Tag Archives: biking

So I biked some miles in Europe

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Two months ago I left San Francisco with a bike and a trailer. I landed in Amsterdam with a trailer and no bike. While I waited for the airline to find my wheels I spent my time warding off my family’s ridiculous worries and took long walks to alleviate the annoyance with said worries. Being without a ride on a bikepacking trip sucked big time. Sure I didn’t have the most auspicious start. But this is life, it throws you curve balls. You have to be ready to catch.

I wheelbarrowed my luggage in my trailer through the Dutch countryside. I opened myself to being ridiculous, unlucky, afraid. I was a bag lady in Germany fighting rain with plastic. I was an American in The Netherlands wearing a helmet on the bike. I made myself comfortable in solitude in Denmark. I dared to bike in Romania, and lived.

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My odometer 2 months ago showed 278 miles. Today it shows 1644 miles. In nearly 1400 miles of sunny, muddy, rainy togetherness my blue Motobecane’s become my best friend. This bike’s wheels have combed through forest paths, muddy and gnarly roads, bridges, tunnels, beaches. Together we’ve met friendly Dutch farmers who are in tune with nature and groom it, make it hospitable. We conversed – albeit one-sided – with cows, sheep, goats, ducks, deer, foxes, even a few llamas and a notorious kangaroo.

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What I’ve wanted out of this trip was to be amazed. In all honesty, I was. My last campsite was the most magical yet, a green corner by the water, where I shared some snacks and evening thoughts with a fleet of ducks. I was alone again, as I was when I got here.

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As I biked towards the airport this morning, with the 5am sun rising slowly behind me, I thought it best to not say goodbye to The Netherlands, for fear of being corny or trite. Instead, to dispel the building sadness, I started planning my next biking trip, and resolved to fly out of Schipol on a cheerful note, returning the positivity that this country’s gifted me with.

Netherlands, it’s been great to know ya.

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When I grow up I want to be a Dutch tree hugger

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir. I don’t know if I’ve tapped into any secrets of the Universe cycling through the forests of The Netherlands, but I can definitely say it’s one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done here.

Our Southern cycling route is now looping towards its terminus point, and after covering another 100 miles or so North we’re again going straight West, towards Amsterdam – the city where things start and end this summer for me. We’ve had a few days of nagging rain and forests, the latter making the former more bearable.

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If you like trees, the national park De Hoge Veluwe is a beautiful place to visit. It’s very large, spanning over 50 square km, and it features a mixture of lush forests sand dunes in alternating fashion, a landscape formed during the Ice Age. Oddities keep things interesting right? In this park you can cycle or hike for miles and miles and not meet a single road or house.

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This time we didn’t actually go through the park but covered quite a bit of distance cycling around it, alongside forests which are just as beautiful as those in the park. We camped for the night at a lovely nature campground in Otterlo, where I promptly setup a clothesline and hung my various belongings to dry, plastic bags and all. That gypsy lifestyle!

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We’re now in Utrecht, where we took a day off to give our asses a chance to recover from the saddle brutalities. And now that I’m finally standing still I can think about how incredible it is that we actually made it here. Yesterday was without a doubt the windiest day I’ve lived in this country. A short 40 miles from the Veluwe park to Utrecht should have been a breeze, but instead it was as if we’d raised the wrath of the grumpiest wind gods. Cold air hit from all directions, and even in our lowest gears we were barely crawling at 9mph. Occasional maverick rain would remind us from time to time that it could, in fact, be worse.

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The wind was something extra. When we finally got to our campground, located on a charming farm outside of Utrecht, we setup the tent with zombie motions and considered calling it a day. But the city was so close! I managed to pull Jim out of his defeated state and we bravely biked into Utrecht for some beers.

Well, one beer turned into 3, and then some bitterballen were consumed, and then some ice cream. Finally, close to midnight we got back on the bikes and rolled into the night, through the partying city of Utrecht, over tall bridges and dark, silent cornfields, back to our farm campground. We agreed it was a good decision to go out after all. To beer or not to beer? The answer is obvious.

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Once you go Dutch you can’t go back

Memories of cycling in The Netherlands stayed with me in a really pressing, come-back kind of way, so I decided to come back here and explore the Southern part of the country in another week long tour. This time though I am not solo.

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My friend Jim and I have been on the road for about 170 miles. We started in Eindhoven and biked 50 miles into Belgium almost entirely along a canal that was so symmetrically framed by trees that it could very well have been in a painting.

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Our camping accommodations were nothing to write home about, but we did get a spot near a pond, which we thought was a great thing, but realized that it wasn’t when we were prematurely awoken by the yells of a very outspoken duck.

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On the second day we turned North again and rolled back into The Netherlands along a beautiful path near the Maas river. Small cafes with patios dotted the path, where older couples propped up their upright bikes and sat down for koffie verkeerd (Dutch latte, literally “wrong coffee”). I don’t know if I mentioned this but Dutch old people are very cute.

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My favorite part of cycling in The Netherlands are the paved cycling paths through forests. Cycling here is like hiking on a bicycle, the smell of pines and wet earth fills your nostrils and your hair blows in the wind (if you’re wearing a helmet take it off, this is The Netherlands!) and you find yourself wishing the path will never end.

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We found a place to spend the night at a terrific campground in Roermond which is part of the Natuurkampeerterreinen national camping network. I can’t say enough good things about these campgrounds: they have everything you need as a tent camper, including hot showers, toilet paper and electricity close to your site. The campgrounds are often located within an actual farm, so you get to camp on lands with 100-year old trees and hang out with all kinds of animals while you’re there. This time it was horses!

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The third day we covered about 65 miles heading North towards Nijmegen. The route I mapped out online using the LF router took us on a hopscotch trajectory between the two shores of the Maas river, and we found ourselves on 4 different ferries going back and forth. These mini ferries are adorable, and most passengers are talkative old people on bikes, so adorable x2. The price for every ferry is only about 1 euro apiece.

No proper day in The Netherlands is complete without a bit of rain. On the last 10 miles, before we stopped to camp just South of Nijmegen, we got properly soaked and muddy. Now this is the Netherlands I remember!

The campground, another “nature” campground this time with self-service check-in, offered hot showers and a pine-smelling meadow to park your tent in the middle of a forest. Every day of camping in this country is like opening a little surprise nugget out of a box of Dutch chocolates.

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Old castles, the Black Sea and a bike: bicycle touring in Romania

“I come to Romania for adventure!” the German cyclist on the train said in reply to my quizzical appraisal of his touring setup: mountain bike with suspension (a must for any life-loving cyclist of Eastern Europe), beat up pair of panniers, thick coat of dust. Sounds about right.

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Having been born here, I’d often wondered what brings tourists to Romania. But curiosity presses, and landing here after rolling in the unmotorized nirvana of Northwestern Europe, I had to try it for myself: bicycle touring in Romania. I sweet-talked a doesn’t-know-what-he’s-getting-himself-into friend and followed this well documented guide to cover the 110 miles (180 km) from Tulcea to Constanta along the Black Sea in 3 days.

The worst part? The 35℃ (95℉) heat and the barbarous mosquitoes. The best part? Well, of course: adventure.

Tulcea is an old harbor city in Eastern Romania, perched on seven hills by the Saint George branch of the Danube. Lovely place, if not for the scorching heat which nearly peeled the paint off my bike. To make for a relaxed first day, after getting off the train here from Bucharest, we decided to cycle just 20 miles South and camp at Zorile Albe, a charming campground in the border village of Sarichioi.

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This campground was unique in a number of ways. It featured cats, curious chickens and a fleet of remarkable organized ducks. Most interestingly, it was just a dude’s backyard. A sociable dude who came down and chatted with us and the other campers, and then proceeded to prepare an incredible meal of carp brine with polenta, a traditional fishermen’s dish from the Danube.

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Located right on the shore of Lake Razelm, this campground had one of the most show-offy sunrises I’ve ever seen. Nice, I guess, if you like that whole sun-reflection-water-boat-whatever stuff. Not me though, not me.

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The second day was grueling. But we knew it was going to be. Waking up at 5 am to get a head start on the already building heat, we aimed to cycle about 80 miles (120 km) South to Vadu, a beautiful wild beach where camping isn’t officially allowed but, like in the rest of Romania, done by many.

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We got to the first stop, Enisala fortress, around 8 am – perfect time for breakfast with a view. After a steep climb to the castle, we feasted on tomatoes and yellow sheep cheese by the old walls, amidst piles of trash, which sadly are everywhere in Romania.

Enisala looks straight from a movie, a 14-century fortress built by the Genovese on the grounds of an older Byzantine construction. This fortress somehow survived the long-standing pissing contest between the Russian and Ottoman empires and didn’t get blown up. It’s the only medieval fortress that remains in Eastern Romania.

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15 miles later, in Jurilovca, we got off the paved road and cycled towards the coast onto a gravel road, then a dirt road, then a single track, then a heinous single track with boulders, which climbed steeply then descended abruptly right along the coast, making us wobble with the loaded bikes and count our blessings as the cliff fell sharply to the left. We wanted adventure, right?

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Here we found Argamum, an old Greek fortress from the 7th century BC which sits on the tallest point of the Romanian Black Sea coast. This thing is old! The on-the-brim positioning and the history of the place impressed us, but the unforgiving sun and the trash which garnished the place as per usual made us want to get out of there as soon as possible. So we did.

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In summary, the journey to Vadu included: near-death experience cycling along a major two-lane highway with fast traffic (this is Romania, so no other roads!), tall poplar trees, endless fields of corn and sunflowers. But the morale was kept high by the friendly countryside people: cyclists wave, old people say hello, kids pedal alongside you till they run out of steam, drivers cheerlead you with friendly honks. Balkan people 🙂

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Approaching Vadu beach, there was so much trash and the road was so dilapidated that I dreamt of being back in Denmark on butter-smooth delimited bike paths, and almost cried. But camping on this wild, quiet beach after cycling all those miles, was a spiritual experience. Worth it – even though I took home some 200 mosquito bites as memento.

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On the last day of the Romanian seaside cycling adventure, we ruefully awoke to a blasting 5 am sun, and freshly sweaty proceeded to pack up the tent and make a hasty exit off the roasting, insect-infested beach.

The final stretch took us 25 miles (40 km) South to the city of Constanta, where we took the train to Bucharest. I don’t have a lot to say about this part, as it took us into the touristy part of the seaside where hordes of flabby, sunburned people gaped around and stuffed their faces in the sweltering heat by the beaches where last-year’s-finest music blasted from the speakers. Not my favorite landscape.

Most memorable part: fixing a flat on the train like a boss.

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It surprised me to see more touring cyclists on this short trip than in Scandinavia. All but one of the 6 groups I spotted were foreign. Most seemed to not know what they were getting themselves into. I felt for them. I was born here and still I was way out of my comfort zone as a cyclist, and as a human. Which really presses the question: why do tourists come to Romania?

Some lessons I took home: don’t come in the summer, just don’t do this to yourself. Come on mountain bike; no hybrids, no racers. Take hand sanitizer everywhere. And you’ll have to find a way to get used to seeing and smelling trash, because it’s there everywhere you go.

A lot of things don’t make sense in Romania but if you’re not a pansy and really, really want adventure, this is probably an experience that’ll quench the thirst.

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Free camping in Denmark

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I’d been on the Baltic Sea Cycle Route for about 120 miles when I went off the popular path again, and strayed inland Denmark to visit the Tystrup-Bavelse lakes, which are located about 60 miles West of Møns Klint. I’d read about this area as being exceptionally picturesque and equipped with some sweet primitive camping, so I really wanted to see it.

Denmark doesn’t have the freedom to roam law that Sweden does, which allows you to camp anywhere on both public and private land, as long as you don’t cause a disturbance. I’ve seen Denmark to be quite protective of private property (“privat” signs everywhere) and I was very curious about what this Sweden-style free primitive camping on public land was going to be like.

If I needed any more proof that Denmark is not flat, the 60 miles from Møns Klint to Tystrup Lake punched me in the face with this evidence. Between the relieving descents and the hopeful ascents (I hope this is the last climb, please let this be the last climb!), it was impossible not to laugh at my own ignorance about the rolling hills of Denmark. No wonder so few touring cyclists roam here except by the sea, where it’s all flat!

I arrived at Tystrup Lake around 7 pm and, polyglot that I am, followed the Danish instructions on a small sign explaining how to find the tent pitches. Following a gravel road that leads straight to the lake, a grassy path to the left points you to the pitches which are located in the clearing of a mini-forest. There were 3 sites there, spacious and protected from the wind, and they came with instructions! With my dictionary I gathered the essentials: there’s potable water, bathroom, and you can’t stay more than 3 nights.

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To my great surprise I spotted the Coleman 1-person tent of another bike-in camper at the site, and I was very excited at the thought that they may be American (Coleman tent, Walmart?) and I’d finally have a conversation partner. Despite my severe exhaustion I stayed up until well after 11 pm (which is still broad daylight in these Nordic countries) waiting for this person to either emerge from the tent or return from a late hike. Neither happened and sleep got the best of me. When I woke up in the morning, the mysterious camper was gone and I was alone again, and sadly conversationless.

I spent my day off by the lake enjoying a vertical, homo-erectus position. It’s amazing how much you can miss walking! I outlined a 10 mile hike on my map through the forest, where the trail played hike and seek with the lake. Tall trees rose on every side of me, sometimes thinning out in a clearing, and I didn’t meet a single soul. Forests are magical wherever you go.

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After hanging out in organized camping grounds where the levels of noise and solitude are variable, being disconnected and remote at Tystrup was incredible. What I love in Denmark is that there is infrastructure everywhere for you to have at least a decent experience. “Primitive camping” in Denmark means there is a trash can by your site (collected regularly), a picnic table, a nearby bathroom which is clean, equipped with lots of toilet paper, hand soap and even an antediluvian hand drier. All of these are things you need as a camper, and somebody put them there for you to use. How many times have I been to a campground in the States and there is no toilet paper, though I pay a fee to stay there? Sadly, many. Toilet paper is kind of essential if you ask me, especially when it’s missing at a critical time!

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Someone thought about the experience that one would have camping here, and made it comfortable. I’m impressed, and grateful for places like this.

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Denmark cares

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Cycling in Denmark after Germany feels like I’ve been beat up for a long time, and suddenly someone hugged me. Both car and bike roads are leveled here, even the dirt and gravel paths in the woods. The transitions on and off cycle paths at intersections are smooth, thought through. There is empathy for cyclists here. I’m not tense on the bike anymore to keep myself steady after going over obstacles. Really, it’s a pleasure.

Yesterday was a bittersweet day. Germany can be charming, but the key is to take a train between the charming places and pretend the other places don’t exist. I covered 50 miles from Lübeck to Sütel Strand, just a hair from the Northern tip of Germany. This portion is part of the Baltic Sea Cycle Route, a very popular Eurovelo route. The route took me along what I deemed to be the Myrtle Beach of Germany, a series of seaside resorts lined with tall hotels, where older people walk arm in arm slowly by the beach. Shopping and eating at overpriced waterfront restaurants are pretty much the only things to do.

The Baltic Sea Cycle Route was memorable. It took me from the Myrtle Beaches of Germany to fields of wheat and corn, to green rolling hills (wasn’t too jazzed about the climbing part before the “rolling” but even in my grumpiness I had to admit it was picturesque). Germany ended on a high note. I would come back to this friendly sea, I thought.

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Overall, camping in Germany left me underwhelmed. Receptions close early (5pm!) and late arrivals such as myself are left to fend for themselves. A camping card is needed to enter the bathroom, take a shower or use outlets, and without such a card I’ve had to wait around for someone to open the door to the loo with their card just so I could pee! Given my 6pm arrival yesterday, and my 7:30am departure this morning to catch the Puttgarden ferry to Denmark, I left without paying, as there was no one to pay to. Just as well, since I didn’t actually make use of their facilities. But I did get to camp for free on a lawn full of bunnies!

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For comparison, in the Netherlands and Denmark common facilities like the kitchenette and bathrooms are always open, and the reception usually has a sign that says “Late arrivals, find a spot you like to set up your tent, and we’ll sort it out in the morning!”. Thank you Denmark, I think we’ll get along.

Total (reluctant) miles in Germany: 301 (484 km)

Lübeck, I love you

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When you travel on two wheels you absorb more of the feeling of place than when you drive, and get out of the car in various places to sightsee. Imagine you arrive in a city as people would arrive in the old days on horseback: slowly, deliberately, with suspense. You see the city skyline from afar, have time to form expectations, then you begin to make the city’s acquaintance from its fingertips, the outskirts, all the way to its lungs where all the tourists are. Biking into a city is an organic, fascinating way of knowing a place.

You may have read about my troubles with the rain, but all is forgotten now because I may have found the most beautiful place in Germany: Lübeck. This small Northern city with only 200,000 people is beyond lovely (its name draws from the Slavic “Liubice” – lovely), it’s like a museum-city that doesn’t try too hard.

It’s not a good route for cyclists for sure, the cobblestone is much too brutal. After securing the bike at my AirBnb for the night, I proceeded to explore the city on foot, which was the correct thing to do. And I loved Lübeck! Here I didn’t get the tourist-borne agoraphobia of trendier places like Bremen or Hamburg. The town felt airy and quietly artistic, but still equipped with all the quaint cafes and jazz bars and shops that are so charming for a tourist. The architecture blows you away, it’s easy to see why the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact: this is also where some of the finest marzipan is made!

From Hamburg it was only 40 short miles to Lübeck, and I was lucky to find a route that took me along straight roads with solid, separate bike paths. The route was not scenic, nothing to write home about, and a little too hilly for my taste, but the slow descent into Lübeck along corn fields and then onto oldschool single track dirt paths by the Trave river turned on the poetry for this place.

Many bike roads are crappy in Germany but when you find one that isn’t, or a road, you ffffly! Here’s a short clip of me goofing off at 25mph (40km/h) downhill, around Kastorf. My bike’s never gone this fast before so I was excited: