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 Schwarzwaldhochstra├če, 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.

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