Winter in Germany. Cycling and camping.

good traveller[A little context: today is Thursday the 17th of November. After two days spent with our friend Christine in Regensburg, Germany, we are meant to be back on the road. The apartment is clean, our bags firmly closed, Christine is away at work and the sun is back after two days of persistent rain. We have only to load our bikes and leave. We weren’t counting on my legendary clumsiness…  Adam had held the door open with a panier, I decided to help him taking the luggage out. I let you imagine. A swift draft, a slamming door, and here we are sitting on the floor in front of said door, keys inside alongside the remainder of our bags and my shoes. In short, here is how to find time to write a new article!]

But what an idea!

To understand how we got to cycling in winter in Germany, we must return to the start of our project.

Winter 2015. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.  France. It’s -20 degrees celsius (-10deg Fahrenheit for those of a certain persuasion). The van is enveloped in snow. Climbing and traveling is, as usual, the topic of conversation. Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Mexico … Why not go back together? By bike? Without taking a plane? Where to go? From Europe, we could reach Russia then cross the Bering Strait to Alaska. It would then seem only sensible to descend southwards. Then what? Why not continue on to Latin America? Learn to sail en route and return to the old continent via ocean? Seeing as we’d be away a while, why not go to Africa and pedal North this time. Adam gets carried away. We should buy a kayak, add some wheels, drag it behind us. This way, we’d have room for our skis. Snap back to reality, a kayak and skis, it’s a little too much. The rest is just about conceivable.

The idea is unleashed. A few afternoons surfing the Internet at the library are sufficient to understand that the Bering Strait is but a pipe dream. No way to cross this passage in a way that satisfies us. It has been a long time since the ice between the two continents is reliably solid. For a long time relations between the Americans and the Russians have been more icy than cordial. We’ll have to take a boat. A container ship with a hefty price-tag or perhaps a private sailboat in exchange for a hand. The solutions exist, we’ll improvise once there.

How long will it take? Quick calculations occur thanks to google maps. Approximately 15,000 kilometres to Asia. A year. More or less the same for America, from North to South. A year more. And for Africa, from South to North, perhaps a little less. About three years. 36 months. With a budget of 500 euros per month. We need 18,000 euros. Let’s say 20,000 to have a wee margin. At the worst, when we have no more money, we’ll look for a job. Three years without working, it makes you dream. When you live in Chamonix, it’s to enjoy the mountains. It’s out of the question to work too much without the incentive of something to save for.

Van HiverThe best time to pedal in Europe is spring and summer. If we plan to leave in the spring of 2016, that leaves us only two seasons to fill the bank account. Too ambitious. Could we start in the spring of 2017? Hmm, it’s a little too far. Good enough, we start in the fall of 2016. After all, we survived a winter in the mountains in a van with no heating …

Reality has caught up with us.

nono degueuYes, that’s what we thought before. The reality is a little different. The month of November 2015 had been hot and dry. We hoped to take advantage of the same meteorological conditions. This was the case until Cologne. Until the first of November. Since then, winter has arrived. Temperatures oscillate between 5 and -2 celcius, the rain argues with the snow for control of thebouteille gelee sky, the wind rows with the clouds rather than pushing them back. In short, it’s winter in Germany. And we are nomads by bike who spend their days pedalling OUTSIDE and their nights sleeping OUTSIDE. 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

neigeI know what you’re going to tell me. You don’thave the gear? If so, we have big down jackets, comfortable sleeping bags by -10 degrees, waterproof jackets and pants, a tent designed for arctic expeditions … A few minor issues, Adam cycles in sandals with waterproof socks and our gloves are very light – absorbing the rain like a sponge. We’ve invested in new gloves. Adam now dons waterproof footwear over his naked feet. But nothing works quite well enough. The cold continues, it’s exhausting. Everything takes on an air of mission impossible.

Packing away the tent for example. It has rained all night. Because of the cold, we’ve barricaded ourselves inside and the condensation is considerable. Everything’s wet. We’re wiping away the biggest drops. Our hands are frozen in less than five minutes. We put them in our pockets, wait for them to warm up and we return to work. At this rate, packing our gear takes three times longer than in “normal” conditions. Of course, it is night at 16:30. From start to finish, we only have about six hours to advance. When counting breaks for snacks, meals and coffee, it’s a little less than four hours. Suffice to say, celebrating the new year in Greece moves away a little more each day.

And yet solutions have been found!

The first of these genius ideas was to look p1350331for shelters to sleep under. With a roof over our heads, it’s easier to ventilate the tent and to pack it when dry in the morning. Cemeteries, churches, sports halls, bridges … We’ve even managed to spend a night in a chapel. No need to put up the tent nor to fold it.

p1350312The second change, we cook in the evening for two meals. At noon, it is enough for us to leave our lunch box, to eat and leave without taking too much time off from the saddle. We also take advantage of the evening to make tea and get well hydrated. Drinking when the water is about to freeze is not so appetising.

best gant everThird innovation, washing up gloves. With a budget of less than 1 euro, they’ve transformed our springtime gloves into a small jewel of technology. Waterproof, windproof and rather fetching. Almost. Once you start to sweat, everything is damp. Now they serve us to clean our bikes without getting our dirty hands and to do the dishes without getting our fingers wet.

All these solutions are not quite enough to give us the rest we need. It’s good to pedal but it’s also necessary to relax and enjoy. Simone, Lisa, Hannes, Christine, thank you. Without your welcome, we would not have arrived here. What a pleasure to meet you on the road. What a chance to enjoy your heated rooms, your washing machines, and especially your support and friendship. From Amsterdam to Marburg to Regensburg, the journey was long and full of emotion. And that’s just the beginning! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycle paths: definition

Crash LandingIn the Netherlands

Red lanes allow cyclists and some other two-wheeled vehicles to travel from one point to another via the shortest route, avoiding detours and with maximum safety. At every crossroad there are signposts. The signs show place names alongside accurate, reliable distances. Any work on cycle lanes is clearly visible and a clear alternative is set up when necessary.

Pedalling in the Netherlands was a delight. The bike is a mode of transport like any other. Indeed, the cycle path network is thought of in the same manner as a national road network. From Rotterdam you can reach Amsterdam without needing a map. Cyclists are safe everywhere and all the time. The distance they have to travel from one point to another is always shorter than for larger motorised modes of transport. The result is an unusual silence at rush hour in the capital, incredible friendliness and a much more humane way to share space than we have ever seen.

What surprised us the most is that this system seemed relatively new. Forty years ago, just as elsewhere in Europe, the car was King. After a spate of children were injured and worse many took to the streets in protest. Since then, urban planning has evolved. Roads are designed to guarantee maximum security for all.

Bikes of all shapes anclogbiked colours and for all uses are everywhere to be seen, for all. We saw electric bikes with three wheels for the older generation, cargo bikes to carry up to six children, a bike to push a person in a wheelchair…

 

On the bicycle paths of the capital, the tourist is a real problem. While the locals seem to have a sixth sense of two-wheeled traffic, foreigners drown in a sea of bikes and the cacophony of bells is not uncommon. We had the chance to be introduced to the highway code by Simone, our Dutch friend and hostess. To indicate that one turns to the right or to the left, a discreet movement of the wrist is sufficient. To signal a passing by the left, a simple ring of the bell is enough. To identify who has priority, simply identify the ‘shark’s teeth’ that accompany the white lines on the ground. If they point to you, you must give way or you’ll be bitten. Finally, when you are pedestrians, deploy your panoramic vision and look in all directions before crossing a road or cycle path, cyclists are everywhere. You are quite safe on the pavement, the walking path is reserved for pedestrians and if you’re caught cycling a swift dressing down by a local will let you know your mistake quickly. If our explanations are not clear enough, watch the hilarious video uploaded by the tourist office of Amsterdam.

Lost in Venlo, unable to find the border with Germany as the light fades, a Dutchman flys out of the dusk to accompany us to the border. Richard, in a blue collar shirt and clogs returns from work on his bike and tells us of his and his bicycle’s travels in Europe.

In Germany

Cycle lanes are designed to keep cyclists away from the road, ensuring unmatched driving comfort for motorists. Signs are mere accessories, cycle paths end in fields, offer mysterious access and/or the pedestrians are not inclined to share. Their use is mandatory, so motorists have the right to bip you to show you the right way. Riding on the bike path increases distances by up to thirty percent and are often complemented by numerous exhausting climbs and descents for a good variety of exercise. Lastly, cycling-speed-bumps unlit and unsigned might be put up on steep descents ensuring unexpected emergency braking!

barring the way

It was with a twinge of heart that we crossed the border with Germany. After having used the unique Dutch cycle network, we know that nothing will be the same. Once the sadness has passed, we find we’re pleasantly surprised. Here too, there are ways that are reserved for us everywhere. Our first hundred kilometres are away from cars. Passers-by stop and help when they see us hesitating in front of our map. Arriving in Cologne, a local invites us to follow him. Christian and his folding bike take us on a guided tour of his hometown. The next day, we decide to follow the green cycling signs rather than the gps. At the end of the day, decisions are made. The marked trails have lengthened our route by 20km. On a day of one hundred kilometers, that’s a lot. Especially since you do not really avoid the hills. We will now prioritise navigation via gps and a map for the rest of our German stay.

Lisa and Hannes are waiting for us tonight in Marburg. 95 kilometres to go, with the assurance of a warm, dry bed tonight. As we have just started the first climb, Hannes calls us. He wants to join us today to pedal. The appointment is made, Hannes’ hometown, Siegen, at noon.

We set off as a three. After a giant picnic, Giant picnicwe deviate from our initial itinerary to follow a route that Hannes has heard about. It seems that it is beautiful and there are no climbs. Motivated and delighted with this surprise visit, we push on in good spirits between streams and forests awash with autumn colour. As darkness approaches, we still have not started the famous downhill. We arrived at Marburg at 9pm, exhausted but satisfied with this odd day shared, in spite of the extension of over twenty-five kilometres!

The grand departure

20.10.16

Chaotic start.

No passport, no credit card.

And we're offNo depart without a false start. As usual, we haven’t been able to leave without forgetting something. Ready, we take off without my passport. I left it in France and it’s on the way via post to the UK.  Adam’s parents will have to send them to our next destination, maybe the Netherlands, maybe Germany.

Without a map.

Arriving in Lincoln, it was decided to not follow the GPS, allowing us to take a picture in front of the cathedral. Since we have 300km left in England we didn’t buy a map. Our navigation is based only on this jewel ofLincoln Cathedral technology. Problem is with the route being so long it doesn’t appreciate our change in course.  We are lost and so is it. After long minutes waiting, it has recalculated the route and leave.

With the rain.

While it starts raining, we realise that the detour of a few meters has added ten kilometers.  In waterproof jackets and trousers, we chow down some cereal bars before leaving.  Without fuel for cooking.  Our stove runs on petrol.  It’s cheaper than gas and crucially it’s easier to source since we have only to stop at any petrol pump. But not today. Forbidden from filling our bottle.  Health and safety reasons. Any negotiation is impossible, their only solution is to purchase a jerry can and a minimum of five litres, enough fuel for a month…

Each problem has its solution.

The sky cleared up. Workers who have overheard our conversation at the petrol station kindly fill our bottles.  Passport Hand-offAdam’s Dad arrives and hands over my passport and credit cards, delivered by the postman a mere hour post departure.  To be sure to finish off the day strong, we listen carefully to the GPS. Night falls quickly and it’s time to pitch the tent. In a copse between a field and a stream. Regardless of the short distance, we’ve left.

Chamonix

Two years in a van…

It’s been two years that we’ve lived in that van. That small two metre squared house on wheels. A bed, a cooker, an oven, a fridge, lights, shelves for our clothes and boxes for our climbing, alpinism, cycling and camping gear. A solar panel allows us to charge our phones and to run the heater in winter. The height of luxury, we’ve got a library full of mountaineering guidebooks and maps from here to eternity. We repurpose three five litre containers that we fill up once a week with water. The membership at the climbing gym gives us the possibility of a shower during opening times. We need only walk two minutes to reach the public toilet. We try always to park where no one will be disturbed. Discretion, cleanliness, respect and politeness are our watchwords.

 

Van Hiver

Why? Freedom, low environmental impact, off-grid independence, daily contact with nature. A simple existence reduced to the essential.

How? Working. The money we save in rent, we spend on our passions. Skis, crampons, bikes, always saving for our Long Journey.

Are we dangerous? We are conscious that if everyone lived like us, it would be complicated to manage. The fact remains however that few would sign up for this way of life. Getting dressed before work at -15°C, renouncing your coffee because the water is frozen? Bending over backwards to find your jacket under the bed?

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We aren’t harmful to anyone. So why are we pointed out? Despised? Denounced as vulgar thugs? It’s been two years that we live in a van together. Two years we don’t understand. This morning, whilst cycling to work, I nearly got run over by a bus. I called the police. Nothing they can do for this dangerous driving. This afternoon, the police came to see me.
Are you the one parked here?
Yes.
It’s time to move on, we have had a call from some disturbed neighbours.

Is that really the role of the police? Ensuring that everyone fits the mould? Instead of making the roads safer, they tell me to leave for choosing to live differently. We rest within the law, nothing we do is illegal. Is it that hard to understand that our lifestyle is a choice? That it hurts nothing but conformity. One’s freedom stops where another’s starts. We don’t impose upon nor take away your freedom. We ask only for respect in kind.

… In Chamonix

A valley of contrast. Between luxurious chalets for millionaires in transit and random vans wherein dwell passionate climbers. Between crowded paved streets and indomitable mountains. Between touristy cable car summits and wide open wild spaces.

A small town looking like a big one. Russian and British, Portuguese and Irish, Japanese and Spanish, Parisian and Marseillais. They come by choice to these streets. Accents are mixed-up, languages become combined. The baguette is King but the speaking of French remains but an accessory.
Nose in the air, feet on the ground. Profit at any price is devastating, the pollution news-breaking. Seasonnaires, sometimes exploited, struggle to enjoy a defiled paradise. Glaciers are melting while asthma is spreading. The climate emergency is palpable and measures are slow to be taken. Cyclists remain unloved, buses reserved for tourists, land being sold mercilessly. But the resistance is here as well. Discrete but active. Organised or natural. Some locals share their gardens. Some alpinists guide with passion. Some shop owners give priority to human contact over contactless payment.

Towards a new adventure.

The moment we’ve awaited and feared in equal measure is upon us. Departure, goodbyes. Two bikes, two harnesses, one rope. Ready to discover the world, climb crags big and small, to live an adventure. Our permanent contract with Adventure is signed. Adieu the house on wheels, bonjour the life on two wheels. What’s in store? Open working hours that are paid in happiness and a nomadic lifestyle with unknowns at every turn.
What drives us? The desire for a simple daily life, a vital need of freedom, the foolish dream of leaving only a trace in the memory of our visit. Pedalling. Eating. Climbing. Sleeping. Being amazed. And repeat.
Weather forecasts see us over heating our tanks, bursting our banks. The newspaper spins us depression, war and closing borders. The planet still goes round and our lives still run on the clock. Clocking out, we have no deadline, chasing and being chased by time is tiring and frustrating. From the UK, we’ll cycle, due East. Get a boat to America, North to South. Cross to Africa to come full circle.

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Dolomites, Pizza, Landslides

Adam writes a couple of stories and the lessons learned from our bike tour to the Dolomites in Spring 2015.

LESSONS LEARNED/WHEN NOTHING GOES RIGHT

Being my first bike tour it was always going to be full of lessons.

We’d chosen a route from the French Alps, roughly crossing the Swiss and Italian Alps and then arriving in the Dolomites in North Western Italy.  I knew it would be a touch hilly, crossing many alpine cols that are apparently famous in the road cycling world, albeit this time with all our gear and not a centimetre of lycra in sight.  Perhaps foolishly I wasn’t concerned about the cycling, more the cars on the road.  I figured I was fit and always keen for adventure – enthusiasm is what I normally rely on to see these things through.  I also knew at the end we’d climb in the Dolomites, somewhere I’d been wanting to go for a while.  DollysDespite being limestone (a rock I say I don’t like because I’m not very good at climbing it) it’s an area famous in the climbing world for huge walls, some of the biggest in Europe.

The first lesson came quickly.  5km quickly.  We’d been following googlemaps with an experimental ‘bike mode’ which seemingly took us on a route avoiding a major road.  We’d just completed the first climb of the day, of my life, with full paniers.  It was much slower than I’d imagined but less painful, tiring nonetheless.  We arrived at a dead end.  “Straight on here” I shouted confidently to inform Noémie of what the oracle (googlemaps) was telling us to do.  I looked up.  A wall of nettles blocked the way.  We dismounted.  Skirting around the undergrowth we found that the paved road on googlemaps was, indeed, a freshly ploughed field.  Return to go.  Googlemaps went in the bag and out came the map.  Lesson learned.

Later on that first day we were cycling slowly but surely up a steep gradient.  Persistently winding and narrow we were concerned with the traffic.  You certainly feel less stable with a 40kg bike when you’re only going 5-6km/h up a hill and cars, buses and trucks are passing too close for comfort.  We spied an offshoot further up, we stopped for a rethink.  We found a single track lane that from the map was clearly the old road.  Narrower and steeper, perhaps, but with fewer large vehicles and arriving at our destination – easy decision.  An hour of steep cycling later we came across police tape barring the road, the bridge was closed. 

Road Closed Ahead

Looking across it seemed impassable for motor vehicles, but with bikes it looked fine.  We had the option of crossing or returning the way we came and dealing with the main road.  After crossing the bridge we cycled on a suspiciously thin road with a lot of debris around before arriving at an obvious landslide.  Unloading all of our gear and passing the landslide by foot, we took the bags one by one, once again remounting them on the other side of the pile of rock, mud and broken wood.  100m further on we found yet another slide, we pressed on, this time crossing a shallow stream that had formed making the traverse even more time consuming.  On the other side of the debris we re-found the tarmac and made comparatively quick progress towards the local church which would be our campsite for the night.  With a little adventurous spirit, will and patience you can go nearly anywhere on a bike, lesson learned.

Landslide

Soon after, we’d just finished Simplon Pass, a stunning col that took us all day to climb – not helped by roadworks and an efficient Swiss traffic light system that gave us nowhere near enough time to pass between the check points, resulting in a game of chicken with huge trucks and coaches of tourists.  You certainly notice when you cross the border from Switzerland to Italy.  The potholes suddenly appear and the traffic lights are replaced by a smoking Italian with a red/green sign.  After spending the day climbing the col we descended quickly, the speed dizzying after the days exertions.  We found a river and searched out an appropriate campsite to wash, eat and sleep.  The cold water was refreshing and well needed, we hadn’t seen a shower in a time and we felt renewed.  It hadn’t rained for days and it certainly didn’t look like it was going to.  We’d been in the mountains and the hot sticky atmosphere of the wide, low valley convinced us to put up the tent without the rainfly.  We left our clothes out to dry, deciding we were tired and would tidy them in the morning. 

0330 we awake to the sound of rain on our inner tent.  The drops are bullying their way through the mesh.  It’s raining.  Hard.  With a start we sit up at the same time, remember we have left everything outside.  We jump clear of the sleeping bags and find the head torches.  Naked, we run backwards and forwards collecting our equipment and working together to put the rain fly on the tent.  It’s not long before we realise that the perfect campsite we found is, in fact, the overflow for the river.  We find sandals 10m away, trapped in rocks, taken by the new torrent.  We move the tent to a seemingly safe island between the two rivers and spend a restless night hoping the overflow and river don’t become a whole.  Be careful around rivers, lesson learned.

SKI PISTE DESCENT

Busy roads quickly gave into narrow mountain switchbacks as we climbed slowly through the Beaufort valley early on the trip.  The air felt heavy, the bags heavier as we passed the bewildered stare of a farmer working his fields. 

Farmer

We’d planned to cross col du Joly and descend to St Gervais, from here we could access the Chamonix valley and cross into Switzerland.  Most told us there was no way through to St Gervais without retracing our steps and taking another col, but we were already half way up this one.  One man told us there were some ski pistes that led down to the other side after the col du Joly but certainly no roads.  A fire was lit in our minds. 

Col du Joly

We arrived at the top of the col seeing a mountain we normally see daily, this time from a perspective we’ve never seen.  We rest and drink water.  There are other people here, motorcyclists group around in their clique, a family jump out of an SUV quickly to take photos, it feels like a dead end.  Time to leave.  Helmets on, we start down a gravel path in the vague direction of Mont Blanc.  So far so good.  The path descends gently and lulls us into thinking this is going to be straightforward.  We start to see St Gervais far below in the valley.  Fifteen minutes later we’re bouncing around the woods on a red piste, dodging rocks and skidding in the mud, we have to stop to let our rims cool down we’re braking so much.  We pass a couple of groups of startled hikers but other than that we see few people until we reach the main road to St Gervais.    

VAJOLET TOWERS

We’d been camped under the Vajolet Towers for 4 days, eaten all our food and so needed to descend to the valley that night.  We came to climb the three towers that make up this formation that rises in typical dolomitic fashion – these limestoneTyrolean towers, an impressive sight, were made famous by the documentary film “Cliffhanger”.  Over the past three days we’d had persistent trouble with the weather, never more than half a day of stable conditions.   We’d spent our time doing a few shorter climbing routes in the vicinity and a via ferrata covered in snow and blanketed in fog.

Thick Fog Via F

This day seemed different.  When the sun rose over the surrounding circle of peaks it revealed clear skies and shone done onto our camp with baking heat. 

All hands on deck to complete our daily ritual.  Break down the tent, roll the mats, stuff the sleeping bags, pack up the paniers, coffee, breakfast, ready to leave.  Lock the bikes together and hide them in a sizeable bush away from any prying eyes.  We take our climbing gear and set off to gain the approach path for the towers.  Before long we’re sweating, drinking water and losing layers.  We start the steep final approach to the towers, it couldn’t be hotter and it’s a relief that we’re going to have a full day in the mountains at last.  Following a series of iron ladders and steel cables through scrambling terrain we pick our way up the loose rock to the base of the route. 

Looking up at these eruptions of limestone with striking aretes overlooking an alpine lake I get excited, at the foot of the first tower I quickly rack the gear onto my harness and tie in.  The air is thick with excitement and tension, as always before starting a climb.  The air was thick for a reason.  Above us a cloud rollsPizza over the top of the peak and signals it’s presence with a thunder clap.  It’s black, menacing and looks all too familiar from the storms of the last week.  Flowing over from the blind side of the mountain we didn’t see it coming and we are soon engulfed in a tidal wave of hail, thunder, lightning and thick fog.  Needless to say we turned tail and ran, quite literally to get off the exposed plateau and back to the bikes.  That night we began our cycle to Trento, leaving the range, drowning our weather woes with a pizza the size of a bike wheel.

Video – Family Bike Trip

via rhona

Two days of cycling along the Rhône with family. 100km between Pont de Beauvoisin and Belley. Some hills, beautiful landscapes, nice wild camp, summery weather, successful bike tour for all.

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http://www.cyclable.com/blog/2016/04/26/small-world-on-a-bike/

Mexican camping, fishing for dorado and a whale watching

This text is an extract of Noémie’s tale of her trip between Vancouver and Cancun in 2014. 70 A4 pages have been written to tell the story of 102 days spent on the road. The final read through is in process with the aim of sharing or publishing. It’s hard work so any comments or advice would be welcome.  Link below:

Mexican camping, fishing for dorado and whale watching