Monday 13 June 2011

The Infamous “Pommes” Ride: Bonn-Eupen-Bonn

It seemed like a good idea when my friend Nick suggested that we sign up for the “By Bike Tour” early this year. It was a route that would take us from Bonn through the Eifel Mountains to the German-speaking enclave of Belgium, with the town of Eupen being the turnaround point. At this point we had planned to be in better condition but the usual excuses applied and I do not really have the required miles in my legs and too many kilos around my middle, so I was a bit apprehensive. On the other hand, having done the 200 km Mountains of Misery in Virginia, I thought that I would be fine going an extra 25 kms, and probably with less climbing. In a moment of weakness, my American friends Tom and Tim also signed on so at least this misery would be shared.

The ride began in 2005 when three amateur cyclists, riding near Bonn, were chatting about the best french fries in the area. One of them remarked that Belgian was famous for its frites so they should go there if they wanted some. Incidentally, the German term for french fries is “pommes frites,” the same as in French, but it is often shortened to “pommes,” as I heard in Berlin, or “fritten” in the Rheinland, reflecting the proximity to the Netherlands/Belgium. The challenge was accepted and they rode off to Eupen, 112 km away over the mountains. The story goes that on the return ride the french fries were heavy on their stomaches, but a tradition was set and the ride has grown each year, with 400 starters last year. This year the ride was limited to 600. The only ride offered is the full distance, and there are only three food stops on the way. This promised to be epic.

I was up at 4:45 yesterday morning and Tom picked me up in the Official Team Car at 5:30. His GPS wasn’t working but he was able to find my place anyway but once the GPS came back to life we discovered we had missed the turnoff for Tim’s house. No matter as we were early enough.

Getting to Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn, we easily found the sports field and picked up our starting kits. Besides our numbers and a ride route map, we got two water bottles (adding yet more to my already-massive collection), various energy drink powders and gel tablets and not much else. Although I knew it beforehand, it was a bit disappointing to think that we would go to all this effort and not get a medal or certificate but the ride’s the thing.

Unfortunately Nick could not join us at the last minute for family reasons, so at 8:00 we all lined up at the start, a shot was fired and off we went as a big group. There were police cars and motorcycles to block traffic to get us out of town, which was very nice. The pace was reasonable, although a little on the brisk side considering what was coming, and we stayed comfortably near the back as we made our way through the green countryside. The weather was good, with no sign of rain, and cool enough for arm-warmers. I was a bit worried about the wind, which we had really suffered under during the Euskirchen RTF two weeks ago.

En route through little villages in the Eifel (photo by Tom)

Eventually the escort vehicles left and as we came to stoplights we soon found ourselves in a little group. The group did not work very well as Germans are not very good at pacelines, in my experience. I was at the front for a while and when I moved left to let the next rider pull through, nothing happened. It was apparent that they were content to sit on for the rest of the day. Of course, this meant that we would be going slower and using up more energy.

Me, still looking pretty happy at this point (photo by Tom)

At around Km 70 we came to the rather modest food stop, which offered water, energy drink, bananas and some cookies. It turned out that we were among the last to come through, even though we had been averaging over 30 km/h, headwinds and all, to get here. The group ahead of us seems to have stayed intact and the food stop people said when they came all hell broke loose since there were around 200 cyclists. After we left the food stop, we were down to just the three of us and for the rest of the day did not see more than 4-5 other cyclists on our ride.

The climbing came pretty regular now but the scenery was really beautiful as we passed through the small towns and we did have more than a few excellent descents, including one that took us across the very-confusingly named Rur River (no, not the Ruhr and not the Ruwer). We crossed the former border into Belgium near Roetgen and were astonished at the terrible quality of the Belgian roads but at least there was not much traffic. After the town of Raeten we came to the larger town of Eupen, where the route brought us over a nasty 15% grade right in the centre of the place. A number of Belgian riders had started in Eupen, doing Eupen-Bonn-Eupen, and we rolled under their starting arch to a rather sad and picked-over food stop. I loaded up on my own gel and energy bars while Tom and Tim ate the offered sandwiches, which appeared to feature cold schnitzel from a big plastic bag marked “Schwein.”

Only 116 kms left to go! We knew that the road back along a different route would begin with a serious climb but the road out of Eupen was truly terrible. It was a tank road, made from concrete slabs, so there was the constant thump-thump-thump as you hit the expansion joints. In addition, it was in dreadful condition, with massive holes everywhere, plus heavy traffic to boot. It climbed and climbed with no turns at all. We were not reassured by the sign indicating that the road would be in poor condition for the next 11 kms!

This nightmare eventually ended as we approached Germany again, crossing the location of the former defensive Siegfried Line, and getting onto some blessedly smooth asphalt. We were riding through a huge park, the Parc Natural des Hautes Fagnes and soon another one, the Nationalpark Eifel. There was a great deal more of climbing and descending, and around Km 130, after a glorious descent, we turned a corner under a bridge to be confronted by a horrific 20% grade. I had to get off the bike to shift to the proper gear and as I made my way slowly up (and I do mean slowly), a van, its gears grinding away, pulled up alongside. It was the Broom Wagon and they wanted to know if I wanted to quit and get in. I shook my head and concentrated on getting to the top of the ridiculous hill and the van had pulled over and the rear doors were open. I was surprised by how many people had quit already but I told the driver I was continuing. Even though I had had cramps twice on the climbs already and was feeling tired, and another 90 kms was a long way to go, there was no way I was getting a ride back on the van, particularly since I was doing this ride partially to celebrate my birthday. I was already breaking the ride down into 40 km stages in my mind and I told Tom and Tim that as long as we had daylight I would get to the finish.

In Schleiden I momentarily lost the others, who had gone off to a gas station for some addition refreshment, but this was just as well as I had the chance to focus on the big hill out of town. I cramped badly about one-quarter of the way up, but stopped and drank and massaged the muscle in my leg and then I could continue. The others soon caught up and eventually we came to the final food stop on the way, at Km 170.

There was a big group of people manning the stand and they applauded when we rode in. We refilled bottles and ate more bananas and worked out the kinks a bit. They told us that the finishing line would be taken down at 6 pm, which surprised us as the website, Tom thought, said it would be open until 8 pm. It was 5 pm now, so there was no way that we would do 50 kms of climbing and descending in that time, but all we wanted to do was finish.

There were some nasty hills and some roads with very heavy traffic to negotiate as we approached Bonn. I fell back a bit and tried to keep a steady pace going but then my GPS battery, which is good for 10 hours, gave out and I missed a sign on the otherwise very well-marked route. The result was that I got slightly lost but just headed for Bad Godesberg, which is not all that large. I had some problem finding the sports field but managed to get the GPS awake for a moment to get the general direction. Shortly after 7 pm I rolled under the start/finish arch, which was mainly gone, and easily found Tom and Tim since there were hardly any cars left in the lot.

Tom crosses the finish line (photo by Tim)

By the time we packed up, and then stopped at Tim’s for a celebratory beer, and Tom dropped me off, it was 10 pm. After a hot and welcome shower, I had a cup of soup and a sandwich and collapsed into bed. My back was stiff and my legs hurt but I felt a sense of accomplishment at being one of the 278 people who finished the ride of the 301 who started, even if nobody official noticed it.

The GPS conked out at 215 kms but the ride was close to 230 kms by the time I added in my detour. We had managed a creditable 23 km/h for the distance, which included around 2,500 m of climbing. But my planned recover ride today was just the 400 m to my favourite café, where I enjoyed a late breakfast and a nice slice of rhubarb streusel cake to celebrate my birthday a day late. But no french fries...


Anonymous said...

bravo for finishing it!

Unknown said...

I wish I had re-read this before registering for the 2012 event!