It seems like a long time has passed since we last embarked on a long distance cycle ride. October 2019 to be precise, when we finished our trip down the Pacific Coast of The USA from Canada to Mexico. Since then we had spoken a few times about planning to do another one and now seemed as good a time as any.
We packed up our car, a different one to normal. Our old Mercedes had finally given up the ghost, not only electrically but also mechanically. We had hoped to get one more trip out of it but with the number of issues it had, and the difficulties in obtaining some parts, it became too much of a risk to drive long distances and too expensive to repair.
We were taking the new car (well, new to us) and leaving it in Amsterdam as we plan to go straight on to another adventure immediately after this one. So we crossed The Channel by ferry, drove a little through France and made our first night stop in Ypres, Belgium.
We were hoping to get to Ypres by 8pm in order to witness The Last Post at The Menin Gate. This is an impressive memorial in the town to the fallen soldiers who were killed in the area during World War One and never received a burial. Thousands and thousands of names of British, Australian, Canadian, South African and Indian soldiers are inscribed on the walls of the memorial. Every evening since the memorial was built in 1928 a bugler has played The Last Post at exactly 8pm. The only time this was interrupted was during the German occupation in WWII, when the ceremony was instead conducted at Brockwood Military Cemetery in The UK.
We were surprised at the number of people who came to witness it and a number of wreathes were laid. It is a moving ceremony and made even more poignant as The Last Post was played at Sarah’s father’s funeral earlier this year.
After spending a comfortable night in our new ‘two man’ blackout tent we were on the road early the next morning across the border to Utrecht in The Netherlands. Our Dutch friends, Mark and Lisa, recommended it, describing it as “a mini Amsterdam”.
They were exactly right. Canals, cyclists, ‘Coffee Shops’ and similar architecture. We spent a relaxing afternoon meandering alongside the canals and drinking coffee.
After another night under canvas we embarked on what we knew would be two long and logistically difficult days.
Firstly, we drove to Amsterdam Airport, parked up the car and left with our bikes in boxes and our luggage in panniers to board an early afternoon flight to Milan. It is never easy moving to and through an airport carrying bikes and luggage. There is a lot of lifting, maneuvering, cursing and getting in people’s way. By the time we were sitting down on the plane we were already feeling we had had a long day.
The source of The Rhine is way up high in The Alps, 7000 feet high! There are a few options to get there but the only realistic way for us with all the weight we are carrying was to arrive by train. Steve had mentioned the idea of cycling, however, he had only just started his ‘pitch’ before Sarah well and truly ended it for him. “If I have to cycle over 800 miles carrying this weight, I’m not starting with a 7000 foot mountain”. To be fair, Steve agreed!
We arrived at Milan Airport with luggage and bikes intact and set about assembling them in the arrivals hall. We were under a bit of time pressure as we had to cycle over 30 miles to our Airbnb before sunset at 9pm and we needed to make a small detour to pick up some camping gas at a Decathlon store on the outskirts of the city. We provided some intriguing entertainment for people who were waiting for arriving passengers and there was a sense of disappointment as their family or friends arrived before they were able to see the finished article.
We managed to get the bikes together and loaded securely and by 6pm we were out of the airport and rolling. Normally we would have covered the distance easily, but Steve hadn’t been on his bike at all in Central America and Sarah hadn’t been on hers much since she got off it at the Mexican border with sore everything in 2019! Also the panniers and camping equipment seemed much heavier than last time. Or are we just three years older?
We arrived at Decathlon and Steve rushed in and out to buy gas and we moved on again. It was a beautiful sunny evening as we wound our way up and down through rural Italian villages, with tight streets, sometimes cobbled. Normally it would have been an enjoyable route but all we really wanted was a long, straight, flat road to our destination.
We watched the sun drop lower and lower in the sky, the light started to ebb away and a chill appeared in the air as we cycled through the forest. Steve pushed on and Sarah stuck to his wheel. “Here we go again”, she thought, “Day one and it’s already a pain fest”.
We emerged from the forest, entered a small village and Steve took a sharp turn off a roundabout and at 9.03pm came to a stop outside the Airbnb!
We shovelled some microwave food into our mouths, had a lovely shower and collapsed into a comfy bed. “Were we really on a campsite in Utrecht in The Netherlands this morning?”.
The following morning we were up early and back on the bikes. It was going to be another long day. It started with a 30 minute cycle across the border into Switzerland where Sarah bought us some train tickets to the top of the Oberalp Pass, the source of The Rhine. “We have to catch four trains with some tight connections”, she said with a worried look.
The first train arrived with true Swiss precision, on time, to the second. There was space for the bikes and straps to secure them. The train was modern, clean and comfortable and we settled down to enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Train number two arrived and departed with similar comfort and efficiency. Then things started to go wrong. A freight train had broken down and was blocking the line and the train we were on was returning to where it had started. We made the decision to get off in the small village where we had stopped and sit it out until the line was cleared and another train came along. We managed to get a baguette and some ham from the only shop in the village and sat on the deserted platform with our crudely made sandwiches.
An hour came and went and we were just starting to formulate plan “B” when a beautiful sleek looking train came into view. Luckily the line had been cleared and our journey continued, albeit an hour and a bit behind schedule. We then had a stroke of luck when the guard came to check our tickets. She was nothing short of amazing. We got chatting and she was intrigued with our story. She sat down and made herself comfortable. It turned out she was a tour guide before Covid and had to switch jobs to pay the bills. She obviously missed it and was just waiting for tourism to fully return before going back to it. She gave us an hour long commentary as we passed lakes and mountains and bridges and tunnels which were engineering marvels. She also gave us specific and precise directions as to how to cross the platforms and make our very tight connection to the next train. We followed them exactly and made it onto the train as the doors closed and we moved away. We saw several others who weren’t so lucky and were faced with an hours wait before the next train would arrive!
Our third train really started to make progress high into the Alps. So much so that we had to physically hang onto the bikes to stop the rolling back, it was that steep. The scenery though was becoming more and more impressive and with the fourth and final train it was even more so. This one was designed with skiers in mind with very few seats and hanging hooks for skis. This time we met a guard who gave Steve an update on the current Giro D’Italia cycle race. The train guards in Switzerland are super friendly.
Eventually we reached the end of the line and stepped off into cooler, thinner air with plenty of snow on the ground. We were at Oberalp pass, the start of The Rhine and the beginning of our long journey back to Amsterdam. We had landed in Calais at 2pm on Sunday and it was now 2pm on Wednesday. “Have we really only been in Europe for three days”, said Steve. “Yep” said Sarah, “and we are in Country number FIVE”!!