So, in Germany the first “Radschnellweg” in the Ruhr looks like a cycle path to beat all cycle paths. Built with the objective of removing 50 000 cars from the road and linking 10 cities in the packed conurbation, it is cycling ambition on the grand scale. And it is not just there that big plans for cycling are in the pipeline. In any case, Germany has many miles of great infrastructure already in place. Stephen Dyster rode across the country to sample some of it and some local brews. For reference, he rode a Supergalaxy tourer with 700x28 Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres - did the trip, but there were times when something stockier would have been more comfortable!
Well, though kilometres ahead in the infrastructure-race which the UK government pursues half-heartedly, not all German cycle routes are wonderful. A recurring phrase in my notes is “the further east.” Generally, there is less and poorer the further one move into the old East Germany. Even there, lengthy smooth asphalt exists, though there are bizarre sections of what only the most cynically, sadistic engineer could designate as being fit for cyclists. Mind you, it seemed that the process of development was well-underway.
The first lesson commenced shortly after crossing the border form the Netherlands between Groenlo and Vreden, near Zwillbrock. D-Netz 3 is one of a network of routes shown on the ADFC’s excellent maps. Excellent, that is until you wan too examine the detail. Trouble is that the cobweb of useful infrastructure around towns is so thick that it can be hard to tell much - good job the signposts were not the victims of jolly pranksters. Here way-finding was easy, but in other areas it was less so. perhaps our expectations were too high, or we had forgotten that, even in the Netherlands, cycle-route does not necessarily equal purpose built cycle-infrastructure.
A propensity to direct cyclists onto rutted forest tracks when there was a perfectly lovely country lane through the woods was, we decided after a couple ventures, undesirable. It even made one wonder if all the cycle-routes were really necessary. Almost all roads, in the western part of Germany, carrying anything other than very light traffic seem to have purpose built cycle tracks alongside the carriageway. Of course, not all leisure cyclists are happy with any sort of motor traffic and others genuinely love getting off-road.
The D-Netz routes, running roughly north-south and east-west, are fundamentally touring routes for this who want to link up some the best of Germany at leisure. There are often more direct routes and we often decided to take the bee-line. Thought countryside on Nordrhein-Westphalen between Vreden and Munster - even beyond - is pleasant enough, it is very gentle and very peaceful.
Approaching our evening stop, in the small town of Legden, even the signage seems to have been overcome. The same destination was shown in different direction and, as you’d expect, different “kilometrage.” Rather mysteriously the next sign showed a distance that had either decreased impossibly or risen bizarrely. Enter the Garmin! Turn right and follow ….. ten kilometres. Enter the Map. Turn left, two kilometres, no cycle route, no cycle path, just a quiet road into town. We took its advice. Of course, the cycle routes may have been beautiful, but with eighty-five miles in our legs and it being beer-o’clock, pragmatism took over.
Legden had no proper shop. it would have been closed anyway. The Allt Gasthof was run by a whiskered gentleman whom one felt epitomised how every traveller would like a German Innkeeper to appear. The bar-maid was Hungarian and spoke no English; amongst the small clientele in the bar was a Turkish-Pole born in Germany, who spoke four languages and translated for me. He clearly liked the idea of learning a bit more Hungarian. There was also a German who claimed did not ride a bike and an older German who was just back from cycling along the river Weser. “There is, I think,” he told me, “Not a big river in Germany that's not a good cycle route, nor a city with a river where one cannot cycle through along the riverside.”
Remarkably, quiet little Legden had three pizza outlets, one of which was restaurant run by a Sardinian couple, and where we got to speak a little Italian, some Dutch and much Gibberish. It emerged that the quiet little Legden of the weekday (“What are you doing here? But why here?” was politely asked on two occasions) is at the heart of Dorf Munsterland, where people come to party every weekend at a complex of clubs within fifteen minutes of the town. I can’t think of an occasion before this in my entire life when I have actually been thankful for it being Wednesday
It was but a short run, in mizzly-drizzle, to Munster, for a lunchtime arrival. To say that cyclists were all over the place would be an understatement. There was even an apparent anarchy in the way people rode rapidly in all directions with confident velocity. It looked much more orderly when sitting on a bench in the park eating a picnic of ham and rye-bread.
A cyclist stopped to chat. He favoured the Caribbean for most things, but when he realised that he was not going to get us to accompany him on this trip, he gave us the low-down on Munster-Cycling-Kultur. As with many cities the shift towards a more sustainable transport system began when people realised that a city choked with cars could not function properly. Now cycling, public transport and walking had gained the upper hand. As a tourist in the city, it felt like a good place to be. That cycling had gone beyond functionality was evident at Bike Corner, a shop that sold brightly decorated bells and adornments for city bikes; not a bottom-bracket on the shelves!
Getting out of Munster - far from a large city - was easy using D-Netz 3. Roads barred to through traffic, mixed with purpose-built bridges and cycle-track with light-controlled crossings at major roads - and you did not have to wait an eternity. Rapid access to the countryside, almost flat, vast fields of cereals fringed with cornflowers.
And such was the day until reaching Guttersloh and passing through an industrial belt to the south of Bielefeld. We had ignored D-Netz 3 after a section was closed and no alternative indicated. Instead we hit cobbled streets and a steep pull-up over the Tonberg. A gruesome affair amongst pretty streets and a forest that admitted only fleeting glimpses - even at a slow pace - of the surrounding hills and valleys.
A mix of more or less rutted forest tracks descended in a series of drops and bends, followed, thankfully, by a rapid run on asphalt all the way to Detmold, where we arrived, just before the cafeteria closed, at the modern hostel.
D-Netz 3 ran through the hills; delightful riding; then over rolling hills with long, easily-graded slopes. Little height seemed to be gained, but a magnificent cycle track ran down to the valley of the River Weser at Hoxter, and seemed to go on for miles. Hoxter was busy, but beautiful. A popular stopping point on the River Weser Cycle Route, it is everything an old German town should be; brightly decorated timber-framed buildings, churches, bars and a broad river.
An excellent track runs next to the river. We followed it for a while and became aware that here was an almost constant flow of tourers pedalling in stately fashion, erect and rhythmical on trekking bikes, comfortably attired - some with bottles of wine in the rear pockets of panniers.
Our “official” route took to field paths and cart tracks after Holzminden, so we took to the roads to Einbeck, before a late-in-the-day grind over to Greene and our hotel next to the little River Leine. The next day would take us into the old East Germany and along the northern edge of the Harz Mountains.
The rain started as we sat in the centre of the ancient city of Goslar. Once the base of Kings eager for the wealth of the silver mines in the mountains, it really marked transition into another region. In the villages the architecture was the same, but without the brave, bright shades, some were run down, shops had closed or appeared to be so. Cobbled roads became more common, cycling infrastructure more a matter of sticking up a sign pointing down a rough track - even where roads ran close and were quiet.
The rain fell still as we accidentally discovered the site of a former concentration camp at Langenstein - a satellite of the much larger Buchenwald camp. The rain felt less depressing. A stretch of cobbled path we eventually followed when it became obvious that there was no convenient road route to Quedlinburg had rebelled against the earth it was set in. At all angles and in all positions it gave way to a dirt track which crossed a low range of hills. The contrast with the slick tarmac for the last few kilometres into Quedlinburg was stark. In the town, narrow cobbled streets twisting around beautiful, sometimes unkempt, old houses. Almost a fairytale, with streetlights gleaming dully in the early summer evening gloom.
The next day took us through some run-down villages. Few tourists pass by. There were once shops, but now there were none. Boarded up windows and empty houses; flat-land some rough roads. Fascinating cycling, but not beautiful. the River Saale has a different feel. Yep, industrial villages and were either derelict or struggling, but other settlements had cafes and ice-cream parlours.
The genius of cycle touring. A very good cycle path stretched along the river side - or would do one day. Along it were touring cyclists - not as many as we had seen on the Weser or were to see on the Elbe - but touring cyclists with their thirst and hunger and desire for a warm shower and comfortable bed. The small town of Wettin - where Mark found it necessary to remark, during a thunderstorm, that “we got a wetting” - was clearly benefitting. Later, on the Elbe, a hotel owner told us that communities for about fifteen kilometres either side of the river tended to benefit from cyclists. “You will see many pretty towns along the river, but not so further from it,” he told us.
Hence the hefty investment in cycle infrastructure along the rivers - lots of cyclists - and its absence further away. It is likely to spread further.
Strehla, where we joined the Elbe, certainly flourished. The comfortable, but excellent value, Hotel Ambiente seemed to be populated largely by cyclists, provided a sag-wagon and luggage transfer service as well as secure bike storage. In the Lindenhof restaurant we met fellow cyclists from Berlin, cycling from Prague to Magdeburg to visit their daughter at the university. They did one “big trip” each year, and this was it for 2016.
From Strehla we rode the short distance through Meissen to Dresden, where a half-day rest had been built in. We lunched on a bench outside the house of an elderly gentleman. He came to talk, though, as he pointed out, having learned Russian at school he spoke no English. Relying on limited German on my part and extravagant gesture, he was particularly concerned that we should drop no litter. It seems that he swept the path each day. his final comment was, “Russian, no good.”
Having picked an chosen a few sights in Dresden, we made the most of the rest. the dome of the Frauenkirche gave a great view of our route along the elbe, with the way ahead disappearing into the gorge of Swiss-Saxony and on to the border with the Czech Republic.
The stretch of the Elbe between Dresden and Prague is a particularly popular one with cyclists. Glorious river-forest-and-hill scenery, lots of cafes and bars, a railway line running parallel to the river; there is little not to like. A cycle route is signed on both sides of the river and there were upgrades, repairs and construction of new routes going on. One of these required a diversion via a ferry. This led to a bit of confusion amongst us about where to recross. We ignored the next ferry - very busy - and followed cycle route signs along the east bank. Even had it been a MTB route, there’s have been a lot of carrying. Rock steps and mud slopes wound one a spur. We did not give up the will to live, quite, but spirit was sapped by the time we emerged a few yards from a welcome ferry back to the other side. Shortly after crossing the Czech border a further diversion via a ferry was indicated. We ignored it. the workmen on the path did not seem to mind.
And so, we had crossed Germany. Not always tourist Germany, but none-the-less, we had crossed it.
PUBLISHED AUGUST 2016