You wake up around 3 o’clock at night to the sound of your fellow rider chocking. Within a few short seconds you realize that the sounds emanating from the other side of the room are actually very prominently the sounds of a cyclist snoring. There are risks to touring with a group of guys you don’t know all too well and they are all more than worth it.
The whole adventure, later to be named The Vicious Circle, started with an email in which a friend asked if you’re interested in an off-road tour around the city. A full loop he promised, with almost no paved roads what so ever. It nearly sounded too good to be true which is why you immediately expressed interest and secured a spot. As is often in life, things got hectic, travel was involved and you almost forgot about it, until the email with the GPS tracks and the road sheet arrived. The plan was a 4 day ride, each day ending in a different corner of the surrounding land: east, north, south and then west. On paper it looked sublime.
The tour started on Thursday morning, not too early and not too late, in a small town just south of Berlin. Both groups, the Berlin crew and the Leipzig crew, met at the train station and after a quick round of introductions and a coffee you were on the way. 18.5 kilometer later, while riding on a nice forest road just south of Potsdam, a tree branch decided to jump into the rear triangle of the Hunter taking with him the derailleur hanger and breaking a spoke in the middle. Making hardware-related decisions on the trail is never a good sign, but the crew put on their thinking caps, turned a few screwed and within 15 minutes Hunter was turned into a single speed off-road touring machine. This helped releasing the crew from their desire to leave no man behind and you ride to the train station, head straight to the local bike shop, change the broken spoke, replace the derailleur hanger and ride out to the overnight location planned for day 1. Someone once said “yes we can” and he was right.
The next three days are spent enjoying the great outdoors in the lovely state of Brandenburg – the German state that surrounds the capital. You ride on nicely packed gravel roads, single tracks, forest dirt, military plates that are probably there since the days our country was split into two, thick sea sand that’s nearly impassable, a few proper cycling paths and probably a few more paved roads than were planned. You are often tempted by the silence in the woods and tend to let the group plow ahead while you hang back, taking pictures and trust that at some point a cafe or country-side bakery will stop the pace of the team. This system never fails.
The tour manages to find the most exciting and interesting non-roads in the backyard of the capital. The whole crew is elated as you realize, on day three, that somehow you managed to climb 1,000 meters in an area that’s well known for his flatness while also discovering beautiful lakes and fall foliage. Each accommodations are an improvement on the previous night which turns the whole adventure into almost luxury touring, but that just means that the crew is more energetic the next day and is rolling with gusto onto the next track. By day 4 discussions about the next tour, planned for next year, are already underway and as you roll into the same train station the tour started off, you feel a sense of nostalgia before you even dismount the bike. Such tours, with minimal yet epic mechanical failures (two derailleur!), with a solid crew, with enough time for snacks and photography, a rag-tag collection of off-road steel rigs (and one aluminum bike), and beautiful nature are after all exactly why we ride.
My riding mate Sven identified a German-made bike-bag vendor called Shugga. The picture above is from Shugga.
Fun facts from their website are (yes, I translated from German):
Now, I already own all three bags from other vendors, but if you’re in Germany or anywhere in Europe and is looking for a Made in the EU, look no further. Also, let me know how these work out for you.
German is an awesome language: you can make as many new nouns as you will by compounding nouns and names together. The above noun is made out of the name of the area (Saxony), Rad which means wheel and also, in Californian, radical, and Abenteuer which is adventure, in German. So there you have it. Three days in the wild side of the deep east came and went, but the level of excitement and stokeness remains.
It all started with Neil of Cedar Cycling announcing his intention to visit Berlin and to go on a bike tour. Neil also reminded me that he has been choosing motorcycle over his beautiful Kelly Bedford which meant that my need for distance had to be curtailed. I planned a 550 km tour along the border with the Czech Republic from Dresden to a city in Bavaria called Passau which I figured we could easily accomplish in 4.5 days of riding. We had no hotel bookings, no real daily targets and a very small amount of gear with us. We called this hobo-touring as we limited our gear to whatever could be inserted into a Revelate half-frame bag, a seat bag, and jersey pockets.
The train from Berlin to Dresden takes a total of 2 hours. If you get the right train you can take your bike with you without needing to box it up (the difference between using the ICE and the IC trains – the E stands for express). We got out of the train station in Dresden and headed to the first part of the tour – an old German post road which I discovered while trolling around Wikipedia for routes of historical significance. This was roughly the only part of the tour which followed any sort of plans. We were out of the city and quickly into the hills surrounding Dresden in a matter of 30 minutes and from there the environment changed quickly to rural farmland with narrow roads and many hills.
We tried to stick to the post road as much as we could, but probably did not adhere to the route too religiously. There were simply too many interesting things to see and as soon as the environment changed to lush green we stopped caring about the destination and enjoyed the scene, stopped to take pictures and when possible get some coffee or ice cream. It was hot and somewhat humid so finding water sources was also high on the agenda as well as sparing Neil’s legs for the rest of the tour.
We did notice, when riding through some of the little towns, that the houses that looked the oldest had windows that looked creepishly like eyes. One of these houses even stood outside of an impressive looking castle and looked more menacing then the actual castle that was towering over it. This little village was also when we decided to head into a village that appeared, at least on the map, to sit on the edge of a large lake. We constantly were in a state of not knowing how far the next target was, but Garmin actually was pretty good at telling the distance once we figured out where we were heading.
By the time we made it to Bad Gottleube it was already 17:00. We sat down for a coffee and decided to check out the Bed and Breakfast in the tiny town. They had a two-room, joined shower, combo which was going to cost each of us 30 Euro for the night with breakfast and Internet – we decided that this was the correct place to park ourselves. We took the keys to the rooms and decided to ride up to the top of Augustusberg which towered at 507 meters (1663 feet) above the village. We figured that there would be a hotel there with a terrace and a dinner menu and indeed we were not disappointed.
It became clear that the tour is not destination driven, but rather sights oriented. So the next day, having found a local map that showed the sights, we circled some targets and decided to head out towards the very east corner of Saxony and catch as many of the attractions as we could. The area is called “Saxony-Switerland” and not for nothing. With the Elbe river running deep between strange geological structures, plenty of rainfall and sparse population, we felt as if we were touring a far away land.
As the second day progressed and the realization that we are not headed to our original target cemented itself, I felt more relaxed and was able to enjoy the sights. Both Neil and myself stopped on our tracks when we finished a climb, turned a curve in the road, and saw the majestic and incredibly weird Königstein fortress. This was really the moment where we sat down on a bench, took the incredible view in and were excited. We also discovered 4 leftover homemade pickles we picked up at a tiny village supermarket (they came in plastic bags and were homemade) and snacked in full view of the fortress. Pictures were taken and the ride continued in a northern direction towards the river Elbe.
We followed the river for a short while, took a ferry across and disappeared into the forest again. I had an idea of where we were heading, but no idea on the actual route to get there. At some point the bike path split into gravel and road and we made the natural decision to follow the gravel path, which quickly turned into a forest path. Garmin protested and insisted on making a U-Turn, but we ignored. To my amusement, if we ignored Garmin long enough, it eventually decided to take us on the best and least explored roads through the forests. This occasion, where we accidentally ended up in the National Forest of Saxony-Switzerland, was so packed with surprises, that we tried the trick as often as possible.
As we were rolling at a good speed in the forest, we took another corner and we both pulled on our brakes at the same time. In the distance we saw a collection of huge rocks that appeared to have sprouted from the forest. We rode closer and I went exploring while Neil explored the forest. The stones were at least 2-300 meters tall and appeared to just be stuck in place in the middle of the forest. They all bore exotic names like Goldstein (Gold stone), Affesteine (Monkeys stones) etc. I was amazed that we even got to where we are since it was certainly unplanned and not clearly shown on the map we now had. Not only did the landscape looked wild we also had amazing descends in the forest and eventually arrived to the end of the forest.
Right before leaving the forest, Neil, who was riding my Adventure-touring Hunter broke the rear-deraileur cable. We tried to bring it back into functioning mode for a while, but miserably failed. Instead we swapped shoes and I rode Hunter, as a single speed bike locked on 22 teeth in the front and 12 on the back, while Neil took my Seven Mudxium S. We made it into a tiny village called Hinterhermsdorf which looked like it was the east most point on the map and found a small hotel to stay.
The third day started with a single speed ride to Sebnitz, a town slightly to the north west of our hotel, where we found Egert, a bike mechanic, that could fix the cable. 7.5 Euro and 30 minutes later we were ready to hit the road again. This time we wanted to head west towards a mountain-top fortress called Hohnstein and then ride down to the Elbe before heading back to Dresden to jump the train back to Berlin. We climbed and climbed and again decided to take the other roads than the ones Garmin originally planned for us. This time each of the decisions were more and more rad. Ways that somehow existed in the Garmin map but clearly were not used in years and years. We did not care, in fact we were grateful to find all these routes and pretty much just looked for more all the time. We had sections that were covered in clay-like stones and sections that were clearly formed by river run-offs and ones that probably last saw any wheels when Germany was still split into two countries. The last section was probably the most exciting and challenging and included many boulders. While I managed to hop around most, one boulder did manage to jump at me at the end and succeeded in taking a huge bite out of my front rim.
This was the end of the getting rad fun. I could hear the rim deform and could see the spoke loosen. While I could still ride, with a very wobbly front wheel, we knew that we could not put a lot of distance on the wheel. The loose spoke started banging on the TRP Spyre caliper, but lasted nicely until we got back to the Elbe river, took the train back to Dresden and then got on the train to Berlin.
Distance-wise this was a day’s riding. But as Neil correctly pointed out, we had all our stuff with us, we moved from one point to the next, we had no idea where we’re sleeping the next night and we got to discover an incredible landscape that’s only 2 hours train ride from home. I consider the tour amazing as well as a preparatory tour for the next adventure in Saxon. Great things are coming and they’re closer than you think.
The third day started rather early as to leave enough time for a big breakfast, bike check, loads of stretching and general checkup on the pains accumulated over the last few days. Bike and rider checked ok and breakfast was fantastic. We spoke about leaving earlier the night before, but somehow the message did not trickle down to every member of the group so we lingered and chatted until the rest were ready. A few minutes before 9:00 we took off.
The first part of the ride was actually backtracking on the hills of the night before. That part of course was new to Karsten, Sven and myself since we took the road. Having ridden that sandy descent during the morning light I thanked every god in the atheist handbook for the smart move of the previous night. It was not fun during the day and was probably a hell of a lot less fun at night, especially without lights. Mental note: get lights.
The fields through which we rode were covered in morning mist and looked dreamy. Within minutes the knee pain returned and the tendons were screaming. I asked the group to continue and slowly fought my way through the forest. I knew that we were south west of Berlin and was rather confused by the fact that the track started south and not north, but as by now was clear, the point was not to get from A to B, but to ride in nice tracks…or tracks that did not exist just yet. When I arrived to a strange hilly portion of the forest I realized that the track seemed to go through the trees, all neatly and more importantly densely planted. The combination of the various aches and the growing realization that this day, possibly the shortest one, was not going to be a walk in the park, or a ride in around the lake, planted a new thought in my head: do I want to finish this ride and then not ride for weeks and weeks recovering, or should I find a way out.
Lucky for me, our singlespeed mountain biker came up behind me and helped the decision process. As a veteran of long rides (the fellow did London-Edinborough-London a few times) he said “take the road, find a train, get off your heels.” I decided to take his advise.
I rode to the next small town to find a train station that looked rather deserted. I decided to continue north on the excellent cycling path and take it easy. At the next town I stopped and checked the train again and decided that instead of waiting for a train that will bring me to another train station where I will have to switch trains again, I might as well finish riding all the way to Potsdam, where the trains go to Berlin.
At the end of the day, I still rode 70km with a barely working right knee and massive pains in the Achilles Tendons. I did not finish the ride as it was planned, but in terms of distance ridden I was on the same mark.
From what intel I collected from the team post-ride it seems that pretty much every person had some mechanical issues starting from flat tires and ending in busted pretty much every thing. Ralf, the organizer, actually busted his derailleur and ended up rigging his bike for single speed in the last 10 km. That’s dedication for you!
It was first and foremost an epic adventure. The second day, with its mix of river crossing, forest riding, castles and dikes was truly the pinnacle of tour. The accommodations, organized by Ralf, were fantastically practical, welcoming, affordable and well placed. The group, even those whom I only saw at dinner or breakfast was great – tough breed or tri-atheleths, Randonneurs, folks who rode the Grenzsteintrophy more than once and managed to also keep a family of 4 children happy. And here I was, a newbie in comparison, spitting blood and hanging for dear life. Did I have fun? HELL YEH. Would I do it again? HELL YEH.
The next time should be easier…right?
Waking up in a rather nice hotel in the middle of nowhere in Germany and knowing that the day will end in another similar location and not at home really gave credence to the fact that this was a mini-tour. We met for breakfast, wolfed down magnificent amount of cheese, eggs and coffee, did a quick bike check and headed out. Today, the direction was south.
For some truly unknown reason, the path first headed north and then backtracked in the correct direction – south. Before long I was in the forest by myself again. A small group at the front was riding at UCI-approved speeds and I decided that enjoying the ride was a lot more interesting then making it to the next hotel early. The same team made it to the hotel at 17:00 the night before and preceded to drink beers until the rest of the riders finally assembled which was around 20:00. Those 2.5 hours of drinking are certainly appealing for some, but I rather spend the time in the forest, on the gravel and outdoors.
Soon enough I noted that I was riding behind Karsten who was ripping the trails on a very yellow Brodie mountain bike. I figured that two steel horses are better than one so we teamed up and rode together. The route alternated again between open fields and forests and was, for me, more exciting than the previous day.
Pretty quickly after we started riding, the tour took us into the next state – Saxon-Anhalt. Here we followed the river Elbe, one of the major rivers of central Europe, in the direction to its origin. We somehow missed a turn which meant that when we got to a place in the GPS track that showed us backing up and riding 15km along a dike. We decided to skip this potential exciting part and continue forward. The GPS track showed that the road would eventually join the original track so we were happy to continue on the same road for a few clicks.
About one kilometer after we made this fine decision we reached the end of the road. Here, in order to continue, one had to board a ferry and cross the Elbe. Lucky for us the ferry was waiting just there and as soon as we rode onto it, it took off and crossed the river. Later we were told that not everyone was so lucky – one of the groups actually had to wait for an hour for the ferry.
There were really no further excitements for a while. One of the nice things about following an important river in central Europe is seeing the old castles and fortresses that were setup to guard the trade routes. The Elbe also has a nice bike path that accompany the river which provides a more comfortable view and a little rest from the gravel. It also meant that taking pictures from the back of the bike was possible.
We made it to a village called Jerichow after 5 hours of riding, knowing that we have about 80 kilometer more to ride so we decided to stop for a coffee and a quick bite. As we were sitting outside enjoying the french press coffee and salad/cakes combination we spotted Sven who was rolling by and flagged him down. He joined us for a coffee and stayed in our group until the end of the day.
As we were leaving the village restaurant in Jerichow, we ran into another group that was behind us. Of course we assumed that we were always the last ones in the pack, but this sudden manifestation confirmed that we were not riding tail. We exchanged a few words but since we were done and then were just starting, we said goodbye and continued.
Not an hour later, while riding in a nice gravel path in a forest, the same group came up behind us and from three we were now seven.
We stayed together for a while until we stopped to explore something and the others continued. Riding in our little pack of three was great as we took turns conversing, pointing out to interesting scenes and coming up with new curses when the sand arrived. Sven often had to fix his chain, which liked to jump out every now and then and we always waited patiently a little ahead.
At 17:00 we stopped again and waited for Sven who came up a few minutes behind and showed us his Shimano 105 derailleur. The cage facing the wheel was gone and he was riding with exposed pulleys! No wonder that the chain did not stay, but this could potentially be a much bigger problem since the pulleys did not give the impression that they would stay where they were for much longer. Lucky for Sven, Karsten had some screw-nuts which helped Sven secure his pulleys and hope for the best. We still had some distance to go and with nighttime getting near, the risk of loosing a derailleur in the middle of nowhere and having to ride at night with no lights, we figured that we should be taking for the road. And so we did.
At this point in the ride certain body parts were hurting pretty badly. For some of us that meant the seat bones and for yours truly a strange new pain developed in the right knee. Now, Hunter has been setup as it is for a long while and I have ridden it on many occasions for long distances (like the Camino Norte), so this made no sense. My Achilles Tendon started hurting as well so I was rather happy to be taking the road. In the last hour of the ride I was pretty much riding with my left leg only which exacerbated the pains in the left Achilles Tendon. Boy were we happy to make it to the hotel, having ridden 175 km with a moving time of 8 hours and a total ride time of 11.5 hours. Later on when the next group arrived, riding in the dark through nasty sand, we were very pleased to have made that decision to ride on the road. Sometimes the practical way is the best way.
Anyone that knows me also knows that I have a slight problem with bikes and bags. While the bike addiction might be under control these days, meaning that I’m stoked on my current steeds and just want to ride them and not build new ones, the bag addiction is far from gone. My off-road touring monster, Hunter, is very capable of taking front and back panniers. But when riding off road or completely not on any roads, I find that panniers tend to get in the way. So I was looking for alternatives and came up with the setup displayed above.
From the backend of the bike to the front you have the following:
It’s really not cheap or easy to get some of these bags in Europe. Shipping Revelate from their home in Alaska to Germany will take a lot of time, will include high cost of postage and possibly will involve the friendly customs people. BikePack makes frame bags – both custom and standard which could work well (I have no personal experience there) – this could be considered a good alternative. Other than this, feel free to let me know what other European alternatives you know of.
Have fun out there.
The TransBrandenburg starts tomorrow. Three Etape, three days, two overnighters, 450km around one of the least populated states in Germany and loads of nature. Hunter, in Zombie Apocalypse-mode and yours truly are ready…well at least Hunter is ready.
Often, especially on beautiful spring days when conference calls are piling and the window is slightly open, I get envious of people who find a way to turn their life into something that is completely supported and centered around riding bikes. People like John Prolly, the nice couple of The Path Less Pedaled and the lovely Bicycle blog come to mind. It seems like the best life style one can have – wake up, ride, eat, write, develop photos, eat, sleep, repeat. Being immersed in not just the Internet side of biking, but also in actually riding bikes, touring, exploring, seems like an ideal way to spend life.
When I’m riding the perspective is different. A weekday ride is always a quick breath of fresh air and time to think about work and life. Weekend rides are like meditation. They allow me to clear my head and to increase the endorphins. A mountain-bike ride on single trails is a great way to forget about everything, to listen to your brain scream “focus! don’t flinch!”. A tour is the best way to get to know any part of the planet – it’s an adventure in slow motion if you consider bungee jumping or white water rafting. In essence these cycling activities are a way to balance every day life. They counter the hustle of ever day life: they mostly involve a small and dedicated group all focused on the same goal; they happen outside and not in an office or on a computer; they are physical; and often, the best adventures, are those that are unplanned, the “look at this path, where is it heading” kinds, the “what can possibly go wrong” decisions and the “from here to there are so many kilometers, lets see when we get there.”
The bike needs the office and the office needs the bike. They balance each other and make life round and complete.
Life, just like a bike, requires a rider who can balance.
We cheer with whiskey glasses at a cafe next to the famous church. We somehow picked up an Australian pilgrim along the way and are all smiles, pats on the back, and high fives. The Camino Del Norte is completed. Sadness creeps in and a succession of thoughts fires through my brain “we should have taken more random path.” “we should have taken it slower.” “What can we ride tomorrow”. After 688 km of full-loaded touring in one of Europe’s most beautiful regions and I’m obsessing over the next ride. What’s wrong with this boy?
But this is really when it hits me – this was an amazing experience, exceeding 10-fold any expectation I had of my first tour and I’d very much like to do another tour, as soon as possible, post-haste.
In September 2013 I came across a Salsa blog post from Kelly Mac about “Bikepacking the Camino Santiago.” The blog entry started a chain reaction that culminated in the most fan adventure I have yet to experience on two wheels. The Camino Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a pilgrim path that starts in various places around Europe and ends in the capital of Galicia – Santiago de Compostela. Initially when reading about the history of the camino, and considering the possible religious implications, I was turned off by the idea to join the pilgrims. But after some consultations I realized that:
These are pretty compelling arguments. They spell out comfort and ease which were important aspects in being able to materialize the tour. The tour was going to happen between one project and the next, so keeping preparations to minimal was essential.
I identified one friend who was keen on doing the ride and needed to get away as badly as I did. We did one planning session in which we decided to ride the Camino Del Norte simply because it went along the ocean, seemed more challenging, and, based on all written material, had significantly less travelers. We also decided to fly on a certain date, and due to another commitment, I had a very definitive date on which I needed to be back home. How did we decide on when the trip will start? Based on airline ticket price of course. How did we decide on where we will stay each night and how many kilometers we had to ride every day? We did not. We knew where we land, where is Santiago, and where the path was. We found a GPS map of the path from Bilbao to Santiago which showed 666.66 km of riding. We figure that we can do that in a week without stressing too much, we added a few buffer days for good measure and booked airline tickets.
The weeks leading up to the tour were exciting. The bike (my Hunter) had to be rebuilt, racks had to be found, mudguards, panniers, packing list had to be created, tires procured. At no time did we actually concern ourselves with planning the tour itself. Instead, we invested all our energy in making sure that the bikes were ready for the task. We continued with our usual long distance riding every weekend and in the last weekend before heading to Spain, while riding east of Berlin on the way to Poland, we even found the first sign of the path.
The yellow shell with the blue background was going to be our tour guide through the whole adventure.
The feeling of rolling out of an airport on a bike instead of in a taxi or a rental was the real indication that this is something entirely new. It was a rush of freedom and power that even to this seasoned traveler was a first. As soon as I left the terminal, panniers hanging on the rack, water bottles filled in the terminal’s bathroom, I ran into two German Pilgrims that were on their way back. They were excited to meet a fellow German and had nothing but amazing stories about the tour. That was encouraging. I departed the airport and rode into Bilbao.
We ended up using a simply guideline while riding: wake up between 7 and 8. Wait for the sun to come out (which was around 8:45), hit he road around 9. We would then ride until lunch time which in Spain is a very distinct time: 12:00-14:00. We painfully learned that if we miss this window of opportunity, we can not expect to have food prepared for us until dinner time, which often, even in the smallest village in Spain, starts at 21:00. So we always looked for a place to feed for lunch and then continued riding until it was around 18:00. At that point we typically looked for a place to stay for the night. We stayed at youth hostels (9 Euro a night with breakfast!), we stayed at hotels (the most expensive one being 40 Euro for the whole room), we stayed at Albergues which are pilgrim hostels. All stays were great, comfortable and easy to organize. Once we found a place to stay for the night we would explore the village or town, often on our bikes (with the panniers waiting at the hotel/hostel). We would then find a place to eat dinner, have a drink, and pass out.
The eat-ride-eat-ride-eat/drink-sleep-repeat routine brought us to Santiago 6 days after we left Bilbao. Without any planning, we ended up riding the following etape (stages):
We met people along the way, but not too many. All folks we met had great stories, were often older than us and were happy to educate us on the history, location and geography. We climbed every day around 1,400 cumulative meters and were relieved that we only had rain on two days. When it did rain, it was great to have disk brakes that really worked to depend on. Using liberal amounts of Chamois Creme we did not suffer any seat sores and being off-season meant that prices were more than affordable. The food was fantastic and the wine and cider plenty. What more could one ask for for the first tour?