Belgium to Schloss Lichtenstein, Germany
Day one – Saturday: Namur to Brulange
After a quick shower and a couple of film-wrapped waffles each we’re back out on the road for around 5am, both of us feeling pretty lousy and wondering whether we’ve made the right decision to rest for a couple of hours.
We have a long day ahead of us as the route we’ve plotted to control point one is over 650km, so in order to reach it before it closes, our first two days on the road need to be around 300km each. Most of our route has been planned out using paper maps and road atlases, then checked online via a number of various online mapping tools and the little Google maps ‘pegman’, when available, in order to check road surfaces and the presence of cycle paths. We’d tried to avoid major climbs in the first couple of days but we’re now discovering that our route is far from flat and full of lots of sharp, leg-sapping, little rolling climbs.
After a couple of hours of rolling along on our mini rollercoaster route we’re both pretty desperate for coffee but have to wait until 7.30 before we find a bakery that’s open and serving hot drinks. The coffee order doesn’t go exactly to plan as our idea of a cappuccino and the bakery owner’s differ somewhat. We both end up with a strong black coffee with a lot of very sweet squirty cream on top but caffeine is caffeine at the end of the day and it has the desired effect of perking us up for the following hour or so.
As we head on through Belgium to the French border we only see one other TCR rider in the morning. Most riders will have opted to ride through the night so we’re not expecting to see too many. Our route also skirts around Luxembourg rather than going through it as many riders will have chosen to do.
We stop for lunch at a Lidl and as all Lidls sell practically the same stuff all over Europe we get around the aisles in record time, filling our basket with familiar foods before finding a shady spot around the side of the building to eat our haul. As we are munching away, trying to pack in the much-needed calories, another TCR rider, Cap no. 53 Wiesia Kuczaj, pedals into the car park and joins us for lunch. V is also finding the rolling route a little more challenging than expected and we all joke about how on earth we’re going to manage for the rest of the race if we’re already knackered.
These supermarket pavement picnics are to become an almost daily ritual over the next 20 days. As part of our planning strategy Julie has compiled a list of supermarkets, filling stations and campsites approximately every 50km along the route. Wherever possible the route avoids going through centre of larger towns, preferring to stick to the outskirts – after all, everyone knows that’s where all the Lidls are.
The afternoon is slow-going and although the plan is to press on without another stop until we need to eat again, I find myself flagging in the afternoon heat and keep dropping behind Julie so I have to stop for a 15-minute power nap by the side of the road. It does the trick and we ride on until early evening, stopping at a McDonald’s for dinner. Before I started riding longer-distance audaxes and endurance rides I was always pretty dismissive of Maccy D’s but McDonald’s really are the long-distance cyclists’ friend and are often used as late night / early morning controls on long-distance audaxes in the UK.
Using a phone app we book ourselves into a little B&B for the night around 100km away, estimating that we should arrive around 10.30pm and while were polishing off our Filet-o-Fish, Julie calls the owner to ensure that they’re happy for us to arrive with bicycles at that time of night.
With a plan in place we pedal on through the farmland that surrounds the city of Metz as the sun is setting. As night begins to close in the terrain starts to get lumpy again and we’re both feeling tired and a bit sore. We’re not talking much to one another as we’re just getting on with it but we’re both ok with that. We’ve done a lot of long training rides together over the past six months and know how each other reacts to tiredness. 10.30pm comes and goes and we realise that with 40km still to go, we’re going to be arriving at our B&B a lot later than planned.
Julie makes yet another call in broken French to the B&B owner to update him on our slow progress. We’re both almost out of water but the shops are all closed in the little villages we’re passing through, so when we finally find a rather smart-looking restaurant that’s still open I go in to ask if we can fill our bottles. We end up paying 8 euros for some bottled water as the chef doesn’t seem to be too keen to fill us up from the tap.
Back on our way, we finally make it to our B&B in Brulange just after midnight and sure enough, as promised, the B&B owner is waiting up for us. We wheel our bikes into the barn, apologising all the while for our very late arrival and head up to our room as quietly as we can so as not to wake the other guests. We both set about washing ourselves and our kit before setting the alarm for 5am, getting our heads down by around 12.45am.
Day 2: Sunday – Brulange to Castle Lichtenstein
As soon as I open my eyes the first thing on my mind is food. The B&B owner had offered to leave us some bread and jam out in the kitchen but when we enter, the owner’s wife is up and about already, making us coffee and asking us about our adventures ahead. She’s laid on a real spread so we both feel the need to make a bit of an effort to be sociable and not rush off, even though we need to get going as we have another 300km day ahead of us to CP1.
Four and a half hours sleep doesn’t feel quite enough for either of us and packing up our kit and getting back on the bikes takes us a while as we’re not yet accustomed to coping with minimal sleep. We eventually leave the farmhouse a little after 6.30am, later than planned but the sun is already up and we have a tailwind. As soon as we’re back on the bikes we both feel good and quickly settle into a rhythm along the deserted country lanes through the Northern Vosges area north of Strasbourg.
By 11.30am we’ve already covered over half of our 300km day pretty comfortably and we’ve had no issues with our route planning so far. We arrive in the town of Haguenau, close to the German border, around lunchtime and head into the centre, trying not to waste too much time finding somewhere half-decent to stop. I spot a reliable French chain cafe that I’ve been to before, La Mie Câline, so we grab a couple of sandwiches and have a sit down for 20 minutes or so for a quick social media catch-up.
This is when we hear the news that a TCR rider had been killed in a collision with a car in Belgium on the first night. The wifi connection is a bit flaky so we’re not able to find much out other than that a friend of ours who is also riding has made the decision to scratch for safety reasons. It shakes us up quite a bit but we try to put it out of our minds as much as possible and crack on. We’re aiming to reach CP1 by the end of the day and hopefully we’ll be able to find out more about it once we’re there.
The clouds have been building up steadily all morning and by the time we reach the Rhine, which provides a natural border between this part of northern France and Germany, the sky is looking pretty dark. Thunder begins to roll as we pedal north east along the Rhine cycle path towards our bridge border crossing at Wintersdorf and as the sky lights up the heavens finally open. There’s nowhere to take shelter as we hurriedly dig out our waterproof jackets and we are drenched in minutes. The storm lasts for around 15 minutes, just long enough to make sure we are thoroughly soaked, but it’s warm enough and as we keep pedalling we start to dry out pretty quickly.
Once we cross over into Germany our route takes us on to a dead-straight cycle path that runs alongside the main road into Ettlingen for 12 km. The route should be fast and flat but it all starts to get a little frustrating as the cycle path keeps switching sides and there are lots of toucan crossings which slow us down. The path is also full of people riding e-bikes which we manage to overtake – until we get to the next road crossing, they catch us up and we have to do it all over again, and again, and again.
After Ettlingen our route planning starts to go a bit nuts. When we’d been plotting our route in the months leading up to the event we mapped most of the section through Germany on minor roads rather than cycle paths. Unlike France and Belgium, Germany does not have the ‘Streetview’ option on Google Maps so we’d been unable to check road surfaces and conditions but we were expecting Germany to be a cycle-friendly country and thought it unlikely that we’d encounter any issues here. How wrong were we?
As we start to climb out of Ettlingen we quickly discover that German drivers really don’t like cyclists in their way on the roads, even minor roads, and they certainly don’t want to slow down at all to give us room or wait for oncoming traffic to get past. We both start to feel pretty uncomfortable at the speed and proximity that cars are passing us and pull over for a rethink. Given the news that we’ve already received today, our safety is in the forefront of our minds and we are not about to start taking unnecessary risks on only our second day.
As an emergency route back-up, before we’d left the UK I’d downloaded an app called Bikemap on my iPhone and I use it now to find an alternative route via off-road gravel cycle paths over the hills between Ettlingen and Pforzheim. The cycle paths are signed but the signs are easy to miss and we take a few wrong turns and have to backtrack quite a bit. This, along with the gravel surface, is really slowing us down and both of us are getting fed up. We end up taking a completely different course into Pforzheim, adding 15km to our original route and arriving a couple of hours behind schedule.
We stop for a bit of a regroup in Pforzheim, stopping in a busy square by the river to eat a sandwich and come up with a plan for the last 90km to CP1. It’s a summer Sunday evening and the restaurants in the square are full of people drinking and relaxing. We know that we can’t hang about for too long though as we’ve already lost the time advantage we’d built up during our speedy morning ride though France. We decide not to waste any more time looking for off-road detours and get back on to our plotted road route despite our reservations about the traffic.
It’s now early Sunday evening so we’re hoping that the roads are quiet but just to be certain that we are seen we put on our reflective tops and all of our lights even though it’s still light enough. Most cars are still passing us scarily close – much closer than the majority of drivers pass back home in the UK – but after a while we start to feel less nervous about it.
The lack of drivers’ patience to wait behind us for oncoming traffic to go past before overtaking isn’t so easy to get used to and every time a car comes in the opposite direction I’m gritting my teeth as cars come from behind and squeeze through the ever-decreasing gap between us and the oncoming car. Why the big rush? It’s a Sunday people!
We settle into a long, steady climb and as night falls we’ve still not completely given up hope of getting to CP1 this side of midnight. All is going well until we pass through the small town of Holzerlingen where we’re struggling to pick up our route and end up cycling round and round to try to find it, even stopping to ask for directions in a garage. We bump into another TCR rider who’s also a bit lost but his route takes him off into a different direction to the one we’ve plotted so, as much as we’d like to, we don’t follow him.
Eventually we head off in what we hope is the right direction, on a cycle path roughly running parallel to where our route should be and end up on a series of gravel tracks through a forest. By now it’s pitch black and we can’t see much more than a few metres of gravel track lit up ahead of us along with the bases of the pine trees that line either side of the track. There’s no wind so it’s very quiet and still and we’re just concentrating on controlling our bikes on the gravel in the dark.
Every so often we join back up with our plotted route, hit a section of road and ride alongside it for a while before veering off into the forest again. I’m pretty sure that if it was still daylight and we could see where we were going we’d be able make a better decision about whether to stick to the route or not but we are tired and it’s all we have right now so we don’t really have a choice but to stick at it.
It’s around 11pm now and we know that we still have around 40km to CP1 so it’s going to be a late one. Our plan to ride Parcours 1 up to the castle before checking in at the control are looking increasingly unlikely. As we join up with another road our plotted route takes us right at a roundabout but the city we are heading for, Reutlingen, is signposted straight on. We decide to ignore our plotted route and follow the signposts instead as we hope that at least this way we might stay on tarmac rather than more gravel forest tracks.
We stay on the road for 10km until we reach a large roundabout intersection and realise that we’ve made a very bad move. The signposts to Reutlingen lead us on to the motorway where we’re not allowed to ride. Riding on banned roads and motorways can lead to disqualification so even though there’s virtually no traffic on this section of motorway at this time of night we just can’t risk it.
We’re both thoroughly miserable now and stop for a sit down and munch on a couple of packet waffles to keep us going. We can see the twinkling lights of what we hope is Reutlingen way down in the valley below us and every now and then the distant sky lights up with lightning and we hear the faint sound of thunder. I really hope that we’re not in for another soaking.
I should probably point out at this point that out of the two of us I’m the one that does the on-the-go navigation stuff. I am happy to do it and Julie is happy to go with my decision. When you’re riding in a pair it’s a good idea to divvy up the roles, agree on it and stick to it. It makes life easier, especially when you’re both tired, there’s no point in spending time arguing about which way to go as decisions sometimes just need to be made on the fly and the consequences dealt with. If I bugger up the route I take full responsibility for it and will try and un-bugger it as quickly as possible.
Neither of us wants to backtrack the 10km to pick up our plotted route again so I try to re-route us down the valley using Google Route Planner. It all starts off pretty well but after around 5km we end up on a very rutted farm track and have to both get off and push. We turn around and head back to the motorway intersection where we stop again for a while and I have a good look at the map on my phone.
It looks like there are a cluster of villages on the opposite side of the motorway all the way down the side of the valley, to the north of Reutlingen, that are joined by small roads so, rather than use the route planner to figure out the route all the way to Reutlingen, I ask Google to just route us to the next village, then the next and the next. This method works but it’s slow-going as every time we get to the next village along we have to stop and re-route. It’s also taking us much further north than we intended to go but as least we’re descending into the valley. Eventually we reach the valley bottom and the suburbs north of the city.
It’s around 2am as we get across the other side of the city and join up again with our plotted route which follows the main road south to Lichtenstein where we now have a long, steady climb. Our bodies are aching all over from the fatigue of a long day in the saddle, conversation is down to a minimum and we both just want to get to the control and get our heads down for a few hours’ kip. The road is deserted apart from the occasional, large truck but despite the total lack of traffic on the opposite side of the road the drivers still seem reluctant to give us more room and on a couple of occasions we get sucked into the lorries’ slipstream as they thunder past.
The rain that has been threatening for the past couple of hours finally arrives but it doesn’t bother us much as we’re just relieved to be on the home stretch. As we slowly climb the hill to the control on what are by now very tired legs, we spy the little TCR sign on the roadside by the side door of a hotel a little after 3am and breathe a massive sigh of relief – so much for our predicted arrival time of 11pm.
We lean our bikes up at the rear of the hotel and wearily wander over to TCR HQ, housed in the little summerhouse in the hotel grounds, where we get our brevets stamped and have a chat to the guy looking after the control. It seems like we weren’t the only ones to get lost on the gravel tracks and come in way later than hoped for. We calculate that we’ve added an extra 60km to our route today but there’s not much point in dwelling on that – we made it and now we need to get our heads down for the night in our bivvys, squeezing ourselves in among the other sleeping riders out of the rain on the hotel’s covered patio.
Planned Routes to CP1
We split our route into four sections to CP1 – these are the routes we were supposed to take, not the one we actually took:
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