Saturday, 26 May 2012

Day 4 - Saved by the German police

Cologne - Wilgersdorf  (created by
 I had breakfast with Frida and Niels and then set out on a cool, grey morning. I found my way across one of the bridges over the Rhine and then headed out through the eastern suburbs. I was starting to discover that cycling through cities was frustratingly slow, lots of traffic lights and navigational problems. Several times I had problems with drivers or pedestrians who pointed out that I should be on the road when I was on what I thought was a cycle path and vice versa.

A glimpse of Cologne Cathedral in the morning mist
Fortunately, my trusty Active 10 kept me going in the right direction and I was soon clearing the suburbs but felt that I needed to turn in a more south-easterly direction. The A4 motorway was something of a barrier and I was glad when the GPS told me to take a right turn down a side road through a motorway tunnel. I was less impressed when I found myself in a forest with a rough track ahead of me.

The 28 mm tyres on the bike are great for travelling on the road but are really not designed for off-road use. They dig into soft ground and are much more prone to punctures than off-road tyres. But it was nice to be away from the traffic and grumpy road/pavement users so I pushed on through the forest. It was indeed very beautiful, climbing slowly on reasonable quality tracks, just me and the birds singing in the trees.

Then suddenly, the track dropped down a hillside, I emerged onto a tarmac road and the countryside had changed completely. Gone was the softly swelling flood-plane of the Rhine and in front of me were steep sided forested hills winding away in every direction.

I dropped quickly down into the first small town, saw a sign for a cycle path to the next place on my route and suddenly found myself confronted with a 15% climb. That was the moment where I decided that this would be a combined cycle ride and push. When I had ridden from Land's End to John O'Groats I had managed to avoid pushing at all, but the bicycle I had used then had mountain bike gearing (and I was eight years younger). So I pushed and pushed to the top of the hill and then flew down the descent on the other side into Overath. This set the pattern for the next few days.

I've definitely left Holland ...
Another long climb out of Overath and into beautiful, green, rolling countryside. There were hills around the in every direction that I could see, and the scenery was truly splendid. I reflected that the route the GPS had plotted me was indeed in a straight line according to the map but took no account of topography. Apart from the sheer physical effort of climbing, my average speed dropped considerably. Over the first few days I was averaging about 11 mph, but was now down to little more than 8 mph. This meant that during the average cycling day I would not be able to cover more than 50 or 60 miles which would have implications for how long it would take me to complete the trip. Not knowing the countryside, I had no way of judging whether or not I had miles or hundreds of miles of this ahead of me. All I could do was press on and try to interpret the map to follow flatter routes.

At the top of one ascent I collapsed on the grass for lunch, bread, cheese, tomato, banana, what was becoming my staple diet during the day. A walker came along and greeted me in German, but we managed a few words in English. He was walking through the hills on a pilgrimage to Cologne and must have been on the road for many days. It felt like a very gentle and rewarding pursuit, to be walking through this lovely countryside heading for somewhere where you could make some peace with the world.

I took a break in Wiehl and reviewed my GPS-led strategy. A straight line on the map maybe, but topographically a struggle. The map showed some roads that skirted a lake, and I imagined that this might be flatter so I abandoned my electronic line of blue dots and set off following the paper.  For a good few kilometres all went well, but then I turned a corner at one signpost to see this enormous hill winding off into the hills again. My lowland lake was a hilltop reservoir. Plan C? What might that be?

The afternoon continued with more climbing and descending, including one particularly exciting swoop down a series of hairpin bends into Wildburgerhutte. It was now starting to get late in the afternoon and I wanted to find somewhere to camp for the night but could not find any campsites. I pushed on until I arrived in the industrial city of Siegen at around six o'clock. There was no tourist information office in sight, and when I asked some taxi drivers at the railway station if they knew about any campsites they said there might be one 40 km north. I was heading south east and 40 km at this time of the day after over 50 miles of heavy climbing was not even worth considering. So they suggested asking a policeman.

The police station was just a few hundred metres down the road so I walked in and explained my problem. The policewoman on the desk listened most sympathetically, explained that this was not a tourist area and that there were no campsites, but that she might be able to find the name of a hotel. Off she went to her computer, clicked away, wrote some telephone numbers down and made some calls. She came back to the desk with a piece of paper bearing the name and address of someone in the village of Wilgersdorf who had a room that night waiting for me. I thanked her profusely and said she was most kind. Which she was.

The only problem was that Wilgersdorf was another 20 km further on down the road, and as it turned out I had to push the bike up a 15% climb to get out of Siegen and then do yet more climbing to arrive at Alfons Leyener's house, which was, of course, at the top end of Wilgersdorf. I had now done 73 miles of hard climbing and was totally exhausted, but felt the need to be sociable.

Fortunately, a shower revived me somewhat and I went downstairs to the Leyener's dining room to find a table laid out with bread, cheese, sausages, red peppers, yellow peppers, pickles and beer. Alfons was there with one of his neighbours who spoke good English, and they were keen to find out what had brought me to this corner of Germany. I explained my journey, and it turned out that Alfons had at one time been a professional cyclist. He proudly showed me his 30-year-old carbon fibre racing bike, which had a distinctly retro look to it, compared to today's carbon fibre machines. He also drew me a cyclist's map of the route I should take to my next destination, Marburg. It showed all the things that were important to cyclists, like tricky junctions, gradients and distances.

They also explained that the policewoman in Siegen lived in Wilgersdorf and knew that Alfons and his wife kept a room for lost souls. Aren't their police wonderful?

The conversation moved on to football. They wanted to know what I thought of the Champions League final, which had been on Saturday night. I admitted that I had collapsed halfway through the second half and had no idea of the result, and with some delight they told me that Chelsea had beaten Bayern Munich. I was somewhat surprised that they were pleased that an English team had beaten a German side, but they then explained that Bayern Munich were not actually Germans, but Bavarians. They are also so successful that 'Germans' love it when ever anyone beats them.

It was by now and well after 10 o'clock, and both Alfons and the neighbour had to get up at six o'clock in the morning so I made my excuses and wearily climbed up the stairs to bed.

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