Helen Moat conquers the first stage of her long distance cycle to Istanbul, and reflects on the importance of setting goals
“I’d like to cycle part of the route with you this morning if that’s ok?” Hans said. Hans was our Couchsurfing host in Bad Säckingen, a pretty Rhine-side town east of Basel.
“You’re welcome to join us,” I said, but I have to warn you, I’m a very slow cyclist.”
It didn’t seem to put Hans off, and after our host had cooked us a boiled egg to accompany the usual tasty German breakfast of rolls, meats and cheeses, he wheeled out his bike to join us on our way east. It was just after 8am.
As we cycled towards Laufenburg, the air nipped. A low fog hung over the Rhine, the trees softened in the early morning mist. It was an atmospheric ride. For the first time, I put on my cycling gloves – to keep my hands warm rather than for protection. Hans was good company. He chatted away as we cycled along, in contrast to my son and travelling companion Jamie who preferred the company of the podcasts on his mobile. It was the price I had to pay for cycling with a teenager, but I couldn’t complain about Jamie’s map-reading skills: they were second to none.
We stopped at Laufenburg, the half-timbered houses lining the Rhine on the Swiss side were sugared in a misty light. This is a town of two countries, Germany and Switzerland, that share the same name. I’d spent time here with my Basel friend, Manuela. We’d sharpened sticks to spear our Bradwurst and made a barbecue by the river when our children were younger. The section of the Rhine between Basel and Schaffhausen was full of memories for me – from the years I had lived in Switzerland and subsequent visits.
As we headed out of Laufenburg, the mist dissolved and the sun broke through. It was another glorious May day. Mid-morning, we stopped for coffee by the water’s edge. Hans considered cycling on to Schaffhausen with us, but the call of painting duties won over and he waved us goodbye before turning round again for Bad Säckingen.
At Küssaberg, we lost the signs and found ourselves on the bridge crossing to Bad Zurzach. Sadly, friends who’d once lived here had immigrated to Canada: another Rhine town full of memories. An elderly Swiss couple helped us to get back on track, even accompanying us up the hill to show us a shortcut. I wondered if I’d still be able to cycle, like them, in my seventies!
From here on in, we’d start to climb upwards. Hills were still a psychological (and physical) hindrance for me. I didn’t like the sound of Hohentengen am Hochrhein: ‘hohen’ and ‘hoch’ indicated height. Sometimes linguistic ignorance is bliss – but the way was a gradual schlepp rather than an insurmountable climb. We cycled across the borders of Germany and Switzerland several times before freewheeling down to the Rhine Falls and Schaffhausen. It felt good.
Cycling – and just about everything in life – is about conquering fears – no matter how ridiculous they are. I’d worried about the climbs to Schaffhausen and it had turned out to be one of my favourite days of the trip. Yet in spite of this, I was still mithering about the climb over the Black Forest hills to the Danube. I even considered sticking the bikes on the train to Donaueschingen. What was I thinking?!
Common sense won over in the end and we slipped out of Schaffhausen just after 8am, pushing down on the pedals as we made the gradual climb to Bargen. On the edge of the village, the name ‘Steigstrasse’ told me everything I needed to know: ‘Climb Street’ was a wall in front of us. I wheeled the bike up and gave my aching bottom a rest. It was great to slow down to a walking pace and take in the views around us.
We headed through forest and up onto the plateau through wildflower meadows. Overhead, larks sang sweetly and the hills unfolded in waves of yellows, greens and browns. Behind us, we could see the Alps. Then after Blumberg, the fun began as we freewheeled to Donaueschingen, zig-zagging country lanes, past country farms and fields of pungent rapeseed.
We’d completed the Rhine from Rotterdam to Schaffhausen and had now reached the source of the Danube. I’d conquered my fear of the first hills and made it across. It didn’t matter that I’d wheeled the bike up the steepest sections. I’d done it. As Mark Beaumont had spun his wheels through Africa, cycling almost 200 miles a day, I’d met my own more modest challenge. But that was okay. I was on a high. We’d completed the first stage of our trip.
And now, on to the Danube.
Main image: Hand drawn illustration of long-distance cyclist (Shutterstock)