.

And seven days later, I was in London. I decided to cycle on to Portsmouth, to reach the south coast, after a rest day. One of my closest friends lived near there, but I didn’t know if I would cycle onto meet him, so I hadn’t told him that I was cycling. I told him to meet me at the train station, requested he bring a bottle of water, and cycled there in two days. He was very surprised to see me cycling up to meet him. I have never let him live down the fact that I cycled 691.3 miles to see him, and that he wouldn’t even buy me a bottle of water in return.

That day, I had an email from Leeds Metropolitan University asking me for a job interview. I got the job. I don’t know why, but for some reason, that cycle seemed to kick-start me into living again. Next time, the road will be even longer.