Pedaling Germany, Part I

The Craft Trans-Germany stage race – in every village, crowds were out to cheer, using the event as a fine excuse to drink beer

Germany: the cross-country ride packs both pain and joy | Photo: Peter Musch

As I leaned nonchalantly against my bike in the town square of the little German town of Erbach im Odenwald, now awash with colorful lycra shirts and gleaming bikes, I was beginning to think it had been a good idea to let myself be talked into competing in one of Europe’s toughest mountain bike races – the Craft Trans-Germany stage race.

The square was ringed by multi-colored, half-timbered houses, their pointy roofs looking like tall witches’ hats. It was such a picturesque scene that you wanted to chop it up and turn it into a jigsaw puzzle. And, at long last, everyone finally seemed to recognize my worth as a human being – fresh-faced children pointed and waved at me, old men were already drinking beer in the gentle morning sun and raising their glasses in my direction. If only the day could have ended there and then.

The start gun sounded and we set off on our seven-day odyssey of over 660 kilometers and 15,000 meters of altitude. But only I acted in the true spirit of the official “roll off.” While I was still adjusting my glasses and gently rolling my pedals around, the other 399 competitors “shot off” with the gritted-teeth of overweening ambition. My long day of panting and sweating was about to begin.

Taking part in a mass mountain bike race had been a long held fantasy for me. Speeding down narrow trails behind a long line of other riders was a thrill I was desperate to taste. The problem was that it was terribly hard work staying close enough to them to enjoy the experience. There is something epic about journeys through the woods. As I pedaled through the ancient forests of the Odenwald, I felt like “Robin Hood, Robin Hood Riding Through The Glen.” But the problem was that my merry men were merrily disappearing up the road ahead of me.

I was rallied, though, by the hearty, wholesome folk that seem to dwell in these parts. Every time we emerged into a village, crowds of people were out to cheer us by – again most of them wisely using our passing as a fine excuse to drink beer. Appreciating their support, I waved enthusiastically back. However, in the latter parts of the day, as my pedaling got slower and my face got redder, I thought I heard a tone of sarcasm entering in their applause. Although this might be just paranoia. When I finally rolled over the finish line in Frammersbach, after seven hours of pedaling, I was exhausted… and second to last in my age category.

I clearly needed to rally if I was to make a mark in this race. A good night’s sleep was what the doctor ordered. Sadly his orders were disobeyed. I lay awake at our camp on the floor of a school gymnasium listening to one of my fellow competitors snoring in the fashion of a strangled cow. But I had a plan for attaining maximum power the next day. Following the advice of an American colleague, I ‘carbo-loaded’ with a massive breakfast of pasta and eggs. It’s apparently the thing to do. No wonder the camp smelled so distinctly.

The potent fuel fired me along the rain-slicked path from Frammersbach to Bischofsheim an der Rhön. The final few kilometers were on a narrow, steep section of slippery single track. My back wheel was sliding left and right. I was slithering over the rocks that jutted out at me and drifting dangerously towards the trees. Seeing that trees and rocks are solid and I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing, this should have been alarming. But, in fact, I enjoyed this mud-surfing immensely. It just shows what a good egg in the morning can do for a man.

Every night there was a village festival in our honor. Brass bands played jolly music and the locals drank copious amounts of beer while we competitors sat, slightly dazed, trying to wash one more plate of pasta down with an energy drink. That night in Bischofsheim, my mind was not on the festivities. It was dwelling on two things: Firstly, how to get hold of some of the energy-saving clip-in pedals and shoes that everyone had but me and, secondly, how to tend to my delicate English derrière, which was already whispering protests at the amount of hours it was spending in contact with the narrow saddle.

Its complaints grew louder the next day as, on the way to Oberhof, we passed into the former East Germany. We had to cycle up a typical old East Bloc road made of half-meter wide slabs of concrete laid side by side like so many sleeping policeman. Bang! Bang! Bang! went the suspension, Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! went my bum. “Ostalagia” sounds very different.

The rain of Stage 2, meanwhile, had been replaced by a fierce wind. It was gusting so much that the trees of the forests were throwing bits down on me. It seemed to be snowing twigs and leaves. In the open, meanwhile, the wind was unsportingly trying to blow us back to the start. And every time we went round a corner there still seemed to be a headwind.

But I learned a lesson of cycling – build yourself a team. I started the group by following a man in the yellow shirt of the German Postal Service. I decided that he was bound to get to his destination on time in that shirt. Soon our group consisted of 12 riders. We mimicked the Tour de France riders we’d seen on TV, hiding in each other’s wind-shadow and sharing the burden at the front.

Suddenly, I felt like a real cyclist, not just a tourist with a sore bum.

(Will Christian make it to the finish-line in Seiffen in the Erz Mountains? Will he find any clip-on cycling shoes? Find out next month!)

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