Monday 10 September 2007

Cycling in Baden and Black Forest

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

After an excellent night’s sleep at the Gästehaus Rosi in Biengen, our home-away-from-home for the next week, we enjoyed a good German breakfast of cheese and bread, cereal and yogurt and a hard-boiled egg and tea or coffee before getting down to the business of looking over the maps and deciding our route for the day.

The weather looked decent and I suggested that we make the best use of it and head west up into the mountains, climbing the Wiedener-Eck and then heading down into the valley on the other side, a ride that I had done when I last visited the Freiburg area in 2000, taken from Jan Ullrich’s "My Favourite Rides in the Black Forest." Last-minute preparations were completed and Frank, Mario, Brett and I posed for a group photo before heading out of Biengen and into the first day of our Black Forest Adventure.

Jan’s route instructions were not quite all that they could have been and after passing around the Merovingian grave mounds at the edge of Biengen and successfully negotiating our way through Bad Krozingen, we got into a bit of confusion following the suggested route through Ehrenkirchen, turning instead to the main road and getting into Staufen that way. We accidentally passed the centre of town but circled back in order to get into the main square and take some photos in front of the famous old hotel where Dr. Faust is reported to have died during an electrical storm in the 16th Century. He had been hired by the local town council to turn lead into gold but his alchemical skills were of no assistance when the Devil came to call in his contract. The village is quite lovely, situated on a small river and with a ruined castle overlooking it.

We left Staufen, again on the main road as there was no alternative, and rode southeast into the Münstertal, a valley road that began to climb gradually and take us into the Black Forest proper. We stopped briefly at the baroque convent of St. Trudpert, looking inside at the church itself and the small cemetery. Then our work really began as the climb began in earnest. Our route took us along a little river, the Neumagen, and we soon came to an intersection: turning left would have taken us to the Schauinsland peak but this road was under construction and the road closed so in fact our only option was the road we had chosen, going right and taking us through a series of twists and turns. We passed a small roadside inn that looked quite inviting but kept on grinding our way up. Frank and Brett had long since ridden ahead, and Mario and I were joined by another rider who sat in on my wheel. I felt pretty good, setting a steady pace, but could feel that I was gradually slowing as the long climb took its toll.

Mario moved ahead as well but we all reassembled at the hotel at the top of the climb in Wieden. We were not there more than a few minutes when the sky turned very dark and the wind picked up ferociously. Putting our bikes under the hotel deck, we decided to go inside for a while to have something to drink and await the storm’s passing. We had some coffee (well, Frank had a beer) and watching the rain lash the countryside and the clouds descend into the parking lot outside.

We waited quite a while and when it appeared that the worst of the rain was over we discussed whether to go on as planned or to return to Biengen. The sky looked so threatening that everyone agreed pretty quickly that this was as far as we were getting today, so outside we trooped and got back on our bikes. It took only a moment for us to start heading downhill to realize that the temperature had dropped a great deal and that the rain had not stopped. The ride back to Staufen was cold and miserable and by the time I got to warmer levels I could barely unclamp my hands from the handlebars. Once the road levelled out, the rain stopped and I followed the others in time-trial-mode along the main road back to Biengen.

After a hot shower and some recovery time, we celebrated our 64 km ride (879 vertical m) with an excellent glass of Maisel’s Weisse. Mario had brought a 5 litre keg of this most excellent of Bayreuth beers and we enjoyed some fresh Franconian beer in the sunroom of our guesthouse.

Monday, July 9th, 2007

The weather did not look very encouraging again, and the clouds seemed to be pressed hard against the mountains that we were so keen to ride to our east. Instead, Brett, Frank and I decided to do a tour closer to the Rhine and head towards the Kaiserstuhl, taking another route from Jan Ullrich’s book. From Biengen we made our way to Merdingen, former home of Herr Ullrich, and then on to Ihringen. We stopped at a gas station as Frank needed to make a repair to his bike computer and while we were waiting a car pulled up and the driver and the passenger asked all about the two Tarmacs. They are still an unusual sight in Germany in spite of the high-profile race successes of the Gerolsteiner and QuickStep pro teams.

From Ihringen we rode a convoluted path that took us through the Kaiserstuhl, a small extinct volcano that is completely covered with vineyards. There are small paved access roads everywhere and some steep climbs. The mountain seems to have its own microclimate and it was quite warm. We passed a number of charming villages which, like their Alsatian counterparts across the Rhine, featured a lot of wine sellers. Near Bischoffingen we rode in bright sunshine and discovered a huge orchard. We stopped there to steal, uh, sample a lot of sweet cherries right off the trees, along with some excellent plums and some sour cherries as well. There is a limit to how much fresh fruit you can eat so before stomach pains set in we were on the road again.

There was some steady climbing that took us to Kiechlinsbergen (and past an establishment that I was quite certain was a bordello, of all things), and then we had some good descending before we had a serious climb that brought us to the top of the curiously-named Texas Pass, where we had a fine view of even more vineyards. Our road took us swiftly past the little towns on the perimeter of the Kaiserstuhl and before long we were back in Merdingen, where we could not pass up the opportunity to photograph each other below the sign that read "Jan-Ullrich-Strasse."

At this point we got lost a bit and when we eventually figured out where we were going we discovered the route was a gravel path through the fields. This seemed to work well enough, although when we were back in Biengen I discovered that a sharp piece of gravel had gone through my nice new tubeless tire and I had ridden a few kms just on the rim. The tire could not be repaired, it seemed, so after much wrestling and cursing I managed to get a tube in and reinflate the tire for the rest of the trip. This was to be my only mechanical issue during the entire European trip except for some issues with the bike computer, and Frank and Brett had no problems of any kind. So today we could add 76.46 kms to the total, with an altitude gain of 602 m. One flat tire, but at least no rain.

On the recommendation of a cycling neighbour at the guesthouse, we drove en masse to the nearby village of Oberambringen and enjoyed local cooking at a famous old hotel and restaurant. The speciality of the house was smoked trout, which several in the party ordered, but I enjoyed an excellent mushroom dish.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

There was clearly more rain going on in the hills to the east, so today’s ride saw us heading back in the direction of the Kaiserstuhl to a miniature version of it, the Tuniberg. We rode completely around this, and then over the top in several variations, before deciding to head to the Big City and ride the 15 kms or so to Freiburg. Mario did not join us as he and Birgit drove over the Rhine to look at Colmar. There was a bit of confusion finding our way into the centre of the city, and I had to stop to replace one of my bike computer batteries, but eventually we were in the pedestrian zone, enjoying some lunch and some excellent pastry. But our pleasure was somewhat shortened by the deteriorating weather conditions and as we headed back towards Biengen it began to rain. We had an excellent high-speed bikepath most of the way back, although we had to stop once under a bridge to wait for the rain to stop.

It was a relaxing day and we added 74.3 km to our total, with a mere gain of 283 m. That evening was Spa Night, and we went to enjoy the thermal baths at Bad Krozingen. The sauna area was not as impressive as the ones I had enjoyed last summer in the upper Black Forest and the entry price was rather high, but we had a very nice time getting the knots out of our muscles. Brett and Lex had never been to a spa like this and enjoyed it–particularly the ceremonial event when the Saunameister/meisterin comes in and heats up the sauna until you can barely breathe.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

The weather was looking more positive today so we set off for the famous Schauinsland, the famous peak (1284 m) near Freiburg that you can cycle most of the way up. I had done this also in 2000 but at a painfully slow pace and was looking forward to an improved performance. We only got lost slightly getting to Freiburg but had a great deal of difficulty locating the right road to get us up to the Schauinsland. We ended up in the village of Horben where we realized it was about to start raining again on us quite seriously and as the rain fell we all did an uphill sprint to a hotel on the hill. I think my heartrate was about 96 percent of max but we all made it to shelter before yet another massive storm began. We whiled away the time with some seriously overpriced coffee (or, in Frank’s case, beer) until we could head out again.

We continued to climb, looking for the cablecar station that marked the top of the mountain, but were a bit shocked to see it over on the next range of hills to the northeast. Try as we might we could not figure out how to get on the right road. As it was, the route we were taking involved a lot of strenuous climbing, with grades of up to 17 percent, so when we saw a sign advertising farmstead ice cream our interest in going up the Schauinsland vanished and we rode instead to the sweet treats.

From our table behind the ice cream "factory," we had an excellent view of the surrounding hills. However, the weather was only moderately good in our direction and far worse to the east, so we decided to head for the gasthaus. The route back was spectacular, with massive descents on smooth, winding roads. The others went ahead a bit but I had the presence of mind to stop and get some nice pictures of the monastery village of St. Ulrich before following the Möhlin, another small river, out of the mountains and down to Bollschweil and Ehrenkirchen before making a beeline for Biengen.

Our attempt to ride the Schauinsland had netted us only 58.7 rainy kms, with a gain of 1047 m. We probably spent as much time drinking coffee, eating ice cream and asking for directions as we did cycling.

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Brett and Lex were on their own today, so it was up to Frank, Mario and me to uphold the honour of the cyclists and go for a ride. We were all ready to ride and about to pull out of the driveway when the sky turned blacker than black, so it was back to the gasthaus for a while. An hour later things looked better so off we went for our second attempt. Knowing that any attempt to climb up into the hills would be doomed to rain and a rapid return, we decided to once more head off to the Kaiserstuhl, retracing many of the same sections we did on Monday. Instead of stealing more cherries near Bischoffingen, we instead headed a bit further west towards the Rhine and came to the old wine town of Burckheim. Mario had seen it briefly when he had ridden around the area earlier in the week on his own, but it was new to me and Frank. "New" is not really so appropriate when one thinks that they have been producing wine in this area for nearly two millennia.

We rode in through the town gate and onto the cobbles of the main street. There were several restaurants open, and to our right was the entrance to the Corkscrew Museum. Unfortunately, it opened quite a bit later in the day so we were to have our lunch and head off again before we could enjoy this unique tourist attraction.

Lunch consisted of the inevitable Flammkuchen but this time I had a version of it with goat’s cheese and my beloved Pfifferlinge (chanterelle mushrooms). We each enjoyed a glass of different white wine and tested each other’s. Everything was excellent all around. Well, until we got back on our bikes and discovered that it is much harder to cycle after having consumed wine than beer. All three of us found that the effect went straight to our legs and it took a few kilometres for things to return to normal. A rather fast road took us to Endingen and Riegel before we turned south on familiar roads and made our way back to Biengen.

So today we did a creditable 80.45 km, with a gain of 465 m and lots of time spent photographing each other. In the evening I borrowed a black city bike from the gasthaus and rode to the spa, where I had a massage and relaxed in the sauna for a while. The place was pretty empty and I enjoyed the quiet.

Friday, July 13th, 2007

Ah, Friday the 13th! At last our weather changed completely as we enjoyed a brilliant blue sky and warm temperatures. Mario and Birgit left in the morning for their long drive home, so that just left Frank, Brett and me. Frank was planning to leave after our ride to join a group going to watch the Tour de France on the weekend.

We decided that this time we would complete the ride that had been rained out on Sunday, so once again we climbed up through the Münstertal to the Wiedener-Eck. Passing by the hotel, we decided to keep climbing and go to the summit of the Belchen, the highest point in the Black Forest at 1414 m. The road was very good but when we got to the cable car station we thought that we could not get any higher with our bikes. The person selling tickets for the cable car told us to go past the chained-off entrance to a little road and that we could ride that all the way up. This turned out to be true; it was a paved access road and was perfectly good for climbing and climb climb climb we did. As we came up to the summit and the end of the cable car line, we had a superb view to the south of the foothills and the snow-covered Alps themselves, while to the west was the Rhine Valley.

The weather was picture-perfect and we enjoyed some coffees (and for Frank, a beer) at the restaurant at the top of the Belchen. There were a number of other cyclists who had also ridden up the access road.

We had a fast descent, which only became faster and faster as we rode southeast, past the village of Aitern, turning right at Todtnau and following the river valley of the Wiese. This was generally downhill, so we made excellent time as we sped past a number of little villages following the 317 road. At Zell im Wiesenthal, we turned back towards the mountains and made our way slowly up to Tegernau and Sallneck. At the latter we decided that instead of going southwest to Kandern we would take the more direct route to get to Badenweiler so that Frank would not leave too late. Of course, it turned out that the route we had chosen was nothing but brutal climbing. We crawled up to Marzell, taking what seemed like hours for 10 kms, and had to stop to refill our water bottles at the roadside springs nicely arranged for thirsty travellers. Frank and Brett are better climbers than I am but I can usually make up some time on the downhills thanks to the stability of the Tarmac. Our painful climb was followed with a screaming descent on a rather rough road into the attractive spa town of Badenweiler, and then the road continued to fall until we reached the broad Rhine plain. We went into time-trial mode for this last stretch but I could feel exhaustion beginning to creep in. And no wonder! We had ridden 113 kms in 5 1/4 hours, gaining 2388 m and meeting, near the Belchen, a maximum incline of 23 per cent! It was if we had put our week’s frustration at not being able to do serious climbing into one single ride and I felt pretty shattered at the end of it.

We took our leave of Frank, who packed up his car and headed off to Offenburg to join Udo, who had led our Tour de France group last year. The weather promised to be excellent, albeit hot, but I still did not envy him going on a tenting trip. Brett and Lex and I rode our city bikes to Bad Krozingen for a final dinner, involving yet more Pfifferlinge and beer.

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Today I paid the price for yesterday’s exertions as I awoke with a brutal headache and dead legs. It was clearly a case of heat exhaustion and after breakfast I had to lay down again for a while. Then I realized that I had not come all this way to feel sorry for myself and flop out on a bed, so I got on my cycling gear and took out the bike. After only a few strokes I realized that this was not a very good idea since the sun was already blazing down and I was not feeling better. I decided to set an extremely modest goal for myself, gently riding to Staufen and treating myself to an Eiskaffee there. By the time I rode the 8 kms, I was pretty much finished. The cafés on the main square were all pretty occupied but I found an empty table at a very nice café on a side street and stayed there in the shade for an hour or so, enjoying not only an Eiskaffee but also a big slab of homemade plum cake, with whipped cream on it. It was delicious and watching the people walking around, and sitting there with the little mountain with the castle ruin on it behind me, I felt at peace and very happy to have made the trip.

I very slowly rode back to the gasthaus and, taking care to drink a great deal of water, I watched the Tour de France on television and relaxed some more. It was a shame that on my last full day in Germany I had not been able to put in a ride of more than 17.64 km but I was simply not up to it and a man’s gotta know his limits. And a holiday should be a holiday...

The Black Forest: yea or nay?

We had the misfortune to come to Biengen during what was one of the worst summers on record in Europe. In fact, the few days of excellent weather that followed our departure were quickly supplanted by more rain and cold. During our tour of the Upper Black Forest last year, we had nothing but perfect weather, so you can never tell.

Otherwise, the trip went very well. The region around Freiburg is regarded, with justification, as one of the best cycling destinations in Germany. It has beautiful scenery, charming towns and villages, challenging climbs, excellent roads and very reasonable prices. There are numerous spas in the area and lots of good food. The Gästehaus Rosi was a real find. Not only was it well-situated, spotlessly clean and very comfortable, Frau Stein even did our laundry for us and served a hearty breakfast. And coming back to the United States I realize how extremely inexpensive it was compared to the usual Super 8 or Motel 6 places I stay in on cycling trips.

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