eu

The Ardennes

The German Army discovered that it was not especially easy to cross the Ardennes forest in late 1944.  The area was the site of the last major German counter-offensive of World War 2, an offensive which was hampered by the tightly-packed trees, steep hills and narrow valleys of the area.

I’ve spent the last few days confirming their findings.  Even without overwhelming opposing military forces shooting at you, it’s much tougher than it looks on paper.  There’s a reason that some of the hardest one-day races on the professional cycling calendar take place in the area.

IMG_2260 edit

I was still on relatively flat land as I left France on Thursday (after a rain-inflicted extra rest day on Wednesday).  I was happy to be heading back into Germany on the 14th July.  I still remember how difficult it is to find anything whatsoever open in France on Bastille Day (after nearly starving to death on Day 2 of the round-the-world trip in 2014).

The price you pay for a gentle re-introduction to Germany (in the Saar valley, at least), is plenty of heavy industry (above), rather than delightful views.  But, as the hills started to rear up, and I approached the border with Luxembourg, it started to look much prettier.

IMG_2272 Edit

I crossed into Luxembourg at the village of Schengen, where it was finally possible to get a photo with three countries in (above).

The photo’s taken from the German side of the bridge.  The left bank is Germany, the right is Luxembourg.  And the village on the hill in the background is in France.  Needless to say, as all three countries are in the Schengen area, crossing the border is as simple as finishing crossing the bridge.

Luxembourg is tiny.  After breakfast in Schengen, and still absorbing the horrible news that was starting to come in from Nice overnight, I crossed the country before lunchtime.

IMG_2275 Edit

As well as being essentially a giant duty-free shop (every petrol station sells bulk tobacco and alcohol, as well as dirt-cheap fuel), Luxembourg is where the Ardennes really start.  As I got closer to the Belgian border, the landscape became more forested, as well as corrugated by what felt like hundreds of small hills.

It actually feels a lot like riding the bike at home: lots of small, sharp climbs, with equally short descents.  So you don’t really have time to recover before you’re heading uphill again.  It’s taken a bit of getting used to, as I’ve become accustomed to either flat plains or majestic mountains in the last few weeks.

IMG_2281 Edit

And, as I entered Belgium, the sky clouded up, too.  Just so I really felt at home, there was even a little bit of drizzle.

Maybe because it has felt so familiar, or maybe because the forested nature of the countryside means that impressive views are few and far between, both Luxembourg and Belgium (so far) felt kind of pleasant but not super-special.  And that impression’s not helped by the standard of the roads in Belgium, which might give the UK a run for it’s money for the ‘worst in Europe’ award.

IMG_2292 edit

Still, I find myself this evening, in the small town of Givet, on the Meuse river (above).  It’s a really nice little town, surrounded by some of the last of the Ardennes hills.  But it’s not in Luxembourg or Belgium – I’m back in France for about ten kilometres.  So that’s France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and back to France in three days’ riding.  Small world.

But it’ll be Belgium for me again tomorrow.  Out of the hills, and on to the flat lands which lead to the English Channel.  The last few days outside the UK.

I really am nearly finished now.  The good news is that the hair’s starting to grow back, slowly…

Swiss Rolling

Another long gap between posts.

Who’d have thought that Switzerland, and then Germany, would produce such formidable technical challenges?  No electricity in one, and virtually no internet in the other…

I should’ve known things were going to get tricky.  Just a few kilometres out of Albertville on Sunday, the road towards Chamonix was closed.  This was, on the face of it, a bad thing.

It meant that I missed my reconnaissance of the Tour de France mountain time trial, which I’d been intending to ride (in reverse) on the way towards the Swiss border, as well as the Col du Forclaz on the border.  A swift re-routing was required.  This was a pain.

On the other hand, the only alternative was up a long, and very pretty, cycle route to (and along) Lake Annecy:

IMG_2167 Edit

Which was the first in a series of spectacular lakes.

And after one more (low) alpine pass, I was done with the French Alps, and parked up near the Swiss border.  Ready to have a proper look at the country, after my 90-minute preview a couple of weeks ago.

Like several Swiss towns which sit on the border with other countries, Geneva has ‘foreign’ suburbs.  So it was only a few minutes on the bike from my overnight stop in France to the centre of town, and Lake Geneva:

IMG_2183 Edit

The first thing you notice (as a cyclist) in Switzerland is the proliferation of bike lanes.  You can roll into pretty much any town on marked routes.  Often, these are segregated, although a lot are just British-style paint on the road, too.  In either case, it makes a nice change from having to fight for space on crowded streets.

The second thing you notice is how hideously expensive everything is.  This is obviously exacerbated for me by the inevitable economic damage done by the ‘Brexit’ vote – thanks for the extra 15% on everything, Britain!  But Switzerland is outrageously expensive anyway.

IMG_2186 Edit.jpg

For example, my campsite at Lausanne was in a beautiful lakeside location (above).  But US $24 for one person and a tent is not exactly as economical as camping should be.  A fizzy drink and a bottle of water costs US $6 in the average cafe or petrol station.  A ‘value’ meal in a well-known burger chain runs to US $13, (and those prices are against a pretty strong US dollar).  So you know you just need to cross the country as quickly as possible.  To get somewhere (anywhere!) where you can survive on less than a banker’s salary.

While I was out of the Alps, I still had to cross another range of big hills (the Jura) before reaching Basel, and the Rhine valley.  At first glance on the map, the Jura look quite intimidating; ridge after ridge after ridge of fairly high, steep hills barring the way north.

IMG_2204 Edit

But a little more planning reveals that there are little gorges between the valleys, so you actually ride all the way from Neuchatel to Basel with only one major climb.  Despite fairly often heading into apparently closed valleys with dismayingly steep sides, there’s always a little ‘doorway’ through which you can escape (like the one above).

Which made for a fairly relaxing run down from the lakes, and through the hills on Wednesday and Thursday.

The city of Basel is another Swiss border city.  I’d been flipping between French and German-speaking Switzerland every few kilometres from Neuchatel, and Basel sits on the border of three countries, with France and Germany both sitting across the city limits to the north.

Given that this triple border lies on the Rhine, which is one of Europe’s great rivers, I was hoping to get a picture of the wide river, with all three countries in one photo.  Unfortunately (certainly when heading to Germany), all you see is warehouses and industrial buildings before the – empty – border post.  At which point, you enter Germany, while your phone lights up with a ‘Welcome to France’ message.

IMG_2212 Edit

Thankfully, there are some flags to make the ‘triple border’ point without the panoramic picture or the inaccurate text messages.

And so, yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I rolled along the flat Rhine valley in yet another country; Germany.  I can’t say much about it yet, as the area’s heavily forested (it’s on the edge of the Black Forest, in fact).

So it’s short on stunning views so far.  I do know that it’s much cheaper than Switzerland, which is good.  And that staying in a small spa-town with ‘lots of old people’ (as I had it described to me) is not a recipe for a decent internet connection.

It was also the wrong choice of country.  Had I chosen the French side of the river, I’d have watched a glorious footballing victory last night, instead of a bitter footballing disappointment.

Still, I’ll hopefully find out more about Germany as I go along.  In the meanwhile, the weather is good, the roads are flat, and I have exactly two weeks left to enjoy my ride around the world (I’m expecting to get into Greenwich on 22nd July, barring any problems).

Oh, and I received the photo I mentioned last time, which is nice.  For those who haven’t seen it on Facebook yet, the picture below is me and the bike taking on the Col du Glandon last Wednesday.

KV6B4807 Edit.jpg

Not quite in the style of the Tour riders (including Steve Cummings, who just won today’s stage up the Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees), but a professional photographer certainly makes it look easier than it was…

More from the heart of Europe next time (hopefully a bit quicker, and with fewer technical problems).

* * *

For UK-based Touring Cyclists

Note that most ‘universal’ adaptors for UK electrical devices do not fit modern Swiss electric sockets.  The socket design prevents anything other than narrow, two-pin European plugs from fitting.  There are a few old sockets around (I managed to find one in the whole country), which will work, but it makes sense to check whether your adaptor will fit Swiss sockets before you get there.

Otherwise, you might not be able to update your blog for a week 😉

Alpine Balm

This update’s been a long time coming.

For those who see my Facebook, you’ll know why.  It was because I’ve been afraid since Thursday that, if I started writing, you would just end up getting a rant about the fact that my country has gone completely nuts in my absence.

So, I thought I’d get back to the big mountains, and see if they calmed me down.  And they have.  If only by tiring me out.

IMG_2058 Edit
I’d made it to Novara, (roughly) between Milan and Turin by the time the Brexit nonsense began on Thursday night.  I’d already decided on a day off there, partly because I was due one, and partly because it was getting very hot on the flat, northern Italian plains.

It was a decent plan, as the temperature flirted with 40 degrees centigrade (104 F) on Friday.  I didn’t feel like doing much anyway, so lounging around and keeping cool was all that was going to happen.

But on Saturday, the weather had freshened up.  The temperature was back to being reasonable to ride in, and the plains remained flat.  Oh, and the wind was at my back for the first time in a while.  I piled on the miles, stopping that night just north of Turin.  And then getting back into the mountains by Sunday evening, rolling up a long valley towards the French Alps.

IMG_2074 Edit
Although I was still extremely grumpy at that point, it was time for the therapy to start.  As seems to be traditional with borders in mountains, my entry to France would take place close to the top of a high pass.  It was time to get the climbing legs out again.

A whole day of climbing got me close to the border by yesterday (Monday) afternoon.  The heat was back, and I was struggling as I hit around 1100 metres (3600 ft) of vertical gain for the day.  Then the road steepened as it set course for the top of the col.  Plenty more climbing to go.  Ouch!

IMG_2097 Edit

And then, amazingly, a bike tunnel appeared (above).  A couple of kilometres long, it was the old road tunnel.  More importantly, although I was still climbing, it was shady, cool, and with a nice breeze rushing through it.  Just in time to save my climbing bacon.

And so, as refreshed as you can be while still climbing a 6% gradient, I popped out of the tunnel, through a little village, and into France.  Within another mile or two, I finally hit my first col of the French Alps:

IMG_2109 Edit
After a very fun plunge off the top (the French downhills have been superb so far, if over much too quickly), I was in Briancon last night.  Watching England’s football team shamefully following the rest of the country out of Europe.  Two results that are hard to understand in less than a week…

Still, I had to do it all again today.  Another huge col, this one the Lauteret, which is a Tour de France regular, and goes up to over 2000 metres (6500 ft).  This time, I was helped out on the climb by already being reasonably high up at Briancon.  And also by getting a bit of company from Ivor, a semi-expat Brit, who was riding up a whole lot quicker than me (though without the bags, in my defence).  Nice to have a cuppa and a chat at the pass, rather than just dropping straight over…

IMG_2123 Edit

And then, it was another long, long downhill.  So long that I’m going to try to illustrate it with two pictures.  The landscape changed as I dropped from the high peaks at the top (above), to the narrow, but still massive, gorges and valleys (below, on a rare uphill section – spot the big truck).

IMG_2127 Edit
And I eventually got down off the mountain to the town of Bourg d’Oisans, which is right in the middle of a whole ring of enormous climbs.  Bizarrely, the smallest of these (or at least, it looks the smallest from the town) is the legendary Alpe d’Huez, which zigzags up the side of the valley, and is one of the most iconic Tour de France climbs (often, as in 2015, it’s where the race is decided).  Most of the other climbs around here are much bigger.

But, as a result of having the Alpe just across the road from town, the area is swamped with recreational cyclists.  I rolled into town in the company of a little peloton coming back from an afternoon run up to Huez.  They said it’s not actually a difficult climb.  I’m not so sure that’s likely to be the case on a 40kg touring rig, though…

IMG_2130 Edit

So I’m still considering whether it will be Alpe d’Huez, or one of the other famous cols near here tomorrow.  What I do know is that the rhythm of climbing all morning, and then dropping down a vertical kilometre of twists and turns in the afternoon, is very soothing.  It’s almost stopped me brooding about Brexit, which is quite an achievement.

Maybe the answer to all the world’s problems can be found in the French Alps, on a bike…

Out of Aprica (And How to Cross Switzerland in 90 minutes)

Up into the big hills.  Turn left.  Keep going until you hit the lakes.

That’s pretty much it for the last few days.  After another rain-enforced rest day on Sunday, of course.

Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that.  These are big hills, after all.  So there’s been over 3000 vertical metres of climbing (around 10,000 ft) in three days.  And a comparable amount of decending.  And boy, is northern Italy beautiful.

20160620RTW_1 Edit

The first and biggest pass was the Passo Tonale, which topped out at 1884 metres.  It’s used fairly regularly by the Giro d’Italia bike race.  The pass itself is ‘only’ 15 kms (9 miles) of fairly hard (6-7%) climbing when coming from the east.

But this ignores the fact that you have to climb nearly a thousand metres just to get to the ‘official’ bottom.  The picture above looks nice an unthreatening, doesn’t it?  But it’s all gently uphill, and the climbing doesn’t stop until you hit those snow-capped peaks at the back of the picture.

Here they are again, a couple of hours later, and a little bit closer:

IMG_1999 Edit

Stunning, but ever so hard.  Thankfully, there’s the payback of a nice (but all-too-short) downhill to come.  Once again illustrating that, while headwinds and hills are both hard, hills do, at least, give you something in return for your efforts.  Though I have to say that this would have been more comfortable with working brakes (fixed now!):

IMG_2016 Edit

A dip, and another climb to another pass at Aprica. The climb to Aprica is rated (by none other than the arch-villain of cycling, Lance Armstrong) as one of the hardest in Italy.  It certainly looked it, from the sweating faces of the recreational cyclists I flashed past in the other direction.  It’s certainly another contender for ‘downhill of the trip’ as far as I’m concerned.  The brakes were heating up, and the insects dying in droves against the crash helmet once again.

I could feel the temperature increasing as I plunged down.  And, I was dropping quick enough for my ears to ‘pop’ twice before I got to the bottom.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone (though you may want to get the cable car up to the top!).

From the bottom of the Aprica downhill, it was a long, flat valley road to Lake Como.  Quite a different landscape, but still with those big mountains lurking in the background.  There’s nothing like lakes and mountains, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been cruising around staring at picture-perfect views for a day-and-a-half now.  It makes me very happy.

IMG_2028 Edit

And from Como, I’ve managed to cross a country today (Wednesday).  It only took and hour-and-a-half, and some of that was due to traffic problems.  A massive tunnel, a city, and a few kilometres of road near the airport.  And that was it.  There’s a slightly odd-shaped wedge of Switzerland jutting down into Italy around the town and lake of Lugano.  And a gentle ride today, including plenty of coffee stops and chats with other cyclists, took me straight across it.

IMG_2032 Edit
I’m now back in Italy (literally by fifty yards).  But don’t worry, I will be giving Switzerland a bit more time on the way home.  I just have to nip across and have a look at the French Alps first…

Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia

Border after border after border.

Today was the first day’s riding in the last week that I didn’t have to pull out my passport on the road.  Just since Dubrovnik, I’ve crossed four international borders.  But, because of the peculiar geography in this part of the world, I’ve only been in two countries.

I was slightly inaccurate in the last post, as I suggested that Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘BiH’) was going to be my last Muslim-majority country.  That’s not actually quite true, as the Bosniak (Muslim) population is actually marginally less than 50%.  And my time there only took in the Herzegovina part of the country, where the majority of the population are ethnically Croatian.

20160605RTW Edit

But it is the last country that I’ll ride where the Ottoman Empire had a significant influence.  I’ve probably done a few too many lists of historical ‘owners’ of various pieces of Balkan real estate, so I’ll keep this one brief.  BiH had Slavic rulers for a few hundred years, then the Ottomans for a few hundred, then the Austro-Hungarians.  Then the Yugoslavs and the Communists.

It’s no wonder that there are bundles of fortified towns (like the one above) all over the country.  And perhaps it’s also no surprise that BiH was where the spark occurred that started World War 1 (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand).  Or that most of the worst damage and atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s occurred there, too.

20160605RTW_6 Edit

The old town of Mostar is a beautiful place, sitting in a bowl between steep hills (hills from which my legs are still recovering).  Its ancient Stari Most (Old Bridge, above) had spanned the river for centuries before the 1990s.  And then, in a microcosm of what was going on all over the country, it was besieged twice in a few years.  First, the Muslims and Croats were fighting the Serbs.  Then they were fighting each other.

Hundreds were killed, and almost a hundred thousand refugees were forced out (pretty much the whole population).  And the Stari Most was destroyed.  Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, and much of the damage cleared up.  But the city still bears the scars over two decades on.  Several burned-out buildings still dot the old town, and bullet / shrapnel holes are still visible all over the place.

20160605RTW_15 Edit

Still, apart from its sometimes grim history, BiH is a beautiful country of mountains, valleys, and colossal thunderstorms.  I really enjoyed riding there, and was quite sad to be heading out yesterday (Monday).  Although the blow was softened a little by knowing I was heading back to stunning Croatia.

I had my longest and most thorough questioning at the border.  Not because I was looking especially suspicious (or even especially sweaty).  But the border guard was apparently a bit of a stamp and visa buff, and wanted to chat through pretty much the whole trip, while admiring the various stickers and marks.

I was a little relieved when another vehicle finally appeared behind me, as trying to identify visas on a passport being waved at you through partially-reflective glass is quite exhausting.

20160607RTW_1 Edit

Eventually, though, I was back into Croatia.  And I spent today (Tuesday) heading back to the Adriatic coast.  It wasn’t quite as downhill as I’d expected to start with, but there were some spectacular views to appreciate as I crossed the coastal range (above).

And then there was the drop back to the seaside, which was kind of spectacular:

IMG_1901 Edit

It’s not often that I’ll stop to take a picture halfway down a hill (apart from anything else, it takes quite a lot of effort to stop a fully loaded touring bike from 40-odd miles an hour), but this one was just fantastic.  Twisting right off the mountains down to the waterside.  It’s hard to get scale properly on photos.  But there’s a tiny boat with a tiny white wake just next to the big headland, which gives an idea of just how big those hills are.

Although it was lovely dropping off the big hills, my legs are feeling the effects of climbing them.  So it’s going to be nice to stick along the coast for a while.  I’ll be heading north, and an awful lot of big mountains will be looming all too soon.

A bit of island hopping and a little less climbing is probably just the thing for the next few days…