The Southern Rhine divides two countries and two very different cycling experiences. In the south of Germany most roads have at least one cycle path, often well removed from the roads. The French have had a go, splashed a bit of paint around, marked a few cycle lanes in cities, printed a few maps and signs but their heart isn’t in it.
You would think that this would mean a less pleasurable ride in France, but no, non, nein – France is a cyclist’s delight while cycle touring in Germany is a much more complicated experience.
France can be unzipped with the aid of the yellow Michelin 1/200,000 maps. 15 pages torn from the book will get you across the country, north to south or east to west.
D (Departmental) roads are simply as good as it gets in Europe. French drivers like to park on the cycle lanes, which in France are usually only a painted stripe on the road side and in turn they are invariably happy to share their roads with cyclists. Cyclists are treated with courtesy because the French driver knows his supremacy over the humble velo. But drive a car at any speed in front of a Frenchman and the result is an entirely different and well-known display of slipstream driving and overtaking at any cost.
Certainly the same dangers exist on French roads as elsewhere in Europe, non-French articulated-lorry drivers need to be watched at junctions and, Dutch and Belgium stents, huge wing-mirrored motorhomes clearing cycling blockages from narrow rural arteries. The best tip I can give is to use a small effective bike mirror, on handlebar, helmet or glasses, it will simply transform your road cycling.
Whereas the Michelin map is fine for France I have acquired 7 different maps of this area of Germany in an attempt to unravel the Radwege noodles. In the last year only one (LGL) has proved practical for any through route. This is a 1/50,000 map which gives an indication of the scale of the problem.
The German cycle paths are a delight for a family outing. In places they are shared with careful farmers who use them to reach their orchards and vines. There are of even a few stretches where you can certainly make good time alongside the long straight roads in the Rhine floodplain
But in general they are a frustration if you want to get somewhere the same day, still sane or both.
They bump up and down pavements, cross main roads, thread through the back of housing estates and if you are trying to make a through route they are a navigational nightmare. In the past year I have spent many hours pouring over the 7 maps each with their own version of Radwege and retracing my routes and practicing my German while asking for directions.
On many occasions I have given up somewhere in a very smart solar-powered housing estate and just got onto the nearest main road. The reaction of the car drivers to this approach is pretty much universal – roadkill. It is legal in Germany to run down any cyclists that escape from the cycle paths. I can guarantee that I will be blasted by the horn (not beeped) as soon as I venture onto the highway. Most recently I had simply failed to spot the up-pavement dodge into a very short, 20 metre, stretch of cycle path in town and was blasted by BMW man with accompanying hand movements.
The logic appears to be that we have made these cycle lanes for you so fek-off, use them and get lost. I usually do get lost. A kindly neighbour has even advised me that she thinks that it may be illegal to cycle on a road that has a cycle path near it. Why was I not surprised !
Within Freiburg the cyclists have evolved into fundamentalists, serial parents towing prams filled with their fundamentalist recruits and cyclists with hounds running alongside that you discover, hopefully not too late, are attached to their owners’ waists by leads.
Last week I was walking on a pavement in Freiburg and was collared by a cyclist who had come up behind me and stopped to ask in a friendly way if I had not heard his bell. I told him that I had heard his bell and that I had heard cars but assumed that they would not be driving on the pavement. He replied, ‘but in Freiburg we ride on the pavement’.
If you want to tootle, then, armed with maps, time, patience and a pedestrian alarm bell Germany can be explored but if you want to journey on a bike then my advice is simple, get over the bridge and discover your own D road Tour de France.