On the road near Chur, Switzerland
The Big Picture... and Afterthoughts
After toying with the idea of a Berlin to Copenhagen excursion, we decided that the climate and cuisine would be better if we went a bit further south. For this trip, our plan is to fly to Zurich, Switzerland, take a train to Andermatt, assemble the trike and follow the Rhine river from it's origin to Strasburg, France. We had previously ridden the Rhine from Strasburg to Koblenz, and figured this would be part two of a three part Rhine exploration (part three, from Koblenz to Amsterdam would be a future trip). Though mechanical failures kept us from reaching our goal, itinerary changes did allow us to see more of Switzerland than we had planned.
The Countries: Though we visited 4 countries in total, the majority of our time was spent in northern and central Switzerland. A number of large lakes are spread throughout the country, and each has developed a thriving tourist trade that features outdoor experiences, with cycling, hiking and boating being very popular. As noted elsewhere in this narrative, most of the larger lake towns look alike, with the major difference being the color of the paddle boats for rent on the promenade.
The Swiss are like Germans - only cleaner. We may be getting soft, but still, there is something comforting about a county in which public restrooms are cleaner than an operating theater. If only... everything was a bit less expensive and the food a bit more French.
The funny thing is, if you go to the right places in Switzerland, you will get a French fix (and Italian, and German). Since Switzerland is bounded by France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, the closer you get to the border, the more the country takes on the characteristics of its neighbor. "Guten Morgan" in the north becomes "Ciao" in the south. Dumplings morph to pasta. Reisling becomes Borolo.
But the trains run on time. Always on time.
Switzerland looks exactly like we had expected, but after a while you get a bit jaded... another beautiful vista, lake, waterfall, cottage, cow. There's a shop on every corner selling Swiss Army knives. If it wasn't so expensive (I use the cost of a McDonalds combo meal as a benchmark. In Switzerland, it's around $9), it would be perfect.
Lichtenstein really shouldn't count as a country, considering it's size and relationship to Switzerland, but since we didn't have a big bag of cash to stash in on of it's private banks, it was an OK place to stop for lunch.
Austria - Germany lite, but not as clean.
In Germany, we're back on familiar territory, but since I failed to do a thorough refresher on my German, communication continues to be a problem. It seems that in this part of the country, you run into fewer English speakers. Lake Constance (aka the Bodensee) is a major draw for German tourists, and they flock to the lake towns for day trips. During the day, the squares and cafe's are shoulder to shoulder, but once night falls, you have the town to yourself.
Climate: To avoid the hoards of tourists, we try to schedule our trips towards the end of the holiday season, which can offer iffy weather. For this trip, the weather gods were benevolent - sunny days with highs in the low 70's were the rule, with only a few days of rain.
The Cycling: When you're planning a cycling trip, it's a good idea to hear what other people say about the route you're planning to ride. For this trip, one of our primary planning references was Judith and Neil Forsyth's books about the Rhine Route. The only problem is that every writer has a different perception of the difficulty of a given ride. One writer's "Easy" is another's "Moderate". When a climb is described as "hard", is that for a lean 20-something, or an upholstered middle-ager?
We followed Swiss Bike route 2, which connects to the German Bodensee Radweg (bike path). These routes combine low-traffic roads with dedicated bike paths, and are designated by special signs. Since signage can be spotty in places (or hard to spot), it's a good idea to have a map in hand to help navigation. Maps can be obtained from both the Swiss and German websites above, but note that the maps are in German, so it's a good idea to learn a few words and study the map legends carefully. It's also helpful if you have a navigator like Jayne, who had her maps and reference documents loaded into a binder. She had all necessary maps in plastic sheet protectors, allowing her to constantly track our progress and watch for jogs in the route.
The initial descent from Oberalppasse was one of the scariest we've ever done. The initial 10 miles or so drops nearly 1000 meters as the road twists down the mountain. Good brakes are a necessity, and a spare set of brake pads can come in handy. We expected to encounter some long climbs until we reached the Bodensee, and were not disappointed. Prior to reaching the lake, we had several multiple hundred meter climbs - luckily the trike allows us to climb at 2 - 3 mph, almost like winching yourself up a hill.Around the Bodensee, most of the route is very flat, but we did encounter several short, steep climbs just north of Konstanz. Some of these climbs were on dirt trails, which could be a problem in wet conditions.
Overall, about 15% of the trip was conducted on dirt or gravel trails. Trail conditions were generally good in all countries, but there were a few sections of trail on the German side that showed evidence of previous water damage. Though we did a bit of dirt trail riding in the rain on our last day, the lack of bike traffic and overhanging trees resulted in a relatively dry, mud free experience.
Had we been able to complete the trip all the way to Strasburg, we expected to continue the route to flatten out as it tracked the river. At least that's what the guide books say...
Trike Troubles: Our primary means of transportation on this trip was our Greenspeed GTT tandem recumbent tricycle. We've taken it on two previous trips to Europe, plus racked up thousands of miles in rides around Texas. Like any mechanical system, it has it's issues. On our last European trip, a portion of the transmission failed, requiring a complete overhaul and replacement of the rear hub gear system, which we thought had solved the problem. A number of factors contributed to the hub failure - weight (ours and luggage), high torque from hill climbing, mis-shifts which stressed the components, combined with the manufacturer not rating the hub for tandem use. For our next trip, we plan to cut loaded weight and pick a route that has less climbing.
Even though I had done a thorough pre-trip inspection and maintenance, other mechanical problems preceded the hub failure, though even the most complex problem required less than an hour to fix. Problems/repairs required included: Disc rotor bolt loose, hitting kingpin; 3 broken spokes on right front wheel; flat, right front; replace brake pads after initial descent; adjust chain idlers front and rear; adjust stoker's crank; replace rear rack bolt; repair broken chain.
Dogs: No trip to Europe is complete without meeting our canine companions. The Euro approach to dogs is much more liberal than here in the US, and Euro dogs seem to be much more socialized, both with people and with other dogs. We even saw a number of French bulldogs, and it was interesting to compare the Euro version with our own Bella.