The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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