Heat, Dreams and Solitude

Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the solitude. Or perhaps a combination of the two, but they seemed to provide me with many friends – friends in thoughts (or were they dreams?) and even in person.

Heat

Long had I been wanting to ride again from Newcastle to Canberra, some 500 kilometres. Down the coast I would go, then through Sydney and the southern highlands into the high plains and sheep farms of the Monaro Plateau.

A week offered itself, albeit a week in February, in the midst of a long and hot summer. I’ll be fine, I thought. After all, I have ridden often in hot weather. Up to 35 degrees is fine. Somewhat warm, a little discomfort, but not too much. Occasionally, one can manage a few degrees above that mark. Drink more water, rest frequently … I knew the drill.

I was simply not prepared for what was to come. The numbers: over seven days the maximum temperatures on the bicycle were 41, 33, 38, 48, 39, 40, 41. Yes, the average was 40 degrees, with the highest a staggering 48!

Needless to say, such heat can wear you down, no matter how much water you drink and how much shade you seek. Maximum distances per day decrease – at least in theory – and heat exhaustion is a risk and a reality. As I was to find.

Thoughts … or Dreams

When your legs go throughs thousands upon thousands of revolutions on the pedals, when you are on your own doing so, and when the heat is relentless, day after day, thoughts tumble and surprise you … or are they dreams? How can my brain store so much random information? How in the world did that thought get triggered? Let me give a random sample.

Example 1: When I tire, I argue with imaginary and real opponents, manifestations of the ever-changing beast on my shoulder. And I tired more often than usual on this ride. Sixty kilometres in the heat seemed to be my limit, beyond which I hit my ‘wall’. On three of the days I did indeed hit my ‘wall’, with some force. After that moment, one cannot think much, for one is focused entirely on getting through the revolutions of the pedals. The time before is another matter.

With whom did I argue?

Well, when you have been a job for a decade or so, you build long-lasting common ground with some and you find equally long-lasting lack of common ground with others. My preferred approach is to have nothing to do with the latter. A preferred approach … but hardly practicable. I prefer to forget and move on. Others prefer to hold grudges for many a long year, waiting for their moment.

Add to all this the turmoil of a wholesale restructure that made all and sundry profoundly anxious about the ensuing chaos and you have a situation ripe for the re-emergence of gripes, the origin of which had been half-forgotten in the passage of time.

So, I imagined scenarios, enacted confrontations, wondered whether my new bosses understood my idiosyncratic way of operating – or as some point out, my tendency to ‘go rogue’.

Only after the ride did my wiser half ask whether the real question is whether I need to move on, to say farewell to one job and develop another. Good question. It went right to point and identified exactly what I had been seeking for a year or two, but without being able to name it.

Being on a ride away from a place is obviously symbolic at so many levels …

Example 2: A decade is long time. Almost ten years ago I rode these roads, but in the opposite direction, from Melbourne to Newcastle. With each push of the pedal, I was saying farewell to a well-nigh forgotten phase of my life.

Back then it was another time and another departure. Then, I was on an old red tourer that did not like the loads I put on it. It thought of itself as a racehorse and I treated it like a workhorse. Now I was on a true workhorse, a Surly Long-Haul Trucker that enjoyed as much as you could load on it. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. But it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better – although I occasionally give into the temptation to bust myself even these days.

Example 3: The mysterious Lake George, a place for thoughts and dreams. Mysterious? The lake has no streams that feed into it, so the water that appears from time to time is somewhat of a puzzle. Some suggest it relies on the trans-continental aquifer for its water supply, while other suggest it has something to do with the alignment of the planets. Others have more hare-brained ideas. I prefer not to speculate, but to enjoy it as it is – with or without water. The latter is often the case … which makes one wonder why it is called a ‘lake’.

Out of Goulburn and onto the Federal Highway (which would take me to Canberra at last), the lake gave me a tailwind. For 50 kilometres along its edge I ran, using the big chain-ring on the front. But I was not so interested in skipping by the lake too quickly. Often I found an excuse to stop, for a drink of water, a feed or a piss. I lingered, looking out over the flat land, the low hills on the lake’s edge, the big sky with its few clouds towering above. A kangaroo stood under a solitary tree, seeking shade from the heat. It looked out over the lake flats, until it saw me and bounded away. Like the kangaroo, my smallness was palpable, completely lost to the rest of the world. I turned my phone off, so that no trace of my passing would be noticed. The only way to find me was by the primitive mode of sight.

Solitude … of Sorts

My only companion for most of the ride was myself. Usually, I am good company, able to keep up a lively conversation with myself. But one cannot avoid other human beings … from time to time.

At first, it was a woman or two, albeit of my own demographic. Two women sat at a café in Ourimbah on the second day. I had stopped for a rare coffee and ‘sausage’ roll. They were obviously not of these parts, having come up from the southern metropolis for the day to scope out the area. One was amazed that I was riding to Canberra, fascinated that I should be getting back on the bicycle to pedal further.

Down the road at Marulan (between Moss Vale and Goulburn), I stopped for a lunch of sardines, baby spinach and bread rolls. Before long, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her automobile and began reminiscing about the rides of her youth. She had moved to these parts anticipating a high-speed rail connection. Of course, in Australia with its woeful politics, such projects are promised from time to time during election campaigns, only to disappear in the too-hard-too-expensive basket afterwards. She had been waiting for 30 years.

More often I encountered ‘grey nomads’, old fogeys trying to make the most of retirement before the various ‘medical conditions’ took their toll. At the wonderful Campers’ Kitchen at Moss Vale, when I was still recovering from heat exhaustion, a couple laid out a tablecloth, carefully cooked a meal and sat down to eat. We talked, of journeys taken and journeys planned, of places visited and places in one’s dreams.

At Goulburn, a couple of old men arrived late, well after I had pitched the tent, eaten and had a couple of beers. Each drove his own car, each was obviously keen to get on the road, and each was intrigued by my simple gear and bicycle. Who knows: were they old mates seeking to live a dream that might soon escape them? Did they imagine other ways to travel apart from the comfort and ease of their vehicles?

As for me, I wondered why more and old fogeys found they could talk with me. Was it because I too was on the threshold of that phase of life? If so, I would continue to pedal, albeit a little more slowly and for more modest distances.

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Share bicycles and cultures

Why do share bicycles work in China but not in Australia?

I have witnessed them first in China and then in Australia, but I have been struck by how differently they are perceived and (ab)used. Let me tell the story of share bicycles first, before returning to what is really a cultural question.

A couple of years ago I returned to Beijing to find the city festooned with millions of share bicycles. The idea: by using one of the universal payment platforms on your mobile phone (this too was another relatively recent phenomenon), you could unlock a bicycle wherever you found it, pay a small fee, ride a shorter or longer distance, and then leave it locked again for the next rider. Favoured locations were metro stations, shops, schools and so on, but they really covered wherever people needed to go. It did not matter which company produced the bikes or which of the two major payment platforms you used – Alipay or Wechatpay – for the process was incredibly simple.

Initially, a range of start-ups offered bicycles, but soon enough it boiled down to two or three: the ubiquitous yellow bicycles by ‘Ofo’ and the orange and silver ones by ‘Mobike’. While Ofo went for cheaply produced bicycles on a massive scale, Mobike took more time, designing a robust bicycle that is nearly indestructible and of course more expensive to make. Given that Mobikes are more reliable, they have become the bicycle of choice wherever possible.

The idea itself is not so old: a thought bubble by Hu Weiwei – now president of Mobike – in 2014 led to plans for developing the scheme. Apart from the usual questions for a new company, the project assumed a technological and logistical level not found elsewhere in the world at the time. Technologically, the simple yet universal payment scheme, using QR codes, had to be developed and fine-tuned first (Tencent and Alibaba had already done so). Logistically, the ability to produce and distribute millions of bicycles in the largest country in the world required a whole new level of logistics, if not future-grade infrastructure.

However, technology and logistics is only part of the story, and a relatively minor one at that. The real reason they work in China is cultural.

A few examples.

1. If a share bicycle is damaged in some way – a broken seat, a buckled wheel, a malfunctioning brake – you simply take a photograph with your smartphone and send it to the Wechat account of the company in question. Soon enough, the bicycle will be picked up and repaired (since its location can be identified by GPS).

2. If you find a row of bicycles parked in a designated area at the end of your ride, you park the bicycle in the same area. In this way, they remain organised and avoid the clutter that comes from simply dumping them. And if someone is there to ensure the bicycles are indeed so organised, you listen to what they say.

3. Since you would like to find a bicycle in working order when you need it, you leave the bicycle you have used in such a state for the next person. It certainly does not mean that you throw it into a river, damage it, or try to toss it onto a roof. Someone else’s benefit is also your benefit.

Now to Australia. More recently, a couple of share bicycle companies have attempted to establish a foothold there. I assume this is the case in other countries, but I have not as yet been in other places to witness the process.

The story could not be more different. Again, a few examples.

1. A share bicycle is left in someone’s ‘private’ front yard. For days and then weeks, the bicycle remains there, until the person in question calls the local government to have it removed.

2. A number of share bicycles are retrieved by maintenance people form the Yarra River in Melbourne. People had thought it would be ‘fun’ to toss such bicycles – which cost much more than the rental fee – into the river.

3. Piles of damaged and mutilated bicycles began appearing around the major cities. People seem to think it is perfectly fine to destroy the bicycles in question after using them and then create an ‘artwork’ of bicycles in a similar state.

4. Local governments (councils) begin measures to control the ‘messy appearance’ of share bicycles scattered through their jurisdictions. The councils tell the companies that they need to ‘manage’ the bicycles, whether tossed in rivers, thrown over traffic signs, or mutilated and piled high. It is, of course, the fault of the companies and not of the wilful individuals who use them.

What is going on here?

It seems to me that a place like Australia lacks an overall sense of the common good. Compare it to graffiti or vandalism of ‘public property’, whether trains, buses or public buildings. To be sure, the share bikes are not quite the same, since companies offer them. But there is a strong dimension of the ‘public’ or the ‘common’ about them. So they become targets for vandalism and destruction. Above all, there is little – if any – sense that someone else might benefit from your care for the bicycle: ‘I will do with it what I please and to hell with the rest of you. I might even take a picture and put it on Instagram’.

The contrast with a place like China could not be sharper. Despite all the things you might read about a selfish generation or two, the over-riding sense remains one of the need to think and act in light of what is good for all, rather than what is good for me. This reality has as much to do with the ‘benevolent humanism’ of Chinese tradition, in which the world is basically a good place in which to be, and the socialist tradition, in which the collective is primary – so much so that the individual is defined through the collective.

A final note: lest I risk idealising the Chinese approach to the share economy (which also works in other places), let me point out that share bicycles have had their teething problems. The initial clutter of bicycles around hubs was a problem – think of a sudden influx of millions upon millions of them in major cities. And the quality of some the first ones produced left much to be desired. But these problems were not seen as insurmountable, not a reason to dispense with the whole approach in light of some myth of individualism. Instead, they required practical solutions to make the system work better.

The Heat Exhaustion Ride

The difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke seems marginal. Both are caused by the body’s inability to cool itself. Internal moisture becomes scarce, sweating stops, and the body temperature starts to rise. The signs: dehydration, lack of sweat, faintness and dizziness, red skin, exhaustion, vomiting and diarrhoea, leading to muscle cramps and potential collapse. The last few are more typical of heat stroke. What is the difference between the two? Heat exhaustion entails a rise in body temperature between 37 and 40 degrees, while heat stroke is above 40 degrees. More importantly, heat stroke requires immediate hospitalisation, since it is life threatening.

Why was I interested in such matters? Over a week in February, in the midst of a long, hot summer, I had set out on my bicycle for a week’s ride, from Newcastle to Canberra – some 500 kilometres. Loaded with a tent, some clothes and food, I was keen to get away.

I had checked the forecasts before departure and they seemed bearable enough. Somewhere around 30 degrees – no worries, I thought, forgetting that such measurements apply to the shade, not to long periods in the direct sun. On a bicycle over a long day, anything below 35 degrees is endurable. Drink enough, rest when needed, and you are fine.

Alas, only one day was in this comfort zone, at 33 degrees. The rest were well above, pushing into the high 30s and low 40s. And one day would simply blow away any previous record, rising almost to 50 degrees and taking me into a zone I had never experienced before.

A Gentle Beginning

The ride began gently enough. On the first day, I aimed for a coastal camping spot slightly less than 50 kilometres from home – at Munmorah.

Suburban streets, a rail trail for some 20 kilometres, some hills and I would be done. Perhaps as a forewarning, the temperature on the bicycle peaked at 40 degrees. The only relief was a stiff headwind – so stiff that it produced whitecaps on the usually tranquil Lake Macquarie to my right. By the time I arrived at Munmorah, after 47 kilometres, I felt as though I had ridden double that distance.

The next day – from Munmorah to Narara (to see my mother) – was genuinely gentle. I have camped at Munmorah National Park on quite a few occasions over the last few years. Each time I am told I should pay the ranger in the morning. Strangely, the ranger has never appeared before my departure. Of course, I would fully undertake to pay aforesaid ranger should she or he make an appearance. But the ranger in question seems to be somewhat mythical … or perhaps it is due to my preference for leaving before 8 am.

A gentle ride it indeed was. A little over 50 kilometres, along bicycle paths that skirt Budgewoi Lake. No stress, a mild 33 degrees, a twist and turn and I was at my destination.

Into the Mountains

The route for the next day I knew well: the old road from Gosford to Sydney, long ago abandoned by traffic that now prefers the freeway. It had been a while since I had tackled this old route, although my memory always focuses on the three long and winding climbs through rugged bush. Tough climbs. In between – or so my memory tells me – are relatively flat sections, giving me time to catch my breath for the next assault. Memory really is an untrustworthy faculty: the parts in between rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall … sapping your energy before you realise.

I was to feel their effect after cresting the second tough climb, up from Moonie Moonie Creek to the top of Mount White. Thus far I felt as though I had paced myself well, climbing with some reserve, enjoying the old bends and the sounds and smells of the bush. This would have been a good place to stop, replenish liquids and energy sources, rest a while and then ride on. But no, I had my mind set on a stop further along, after the relative ‘flat’ section through the Mount White area and then down to the Hawkesbury River. The sun bore down at 38 degrees, the relentless rises and falls wore me down, moisture was scarce and my energy was soon gone. By the time I descended to the Hawkesbury I was spent – with one massive climb to go.

A pile of soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches disappeared in no time, tasting like a veritable feast. Litres of water followed, from the local rainwater tank that one is not supposed to drink in these times. And a rest, so that my body could begin to replenish itself before the last effort.

By the time I finished the day at my resting place near Parramatta, I felt as though I had been pushed well past my comfort zone. The fitness gurus say that one can improve fitness only by extending oneself, by going beyond the limit. Today, I had been well and truly past that limit. Surely it would be easier from now on.

Through the ‘Desert’

Out of Parramatta is a marvellous piece of bicycle engineering – a veloway. Swinging west and then south, it runs some 40 kilometres to Casula, on the outskirts of southern Sydney.

Why call it a ‘veloway’? It is a purpose-built cycling freeway, following the route of the western orbital motorway (now mundanely called the ‘M7) that enables through traffic to bypass Sydney. The veloway was constructed as part of the larger project, using the latest designs and techniques for safe, dedicated cycling. More than a decade has passed since it was first unveiled and it remains one of the best examples of what Australian planners and engineers can do for cycling if they set their minds to it – not that they always do so.

Needless to say, I was much looking forward to it, with the thought that I would perhaps be the only ‘through cyclist’ for the day. To be sure, a good number use the route, whether for training runs or as a convenient means to get from A to B. But I was passing through, not wanting to dwell too long in any one place, always drawn to the road once more.

But the road so often changes without notice.

The morning may have been a glorious ride, largely on my own, along this stunning piece of bicycle engineering. But the afternoon was another story. With the veloway coming to an end, I paused for lunch. It had already become warm enough and I was feeling it. Nothing like what was to come.

I pedalled out onto the shoulder of the motorway. Normally, it takes me a while to become used to the noise of trucks and other traffic. This afternoon, I hardly noticed the trucks, for my attention was elsewhere.

The thermometer on my bicycle jumped to 48 degrees! Before lunch, it had registered 40 degrees already. Tough enough. But 48? I had never in my life experienced such heat. The wind felt like a massive blow dryer stuck on ‘super-hot’.

I began to notice that the animal carcases on the side of the road – inevitable sights on a bicycle in Australia – were merely skin and bone, if not bones alone. Usually, I encounter carcases in various states of slow decay, depending on how recently they had been unfortunate enough to encounter a vehicle. Not now. They looked as though some alien predator had sucked them all dry. I felt as though I was riding through a desert.

After 10 kilometres, I pulled over and drank a litre and a half of water. But I could not urinate. Was the lack of sweat normal, I wondered? Was the involuntary drip of moisture at the corner of my mouth just the result of exertion? Was the faint feeling and slowness of thought simply the result of extreme conditions? And was the deep weariness normal after four hard days on the road?

Within a few more kilometres, I came across a sign: ‘Cyclists prohibited on motorway due to roadwork. Please take a bypass’. Clarity of thought was needed, but clarity was hard to come by, let alone shade. I paused long on the side of the side, pondering my options in the sun. I had planned to camp towards the west, but was this a viable bypass route? Not really, it turned out, since the road – the old highway – wound its way through ‘Razorback’. Not what I felt like in weather like this. How about eastwards? This was closer to the railway line should I need it, or the other bypass through other mountains. Caution came to the forefront and I opted for a hotel a few kilometres back.

Upon entering the simple room, I cried out in relief. It was cool, the bed clean and inviting, the cold shower a blessing. I drank and drank and drank – water. Indeed, I had become aware of how much I was focused on water. I was constantly on the lookout for water, seeking to replenish my supply of four litres. Usually, this amount is more than enough, but on this ride I ran short time and again.

By the next morning, I realised I had a slight case of heat exhaustion. Not heat stroke, thankfully, although the ride as a whole turned out to have an average temperature of a ‘shade’ under 40 degrees – actual temperatures on the bicycle, out in the sun (minimum 33 and maximum 48). It took me until lunch time to feel as though I was once again hydrated to normal levels. And I realised I would not be riding much on that day. A short ride to the railway station saw me on a local train to Moss Vale and its camping area. Here at least the evening was cool, so much so I had to zip up my sleeping bag.

A Decade is a Long Time

A rest day is a mighty blessing. I have not always taken rest days, pushing on day after day. But of late I have come to appreciate a pause, to rest, eat, drink and rest. The day afterwards, one feels renewed.

So it was when I set out from Moss Vale, to ride 75 kilometres to Goulburn. I took my time through the hills, drinking plenty, managing now the relatively “cool” 38 degrees. And by now I was once again aware that the rhythmic working of one’s body enables the mind to run where it will, if not to completely unexpected corners of memory and bodily associations. The thoughts become one’s friends, especially when such a ride is a solitary experience.

Today I began to recall a ride of almost ten years ago when I rode these parts. Saying my last farewell to phase of my life that I have largely forgotten (for we forget what is unpleasant and traumatic). I was riding from Melbourne to Newcastle, with each pedal down a push away from that life. Obviously, I was riding the other way on that occasion, northwards, but moments recalled the earlier ride. The camping area slightly north of Goulburn had not changed so much. New owners perhaps, but the singing ants were still there, as well as the outdoor model railway – requiring daily maintenance. The old internet station too was there in the campers’ kitchen, requiring a coin for an incredibly slow connection. I had used it then, to check on email – which the next generation or two regards as very ‘traditional’. Now one can – in theory – access Wi-Fi throughout the campsite, to be used one’s ‘smart’ phone. I did not use it, since I am not into the incessant checking of social media, let alone email messages that people may want to send me since they know of my social media aversions.

All this is to frame the changes of a decade in terms of technology fetishism. Truth be told, the technology we now have is clunky and unreliable, geared to become obsolete by the time a year is out. The changes were more in terms of a life. Then, I was on an old red tourer that was not quite up to the loads I liked to put on it. I treated it like a workhorse, but it preferred to think of itself a racehorse. It popped two spokes on the ride. Now, I was on a true workhorse, a Surly long-haul trucker. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. Paradoxically, it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better.

So why am I planning almost 100 kilometres to Canberra tomorrow?

Dreaming of Food

I had longed for this day, for it was to take me along the mysterious Lake George.

Why mysterious? The lake has no feeder streams, relying purely on the continental aquifer than runs across the breadth of Australia. When the aquifer is saturated elsewhere, the lake fills up; when it dries out, the lake empties. As a child in Canberra, I recall the lake being full quite a bit. But for years, decades even, it has mostly been empty. Only once in recent years do I recall it being partly full. Is this because the aquifer has dried out somewhat of its own accord? Or is it due to the bottled water companies having unrestricted access?

After a few hills out of Goulburn, one turns onto the Federal Highway, the road to Canberra. A wide shoulder, few trucks and sweeping views of Lake George took me in for the next 50 kilometres. It helped that I had a mild tailwind, enabling me to use the big ring on the front and ride at a good clip. Often I paused to look out over the flat land, skirted by a few low hills.

The big sky towered above, giving me the sense of being in a vast expanse, lost to the rest of the world and its concerns. With my phone turned off, no trace of my passing could be detected by anyone – except by means of the old medium of sight.

Apart from the lake, my thoughts had begun to focus on food. I imagined what I would eat on arrival: fresh fruit piled high, cheese and tomato on toast, iced mineral water with limes, cold beers … on and on I dreamt. Why? Deciding to use up the last of my food stocks, I found that I had nothing more than two stale slices of bread and umpteen muesli bars. The bars are great energy packs, with quick release sugars and slow releases nuts. But they really function as a supplement to more substantial meals. By noon, I was thoroughly sick of the bars, even though I had no option but to keep eating them.

For the final run into Canberra I had to say farewell to the lake but not to the dreams of food. The dreams stayed even when the temperature climbed past 40 degrees – again – and when the long hills took their toll, leaving me exhausted and drained. Even then, the first thing I did in Canberra was stop to buy way more food than I could eat and drink. Only then did I pedal to my destination.

Mittelland Radfernweg, or D-Route 4: The Full Story

The plan: a long ride at least once a year. By long I mean at least 1000 kilometres on a bicycle.

The place: Europe, preferably Germany, with its long overland routes.

Over the last decade or more, I had enacted the plan intermittently. A long ride would be followed by an even longer gap. Sure, I ride daily, and at times I have ridden for a few days or even a week, along quiet tracks or through the mountains, camping on the way. But serious long rides had been too few.

Planning

What changed?

During a quiet summer month I found myself buying a Brompton fold-up bicycle. I seemed to be a symptom of a shift of which I was only dimly aware at the time. As one would expect with such a unique bicycle, it has its appealing quirks, all the way from loving my company to hating cobbles.

But it is a strong, strong bicycle. It stands up well to nearly all conditions, from muddy forest tracks to occasional busy roads. Its six gears are more than enough for steep climbs and breath-taking drops. And the limit of 10 kilograms front and back means that I ride light – as I prefer to do. So compact and simple is its fold – in 10 seconds – that I can take it on a bus or a train with no fuss. If I could do that, then why not on an aeroplane to Europe. I began to imagine what it would be like to ride such a bicycle across Europe.

The next moment – or so it seemed – I was in Liège/Luik in Belgium, the country with a split personality. The bicycle was a still somewhat of a mystery to me. How does one remove the front and rear wheels, with their idiosyncratic constructions, to change a tube or tyre? What is the best setting for quirky gears? How would it handle the mountain climbs, the rocky tracks, the long quiet forest paths or the city routes? I was to find the answers to these and many other questions as the ride unfolded.

I arrived before the route had been decided. A rough idea perhaps, but nothing firm. Until I found the Mittelland route, or D4 – from Aachen to Zittau, west to east. It would take me through places I had longed to see, through the middle of Germany along the Mittelgebirge. It seemed like my route, but I was yet to find out how much.

Eighteen days I would need for the ride and often I would be the only one on this route. Germans love their river routes, understandably, for they are not so hilly and the paths tend to be better formed. Occasionally I would join them for a couple of hours on a river run, but soon I longed for the mountains and forests and the route would take me there once again.

Riding

Liège to Aachen (Germany): 67 km.

But first I had to get to Aachen, the ancient seat of Charlemagne and where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned many hundreds of years ago. Leaving Liège, I was drawn to a well-signposted path that told me it would lead to Maastricht, where I had been many years ago in a different life. The path was all promise! Soon enough I was in the Walloon countryside: the signs faded and disappeared among the fields. I was lost. Frustrated and cursing, I aimed eastwards, in the direction of the Mass/Meuse river. Eventually, the river found me and I could pedal along its banks into The Netherlands. There, in the southern province of Limburg, I found bicycle paths everywhere, with maps at every intersection. Initially it felt like an immense relief from the haphazard approach in Wallonia, but I began to find it a little too easy – a little like a retirement village garden. I longed for more of a challenge.

Aachen to Heimbach: 65 km.

It would come soon enough, after this first day’s ride. Rain greeted me on departure from Aachen, and it would stay with me for the next three days. In itself, rain is not a problem. Wet weather gear sees to that, and the trees produce extra sap so the smells are wonderful. But add to this the German proclivity for running bicycle routes through forests and farmland. Often, the paths are paved radwege, glistening in the rain as you glide along. Equally often, they can become dirt tracks, through a farm or over a mountain pass. Mud and puddles soon appear and the bicycle has a distinct liking – even with mudguards – to gather as much of it as possible. At these moments, I gain the impression that my Brompton had a secret desire to be a mountain bike, given its love of mud and grit. So it was from Aachen to Heimbach, my next stop for the night. I was peddling through North-Rhine Westphalia, with some of it along the swollen Rur River, a tributary of the Rhine. Indeed, the weather over the summer had been unsettled, with much rain and flooding in parts. And with the rain came cold, so much so that at times my fingers tingled and threatened to become numb. After a day of rain, mud and cold, the sight of the Pension Dobrunz in Heimbach was heart-warming. A large dry room for which I paid very little welcomed me. As did the shower. Then I thought: why not give the bicycle a brief shower, washing away all the grit? I was to find that the bike did not appreciate my efforts so much – but only after a dinner that only the Germans in the countryside can produce. Vast, body-restoring, energy replenishing. On this kind of food I could ride a long way.

Heimbach to Bad Godesberg: 73 km.

In the morning my bicycle told me exactly how it felt about the previous evening’s wash: the chain had rusted up! It moved under protest, but I would really need to work much harder today unless I found oil. In a pattern that would stay with me for the ride, I found a shop down the road which happened to sell precisely what I wanted: good old-fashioned household oil. Soon enough the chain was glistening with oil once again. I would need it, since the rain and cold stayed with me for another day. Up mountain tracks in dripping forests, along rain-swept paths that marked the shift from forest to field, bumping over slippery cobbles in one village after another – for 73 km I pedalled my way from Heimbach on the Rur River to the outskirts of Bonn on the Rhine. With more than 200 km covered by now, I felt I was starting to settle into the ride somewhat. One reason was that I had managed to solve a curious German problem. While there are plenty of places to buy beer and baked goods, there are remarkably few toilets. But with their great emphasis on nature and the need to enjoy its simplicity, this problem was easily solved.

Towards the end of the day, another problem needed attention: my fingers were threatening to become numb from the cold! I needed a warm room and dry clothes, which became all the more desirable the longer it took to navigate the outskirts of Bonn. Turning a corner, I saw warm lights, glowing and urging me to enter: Hotel Adler in Bad Godesberg … But no, I had booked ahead to stay at the intriguing A&S Ferienwohnung up the street. Passable it was, but I realised that seeking an affordable bed in a city was not really the way to enjoy Germany. With the memory still fresh of the previous night at Pension Dobrunz, I resolved to seek out quiet villages.

Bad Godesberg to Niederhausen: 79 km.

Rain again for the fourth day’s ride … but now it seemed the norm, so much so that I would not be surprised if it would rain for the whole ride. Keen to get out of the city, I pedalled from the province of North Rhine-Westphalia into the Rhineland-Palatinate. But there was no let up on muddy tracks, swollen rivers (Rhine and Sieg) and flooding in parts – so much so that ducks were the only ones who could enjoy the bicycle path at certain points. In the meantime, I also found that my gears do not like oil all everywhere. The quirky shifter on the rear wheel simply clogs up with oil and refuses to move; I eventually learned to wipe it clean regularly and it responded gleefully with smooth shifts.

Like the bicycle, I too had my moment of glee: I had heard of a place called Landhaus im Kühlen Grunde, in a village simply named Niederhausen, a common enough name in Germany. Turning off the bicycle route for a few kilometres, I found myself on bumpy farm tracks, increasingly unsure of my direction. The Landhaus eventually appeared: 27 euro for the night, a large room, sumptuous food downstairs. To find it on a quiet country road after a long, long day in the rain was pure delight … as was the manager, Gisela.

Niederhausen to Lützel: 25 km (plus 50 km by train and 5 km walking)

I woke to blue skies with traces of cloud. The rain had passed, for now. I was – according to the map – to ride along the Sieg River for a while to the town of, yes, Siegen. But after only a few kilometres I was pulled up by a large sign: no safe route between here and the intriguingly named Niederschelderhütte. Given that main roads in Germany have no shoulders, bicycle paths prefer to stay off them. In this case – due to mountains and the ruggedness of the terrain – there seemed to be no viable alternative. Take the train, said the sign.

I will show them, I thought, so I set off into the hills, sweatily hauling my bicycle up a steep track into the forest. At the top of the climb, far from the main bicycle route, I found the same sign …. As if to say, ‘well, we knew you would try something like this, but it is really not the best route, so why don’t you give in and take the train for a while’. The Germans seem to have everything covered, or at least want to give the impression. So I took the train to Niederschelderhütte and rode into Siegen. There again, I faced a similar problem, so I opted to take the rail motor to Lützel, where I stayed at the small Pension Vogt – the only person there. But what to do about food? They did not serve an evening meal and the only place was out in the forest, more than 2 km away, I ended up walking about 5 km there and back for the sake of a meal. Total distance travelled: 80 km, but of this 25 km was ridden and 5 km walked. A rest day of sorts.

Lützel to Cölbe: 71 km.

Travel stories like to enhance the difficulties, making the day worthy of memory. But what of the days that run smoothly? Away early on a track well signposted, a bike enjoying the run, the sun shining, the forest completely absorbing, only villages along the way, accommodation easily found (and even upgraded), a meal and beers you can find only in the German countryside. So it was on the 71 km ride from Lützel to Cölbe (near Marburg). The signal of a good day was already there at breakfast: a whole table laid out – and I was the only guest!

The catch was that the ride went so well I began to push myself, as used to be my wont when my legs were slightly younger. I fooled myself a little with the thought that my old fire was back, forgetting the pleasure of a gentler, reflective pace that suited the bicycle and myself in these times. I was to pay the cost of this self-deception the following day.

Cölbe to Oberaula: 111 km.

Oberaula, now in the province of Hesse, was my destination for the day. I told myself that 80-85 km would be doable, assuming the clear signage and smooth passage of the day before. And so it began … until I arrived in the town of Neustadt: a dreaded sign told me that the route ahead was unusable due to major roadworks. What to do? The sign suggested a number of detours, each of which was somewhat of a puzzle. To make matters more intriguing, my online map was not working at this moment. I opted for a regional route detour, which seemed to be well-marked – the R2/R4. The result: a massive loop to the south.

By the time I felt as though I had ridden through all the villages in Hesse, I came upon a brand new D4 sign, except that it pointed in the opposite direction to the one I had been following. With a sigh I turned the bicycle around and set off, wondering how far I had to go. At the 86 km mark I found out: there was still 25 km to go! Late it was already and I had run out of water. It may not have been raining today, but there was plenty of mud on the track from previous flooding and over-full dams. Fortunately, the last 25 km followed a rail trail (an old railway line converted to a bicycle path). Drawing on my last reserves, I raced the setting sun, finally arriving at the Hotel zum Stern at 8.30pm. I laughed out loud in relief, staggered inside and refilled my empty stomach.

Next morning, I limped down to a late breakfast and my legs told me very clearly that I was not to be riding that day. After my burst of youthful vigour yesterday – 111 km on a fold-up bicycle – I realised on this morning that youth can be over-rated. A more sedate pace, a day of rest – these were more appropriate ways to enjoy a ride. So I relaxed, walked around town, washed the clothes I had been wearing for the last week, cleaned and maintained the bicycle and got some early sleep.

Oberaula to Dankmarshausen: 75 km; Dankmarshausen to Schwabhausen: 84 km.

Thuringia – on this day and the next I rode deep into the former DDR (East Germany). Initially, it required 75 km to Dankmarshausen and then another 84 km to Schwabhausen. Trouble-free on both days, with a bike now fine-tuned as I had become thoroughly familiar with its workings and settings. And I was familiar now with the search for village accommodation: Hotel Waldschlösschen in Dankmarshausen with fields and mines for a view, and Landgasthaus Schwabhausen, still being redone so it felt bright, airy and quiet (the owner here was perhaps better at renovation than cooking!).

Thuringia – the beginning of a far more interesting part of Europe. For hundreds of years radical politics have arisen here and in Saxony. The traces are everywhere. From more recent times, I encountered street names such as Karl-Marx Straße, Friedrich-Engels Straße, Clara-Zetkin Straße and Karl Liebknecht Straße – heroes of East Germany. The architecture here still represents the spatial efforts to construct a new society, with occasional samples of Stalin baroque and the clean lines of modern apartment buildings for workers. Of course, efforts have been made to recast this story as a negative, especially when I came across the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’, which runs all the way from the top of Norway down to the Mediterranean. Some 6000 km in total, although I was touching on only a small part between West and East Germany, before the former colonised the latter.

Dig a little further back and the town names themselves become part of this radical history. Erfurt was where the famous Erfurt Program was agreed upon by the powerful German-Democratic Party in 1891. Karl Kautsky’s commentary on the program formed the strategic basis for the Russian Revolution. And then there was Gotha, made famous by Marx’s late piece, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ from 1875. Further back still and you find the towns where Thomas Müntzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’, sought to inspire and organise peasants and miners for the Peasant Revolution of 1525 – Allstedt, Frankenhausen, Mühlhausen and so on. Of course, this part of Germany was where Luther also fomented his version of radicalism (protected by the Elector of Saxony), although he backtracked when he saw the implications.

Why this part of Europe? Mines past and present told part of the story. In many towns were memorials to their mining past; in others mines were still operating, such as the salt mine I could see around Dankmarshausen; or mines closed down after 1989, bringing economic recession into eastern Germany. Miners have a history of radicalism and militancy. But also weavers, given to communal organisation and efforts at alternative social formations. In other words, the early inroads of capitalism and its patterns of exploitation also produced some of the earliest and perhaps most radical forms of European socialist politics. It is not for nothing that Karl Kautsky searched for the forerunners of modern socialism in these parts.

Schwabhausen to Kipperquelle (Weimar): 67 km.

Despite my best intentions, the previous day’s ride to Schwabhausen – of 84 km – was longer than I had intended. Ease up, ease up, I kept telling myself. Yet the temptation to push a few extra kilometres was always there – like so much of my life, in which I tried to fill each day with more than was feasible, feeling the weight of tasks but also getting a buzz out of it.

So on my ride to Kipperquelle (just past Weimar) I managed to ease up. After all, a Brompton fold-up is happier when one pedals at a gentler pace. As I did so, I was able to savour some fascinating countryside. Early on I realised I was in a village that claimed to be Bach’s stamping ground (although he was officially born in Eisenach, through which I had passed a day or two earlier). Of more interest was the village of Neudietendorf, established by the Moravian Brethren in the 1700s (my final destination was to be the spiritual home of the Moravians, where their refounder, Zinzendorf, did his thing). And I paused long in Weimar, which turned out to be still a centre of radical politics, German style. Many were the dreadlocks, the tousled-hair children, the unkempt and baggy clothes. And many were the cobbles, of a particularly rocky kind, so the Brompton and I walked much of the town. Indeed, in the centre was a vast mural celebrating 100 years of modern communist revolutions, since the auspicious moment of October 1917. Of course, the small hotel at Kipperquelle was not only devoted to all cyclists, but also to wellness, organic food and meditation.

Kipperquelle to Bad Köstritz: 77 km.

The appeal of Weimar is not to be denied, but I enjoy more the radical history of these parts. The next day, to Bad Köstritz (77 km), revealed another aspect – plenty of renovated communist era architecture. But I also spent much time peddling through paths in forest reserves. These reserves are rarely recognised as achievements of the government of East Germany, which set about establishing widespread nature reserves in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the time I arrived in the village of Bad Köstritz, which is also – I found out on a late evening walk – the home of Köstritzer beer, I longed for another rest day. Not what I was used to, I must admit, but I was learning to enjoy them! My brief home for two nights was to be Pension Egerer, in a quiet corner of the village.

But what do you do on a rest day? Rest, of course. A long sleep, a snooze in the afternoon, a walk to see a dentist up the road – for I had an aching tooth that had arisen after the 111 km day. Nothing to worry about it seemed, except not to push myself to extremes. Ah yes, I also like to eat, to build up my reserves again. Massive country breakfasts, amazing German salads and solid dinners, anything you can get your hands on at lunch. And German küche. One is a meal normally, but on a ride and even a rest day I can eat three or four.

Bad Köstritz to Meerane: 56 km.

By now I had a week of riding to go, and I began to think both of its end and how I did not wish it to come. After my rest day, I was on the road again, on a relatively short ride – 56 km from Bad Köstritz to Meerane. More radical religious history, with my route criss-crossing that of Thomas Müntzer (‘theologian of the revolution’) almost 500 years ago, as also Martin Luther’s. I must admit that the latter was of less interest to me, but far more to the German authorities of these times. At every turn, it seemed as though he was following me – but then I realised that this year is the 500th anniversary from when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and sparked the German Reformation (the Bohemian one, further to the east and under the inspiration of Jan Hus, had begun 100 years earlier). By the end of the day, I found myself in the matter-of-fact town of Meerane, staying at another great (and cheap) place, Pension zum Bauernstübel.

Meerane to Augustusburg: 66 km.

Leaving Meerane the next morning, the signs disappeared almost completely. I had been warned by one or two who had ridden this way before me, so I had scanned detailed route maps the night before. To be sure, there were signs for horses and walkers, but the only bicycle sign had been thrown down in frustration by some previous cyclist. All of this was offset by the serious climbing, usually in forests, and above all the last 2 km up to Augustusburg. The Jagdschloss or hunting lodge – really a castle – sits on a peak in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). I had already managed quite a few climbs, only to roll down a long slope into a village by a stream. This is Augustusburg! I thought. But no, towering above me was the last challenge. Part of me said the dirt track up, up, up to the top was too much. The other part, fuelled by adrenalin and the prospect of a beer at the end, said otherwise. Halfway up and pouring with sweat, I was overtaken at some speed by a mountain bike. Wow, I thought, what fitness, what stamina! Then I saw the electric motor. Surely, a mountain bike with a motor is somehow a contradiction, cheating perhaps. Is not a mountain bike designed precisely to enjoy tough tracks? Why put a motor on it?

The top at last, under my own steam! After 66 km I had arrived at the Hotel Morgensonne. I was the only guest, but my host – an energetic septuagenarian woman who spoke German very loudly and slowly for my benefit – welcomed me warmly and even took me to a Czech restaurant for dinner.

Augustusburg to Tharandt: 68 km.

Still the route continued sans signs; still I puzzled over the route from time to time. It may have been a stony farm track upon which no bicycle had ridden for many a long year – I turned back and took a moderately busy road through the hills, thankful for a smooth surface and German care with bicycles. It may have been a path through the forest that began well but soon became in indentation in the grass of a farmer’s field. I had realised by now that the route was at times more of an idea than a reality, a plotting on a map that avoided main roads without actual surveillance of the route. So I learnt to make my own way when the route become a little impossible. But I had plenty of quiet corners on a sunny day, plunging into the forests of Tharandt – to find Altes Wirtshaus Tharandt after 68 km, where I was greeted on arrival in Dutch!

Tharandt to Stolpen: 68 km.

Passing through Dresden the following morning, I marked 1000 km on a fold-up bicycle. I felt as though I had covered a reasonable distance. Rather modest if you think of those who tackle rides of thousands of kilometres, but significant enough for me. Somehow, the four-digit number means it is a serious ride. And at the end of the day, at 1052 km (after 68 km for the day), I had ridden further on one ride than ever before.

Today’s ride was a mix, with some slow city riding (not my favourite) soon after I left Tharandt, a fast run – with many others enjoying a sunny day – down a section of the Elbe, which divides most of east Germany from the western parts. Later in the day, I rode into the mountainous sections of eastern Saxony. Now I was on my own again, quietly enjoying the pattern of forest paths, villages and farms.

Suddenly, an old castle rose out of the quiet fields! Stolpen. Cut out of a basalt outcrop, the castle dates back some 8 or 9 centuries, for long occupied by a bishop or two, as bishops did in those times. Somehow, it drew me, beckoning, full of promise. Dismounting on the sloping cobbled streets of the village, my feet felt the pull, past the pensione to the oldest hotel thereabouts – the Burg Hotel, right next to the castle gate. After more than two weeks of riding, I had become adept enough to communicate in broken German. I had to, since languages other than German were barely spoken. A room was available and the country luxury inexpensive. I sat outdoors looking over the cobbled streets and castle walls, savouring local beers and country fare. A late tour through the partially ruined castle reinforced the isolated peace of these parts. One sleeps well in such an environment.

Stolpen to Herrnhut: 85 km.

The last day comes sooner or later. And a tough one it was. Skirting the Zittauer Gebirge – which straddle the Czech border – I had climb after climb after climb. Much of the day was spent in first gear or pulling hard on the brakes. When a downpour hit soon after departure from Stolpen, I was preparing myself – reluctantly – for a wet day. But it cleared and the sun bore down upon me. By the time I was pedalling along the Spree River, close to its source (the river runs to Berlin), I was on tracks I knew. More than four years ago, I had ridden these parts, and the closer I drew to my destination, the more I remembered. Barely four years ago, but it felt like a very long time ago – almost another life out of many. The day would not let up. Forget a gentle and short ride to celebrate: this was 85 km of hard work. Perhaps this added to the inescapable mingling of deep weariness and sheer elation at the end of the ride, which of course produces thoughts and talk of the next ride.

After 1137 km, on a Brompton fold-up bicycle along what is regarded as the toughest long-distance route in Germany (and I vouch for that), I arrived in the village of Herrnhut to a very warm welcome indeed.

Reflecting

Day to day accounts of a ride can be – for those not into rides – a little bit of a drag. The routine is largely the same: wake, eat sumptuously, pack, set off, ride 60-80 km, arrive, eat, drink a few beers, shower, bed. To be sure, each day’s ride has its own variations, with signs suddenly disappearing, steep mountain climbs, missed turns, forests, villages and cities.

But what is a ride like this, what does it do to you? On the first few days, I imagine I might keep up with email, or perhaps keep up with the news, or productively use the quiet evenings to develop my next book, or study Chinese for a couple of hours. After about three days, these thoughts simply disappear. All that concerns me is the route, food, water, the state of the bicycle, and my next bed for the night. It helped that I was deep in the countryside, getting through cities as quickly as I could and staying in small villages. The wider world does not seem to affect such places as much, so you can in a way forget that world. A great forgetting, which is wonderful for unwinding and relaxing. Of course, this sense is a fiction to some extent, for all sorts of outside developments affect the countryside, and I have lived long enough in the countryside to realise its shortcomings. Better to pass through, with but few things to one’s name, enjoying the great forgetting in passing, thinking about the next bed for the night.

Riding each day seemed for a while to become a way of life, one that I imagined continuing day after day, week after week, month after month. Being a hermit and nomad all at once has an extraordinary effect on one’s mind and body – as if the two can be separated. For weeks afterwards, I had a truly clear mind, slept deeply, talked and walked the forests and farms of the Oberlausitz. The ride was far too transformative to do only once in my life.

Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 16

Day 16: Stolpen to Herrnhut, 85 km. End of the ride, total 1137 km

The last day of riding and a tough one, with mountain after mountain in the Zittau range. I spent much of the day in first gear or pulling hard on the brakes. And when a downpour hit soon after departure from Stolpen, I was preparing myself – reluctantly – for a wet day. But it cleared and the sun bore down upon me. By the time I was pedalling along the Spree River, close to its source (the river runs to Berlin), I was on tracks I knew. More than four years ago, I had ridden these parts, and the closer I drew to my destination, the more I remembered. A warm welcome in Herrnhut!

The end of the ride: weariness after a long, long day ( I arrived at dusk); elation at completing the ride; a sense that I wanted to pedal on after a rest … which always leads to me to look forward to the next ride.

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Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 15

Day 15: Tharandt to Stolpen, 68 km

Passing through Dresden today, I signalled two achievements: at 1000 km I felt as though I had covered a reasonable distance. And at the end of the day, at 1052 km, I had ridden further on one ride than ever before. By now I had been following, on and off, the D4 sign for quite some distance. I was also beginning to believe what I had read: it is regarded as the hardest long distance bicycle route in Germany.

A mixed day of riding, with city riding (usually not so enjoyable), a fast run down a section of the Elbe, which divides most of east Germany from the western parts, and then the beginning of the mountainous sections of eastern Saxony. The fortress at Stolpen was a complete surprise. Rising out of the fields is an old castle, dating back some 8 or 9 centuries. For long occupied by a local bishop, it also boasted sloping cobbled streets, and the great Burg Hotel. A relative treat for the last night, but immensely enjoyable.

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Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 14

Day 14: Augustusburg to Tharandt, 68 km

From the mountain top of Augustusburg to the forests of Tharandt. For the first time, I encountered a part of the track completely overgrown with grass. It appeared on the edge of a forest and required me to cross some farms. I had wondered why the cyclists I had encountered earlier had opted to follow the main road – now I knew why. Another sunny day, quiet corners, and a Trabant – one the great symbols of eastern Europe during the communist era (but also a signal of its limits in comparison to China).

I stayed at the Altes Wirtshaus Tharandt, where I was greeted on arrival in Dutch!

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