Wednesday 1 August 2007

The Lost Boys Tour d'Alsace: the Complete Story

Saturday, June 30, 2007

After experiencing crappy weather in Berlin for a week, I joined the Thin Man on the train on Saturday, June 30th and crossed Germany by train, making our way to Offenburg, where we transferred, then again at Strasbourg and finally arriving in Colmar around 4 pm. Hauling bike cases is never easy at the best of times but working in tandem we were able to get them up and down elevators and to the right platforms without losing any time and missing any connections. The fast trains in Germany, the ICE (InterCityExpress!), do not allow bicycles but we were technically travelling with cases so none of the train crews made any difficulty for us. There are certain spots on the ICE between cars where you can nicely set up a Performance bike case so that it is not in anyone’s way and does not tip over.

Arriving in Colmar we went to the taxi stand in front of the station and found the only taxi there, a huge Renault Espace minivan (not so mini, really). The cabdriver was pretty grumpy and was worried our plastic cases might somehow damage his vehicle but we soon had both bike cases, our suitcases and ourselves ensconced in the Renault and headed out of town. We soon found ourselves on a narrow road passing through the gorgeous villages of the Alsatian wine region–vineyards absolutely everywhere!-- as we headed towards Hunawihr, 15 km or so away. The towns were so picturesque, with flowers in all the windows. In one town the traffic was backed up a little as a wedding was taking place at City Hall, with a group of firemen seeing one of their own off into marital bliss.

Hunawihr, with its fortified church

I had selected Hunawihr, a very small town, as it was directly in the heart of the region where we wanted to go cycling, and because our gite, or holiday accommodation, was there. At the Meyer-Rooms we had booked the largest space. We were the first of the group to arrive and the lady managing the place let us in. We left the bike cases outside with the idea that we would build up the bikes later. The rooms were very nice and there was more than enough space for the five of us. There was a fully-equipped kitchen, two bathrooms and even a washing machine, something that every cyclist on holiday can appreciate.

The vineyards across the street from our gite

Soon after, Dr. Chef arrived with the rental minivan, a Ford S-Max. He brought Anti-Gravity Jon with him from the Strasbourg Airport but told us that Steve Z., who was also supposed to arrive in Strasbourg, had missed his connecting flight in Paris. It was a long day as both Anti-Gravity Jon and Steve Z. were coming in from Seattle. Dr. Chef had flown from Washington, DC to Frankfurt and picked up the van there, whereas the Thin Man and I were not going to be suffering much from jet lag.

Dr. Chef prepares his front tire for special treatment

We all claimed our spaces and then went outside and started to work on the bicycles. I was delighted that in fifteen minutes I had mine back together again and Jon and the Thin Man were not far behind. Dr. Chef was hard at work when an explosion occurred as the front tire he had just inflated blew up. The first flat of the trip and nobody had even gone for a ride yet! This was soon fixed, and we made a quick trip in the van to the neighbouring town of Ribeauvillé to find a supermarket but the directions given to us did not quite work so in the end Dr. Chef dropped us off at the gite and he drove off to Strasbourg to pick up Steve Z.

Anti-Gravity Jon and his Anti-Gravity Trek

Anti-Gravity Jon, the Thin Man and I went for a ride into the village of Hunawihr itself to test our bikes. It was very charming but pretty sleepy. We rode through the town, noticing the first of many, many wine-tasting (dégustation) places, and then rode up out of the town, following a sign that was supposed to indicate Alsation vineyard cyclepath. Jon and I charged up the hill, which hit grades of 15 percent, and the Thin Man started off strongly then faded. He realized then that he had assembled the inner chainring on his bicycle backwards and could not shift into the lower gears. He still rode very strongly in spite of this, and we soon turned back to do a little more tuning at the gite.

One of our storks

Dr. Chef and Steve Z. returned a short time later and we trooped into the restaurant that was conveniently located next to the gite for a typical Alsatian meal. Flammkuchen is the regional speciality and is like a very thin-crusted pizza. There was lots of beer to wash everything down and everyone was feeling relaxed. The weather forecast looked good for Sunday and everyone walked back to the gite, admiring the nesting storks on the roof, and we disassembled the bicycles for the next day, trying to avoid getting grease all over the van. It was a major accomplishment to get four bikes in the luggage area but we knew it would save us time when we did the early start the next day.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dr. Chef and I roused everyone out of bed at a ridiculously early time in the morning, and with surprisingly little complaining we got everyone into the van and headed out to Mulhouse to ride a French club ride. My account of this is already on the blog. We were now up to three flat tires for the trip as the Thin Man enjoyed two.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Lost Boys in Ribeauvillé

I thought that I would have been a bit stiff and sore from the 173 km we rode the day before but in fact I felt quite good. I felt even better when I rolled out of bed and discovered that Dr. Chef and Anti-Gravity Jon had gone to Ribeauvillé and bought fresh croissants and pain au chocolat for breakfast. They had also purchased a few things in the little village store in Hunawihr so we were set to begin the day in fine form.

Welcome to Bergheim

Chill was staying in Ribeauvillé and we rode the 1.5 km over there to meet up with him, posing for a group photo outside of the old town and then heading northwards Bergheim, another gorgeously picturesque village. Chill, who had been in the area before, had suggested we ride up to the Chateau de Haut-Koenigsbourg and go via the less heavily-travelled route on the D42. We climbed gently, first through impressive vineyards and then through the forest on an excellent road, making our way upwards to the charming village of Thannenkirch. The road was wet but we were enjoying sunshine.

On the road to Haut-Koenigsbourg from left: Chill, Dr. Chef and the Sprocketboy

The road turned from northwest to northeast and steepened a bit. Ahead of us, high on its mountain, we could see the castle. We stopped to take some photos and were joined by a family from Yorkshire who were driving by, and they took pictures of us together. Then it was back on the bikes and uphill as Chill, Dr. Chef and I chased down the others.

There was a brief descent and a sudden left turn and we were climbing the approach to the castle. Chill had warned us that the road was very steep but his memory had played tricks on him or, more likely, his cycling had improved so much since his last visit that what had seemed particularly difficult was no longer so. We soon found ourselves cruising up the loop road that took us to the castle and we enjoyed a superb view of the Vosges Mountains and, to the east, the Rhine Valley.

The castle, one impressive pile of masonry, was built in the 12th Century and had been in possession of the Hohenstaufen family. It went to the Dukes of Lorraine and then changed hands several times and was burned in 1462 during civil disturbances. It was rebuilt and then the Swedes burned it during the Thirty Years War. Left as a ruin for several centuries, it was given to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1899. He determined to rebuild it to its appearance before the Swedes got at it and his architect made a good effort to capture the period. It was hoped that the castle would be a romantic reminder, bonding Alsace closer to the German Empire. Construction went from 1900 to 1908. After World War I the French confiscated the castle as they obtained Alsace again and today this fairy-tale-like building is a major regional tourist attraction.

We looked at the tourists, had some energy bars and then continued on the loop road, returning down the hill all the way back to Bergheim. We rode in through the main gate of this wonderful, completely fortified town and headed for the central square to find coffee. This we accomplished, and enjoyed not only coffee but apple cake as well. Dr. Chef and I walked around and took photos of the beautiful square in front of City Hall. Little did we know that Bergheim had suffered so badly from the effects of war and the plague that by the 1700s it had become completely depopulated. Foreigners were invited in to the empty town and it was filled with Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Hungarians and Romanians. Times are a lot better now.

From Bergheim we decided to ride back up the hill towards the castle since we had enjoyed cycling the D42 so much but instead of continuing on to the Chateau itself, we turned left and took the road to Lièpvre, enjoying a superb fast descent of some 7 kms. We found the busy N59 waiting for us, but were able to quickly get off this Route National onto the much quiet D48, taking us along the Liepvrette River to Ste-Marie-aux-Mines. The region, known as the Val d’Argent, was once famous for its mines, and was noted for antimony and silver.

We rode along the river, and Steve Z. practiced some sprinting, before we turned east on the D416 and began the long climb up to the Col du Haut de Ribeauvillé. It was a steady 6-7 percent grade and took us up to 742 m. Chill, who is obsessed with having his picture taken in front of summit signs, got his picture taken here, and the whole group joined in before we enjoyed another hair-raising descent, including a few sections of cobblestones. We were getting some splotches of rain now, and set the pace a bit higher. Anti-Gravity Jon and I took turns time-trialling at the front, passing some huge wineries as we went back into Ribeauvillé, where we rode in past the ruins of the Chateau de St. Ulrich. In town we found the only place still open for a late lunch of, yes, flammkuchen and Gewürztraminer. If you don’t eat at the right time in France, your possibilities for lunch become quite limited. In fact, the only thing on the menu was flammkuchen...

Soon we found ourselves back in Hunawihr and Dr. Chef, Steve Z. and I went off in the van to do some serious shopping as Dr. Chef was planning to cook dinner for us that evening.

We enjoyed wandering through the large supermarket, looking at all the unfamiliar foods and searching for things on our extensive list–how do you say “oatmeal” in French? We got pasta, and eggs and chocolate and bananas and pastry shells and what seemed like seven different kinds of cheese and milk and tea and coffee and vegetables and raisins, eventually, the oatmeal. And laundry detergent and paper towels.

Dr. Chef at work

Back at the gite everyone went to work as Larry created an excellent meal: mushrooms in pastry shells, a green salad (made by Steve Z.) and pasta with freshly grated Parmesan (we took a blackmail photo of Chill doing the grating so that he could never point out to his wife again how useless he is in the kitchen), followed by caramel ice cream and cassis sorbet. The only downside was the Alsatian Riesling I had selected for 3 Euros, which was terrible beyond belief, but luckily Chill had brought some nice wine from Switzerland and we had selected a local red that was pretty good as well. After dinner the cleanup crew went to work and another superb day en vacances had passed. More to follow...

Chill is grating. Well, not all of the time...

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