Borkheide-Berlin taking in Potsdam Palaces

Ascension Day: it turns out the tradition in Germany is to decorate your bike with balloons, foliage and windmills, wear a silly hat, form up in gangs and ride around getting pissed. We saw literally thousands of cyclists today. Some groups, like the extended family of Zander, who explained the ritual to us, were delightful. Others were a bit of a menace, careering all over the cycle path and chucking broken bottles around.

We rolled into Potsdam with the gangs, and did a bit of conventional tourism, exploring the Potsdam Palaces for an hour or two. This was the seat of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, built in the mid 18th century. Reminiscent of Versailles, but bigger, the allied leaders met here post-WW2 to negotiate the peace.

After a bit of lunch in Potsdam, we set off for Berlin, rolling through the undulating Grunewald, and finally the long straight ride down Bismarkstrasse past the landmarks of Charlottenburg, the Siegessaule and at last the Brandenburg Gate. With a spot of help from Deutsche Bahn we’ve made it from Prague to Berlin. Now sights are set on Copenhagen.

Pretzsch to Borkheide: wet wet wet

So today was wet. Very wet. It could have been miserable but strangely not so.

We made good time before lunch into Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Protestant treatise – known as (cue schoolboy sniggers) the Diet of Worms – to the Cathedral door. Said door was the only visible bit of cathedral, the rest being shrouded in scaffold and cladding. And when we poked our heads in the door, a work man yelled what we took to be German for “can’t you read the f-ing signs, no entry!” Nein danke.

Lunch at an Indian restaurant in Wittenberg, we dried out and warmed up a bit.

Progress after lunch was painfully slow, as we peeled off the Elbe cycle way, which has provided great surfaces, and picked up cycle way R3, with frequent stretches of sludgy gravel. Impatient with this, we clicked the “take us to the next hotel by road” button on the GPS. Progress quickly improved and we rolled into Borkheide sodden but cheerful. Best of all, we were greeted by a charming young man who spoke beautiful English and showed us to the cycle garage.

Just as last year’s Danube trip, our visit has coincided with the annual Asparagus (in German, Spargel) season, which is a National obsession. At the Hotel Fleigerheim, they are having a Spargel festival. “Would you like some dinner? Maybe some Spargel? We have ham and Spargel, fish and Spargel, or just Spargel.” I chose a Spargel Ragout, and Caroline chose Zander fillet and Spargel. Guess what was the complimentary starter, yes, Spargel salad!

Tomorrow Potsdam and Berlin.

Riesa – Pretzsch: infinite fens

Look at the map and you will find there is not much between Dresden and Berlin. Villages are tiny, few and far between. We had some trouble finding accommodation, given constraints of route and distance, indeed spent so long browsing German web sites that Google decided I was German. But eventually settled on Pretzsch as our destination.

The landscape is infinite fenland and to be frank: boring. But the bird life was rich. We had great views of black kites, saw black redstart, some kind of osprey, green woodpecker (or may have been grey-headed), and a stork standing on its nest pole.

Early in the day we chanced upon the Frisch Markt, a travelling grocery van, which was lucky, because I don’t think we saw another shop all day. Frisch Markt yielded cheese rolls and apricots, which we ate at a picnic table in a church yard in Wessnig (the Jon Smith school of cycle touring).

The promised thunder storm held off and we rolled into Pretzsch tired but hopeful. The Park Hotel is not a branch of the well known chain, but a local establishment with plenty to learn in the hospitality stakes. Looking pitiful and trying “English?” just got a stern “Nicht” and I was handed a key to the room and lengthy instructions to find the bike garage. The garage was nowhere to be found even after going back for a second round of instructions and searching for best part of an hour, so poor Bob and Paul are outside in a terrible rainstorm chained to a fence. Neither could we find the promised door to the wing containing our room, which is so far from the lobby that the WiFi signal fades in and out according to wind direction.

Not impressed with the Park Hotel, we searched Pretzsch for anywhere else to eat but found nothing but stares from local, not altogether surprising as we trudged around town in heavy rain wearing Indian cotton yoga pants and sandals (light to carry you see). Hence threw ourselves back on the mercy of the Park Hotel for dinner looking like drowned rats. We are now the renowned cycling lunatics of Lower Saxony.

Bumbling through Bohemia

Today’s cycleways were as good as yesterday’s were bad. We made great progress, although the prevailing north wind is building (we fear it will hit us hard next week on the east coast of Denmark).

Approaching Decin at around 10.30, a tall German student, with panniers, pedalled up beside us. Let’s call him Hans. He knocked our trip into a cocked hat. He had come this morning from Prague (yes, the whole trip we did yesterday, and 20km more, he had completed between 5am and 10.30). Hans had started out in Istanbul, intending to hitch back to Berlin. But he “got bored”, so bought a bike and panniers at a hostel in Belgrade, and proceeded to ride back.

As we passed imperceptibly from the Czech Republic into Germany we cheered Europe’s open borders. 70 years ago there was genocide in these parts. 30 years ago the iron fist of Communism. OK, so we may crave a bit more democracy from our EU commissioners but let’s not turn back the clock.

Dresden is a mix of brutalist tenements and Baroque monuments. The lady who checked us in to our hostel was shocked and disappointed that we didn’t even have full day for sightseeing, but luckily Caroline’s idea of tourism matches mine. A two mile walk to a fantastic bike superstore, a wild goose chase to two veggie restaurants, both closed, and a locally-brewed beer drunk at a biergarten with a view of the 18th century river front, were all we needed to to take in this splendid City.

Kralupy-Usti: 60 miles of bad road

“I’m worried about day 3: Prague to Usti. It’s 101k on bad surfaces. We start cycling at 10.15 (assuming we can get breakfast in time to catch that train) and there are two ferry crossings. We are not going to make it.”

It was every bit as tough as Caroline predicted but we did make it.

The train to Kralupy was to avoid the Prague suburbs and shorten the day to a manageable distance. Buying a ticket speaking no Czech was quite a comedy. Despite holding up two fingers as in “two people, two bikes” the ticket was unfeasibly cheap. Google goggles on the ticket didn’t help much, except some advice about unhitching horse from wagon before boarding the train. I went back to the ticket office with pictograms: 2 (Stick man pic) 2 (dodgy looking bike pic). Reassuringly expensive ticket resulted.

It wasn’t long before we hit our first stretch of rutted muddy forest track. And that was the pattern for the day. We’d have some miles of perfect tarmac and then just when it seemed it would last: loose gravel. Fearful cobbles. Piles of old broken bricks.

No surprise; I got a puncture. No surprise; first fix didn’t hold so I had to do it all again. Still no time lost because C had gone ahead and was dragging her bike through mud, and called back to say “take by pass by road” and I recovered 45 minutes of puncture fixing time.

On the bright side, the sun shone, the ferries were prompt, the scenery nice and contrary to worst fears, we made it. Only 8 and a half hours on the road.

Hoek of Holland to Amsterdam

Forgot to start Strava so missed the first bit. Speeding along under milky sun, fettling odd bits of Bob Jackson that weren’t quite right: saddle height, bar end plug, pannier fixings, gear adjustments. It’s all good now!

Lunch in Leiden then more fast flat silky cycle paths before the slightly hectic last few km into Amsterdam. 3 hours to wait before overnight train to Prague.

Day 9 – Living dangerously, and the grand arrival

A little late today; Rob B told me that his parents are reading this blog over breakfast, so I hope I haven’t delayed you Mr & Mrs B!

To start at the end, we are all safe and well in Mestre, the land side suburb of Venice, despite a day of living dangerously.

We departed from the awesome village of San Martino di Castrozzi, with a rapid twisting descent to the valley below. Spirits were high and exuberant, and risks were taken. Two-thirds of the way down, Andy H had a horrible high-speed crash and was lucky to walk away with only a wheel broken.

Dusted off, wheel changed, on with the show. Once we were down to valley level we cruised through a splendid gorge with steep sides of Dolomite limestone, and occasional mirror lakes, reflecting the rock above. It was warm in the sunshine but very chilly in the shadow of the mountains, and then warm again each time we passed through one of many tunnels.

Morning stop was in Feltre, another splendid medieval town.

With the rest of the day mainly flat, and some energy to burn, particularly among the youngsters, it was hare and tortoise time. Fast groups broke away and rode at high speed in line, generally ending in some minor mishap, at which point the wiser heads proceeding steadily would catch up or pass.

Andrew had arranged for a celebration reception at a car dealership 50km from Venice, and the hares approached here with flat speed touching 30mph powered by diesel Flesher at the front.

The table of food at the reception was a work of art, with individual punnets of grapes, a pot plant and salamis and cheese. Our hosts had really pushed the boat out, with fine sparkling Prosecco and a cake decorated with a bicycle iced in the traditional Bianchi celeste blue. How kind of them! Andrew was unfortunately not there, he and son Tom having detoured massively due to navigation problems. They did finally pull in just as we all prepared to leave.

The plan was to cruise steadily to a point just outside Mestre, regroup, and then roll into town together. Things went to plan except for the ‘steady’ bit. Everyone wanted a leg stretch, and the peloton hurtled along, bigger and faster than ever, with some traditional tortoises joining the fun. Everyone has become so strong over the trip, and it was great to see Jamie and Steve riding fast and free, as well as youngsters like Sam, Daniel and Ollie who we have seen develop from novices to really athletic cyclists over the past few months.

It was a bit reckless however, and when Dom took a tumble, bouncing back to his feet unfeasibly quickly, we all calmed down.

Comparing notes in the evening, it seems I missed the real highlight of the day, which was a team of choreographed skaters, dressed in bikinis, practising their moves. Andy B said it was like “beach volleyball on roller-skates”. Honestly guys, after thousands of shouts of “slowing” and “car up” over the past ten days, the least you should have managed was a shout of “bikini-clad roller skaters”.

Which reminds me: the alarm shouts of “gravel” and “tracks” became a bit mundane, but I think I managed one “wheelbarrow” and a “sea”.

So, the ceremonial roll into Venice began, and we filled the road, rolling past ‘no cars’ barriers and into the midst of an Octoberfest street party at one point. Finally, we were at the hotel, where Lyn and other supporters were waiting for us, and the cheers, hugs, tears and joy broke out. Bicycles were held aloft and team photos were taken.

Dinner was a fine blow out, but I think we should draw the curtains as the drinking games begin and leave the rest to your imagination.

Over dinner we calculated that each rider turned in the region of half a million pedal strokes in cycling nearly 1000 miles. There was a mix of “shoot me if you see me on a bike” and “when can we do it again?” from different riders. For me, I loved every one of those pedal strokes. Riding in a group working well together is a superb feeling, and the satisfaction being self-propelled across western Europe is tremendous.

I’m sure there will be epilogues and photos, but for now, “that’s all folks”, I’m off to see Venice.

Day 8 – After today, it’s downhill all the way!

We arrived in Coldrano in darkness, and too late to choose from the full menu, so it was Pizzas all round. Though I understand some took advantage of the Wellness Centre, including sauna and swimming pool.

So I didn’t realise until this morning what an awesome location we were staying in. In the bright morning sun, with the mountains we had traversed to the North West, and the lush valley filled with fruit farms to the South East. Breakfast was tremendous; the best yet. Word must have spread that British cyclists like Muesli and lots of cold milk, because there was plenty of both, and all kinds of dried fruit and seeds to liven it up.

We were surprised to find that German is the first language in this part of Italy. History buffs, please comment if you can explain this!

The morning was bright and clear with cloudless skies but a chill in the air. Guided by yesterday’s freezing conditions, and our route, which was to reach 2000m once again, there were plenty of long tights and wind-proofs in evidence.

The ride to the morning stop was stunning, probably the most scenic and enjoyable riding we’d had all trip. We followed perfect smooth tarmac bike paths alongside the river flanked with orchards.

All was well until the ill-fated Simon had a new problem; his rear derailleur cage sheared off. So far he has lost a front changer, chain and rear mech. He seemed quite comfortable with the idea of riding single-speed, but after collecting parts that were shed down the road, a Mike Spencer Special improvised repair just about held together for the rest of the day. We are taking bets on Simon arriving in Venice on a unicycle!

Morning break was croissants in a most beautiful town square in classic Italian style. It’s quite a shame we pass through each of these beautiful towns so quickly, I’m sure each deserves time to explore.

View back to Coldrano and the AlpsAnd then onward to the first of the great climbs of the day. I led the youngsters: Tom E, Ben and Joel, to the foot of the hill – it wasn’t my company they wanted, just my sat nav – and then off they flew, Tom E setting a ferocious pace. I stopped to admire the view; looking back down the wide valley we’d travelled that morning, past Coldrano to the snowy mountains beyond.

With effort we were soon at 1100m and our lunch stop, and riders arrived steadily spread over half an hour or so, though a group of Baselys, Wadleys, Dymond, Rafferty, Batchelor et al was known to be some way behind, taking the day steadily with plenty of coffee stops.

It was a warm day by now, but still the hint of chill in the air, so paranoid after yesterday, I set off in a warm wind-proof top for our final climb of the trip, to Passo Rolle at 2000m. We were a large group for the initial descent and flat approach, stopping for photos at some amazing views over perfect Italian farming villages. As the climb began, each picked his own pace, with the undisputed mountain kings Tim D and Simon setting the pace (Simon’s bike clearly being the lightest by virtue of there not being much left of it) pursued by the young pretenders Ben, Joel and Dom. Joe, wearing the polka dot Jersey he won in Gibraltar was also cruising, Andy H started a little behind, but then stormed up the hill with the immense power only Andy can generate!

By 1300m I was regretting the wind-proof; I was overheating big time on a hot, hot afternoon. When I spied a shop selling ice creams I dived in, and watched the wise old guard of Mike, Tim F, Neil and Phil cruise past.

There was an absolutely gorgeous flat section at about 1400m, where a view opened of a large lake or reservoir, azure blue, and, although the surface was 50m or so below the road, the fantasy of jumping in was tempting.

Passo RolleThe second half of the climb was steeper and wooded, fantastically scenic and very long. Eventually one reached the open landscape and dramatic scenery at Passo Rolle. The final hairpins were steep, but everyone was spurred on in the knowledge this was the final climb and it would be downhill all the way to Venice. The early arrivals clapped and cheered from the cafe as each rider crossed the summit, Leslie performing a most excellent sprint finish and punching the air in satisfaction! Father and Son, Andrew and Tom Gibson arrived together strongly. Both have suffered physically, but they have got stronger as the days have gone by, and supported one another admirably, each one believing he is taking care of the other.

What a perfect place to rest in satisfaction at completing the hard part of the trip. Overlooked by massive Dolomite spires, attracting their own small cloud on an otherwise cloudless day, we basked in sunshine.

At 6 o’clock, with most riders at the top, we massed for a fast and exhilarating hairpin descent into San Martino di Castrozza.

By chance, we arrived just as preparations were being made for a rally car event, so the streets were filled with Porsche and Lancias, and the petrolheads in the group were in seventh heaven.

Relaxing at Passo RolleWe met for dinner at a Pasta and Pizza restaurant and spirits were high. All had arrived safely at the end of a final very hard day. The waitresses were charming and zany and coped amazingly with 34 people arriving in dribs and drabs and ordering in strange hybrid Euro languages. Simon ordered the Pizza Volcano, which consisted of a full English breakfast, sandwiched between two pizzas. Andy Hore’s eyes lit up in excitement, this will be a Leeds Met staple we think. Richard ordered Pizza Lunatico, in keeping with the way he’s been tearing up and down the hairpins on a motorbike. We’re looking forward to seeing his videos, he has such a lot of material, it’s going to be feature length.

And tomorrow we descend into Venice, back in team colours, for our grande arrivée.

Day 7 – Three massive climbs

I said that yesterday the team was filled with some foreboding about the day ahead. Ben was apparently talking Chinese in his sleep. He mentioned earlier he sees Simon as being like a goblin, so we asked what is “goblin” in his language, but no-one could recognise what he was saying. Simon is my favourite ‘pilot fish’ when he’s leading a group, his navigation is perfect, his pace setting sensitive. And, with his bandana trailing at the back of his head, and the deep stretches he makes on the bike from time-to-time I think of him as the Tai Chi Ninja.

Time and weather were the crucial factors in having any chance of attempting the Stelvio climb, and our cause wasn’t helped by the hostel only serving breakfast from 7:30. Even with the best preparations, we didn’t set off until 8:10, and, with an alternative route chosen for the first 20km we decided to stick together as few people had the route on GPS. Even after rejoining the planned route, we encountered the same old problem with forbidden roads, and had to divert onto some gravelly cycle tracks. To be fair, there are some fantastic cycle routes with a good surface, but it’s disappointing when a route turns “off road” without warning. Still, the early section was picturesque as we meandered either side of a wide valley floor with views of the mountains ahead.

After the preliminary section, the day presented three huge climbs. Firstly, to Klosters at around 1200m to catch a train tunneling through an impassable Alpine section. Secondly, the huge Offenpass, which, after diving down to 700m, climbed severely to 2149m, a Category 1 climb. And thirdly the Umbrail/Stelvio, climbing from 1400m to 2750m.

In view of the expected difficult and potentially dangerous weather, the team decided that the latest sensible time to start the Stelvio was 2:30 in the afternoon. With most people keen to take on the challenge we were literally racing for a train.

The first group of twelve reached the station and caught a train shortly before noon, the remainder all caught the next, half an hour later, which was impressive considering the intense climb to Klosters. Cycles are carried in a dedicated carriage at the back of the train, and we were surprised to find at the destination, we had to let ourselves out and cycle down the car track to the platform. This led to a rapid descent, followed by the challenging Offenpass ascent. It was exceptionally beautiful, if you could take time to think beyond the aching legs and burning lungs. Snow fell lightly above 1500m and the higher reaches were visibly laden with snow. Everyone reached the top of the pass, which is a colossal achievement. As Tim said this evening, this climb exceeds the typical Etape du Tour, a one-day amateur cyclists event on one of the Tour de France’s most mountainous stages. Andy H and James celebrated with a little naked exhibitionism on a rooftop, pictures to follow on the IL site after judicious cropping!

The descent from Offenpass was very fast and exciting; a little fast for comfort for me at any rate, and I lost time on those around me.

A minority carried on to the Stelvio, while the rest completed their 100 miles for the day via a lower route. For those who carried on, it was an exceptionally quick grabbed bite to eat at the top of the Offenpass, then on with the riding. The first group of Tim D, Max, Neil, Joe and Rob J passed through the little valley town of Santa Maria del Mustair bang on 2:30. It was a steep climb from the very beginning, although the lower reaches were thankfully tolerably warm and sunny. Gradually though the temperature dropped sharply, and by 2100m I was zipped up inside three windproof layers. There was deeper snow on either side on the road and a hint of ice forming on the road. Tim D was miles ahead as expected. I could see Max, Neil and Joe climbing ahead of me most of the way, but then lost them. I confess I had a little walk at around 2300m; comparing notes afterwards, I think we all began to find it tougher at that point, so perhaps the thin air was catching us out. I was surprised and delighted to find Max, Neil and Joe waiting at the Italian border post after I’d been walking only a hundred meters or so. We stopped for very snowy photos and spurred one another on, with the view of the hotel and resort building now clearly in sight. Setting off again, Max and Neil flew ahead, but Joe called out behind me that his cleats weren’t working. I scraped loads of ice out of them, and he was back on track. Painted markers on the road side marked 3km, 2km and 1km to go, then 500m, 400, 300 then down in 50s until finally I heard Tim shout my name from a balcony at the cafe. Stepping off the bike I realised just how tired and disoriented I was, but delighted to be ushered into the warm of the cafe. Neil bought everyone coffee, which was welcome to say the least!  Max bought a very nice souvenir jersey, but – even though  the shop was right across the street – none of us fancied venturing across the road in that cold. Someone said it was -6 degrees, definitely too cold to be in cycling gear!

We thought we might be the the only five, but were surprised to see Tim F, Ben and Simon roll up around half an hour later, with the van following. It was an exceptional ride from Ben, who had made up half an hour on the Offenpass after missing the first train. Simon too, who had broken his chain and had to take out links at the roadside before riding on. And fitting that Tim, our inspiration should reach the top.

They brought news that Guy and Mark were also ascending though I understand they eventually called for assistance from the van with the very last section of the climb, fearing for the weather.

So, gathering together as many extra layers of clothing we could muster we started the descent, very cautiously at first in case we encountered icy roads. I punctured again, and was very grateful to friends who stayed and helped me in bitter conditions. Below the snow line though, it started to become fun, and we flew the last 30km into Coldrano, through lovely bike paths among orchards with the light quickly fading, finally arriving at our hotel at 8pm.

Everyone had arrived safely, having negotiated by far the hardest day of the ride. There was of course a tinge of disappointment for those who hadn’t had chance to reach the Stelvio, but in all rational analysis it was a stunning achievement for every team member to complete such a day.

Day 6 – “There is always an alternative”

When the police stopped us yesterday and told us not to ride on the forbidden roads, they told us “there is always an alternative”.

Today we spent a lot of time looking for alternatives. The official route took us down a forbidden road. The alternative bike route weaved back and forth across the highway, and frequently reached dead ends. Joe, who’s been quietly tending the needs of Andy H till now, totally rocked the situation. “Straight ahead, across the orchard” he yelled, and we all bombed between the neat rows of apple trees. When the path stopped at a river, quick as a flash Joe said: “Right, here’s what we are going to do. We are going to carry our bikes up those steps, walk across the motorway bridge, and go down the steps on the other side”. The plan worked perfectly.

The weather has changed dramatically. Hard to believe two days ago we were dunking in fountains to cool off in stifling heat. Today we donned all our warm cycling gear and were still cold. The roadside thermometers said 13 degrees, two days ago it was 31. It rained most of the day.

The descent down to Lake Constance was fast and fun then we cruised along the north bank looking across to the mountains to the south. It was like a September day on Lake Windermere; beautiful but occasionally a little bit trashy and very wet. We reached morning stop in a very elegant square where Germans looked askance at the van. Richard charmed them and chose a parking spot out of sight of the disturbed locals.

The ride to lunch was a long plod, as the weather deteriorated. The Tim Frank group stopped early and made their own arrangements. Lunch wasn’t the lazy, restful break of earlier days, it was a snatched baguette and then move on before getting cold. Bike riding became a bit like a job today. Even a short day with hardly any climbing left us weary.

We seemed to slip into Switzerland without noticing, and then, just a few hundred metres further on, arrived at the huge customs post of Liechtenstein. Andy B and I paused and looked at the border guards but they didn’t seem interested in us so we rolled on.

The hostel is run seemingly single-handedly by a young woman with a very direct manner! We were given our marching orders in no uncertain terms and we all settled into mostly 6-person dorms. Quick massed showers and then serve-yourself dinner dealt with quickly and efficiently.

As we look out of the hostel windows we are surrounded by mountains shrouded in cloud. Tomorrow’s forecast is for light snow at the pass, and low temperatures. There’s still doubt about whether a Stelvio ascent is feasible. There would be great disappointment if we had to call it off. We have all been looking forward to this for almost a year. There’s a heavy, expectant atmosphere as we anticipate the day ahead. Early night!