Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Route IV: Danish Breakdown

Kicking back on the top deck, legs on the outer rail, Carlsberg in hand, pastry in mouth, we spotted Denmark. Our ferry was powering straight ahead to a thin green line in the distance. From above bright sunshine, to both sides the Baltic stretching out, pierced in hundreds of places by wind turbines reaching up to the sky.


Before we knew it we were in Scandinavia. We saddled up and rolled off the Ferry onto the Danish island of Lolland. Lying to the East of the main Danish peninsular which juts out from mainland Europe and to the South of Sjaelland (or Zealand in English), the island which houses Copenhagen and just under half the population of Denmark, Lolland is in the arse end of nowhere by Danish standards. It reminded me of Norfolk.

A flat, sparsely populated place, covered in (most likely) subsidised farmland. It was the middle of the day and we planned to bomb across it before dark, staying somewhere at the Southern end of Zealand. Initially it all went rather well.
From the second we exited the small port (having taken the obligatory tacky pics by the Danish flag) the cycle lanes started and did not end. Carefully planned, smooth paths by the side of the road. Many European countries incorporate cycle lanes into road plans near to cities or towns, but the Danish include them even where there are hardly any cars or cycles to bother each other. Skipping between these paths and the road we passed corn fields and the occasional hamlet. These were strange places, seemingly empty of life – we did not see one person in the first couple we pedalled through – yet up kept to a pristine standard. The architecture had markedly changed from Germany. Here we found small, sturdy gabled houses and odd little red brick churches crescented with jig-jag brick work.
After an hour or so we made it to the small market town of Maribo and went off in search of some carbohydrate. Along with loads of snacks at a local supermarket, we discovered a pleasant market square and idyllic cobbled streets leading down to large church in a similar style to the smaller ones just described, resoundingly protestant in its simplicity. Just out front was a reed fringed lake a couple of km wide. A great spot.

Having decided to head on out, I jumped back on the saddle and pushed down hard to get some purchase on the gravelly path which surrounded the lake. CRACK. I tried again. MANGLE. I tumbled off the bike. Things had taken a turn for the worse…


At first sight I could not work out what had gone wrong, other than a lot. Uwe, who is far more clued up on bikes than Dave or me, quickly assessed the situation and announced my [long German word…] had broken. Funnily enough that did not mean anything to me. He pointed at this small piece of plastic that joins (or is supposed to join) the rear derailleur (the rear thing with all the cogs) to the bike. Only now searching on google have I discovered the English name for this part - the "rear mech hanger".
I asked how big a problem it was and received the not so reassuring response of “very”. Without a new one I could not go anywhere. Copenhagen suddenly seemed a long way away. I remembered the fall outside of Lübeck and put two and two together. The part had most likely partially cracked on collision and then weakened further over the next 100 km or so before finally snapping. The weight of my beer belly probably did not help.

Time was running short and we needed some luck to fix the situation. Our location seemed very fortuitous as my bike had broken in the first proper town we had passed through in half a day. I decided not to dwell on what would have happened if it had broken 20 km earlier – I suppose a lot of waiting around in fields and possibly a spot of camping! 
The next big slice of luck came in the form of a late middle-age Danish man.  Passing by on his own bike, he saw the problem, stopped and asked in impeccable English if there was anything he could do. Before we knew it he and Uwe were off back into town in search of a bike shop. That left Dave and me kicking back on a little jetty staring out across the lake in the sunshine. Not a bad deal.

Thirty minutes later the heroes returned with a van and a bike mechanic. Nice late middle-aged Danish man said his goodbyes accompanied by our sincere gratitude. The bike mechanic shook his head. There was nothing he could do on the scene and it so happened that he doubted they had the part at the shop. This annoying little part was apparently just about the only thing on a bike that is not freely exchangeable with other makes of bikes and they did not stock Specialized (my bike). Bugger. The best he could do was to scan other bikes hoping that another part would fit, but he did not hold out too much hope. As I jumped in the van Uwe explained his Plan B with a smile. Ditch the rear derailleur and single gear it the remaining 160 km to Copenhagen. Not funny.
We soon arrived at the bike shop and, as I followed the mechanic’s slow trail around one hundred odd bikes for an strange shaped piece of plastic/metal about the length of my pinkie finger, the boys got in the beers. The occasional rising of hope as the mechanic took extra time to examine a particular bike faded to the depths as he moved on. Half an hour more and no luck. There was not even an option to ship to another town. No one stocked the part on the whole damn island. I was staring down single gear time.
As the simply lovely bike shop owner gave us a drink and bananas, a bespectacled mechanic had an idea. They could take a similar’ish metal part and use a file to slowly grind it into shape. He was not convinced it would work, but was prepared to try. To cut a long story short, this genius of a bicycle man succeeded. As we sipped beers and watched, he expertly reshaped the part into the required form. Barely EUR 40 worth of Danish Kroner (bargain) and a huge amount of thanks later, we were waved off back on the road.


Everything was sweet. Maribo was behind us, fields ahead. Up a couple of hills and from the top of the latter we hurtled down to a view of green giving way to Baltic blue. Past tidy farm buildings and over a bridge to more fields on the narrow island of Falster. Then ahead to a part of the journey I had been looking forward to ever since I roughly planned our route from up high on google maps. There was a big piece of sea to cross.
Falster is joined to the much larger island of Zealand by only two bridges. The nice shiny new one to the East is closed to bicycles, so our only option was to pedal across the full 3.2 km of the rickety old Storstrøm Bridge. Simply brilliant. Rising high, high above the calm sea the bridge dominates the view from miles around. We bobbled along the wooden planks of the disconcertingly dishevelled side bridge (if this was not in oh-so-safe Scandinavia I would be convinced it was a death trap…), peering down to the depths far below and out to the land, sea and wind turbines in the distance. Sea birds soared all around and the late afternoon sunshine turned the rippling waves into a blanket of glitter.
With a sigh we disembarked on the far shore and headed round the headland to the small harbour village of Vordingborg to figure out what next. As it worked out, short term perfection. We discovered a small natural marina perched on the north shore of a little fjord surrounded by patches of forest. Shore side of the dozens of small sailing boats were a couple of bar-eateries and a tiny fishermen’s hut inhabited by an ancient fisherman complete with crazed look.
We sat down, ordered the local beer and some fish and admired the setting from a sea side bench. It was decision time as, being early evening, only the long days of this northerly latitude was saving us from the dark. A quick second beer gave us fortitude and we decided to cut across country for another 20 km to the town of Praesto. There was sod all on the map in between and we had no idea what we would find when we got there, but it sounded like fun.

The ensuing final part of the penultimate day of our ride was up there with the most enjoyable route parts to date. Unexpectedly finding some Danish hills, we cycled through an undulating countryside of great beauty. It somewhat reminded me of Dorset. Flushed with the buzz of the end of the day we sped along the winding, dipping, climbing traffic free roads as the setting sun blinkered in and out through the roadside foliage.

By the time we rolled into Praesto it was getting on for 10 pm and all but dark. We found a well-kept, yet seemingly deserted, market town. We pedalled onto the high street hoping to find a place to stay, but there was no one to ask. At last we approached a kebab shop frequented by 3 people. Without much hope we asked for help and, as it turned out, it was our lucky day. One of the guys knew the owner of a small B&B opposite. He rang the owner, who had a room and returned within 10 minutes with the keys.
He took us up to a simply awesome apartment (complete with oodles of proper coffee) and offered it to us at a very reasonable rate. We nearly bit his hand off, even more so when he informed us of just how lucky we had been. Being July the town was completely booked out and he would not have had a room had it not been for a rare cancellation earlier that day. Maybe next year I will think about booking ahead… but where would the fun in that be!
After a very quick scrub up we wandered through the dark to the harbour. If possible, even more idyllic then the one we had just passed through at Vordingborg, here we were fjord-side beneath the stars. Prior to this I hadn’t even realised Denmark had Fjords! We sank into some extortionately expensive beers (I knew this country had to have its downside) at a harbour side pub thinly populated with good looking middle-aged blond people, an ’80’s rock cover band (how predictable) and some disturbing cartoons in the gents…

We woke up relatively early on the final day of our annual cycle (that is early for me and Dave, but a touch on the late side for Uwe). Around 90 km and a night out in Copenhagen awaited. After a ridiculously good breakfast and some interesting chats with the owner about his time working in the kitchen of the Dorchester, we were on our coffee fuelled way.
Our morning ride out was fantastic, along the Fjord and then hugging a rugged coastal path. I had loads of energy and sprinted ahead, stopping to admire the Baltic views. Heading straight for the town and port of Køge, our path transformed into a proper road and we put our heads down into full peleton, powering all the way to the outskirts. By the time we had arrived that initial energy had well and truly passed and I couldn’t wait to get my face into a pastry (or as it happened three!). We followed up this face stuffing with a cold beer in the market square. As we took in the surroundings it was noticeable how the people had become better looking as we had made northerly ground.
From Køge to the capital is only 40 km on a fast road which runs a stone’s throw from the beach. As time was on our side we veered inland in search of a final stretch of countryside. Our discovery of a pretty village or two and a windmill was countered by the onset of rain and an Uwe puncture. We were soon back on the cycle path which attached to the main road making fast headway to the capital.

At a pit-stop in between WWI era battlements and the sea, I was outvoted on the idea of a dip into the Baltic. Living in Rostock, Uwe saw no excitement In a Baltic dip and Dave was just being a wimp about the cold. Saying that Dave probably had a point as it was pretty miserable and I guess that was why I didn’t just go it alone, consoling myself that my first hand encounter with the Baltic would be only postponed to the Swedish leg of the route.
We continued North on the road, but in all truth it was rather a dull commuter artery. This prompted one final detour across and onto the sandbanks which run along the coast parallel to Copenhagen’s southern edge. This proved to be a nice bit of riding past sail boats, over narrow dykes and under high dunes. Unfortunately our journey was drawing to an end. Via an underpass, the coast was soon replaced by ugly outer city roads.

Having a population of circa 2 million (if you count the metropolitan area), I should have expected Copenhagen to be quite large, but the size surprised me. It took quite some time to reach the historic centre, passing from the industrial ugly outer part, through steadily increasing density and, frankly, attractiveness. By the time we were peddling down the high alleys of the streets approaching the Rådhuspladsen, the focal square of the city, we were in a positively bouncing mood.
Cycling through a city at the end of a cycle trip is an elevated feeling. You are in your own little bubble. For you it is the goal of a few days on the road. A sense of fulfilment at what is behind and excitement at the celebrations to come. I find I take in every detail, savouring every last turn and sight. A real juxtaposition against those every day inhabitants you pass for whom, at that same moment, the streets hold no wonder.
A final patch past the imposing Rådhus (city hall), we weaved in between the throngs of the Rådhuspladsen while Uwe did a strange Lycra bike jig to the Andean Indian pan pipe man. A few lost turns in the old back streets later, we arrived at the little square which housed our hostel and, well wouldn’t you know, a bar.

Laying our bikes against a tree we grabbed an outside table at the bar, parked our bums and ordered celebratory beers. 365 km pedalled in 3 days. Smiles on our faces and feeling good. Before we knew it were discussing the next trip (France… Sweden… Spain…?), briefly interrupted by a sincerely peculiar over weight man seemingly sniffing our bikes for a good couple of minutes.

As the sun went down, we gave the Lycra a good slap, sunk our beers and embarked on a night of unexpected destinations…

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