After a peaceful night of gentle swaying on the boat I met fellow cyclists whilst disembarking - however, they were all at the end of their respective trips! Off we went (Scott and I, that is) and it didn't take long to give up on the pre prepared maps and start following the cycle route signs.
|Tranquil riding on the way to Rotterdam|
6 miles in, and puncture number one arrived! I rode over a bump and the back tyre pinched. Now, I can do most things with bikes, but tyres and punctures are my nemesis! The Gatorskin tyres are also not very forgiving and I immediately snapped a tyre lever. Confidence was low at this point and the situation became worse as navigation became more difficult - I kept bumping into dead ends and water - the signs were less than intuitive. How could I make it to Istanbul if I couldn't manage the easy bit!
Nothing was open so I kept going for hours without stopping - luckily the facilities for cyclists proved an exciting novelty to cheer me up (see video)
I asked for directions constantly and caught up with a nice chap called Bart who was cycling to the same town as me to see his Father. I asked if I could ride with him - the company and chat helped me get out of my early frustration - many thanks to Bart. We rode slowly into a constant headwind - one I would start to get used to!
|People - Clockwise from top left - Reggie, Bart and Morgan|
I was nervous - I had never before travelled on my own not knowing where I was going to stay - a new challenge. After asking tens of people I finally honed in on a campsite in a lovely town called Oisterwijk. The reception was closed but a local pointed me into the bar where I met Reggie, the owner. I desperately needed a celebratory beer and after explaining my story Reggie decided I needed fuel and brought out his special spicy fries with sweet mayo. Reggie is a chef and owns two places in Oisterwijk - when the rain started to fall I decided not to go into town, which proved to be the best decision all day. I had Reggie's three course meal - a trio of fish to start, and succulent juicy pork for main. There was so much I couldn't even manage a dessert. It was the best meal I've had so far! Thanks Reggie.
Heinsberg was another pretty little town. No campsites and I ended up in a small room at the back of the local Council Offices where you can find the tourist information. Anita helped me find somewhere to stay just out of town and recommended a cycle route down the Rur river for the next day.
I stayed in a simple, clean apartment just out of Heinsberg, which was perfect for my needs. The owner, David Stolz, recommended his parents' bar for dinner and drinks. I had gone over budget so I had some of the cous cous I had packed, went for a trip around the old town and came back for a beer at the Stolz's. We ended up having a great chat and Herr Stolz recommended the brown coal mines as the best thing to see on the way to the Rhein. I ended up trying the local spirit. Thanks to the Stolz family for a great evening.
|Local spirit and the Stolz family parents|
To put a dampener on the evening someone stole my lights - in a village of what must have been less than 500 residents! This put me on edge and when I returned to the apartment a group of men had moved in. Only one of them would reply to me when I said "Guten Abend" and I instantly didn't trust the group - they were obviously not German though so maybe they just didn't understand. Luckily, with internet available, chats with Eliza and Dad cheered me up although I could hardly string a sentence together I was so tired.
|Off piste areas. Maybe I should have chosen chunkier tyres! Top left clockwise: Cycle path towards the German border, Scott looking at the brown coal mines from the Sophienhöhe & the Rur river.|
Although I was really looking forward to the simplicity of following the Rur cycle path it was slow, winding and had very differing surface qualities - my tyres were not really suitable.
After a brief stop I found myself at the Sophienhöhe, one of the lookout points for the brown coal mines. Now Höhe means 'height' in German - and apparently it is the is the largest artificial hill worldwide created by surface mining - oh dear me! It was the first real steepness I had encountered and we struggled - Scott was laden and my gearing was not as forgiving as I had hoped. I was expecting to be thrown back by the scale of the scarring we humans can cause to the Earth but it seemed somewhat normal.
|Pictures of the Rhein|
Disaster struck between Euskirchen and Rheinbach. I swore at the confusing cycle path signs that took me on to another stony walking route, I was behind schedule and all I needed was a puncture! Carefully trying to remove the difficult tyres I was mentally telling myself "don't break the tyre levers" - snap - and to add to that when I finally managed to replace the tube with one I had patched up from day 1 it hadn't worked - double tube replacement with one intact tyre lever, my lowest ebb so far. Luckily a friendly local on a bike stopped and commented he was impressed that I had the facilities to fix a puncture with me and I got a chance to explain my story - a welcome distraction.
Rheinbach only served to damage my confidence further - eyebrows were raised when I explained my proposed destination in a Cafe. I thought I had found a bridge on Google maps but it was a ferry. New destination Mehlem.
After a considerable mental struggle rolling downhill to the edge of the Rhein in the glowing red dusk light provided a euphoric feeling. I set up quickly and dashed back to the side of the water for a sunset picnic - we had overcome some challenges today.
There was another cyclist in the campsite next to me. I had noticed that their brakes were the English style - front brake right, rear brake left. Morgan turned out to be an Irish chap, but his bike was built in the States - so much for my theory that the positioning of the brake levers had anything to do with the drive side of the country. He had completed 15,000 miles on his sensational Surly bike; traversing the States alone and with his son, and in this latest trip starting in France on to a comprehensive tour of Germany, where he is now looking to settle down. We talked at length, until around 1am, about cycling, politics, technical ideas, London - just the sort of experience I was looking for on the trip. He also kindly furnished me with some of his tyre levers just in case and explained he hadn't had a puncture in years! - many thanks to Morgan. Luckily I haven't had to use the levers yet!
On day 5, rain and Rhein was the order of the day. A simple and flat riverside path - very enjoyable until I reached my coffee stop in Koblenz and realised all my "waterproof" stuff really wasn't so! Particularly the phone case - I panicked and quickly switched the phone off to dry out. With no access to my electronic maps I pushed on keeping the Rhein on my left flowing against me and crossed on a Ferry at Bingen - exciting for me, mundane for locals! I stopped to refuel at a Doner Laden - raised eyebrows again as the lady in the shop explained she thought it was another 50km to Wiesbaden when I thought it would be 20!
Luckily, I turned out to be right and after picking up a paper map at the train station I found my way to Bastian's apartment and arrived exactly on time - phew! His poor girlfriend Karin got a soaking wet, smelly hug from me as I entered the flat. The first section was complete and I was treated to a nice warm cup of Earl Grey!!