Wonderful it is to feel the kilometres roll away beneath you once again. The nomad that I am never tires of that feeling. But what are those wheels like? They are certainly not the high-tech touring machines that require the sale of one of your children to purchase these days, with all manner of bells and whistles and whatnot. We had bought them second hand in Berlin a year and a half earlier. Hers is a tank of a thing: a bomb-proof steel frame powered by a three-speed internal hub. The catch is that the third gear is pretty much useless, since the ratios are too high. And the whole drive mechanism is shot. A patch up or two has not removed the crunking sound on every revolution.
Mine is an ancient Pegasus, with the grand claim of 18 gears that shifted smoothly many decades ago, a loose headset that I constantly hand tighten, and a seat that hints at comfort only to abuse one’s arse after about 50 km.
Yet they are all we need. They cover almost any terrain, barely notice punishment and can carry unspeakably large loads. Today they carry us on long loping runs through the biospheres and along what they call ‘deichs’ in these parts. Yes, dykes: initially I think they are levee banks along the side of the river. But soon enough I realise we are entering the extensive river flats and wetlands that soon enough become the Spreewald. Here one enters a region of lakes, swamps, canals, dykes and pumps. Here one encounters that topsy-turvy moment, when the water in the canal is higher than the land around about it; or indeed, that of two parallel bodies of water, one considerably higher than the other.
Up on the dyke, to get into one those kilometre-eating rhythms for a couple of hours, with the wind on your shoulder, is one of the great pleasures in life. Of course, the precursor to that run is inevitably a tough grind into the teeth of the wind while we are running low on fuel. So it is as we ride north from the working town of Cottbus and towards Peitz, skirting the lakes that supply the power station near town. Once at Peitz, we stagger into a bäckerei in the heart of the old town. The proprietor, a laughing woman who enjoys reviving exhausted riders, promptly carries out some chairs and brings out a steady stream of coffee and pastry, heavy with butter and sugar and flour. Thoroughly recharged, we set off gleefully, on a late afternoon burst, feeling as though our charges are unburdened machines made of the lightest carbon fibre.
We find ourselves drawn to towns such as Cottbus and Peitz, for they are industrial working towns, having been so for quite some time. Cottbus has been described as a ‘DDR hole’, retaining many of the features of that era. That it had to be largely rebuilt after the Second World War, with many of the buildings having that functionality and simplicity of form characteristic of DDR times, probably helps. Yet there is also a structure of feeling about both places that is different from other parts. Perhaps it is the shops, still small ones specialising in but one item – bras or curtains or poles or bags or toe ticklers – rather than the supermarkets the Americans introduced to Western Europe after the war. Perhaps it is the tough resilience, in an east that has felt the punishing roughness of capitalism for more than two decades. Perhaps it is the fact that DDR was constructed for precisely the inhabitants of Cottbus and Peitz and other working towns.