Wednesday 28 September 2011

One Sweet Road: the Sauerlandradring

August 28/29, 2011

One of the founding Lost Boys and the only participant except for me to have ridden all six of our group’s European Tours (Black Forest, Vosges, French Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees/Languedoc and the Austrian Alps), my friend Dr. Chef realized that following a speech he was to give in Croatia, he would then be able to pop into Düsseldorf and visit me for a few days of Nordrhein-Westfalen cycling. I had brought his titanium Ritchey BreakAway with me when I drove back after this year’s Lost Boys Tour in Mayrhofen so he had something suitable to ride (although I needed to loan him the rear wheel of my Tarmac as he had broken a spoke in Austria and Shimano tubeless rims need special spokes).

The weather looked passable for the weekend. Dr. Chef arrived in the afternoon of Saturday, August 27, so I took Monday off so that we would have two riding days. I arranged a rental car and was delighted when I had a very good on-line price and even happier when Sixt, whose office is within walking distance of my apartment, offered me an automatic Golf Plus when I signed in. Automatics are unheard-of in German rental cars that are not in the luxury class. The Golf Plus is a taller version of the popular regular VW Golf, almost mini-minivan-like in proportions, resembling a guppy. But the extra height meant extra space for bicycles.

After going to the airport, Saturday was spent visiting the Altstadt in Düsseldorf, introducing Dr. Chef to Uerige Alt-Bier (of which he approved) and attending a variety show at the Apollo with my friend Uwe from Münsterland. As a warm-up ride on Sunday, we participated in an RTF (Radtourenfahrt) put on by a club in Essen. I brought my steel Marinoni touring bike as the Tarmac was now hors de combat and after we registered and were making our way out to the road the bike, which is probably the only Marinoni in Germany, drew a lot of attention. An older gentleman was particularly excited about it and then I noticed he had a Rickert shirt and was riding a nice blue Rickert so of course I had to talk to him about this. His name was Hartmut and he told me that he was going to ride in Düsseldorf at the Klassikerausfahrt ride the next week. I said I would be on the lookout for him. He is a serious collector of Rickerts, owning a dozen, between complete bikes and frames. I told him mine was a really nice purple colour and he really lit up, saying he had never seen on in this colour before. He also pointed out that I did not need to worry as we ride different frame sizes!

We took the shortish route of 77 kms as we had plans for the evening. The ride was very well-marked, with only one turn that was confusing to everyone, and, as usual with RTFs, took us through some of the most scenic areas around. Of course, I did not realize that the course would take us south and west back towards Düsseldorf and my apartment! I had ridden some of the sections before but enjoyed them nonetheless. The route generally took us along quiet backroads although at times there was some traffic, a problem that you cannot get around in this, the most densely-populated part of Germany. That evening we took the Golf Guppy to Brühl, between Cologne and Bonn, and attended a lovely classical concert in an old church near the impressive Baroque castle that is one of the finest buildings in NRW.

Getting up early the next morning, we headed south and east to a part of NRW that I had been hoping to ride in since I arrived here last year: the Sauerland. This region is sparsely-settled and has hills and woods throughout. It is a region that has some tourism and is noted for winter sports, actually offering some downhill skiing but we were after something else this cool August day: the Sauerlandradring.

We scooted down various Autobahns but eventually the road became quite narrow and rural, with a speed limit of 70 kms for a good distance. We drove around a big reservoir and after just over two hours of travelling reached the parking lot at the Finnentrop train station. The bikes were quickly assembled and we immediately got confused by the GPS route until I remembered that we would ride the Sauerlandradring in reverse.

The Sauerlandradring is an 84 km route that takes in a number of small towns as it travels through four communes (Finnentrop, Eslohe, Schmallenberg and Lennestadt). The first part of the route we travelled was similar to other marked bicycle routes in Germany, following secondary roads, bike paths and, occasionally, main roads or forest tracks. The GPS arrow pointed us nicely along the route and we soon were riding along the banks of the Lenne River, which had been canalized in some places, and then along the main road in Grevenbrück, where there was bit of a nasty climb on a dirt track, before we were able to cruise onwards past Lennestadt and then to the extremely charming village of Saalhausen, where we stopped for some photos but were disappointed that, this being Monday, pretty much everything was closed.

The village has 2,000 residents and is dominated by a church built around 1900, although the records indicating settlement of Saalhausen go back to the 13th Century. It has a Kurpark and some cute little hotels and cafés but finding no place for coffee we pressed on. Although we had not ridden so far, it was not warm (around 14C max) and looked like rain.

The next stretch of road was quite busy but still safe and we made good time as we passed the Cutlery Museum in Fleckenburg. Now we went up a long hill that brought us into Schmallenberg, around 35 kms into our ride. Time for a break and we cruised down the main road into the Altstadt. Although there were plenty of people around shopping, it did not look quite so promising but my eagle eye suddenly spied a Konditorei, which even better than a mere Bäckerei! We put our bikes against the front wall and entered Cake Heaven, otherwise known as the Bäckerei Café Pension Paul Dommes, established in 1914. The front of the place had showcases with wonderful cakes and breads and we made our choice and took a seat in the apricot-coloured café at the side. The cake was delicious and was surprisingly inexpensive. Dr. Chef insisted that rather than our usual coffee we try some hot chocolate as he had seen some delivered to another table and it was also excellent.

The Café Paul Dommes also offers eight guestrooms at extremely reasonable prices so I am already planning to go back, although the railway only goes to Finnentrop. Actually, the railway is the reason we were riding the Sauerlandradring because the next stretch, between Schmallenberg and Finnentrop, is almost exclusively a rails-to-trails route featuring 44 kms of perfectly-paved bikeway, cruising through the scenic hills. Passenger service had ended on the route in 1995, although there was some slight freight traffic for the next five years, but the far-sighted Burgers of Finnetrop was an opportunity and beginning in 2004 the first stretch of right-of-way was converted to bikepath. By May 2007 the route was complete, and a further extension will be completed later this year, linking the Sauerlandradring with the Ruhrtalradweg.

Dr. Chef and I enjoyed this section of the ride immensely as we quickly got up to racing speeds. We had the path to ourselves for the most part and there were still traces of the railway in the form of signals and old wagons to look out. There had been some stormy weather the day before and we had to stop at one point to climb over a fallen tree.

From Bad Fredeburg the roue dropped down to Eslohe (57 kms) and then began to climb again. It was here that we ran into some light rain but it soon let up as we approached the marvellous Kückenheim Tunnel (also called “the Fledermaustunnel’). This is nearly 700 m long and beautifully paved and lit, a pleasure to ride through if not as scary as the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal that Dr. Chef and I had ridden through in 2007.

It was with a bit of disappointment that we rolled back in Finnentrop since we wanted the second half of the ride to just keep going on. Dr. Chef was feeling pecking, so we grabbed some baked goods and cold drinks at the Penny Markt before putting everything back into the Golf Guppy and heading for Düsseldorf, not meeting any of the feared traffic jams near Cologne. To celebrate we returned to the Altstadt and Dr. Chef, who had been promised some Lebanese food, proceeded to order everything they had on offer it seemed. Then we dragged our bloated selves over to the famous Pia ice cream parlour where I ordered an Eiskaffee while Dr. Chef had some kind of massive chocolate parfait thing that even he could not get through.

My first experience of the Sauerland did not disappoint. In addition to the Radring, there are many other marked bike routes that the local tourism office has put together, including GPS coordinates. Although the weather was not ideal, this is some of the best of what Germany has to offer the adventurous cyclist and I look forward to returning.

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