October 8, 2012
I've talked to many Adventure Cycling members who rhapsodize about riding in Europe, including self-guided tours, where a tour company sets up your route and all your logistics (including luggage transport) and all you have to do is ride. I've done every other kind of tour option besides this one so I was excited to get the opportunity to try out a 4-day journey on the Rhine River Bicycle Route, in this case from Cologne to Karlsruhe, all in Germany. The total trip amounted to about 330 kilometers, or just over 200 miles of mostly flat terrain.
The trip was arranged for me (and full disclosure, paid for) by a consortium of 18 government agencies from four countries who are working to improve and brand the Rhine River route as a global cycling destination. I wanted to try it, both because I'm always up for a good bike ride and I wanted to get a closer look at the development and marketing of an iconic cycle route. For Adventure Cycling, this is an important perspective as we develop more of our own cycling routes and help develop official U.S. Bicycle Routes. One other reason is that I was in the neighborhood, just having participated in the first-ever conference on European Bicycle Tourism.
So what was it like? Here's the good, the not-so-good, and the Ortlieb. Mostly, it was awesome. The 200+ miles I traveled went through some beautiful areas, including gorgeous vineyards and rolling countryside. Even better were the very cool cities and towns, so compact, welcoming and colorful. The people were friendly and the late September/early October weather was perfect, with 60-70 degree days and mostly blue skies, with a little river fog in the morning. I was generally able to stay on the route while enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds of the area. There were also many accommodation choices from neatly maintained private campgrounds to 1- to 5-star hotels. Unlike big parts of the U.S., the area is so settled that you don't have to carry much gear because there will always be a shop or restaurant right around the corner, though on Sundays, most of those shops are closed.
What was the not so good? It really depends on your taste, but if you are not keen on riding flat terrain, this may not be for you. But adjacent to the route, there are plenty of quiet paths and roads up into the hillsides, with spectacular views. In the lovely town of Rudescheim am Rhein, there are paved public walkways and bikeways that rise up 1,000 feet to stunning vistas of vineyards, the river, and a huge swath of Germany and France. Another heads-up: You will periodically navigate away from the river and around some major industrial sites -- but these are only occasional and to me, they were part of the route's attraction. Seeing not only beautiful countryside and interesting towns, but also real life, and industry of all kinds is important as it has been part of life on the Rhine for centuries.
Really, the only problem I encountered was that the signage sometimes lost me, and it wasn't just a language issue. The coordinator for the route development project, Melanie Vidin, had alerted me to this issue and told me that they will be revising the signage in a major way next year. So that's good news for folks wanting to experience this always-stimulating route.
Finally, the Ortlieb. In the U.S., you see a McDonald's every few miles. In Germany, you see Ortlieb panniers everywhere! (Of course, I had one for my everyday stuff.) As a veteran bike traveler, it was so wonderful to see so many bikes with such high quality panniers. It was also wonderful to see so many people riding on this route, from seniors down to little kids, for multi-day trips and day rides. If Adventure Cycling and our partners can even come close to this type of popularity on our routes or on U.S. Bicycle Routes, we will have done something magical.
For more information on the Rhine River Bicycle Route, which travels from the Netherlands to Switzerland and also happens to be Route #15 in the EuroVelo continental cycling network, visit the Rhine River route's webpage. Auf Wiedershen!
Top photo: Early morning fog on the Rhine River not far from Rudescheim am Rhein; middle photo: Jim with dreams of a riverfront castle and vineyard, in the background.; bottom photo: Sample signage along the route, which is due for an upgrade in 2013.