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Touring on a Brompton

Tags: 
travel
brompton

This was the plan; two Bromptons, tent, complete camping equipment and a rail rover ticket for Germany. Could it be done? Would we get it all on the bike? And what about lugging it all around railway stations?

In fact it was all quite easy and turned out to be a really good way of seeing the country. We made a few minor changes to the bikes, mainly changing the tyres to reduce the rolling resistance and fitting more comfortable saddles and handlebar grips. We loaded them up using the front bag on one of the bikes and just the metal frame on the front of the other bike, onto which I strapped my old Timbuk2 bag. On the backs of the bikes we used a couple of mid-sized rucsacs which could be easily strapped to the rack and to the saddle. This gave us each three packages, including bikes, which could be turned into a ride-away state in well under a minute and fairly comfortably carried onto trains.

Planning your journey is easy; DB (Germany Railways) has an excellent website and all large stations have an information desk where they can print you out a journey plan complete with all connections, train numbers, platforms and services on board. Distances are much greater in Germany and the rail network is much more comprehensive, so there is often quite a choice of routes and connections. Long distance trains are either the standard IC or EC express trains which are very spacious and comfortable, or the new ICE high speed trains which are designed to run on the special tracks which are being built between major cities and will eventually cut journey times considerably. The next link to open will be the the line between Cologne and Frankfurt, a journey which currently winds along the Rhine Gorge and takes two and a half hours. The new line cuts straight through the mountains and consequently cost an absolute fortune, but it will reduce the journey time to around an hour. Travellers from the UK will soon be able to travel on purpose-built high speed lines directly from Frankfurt, via Brussels, to somewhere on the Kent coast where they will then have to sit behind the slow train to Tunbridge Wells for the remainder of their journey.

Our journey started in Cologne, which is the obvious gateway from Brussels, then took us to Munich and up into the Alps at Mittenwald from where we rode back down to Munich to see the eclipse. From there we took the train to Prague, then to the border near Dresden, giving us the chance to cycle along the valley of the Elbe into Germany. From Dresden we went to Berlin and I then went to Hamburg where I had an appointment to get my bike converted into a recumbent, and my partner came back to England.

Germany is a big country and we were trying to cram an awful lot into a week, but trains and bikes really do make an excellent combination, especially if you want to explore towns and cities. Sometimes it was quite confusing trying to navigate around a new city when you have just stepped off the train, Prague was particularly bad. The place where having a bike was most useful was Berlin, which is very like London in the sense of being made up of many quite different and dispersed districts with fairly large distances in between. To get to know it well would obviously take weeks or months, but we were able to get at least a feel for the place and how it is developing in a day spent wandering around on the bikes. The bike also enables you to explore the country around and do a bit of riding between towns. Cycle paths can be quite helpful but vary quite widely in their quality and how well they are signposted (very important for us!). There were times when I prefered to use the road, which is illegal.

Highlights for us were Cologne, Prague, and Meissen near Dresden, which is a fantastic medieval town built on a rocky outcrop above the Elbe. Berlin was fascinating, both old and new, with many different neighborhods to explore.

Things I would have done differently

Lower gears: we found that the Brompton made a great touring bike, especially with the front bag fully loaded, but there would come a point going down a long hill when no amount of pedalling would make, it go any faster, presumably a combination of the increased rolling resistance of small wheels and the Brompton's bus-like aerodynamic profile. On the other hand there were plenty of uphills where I would have been grateful for a lower gear.

I would have taken one of the Brompton baskets but we had run out of them in the shop. This would have been great for stuffing a small rucksac into without having to worry about straps or bungees. This would give you an optimum luggage capacity.

Avoiding cobblestones: this was where you wished your wheels were a bit bigger. Prague was pretty bad but at least it was a mixture of road, cobbles and enormous potholes so you got a bit of variety. The worst was east Germany where some of the rural roads consisted of mile apon mile of beautifully even cobblestones, which slowed your progress right down and gave all your internal organs a good massage. Next time I will make sure I have a Street Machine.