A Summer Of Cycling (And Cruising…)

So, summer has arrived. Well, meteorological summer. Pedants who insist on sticking with the astronomical one (which starts on June 21st) will still have to live in spring for a few more weeks but the rest of us are already basking in the sunshine… (That’s how it works, no?) Anyway, what does the summer have in store? Yes, the usual stuff; tennis at Wimbledon, the men’s cricket World Cup, the women’s football World Cup, the Tour de France of course… but here at we have an event to trump of all those; the arrival of Wanda, the Koga WorldTraveller. She is currently being pieced together* in Heerenveen in The Netherlands by master craftspeople** and will be shipped to the UK – to CycleSense in Tadcaster to be precise – ready for me picking her up on June 27th.

[* Actually… probably not; according to Alee Denham’s video – see it in this post from earlier in the year – it only takes a couple of hours to fit everything together so Wanda is no doubt still strewn across the world in factories far and wide. ** I hope they are for the price I’m paying!]

It will be a journey of (almost) epic proportions in itself to get Wanda back to this side of West Yorkshire involving trains and buses in a tortuous loop extending to York of all places, Tadcaster no longer being blessed with its own railway station. You’d think with all that beer to distribute, a station would have been essential (perhaps it once was) but there you go. Or rather there you don’t go, by train anyway. Once collected, my very first ride will be across the sun-drenched plains of West Yorkshire via the verdant grasslands of Leeds and Bradford before finally fathoming a route into the foothills of the Pennine Mountain range. Sounds wonderful and only 25 days to wait. ‘What will you ever do with your time?‘ I hear you cry. Well, funny you should ask…

MS Lofoten: take a ‘bow’

My only previous cruising experience has been on board the marvellous M.S. Lofoten back in August 2015 as I hitched a lift from Europe’s most northerly point at Nordkapp in Norway (after having cycled there from the southernmost point at Tarifa in Spain of course) back to civilisation at Bergen. I say ‘hitched’ but it was hitching with a hefty price tag but let’s not get back to the expense of long-distance cycling, or rather the way in which I tend to do it. The Lofoten – named after the islands of course – remains the oldest and smallest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet and is highly recommended. About as far from the horrors of being on an immense, modern cruise ship as you could imagine. More Death on the Nile than Jane McDonald (without so many murders, or indeed songs). Here she is berthing at Honningsvåg on the island of Nordkapp just before I boarded for the first time:

You can see more of the style of the MS Lofoten by visiting this page of from August 1st 2015.

I do seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent. Or have I? The reason why I bring up the happy memory of my four-day ‘cruise’ along the Norwegian coast is that on June 13th I embark on… another cruise. I have been asked to speak on a river boat that plies its trade along the Rhine between Basel in Switzerland and Düsseldorf in Germany. Here’s the ship and the route:

Coincidentally, it was also August 1st – in 2010 – that I was last in Basel, en route to Brindisi in southern Italy as I cycled across Europe. I was last in Düsseldorf in 2015 as I cycled towards Nordkapp. I’d like to say it was August 1st but of course it wasn’t (as that’s when I was on board the MS Lofoten heading back south). I’ve also had the opportunity of cycling two stretches of the Rhine; from Strasbourg to Basel in 2010 and from Cologne to Düsseldorf in 2015.

The Strasbourg-Basel stretch of the Rhine Cycle Route – EuroVelo 15 – is not the most spectacular part of the Rhine. (That’s a bit further north.) But it does have its charms and curiosities; lots of pretty villages, the obligatory collections of WWII tanks and food and wine festivals. The Eguisheim Wine Festival had been cancelled back in 2010 due to the rain, only to be rescheduled for the following weekend. This was great for me as it was the day I rocked up in town. The two men in the photograph below have the accolade of being the only people mentioned in Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie whose names I had to make up as I couldn’t for the life in me remember their real names. Can’t imagine why. A good evening was had.

Cologne to Düsseldorf in 2015 was a much shorter stretch of my overall route. You can read the details and see the pictures here. It wasn’t the greatest day of the epic trip from Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie. It was the start of my 16th degree of latitude and I was in reflective mood:

Through hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance, from a nation that lay in ruins after the war, the Germans have recreated a country that is envied by many, including me. When I think of cities that have been destroyed beyond recognition in my own lifetime – Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and, more recently, Aleppo in Syria – I take crumbs of comfort from places such as Berlin and Hamburg, which have rebuilt themselves from the rubble. And not just rebuilt themselves as second-rate versions of what they used to be; the German cities of today may lack the historical vistas of Paris or Rome, but they have been reborn as vibrant examples of economic success and cultural diversity equal to any other European city of the twenty-first century.

However… from the perspective of a touring cyclist, Germany was suffering from not being either Belgium or the Netherlands. I had become accustomed to good quality segregated cycling paths and signage that was so easy to follow it could have been designed by cyclists themselves (and probably was). Germany was a lurch back towards how cycling could often be back in Britain. Only a moderate lurch, but discernible nevertheless. There was lots of segregated cycling but in urban areas this was often along pavements where all of the obstacles that weren’t really obstacles when walking – signs, flowerpots, curbs, as well as the pedestrians – became so when cycling. In the countryside, although many roads had an adjacent cycle path, this was frequently of low quality and ravaged by tree roots or simply by time. If I chose not to use the facilities on offer, this would incite some motorists (older men in Mercedes usually) to point out my ‘mistake’ in no uncertain Teutonic terms.

As for the Rhine Cycle Route signage, it was sporadic and confusing. When it appeared, it was a marvel to behold, with small blue squares clearly pointing in the direction of the Rheinradweg 15, but then it wouldn’t appear for several kilometres and I was left with just the occasional red arrow. Was that my cycle path or one of the many others? My love of all things Germanic was being severely tested. In the kilometres north of Cologne I had to contend with large building developments requiring complicated detours, two long flights of steps, poor quality cycling paths and, to cap it all off, a group of mocking primary school kids. You know you are at a low ebb when you have become the victim of pillory by seven-year-olds.

I stopped to sit on a dilapidated bench at the southern limit of a large Bayer chemical complex. Its position sucking water from the Rhine might have been for the greater benefit of the German economy but it would mean another diversion away from the river for me. On the ground below my feet was a discarded bicycle stand and stuck to a nearby post was a home-made for sale poster for an ‘Alu City Star Like’ bicycle. By ringing the number listed and paying €150, it could be mine. I wondered if it made annoying noises like Reggie. Above my head was an inexplicable triangular green warning sign: ‘Geschützter Landschaftsbestandteil’ it stated next to an image of a black eagle, wings fully extended, gliding and looking fearsome. Was I at risk of becoming someone’s lunch? Behind me was an Aldi supermarket and above everything was a slate-grey sky.

Cycling across continents wasn’t meant to be like this. I remained on the bench for about half an hour. I could have wept for no good reason but lots of little bad ones. I sensed a Mercedes day approaching. Was I beginning to feel drained by the whole Tarifa to Nordkapp experience? Had the enormity of the task only just become apparent? Did the prospect of perspiring my way north for another 50 plus days no longer fill me with unbridled enthusiasm?

North of the chemical complex, I rejoined the path beside the Rhine and, for the first time, the urban tentacles of Cologne loosened. The banks of the river were covered in spring flowers and pretty houses jostled for the best view over the wide expanse of water. I stopped once again about an hour after my earlier melancholic moment on the bench, but this time my view couldn’t have been more different. I was sitting in a tiny café that had been built inside the control box of a disused riverside crane. It was called, unsurprisingly, the Kran Café.

I ordered a drink from the woman in charge; our lack of a common language prevented conversation, but she smiled and I reciprocated. That simple gesture seemed to say many things, none of which I could list but all of which seemed perfect for that moment. I stared out of the windows of the crane café and watched the large barges ply their trade on the river. Those heading upstream moved slowly against the prevailing direction of the water, whilst those heading downstream did so at speed. My morning had so far been very ‘upstream’, fighting against the obstacles of the urban world and the wind but also against my own mid-journey malaise. I was feeling somewhat drained and my enthusiasm was somewhat diminished.

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie (2017), by Andrew P. Sykes, published by Summersdale

My mood did lift and I was back to my normal self within a couple of hours of escaping the chemical complex. In Düsseldorf, via WarmShowers, I stayed with a professional couple called Andrea and Matthias who gave me a comfortable bed for the night and I continued my journey north in good spirits. Here I am (well, not quite me as you will see…) cycling beside the Rhine a few kilometres from Düsseldorf.

My only other visit to The Rhine was way back in 2004 on a non-cycling tour of Europe to see various friends. Here’s a misty part of the river just south of Bonn:

I’ll be spending the rest of today putting together the three talks that I have been asked to give on the river boat later in the month. No doubt some of what you’ve just read may well be mentioned.

I return to the UK on Thursday 20th June and will have one thing on my mind; the collection of the new bike, Wanda, as mentioned above. As soon as possible thereafter – perhaps even the weekend of the 21st/22nd/23rd – I plan on heading to another great river… the Humber! Yes, back to where the last epic trip finished in August 2015 as I cycled down the ramp of the North Sea ferry from Rotterdam in the direction of Hull train station and home. Even Hull can look pretty:

Hull: the port…
…and the station

My plan is to cycle along the Yorkshire section of the EuroVelo 12 – the North Sea Cycle Route – from the Humber Bridge to Middlesborough. It’s marked as National Cycle Network Route 1 on the map below from OpenStreetMap…

…and it should be a good shakedown for the Koga, especially when I reach the Cinder Track between Scarborough and Whitby. For more details of that, see this post from a few days ago.

And then? Well, I’m still very tempted by a return to northern Spain and a cycle along the northern coast from Santander to Santiago de Compostela (and then into Portugal) with occasional forays into the Picos de Europa. Again, I’ll be revisiting old territory having completed a walking holiday in Asturias in 2007. It’s a very different Spain in the north and ruggedly beautiful. Perfect testing ground for a new touring bike. My conversations with various people at last weekend’s Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe only served to encourage me to book the ferry and head to in the direction of Iberia.

So, those are my plans for the summer. Some are confirmed, some rather tentative. Some are near to home, some a little further away. Watch this space.

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