Riding the Rhine without a map | Day 5 – Strasbourg or burst?
I set out this morning with every intention of following the German side of the Rhine.
100 yards from the hotel door I spotted a sign for the cycle route into France and thought, why not?
I could probably give you several reasons now, but the previous evening I’d been weighing up the merits of both and so felt equally underprepared for the French side.
I was the first in a series of poor decisions I would make today.
I’d popped over the border within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel to find the French side rather less well marked than my trusty cycle route 2 in Switzerland had ever been, leading to a good few wrong turinings into Rhineside docks and industrial estates in the first couple of km’s alone (in 4 days in Switzerland I’d only ever taken a single wrong turn).
However I quickly got back on route finding the wide sweeping Rhine canal and made rapid progress for almost an hour along a good cycle track. I then hit a sign indicating that the surface ahead was not suitable for cycles, and diverting me onto the road.
This caused me some concern as without the Rhine canal in sight and without clear route marking there was a clear potential for getting lost. So a couple of km’s up the road I hopped back onto it anyway.
Second bad decision of the day.
It was pretty bumpy, but not entirely unrideable and I still managed to make a decent rate of progress.
However I was just starting to think about what it might be doing to the bike when wallop, another puncture. I changed the tube in pretty quick time and made it back onto the road to Kembs and the beginning of the Rhine au Rhone canal.
Reaching the confluence of a handful of canals I studied the information board carefully, before selecting the Rhine-Rhone cycle route and following the canal northwards in the direction of Strasbourg.
The riding was good until 50 minutes north I was forced onto the road for a section just before the town of Mulhouse. This didn’t present a significant problem as I could still easily see the canal from the road bridge, and passing over it I managed to select a road running parallel before rejoining it near the train station and continuing onwards.
It was now the middle of the day, but somehow over the course of the next hour I became aware that the sun wasn’t in quite the right position versus my direction of travel. I stopped for lunch and got the smartphone out, emailing mission control for route confirmation.
Finally I managed to get a good enough signal to bring up a small Google map confirming I was indeed on a section of canal running in a NE direction, which gave me enough confidence to continue for another 40 mins. The sun however was definitely not in right position now, so I stopped again to check email and recieved some bad news from mission control.
I was headed SW on the canal in the exact opposite direction of Strasbourg, having now reached a position some 150km away. Having started 120km away at 10am and it now being 2.45pm this was soul destroying news.
70km of riding for a net loss of 30km. How could I ever hope to get to Strasbourg now?
In the debrief we worked out that I had taken a NNW canal (instead of NNE) that had somewhere turned back on itself to lead me heading in the wrong direction. The only option was to head back to Mulhouse, and then Kembs in order to pick up the right canal.
I was furious with myself and put in some of the fastest riding of the trip so far on the route back to Mulhouse.
On the way back I could see clearly what I had not noticed on the route out. The turn in the canal was under the road bridge and I could also see a main road that continued as far as the eye could see following the previous trajectory of the canal.
What would happen if I followed it?
Over the next 1hr 40mins I put in some hard and fast miles on the road in blistering heat with the sun in exqctly the right position just over my left shoulder. I reached Colmar for my afternoon ice-cream and soda stop (now a daily ritual) in a state of near exhaustion – though it had been worth it.
Finally some good news from the smartphone, which confirmed I was only 76km by road from Strasbourg and for the first time I realised I could do this.
I set off with renewed vigour at 5.45pm to continue following the main road North east and having crossed motorway junction headed back onto my road. Or so I thought.
You wouldn’t believe the fuss people make when you try and take a pushbike on a motorway!
I realised my error about two thirds of the way down the sliproad in the extra wide bicycle lane (a.k.a. the hard shoulder), and rather than head back up against the flow of traffic I continued down until spotted the opportunity to manhandle the fully loaded bike over the crash barrier and down the embankment into a retail shopping park.
My only problem now was how to get out of it and back on route.
As my luck for the day would have it, the only route out took me a few km’s north in wrong direction into the foothills of the Rhine valley, and picturesque vineyards before I was able to head east again in roughly the direction of Strasbourg.
The hills were slowing me up, so I once again headed south to try and get back on route, but never quite finding a road with the right trajectory to do so. I think we have already established that France is effectively closed at this time of year, and I was becoming increasingly needful of water, eventually interrupting the evening meal of an old couple in their back garden to get my water bottle filled.
It was now 7.30pm and I checked where I was on my phone to discover to my horror that I was only 10km from Colmar.
I needed to drastically rethink my strategy, and headed for the only reliable constant in the trip, The Rhine.
Heading east I found the Rhine au Rhone canal running through a small village just 20 mins later, and the way-markers confirmed a distance of 49km to Strasbourg.
I could still do it!
It was 7.50pm and the sun was falling low in the sky, but I was finally on my intended route and proceeded to smash out the km’s over the next 2hrs 15mins reqching Strasbourg just after 10pm arriving to this.
They’d heard I was coming!
The day had one final challenge left for me and as I rode round town looking for somewhere to stay a thunderstorm of almost biblical proportions erupted, delivering me like a drowned rat on an unsuspecting hotelier at 10.45pm.
Distance covered 260km (est), vs route distance of 120km
Time, 12hrs 45mins (11hrs 40 ride time)
Total distance so far 687kms
There were two really long and tough days on the trip and in case you hadn’t guessed, this was one of them.
If discovering I was heading the wrong way felt like a kick in the teeth, realising I was riding on a motorway was a real moment of terror.
It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if every single driver that passed me hadn’t felt the need to beep its horn. At the time I took it as an expression of outrage but that’s a bit irrational, because as far as I’m aware car horns aren’t capable of expressing emotion.
I’d got to the bottom of the slip road before it started, so I had no choice but to carry on and try and exit as soon as possible. After about a mile of motorway and a struggle down the embankment I found myself on a lawn surrounded by a six foot high fence. So I was very relieved when a gate at the far end of the lawned area was unlocked, and I managed to escape without further incident.
The price of this manoeuvre was getting lost yet again (like I needed it) and dehydration was a real risk as I progressed through village after village where the shops were closed. The interim fill up I got from the garden tap only kept me going for half an hour and as I was progressing up the canal my energy levels were crashing.
I was getting off the canal at every village to look for a shop, and after finding yet another row of closed shops I almost missed what ended up being my saviour.
A coke vending machine stood by the side of the street, one which looked so sun-faded I would have never bothered even trying it out in normal circumstances, assuming it not to be working. However when I stopped I could detect a faint hum, so I decided it was worth chancing a Euro.
2 minutes later I was the proud owner of 3 ice cold cans of Coke. It will never taste as good again.
It gave me the energy I needed to make it to Strasbourg and the light show extraordinaire that awaited me. If you haven’t clicked the link you should, because its worth seeing.
On the approach to Strasbourg the canal had passed a large sewage works, and the stench left me quite literally retching as I cycled along. As if it wasn’t bad enough it was dark by that stage, and as I cycled alongside attempting to keep the contents of my stomach in place I was hit in the face by a bat.
It wasn’t an ambush by a French cricket team, it was a small flying mammal.
I can now speak from personal experience when I say it is a lot nicer being hit in the face by a bat than a pigeon. I did one of those a few months ago in London and I wouldn’t recommend it.