Uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain in adventure. If you have a plan, start a plan, merrily tick off the plan and then go home, you have not had an adventure. It might have been a great holiday, but without any opportunity for risk or unknown it wasn’t really an adventure.
That’s why (I tell myself) my three weeks off work started so glamorously. Specifically, sitting in Geneva train station at 3am, munching dry roasted peanuts to try to stay awake. My flight to Switzerland had been delayed, then unable to land due to a thunderstorm. “The worst storm I’ve seen in my career,” said the captain, reassuringly. So, we were rerouted to Lyon and after being held on the plane, put on replacement buses to Geneva airport. All this drama and it was my first time flying with a bicycle.
Of course, I don’t have any pictures of this. Nor do I have a picture of me finding my friend Alex somewhere at a Swiss train station. Nor me taking a 30 minute power nap in a tent. But I do have evidence that I made it to the very start of our challenge: the source of the Rhine.
The official start of the Rhine source to sea cycle route is in the town of Andermatt below Oberalppass. Unfortunately that wasn’t good enough for me and Alex. The literal source of the Rhine is a small glacial lake in the mountains above Andermatt: Lake Toma. It is at 2,345 m and reached by a 12km hike, there and back. We did it at something of a run, because we only had a few hours before the last train back down to Andermatt. Don’t do this. Particularly not on 30 minutes sleep and in thermal leggings.
It will be all downhill after the start…
Looking at the picture of us at the top of Oberalppass, all I can think of is, “Look how clean we are!” My bike (and panniers) were both almost brand new. I can highly recommend learning which gear levers change up or down whilst going up the steepest road of your entire bike tour. Nothing like keeping the stakes high! So started the Rhine Source to Sea cycle.
Oberalppass was the only big Swiss pass that we had on the route. At a solid 600m ascent over 10km of hairpins, starting immediately from Andermatt, it certainly woke me up. Once we’d ticked that off, we’d told ourselves it was all downhill to the sea. Although that is technically true, anyone who’s cycled in Switzerland will know it’s a bit more lumpy than that.
Then came the rain. On day one we cycled through a thunderstorm, until we were completely soaked. We took refuge in a bin shed on some thankless Swiss road that spiralled up and up like an Escher staircase. It’s one of my biggest regrets of the trip that I didn’t managed to capture this extreme low point. Nothing’s quite as classy as sitting amongst other people’s rubbish waiting out the rain.
Luckily, there was more glamour to come.
The next day it just rained and rained – persistently and endlessly. Nothing dramatic, but there was no chance of getting dry. That evening, we moved in to the women’s toilets at the campsite – and I mean moved in! Everywhere else was wet, including our tent. Fortunately no one came in during the four hours we spent with clothes and kit strewn across all the surfaces. At least the hand driers were warm.
Apparently we had several days of scorchingly hot weather. Honestly I can barely remember them. That might have something to do with cycling in temperatures reaching 30°C day after day. On a bike (and with a strict schedule and ferry booked at the end), there is nowhere to hide. Plus in Switzerland the temperature doesn’t peak at lunch time. It just gets steadily hotter and hotter until about 7pm.
To say we were hot and bothered on the day I snapped a tent pole, is something of an understatement.
After a long hot day, I was clipping pole one of two into its eyelet, when it made a noise like a branch snapping. In fact the noise was so loud that everyone camping around us gasped or winced. As I held the sheared metal pole, I was in denial, then disbelief. It was a freestanding tent made up of two poles. Unless we could get the pole fixed, we were in big trouble. But even though everyone in the campsite jumped in to help, we couldn’t mend it. I consider this tent to be my first home and it has never failed me. So why would you pack a tent repair kit for an infallible tent? I didn’t even know where I’d left it in the past seven years.
Luckily a kind neighbouring camper had a spare tent in his car (as you do) that we pitched for the night. I got it set up just before the next round of thunderstorms came in.
Adjusting to Life on the Road
For the next week, we lived off the kindness of strangers. We found places to stay using a platform that’s a bit like Couchsurfing but for cycle tourers. On days we couldn’t find anywhere, we managed to find a cheap hotel or AirBnB. I’d ordered replacement tent pole sections to arrive in Bonn with Alex’s uncle. We were intending to visit them anyway, but now we were on a slow race with Deutsche Post. Arrive one day early and we’d still have a broken tent. There wasn’t time to wait.
In the meantime, we were adjusting to life on the road. That means doing things like washing clothes in sinks and feeling feral when you walk into a supermarket to buy them out of biscuits. Because are you really a cycle tourer if you haven’t cycled through a city with your underwear hanging off the back of your bicycle?
I’d like to say cycle route along the Rhine was nice. In some places there were lovely straight roads along dykes or beside the river. As we passed through France, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein the international bike route varied from beautifully smooth and easy to follow, to convoluted and frustrating.
To pass the time, we also conducted a small study into bike path surfaces relative to country of origin. For example, in France they spray paint circles around any potholes, or lumps created by tree roots. In Germany there would be miles upon miles of gravel. What, we wondered, does this tell us about the deeper meanings of cycling culture in each area?
My personal favourite was a long section of cobbled road that wound in and out of fields in Germany. I got so shaken about that I tried to cycle in the muddy strip along the edge. My bicycle was very very unhappy about that idea.
The Rhine: Industrial or Romantic?
Past the halfway point, the Rhine was not very pretty. Except for the Romantic Rhine (we counted 30 castles in one day) the Rhine was clearly just a motorway for boats. Whether is was barges or cruise ships, the enormous river was always busy.
What I found most interesting was that they didn’t try to hide it. You’d think the bike route would try to avoid built up areas and put a touristy gleam on the area. Nope. We cycled straight through acres of shipping containers, factories that smelt of bleach or plastic… and memorably once past a huge pile of ash being moved with a digger.
“It’s Windy in Holland”
The closer we got to the sea, the windier and flatter it got. We’d joked about the wind for the windmills in Holland, but by the time we got there it was not funny. It’s hard to keep a buoyant sense of humour when you’re cycling into a 40kmph wind. Never mind when you’re getting hit by a gust on a corner. I have never been so glad of every piece of kit I packed – it was acting as ballast.
We had 3 days to get across to Hoek van Holland and our ferry to the UK. What should have been an enjoyable flat ride to the sea turned into a battle. The cheerful Dutch ladies cycling effortlessly past on their e-bikes didn’t really help.
When you think it’s nearly over…
To be fair, nothing catastrophic had happened for at least a day. We’d finished up being buffeted by the winds and reached a nice little campsite in what was basically someone’s back garden. Alex’s bike fell over. We thought nothing of it.
Turns out the washing up liquid bottle popped open and was inside the same bag as all our food. I’ll just leave this picture here.
Yes, I did eat some of that for breakfast. It was a Sunday and none of the shops were open until late afternoon. What else do you do when your next two days’ food supply has been covered? If you put enough peanut butter on it didn’t taste like soap…
On the final day, we got up really early (4:30am) to make the final push for the ferry. We had a joyous few hours of cycling in the sunrise before the wind woke up. Cycling through Kinderdijk before the tourists got there was pretty special too.
In the end, after a sprint through rain, we made it to Hoek van Holland with enough time to cycle out along the pier. We’d touched the source of the Rhine and now we’d touched the sea.
And then home…
Anyone who cycles in the UK knows just how complicated it is to take a bike on public transport. Nobody who cycles in the UK understands why it must be this complicated. In fact, it is so hard that Alex and I decided it would be far less effort to just cycle to London and catch a train from there. That meant only one train, one bike-space-booking faff and far less headache.
Four days of cycling through the torrential British summer weather was all it took. It was a strange time – battling with the feeling we’d already finished and yet still having to push on each day.
We were also able to add England to our comparative study of bicycle path surfaces across countries. Some highlights included a dirt rut the width of a bike wheel across a local sports field and canal tow paths blocked with geese.
Cycling through London was one of the weirdest experiences. As someone from Devon, I already see London as a strange mythical place that seems to exist but not on the same planet. To arrive there via green pathways and canals was unreal.
I pushed my bike across Tower Bridge (the road was a foot deep in water) thinking, “I can’t believe I’m here. I cycled here from Switzerland… and it only took 19 days.” The world is really small.
Inspired to make your time off work a bit more adventurous? Take a look at our adventure holidays.