Never Underestimate The Germans

aka: never underestimate the weight of a loaded bike
aka: a plan never survives contact

I’ve struggled to write this as it feels like a lot has happened in the last week – first hills, first proper off road, first riding off-map/route. I’ve failed with the ‘little and often’ mantra that is meant to make keeping a diary / documenting stuff easy and less of a task. I don’t want this to die here so here goes a slightly wordy summary of the last week, possibly broken up into a few separate posts and hopefully interspersed with some photos to break up my mumblings…

A couple of nights south of Koblenz I ended up in Karlsruhe, and the end of the spell on the Rhine. The city is only about 300 years old, and so the centre was planned, rather than growing organically, and streets radiate out from the Palace like the spokes of a wheel. You can walk along Kriegsstrasse, the main shopping street, and looking north, can see the Palace at the end of every side street. Quite confusing at first if you’re trying to work out where you are, but pretty cool. The city has a well respected university and quite a vibrant young feel to it. I even came across a random French street festival complete with old 2CVs, heaps of food and random French costumes (berets included).

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[Karlsruhe Palace]

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[Kriegsstrasse, Karlsruhe with trams and cars occupying the same space]

Anyway, heading east from Karlsruhe, leaving the map for the first time, and after a bit of help from a passer by, headed out of the city and found a cycle sign for Pforzheim. Excellent.

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[Off-piste (map) and relying on street signs to get out of Karlsruhe and over to Pforzheim]

What followed next was a bit of a shock. A hill. And then another. In scorching sunshine. I’ve never been very good with hills (as anyone who has ever biked with me knows, I’m normally at the back of the slow group), and now after two weeks on the flat, trying to pedal a bike that I can’t actually lift off the ground up a long steep hill was not particularly pleasant. I did overtake another cyclist at one point. It’s amazing what that does for your morale, especially if you can successfully ignore the fact that the subject of your glee was about ninety, walking his bike and hardly able to stand up unaided.

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[This may not look like a hilly area but after 2 weeks only riding on the flat, it was a bit of a shock to be heading up steep hills to get to this rolling meadowland above]

So after a sweaty 30 miles or so I found myself at the castle like youth hostel in Pforzheim having a rather disconcerting conversation with the girl checking me in. When I showed her the map of the Schwarzwald Bike Crossing route and asked about campsites, she looked at me with a little bit of disbelief.

Her view of what I had hoped would be a nice back country route across the Black Forest (based on the nice photos from the guide and some antiquated view that the Europeans don’t really do technical mountain biking) was that the very first stage went up a steep hill only to came down it again just few km around the corner. ‘Why would you do that’ she asked (not having even seen my bike loaded with bags), and I tried to explain what I hoped the route was. She looked pretty sceptical and promised to speak to her biking friends that night. Meantime she sent me off to a little local festival that was taking place ‘just ten minutes away’. After half an hour of wandering around a very hilly little village I decided that what had looked like a wedding reception in a village hall MUST be the festival, as there was bugger all else going on anywhere nearby. After a second pass by the hall I was still unconvinced (too many people dressed smartly) so bottled it and ended up in a local Gasthaus, berating myself for not having had the balls to gatecrash the festival and meet the locals. My mood wasn’t really lifted by being refused a table outside by a landlady who was clearly only bothered about catering for her local clients and a disappointing tea of what was probably nice fish had it not been smothered in some kind of undefined sauce, and a nice salad had it not been smothered in an excessive amount of some kind of dressing.

The next morning the hostel girl told me i) exactly where the festival was (a good ten minutes further walk, and definitely not anywhere near the wedding that I was lucky not to have tried to gatecrash) and ii) that her mountain biking friends said that the Bike Crossing route went purposefully up and down hills for the sake of it, and if I had bags on my bike, not to even consider it. Hmmmm. Part relived that local advice had perhaps let me off a living hell for the next week and part disappointed that I seemed to be accepting having been beaten at the first uphill hurdle on this ride, I head off down the marked cycle route heading along the river valley.

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[Crossing the lush river valley]

At the first point that the Bike Crossing route cut across the valley I thought I’d go take a look and give it a go. Almost as soon as it left the valley the route shot up a steep grassy track which I managed to get half way up before having to push. Back on the tarmac at the top, I headed up a steep switchbacked road for twenty minutes before the trail pointed once again up a steep trail that didn’t really appear to exist, and which I knew I couldn’t pedal up. This was all in the first mile or so of the route that I’d attempted and it was obvious that after just two weeks of riding a loaded bike, if I actually wanted to make any decent progress, this wasn’t going to be the way to do it. It looks like it would be an excellent mountain biking route but for me, at that moment, that was a different kind of biking needing a different kind of bike, more time, stronger legs, of a combination of all of the above! Perhaps if I’d been riding for longer (and had tackled hills already before heading straight for steep off road hills) or if I didn’t have a time limit to get to St Gallen and then back to London for mid-October, I might have felt differently. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to take any photos of any of this – the debate in my mind over whether I should be pushing on or taking an easier route kind of got the better of me for a little while.

I headed back down to the valley (the ‘down’ taking about 4 minutes compared to the half an hour toil for the ‘up’) feeling like a bit of a wimp, having failed to do what I’d planned to do on the first day of hills, and now with big doubts about whether the rest of the route that I had loosely planned – the Jura and Panorama mountain bike routes – are going to be at all possible.

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[Resolving to start taking some (crap) pictures of me actually on the bike]

Posted in London to Switzerland (2011) and tagged , , .