24 March, 2016

Trails and Canals [Berlin Bicycle Week #2]

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Before we left Sven’s house in the morning, he gave us two pieces of advice. The first was to stock up before we left Hannover, because we’d have problems finding supplies once we were beyond the city limits. That turned out to be mostly untrue, as we passed numerous grocery and convenience stores along the way. The second piece of advice, however, was invaluable; he suggested we follow the Mittelland Canal. We looked at a map and, sure enough, the canal runs through Hannover and nearly all the way to Berlin. This was great news, because now we didn’t have to put any thought into navigating. Stay on the canal, and we would always be on track. So Sven made us a map from his house down to the canal and we were on our way.

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The Mittelland Canal stretches over 300 kilometers and is the longest artificial waterway in Germany. And as canals tend to be, largely free of elevation change (except for when we had to cross over bridges to the opposite side.) The towpath we started out on was pretty much dirt double-track that turned to gravel every now and again.  Some of it was really great riding. Other parts… not so much.

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We encountered one section in particular that disintegrated into a rocky, jagged path that made for a pretty jarring ride. Thankfully, it was a brief affair, and we were back onto a relatively smooth trail before too long. Then there was another section that was more or less a giant gutter, and I took a spill on some wet leaves but managed to stay out of the canal (almost every time I ride with Will I have a difficult time keeping the rubber side down).

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For lunch, we departed the trail and rode into the town of Peine for some baked goods and coffee. Not exactly the barren field or ghost town we had expected, but then again, we hadn’t yet crossed into the former GDR.

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A funny thing happened after we got back on the canal after Peine: the sun came out. All of a sudden, we were in good moods and, were it not for my increasingly worsening knee pain, I think we could have covered a pretty substantial distance…

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Well, maybe not. There were actually a few other factors working against us. Firstly, the further along we progressed, the more headwind we encountered—the steep embankments on either side of the canal gradually diminished to small mounds that did little to provide a wind break. Then there was the string of consecutive flat tires on Will’s fatbike, all caused by the same branch that neither of us had noticed until he was pulling quarter-inch thorns out of his tires.

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He replaced the rear inner tube, only to have it go flat on him again—pinched on the rim during installation. So that one got a patch, and we were good… for a while. The front tube had a slow leak as well. It was deflation city.

We decided that we’d head into the next town and try to find a bike shop for some new tubes, but Calberlah only had a gas station and a café, and we had only a couple hours of daylight left. So while Will worked on his bike issues, I grabbed some coffee and slices of cake. Whether it was the craving for carbs and sugar or not, that cake was damn delicious.

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We’d have liked to have made it to Wolfsburg, just another 8 kilometers from the town we were in, but we decided to make camp while it was still light out and so we picked up some beers, rode to our campsite, and called it a night. At this rate, there was no way we’d make it to Berlin by Thursday, but we’d see how far we could go before we needed to take the train again.

- Bicyclist Abroad

 

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22 March, 2016

Finding Düsseldorf [Berlin Bicycle Week #1]

DSCF3139_Fotor169The plan was hatched at a friend’s house over a couple beers— why don’t we just ride from here to Berlin Bicycle Week?  We could leave on a Sunday and make it there by Thursday if we kept a fairly quick pace. 650 kilometers over five days: riding, camping, and a then a huge bicycle expo. Why not?

Well, due to school finals and other reasons, that plan was then revised to include rail travel, cutting down the overall distance and allowing a more relaxed pace on the sections we were to ride. Even more time to camp and drink beers! We would meet up in Düsseldorf and then take the train to Hannover, where we would continue on towards Berlin. It was a solid plan.

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Because we wanted to spend some time on dirt and gravel roads, I decided to use my 1990-something Dean Colonel as a touring rig with a hybrid pannier/handlebar roll setup. A drybag around the seatpost was a last-minute addition, but actually seemed to work out pretty well. Not an evenly-distributed load by any means, but it’s all I’ve got to work with at the moment.

By Google Maps’ estimation, 3.5 hours in the saddle was all that it would take to get from my house to the meeting point of Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. So I set out with the assumption that I would be there a little under that time, as Google tends to be pretty generous with their cycling trip estimations, at least in my experience.

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I rode along the Dutch side of the border for as long as I could, taking advantage of the cycle paths and abundant signage. The weather was cool but sunny, making for a pretty great start to the journey. I didn’t have, or think I needed, any sort of navigation beyond a compass and the maps provided on the waypoints. That was a mistake.

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Dipping down into Germany, it became clear that long-distance navigation is not what the waypoint system is intended for. At any given waypoint, the map will only show you the town you are currently in and the two or three surrounding it. Whether that town will take you to where you’re headed is up to you—a larger regional map  is necessary to make that call, and I did not have one for this leg of the journey.

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The other factor slowing me down as I made my way through German farmland was an unrelenting headwind. A set of fully loaded panniers only added to the misery of mashing pedals to a soundtrack of hissing wind. We joked later on that, at least it let us know we were headed in the right direction.

In town, it became difficult to place which roads went where, so I stopped to ask on a couple occasions. The meet-up time came and went, and I was nowhere near Düsseldorf at this point. Finally, I found a gas station that sold maps and picked up one for the region I was in. Was I still that far away? I had one more town to pass through before hitting the western bank of the Rhine, and then it was over the river to the train station where my friend was already waiting, passing the time by watching the bums pick through trashcans.

When I finally did arrive, it was nearly 6pm-- a full four hours later than planned and eight hours since I had left the house. Having done zero training rides prior to this, I was feeling pretty beat, and my knees were screaming. As it turns out, I hadn’t fully tightened the seat collar after adjusting the bike’s saddle height, and it had been slowly sliding down the whole time. Another terrible mistake which would cost me a lot of pain for the rest of the journey.

By now, it was getting dark and we had no place to stay. Had we met up at 2 o’clock and taken the very next train to Hannover, we’d have time to find camp while it was still light out, but that option was now pretty much behind us. We checked out a couple hostels in town, but they were either booked or too expensive, so we figured we’d get on the train anyway and figure it out when we got there. So we bought our tickets and got on board the bicycle car of the train, only to meet another traveler named Sven.

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Sven is a German university student just returning from a multiple-month bike tour of his own. He asked us where we were headed, and we told him Berlin via Hannover. Then he asked us if we had a place to stay in Hannover, offering his back yard for us to camp in. We jumped on that offer! Then we spent the rest of the train ride talking about bikes, travel, and Sven’s adventures in Australia.

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When we got to Hannover we followed him through the dark, cutting through German suburban neighborhoods and wooded paths to his house where he then offered to let us sleep on his living room floor, another offer we didn’t think twice about. I took a shower, inflated my sleeping mat, and climbed into my sleeping bag, halfway amazed that we had run into such luck. (If you ever read this, Sven, thanks again for your hospitality.)

- Bicyclist Abroad

 

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29 February, 2016

Warming the Saddle

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Rural winter rides are special—everything is quiet, the air is crisp with the passing scent of chimney smoke, and you hardly see anyone but the couple out walking their dog or another cyclist who has discovered the charm of a chilly mid-winter ride themselves. This is especially true on a German Sunday when der Ruhetag, or day of rest, is strictly upheld.

It was on one such Sunday that I went for a long overdue ride; the Mrs. entertained our two month old at home and I got to put my pedals in motion after what felt like forever. It was a welcome, familiar feeling, but I could soon tell that I was not in the same shape as I had been. What felt like under-inflated tires was in fact, a pair of legs that had metamorphosed into two sticks of cold butter.

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Nevertheless I was happy to be “at it” again, and especially happy to have the flat Niederrhein under my wheels. I took the Colonel into the Netherlands, off the road for a bit, through the woods and back out again, getting a little bit lost and then seeing a sign or landmark that cleared up my whereabouts. I’m not certain you could get seriously lost in any part of the Netherlands, even if you wanted to. The cycling network is so robust that even if you are kilometers from the nearest waypoint, you’re never more than a few meters from a marker that points you towards one. Only the most austere, overgrown woodlands are bereft of signage, but in those cases, you’re probably in a protected wildlife refuge and not supposed to be there in the first place.

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One amusing sight along the way was a Dutch bike hoisted high atop a pole on someone’s house. Was this a weathervane? Or maybe it was a whimsical piece of art. Maybe someone got sick of someone else parking their bike in the wrong spot. Either way, I’m certain it holds the world record for the bicycle most struck by lightning.

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After a couple hours, the sun went down and the rain picked up, so I pointed my fork towards home. There is nothing quite like a bicycle ride when you really need one; it resets something inside of you and clears your mind. I came back to the Mrs. and the little one a little wet, a little cold, but feeling great.

 

- Bicyclist Abroad

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