If someone had told me a year ago that I would one day embark on a month-long cycling trip, especially in the autumn, I wouldn't have believed it! At that time, I saw cycling more as a means of transport than a leisure activity.
My passion for cycle touring started when I joined the European Cyclists' Federation’s EuroVelo Management Team as an intern. After writing and reading numerous articles of cycle tours along EuroVelo routes across Europe through my work, I was bitten by the cycling travel bug. With each passing month at EuroVelo, I realised that cycle tourism is the future and the solution to so many current crises facing our world today. Moreover, I was inspired by all the other people who managed to travel by bike as complete novices and I realised the possibilities that travelling this way offered to discover the most beautiful corners of Europe.
I was living in Belgium at the time, which was the ideal country for me to start traveling by bike. Not only because Belgium was a country full of long, well-developed and flat cycle routes, but also because it was located in the middle of the well-known cycle tourism giants: the Netherlands, France and Germany.
After a few day trips around Ghent, I started my first multi-day journey with a friend from Austria who was just as (in)experienced in cycling touring as I was. Over a long weekend we ventured to Wallonia, where we followed the EuroVelo 19 - Meuse Cycle Route and the regional RAVeL routes. This was also the first time that distances by bike took on meaning. The day we wanted to cycle over 70km seemed impossible for us at the time but was necessary to make headway. When we arrived in Huy in the evening, we were exhausted, but we realised that such distances were manageable, and we were rewarded with a sense of pride after a long day of cycling. After this trip, I knew that I had to discover more countries by bike!
Next up was a sunny cycle ride along the coast on the EuroVelo 12 - North Sea Cycle Route in the Netherlands and then a cycling trip in France along the EuroVelo 4 - Central Europe Route, which got me used to cycling in more extreme conditions, such as rainy weather and hilly terrain.
I knew that EuroVelo 15 - Rhine Cycle Route was one of Europe’s best developed and most ‘beginner-friendly’ cycle routes. So I started to hatch a plan to cycle back to Austria along EuroVelo 15 at the end of my internship. Of course, I had some doubts about whether to take it on, especially as this trip would take place between mid-October and mid-November - a period that would not promise ideal weather conditions in that part of the world, as well as the possibility that campsites and services along the route might be closed. When I shared my concerns in the EuroVelo Facebook Group, I realised I was not alone with these worries. However, the prospect of a colourful autumn and emptier cycling routes convinced me to take on the challenge. It will be an adventure, my friend said, and I had never been averse to adventures.
Before we left, our housemate asked us jokingly to send him a postcard every three days. The first one we sent was from our first stop, which was Cologne in Germany. On the front of the card smiled an elderly lady on an electric bicycle! Not quite the picture of a cycle tourist that we represented. Fully packed with sleeping bag, tent, camping cooker and ukulele, we made our way upstream along the banks of the mighty River Rhine. I teasingly called my bike my old camel and was immensely impressed by the weight it could carry on its back. The landscape along the Rhine was beautiful, the cycle paths wide. By the time we reached the Middle Rhine, we learned that we had timed our cycle trip exactly in the period of the wine harvest. In Rüdesheim am Rhein we were therefore welcomed with fermented freshly pressed grape juice 'Federweisser' on the house.
We sent our second postcard from our first Warmshower host of this trip, a family living between Mannheim and Heidelberg. After a long day of cycling, we arrived late in the evening, just in time for dinner. Our hosts welcomed us so lovingly and even gave us the key to their garden hut in the vineyards near Heidelberg for a second night. We continued our journey and entered France through the surprisingly beautiful and interesting city of Strasbourg, the most bicycle-friendly city in France. There we left the Rhine and followed EuroVelo 5 – Via Romea (Francigena) through the wine hills of Alsace, probably one of the most strenuous parts of our route but also one of the most breath-taking. The vines had already turned full of colour, and the air was clear. We had to be careful though, as the sun was setting earlier, and we often found ourselves losing sense of time and cycling in total darkness.
We slept our first and only night in a tent in the backyard of a winegrower. Despite winter sleeping bags, the night turned out to be quite cold, so we didn’t repeat the experience. That was also when we started cooking more during the day or in the evening after arrival. At the beginning of our trip, we had got carried away with all the delicious things the shops had to offer. Now we had to keep a closer eye on our budget. Our camping cooker favourite was instant soup: small in size to transport, a source of plenty of liquid and very warming. Many times we also bought food directly from farms that we cycled past.
We stopped in the capital of gingerbread, Gertwiller, from where we sent our third postcard. At Colmar we decided to head back to Germany and took a detour to Freiburg, where we crashed two student flats that we found through Warmshowers and finally ended up in Basel in Switzerland a few days later. So far, we had been very lucky with the weather – we had not used our rain gear once and had even had to put on some sunscreen.
We followed the Rhine eastwards along the Swiss-German border, stopping at our oldest and most experienced 'Warmshowers' host, a proud 70-year-old, and passing the mighty Rhine Falls. We were often greeted with astonishment by the people we passed, as they had not expected cyclists at this time of year. Also we met fewer and fewer cycle tourists on the road until eventually we were all alone. We didn't mind, because the whole trip brought with it a tremendous serenity. Even though the daily planning could sometimes be stressful, I was glad every day to be able to get back on my bike.
At Lake Constance, we left the Rhine Cycle Route and decided to continue our journey by train. We wanted to avoid the upcoming hills and we could feel that the days were getting shorter and colder. It was as if we were in a race with the winter. Who will arrive first? Although I feared that transporting bicycles on trains would be one of our biggest hurdles, this part turned out to be quite manageable on regional trains. We didn’t want to miss the last stretch crossing over the border to Austria though, so we got off the train and enjoyed a last ride through the Bavarian landscape. Our final postcard we sent from Salzburg in Austria. As well as sending one back to our friend in Belgium, we also sent one to each of our 'Warmshowers' hosts who had made this trip such a unforgettable experience.
Author: Antonia Tornow