Monday, September 03, 2012

The Route III: Deutschland to Dutch

Part 1, day 1: A ride along the Ruhr

The Stockholm to Gibraltar bike tour is rolling on. Having cycled Brussels to Paris in 2010 and Dortmund to Hamburg in 2011, it only seemed sensible to join the two legs this year. So it was that with a few reunion high fünfs and clad in mildly inappropriate skimpy lycra, two Brits and three Germans assembled outside Dortmund hauptbahnhof on a dreary late April morning and mounted our bikes with Brussels as a goal. 

In the interest of adhering to the German stereotype, Uwe, Thilo and Erik were all set and rearing to ride at the pre-agreed time of 10am.  Dave and I were a comparable shambles, clumsily trying to build our bikes from their flight boxes and stuff some carbs into the system through a groggy daze induced by only snatching a scraggy hour or so’s sleep the night before on the hard cold floor of Luton airport (nestling up to our respective bike boxes to make sure nobody nicked them).
Nothing a cup of caffeine and prospective adventures to come couldn’t fix.

A real sense of anticipation as we pedalled our way through the centre of Dortmund and out to the suburbs. The only downer for the ride to come was a rubbish weather forecast and, personally, an itching concern that my fitness level was not what it should be to cycle 120 km day for three days. I always plan to get fit for these trips, but am easily distracted…
Fortunately the rain that accompanied us as we first set off abated and we settled into a nice pace as greenery slowly took over from bricks and mortar. Turning a corner we made it to the first of the three major rivers we would encounter on this trip, the Ruhr. At this place the river nestled in a narrow valley, fed by canal locks. I was dissuaded from stopping off for the first beer of the day (I can’t get enough of good German beer) by Erik pulling out five mini bottles of a close cousin of Jägermeister. Despite Uwe’s insistence, I am not convinced that it was a health drink. Down the hatch it went and on we went following the river.
We spent most of the day alongside the Ruhr, pedalling through pleasant verdant countryside. This almost certainly gave a false impression of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the densest populated regions in Europe famed for its past prowess in coal and steel. We managed to narrowly avoid a series of large industrial towns and cities, including Essen.  This was largely thanks to German planning – my pleas to increase interest by leaving maps at home had fallen on deaf ears – but so was our first travail of the day. Someone had the clever idea of cutting across a tight loop in the river. While this certainly cut down the mileage, we faced a few more tightly packed contours than anticipated. Grade 1 geography tells you that land rises either side of a river, but this was some serious stuff. Starting steep and staying that way, the hill went up and up and up. Erik was the first to give in to walking, followed by Thilo complaining about the weight of his bike. Being fit and all, Uwe and Dave were surging ahead. That left me methodically dropping down gear after gear until I was creeping along in first gear huffing and puffing with each turn of the wheel. Being a bloody minded bastard I just about made it to the mini-summit, but paid for it soon after. After catching our breath, we jumped back on the bike and free-wheeled our way down the long, winding route back down to the river. Such an awesome feeling as you touch 50 kmph, the adrenaline pumping and wind skipping off the lycra. Inevitably this had to end and on the next slightest rise my quad cramped up. A real bugger.

I limped on at the back of the group and was delighted when we stopped for a late lunch that proved to be the highlight of the day. Crossing to the other side of the Ruhr, we discovered one of the riverside beer houses that are so common in Germany. The sun popped out and warmed us as we sat on the veranda, sank a couple of beers, devoured some good wurst and took in the beautiful river setting.
The muscles were a bit pissed with having to jump back on the bike, but we had only done 70 km and had to put in another good leg in the late afternoon. Despite getting lost in an industrial estate of a small town, the going went well as we followed the Ruhr to its confluence with the mighty Rhine at Duisburg. From a big river to a giant river, entering the latter stages of its sweep across Europe. I found it hard to concentrate on the road as we turned on to a suspension bridge and crossed the Rhine. Glimpses of a wide brown mass of water, large freight barges and Duisburg harbour (the largest inland harbour in the world). Impressive.
After another hour, we were passing by the city of Krefeld and starting to think about where we could refuel and rest our heads for the night. With the carrot of an easier next day, we set our sights on Kempen another 20 km on. By the time we got there the day was late, the legs were tired and we were more than ready to stop. We split up to find accommodation, but to our shock found precisely bugger all. We had to push on, tough when the body had started to shut down for the day. Via our mobiles, we located a B&B a few kms to the south, put our weary bottoms back on the saddle, turned the pedals for another 20 minutes and made it just as the sun fell out the sky.
We had landed on our feet, staying at an awesome little place that I would probably remember the name of if I had not been so knackered, filled our stomachs full of pasta and knocked out. 130 kms in a day takes it out of you.

Part 1, day 2: Escaping Jesus to the Netherlands
I awoke early, pulled my surprisingly unachy body out of bed and peered out the window at a cold, yet beautiful morning. Low lying mist giving way to blue sky. A mega breakfast – a great thing about cycle tours is you can eat and eat and eat as it all burns off – and we set off towards the Dutch border.
The legs felt OK as we cut off the main road on to some small country paths. As we winded our way into and through a small forest the track narrowed and deteriorated. This gave me flashbacks of last year’s shenanigans (, but instead of finding ourselves lost in a bog, we were stuck in the outer confines of a Christian camp. A small sign had marked our entrance onto a wild bit of land reserved for retreats of some Christian group, sect or whatever. Jokes of our impending capture and indoctrination were less funny when having made our way safely across the reserve, the path ended at a single broken wooden bridge across a river. Gated off, clearly rotten and missing the odd rung. Thilo was all for turning back, but that would waste time and be no fun. Against his protestations, we flung our bikes over the high gate, clambered over and gingerly crossed the rickety bridge. No drama later, we were able to climb over the blockage on the far side and successfully escape along some nice, flat, tarmac roads.
Deciding not to take any more not so short-cuts, before we knew it we were crossing the border into the Netherlands, the fourth country of this cross-European adventure. A few more turns of the wheel and we ambled into the pretty Dutch town of Venlo. Meandering our way through pedestrians on a busy shopping street we ended our morning in the old town square. Small, yet grand, with a magnificent town hall the likes of which litter this bit of the world. A perfect place for lunch and some large, cool, delectable local beers. The unexpected spectacle of freshly wed couples exiting the town hall in conveyor-belt fashion and, in particular, a Roma couple who were greeted by excited relatives with drums and a bubble top horse drawn carriage. What a great start to the day.
 It didn’t last. Little did we know it, but a long, punishing road awaited to the south.