Tour de Farce

A cycling holiday down the Danube from Passau to Wien

Danube bike trail in Aschach an der Donau | Photo: Eugenia & Julian

I was once a child. Time had an elastic quality back then. Whole afternoons seemed to stretch out over the landscape and promise never to end. My six-week summer breaks were huge canyons of time. Civilisations fell and rose again from the time summer term ended and autumn term began.  The little town in which I lived was some huge unmapped territory that I was determined to domesticate, armed only with a spud gun and riding a battered BMX.

I made alliances and broke them the very same day only to re-forge them the next morning. I kissed girls and tried to put my hands up their skirts without really knowing why. I played Star Wars with my cousin, and no matter which side I played, I lost, because he was older than me.

When I look back, it seems to me that my childhood was blessed; yet as a child, all I wanted was to grow up, to be able to watch the adult programmes on the telly and to drink beer all year round, not just a sip out of my dad’s glass on Christmas Day. Well, be careful what you wish for…

I’m an adult now. It feels like an AA meeting.

‘Hello my name’s Ben and I’m an adult.’

I’m not old (yet), but things are changing. At 30-something, this is when you begin to realise that your body doesn’t like you very much. For a start, you begin to notice your physical limitations. Knees start to click. Muscles start to ache and tear. And while I would like to say that I am immune to our obsession with youth and beauty, with the advertisements for electronic ab-exercisers and miracle formula anti-ageing creams, febrile, decadent and ultimately futile, that I stand above the herd going back and forth from gym to cosmetic shop, from plastic surgery clinic to health spa…

I would like to be able to say this, but I’m afraid I can’t.

I jog. In fact, I have run two half marathons (I’m not fishing for applause, but if you want to…).  I have developed not only a taste for vegetables, but also the ability to differentiate between at least three different kinds. I lift weights and take vitamin pills.

And I’ve started cycling.

So this year, I decided to take a cycling holiday. I would ride on the Danube cycle path from Passau in Bavaria to Vienna – a distance of two hundred-odd miles, or three hundred-odd kilometres if you’re being continental. I chose this journey not only for that fact that the scenery was beautiful, taking the cyclist through some of the most picturesque parts of Austria, not only for the fact that it was cheap (I took my tent with me on the back of my bike), but also because this route is very easy indeed.

When you arrive in Passau over two hundred miles of flat, well maintained cycle paths stretch out in front of you with well-placed hostelries and drink kiosks. The campsites have running hot water and washing machines, and the only real challenge is not to have a doze while you’re riding.

This is cycling for dummies. It’s impossible to get lost and almost impossible to break into a sweat. I decided that I would allow myself a week for a journey that any moderately able cyclist could do in two days. It was, after all a holiday. It should have been plain sailing, and for anyone other than me it would have been. So in the interests of “The Greater Good,” I have prepared a short checklist of things to avoid. Along the way, dear reader, here is my story.

Number  One. Get your own bike: I didn’t. I cannot stress enough the importance of acquiring, by whatever means  your own conveyance.  I borrowed mine and my trip was the poorer for it.

The key, you see, is knowing your machine. If there are a few squeaks or the tyres need changing you can take care of it. What will not happen is that two kilometres into your three hundred and fifty kilometre journey, your bloody pedal will fall off and leave you sitting on your arse on a muddy track in the middle of a forest on a Sunday thirty miles away from the nearest campsite regretting that you ever decided to take this stupid bloody trip in the first place.

Establishing trust with one’s steed is paramount, as is knowing that it wants to be ridden.  Every turn of the cogs, every gear shift should be made with consent of both parties. The minute I took to the saddle, I could feel the rejection of my well meant advances.

So when the chain fell off half way up a hill or the handle bars began loosening as I was cycling into a main road, they were either further rebuffs of my affections or the bike’s determination do absolutely anything, including suicide, to stop me from riding it.

I am a man who gives his heart easily, so as far as I was concerned, that shoddily manufactured, little red harlot, took my heart and rolled right over it for the better part of a week. The experience has left me guarded and distrustful, and doubtful that I could ever make such a commitment again.

Number Two.

Strap your possessions down properly.

I am a refined urbanite. I am at home amongst the smoke stacks and the dark satanic mills. But when I visit the countryside, I want the real experience. I don’t want to stay in bourgeois guesthouses with river views and primrose patterned bedspreads. No, I want the real country. I want to be eaten alive by horse flies, to sleep in the open with nothing between me and the elements but an expensive light-weight tent, an inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag.  To live the life of our hunter-gatherer forbears. Although I do actually draw the line at hunting, as deer blood is almost impossible to get out of Gore Tex.

At the beginning of my trip I felt like Shackleton ready to conquer the South Pole. I had a song in my heart, a spring in my step and all my possessions and provisions securely (take note) strapped to back of my bike.

“Pedalgate” was a bad start, but it was behind me. My capricious mount had been tamed (for now) the sun was riding atop powder puff clouds and the Bavarian countryside was whizzing past. (I was actually doing about fifteen kilometres an hour but isn’t perception a wonderful thing?)

When I reached my destination, a small campsite beside the Danube, I felt invigorated.  I pulled my things off the back of my bike and within the blink of an eye (it seemed about two minutes) my tent was erect and a pot of water was boiling for a nice, strong, cup of tea. I hung my lamp in preparation for a night time read. I inflated my blow up pillow and laid it atop my blow up mattress.

It was when I came to lay out my sleeping bag that my early evening reverie was shattered.  I couldn’t lay out my bloody sleeping bag because my bloody sleeping bag wasn’t bloody there. My bloody sleeping bag was somewhere in the bloody Bavarian countryside!

I remembered, when I thought about it, hearing a noise whilst cycling. A noise, it was now clear to me was the sound of my bloody sleeping bag falling off the back of my bloody bike.  Had I have turned round all would have been well, but I didn’t and so I was left to face the icy German night, au naturell. It is a fact that  the average paperback offers very little protection against the horrors of the night. Next time I go I’m taking Anna Karenina or The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Number Three. Wear trousers with padding in the crotch.

I think this one speaks for itself.

And finally:

Number Four. Do not and I repeat Do not take your new born child on a camping trip. Or tent near anyone who does

Opinion is divided on the subject of the children. Those who have them see them as little miracles, so miraculous, in fact, that like converts to some new and incontrovertible religion, they feel the need to evangelise to all and sundry, all the time. Now I’m in favour of children in general. Once trained they are fabulous at fetching and carrying and when very small actually eat less than the average family Alsatian. It is all, though, about context. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Children included.

But (and as night follows day and regret follows alcohol, there is always a but) a busy campsite at three o’clock in the morning is not the place for a six-month-old baby.

That night, it was like a well-rehearsed opera.  It started with the percussive rattle of the crickets occasionally harmonising with the gentle glissando of the wind through the trees only then to be shattered by the Soprano’s scream, slicing through the pastoral quietude. Then the Mezzo would softly come in with reassuring tones to be supported by the Baritone. Then the three principles would embark on an extended fifteen minute fugu,e with the soprano gradually being calmed into silence before shattering it again with another gut wrenching scream. Had I paid money for this performance, I might have been impressed. But had not, and was not.

Did I get an apology the next morning? Even a sympathetic grin would have made a difference. But nothing. Not even the acknowledgement that taking a creature that can’t even support the weight of its own head on the back of a bike for a week was somehow irresponsible. And yes I know that having a child shouldn’t ruin your life; but it shouldn’t ruin mine either.

People get used to everything. Virtually no condition of life is so tortuous that we can’t adapt. The older I get the more I find myself getting used to the clicks in my knees and my ever expanding forehead.

I am getting used to staying in of an evening. There are some aspects that I even actively enjoy. Sitting in a café on a rainy day reading a book. Dividing my attention between the words on the page, the raindrops racing each other down the windowpane and the banalities of the other people swirling around me makes me genuinely happy. Makes me feel as though I have a place in the world, that I am maybe able to face my adulthood. To shake hands with it.

That doesn’t mean my youthful self is dead. But now when he goes out to play, he’s coming around to the idea of wearing a cardigan.

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