Thursday, May 30, 2013

Just a little club ride...with 5,000 participants!

In deepest Hessen
In 2001 I rode the Rhőnradmarathon, a rather difficult organized ride near Fulda in the eastern part of the German state of Hesse. For my efforts I received a participation medal and a t-shirt—the former I still have but the latter has gone to T-Shirt Heaven after being used for workouts until it faded away. I had ridden the Classic version of the ride but this time planned to go for the Marathon version: 202 kms and 3400 m of climbing. I persuaded my friends Nick and Bernd to sign up since places are limited.

This just goes to show the changes in German cycling in the last decade. The professional sport is dying as races have been cancelled until only a handful are left, only one of which is a UCI Pro Tour event. On the other hand, bike marathons, which were a scarce novelty a decade ago, have boomed as amateurs make the most of the sport. Jedermannrennen, as races for amateurs are called in Germany, did not exist in 2001 but now there is a whole series of them as well. A bike marathon must be 200 kms to be called one but, like the popular Radtourenfahrt (RTF) that covers shorter distances and can be found throughout the country on every weekend during the season, it is not a timed event. The Jedermannrennen is timed but from my experience at the Velothon Berlin only the hardcore riders take it seriously.

The Rhőnradmarathon is organized by the local cycling club, RSC '77 Bimbach, which was founded in 1977 and ran the first Radmarathon already in 1979. It is one of the most loved events in Germany and extends now over two days during the Pentecost Long Weekend. On Saturday a number of RTF rides are offered, including a 20 km family event, with the longest being 152 km. On Sunday more RTFs are offered from 20 to 112 kms but the Big Event is the Radmarathon, which now comes in three variations. Besides the Basic and Classic lengths two years ago a brutal “Extrem” route of 238 km with 4500 m of climbing was added. Described as the hardest bike marathon in Germany, it is for crazy people.

On Friday, May 17, Nick picked me up at the Siegburg train station and then we headed southeast to Lauterbach. The drive was harder than expected as we ran into very heavy fog in Hesse as Nick's GPS took us along some very small roads. In the end we reached our base for the next two days, a spacious apartment, around 10 pm, feeling pretty tired.

Our B&B: Haus Ortwein in Lauterbach

On Saturday it was time to ride. I had signed up for one of the RTFs and was hoping to do the 112 km version, while Nick was considering something shorter. In the end it did not matter as Nick's Garmin took us to the registration in Bimbach the long way, meaning a 27 km route rather than the expected 13 km one. This meant we were too late to start but the weather was decent, if overcast and humid, so we decided to ride our own variation of the 48 km loop. I did get my start number for the RTF but was not too concerned about food stops or controls as I had only invested 5 Euros anyway.


In addition to the registration set-up, there was a beer tent and some tents for people selling things. Nick lusted after some Lightweight wheels but, more importantly, he also had the chance to have his failing rear wheel trued by a brilliant mechanic.


Nick, lusting
We set off from the muddy start area and were soon cruising through Hesse, which boasts truly excellent roads. The Rhőn area is considered by Hessians to be the prettiest part of their state and the lack of traffic and the fine pothole-free surfaces of the streets make it a great cycling destination.




Propaganda for yet more rides!

Riding through small towns along the Fulda River, we noticed not a lot of activity for a Saturday. Hesse is one of the German states where rural areas are depopulating at a noteworthy rate and the villages we saw generally had no stores or cafes in them. It was only when we got to a larger centre that there was more activity. This was in Schlitz, where there is an impressive castle that is now an old age residence and there is also a fine hotel. We climbed up through the cobbled streets to take a look around and came across a group of ancient motorcycles assembled for a vintage run. Some great old machines, including ones with sidecars.



Saturday afternoon in Schlitz
Our plan to stop for a coffee did not work out as the only cafe had too many smokers on the terrace so we continued enjoying our spin through the countryside, eventually collecting 71 kms and around 700 m of climbing.We returned to our bed-and-breakfast and the welcome opportunity to clean our quite muddy bicycles.



That evening we drove back to the start area for the pre-ride briefing for Sunday's adventures. A Powerpoint presentation had been assembled but first the speaker from the club doing the briefing went into a long and excited monologue slamming the sports press for concentrating only on the doping scandals in cycling and not on big and successful events like the one put on in Bimbach each year. That out of the way, he then proceeded to entertain us with stories of Celtic settlement in the town and then a brief diversion into the geological formation of the Rhön region.


Just as I was thinking I had never heard a pre-ride briefing like this before, the screen featured the route we would be riding. As there is overlap between routes, the speaker just covered the long 238 km version. The route was divided into five segments, each with a slide. After the 45 km “prologue” it got very quiet in the tent. There was a mention of a time cut-off for the 202 and 238 km routes, the first indication of this we had had. There were lots of food stops (hooray!) and a whole lot of climbing. A whole lot, actually. The presentation ended with an animated fly-through of the route in 3D, which did not provide much comfort either.

Sunday: the Day of Truth. Our landlady had left breakfast out for us as we had to get up early. The bikes were already in the car so it was the work of only a few minutes to drive to Bimbach. We were impressed that so many people had already arrived, filling two large fields with cars on the edge of the town. Many of the people leaving for the longer route would have gone between 6:00 and 6:30. We sleepyheads got enter the course with the other 202 kms-intending, along with 171 kms riders. At 7:15 we were off on our adventure. It was a cold morning but no rain, thankfully.


The prologue was marvellous. We rolled out on the empty, pothole-free roads, smoothly climbing and very rapidly descending and having a jolly old time, eventually rolling though the Rhönsprudel mineral water factory (one of the ride's sponsors) and coming to the first food stop. Nick had ridden with a triathlete from Hamburg who was using this route as a training ride. Refreshed with our quick stop, we headed to the first serious climb of the day, just past Poppenhausen. It was slow going but steady enough. Most of the hills in the region probably max out at 8 percent gradient but are very long.

A short descent and then we were climbing again. There was quite a bit of traffic here and it was both in the air and on the ground. Cars, motorcycles and buses overtook us and overhead were light aircraft and sailplanes. To my surprise we had already reached the top of the Wasserkuppe, at 910 m the highest point of the ride and the home of gliding. There is a little airport at the top and lots of tourist kitch places as well. I was last here in 2000 and now I was enjoying the descent I had climbed up more than a decade ago.


Enjoying the smooth fast descent, we came to an intersection where my GPS said we should go right but all the signs pointed left. We knew that there had been some changes in the route and this must havae been one. In fact, as we were to learn at the next food stop, we had missed the time cut-off and were now riding the 171 km route instead of the longer one we had planned. We discovered this at Fladungen, when our cards were stamped KP3 (Kontrol Punkt 3) instead of the KP2 we expected. This was kind of annoying but we decided we could add some distance at the next split. We mulled this while eating big bowls of hot pasta at the food stop.


As usual, the most food is always located before the toughest climb. Our idea of lengthening the ride was wishful thinking as to get to the split we had to conquer a big Category 2 climb and the signs for the longer rides were gone anyways. The sun had come out now and I was definitely struggling. At the Gotthards food stop we debated taking an extra loop but instead opted for the flatter 171 km course section through Morles. This was a good opportunity to recover a bit from our exertions. I felt the odd twinge of cramping in my adductors coming on but stopped, drank, did a bit of massage and rode off in an easier gear with no more adverse effects.

By the time we got to the last checkpoint before the finish at Margretenhaun we were in relaxed cruising mode but eager to finish the ride. There were a few ups and downs until the final little descent brought us back into Bimbach, the ride completion and our commemorative t-shirts.

We were both pretty tired and a bit sunburnt. We made our way back to the car after misdirecting ourselves somewhat and returned back to the B&B. Shortly after our arrival the skies turned black and it began to pour in torrents, not letting up for the rest of the night.

Lauterbach might be bigger than most of the villages around but it still did not offer much in the way of budget eateries so our recovery meal was consumed at the local McDonald's, a first for me! The rain continued and the next morning, feeling a bit stiff but triumphant, we drove back to Siegburg and I took the train home.

It was a great weekend riding some of Germany's best roads at a superbly organized (and sold-out) event. This was the best-attended of the Radmarthons to date and everyone looked like they were enjoying it. Nick and I were among the stoutest people at the event and there were riders who finished the brutal long course averaging 30 km/h, apparently. But the ride is the thing and not the time, as the organizers point out. I was happy to accept my 245 kms of riding with 3400 m of climbing as a pretty good weekend workout at the beginning of the cycling season. Next year for sure, but we will make that time cut-off!

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