Visit to Aachen – Day 6 Ride Report

Monday 22nd April – Aachen to Dunkirk

*GERMANY – BRIEFLY*
With our hosts having to return to their normal weekly routine, Dave and I were back down at the Hbf fairly early, soaking up the morning sun (again, we had warmth). Slightly worryingly, there was an ambulance on the station forecourt and when I wandered into the ticket office I was yelled at to get out. Not told, politely, that they were unable to be of assistance, but positively yelled at. I have no idea what had happened but it can’t have
been good.

Aachen Hbf

Aachen Hbf

Ian and Alex arrived shortly afterwards, their host also having a weekly routine to get back into, and we had an hour to spare before our train so went for one last wander into town, taking in the theatre building.

At the Aachen Theatre

At the Aachen Theatre

We made it back to the station with time to spare and made the platform to discover that our train was running behind schedule. Again we didn’t know where to put the bikes but, again, the SNCB staff were extremely helpful and efficient and we got all the stuff onboard without a problem. Why SNCB reserves its scabbiest trains for cross-border service I have no idea but this one, unlike the modern, efficient, unit on which we’d travelled the previous week seemed to be related to BR’s slam-door stock from the 1950s, with the added benefit of vinyl seating. It was also about the only graffiti’d train we saw all week.

Our train for Liège is late

Our train for Liège is late

Alex models the vinyl seating

Alex models the vinyl seating

Changing at Liège - brand new station, old graffiti train

Changing at Liège – brand new station, old graffiti train

*BELGIUM*
We changed trains at Liège and were pleased to see that we had the same conductor as on Thursday’s outward journey, although how pleased she was to see us I can’t say. She did seem to cheer up when we told her we weren’t getting off until Oostende – the end of the line. This rail journey was quieter than last week’s and some more senior members of the group even found time to snooze.

Our train from Liège, via Brussels, to Ostend is punctual

Our train from Liège, via Brussels, to Ostend is punctual

From Oostende, the plan was to follow the knooppunt network – similar to the German node network – to navigate back to the French border. We failed, totally, to find the first of our knooppunts but, having found a sign for the second, we broke for lunch. We were even able to bring our bikes into the fenced-off al fresco dining area to keep an eye on them at the Adriatic-themed restaurant we chose.

Ah, remember the wind that had been so kind to us on Wednesday? It was still there, and still blowing in the same direction. Trouble was, we were now trying to go in the opposite direction. At least the knooppunt network had the advantage of running inland for most of the route, but not the first few kilometres which were along the seafront and interrupted by
sandbanks that had been blown up off the beach. Eventually we turned and the wind was somewhat abated but we’d still be working against it all the way back. Once we got into the habit of looking for knooppunt network signs, they were easy to spot and the trip to the end of the network near the French border went without error, although a local in Nieuwpoort insisted on riding along with us and giving us directions as we passed
through the town. Interesting, what you learn from the locals.

Back into France

Back into France

The day’s first navigation mistake came at the end of the network, when someone (no names!) misread the map and made straight over a junction instead of turning right. There followed a serene few miles of road which dead-ended at a No Trespassing sign. Oops. After a brief discussion over the possible courses of action, we made France.

*FRANCE*
We crossed the French border at the spot photographed in Day 1’s blog and continued our way into Dunkerque, where navigation mistake no. 2 happened. Alex had already turned off to head to his night’s accommodation when we unexpectedly found ouselves in the town square, which hadn’t been on the route plan! After a quick discussion with some locals, we were headed the right way. Some short time later Ian found himself distraught at the discovery that right next door to our hotel was an ever cheaper one. Quelle horreur! (I should mention here that we’d paid under £10 each for the hotel room so I’ve no idea what a Formule1 charges).

The Endomondo route for our ride from Ostend to Dunkirk is here – 37 miles.

What followed is probably the best short ride I’ve had in years. There was no food to be had in the immediate vicinity of the hotel, a Buffalo Grill some 15 minutes ride away being the recommendation of the reception staff, so we called up Alex, who also hadn’t eaten, he came over and we set off, at speed, in the dark, throught the silent streets of a foreign town in search of our dinner. After a couple of miles we spotted a pizza parlour and made their day by ordering two of the largest pizzas I’ve ever seen, and four cans of Fanta.

Gourmet dining on the very last evening of the visit!

Gourmet dining on the very last evening of the visit!

Suitably refreshed, we retraced our route, rolled the bikes into the room (for the management had had the foresight to install us in a ground floor unit) and settled down for the night.

Visit to Aachen – Day 5 Ride Report

Sunday 21st April – A day’s ride to Monschau, high in the Eifel Hills. Words by Iain Dawson; photos by Ian Macsporran

A word of warning about this report – it tells of damaged bicycles and fallen riders. Those of a nervous disposition should look away now.

It was also unexpectedly cold!

GERMANY (YES, STILL THERE)
Our hosts had decided to join us for part of this trip – in fact they were to lead the first few kilometres – so Otto had saddled up the tandem with son acting as stoker and Elke was riding her trusty town bike (although it’s far more capable than that description suggests, and far quicker. Who needs 24 gears in town?). Ulrich had also joined us for the day.

(l to r) Sabine, Elke, Lars, Otto, Philip, Alex, Rowan & Iain at the start of the ride

(l to r) Sabine, Elke, Lars, Otto, Philip, Alex, Rowan & Iain at the start of the ride

We were treated first to a visit to the Forst tree (that’s not a typo – it’s in the village/suburb of Forst), a lime tree that’s not many generations of Aacheners from its millennium and which has developed quite an impressive girth over its lifetime. Then we hit the trail towards Kornelimunster. For light relief, along the run in to Kornelimunster, someone has replicated the solar system, which is to say that, at appropriate distances (proportional to typical distance from the sun), there are plaques representing the planets of the solar system. Each plaque contains a proportionally-sized hemisphere and some basic information about the relevant body. It was a little disappointing to find Jupiter the size of a grapefruit while earth was a mere pimple but it served to put things in perspective.

After Kornelimunster we hit another ex-railway line (other countries have had their Dr Beechings) which brought us to the Vennbahn and, eventually, to Belgium. In fact, the first part of Vennbahn that we rode runs through the German-speaking corner of Belgium. You thought they had problems because they have two languages? They’ve actually got three. What fun.

It was somewhere around here that our hosts turned back towards Kornelimunster for Sunday lunch so Phil resumed leadership duties although Ulrich was still with us and was to act as our guide later on.

Ulrich, the Vennbahn cycle path, and bollards!

Ulrich, the Vennbahn cycle path, and bollards!

BELGIUM. SORT OF.
The Vennbahn proper is a politically interesting piece of real estate. While it runs partly through modern-day Belgium and partly through modern-day Germany, it is, in fact and in law, entirely Belgian. That is to say that, although the rail line has German territory either side of it for much of its length, the trackbed and Right of Way are emphatically Belgian.

The original plan was to stop for a coffee in Raeren but, since we were making good progress, we pressed on and stopped for a brief buzzbar/waterbottle stop in Roetgen. This may have been a mistake. A few kilometres later, and I’ll mention no names here, one of us was looking at a map when they managed to collide with a bollard. The rider behind swerved to miss them and ended-up sliding face-first down the bank at the side of the track.

This was very worrying, and could have been very serious for the riders concerned but fortunately damage was limited to a few scrapes and bruises and a busted gear cable. It could have been so much worse. For future reference, please pay attention to your surroundings! Even when riding “easy” cycle tracks !!!

We continued in a more cautious mood to our day’s destination: Monschau, “Pearl of the Eifels”. What a beauty! Okay, the short, rapid, descent was welcome after spending the morning pushing up the gentle but persistent incline of the Vennbahn, and the cobbled streets were no longer a suprise, but the only adjective that springs readily to mind is “chocolate box”. I do so wish we’d had more time here. The village is small, set in a narrow valley, and it’s a tourist trap, but I’d have spent a happy day sitting outside or just wandering round looking at the place. Next time I’m bringing a sketch book. It was exceptionally cold but by this time we’d topped 2000′ in altitude and it was still April so that shouldn’t have been a surprise. We’d just got used to the unseasonably warm weather we’d been enjoying on the trip.

We wheel our bikes through the "chocolate-box" town of Monschau

We wheel our bikes through the “chocolate-box” village of Monschau

BELGIUM PROPER
After spending just a few kilometres inside Germany to drop down into Monschau and make our way back up to the top, we headed back into Belgium proper, through Mützenich, to cross the High Fen, where the red flags were flying not, as we suspected, because of military manoeuvres but to prohibit access to the open country in the interests of wildlife. We were okay, sticking to forest roads, although we did still need to take care as logging operations were very much in evidence and bits of tree were sticking out over the tracks. We looped around the reservoir that serves the Belgian town of Eupen, which looked rather low on water, and then through to more productive farmland. It seems that, despite differing traditions between the neighbouring countries, locals along the border don’t even really note that they’ve crossed the border these days. I suppose that the common currency and lack of border controls (or even lack of border signs) have blurred the boundaries somewhat. It’s no surprise that this piece of the continent is really at the centre of the “European Project”.

(l to r) Alex, David, Ulrich, Philip, Iain & Rowan about to leave Germany for Belgium - high up in the Eifel

(l to r) Alex, David, Ulrich, Philip, Iain & Rowan about to leave Germany for Belgium – high up in the Eifel

BACK TO GERMANY
Back in Aachen, we bade farewell to Ulrich, and to Phil and Rowan who were continuing their travels in Germany for a while longer.

The Endomondo route for our ride is here – 56 miles.

Tomorrow, we’d number four on the road.

Visit to Aachen – Day 4 Ride Report

Saturday 20th April – Two rides with ADFC Aachen – words by Iain Dawson and Ian Macsporran, photos by Ian Macsporran

GERMANY (STILL)
David and Iain spent the morning exploring the town centre on foot, having lunch, writing postcards, doing the usual tourist stuff, etc.. Didn’t get much riding done before 1pm.

Meanwhile Ian and Alex joined the ADFC Aachen “brisk” ride.  This was to be a circumnavigation of Aachen around seven of its high points!  Sabine took us to the meeting point – the Audimax building of the University of Aachen – where the ride was, in fact, jointly organised by the ADFC and the university cycling club.  As a result, the two of us sent the average age soaring!

Morning start outside the Audimax

Morning start outside the Audimax

The route was up-and-down and up-and-down to say the least and the fit young German cyclists were kind enough to wait once or twice for the oldies to catch up!  It was pretty much non-stop pedalling from 10.00 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. with just time to eat a chocolate bar and take a drink of water.  But it was brilliant!  After the Lousberg – yesterday a mighty hill, today just a warm-up – we had an idea of what might be in store.

Next was the Dreiländereck – the hard way – but with time for photos.

Ian at the Dreiländereck

Ian at the Dreiländereck

Then onto other high points culminating at one with a huge modern crucifix (Aachen is, traditionally, a Catholic city) before swooping down to the Europaplatz and onto the Railway Station, the end-point of the “brisk” ride and the start point of the “easy” ride.  No time for catching breath, just some goodbyes to our new student friends and some hellos to our next friends, and then we were off on the “easy’ ride.  (I think a sandwich may have been gulped down at this point.)

The "brisk" riders above Aachen (Alex & Ian on the right)

The “brisk” riders above Aachen (Alex & Ian on the right)

Meanwhile, Iain D had met up with Phil, Rowan and David and had ridden over to the shop to collect David’s bike, complete with new Shimano bottom bracket. Even out of hours the shop serves customers as they’ve seen fit to install an inner-tube vending machine on an outside wall. Couldn’t see an airline though. Got a quick tour of the southern part of Aachen from a former resident (i.e. Phil) on the way to the Hbf, passing the ADFC’s local HQ in the Welt Haus (“World House”) on the way. This is a former council-occupied building that is now leased out to a number of environmentally- or socially- aware orgainsations (think Greenpeace, unemployed-workers-cooperative cafe, etc.). I can’t readily think of a matching example here in the UK.

PLUS NETHERLANDS AND BELGIUM
So the afternoon ADFC ride was a “beginners’ ride” – via an easy route as the morning adventurers noted – up to the Dreiländereck/Dreilanderpunkt/Point-Trois-Frontieres which, as its names suggest, is where three countries come together at a single point. The ride started by crossing town to the University Hospital (Aachen has one of the largest technical universities in Germany, and also one of the largest university medical centres) to see if anyone else was wanting to join the ride (there were about 30 of us by this point). The recently installed helipad (known as the “helping hand”) has to be seen to be believed – it’s bright green and looks like a crocodile’s head. Mind you, the whole hospital is “Pompidou Centre” style with brightly-painted external pipework. Another thing we don’t usually see on our rides is someone taking a cigarette break – obviously not all German cyclists are health freaks.

The helipad at Aachen University Hospital (David is the rider bottom right)

The helipad at Aachen University Hospital (David is the rider bottom right)

We climbed our way up through the Dutch town of Vaals, stopping at an old border point, and continued to climb through woodland to the point itself.

The former Customs House (Zollhaus) on the Dutch-German border at Vaals

The former Customs House (Zollhaus) on the Dutch-German border at Vaals

It was also getting warm again. With not much to see (it’s more of a plateau than a point), and the service from the frites counter being appallingly slow (some of us – who had not had lunch – persevered), we headed downwards on forest tracks through a half-marathon that was nearing its end and paused, once again, near another old border crossing. At this point we had to separate from the ADFC group as we had to get back to our respective bases and freshen-up for the evening meal.

A single Endomondo route for the two rides is here – 52 miles.

BACK IN GERMANY
This is supposed to be a ride report, so I’ll skip most of the details of the meal except to say that the gift that we had sourced for our host group – a beautifully engraved bell – was handed over and much appreciated by the ADFC members present. I also still owe Brian for my share of that … I did enjoy the ride “home” though, Elke leading the way through the dark and silent streets of Aachen and us not seeing the cobbles until it was too late.

Connie (bike mechanic extraordinaire) inspects the presentation bell!

Connie (bike mechanic extraordinaire) inspects the presentation bell!

Alex, Sabine & Ian at the CTC-ADFC dinner

Alex, Sabine & Ian at the CTC-ADFC dinner

The Rathaus by night

The Rathaus by night