Sunday, June 20, 2004

Reutlingen, Germany

Friends: I'm 150 miles into Germany and I can't yet say whether it earns an A or an F for bicycle touring. It could almost be one or the other. Germany had my heart singing at first with the quality of its roads and its explicit explicit road signs. I was also thrilled by the supermarkets that abounded with ready-to-eat grub at the cheapest prices of the trip and the ease of camping in the Black Forest and the exceptional bicycling consciousness of its people. And some would say its phenomenal network of bike trails, with their own little signs encouraging everyone to get around on their bikes, are another strong positive.

But, unfortunately, when there are bike paths, many motorists expect bicyclists to use them and keep off their roads. I was receiving an inordinate number of horn blasts from passing motorists. I initially interpreted them as affirmations of friendliness. The Germans are the world's premier touring cyclists. I assumed they were delighted to see one in the act. I soon realized, however, when some of the horn toots were accompanied by shouts of "Get off the road," that the horn toots weren't as friendly as I thought they were. When I went through a mile-long tunnel I had seven or eight people slow to angrily tell me bicycles weren't allowed in the tunnel. When I inadvertently turned on to an autobahn, I immediately had someone pull over to scold me. I'm continually cringing that I may be doing something verboten and will be harangued for it. At least the policemen who ordered me off the autobahn after I'd been on it less than a mile were the friendliest and most considerate of those who have been upset with me. Nowhere that I have traveled have I encountered so many citizen-enforcers. Germans are quick to get upset if someone is not being obedient, and are not bashful it letting them now it.

The last 40 miles I've been riding a road, however, without an accompanying bike path, so I could stick to the road with minimal worry of upsetting anyone. My heart sank whenever I thought I saw a path or sidewalk alongside the road. I'm hoping that maybe the southwest corner of Germany through the Black Forest where I entered has an excess number of bike paths and now that I'm beyond it, I can ride on the road with the adults in peace.

I was at first enjoying Germany so much, I thought I'd prolong my stay here by riding 500 miles up to Denmark. Now I'm contemplating swinging back to France at the first opportunity. It is less than 50 miles to the west. The 80 miles I bicycled yesterday would have been only 60 if I had stuck to the regular highway. The trails are most pleasant, but they do not provide the most direct route from city to city. Their curbs and rough surface and lack signs at crucial intersections also slow me considerably. What signs there are can be confusing as they are frequently to small towns not on my map. I was repeatedly flummoxed. It wouldn't have been so bad if there had been other cyclists to help me find the way, but I pretty much had the cycle path to myself. The trails are great for grandmas and children, and those out for some leisurely exercise, but I doubt Jan Ullrich does much riding on them.

The first significant city I came to yesterday had quite a few bicyclists running Saturday morning errands. I've never seen so many parents pulling toddlers in covered buggies nor Ortlieb panniers, the Rolls Royce of panniers manufactured right here in Germany. As I meandered about trying to find the tourist office, a woman cyclist asked me if I needed directions. I was feeling very much at home. For years, wherever I have traveled in the world, whether in Bolivia or India or Morocco or France or Cuba, I've been taken for being German. And its happening here too. People approach me and start jabbering in German. When I apologize for not speaking their language, every one so far has been able to revert to English and maintain a most friendly and welcoming conversation.

I'm afraid I can't give much of a report on Austria, as I only took a 30 mile nip out of it crossing into it from Liechtenstein then exiting to Germany. I couldn't find anything bicycle-related, to maintain the theme of these travels, to draw me deeper in to the country. I thought maybe I would search out the home of the parents of Hans Weingartner, the Austrian directer of "The Edukators," which I liked so much at Cannes, as they mortgaged it to finance their son's movie. I knew it was somewhere around Vienna, but the first tourist office I came to said they couldn't find its whereabouts.

It was seven weeks ago today that I set out from Paris, some 3,000 miles, and six countries, if Monaco counts, ago. I have slightly more than six weeks to go before I return. Three of those weeks will be devoted to the Tour de France. This trip could make my top ten in terms of distance and time away, and possibly the top ten too in terms of significance and satisfaction if The Tour de France is all I expect it to be. So far though it's not in the category of some of my more epic trips--biking the length of South America, riding up the Alaskan Highway, crossing the Outback of Australia, biking to Kathmandu or even riding coast-to-coast across the U.S.

For years I've resisted bicycling Europe, other than Scandinavia and Iceland, thinking it too commonplace and conventional. My intuitions were not entirely wrong. For a journey to truly excite me, I need to have a distant destination as a goal, whether it be Kathmandu or Tierra del Fuego or the North Cape or Fairbanks or Perth or the circumference of Iceland. All I've been doing here is meandering around, inspired by one small-fry goal and then another. But this wasn't meant to be an epic bike trip. I came to experience Cannes and the Tour de France and to take the pulse of bicycling in various European countries, and that I've done. I will have fine memories of having witnessed three of the four grand bicycle races--the Tours of France, Italy and Switzerland, missing only the Spanish version, which isn't until September. And I am very happy to have visited many bicycling shrines from the Patron Saint of bicycling to all the mythical mountain passes. But as far as biking around Europe, it has been no big deal. It hasn't even excited me as much as bicycling around the American West, something I am looking forward to doing again this fall after the Telluride Film Festival.

Although the early part of this trip was slightly tainted by having to nurse along a neophyte, that has nothing to do with my minimal enthusiasm for these travels. I knew I'd have to make sacrifices when Jesse invited himself along on this trip, though one never knows how much of a burden and a liability a traveling companion can be. He's not the first to doggedly pursue me to introduce him to bicycle touring, nor the only one to selectively accept the advice he was so eager for, both in preparation for the trip and along the way.

Its never nice though, when ignored advice ends up putting not only the seeker, but myself as well, in peril. Its not as if a pair of touring cyclists are on the side of a mountain connected by the same rope and wholly dependent on one another, but in some respects they are. When a partner fails to bring along more than a tattered pair of gloves, despite my strong warning of frigid temperatures in the Alps and the need for wool gloves to keep one's hands warm whether wet or dry, and then is thrust into a near survival situation with hands virtually frozen and miles to descend, it is no small matter.

Our generational difference was more of a chasm than a gap. I know rip and torn clothes are the cool thing these days, literally and figuratively, but on a bike adventure, such garb is totally idiotic. Both pairs of shorts Jesse brought had huge rips across their backsides. Not only was it unsightly, but it was dangerous. He could easily have caught them on his seat when he was rising to stand on his pedals in the mountains and lost his balance. Nor did they keep him warm, a crucial factor on those days in the mountains when we rode in temperatures near freezing. The touring cyclist has countless lessons to be learned. I am happy to provide them. Its unfortunate when they have to be learned the hard way or by near disaster.

Later, George

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