Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Accommodation for cycle tourists

Having written a number of books on cycle touring we are well aware of the problems of both finding and recommending accommodation, or as our American friends say, accommodations. We prefer the quaint old inn, or a good B&B not only because price plays a role, but also if we stop in a chain hotel they are good value for money, but whether one stops overnight in Memphis, Tennessee or Berlin, Germany they are basically the same. Trying to find these from a city's tourist office list can be difficult. In Germany one can use the Bett und Bike information put out by the ADFC, the German Cycle Club, but elsewhere it is not always easy, so I was pleased to come across a website put out by a German travel book publisher giving information about the hotels that their authors have used in almost 30 years of travelling: www.michael-mueller-verlag.de/hotel/index.html. The website can help one find an interesting place to stay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


We went out on 11th November for a short run into Mannheim to show an American friend how to reach the railway station and the pleasantest route across the town. On the way home the Dahon suffered a puncture in the rear tyre. As the regular reader of this blog knows I am a great devotee of folding bikes. We both own two small wheeled folding bicycles: a Brompton and a Dahon. Both get used more than our full sized "cumbersomes" and so suffer from punctures more often and invariably in the rear tyre. (A good example of Murphy's Law.) Removing the rear tyre is always more difficult and more oily because of the Dahon's derailleur and the Brompton's chain tensioner.
For some reason unknown other people's punctures are a source of great amusement (schadenfreude?) to others. When we lived in a block of flats I used to retreat to our cellar rather than repair the bike in front of the building to reduce the number of times I had to answer the question, "Got a puncture, then?" said with a knowing smirk. I don't have this problem any more now that we moved to a small house, but it is still a fiddly job replacing an inner tube. Schwalbe does offer a special puncture proof tyre, but not unfortunately for small wheels. When we were in Britain a year or so ago I picked up a packet of anti-puncture tapes. This fits between the tyre and the inner tube. Now I have had a puncture at home I have fitted one of these. I will report on how I go on.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The recession?

Europe is officially in recession. I just wish someone would tell my fellow shoppers in the Rhein Neckar Centre in Viernheim, so that on the occasions when we go by car we could find a convenient parking space. Today my wife observed a couple with two overflowing shopping trolleys coming out of "Toys R Us" in the RNZ. We needed to buy a new bathroom lamp in Bauhaus, our local DIY store today, but it was too full to shop in comfort. We will wait until Monday or Tuesday.
We saw our first Father Christmas dummy swinging from a balcony today!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Bierathlon

Although Viernheim does not normally feature in lists of great sporting ventures like the Olympic Games, marathons in cities like Berlin, London or New York, or even the Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii, the town has developed a new sport over the last four years: The Bierathlon. It is a 6km jog for two runners who carry a crate of beer (12 330ml bottles of Welde Pils - an excellent local beer) between them and have to drink this in the start and finish zone. They need to empty the bottles in the crate before crossing the finish line. Whether they both drink 2 litres is not laid down but there are penalty points for full bottles. There are prizes for male, female, mixed teams and for the best fancy dress. This year's winners achieved times of about half an hour. The event is a mixture of Karneval, Halloween and sport. There is a party afterwards which goes on to the early hours. It is obviously not a serious event though the mixed prize this year was taken by a pair of experienced triathlon competitors from Ladenburg. One could of course handicap trained athletes by replacing the Pils by a higher strength Bock or even Doppelbock.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Another advantage of cycling

We wanted to do our bit today to help Germany out of the impending Wirtsschaftsrezession (economic recession) and reduce our electricity bills. We've been thinking about buying a new freezer, because our chest freezer was already about 10 years old when we got married just over 20 years ago. It is time to invest in an A+ freezer. It was fine and sunny this morning, so we cycled into the industrial estate where the local electrical dealer has his shop. We had no trouble parking. Not needing to search for a parking place saves an amazing amount of time and frustration. We bought a deep freeze and arranged to have it delivered. It would have been a bit big to fit over the Brompton's front wheel.
Afterwards we decided to go to a nearby large electronics supermarket to look at cheap and cheerful DVD players. Our old one has been on the blink for six months or so. Again we could park outside without raising the heartbeat rate. Admittedly we did not buy anything large: The box containing the player we bought fitted in the front bag of the Brompton, no trouble at all and was held in by an elasticated net with hooks we picked up in a motor bike shop some years ago. We were not however moving a ton or so of steel around to carry us two and a small box.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The advantages of the moral high ground

One of the problems of being a cyclist is that one really does occupy the moral high ground. This. of course, means that the various members of the cycling community feel that they can cycle through red lights, down one way streets the wrong way and on pavements. Unfortunately this is plain daft, because it gives us as cyclists a poor image and could get some poor cyclist flattened or some pedestrian injured. It is better that one enjoys the moral high ground and endeavours to obey the traffic laws, even though they are at times stupid. One should not expect any reward. Virtue is its own reward, surely?
However sometimes being a cyclist pays off in unexpected ways. Today for example I took the bike towing a trailer full of old paint tins and more aggressive cleaning agents to Viernheim's rubbish/garbage collection depot. Once a month in addition to having three bins: Bio, paper and the remainder with bottle banks all over town, we can take "dangerous" chemicals to the depot. I arrived and joined a queue of three or four cars and stood waiting to get rid of my trailer full. The dustbin man (garbage collector) directing traffic pointed to me and beckoned me forward. I assume because the others in the queue could sit in the warmth and listen to their radio whereas I needed to stand, I was allowed to jump the queue. Five minutes later I was away with an empty trailer. Wonderful.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Other countries, other problems!

We live in Germany and so do not suffer from the problems faced by cyclists in the UK, i.e. rabid motorists, pedestrians. A recent comment in the excellent AtoB Magazine (www.atob.org.uk) by a Dutch lady was "Only the mad people still ride bicycles in Britain." Germany is well equipped with cycleways that are not a foot wide painted strip down the side of the road. The cycleways do not come up to Dutch standards but in contrast to the UK, Germany is cycling heaven with 40,000km of cycle touring routes and excellent routes in towns and cities. We can cycle the 10-12km into the centre of Mannheim in about 30 minutes or the 20 or km to Heidelberg in somewhat over an hour following a mixture of quiet roads and motor free cycleways. There is one problem especially during rush hours: other cyclists. The folk who cycle these routes every day do not take prisoners and do not find it necessary to use a bell or even call out. One is ambling along enjoying the autumn sun and is suddenly almost shoved out the way by a muscular commuter on a mountain bike who shoots past us closer than either of us finds comfortable. There is an answer to this. We went cycling this summer along the Romantic Road with Experience Plus an American touring cycling company, as guides not as customers. We found out that their customers call out "Cyclist left passing"as they come up behind to pass and they wait until it is convenient for all parties that they pass. It makes for much more pleasant cycling.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Eight-hundred barbecues and 1636 cooks

We have over the years eaten picnics in some odd places. We could not always choose where to sit when we were researching the Swiss cycle touring guide, for example and so our picnic spots were many and varied: a bus shelter in a major city in the rain and road side picnic table with a view of the Eiger as examples. However we have never cooked and eaten lunch on the steps of a town hall along with several hundred others. One of the local radio stations Radio Regenbogen (Rainbow Radio) has been issuing challenges to each of the smaller towns hereabout at 07:07 each morning: One particular community needed to produce 1000 bras; another needed to recreate the Oktoberfest including Japanese tourists taking photographs; another needed to recreate the story of the Princess and the pea with a hundred mattresses and a young woman in princess gear. In each case it is important that several hundred or even a thousand people turn up. If the town wins the bet a community organisation wins a few thousand € to buy something new.
Yesterday Viernheim was challenged to have a grill party with at least 500 barbecues and each with two cooks. In addition a cook from a restaurant with at least one star should be present. (He came from a Mannheim restaurant, having heard the challenge on the radio.) This should be in place by 12:00. We found a dusty grill in the greenhouse and managed as well to find an ancient bag of charcoal briquettes. These were popped in the bike trailer and we cycled to the Apostelplatz in front of the town hall. We remembered to take some matches and some food:  four sausages, a pepper and two tomatoes. The square was full: Gas grills, electric grills, charcoal grills, and some bright spark had bought about two hundred disposable picnic grills. The town's butchers supplied sausages and the bakers rolls. We found room almost on the steps of the town hall and set up the grill. With a bit of trouble we got the grill to fire up and made lunch. Viernheim to be honest fought dirty and the kids at various schools and kindergartens were brought to the event or in the case of the secondary schools the kids were given a couple of hours off, various companies gave their employees a couple of hours off. This meant that the 1000 visitor limit was soon exceeded. At 12:00 the DJs from the morning programme arrived and agreed that we had met their challenge. One of the kindergartens will get 3000 € to buy a canopy for over its play area. We all ate our lunch and then put the still glowing charcoal briquettes in a bin, supervised by a member of the junior section of the volunteer fire brigade who had great fun spraying them with water from time to before we left for home to wash our smoke impregnated clothing. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cycling in Edinburgh

Earlier this summer we spent a few days near Edinburgh with a friend we’ve cycled with occasionally in Germany. Her new home is in a small coastal town where an old harbour area is being redeveloped and cycleways are beginning to be included in street plans. As usual we had stuck a couple of bikes in the back of our vehicle so after a fortifying Scots breakfast we all three sallied forth to the nearby Ocean Terminal shopping centre to scope out the cycling facilities. Neil and I are fairly used to cycling in traffic and at first there was a reasonable cycleway. We sandwiched the more nervous A between us and despite a rather dodgy junction and a narrow busy section we made it unscathed to Ocean Terminal where we did find some cycle stands. It was gratifying to find OUR Swiss Cycling Guide (ISBN 978-1-85284-526-1 available from all good bookshops) on the shelves of the bookstore there. We located another short section of bike route leading away from the Britannia and returned home partly on roads and partly on (fairly deserted) footpaths. The threatened rain then arrived. We enjoyed a cosy afternoon sitting with A watching the seagulls as they dived and swirled in the winds outside.
Next day we headed along various of the ‘rails to trails’ routes, now through dense woodlands, now high over house roof lines and with new bridges to carry us over busy intersections. Our goal was the National Gallery of Modern Art, high above us on a river bluff. The only course downhill involved a steep grade with steps which we walked our bikes down without a problem. Then over a footbridge and up a narrow steep trail where the bikes had to be carried. Fortunately all three of us are relatively stalwart but we were glad to reach the NGMA and make spaghetti of the bikes and a bike stand. Lunch called rather than culture so we rushed to the restaurant. As usual in such places, the food was interesting and wholesome whilst the other clientele, probably retired headmistresses and ladies who lunch provided suitable background. Outside the herbaceous borders were a dream of blues and whites, alliums and irises which most gardeners would envy. We found a return route avoiding the valley crossing using quiet roads.
This outing was a great improvement over the previous day’s ride, though to be fair it is difficult to see how a cycle route could be accommodated between the Firth of Forth on one side and a busy road on the other. A shared pedestrian/cycleway would be the only possibility. These are quite usual in many continental countries but are disliked it seems in the UK, probably a few aggressive cyclists and walkers who feel threatened spoiling a solution for everyone.
A was so buoyed up by the whole experience that she went and ordered a Brompton folding bike immediately afterwards. Fine we said, we’ll cycle to the shop (biketrax), for we had been within a mile of the city centre on the bike trail. This was deemed too hazardous. Our grey hairs multiplied after the downtown trip by car. A is a good driver but the traffic in the city centre is something fierce. The Brompton has now arrived and despite the awesome weather this summer has already provided hours of enjoyment. A too has discovered that such machines are better than dogs or babies as a talking point, everyone wants to know what it is, where she got it and how it folds. She is still in the honeymoon phase where she is delighted to give a demo, whereas we’d be wealthy if we had a pound for every time we’ve played bicycle origami. Our Bromptons are still the bikes we grab as we set off for town and we ride them most days. Finally we are beginning to read more and more transport chiefs, town mayors and others advocating cycling for health and saving money and praising folding bikes like Bromptons in conjunction with public transport. Useful link: http://www.edinburghguide.com/edinburghguidebook/transport/edinburghcycling

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cycling in Munich

We spent ten days shepherding or at least helping to shepherd seventeen North American cyclists along the Romantic Road and returned home via Munich. There is normally a good rail link between Füssen, the end of the Romantic Road and Munich, but it seems to our fate that part of the route is under reconstruction. It was true this time and was true the last time. There was a bus connection between Füssen and Obermarktdorf.
The cyclist arrives in Munich and wants to see the sights of Munich without his bike. Munich is a typical big city and leaving a valuable bike anywhere is not a good idea. The Hauptbahnhof, central station offers no facilities for bicycle parking. This is madness of course, but since when has a shortly to be privatised industry worked in a sensible manner? You can take it with you, but the Deutsches Museum, the Hofbräuhaus or even the much more ethnic Augustiner Beer Hall don't like you taking a bike in their hallowed rooms.
One cure might be to nip into the Radius Tours Bike Rental enclosure opposite Platform/Track 32 and hire a bike. You can then leave your expensive light tourer there and take off on a three gear bike, which is a lot less attractive to the light fingered. Radius Tours offer a wide range of tours in Munich and Southern Bavaria in addition to hiring out bikes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bike riding in Bolton

A few weeks ago we were in Britain during National Bike Week and so accessed information about events in our nearest town, Bolton in northwest England. We rushed back from friends in the Lake District so that C (our hostess) and I could join in a 5 mile cycle ride for ladies, led by Bolton’s cycling officer. Her remit was to work with adults at risk of developing heart disease and other problems and who also were likely to find it hard to cope with price rises in fuel and transport. To this end she had been running courses to persuade folks to take up cycling by providing both bikes and classes.
Our friend C came to cycling late and has few obvious buddies to cycle with locally so we thought the ladies’ ride might be a good idea. C took her Brompton and I used my Dahon Speed TR, veteran of our Swiss seasons (See “Cycle Touring in Switzerland” by Judith and Neil Forsyth, publ. by Cicerone Press). The afternoon was overcast with a threat of rain but all three of us were very disappointed that we were the only ones who had turned up. Nevertheless we went ahead on a quite sporting route, mostly along quiet trails through the Middlebrook valley. C found the rate of acceleration a bit much at times, since she still finds rapid gear changing a problem but she persevered. The route links together paths through parks, past derelict works and out between golf courses to Horwich and the Rebock stadium, so there’s lots of greenery and fresh air. There are only a few roads to negotiate, almost all very quiet. At the end of the tour C looked at the major crossing of two lane highways in front of a giant Tesco store and turned pale. ‘I’ll have to walk this’ she said. However as we pointed out the pedestrian lights these turned green and she swung onto the bike and pedalled across. One road down, one to go and we all managed again with the aid of the lights.
Both C and I were pleased we’d made the effort and discovered a bit of Bolton we’d previously bypassed by car. C was more confident and hopes to meet up with the cycling instructor again to build confidence riding on roads. Our poor cycling instructor was not so happy with her experiences since the ‘mass ride’ had attracted comparatively few people but the weather had been extremely wet. She said a great difficulty is to get people who’ve actually enjoyed the courses to continue to ride. The problems cited included perceived danger, which is not always the same as the actual risks involved, plus exposure to ridicule from friends and family many of whom view cycling as either childish or somehow letting the side down. This is extremely sad and very silly, especially when the media is full of reports of obesity, the value of exercise and fuel poverty. A bike does cost money for sure, needs some maintenance and won’t automatically reduce weight. The costs however vis a vis car transport are tiny. We find a bike ride a day reduces stress and does make a meal and a beer taste good when we’re home and dry.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

French B&Bs

We have recently spent more time sitting behind the wheel of the car than we would prefer, but even though we are retired we do not have all the time in the world. While we were in Britain we noticed that there has been considerable comment about the price of holidays in Euroland largely due to the nose dive of the value pound in Euros over the last few months. However there are ways round the prices for accommodation: Youth Hostels and Bed and Breakfast. We will write about the latter this time.
If you know roughly where you are going log onto the Gites de France web site shown above and search in the appropriate departmente to find those B&Bs that are registered in the area you wish to go to. You can also pick up B&Bs as you move around by looking for Chambre d'hote. You can obviously also ring the proprietors up. Do you need to book beforehand? Probably yes in the holiday months of July and August. You are likely to find yourself stopping in anything from a suburban semi through farms to manor houses. The rooms cost between 50 and 80 Euros for two people in a double room with breakfast. The real savings come when you also take advantage of Table d'hote which is 3 or 4 course home cooked evening meal plus an aperitif and a quarter L of wine, taken with your hosts. This will cost you between 15 and 20 Euros per person.
Two places we can recommend are:
La vigneronne de Marie in Boujan sur Libron near Beziers on the Canal du Midi in the south. (7 rue de la Poste, 34760 Boujan sur Libron, T: +33 04 67 37 71 69, dominique.vieren@orange.fr).
La Clairièrie de Mancenans, 9 rue principale, 252 Mancenans in the Doubs Valley west of Belfort. T: 0381927806. Excellent food, a swimming pool.
The only slight disadvantage is that to enjoy these places you will need a little French. The more you have the better.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Neckar

Down the Neckar
One of the great joys of cycling in Germany is the large number of routes alongside rivers. The Rhine and the Danube spring to mind but there are many other less known streams like the Neckar, the Main, the Ahr and a host of tributaries which run into the drainage pattern. On navigable rivers like the Elbe and the Mosel old towpaths where horses once pulled rafts or barges upstream and which now serve as service routes to the locks and power stations, form the basis of many bike routes. Their surfaces vary from almost motorway standard tarmac to desperate sections of loose sand or pebbles. Generally however they are well maintained and accessible to walkers, inline skaters and cyclists. Mostly the recommended signposted routes avoid traffic laden highways, apart from short sections through towns. Railways and road links also use these valleys so sometimes one has to ride with the drone of motorways or use level crossings over the railways. However we’ve found that cyclists are always taken care of with bridges, tunnels or provision in galleries under the concrete arches, not so romantic perhaps but relatively safe.
The Neckar river rises on the eastern flanks of the Black Forest, not far from the Danube in fact, than cuts around the northern edge of the hills and turns west through Stuttgart before flowing into the Rhine in Mannheim. Downstream of Stuttgart the Neckar valley is attractive with incised meanders cut into the Rhine valley hills, with more open basins occupied by farmland and small towns. One of our earliest ventures was to cycle out from home on our touring bikes one morning and use the Neckar valley as the start of our journey over the St Bernardino Pass. Fifteen years ago, the route was a bit patchy with some gaps and signposting quality was very mixed. When our local ADFC proposed a day trip from Mosbach, about halfway between Heidelberg and Stuttgart, we thought it a good chance to refresh our memories of the Neckar route. We joined a 10-man strong group on an S-bahn (local train) to a village near Mosbach. For us it was a virtually free journey as our senior citizens tickets covered the journey and there’s no charge for bikes on these trains. Both bike compartments were full, and on our return journey from Heidelberg we counted 18 bikes at our end of the train.
We detrained at Neckar-Elz, high above Mosbach and set off by careering satisfactorily downhill against the tide of churchgoers walking slowly upwards. Mosbach is a delightful ancient town, lots of narrow alleys, crooked half-timbered houses and a Town Hall in an old church building. It was too early for coffee so we headed off through fields and allotments, under heavy clouds to reach the Neckar cycleway, starting on the left bank (taken from flow direction). This is now named the Neckar-Alb Radweg and links into the eastern Black Forest scarplands we’d used on our earlier trip over the Alps. The valley narrowed between dark wooded hills, which suddenly blurred over as a threatened rain showers pelted down, forcing us to stop and don jackets. Sensible Neil also added his ‘Rainlegs’ and kept dry whilst I suffered wet knees for about 30 minutes although the shower soon passed. We were pleased to find that the signposting was excellent, on a mix of surfaced farmer’s roads through fields interspersed with good gravel trails close to the river. Although we were travelling downstream the paths rose slightly here and there, giving short freewheel opportunities which we all enjoyed as we swept through tiny Guttenbach. Over the bridge to the right bank in Neckargerach gave us good views of the castle as we reached a ferry point in Zwingenberg. Here the sacrosanct lunchtime forced an unexpected stop. Just then heavens opened in earnest, fortunately just by an ‘Imbis’ - a roadside pull up offering food and drink. Later we chugged over the chain ferry - 1€ per bike or person and met a great line of oldtimer Mercedes SL cars complete with enthusiasts, awaiting their turn on the four vehicle ferry. A short steep climb and reunion with the rest of the party at a rustic inn followed before we were off on another curving gravel run through the beech, chestnut and coniferous woods of the sandstone Odenwald. This bright red sandstone was used to build Heidelberg’s Schloss plus many bridges and other works in all the little towns. By now improving weather had enticed other cyclists and walkers out of their Sunday torpor and we shared the route in a good natured way.
We wound gently up and around the meanders past Eberbach and the teardrop-shaped loop by Hirschorn, where yet another pink painted Schloss lies above thetown. We were relieved that former rough climbs needed to cross rail tunnel entrances had been considerably improved. A short vertical section into Neckargemünd led us to a pleasant hostelry with views over the Neckar where various Radlers (shandies), beers, coffees were downed with enjoyment. We savoured pieces of rhubarb tart while some tucked into Schnitzel and Fries or the even more ethnic Handkäse mit Musik - a homemade type of cheese accompanied by onions, tasty if not socially correct! Afterwards we gathered our bikes together and fairly whizzed along the final section, across the Neckar bridge to the right bank and along a busy road. Soon a cycleway appeared and we shot through the almost deserted centre of Ziegelhausen before rejoining the road. The last run into Heidelberg was somewhat nerve racking, at least by German standards being beset by parked cars, tourists, traffic lights - all the usual hazards of urban cycling. We reached the station in fine style, however with time to buy an English Sunday paper before flinging our bikes into the waiting train. After thanks and farewells we descended in Ladenburg and cycled home through the fields, arriving conveniently as the first drops of rain fell. We had completed 92 km, our first major tour of the season. Excellent day out, good company and a reminder that German river routes are improving all the time. The transport links worked wonderfully, as ever. Other countries, please copy!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Taking the train in the Netherlands

You can travel with your bike on the railways internally in the Netherlands (NS ) (www.ns.nl) on most trains during non-peak hours. You have to buy a ticket and your bike needs one as well (6 Euro a day). You cannot travel on inland trains with your bike during the weekday morning and evening rush hours: (6:30 to 9 am and 4:30 to 6 pm), except during July and August when the some of the Dutch migrate to other countries. There is a list of international trains offering bike places on the international section of the web site. Some of these like the trains from Venlo to Cologne or Heerlen to Aachen are local commuter trains that cross borders, but there are also trains to faraway places such as Berlin, Munich and Zurich. Putting your bike on an international train will cost you 12 Euro for a single ticket and 24 Euro for a return ticket at the time of writing. The web site is clear and easy to use in English and also in Dutch (I assume, though my Dutch is limited to "Let Op!" - beware!).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bikes and trains in Belgium

Our memories of Belgium, well I suppose, more exactly Flanders, are of a delightful place to cycle with well sign posted cycleways and friendly tourist offices. Obviously the quality of the beer and chocolate are other plus points. Belgian Railways too are bike friendly. You can put your bicycle on most trains and use most stations. The stations where changing with a bicycle is not possible are Brussels Central, Brussels Chapelle and Brussels Congres. Taking your bike with you costs 5 Euro per bicycle and trip and 9 Euro per tandem/bicycle with trailer and trip. There are similar day tickets for 8 and 16 Euro. You can buy a one trip ticket online or pick one up from a ticket office. You need to buy the day tickets from a station. You must load and unload your bicycle under the supervision of the train crew. If you can avoid travelling with a bike at peak times it makes life easier for all.

‘Cycle points’?
Cycle Points are a Belgian speciality and the result of cooperation between Belgian Railways and various social organisations. They are located in or around a railway station and offer a number of services: surveillance and maintenance of bike parks, bicycle rental to train passengers, commuters, students and tourists, corporate bicycle rental and minor repairs.

The first Cycle Points opened in the course of 2007, in the stations in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Courtrai, Bruges, Leuven and Mechelen.
Other stations in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia are to follow.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

German Railways, yet again

Sorry about this but we saw a news item that struck us as important enough to publish a quickie blog about it: The ADFC the German cycling club has issued a map online that lets cyclists travelling through Germany find which long distance trains still take bicycles. There is a growing trend for Deutsche Bahn to replace ICs and ECs with ICE (Very High Speed Trains) that do not take bikes. If you then wish to travel with your bike on one of the routes where only ICEs run, then you will need to either have a folding bike or take to the regional trains, by far the majority of which take bikes. These are however much slower and long journeys can involve changing 6 or 7 times. Check the map at www.adfc.de/bahn. The map is in German, but is fairly obvious what it means. Click on "Netzkarte" and then you can see the words "Interaktive Entdeckerkarte". Below this there is a row of words: Täglich (Daily) Donnerstag (Thursday) Freitag (Friday) Samstag (Saturday) Sonntag (Sunday)Gesamtübersicht (Total). You can download various maps as pdf files. You will still need to check the German Railways website (www.bahn.co.uk) to find out the times of the trains.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Taking your bike on a train in France

French Railway services are divided into two groups: Grandes Lignes (main line) and TER (regional services). The two services work together and in practice there is no difference between the two groups. If you only wish to travel a short distance you can click on a link on the SNCF home page (www.voyages-sncf.com) that leads to a map of France to allow you select your region of interest. Not all but some of the main line services will take bicycles, including some of the high speed TGVs, whereas about 95% of all regional trains do. You can find out which mainline trains take bikes by clicking on conditions of service (in French) or check the SNCF bike site as well (in French). The English language conditions of service do not mention this. Probably no Frenchman expects les Rostbifs to know anything about cycling. If there is room in your train of choice you can pop your bike on the train and away you go. You can also reserve bike places on long distance trains beforehand. The local TER trains do not accept any form of reservation, but bicycle transport is free. One word of warning though, mainline trains do not take tandems. However we would recommend that when travelling on the TGVs that you reserve bike places. Not only are there but few, but also bikes block 4 additional seats that can be used by travellers without reserved tickets, of whom there can be quite a few. They are not likely to give up their seats unless you can wave your reservations under their nose.
It is suggested in various websites and downloads that one should use the German Railway website www.bahn.co.uk to find trains in France that offer places for bikes. The German Railways website offers a button “Transport of bicycle required” so you can filter out all the trains that do not transport bikes beforehand . However any database is only as good as the data put in it. Unfortunately www.bahn.co.uk only recognises that the TGVs running between Paris, Strasbourg and Munich can carry bikes. All the other TGVs are assumed not to carry bikes. In addition there is no mention at the time of writing that at least one extremely useful sleeping car train from Paris to Toulouse takes bicycles. We would suggest you use www.voyages-sncf.com for your preparations. Obviously this situation could change in future.
If these thoughts are not enough click on http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/CyclingInFrance to find Leo Woodland's guide to cycling in France with a good description of the perils and pleasures of taking le train with your velo.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Electrobikes only for the elderly or infirm?

We subscribe to AtoB magazine (www.atob.org.uk) a rather quirky, amusing and timely publication for folks interested in both cycling and public transport issues. In its early days folding bikes, like the Brompton and Birdy and the pitfalls of privatised railways in the UK, took centre stage. Over time general themes like individual energy use, environmental concerns and climate change have been cleverly worked into the mix of articles. Folding bikes of every provenance plus trailers for child transport are given test rides and their advantages and disadvantages described, sometimes upsetting major suppliers of course. Initially bikes assisted with electric motors were rarely considered since any that existed tended to be heavy, inefficient and unreliable. However, as with folders and separables like the Moulton or BikeFridays, ebikes like the Powerbike are gradually becoming almost mainstream devices. Many AtoB readers complain frequently about the inclusion of these ebikes in the reviews, clearly regarding them as not real bikes and only fit for the elderly and infirm. Legally they are defined as bikes and can therefore be ridden without a licence and also use cycleways or highway sections designated for cyclists. They are almost as quiet as bikes in use, tyre noise being the main sound.
A close look at the population structure of most Western European countries quickly reveals that a sizeable proportion is already over 55 and this chunk is expected to grow as most birthrates decline. Opinions vary as to the age at which the term elderly can be applied. I’m now around the age at which I first became aware of my Grandmother as a person, a little old lady in a black dress, but anyone who calls me elderly is likely to get slapped on the face or challenged to a bike ride. Like most people we hadn’t thought much about the potential benefits of ebikes until our local bike shop hosted a demonstration. It took place at the Senior Citizens Centre, a spacious airy building in the town centre about as far removed from similar establishments I’ve visited elsewhere that one can imagine. Coffee, tea, soft drinks are served at sensible prices and cakes, home made by Frau X or Y are delicious. The place was packed as the bikes were displayed and their advantages discussed. A young woman with a heart problem also appeared, with her trusty steed now somewhat outmoded, but which had enabled her to work as a peripatetic music teacher, without a car. She is also able to tour with her family, something impossible for her using a normal bike. Her ebike, she said, had given her her life back, which I can believe.
The real action then took place as the ebikes and a trike were wheeled outside and after a quick demonstration were grabbed, mainly by menfolk to start with. There were a few wobbles but then with a rush they were away to make the streets of Viernheim into the Hockenheim Ring for bikes. Riders have to keep pedalling, so there is some effort involved keeping the circulation going. Several ladies joined in on the next round and returned with beaming faces, though the trike was deemed a little strange to ride. Two models were available, one the Vital-Bike with a detachable lithium battery and charger. It comes with some variable features and has a range of about 50km between charges. The other Hercules bike looks almost like an ordinary town bike but has the battery built into the frame, making it perhaps more difficult to charge away from home, since few hotels really like bikes in bedrooms. (We’ve been forced to do this occasionally, where there was no secure storage, but can’t recommend it). Only for the elderly and inform then? Well perhaps, but there is anecdotal evidence of people who haven’t ridden a bike for years buying an ebike then selling it a year or so later because they had regained enough fitness to return to a normal bike.
There is another twist to this tale. Our local bike shop has been suffering more and more from competition from what one can only describe as bike supermarkets in big sheds, where glossy machines apparently displaying all the must have devices, gear ratios and navigational systems or whatever are offered for the price of a cup of tea and a scone. Of course most of us realise that you get what you pay for and these supermarkets offer little in the way of after service, but if your child’s bike has been stolen twice most folks will take the risk and get the next one for 250 Euros and a bar of Ritter Sport chocolate. In Andreas’s shop bikes for adults range from perhaps 550€ at the bottom end and it is easy to exceed a couple of thousand if you want something for racing or long distance touring.
Some bike shops have simply disappeared, others sell motorbikes and scooters, but Andreas has branched out into the ebike business. In his first week after the demonstration he sold three ebikes and hopes to develop into a centre for the Rhein-Neckar region, with 2 million inhabitants including Mannheim, Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen. Good for business, good for keeping the not so fit on the move and good for riders of human powered machines who need local bike shops for supplies and maintenance.
Technical details and some ideas on ebike touring follow in subsequent blogs.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Brushing off the cobwebs

The last two winters have been very mild here in Germany’s Rhine Valley so our folding bikes have been used throughout the darker months. We do our local errands and occasionally dash off on the rough tracks in nearby woods on crisp sunny days. In February a run of frosty mornings followed by spring-like afternoon temperatures tempted us to lift down our mountain bikes, pump up the tyres and dislodge the odd spider. Not that the run over the farm roads to visit friends in the next town but one really merited the MTBs but, maybe we’d run into a cowpat or find the road blocked by earth tremor. It just seemed the right kind of weather so we pulled on the wind proofs and persuaded our elderly legs into can-can position over the crossbars and headed north. Without saying a word both of us set off at a cracking pace round the edge of the town and alongside the drainage ditches running parallel to the Odenwald Hills to our right. Birds were twittering in the bushes, the hills rose in greens and browns, and we arrived at our friend’s house slightly out of breath and ready for coffee, cake and conversation. The return journey’s pace was more moderate, perhaps as a result of being tempted by strawberry topped tart and delicious cheese cake. As we returned the bikes to our cellar, both of us were convinced that spring really was around the corner and we’d be biking longer routes very shortly.
We should have known better for the weather gods still needed a bit of winter fun and a series of violent storms blasted through our area, destroying lots of trees and causing a few deaths. The German weather service give names to low and high pressure systems, which people can give as presents to their loved ones. We’re not sure that we’d like to be remembered as ‘low Neil’ which wreaked death and destruction across half a country or ‘high Judith’, responsible for the worst drought since records began, but there’s no accounting for folk. Expeditions by bike were minimal, necessary journeys close to home as the weather nastiness rose to a crescendo over Easter. Snow, which had held off all winter finally coated the garden and the Odenwald hilltops were white for days as temperatures hovered in that unpleasant range just above freezing. On Easter Sunday we caught the tram into Mannheim, bought an English Sunday paper at the station and marched for 40 minutes along the Rhine upstream before and even more rapid about turn to catch the tram home to warmth, cups of tea and a (home-made) hot cross bun.
A week later temperatures were back at mid February level and we could cycle by Brompton into Mannheim to buy our weekly fix of news from home. It was wonderful, after our enjoyable bike ride, to read about the tribulations of the new T5 at Heathrow. Schadenfreude can be so enjoyable, especially when no one has been hurt physically. What a turnaround could have been achieved for ordinary public transport, plus storage facilities for cyclists at bus and train stations, with all those billions of pounds. There would be no prestige, little razzmatazz but quite possibly all might have gone according to plan, and saved the planet to boot!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Swiss Public Transport made easy for cyclists

Swiss public transport is the best in the world. It starts with travel information. There is only one website offering travel information for any means of surface transport: www.sbb.ch/en/index.htm. The keyword is integration. The system delivers public transport, but the individual components can be state, privately or regionally owned. It is very bicycle friendly.

By far the majority of trains take bicycles. The cost: a single adult fare up to 10 or 15CHF, above which you can buy a day ticket for the bicycle. Stations have ramps and lifts to help you get your bike up to the platform. Even quite small stations are manned. Ticket machines are multilingual: English, French, German and Italian.
Postbuses take bicycles, either inside, on hooks at the back of the bus or on a trailer. Bicycles cost 6CHF per bus trip in 2006. Theoretically you need to book a bicycle place on a bus the day before. In our experience, outside the high season this is not necessary. The drivers are helpful in securing bikes outside or on trailers. It is bad for their image to spray the countryside with bicycles.

There are various travel passes available: Swiss Pass, Swiss Card and regional tickets that offer you free or reduced price travel. However the only ticket that could be of interest to the cyclist is the Swiss Card that offers you free transport to your destination from the border crossing point and half price travel after that. If you intend to spend most of your time in the saddle then paying the full price is probably the best option. The Swiss Tourist Office has more information.

Minor idiosyncrasies and things we have learned, the hard way:

Because the easiest way to buy a ticket is to use a machine, make sure that you have enough small notes or coins. Although these machines also take Euro notes they only give change up to 20 CHF.
Out in the boondocks buses replace branch line trains often after 20:00. For some reason known only to the Fat Controller, these buses do not take bikes and do not always stop directly at the stations.

At some small stations, trains will not stop unless someone wants to get off or you push a button next to the ticket machine. Once on the train check whether you should push one of these buttons to tell the driver that you wish to alight. Be ready to dismount, standing by the door, once the train stops.

If disaster strikes and you need to make a complicated journey then check where you need to change trains before making the journey, otherwise you may end up wasting 55 minutes on a Swiss Bogsworthy Junction.

Getting on and off trains

You may well only have two minutes to get your party and the bikes on the train. Be prepared. There are marked areas on trains reserved for bicycles. The stations often have blue posters showing where to put your bikes on the train. These special compartments on the train are indicated by a bicycle logo on the window. On the double decker IR trains these are at one end only. Check the blue posters or ask station staff to find out where they are likely to be. Staff normally speak some English. Walking through the double decker trains clutching a bike is difficult especially up and down narrow stairs. There is no access on one level from carriage to carriage along the train. If you find you are in the wrong place it is quicker to run with your bike along the platform, rather than stuffing it anywhere and attempting to move once the train is in motion. It is likely you will need to hang your bikes from a hook.
Take luggage off the bicycles. Check you’ve got it all before the train leaves. Leaving the bar bag behind with your camera, and passport can quite spoil your day. If you have problems get one member of the party to lean on the open door button. The train cannot leave with a open door. There is often a button on automatic doors for disabled passengers which means the door stays open longer, use it!
If you travel on a train with a baggage car, the staff expect you to hang your bikes up yourself, though they will help you get them on the train.


Lake ships take bicycles. A crew member will show where to put your bike. It is a good idea to have a bungee with you to fasten the bicycle to the mainbrace or similar.

PS There is a lot more information about Swiss cycling in our new book:"Cycle Touring in Switzerland" ISBN: 9781852845261 from the Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe UK.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I have often thought than if a politician told you the time, you should also check the time on your watch or handy - mobile/cell phone. I don't think politicians lie, but they just wish to tell you what they think you want to hear. This is of course leads to a lack of joined up thinking. At the moment the good citizens of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland or Germany to me and thee have a prime example dangling before their noses. The federal government wishes us all to travel using devices that emit less carbon dioxide, e.g. the railways. Somehow the fact that the number of passenger airports has increased over the last few years and that Frankfurt Airport is to have another runway is ignored, although these changes will automatically lead to more flights and more air pollution - read carbon dioxide.
On the other hand regional public transport is subsidised by the federal government - good. This should lead to it being more attractive. However the federal government is strapped for cash and is now cutting this subsidy down so that in a few years time there will be no subsidy.Thus making regional public transport less attractive and encouraging folk to get in their carbon dioxide spewing monsters to travel about.
The federal government is strapped for cash and wishes to flog off the silver cutlery in the form of 40% of the federally owned railways. The railways have started to make themselves attractive to investors by cutting on useful services such the Intercity trains that take bicycles replacing them by InterCityExpress trains that do not take bicycles. The poor cyclist can take a series of local trains that stop at every halt to travel across the country. If one wants to travel to various areas to enjoy a cycle tour in various parts of the country without taking so long that one is pensionable age before one arrives it necessary to take a motor car.
Joined up thinking?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Germany Part II

One piece of good news and one piece of very good news.
The good news
DB AG announced recently that bicycle transport on the IC/EC line between Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and Karlsruhe and between Frankfurt am Main and Salzburg via Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Ulm, Augsburg, Munich and will be transported free of charge between 15 August 2008 and 15 November 2008. You will still have to reserve the bike places, but it should save 9€ a bike.
The very good news
German Railways will allow booking of bike tickets online sometime in 2008.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Putting you and your bikes on public transport in Europe

Although many of us have a dream of cycle touring where we set off from home to end up in Gibraltar via Tromso or go coast to coast across the USA, most of us have limited time to go on holiday. Even we pensioners cannot leave our modest little home in the West for too long, because the lawn needs mowing or the flower beds need weeding, so the first question we need to ask when we are going to do a spot of bicycle touring is how do we get there? In Western Europe the answer to this question is normally the train, although the railways sometime make it difficult to transport cyclists and their accompanying bicycles, not to mention tricycles! We will look at public transport for cyclists and accompanying bicycles in various European countries over the next few editions of this blog.

A very useful starting guide to European railways is www.seat61.com.

Part I Germany

Let’s look at Germany first:

If you are short on time then the basic message that comes out of all this is that long distance travel with a bicycle by train in Germany is possible but choice is very limited and you need book early in order to travel in summer. Regional services up to about 200km with accompanied bicycles however are superb. The German Railways web site is www.bahn.co.uk.

There are very few long distance bus routes in Germany. The government decided to protect the railways in the 1930s and passed legislation so there is a restrictive licensing procedure to open new bus routes. In view of the fact that the present government wishes to sell off part of the railways, it is unlikely that permission will be granted to any possible competitors to open up new bus routes. There are a few bus routes to Berlin, a long distance bus route down from Hamburg to Mannheim and the Romantic Road bus line from Frankfurt am Main to Füssen near Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle via Munich and Oberammergau. As far as we know only the latter has provision to take bikes, but the other buses may well do so if there is room in the luggage compartment. We are only going to look at railways.

Germany’s railways are state owned, at least at present though Deutsche Bahn is to be privatised, but fortunately not in the same meshuga way that the British Government privatised its railway system. The railway is to be split into a track and an operating division. The track is staying under state control and 40% of the operational system will be sold off. It is hoped to raise vast amounts of capital. Unfortunately the fact that railway systems that have been privatised have invariably gone down the pan is being ignored. New Zealand had to renationalise the tracks after a disastrous experience with a privatised railway company and it looks like there is a good chance that the operating railways there will be restored to public ownership, as well. I was amused to find out that even in that home of private railways, the USA, at least one of the commuter lines that feed New York is publicly owned by the Connecticut Department of Transport. End of rant!

At present Deutsche Bahn AG (DB) operates most of the subsidised suburban and regional services. Other organisations, consortia of public authorities with DB, and the private foreign companies like Connex or SBB Swiss Rail run other subsidised services. The subsidy is paid by the provincial governments. DB operates its long distance services without subsidy at a profit. Different types and classes of trains are used in these services.

Long distance express trains:

These trains have a fixed frequency and mostly depart at the same time after the hour every one or two hours from early morning to the evening at least for the core of the journey.

Intercity Express (ICE)

These are the flagships of the DB and are high speed train units travelling at speeds up to 300kph and do not take any bicycles except folding bicycles in a cover. Some of the services to and from France are on TGVs and Thalys (THA). Some of the TGVs take up to 4 bicycles, though this information could not on be found on the otherwise excellent DB web site: www.bahn.co.uk. (Check the French Rail web site: www.voyages-sncf.com.) THA is another high speed train running between Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne and Paris operated by Thalys an independent company owned by French Rail (SNCF), Belgian Rail (SNCB), Netherlands Rail (NS) and DB. This too does not accept bicycles. except bagged folding bikes. All of these high speed trains only offer services to major cities like Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart, Ulm, Augsburg and Munich.

Intercity/Eurocity (IC/EC)

These are conventional trains hauled by a locomotive and offer accommodation for up to 16 bicycles. The bicycle compartment is in the end carriage behind the driver’s compartment. ICs run not only between major centres, but also important regional centres in Germany. An IC/EC travelling between Mannheim and Ulm would stop additionally in three smaller towns or cities. ECs are international trains offering the same services in Germany and abroad. They are slightly slower than the ICEs. Tickets for these trains are cheaper than the tickets for the ICE.

The regional trains

All of the regional trains take bicycles. These trains tie in with the ICE and IC/EC trains to service smaller towns and cities. These trains are subsidised. Although one can use DB tickets regional transport authority tickets can also be used. It is possible to travel long distances across Germany on the these trains, but it does involve changing trains more often than we would want.

Interregio Express (IRE) and Regional Express (RE)

These trains do not stop at the smaller stations but do offer a reasonably fast service between regional centres.

Regionalbahn (RB)

These trains stop at every station and are thus slow.


Suburban and underground trains stopping at every station near the larger cities. Access to these is often restricted during rush hour.

Night Trains (City Night Line (CNL), D-Nacht, Euronight)

The night trains offer the possibility of travelling long distances with one’s bicycle without having to change frequently.

Where do the IC/EC go, when and how often?

IC/EC are the best way for the cyclist to travel with his bicycle. Unfortunately the DB appears to be phasing many of these out to replace them with ICEs for which it can charge more. The ADFC, the German Cycling Club, has produced a downloadable map showing the long distance services on offer (http://www.adfc.de/645_1). The map is in German but with the help of a dictionary it is easily understood.


There are a number of special offers that offer less than half price fares as long as one is prepared to travel outside the high density travel periods of Friday and Sunday afternoon/evenings and travel by a specified train. Check out www.bahn.co.uk for details. If at least two of you are travelling by regional train only, then check out the ‘Schönes Wochende Ticket’ valid at weekends and the ‘Länder’ Tickets valid in each of the provinces during the week and at weekends.

Your bicycle will cost 9€ in the long distance trains within Germany. A trailer costs the same amount. A recumbent or a tandem costs 18€. A bicycle costs 4.50€ in regional trains in some regions, in others it is free. The DB puts out a German language brochure called “Bahn und Bike” with more exact information. If travelling on a long distance train it is necessary to reserve a place for your bicycle. This is what you need to enquire about first. This can be carried out on line. You need to do this part of the booking by telephone. If you wish to to travel in the summer, especially on a Saturday try to make a reservation three months in advance.

International bicycle tickets cost 10€ and include a reservation for a bicycle. These are valid from your starting station to your destination. Again recumbents and tandems cost double.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Somewhere to lay your head part II

Two of the complaints one hears about Switzerland is the cost of food in restaurants and the cost of accommodation. Our way round the former is to eat lunch in either Coop or Migros self-service restaurants, unfortunately only at lunchtime. We normally eat the meal of the day. We write unfortunately because one of the activities we enjoy in Switzerland is cycling and after a heavy lunch need to find a patch of grass, lie down and close our eyes. This is not too good an idea when we need to climb 1000m of pass or just cycle 50km of fairly level lakeside route. We eat a picnic at lunchtime and then eat out in the evenings. We wander round the town or village until we have checked out a number of restaurants to find somewhere reasonable. If we are stopping in a Youth Hostel we eat there. Most Youth Hostels provide a meal in the evening, but this needs to be booked in advance. The excellent Swiss YHA website (www.youthhostel.ch) lets you book a meal in advance when you book online.
There are several way round the accommodation problem. We spent several weeks last year cycling in Switzerland researching our book on Cycle Touring in Switzerland which will be published by Cicerone Press in Milnthorpe, England in April. (End of plug) Youth Hostels will also take grey haired members of society, but it is advisable to book ahead whether 20 or 120 years old. Prices vary but we have stopped in the Lausanne YH for 58CHF per person in a double room with shower/WC. Obviously beds in less well visited areas or less luxurious cost much less starting around 30CHF.
Another useful web site is the Swiss bed and breakfast site: www.bnb.ch. We stopped in a farmhouse near Grindelwald with a view across the Eiger North Wall in a double room with for about 40CHF a head recently.
In addition the Swiss Tourist Office has a brochure about affordable hotels which you can download from its web site: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/mhs/.

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