Saturday, July 13, 2013

Bike Trip 2012: We Didn't Even Take Photos

Our final day before the trip dedicated itself to the Tour de France started as the others had: sunny. We ate amongst other residents who were picking through aging ham, curling at the corners and trying to spread breeze blocks of butter on soggy croissants. The food reflected the hotel; it had seen better days. Jaded from the previous night, we got on the road, this time to Bastogne in southern Belgium.

Despite the hotel, I enjoyed Heidelberg. It’s a beautiful city, even our hotel had a great view of the river, the old bridge and surrounding tree clad hills. The city has fantastic Germanic architecture, giving it an old look which juxtaposes an easy going and international feel. It is definitely worth visiting, though nowhere is ever perfect and the hotel was over-priced for what, in reality, a poor place to stay. The evening before, we had wandered into the city centre and found an abundance bars and restaurants, tables outside crowded exclusively with the young and beautiful of central Germany and beyond. There were plenty of Americans, most of whom I’m sure were from the local US military bases or the local university. 

We found a rather gothic looking bar, where suits of armour stood under their shields and spears hanging uselessly on the walls above. The gorgeous waitress-of-the-week served us beer while we chose from the menu, and more with both our starter and main course. After our meal we had a wander round the town as the dusk melted slowly to night, but ended up returning to the same place for more beer and a pizza. We were hungry. It was a great night in a fabulous city, though did nothing for our alertness the next day.

After filling with petrol at Speyer, we loafed across to Neustadt and the B39 to Kaiserlautern, which looked on the map like it would be fantastic. We were overtaken by a couple on his and hers Kawasakis, judging by the evidence of their subsequent overtakes they were en route to the culmination of their suicide pact. Mind you, at least they made progress, as Saturday morning traffic was heavy, speed limits were severe and abundant and it was hot. It was Friday all over again. Progress was the same as the previous day, so we stopped in a lay-by opposite a German Army barracks and dejectedly discussed what we already knew we would do.

The autobahn was quieter than the day before and progress was easy, though accompanied by the regret of giving up on a route which had looked brilliant on the map. Ahead of us on the north-western horizon, dark clouds threatened, but we remained dry skirting round Trier and heading north to Bitberg, where things started to go wrong. A road closure greeted us when we entered Luxembourg and the Garmin directed us the only way it knew how; along the tightest, narrowest, worst surfaced roads it could find. Drizzle added a menacing glaze to the bumpy roads and my morale plummeted with the temperature. The only high point highlight was the ride across the slick cobbles of the beautiful town of Vianden, which certainly looks to be worth a visit, though what hair poked from behind numerous tourist cameras was universally grey, so maybe it’’s a bit boring. Not long after leaving the town we found the relief of a major road and in no time were rumbling sullenly through Ettelbrück, where the fun began.

Europeans revel in their cultural differences and many of us refuse to see any similarities, but it was obvious as we left Ettlbrück that anyone driving an old, dark green Seat Leon is a twat, wherever they’re from. So close was the car behind me, I could see the spots on the driver’s pasty face, and he was obviously desperate to get past me as I assiduously stuck to the 50kph speed limit. I was in third gear as we left town and, as the acned idiot went to overtake, blasted away with all the power my really quite powerful bike had. We didn’t see him again. Crossing into Belgium where there was a brief exchange of overtakes with another idiot in a Mercedes, before riding past the old US Army tank on the main square in Bastogne. 

Our hotel was the best of the week, in stark contrast to the town, which is a bit like Wisbech but with hills, trees and people speaking French instead of Polish. Whilst it was a bit depressed we had the sort of interaction one rarely gets in a tourist hotspot. Wandering around we had seen an agricultural looking hen party, and later encountered the corresponding stag. They spoke to us in French but soon realised our stupidity and switched to perfect English. It seems that there is a Belgian tradition where the group sell forfeits the stag fulfills to help pay for their evening. My activity was to throw large pieces of chalk at the poor bloke, who was dressed up as the country’s Prime Minister, and hit him in the eye after he removed his joke glasses. Ian’s task was to pluck nasal hairs using a pair of tweezers. Now if that wasn’t a good way of spending €10, nothing is.

I always enjoy the trip and this was no different, I look back with fondness, but harbour a nagging feeling we missed opportunities. In retrospect we should have one done one of two things; eaten and drunk better or been less ambitious distances. The weather didn’t help, but I’d rather suffer in the heat than crawl in the rain. 

As I write this, my dining room floor is covered in kit in various states of packing, preparation for this year’s trip following the Tour de France in the Alps. We’ll see what this year brings.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bike Trip 2012 - Black Forest Meltdown

There are some iconic roads which every motorcyclist should ride before he is sent flying headlong into the side of the bus which should never have been there in the first place. The Stelvio pass would be one, Galibier another, and there are plenty more, including Germany’s B500, otherwise known as the Schwarzwaldhochstraße, the Black Forest High Road; the intended destination for the next and longest day of our little bike ride.

I’d woken to the sound of silence: beautiful rural silence, broken initially only by the clanging of the church bell, followed by the padding of runners jogging past the open hotel window. Then some twat opened up with a chainsaw and it was time to get out of bed. Though it was cool when we left the hotel in Andermatt, the weather forecast was backed up by deep blue sky. The road towards Lucerne is a continuation of the Furkapass, some of it elevated on bridges, but it still winds itself down the hill, into a tight gorge, where deep shade makes the near perfect Tarmac cool. After a while we found ourselves below the motorway which had cut through the Alps via the Gotthard Tunnel to the south. I’ve tried a back road trip across central Switzerland before, and it was one of the most tedious days I’ve spent on a bike, so we joined the major road and headed north.

With long sweeping bends and light traffic the motorway wasn’t too bad. As is often the case in mountainous areas, the road was littered with tunnels and entering each of them was an exhilarating experience. The air circulated around the mouth of these tunnels in such a way that, entering each was an exhilarating experience: as we approached there were a few yards of silent, still air, before we’d be sucked into into the darkness, catapulted along for a while, before returning to normality half way through. It was great fun and not something I have experienced before.

We blasted across Switzerland, leaving tranquility and cool mountain air behind us. Como had seen us at the furthest point of the trip, but leaving hadn’t felt like we area heading home, now however, with the mountains in our mirrors, we really were heading to normality. We crossed into Germany and stopped for petrol somewhere around Lorrach, just by a poster advertising a Mike and the Mechanics concert, after which the route was a bit of a mystery. I was sure there was a by-pass of some sort, but couldn’t find it, so we ended up riding through the middle of villages and housing estates, before finally finding the dark, tree lined roads of the southern Black Forest. But all was not as we had hoped. Roads only became truly quiet passing through deserted ski resorts, but as soon as we descended, villages with their accompanying traffic and speed limits, slowed our progress to a roasting tedium. It seemed to take ages to get nowhere, which was not good on what was always planned as the longest day of the trip. It was hot and frustrating. A feeling only exacerbated when I managed to get us lost near Freudenstadt, which very nearly resulted in me being T-boned by an attractive middle-aged Frau in a 3 Series BMW. This area which had promised so much was delivering very little, so we had a bottle of water, a Snickers and a conference at a petrol station. Just where the road reaches its curvy, bendy roller coaster best towards Baden-Baden, we lost patience and headed directly north to Pforzheim to join the Autobahn. A look at the map shows just how poor a decision this was, but our broiled brains were informed by sweat blurred vision and that’s what we did.

We’d expected fast and highly disciplined cruising on the autobahn. No such thing. Traffic was heavy, with huge and sudden variations in speed; cars were overtaking and undertaking all around us and there was a general air of aggression. That was until we ground to a standstill near Karlsruhe where mile upon mile of stationary traffic stretched before us. Filtering is hard enough, but was made even more arduous by the weather and the sweat soaking our leathers. This was not what he had signed up for.

Ahead I noticed an old BMW GS which, I realized was on its last legs even without the considerable weight of its hefty rider compressing the aged springs. It was stopped with the cars and lorries, making me wonder whether filtering was legal in Germany, precipitating visions of hard faced Polizei dragging us way at gun point, leaving our bikes on the side of the road to the mercy of some spotty Deutsche-yob, wearing a luminous green tee-shirt with capped sleeves and a matt black VW Golf. I waved as we passed, only to see the old Beemer fly up the hard shoulder a minute later. Then we passed him again, stuck in traffic, only for the whole thing to be repeated. And again. The next time we passed, he paralleled us for a while before shouting, “Vair are you going.” I had Stereophonics playing at the time, so had to lip read him, but worked out he was asking us to follow him. Fuck it, I thought, I’m sick of this traffic, why not. We stopped near the top of a slip road and had a quick chat. He was about 40, his considerable proportions stretching battered old winter biking clothes. He lifted the front of his scarred flip-up helmet to reveal a ginger beard covering his swollen, florid and sweaty complexion, probably reflecting mine. I have no idea what he said, partly because it’s nearly a year ago and partly because of the noise of traffic and doubts creeping through my head, but I turned off my sat nav and put my trust in this apparently benevolent stranger.

The moment we sped off my inner compass was telling me were going the wrong way. I knew the map, I knew vaguely where we were and which way we should have been going and this was wrong. I kept the faith for about though, and after about 25 minutes we turned into  a McDonald’s car park, “He’s going for his fucking dinner, the fat bastard,” I cursed into my helmet. Instead of queueing at the Drive-Through he turned round and began barking directions at us. I didn’t really hear what he was saying, but recognised some place names and him asking if I understood, which I didn’t, but said I did, before watching our leader bugger off into the Friday afternoon traffic. I was pleased the lights had changed before we could follow him, otherwise he would have seen that I hadn’t a clue which direction he’d told us to go. Waiting for the lights I spotted our German friend watching us from across the junction as I desperately glanced at road signs for guidance. I scanned the road layout, checked the signs and slowly the thickly accented words I had struggled to hear became clear and we were on our way.

Twenty minutes later we were riding through Heidelberg, the Neckar river to our left, beautiful buildings to our right. We stopped in the wrong place and gawped at a group of beautiful students gathering for a posh night out: I think some of them were blokes. We bumped the wrong way along a cobbled one-way street, back onto the main road before finding the hotel which was situated above a foul smelling Chinese restaurant. 

The stairs and corridor to our room had the feel of a disused barrack block; brown lino floors, high ceilings, a profound echo and the smell of dust. Our room was large, white walls giving an airy kind of feel, despite the oppressive heat only slightly mitigated by throwing open the huge windows. There was a rickety white wardrobe, a distinct lack of bedside lights or tables and the bare floorboards had seen better cleaner days. Our creaky, steel framed beds were too high and topped with sheets which were once white. We threw our sweaty kit hither and thither and sat, exhausted wearing nothing but underpants, shaking our heads and occasionally swearing to no one in particular. It had been a long day which promised so much, but delivered nothing, traffic and the stifling weather had made it something else, more a challenge than a pleasure, not fun until it was over. Not only that, but our nutritional chickens had come home to roost, we hadn’t eaten a proper lunch for days and were both dehydrated. So we solved that problem in the only way a British man knows how: with beer.