The Road to Thessaloniki — Part II: flat lands, mountains and snow

We left the French border town of Colmar in warm late April sunshine (weather and wind direction were high on our list of daily priorities and topics of conversation), leaving behind its bizarre cycle lanes that ran along the central pedestrianised section of long boulevards, before spewing cyclists out into the middle of a roundabout, leaving riders and drivers equally confused as to who has priority. The varying quality of cycle lanes — where they existed — was also a running theme of the trip.

Traversing the flat lands of the Rhine, we had a real sense of crossing another frontier. We rode through the medieval walled town of Neuf-Brisach on the French Alsace side of the river, with its planned grid street system and Latin American-looking central square. The region has changed nationalities something like 5 times in the last 150 years. From the high walls you can see the Vosges to the west and the Black Forest mountains to the east rising above the plain.


Crossing the Rhine

We joined a cycle route just before crossing the river that took us virtually the whole way to Italy. We skirted the southwest of Germany, passing through the university town of Freiburg, which had possibly the best cycling provision we’d ever seen. There were bikes everywhere, a traffic-free centre, and packed cycle lanes packed with bikes that flowed through the city. It was like a cycling utopia, an interesting working model that shows how even old cities can be people- and bike-friendly. We followed the cycle path along the river that sloped gradually from the mountains, climbing gently at first past fields and a few houses. We’d got in the habit of pointing out to each other potholes, drains and obstacles on the roads through France, but there was scarcely a need through Germany, with near-perfect tarmac, and considerate driving when we had to join roads.

We stopped for supplies before climbing the slopes of the Black Forest, thinking we’d find a camping spot before long. Sarah was not so pleased after she ended up carrying the kilo of muesli that I’d bought through the Black Forest, across Switzerland and over the alps. Coals to Newcastle. Climbing the narrow valley up a steep road that seldom dipped below 10% gradient, hopes of a camping spot faded. After around an hour or more of climbing in the setting sun, we found a guest house open, and gratefully took a room from the hostess, whose husband had seen us struggling up the climb earlier as he drove past.


Sunset from the Black Forest, the Vosges mountains across the Rhine valley in the distance

Too tired to walk up the road to see if the local restaurant was open, we contemplated cooking on the small balcony before deciding to go for a DIY ham and cheese board with salad and beer in the room. We ended up jettisoning the sausages and gnocchi that we’d bought after a couple of days, after another change in the weather put us off camping.

The next day, we descended from the Black Forest after a little more climbing, including another 2km stint of 10-20% ramps. Then, a tail wind pushed us down a seemingly endless downhill towards Lake Constance, as we tried to out run the rain that was forecast to come our way. Any slight imbalance in the front bags on the bike can disconcertingly amplify the speed wobble you can get descending, and is much harder to correct than on an unladen bike. A curved trajectory, or bracing one arm and the opposite leg on the frame, can help. We covered a good 50-60km before the rain caught us up, showing up the short-comings in our wet weather gear. Latex mechanics gloves covering thin spring cycling gloves, while waterproof, only keep out the cold for so long, and the temperature was dropping fast again. We made another emergency hotel room purchase, checking into the only hotel with space in Radholfzell at the western end of Lake Constance. We arrived slightly hypothermic, dripping water from our clothes and bags across the hotel foyer and into our room, shoes squelching as we went. Our bags past the waterproof test at least. After a warm shower, we settled into a local restaurant with tall German wheat beers as the rain set in for the night.


Recovery beer

The following day’s stage was supposed to be an easy 80km flat ride along the southern edge of the lake to Widnau in Switzerland, to stay with family of Swiss friends of ours. I woke in the morning, the sound of the previous night’s rain absent, and opened the shutters hopefully, only to be greeted by the sight of heavy snowfall. Sarah’s wisdom prevailed over my misplaced enthusiasm for riding in the snow, and we took a train along the edge of the lake, bleak in the sleet. We rode the last 10km, grateful for the train ride, and the prospect of a warm bed for the night at Walter and Erika’s, our friend Denise’s parents.


Waterproof cycling gloves

What was intended to be an overnight stay turned into three days of incredible hospitality, as the snow persisted and we plotted possible routes through the Alps for the days ahead. We really felt at home, and the rest was welcome with deep fatigue in our legs. An afternoon at the spa after a snowy walk in the alpine foothills — the unseasonably heavy snow bending the branches of flowering fruit trees to the ground — was a pleasant change from our recent routine. Denise’s sister Steffi even took us around the school where she taught, hosting a dinner for us with her cookery class. My trepidation at the prospect of being cooked for by unruly teenagers — fuelled by memories of my own home economics classes at school — was quickly dispelled by the 5-course meal, and friendly intelligent conversation from the students.

Finally a window in the weather opened, and we had two days of sunshine to navigate two alpine passes, riding through some of the most spectacular scenery of the trip. It was good to get back in the saddle feeling well rested, and we strangely missed our cycling routine. Not cycling for a while makes you realise how much you eat on the bike, and how you don’t need the two lunches, enormous breakfasts and dinners when you aren’t riding for 4-6 hours every day. Our appetites when riding were almost endless, never feeling particularly hungry, but always capable of eating vast amounts, in an attempt to replenish the calories we burnt every day. The extended stay in Switzerland also gave me the opportunity to finally switch my gears. The local bike shop, BSK Graf (another Mario recommendation), fitted a larger cassette, meaning I could sit down and spin up all but the steepest slopes — a welcome addition through the mountains to come.

We spent the day riding through the snow-covered landscape of first Switzerland and then Austria, first along small lanes through wide valleys, then joining the road sloping up to the Arlberg pass, and finally hitting switchbacks up to the pass that carried us to 1,800 metres above sea level, banks of snow lining the roads. It was a strange juxtaposition, us riding in short sleeves in the sun past open ski stations, skiers and snowboarders.

Layering up for the descent, we rolled along a quiet paved track after the col. Looking down at my Garmin, I had my only “off” of the journey to Greece as I rode into a wheel-sized snowball, ending up on the floor, happily at low speed and with little in the way of damage to me or bike. img_0166.pngThe landscape changed abruptly as we dropped down from the pass into the valley below, the snow coming to an end and green, pine covered valleys opening up. We’d planned our accommodation for several days through the mountains, and gratefully rolled up at a guest house several kilometres down from the col, sipping beer and eating recovery peanuts in the setting sun, with a spectacular view back up the valley we’d come down. The stereotypically Austrian owner, complete with waistcoat, was hosting a family birthday party which rumbled on below us as we drifted off to sleep, another country negotiated.


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