Cycling through Alsace and the Black Forest

Cycling through Alsace and the Black Forest

My cousin and his partner had recently moved to a quiet town in the western outskirts of Strasbourg. After spending one year in Canada, they had come back to France where finding a job or getting unemployment money had proven more difficult than expected, even more so lately with the pandemic. As soon as practically possible they had moved to Strasbourg for my cousin’s new job and I was their first guest. I decided to stay two nights at their place so that we could spend more time together.

Flammkuchen and gingerbread

I washed my clothes, filled my bottles of cooking alcohol and hand sanitizer, the new bike tourist’s must-have. We shared our frustrations about the French culture : gender inequality, administrative drag, constant need to judge and be judged by others. The days when we began to wear face masks had been particularly strange to me. We had gone out of the house and looked at each other in approbation or disapprobation. Does this person wear a face mask? Should I do the same? Or should I not, as to mark my disapproval? Sanitary concerns seemed almost secondary.

But then we also agreed that at least the food was much better here than in Canada. So we went out to the nearby town of Obernai to eat Flammkuchen. The houses were in timber frames and the Flammkuchen delicious. After dinner we went on a hill above town where the view extended all the way across the Rhine Graben to the Black Forest in Germany.

In July of 2007, I had gone for my first bike tour. Internet had confirmed that it was not such a mad idea after all because others on the internet did it too. I had bought a fifteen euros promotional train ticket for the newly opened Lille Strasbourg TGV line, and decided to cycle across the Alps. I had been cycling along the canals and rivers. On my first night I had been dead scared, on the second I had woken up from a tent covered in snails, but the third night went well so I had decided that I might as well cycle on.

Since 2007, the cycling network in Alsace and other parts of Europe had greatly improved. This time I was cycling a different road, the so-called wine cycle road that follows the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. Before leaving, I had taken a difficult decision: I had left my mirrorless exchangeable lens camera at my cousin’s place. The Fujifilm X-T1 had accompanied me on several bike tours and multiple hikes. It had been with me to Greenland, Japan, and many places in the Alps. But it was also bulky, heavy, and overkill for much of my touring photography. I had already ordered a compact camera in Zurich, thinking of all the space I could save in my handlebar bag for snacks, wallet, sunscreen, and face masks and sanitizer which were the latest addition to my touring gear. But for a couple of days, I would have to use my phone.

I had left my cousin’s place after lunch, and the afternoon light in the vines was gorgeous. But my ass was hurting, like if the day of rest had had absolutely no effect on them. I stopped in a pharmacy, where, skeptical, I was prescribed a cream against burns. I had aimed to sleep in Colmar, but stopped in a beautiful small camping in the middle of the vines in Bergheim. Then I ate Flammekuche again. This was becoming a habit.

The next morning I realized my cycling shorts were stained with blood. After feeling for a while like a young girl getting her first period, I decided to try something new : cycling without them. And it worked. I could still feel the burning spot, but the saddle was now pressing in a slightly different place, a new fresh piece of pristine butt skin. Were my shorts the issue? No, I had used them on several tours. When the pain began to come back I realized something else : it was hurting less if I cycled without pedal cleats. Actually my clipping shoes were the only new piece of gear I used on this tour. So I decided not to use them for the next couple of days.

Since this was my last day in France, I stopped for a coffee and croissant in the beautiful town of Colmar. The region had been badly hurt by the pandemic, but tourists were already filling the streets of the idyllic town. It was July first, we had entered the second half of 2020, a year that had so far been largely negative for many.

From Colmar I turned east towards Germany. The Rhine Graben, the intermontane depression between the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest, is fairly large to cycle across. As I cycled east I imagined Africa to my right pushing up against Europe underneath, opening this huge scar in the Earth’s crust, that had been filled with sediments from the Alps. In the middle ran one of the largest rivers in Europe, the Rhine, and along it, the border between France and Germany border. So I said goodbye to my home country and cycled one last time across its borders.

Black Forest black coffee

I woke up drowsy from a stormy night in Freiburg. I was lazy to go out so I had coffee and breakfast in the tent. The skies were still gray and more rain fell right when I decided to fold the tent. Too bad, I would have to carry a wet tent above the Black Forest. I picked a minor road that climbed in a deep valley north of Feldberg, the highest mountain in the Black Forest. I was pleased to learn that the last part of the road was closed to motorized traffic. Still feeling sleepy, I had a second coffee in the last village. Then the road started to climb more steeply in the forest. The Black Forest was my first mountain range. The road was steep, but with mountains came something else. For the first time since leaving northern France, I truly felt surrounded by nature. I could hear no more cars, but the chirping of birds and the soothing sound of a nearby creek.

The last part of the climb was steep. For the last few kilometers I had to shift to the lowest gear of the Surly, hoping I would not meet steeper roads in the Alps. Then I reached my first mountain pass, Rinken, 1196 m above sea level. My body was calling for more coffee. This was coffee addiction day. After the pass I decided to cut by somewhat level gravel roads through the woods, to save a few kilometers and along the way visit Feldsee, a glacial lake surrounded by steep forested slopes on the east side of Feldberg. As far as touring bikes can go, the place felt eerily quiet and remote. The mountain walls disappeared in a thick cloud cap above the lake. The reward was well worth the ascent.

Then there was the long descent along the northern shore of Schluchsee and along quiet highland road where I was hoping to get my first view on the Alps. But if the weather had cleared above my head, the southern horizons were still filled with gray clouds. Eventually the road dived into the steep gorge of the Schlücht River, and I was surprised to discover such steep topography outside of the Alps. I stayed at a camping in Gurtweil just north of the Swiss-German border.

Meeting friends in Switzerland

The next morning I crossed the border in Koblenz and entered my fifth country: Switzerland. I had lived in Switzerland for four years and left just before the pandemic. The weather was cloudy and chilly, not particularly exciting. I cycled the 50 km from the border to Zurich following the little red signs of the excellent cycling network. They took me along the Rhine River, and then up onto the Zurich Oberland. When I first saw the city, I immediately recognized the highest buildings and Uetliberg to the right. The view was familiar and strange at the same time: I had never seen the city from this distance and angle, and I still had a hard time to realize I had come here by bike.

The weather was not really inviting to picnics, so I met my friends Morgane and Marc at their place. They cooked a huge plate of pasta and after that I would have fallen asleep if we did not have so much to talk about. The last couple of months had been strange for all of us. I left their place in late afternoon to cycle the last 30 km to Wetzikon. Finally I had my first view on the Alps, or at least on the outer ranges, dark mountain walls against a gray background of clouds. In Wetzikon I was welcomed by another friend and fellow bike tourer, Yang, who made a gorgeous dinner for my arrival, but forced me to shower before collapsing on the bed.

The route (4 days, 282 km)


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