Thursday, November 15, 2007

Colourful panniers

We have been looking at new panniers for my Dahon Speed TR recently. The 24L offered by my trusty Carradice Camper Longflap saddlebag is bit small for trips of several weeks especially if we are camping. I towed a trailer on the last trip, but as soon as the going gets rough a two wheeled trailer is difficult to tow. One line of thinking is a single wheeled trailer, not only the BOB, but the much lighter Extrawheel ( We have still not solved the problem, but I did notice that most bag manufacturers offer basically black bags with highlights in grey - OK a range of greys - mouse grey, lead grey, steel grey, ash grey, light grey and dark grey, but still grey. There are noticeable exceptions - Ortlieb and Vaude, but their bags tend to be a single colour.
I was very pleased to find the Dutch company Clarijs Covers ( who offer a range of plastic coated cloth panniers with cover, sides and ends in any of 18 colours and they will even put your name on the reflective strips. Red, orange and purple panniers are possible. The company also makes 'shoppers' (shopping bags) that fit into the larger panniers. The company will fit a ring on to the pannier to allow it to be locked onto the bike. I cannot see Dutch cyclists buying rubbish, so the panniers should be hard wearing offering a long life. It may actually reduce the attraction of the bike to thieves if your name is on a bag locked onto the frame.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The perfect squelch

We were in Carcassone with two touring bikes and a trailer. We had been camping but we'd decided to go to a B&B as the weather had turned distinctly cold. We parked the two bikes outside the tourist office at the end of a parking bay. I went into the office to get the addresses of B&Bs farther along the Canal du Midi. It was the wrong office and we were directed to another tourist office under the walls of the Cité. Meanwhile a small printer's van drew up outside and the driver suggested to Judith in no uncertain terms she put the bikes on the pavement effectively blocking it and he would stick the vehicle's nose in the space left by our bikes (thus also blocking the street.). He wanted to deliver some printing. Judith refused.
Driver:"Madame I am working. You are only on holiday."
Judith: "Without us and our money monsieur, you would have no work!"
Driver drove off in high dudgeon and blocked the footpath himself.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bike, long distance touring for the use of

We get asked from time to time what the best bike is to cycle on long distance European trails like the Rhine or the Danube. "Shall I bring my road bike or my mountain bike?" We are of the opinion that a touring bike is better than either a road bike or a mountain bike, since it is easier to carry luggage and can cope with occasional gravel trails. Otherwise really which you choose depends on the kind of route you want to take. We're currently in the process of completing a book about cycling in Switzerland so we've seen a lot of Swiss cycle trails in the last 12 months and are currently at home in Germany having been defeated by 9 inches of late snow in the mountains above Lucerne! We have several meisterwerks in print in English, including one about the Rhine from Basel to Rotterdam, and there are plenty of cycle routes in the Netherlands between Nijmegen and Amsterdam. From Zürich Swiss national route 5 can be accessed just north of the city and links with Route 8 along the R. Aare to its confluence with the Rhine upstream of Basel. A more sporting route would be to swing west from Neuchatel onto Route 7 through the Jura to Basel. These routes link minor roads and are superbly well signposted, plus there are plenty of places to stay. They do use forest and farm trails where necessary, hence the point about touring bikes. If you decide to bring either of the other two then one point to bear in mind is that it is better to carry your gear on the bike rather than on your back and that it can rain in Europe in summer. We met two Canadians recently on road bikes who had had to hike along a rough trail plus puddles happen after rain so mudguards come in handy. People do cycle on major roads, apart from autobahns, we just don't care for the noise and the fumes. We've done our research on Dahon Speed TR folding bikes which coped with everything so far apart from the 9 inches of snow.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Untried or tried and found wanting!

Untried and untested
We’ve often written advice about trying out equipment and reading instructions in our guides before setting off on tours. Like everyone else we frequently ignore this ourselves. Bikes after all are bikes and the basic principles of repair and maintenance apply whether they are foldies or mountain bikes. Or do they? Bicycle mechanics would probably assure us otherwise as technical changes and new systems of gearing have moved apace recently. We’d set off for Switzerland to fill in some gaps on the lowland routes using our Dahon Speed TR folding bikes. It was Sunday and the morning mist rolled back as we sweated up the hill from the Lake Constance ferry point to the city of Konstanz itself.
At the hilltop Neil's chain jammed. The usual hooking with the knife can opener failed to free it. A nearby church porch offered shade and protection from helpful passers-by as it seemed probable that the back wheel would have to come out. At this point he removed the Sram gear changer, which just slips off and was just about to loosen the wheel nuts when I suggested taking the luggage off and turning the bike upside down to reduce tension on the chain. I have bad memories of early tussles with Brompton back wheels and of course the instructions were, in the interests of weight saving, back in Viernheim. Suddenly the chain came free and Neil restored the Sram fitting. Both of us shed some clothing and munched down a sandwich and pasty bought en route in Wasserburg.
We got back on the bikes prepared to whizz through Konstanz and out along the north bank of the Bodensee in fine style. Hmm - it turns out that to reattach a Sram changer needs a qualification in Fine Mechanics 101 and the patience of Job. For the uninitiated our Dahons have theoretically 21 gears. A handlebar lever operates the Sram hub gears in three ranges, whilst a twist Derailleur offers 7 variations in each range. It sounds complicated but works like a charm since you can flick the Sram into high or low when sudden ascents or descents present themselves. Inspection of my Sram revealed a yellow bar, missing on Neil's which also failed to offer him most of the 21 options. More fiddling brought some improvement and he opted to grin and bear it for the rest of the trip to Gailingen, a German semi-enclave surrounded by Switzerland on three sides on the north bank of the Rhine. The final section is along a walker's path through the woods, up a steep climb, fairly tortuous on a healthy bike and a real grind on a sick one, so we were relieved to reach our overnight destination. Unlikely under the circumstances of the missing gears on Neil's bike and the knowledge that Swiss bike shops are closed on Mondays. (Don't ask us, it was a Monday of course). We stocked up on necessities in Euroland Gailingen and headed along a green silent Rhine into Schaffhausen, pinning our hopes on a bikebuilder who had correctly fettled Neil's front fork assembly last year. He was 'away in Taiwan, at a bike show, back tomorrow'. All the other four shops were...closed so we continued, along, up and down past the Rhine Falls, eschewing the pay toilets at the Falls in favour of a woodland view. On through some delightful small villages until we hit a long rough section through lovely woods by Zurzach, every tree producing pollen by the ton, my eyes said, and eventually over the Rhine into Germany by late afternoon. My front fork assembly had reacted badly to the Rhine gravels and suddenly the bike was unrideable as it yawed and strayed from the intended course. This was no joke since hoards of Swiss shoppers were pouring by car into the Euroland shops (and more importantly the customs office where they reclaim the German VAT in Rheinheim), whilst German workers were returning home from better paid jobs in Switzerland. Fortunately we knew of a cycle repair shop here and I walked the last few yards, pushing my sick bike. The mechanic looked somewhat bemused as the handlebars waggled in all directions and I revealed the seat of the problem by folding back the handlebars. No one looked hopeful. However in 15 mins or so he returned, not convinced he had cured the problem and refused to take any payment. Amazingly to date I've had no further problems, nor have the handlebars slipped sideways on rough paths. Under the circumstances Neil felt he could not mention the Sram problem so he persevered up some horrible hills until we reached our overnight stop with friends. Early next morning another local mechanic did some more fiddling with the Sram until he persuaded another lever to click and hold and Neil finally had a full set of gears, very useful as the route includes many short steep climbs and downhills. So clearly we’ll have to bore even more holes in our toothbrush handles to compensate for the weight of the instructions next time we set off - and take our own instructions to heart!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Finding somewhere to lay your head

I am loathe to mention the products of organisations, other than our own or the one we are writing a book for, but I think I need to make an exception for one series of Esterbauer Books: “Bett und Bike”, which includes Bed and Bike Flandern (Flanders) (ISBN 978-3-85000-255-7). The ADFC, a German cyclist club laid down a list of specifications some time ago for bike friendly hotels. Hotels wishing to join the scheme have to agree to provide lockable bike accommodation, carbohydrate rich breakfasts for cyclists, accept folk for one night, public transport information and other similar things. This does mean that the smaller B&Bs where cheapskates like me prefer to stop, cannot match all of these criteria and so don't appear whereas the major chains and more expensive houses can offer all of these facilities, do. I would personally prefer to include say the hotels/guest houses/B&Bs that take folk for one night and encourage people to offer some of the other facilities. I do have the impression that the ADFC approach is also designed to improve the public image of cyclists as not always stopping in B&Bs and Youth Hostels. The latter however are included in the German volumes. The books cover Flanders, i.e North Belgium, all of Germany and a few hotels in Luxembourg. You can check out the accommodation lists by going to the ADFC website ( but you will need some German. The Flanders book also does not mention the Trekkershutten which are simple wooden huts with four berths and cooking facilities mainly on commercial campsites. They cost around €40 a night. You need to take a sleeping bag, but that's all. We have used them and they are superb value for money. ( Click on the “Zoek een Hut” button to see a map of where the Dutch ones are and then click on the Belgian flag at the bottom to see the ones in Flanders.) Flanders is a great place to go cycling. Lots of history, some but not too many hills and the beer is good too.
The idea has also spread to Switzerland. Veloland Schweiz the Swiss cycling Foundation has produced a similar guide called “Velo & Bett” (ISBN: 3-85932-522-1) covering the whole country. You can find the same information on the Veloland Schweiz website ( as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Almond Blossom Time

Some places go mad about roses, New England boasts about dying leaves, Japan goes wild about blooming cherries and with Ginmeldingen it is almond blossom. Hmm, Ginmeldingen, perhaps not a place on everyone’s lips, and to be honest a really tiny place, close to the rather small Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, which lies about 25 km southwest of Ludwigshafen, in Germany. (Tip, find Heidelberg then look slightly northwest on the left bank on the Rhine.) This is where the Rhine flows northwards through a rift valley bordered on the west by the hills of Rheinland Pfalz and on the east by the Odenwald. The Rhine lowlands have sandy soils excellent for growing asparagus and salad crops but the east and southfacing slopes of the Pfalzerwald are excellent for wine production. This is the German equivalent of big wine country with large vineyards, many still in the hands of families, sloping uphill to the steeper wooded hill crests. For days our local paper had been praising the excellence of this year’s almond blossom, about a month a head of schedule and undamaged by biting winds or heavy rain. So we abandoned our garden tools and switched off the computer, made a sandwich, filled the water bottles and set off on our Bromptons to hitch a ride by tram and suburban train over the Rhine to the vineyards.
Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, with its mix of mundane shops and imposing villas of wealthy vintners was soon left behind as we rode uphill and onto the Weinstrasse, the Wine Road that links the wine villages and towns here. It is an ancient trade route, predating the Romans and some of the villages have a long history, as we soon discovered. Almost immediately we encountered our first almond trees, certainly very fetching with their pink and white flowers against the mainly blue sky. Some high cirrus had replaced the deep cloudless blue of the previous day but did not obscure the sun. Some of the almond trees have been here for years, burly multibranched specimens but others are much more recent and both the size and the colour of the blooms varied. Other cyclists on mountain bikes headed to the higher slopes but many were like us, out for a day’s jaunt in no particular hurry.
In Ginmeldingen itself, a spring line village with a small stream running down a deep valley flanked by an assortment of old and new houses and farms we came across a reference to Mithras, the ancient Persian god of light. A replica of a stone relief, deeply weathered, showing a bull and various figures sits in a wall close to where the original (now in a museum) was found during building work. Whether the cult was brought here by the Romans or Celtic traders is unknown but does emphasise how long people have been around and travelling through this region. Around Ginmeldingen the vine growers had set up branches and tables under the almond trees, for at the weekends there are dawn to dusk wine tastings and no doubt wine can even be transported home for those cyclists who have forgotten their panniers. In the week, the garden centres were open offering almond trees for planting at home and the cafes and restaurants providing hot meals throughout the day to those walking the almond trail with sticks and rucksacs or the day cyclists like ourselves.
We continued our gentle ride, now up into the vine groves where young men pruned the vines ferociously back to one or two shoots, now down towards the other little spring-line settlements. One of these is Deidesheim, with some very large villas and wine producers and where, the story goes former German Chancellor Kohl, a rather large and chubby man, used to pop in to the Deidesheimer Hof restaurant for a Sunday blow out of Saumagen (don’t ask but think haggis and pink porkers) and Sauerkraut. Deidesheim, like the other little towns around first belonged to various local princes, then the Bishop of Speyer, then the French and for a long time it was part of Bavaria. This happened when the local Wittelsbacher became King of Bavaria. Not until after WW II did this part of the world become Rheinland-Pfalz. Interesting how many politicians today seem to think any change of allegiance will be too much for the peasantry to understand. Most of mainland Europe has been waking up for centuries to find that not only do they have to fight for or pay taxes to someone they’ve only dimly heard of, their religion has changed overnight too, from Protestant to Catholic or vice versa. In recent years most of these little communities have grown comfortably well off, from the proceeds of wine, tourism or the booming market in fresh vegetables and salads. A network of fast roads links them to the Autobahn system and buses wait by the S-bahn stations to carry shoppers or workers in Ludwigshafen or Mannheim the last kilometre home. Property prices are lower than in the urban centres, thick dialects are still used but people are pretty close to mainstream 21st century life.
In Wachenheim, home of some major Sekt or sparkling wine makers we turned gently downhill and headed towards Ludwigshafen, Mannheim’s twin city on the left bank of the Rhine. Perhaps we’d lost our skill at route finding or perhaps there were simply too many local routes, we missed a turn here or there and when we saw a welcome S-bahn station in Maxdorf we decided to throw in the towel for the day. No doubt there are people who love Ludwigshafen, just as there are those who adore Hartlepool or Felixstowe but I have to feel very strong to want to cross the place from side to side by bike It is a bit of a concrete jungle. So we rode the rails into Mannheim and onwards to home and a well deserved cup of tea. However the local paper was right. It was too schön to miss.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Getting back on the bikes

We never really get off the bikes completely since our small German town is almost flat and even in a ‘normal’ winter there are few snowed in or iced up days. Last Friday temperatures were a spring like 12°C so we headed into Mannheim by bike to visit a friend in hospital. It’s a trip of about 10km or so, beginning in fields and woods and ending up on a cycleway alongside a busy city artery, then a short swing along the Neckar flood embankment into the blessed quiet of walkers and the occasional chugging boat’s diesel. On our return trip we opted for a spell along a leafy dual carriageway and then by allotments and underpasses back to Käfertal (Beetle valley!). Then parallel to the tramline, past the US army barracks and into Viernheim to shop and collect our post. It is not the most romantic bike ride in the world but we tried to keep the revs going, surged past a few surprised mountain bikers and certainly blew a few cobwebs away. Next day both of us were a bit surprised to notice tenderness in the nether regions, so we unearthed the padded bloomers before we set off again on our Bromptons. Close by there’s a chunk of forest, mixed deciduous and pines, a tiny remnant of a once great hunting forest belonging to the former monastery at Lorsch just to the north of us. It is crossed by a couple of Autobahns and for many years was a training area for US tanks and soldiers playing war games but most of it has now been returned for recreational use. Walkers, joggers, cyclists all with or without dogs find it a good place to be but once away from the major access points encounters fall off rapidly. Direction finding is not that easy but thanks to the Autobahns (crossed by bridges and tunnels and heard intermittently) it would be difficult to get lost completely. On Saturday we managed to find a new hill, an Ice Age sand dune, short and very steep and were surprised by two deer that exploded across our bows in a remote spot. Then we came upon a known place, the site of the Hunter’s Lodge, where generations of earlier Viernheimers picnicked, chatted and had assignations. Then it fell into disrepair, vandals burnt it from time to time and now there are memorial stones and a notice board with pictures of Victorian gents with trophies and guns, stern-faced matrons and serious children, just like those we have in our family albums of grandparents. Back home finally along the tarmac past the Small Animal Club, the Friends of the Carp and the Pigeon Fanciers clubhouses, with 18km on the clock and arms well shaken from the gravel trails.
More fine weather tempted us on Sunday to repeat the trip, this time on our Dahon folders, Big Apple tyres nicely inflated after a winter rest. Though we don’t really attempt to train both of us treated this as a time trial, upping our average speed by about 3 km/h over the Bromptons. We steamed up and over the new hill without difficulty because we changed down through our bigger range of gears in time. Since we remembered the way we were home in an hour and six minutes, thoroughly bounced about and with a top speed on the home tarmac of 30 km/h. No deer unfortunately but not bad for a couple of oldies who have spent the last few weeks desk bound writing up our Swiss adventures.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cycling in Hungary

I was sorting through the pile of maps we got at the Mannheim Tourist Fair and discovered an excellent map of the cycle routes in Hungary. This map and comments are in German, but it would be worthwhile contacting the Hungarian tourist Office in London to see if there is a map in English available. Hungary is nothing like as flat as I thought, although there are large areas of flatness for family holidays. From what I have heard it is a reasonably cheap country and you are not likely to meet many Brits. It might be worth thinking about.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Rhineland Palatinate

The recent warm weather has meant that many of us are looking at old and new cycling areas. The Pfalz as the Germans call the Palatinate is a wine-, fruit- and vegetable growing paradise in south-eastern Germany. The local farmers have got together with the regional tourism authority to develop a new map that links the 1400km of cycling routes in the area between the French border in the south, Ludwigshafen in the northwest and Bad Dürkheim in the northeast with the farms offering direct sales of produce including wine. This coupled with the nearby cathedrals in Strasbourg, Worms, Speyer and Mainz, and Heidelberg just to the west means that this is an ideal holiday area both for families, and wine loving souls. Not that the presence of the former rules out the latter. The new map is called Radkarte Pfalz and can be obtained from Pfalz-Touristik, Martin Luther Strasse 69, D 67433 Neustadt/Weinstrasse, eMail The web site is

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Saarland is not the smallest German province. That honour falls to the city states of Berlin, Bremen or Hamburg, but it is the smallest non city state. It borders France and Luxembourg. The French wanted to annex it in the 1940s when the iron and steel industries were flourishing and held a referendum to prove that the people of Saarland wanted to become French. It did not succeed and so Saarland remained a German province. Obviously the area has a long history of heavy industry–coal, iron and steel, but much of this is gone nowadays and Saarland is very green. Due to the proximity to France the cooking is excellent.
We went to the Mannheim Tourist Fair and picked up a brochure about the cycling in the Saarland, "Radfahren 2007" published by the Saarland Tourist Office: Tourismus Zentrale Saarland GmbH, Franz-Josef-Röder-Str. 17, 66119 Saarbrücken, Germany. It is in German, but the maps are easily understood. We noticed two routes in the booklet that could easily be combined to give an 800 km tour through Luxembourg, Lorraine and Saarland: Veloroute SaarLorLux and the Saarland–Radweg that runs round the border. There seems to be enough hills to satisfy the sporting fraternity and enough museums, historic sites and towns to satisfy the culture vultures. The local wines are excellent and the beer, at least in Germany is eminently drinkable.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

New cycling map of Alsace

We went to a travel fair in Mannheim recently. We were surprised at the number of stands displaying information about cycling (20%). We picked up an excellent map (le tout Bas-Rhin a Velo) of the Bas-Rhin Departement (Colmar to the German border) for free. The map shows all the French and German cycling routes in the Rhine Valley. There is also a 68 page booklet about the area in English, German and French, also free that you can get as well by writing to the Agence de developpement touristique du Bas-Rhin, 9 rue du Dome, F67000 Strasbourg, France. The Haut-Rhin Departement (to the south) appear to have a similar map which you can obtain from their tourist offices. Probably the easiest approach would be to try the French National Tourist Office.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Frankfurt Fair

No not the swings and roundabouts type but the exhibition grounds. I worked next door to the Frankfurt exhibition grounds. My employer ran the ACHEMA, the biggest chemical engineering exhibition in the world. Every year I had to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. The big exhibitions all have one thing in common, there is a vast amount of waste at the end that is thrown away or not as the case may be. I can remember talking to a student on our stand at the ACHEMA. The exhibition grounds offer short term employment to a lot of students. This character said that the flat that he shared with several others, had wall-to-wall carpets. During an exhibition they had spied out one or more stands with suitable carpets and at the end they went to the stands to chat up the tear-down team. They offered to take up the carpets as long as they could have them. The horny handed tons of soil were pleased to save themselves some effort and readily agreed. The last day of the book fair was infamous for the wholesale disposal of books some of which were sold for a bob or two under the hand and some of which were chucked in the bins. One of my friends used to plan out his final day's trip through the site by noting where the stands of interest were during his visits on the days previous.
I was reminded of all this during our trip yesterday to Frankfurt. We went to celebrate an ex-colleague's 49th birthday and car parking in the bit of Frankfurt where they live is nie on impossible, so we tend to park next to the DECHEMA, by the Messe, the exhibition grounds. As we arrived the Home Textile Exhibition came to an end. The scenes on the platform of the Messe Station were reminiscent of TV documentaries about oriental markets. People were carrying immense bundles out of the exhibition and staggering up the stairs. We actually saw one chinese guy staggering under the load of a bamboo pole with 4 cotton bale sized packets of sheets, towels or cloth hanging in pairs from the ends. Others moved in short jumps depositing a one bundle and nipping back to pick up a second one, before dumping that to return to the first etc. On our return at about 11:00 p.m. we met the cleaners, mainly from 3rd world countries, moving in groups clutching cases, bundles and parcels using the base cap - food dump technique to transport their goodies home. Who can blame them? The Messe does not pay well, at least, at the bottom of the tree and the chance to improve the comfort and looks of their homes cannot be sniffed at.

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