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.

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