Amsterdam, The Netherlands → Venice, Italy
During the eight days of August 21 -28, 2015, I bicycled 858 miles from Amsterdam to Venice alone and unsupported. 858 miles (1,381 kilometers) is farther than New York to Chicago, Denver to Dallas, and Seattle to San Francisco.
The trip from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea took me from the canals and flower fields of the Netherlands; through the rolling farmlands of Northern Germany, the bustling, modern cities of Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, the industrial and manufacturing heartland of Central Germany, and the steep hills, forests, and grain fields of Bavaria; to the German car-capital of scenic Stuttgart; into the heart of the majestic Alps in Innsbruck; across the mighty, historic Brenner Pass from Austria to Italy; through the towering Dolomites and past the vineyards, olive groves, and orchards of Trentino; and down a narrow valley along a thundering river to Venice.
Day 1 – Amsterdam to Dusseldorf
I packed my bike in an AirCaddy Box for the flight from Newark to Amsterdam. The AirCaddy allows a bike to be easily packaged without disassembly other than rotating the handlebars and removing the front wheel and seatpost. I was able to pack my bike in under an hour with my very curious toddler daughter observing. She has seen me leaving our apartment with a bike countless times, but never putting it in a box.
After a minor hassle from the United baggage representatives at Newark as I tried checking in my bike box, my overnight flight from Newark to Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport went smoothly. I landed in Schipol at 7:45 AM. Luckily, I managed to get about two hours of sleep on the red-eye flight. I was relieved to see that my bike box had arrived in good condition. I ate a tuna sandwich at 8:30 AM – the earliest I have ever eaten a tuna sandwich, but I needed reliable fuel for what would be a long day’s riding.
Riding from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf was to be the longest distance I would ride in a single day on the trip, 148 miles. On only three prior occasions have I ridden a longer distance in a single day. But the route today would be mostly flat. I hoped that I would not be too tired from the minimal sleep on the plane the previous night; I knew I would need to rely on adrenaline to keep me going. It took only about 15 minutes to set up my bike and bags and pack up, in front of a few onlookers, and be ready to depart Schipol Airport. I filled my water bottles with ice and the first of many bottles of Powerade. It felt great to prepare to depart a large international airport by bicycle.
Leaving Schipol, the weather was delightful, a bright sunny morning, with high, wispy clouds. The only downside was a ten-mile-per-hour headwind. I departed the terminal and began the trip through a tunnel built only for bikes with a two-way bike path running underneath the taxiways and runways. My bike was rolling well, smoothly and silent. The bike tunnel opened to a beautiful bike path leading away from the airport and into the countryside. A friendly bus driver took a picture of me with KLM planes taxiing for takeoff in the background, but only after asking questions about my trip and inspecting the components on my bike. In the Netherlands, I guess even many of the bus drivers are cyclists. It was exhilarating to be riding my bike in Europe after all of the planning and training I had done during the previous months.
The riding away from Schipol towards the first landmark city of Utrecht was fantastic – beautiful bike paths running through the countryside, and small towns filled with hundreds of cyclists of all types, past farms and fields of flowers, and along quiet roads lined by canals and all kinds of small boats. I saw families eating breakfast on the decks of their houseboats and boats heading out to fish. I saw kayaks and canoes being paddled down streams. I saw a large group of some 500 cyclists wearing matching t-shirts on a charity ride. I passed train stations in small towns with hundreds of bikes parked outside. People of all ages and cycling abilities passed on road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes, and tandems. The Netherlands is a cycling utopia with miles of dedicated separated well-surfaced bicycle trails, road infrastructure seemingly focused primarily on cycling, and courteous drivers and cyclists.
The southeasterly route towards Utrecht took me for many miles along a beautiful two-way cycling path, called Westkanaaldijk, running parallel to a busy canal. Riverboats of all shapes and sizes travelled in both directions on the canal. It was great fun riding along the canal at the same speed and sometimes faster than the riverboats. I often made eye contact with the boat captains as we travelled at similar speeds.
The riding was idyllic. The sun shined brightly. The air was clean. It was so quiet sometimes all I could hear was my tires whirring along the road and the sound of the river lapping at the riverbank.
My first stop was a bike shop in Utrecht to buy CO2 cartridges (compressed air for quick roadside inflation) which I could not bring with me on the plane. Utrecht has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. It was constituted as a city during the Roman era. Utrecht’s ancient city center features buildings and structures dating back to the Middle Ages. The city is home to the largest university in the Netherlands. The CO2 cartridges came in a package of five, but the owner gladly opened the package and sold me two. I found it somewhat ironic that at the bike shop a Dutch couple who “do a lot of bicycle touring vacations” were very interested in my bike set-up and took pictures of all my bags which they said they must have for a future trip. They asked about my trip and wished me well. It was great to have early positive encouragement as small doubts occasionally crept into mind over whether I could actually accomplish the trip on the ambitious itinerary I had set.
I continued southward from Utrecht through rural southeast Holland and towards Germany over beautiful flat terrain, past small towns and farms. I rode for miles along canals and rivers, seeing amazing houseboats and riverboats, kayakers, and boats of all kinds. I passed endless grain fields. Other cyclists were ever-present, and always friendly. In the early afternoon, I stopped for a croissant and ice cream cone at a canal-side stand and chatted with Dutch cyclists riding a short tour.
I continued along quiet roads trying to stay cool on this hot day, but making sure to keep a good, steady tempo. On flat surfaces, with a steady headwind, I rode at about 18 miles per hour for long stretches. In the late afternoon, I crossed the Waal River over the beautiful De Oversteek bridge, with a glass wall separating the bike path and main roadway, into the old Dutch city of Nijmegen, near the border with Germany.
In 2005, Nijmegen celebrated 2,000 years of existence as a city. In 1940, when Germany invaded the Netherlands, Nijmegen was the first Dutch city to fall into German hands. On February 22, 1944, Nijmegen was heavily bombed by American planes, causing great damage to the city center. Nijmegen was liberated from German occupation by the British Army and the American 82nd Airborne Division, and would later be used as a springboard for the invasion across the Rhine River by Allied Troops.
Nijmegen is a charming city filled with cobblestone roads and beautiful apartment blocks and houses. I encountered thousands of cyclists in Nijmegen. It was strange, coming from New York City, to see every cyclist waiting patiently at red lights.
Shortly after leaving the city limits of Nijmegen, I entered rural countryside and crossed the border into Germany near the city of Kleve. My route continued southeast towards Dusseldorf. This part of north Germany is mostly flat farmland and small towns, with occasional long, gentle gradients on the country roads.
I saw hot air balloons flying far away and pilots tinkering with an old plane at a small airport. Signs everywhere indicated fresh kartoffeln (potatoes) and blumen (flowers) for sale. The afternoon had become hot. The riding was harder into strong headwinds, with the flat fields providing nowhere to hide from the wind. But I made good, steady progress. I focused on keeping my body as aerodynamic as possible, and made sure to drink plenty. There were a few stretches when my water bottles were down to a few last sips of hot Powerade and a gas station or store would suddenly come into view.
During the late afternoon, I briefly felt very tired from having slept little the previous night but I powered through and got a strong second wind. I stopped at several gas stations for drinks, sandwiches, and snacks. For a mile or two, I had a brief respite from the wind drafting at 20 miles per hour behind a group of strong German cyclists (a few with Assos kit and one with the same jersey as me), but this ‘rest’ was short-lived as they turned towards a westerly direction.
I continued southeast through Geldern and Krefeld, and onwards towards Dusseldorf. In 1945, the US Army occupied Krefeld. Henry Kissinger, then an Army private and later Secretary of State of the United States, was in charge of the city administration. My route southward took me parallel to and continuously closer to the Rhine River. Eventually, as night fell, I crossed the Rhine River into Dusseldorf.
My hotel was in the southeast outskirts of Dusseldorf about 15 miles farther, in the direction of my next day’s ride. I had selected this hotel so that I could make quick progress in the morning heading away from the city, and because of the reviews of its breakfast. My GPS routing directed me through now-dark Dusseldorf along great bike paths through parks and back roads.
On a gravel path in the woods after dark I rode behind a tremendous abandoned building that looked many decades old. I saw no one on or near the path. I rode a bit faster down that path. I was tired but thrilled to be riding the last few miles of what was a long day fighting headwinds. At about 9:20 pm, I arrived at the Park Inn by Radisson after a hard but wonderful day of cycling.
Distance: 148.2 miles
Moving Time: 9:07
Average Speed: 16.2 mph
Calories Burned: 4,453
Elevation Gained: 2,444 feet
Day 2 – Dusseldorf to Giessen
On day 2, my destination was Giessen, Germany, more than 100 miles to the southeast, about thirty miles north of Frankfurt. Needing some time to recover from the previous day’s riding and catch up on sleep, I left Dusseldorf at noon after a hearty breakfast, including delicious smoked salmon. After riding a few miles through the outskirts of Dusseldorf on sidewalks marked with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians, I began riding on beautiful bike paths through wooded areas. Some of these paths were paved, some were gravel. The air was cool and crisp and the sun was shining. After two hours, I stopped at a gas station to refill my water bottles. When I was done, the elderly female cashier came outside the store, and insisted on taking back my empty Powerade bottles and refunding me for the bottle deposits.
The woods were filled with singing birds and my rolling bike sent many squirrels scurrying away from the path. The route at first was mostly flat as I travelled parallel to and on the east side of the Rhine. The woods eventually opened to rolling countryside. I rode past farms filled with animals of all kinds and through charming small towns. When I cycled on the roadside, drivers everywhere were very courteous and would usually cross nearly completely to the opposite lane to pass.
I continued south and rode through charming Koln (which suffered the first 1,000 bomber raid by the Royal Air Force on May 31, 1942, and which by the end of the war had its population reduced by 95 percent). From Koln, I continued through Bonn, the capital of West Germany until reunification of Germany in 1990. Riding through Germany it was constantly evident that the country is thriving.
Heading eastward from Bonn to Giessen, the route immediately became very hilly. About 42 miles into the day’s ride, I encountered the first significant climb, quickly gaining 1,000 feet in elevation. The afternoon was very hot. I stopped for a big sandwich for lunch. Twenty miles later, I climbed another 1,000-foot ascent. The riding as I approached closer to Giessen was hilly and steep but gorgeous. The rolling hills and farms glowed in the sunlight. I made good, steady progress.
I stopped at a car repair shop in the countryside, at the top of a long hill, to recharge my GPS device (I had not yet purchased a power bar so I could charge the GPS device while riding). The owner spoke little English but was very friendly as he tinkered with a car on Saturday afternoon. He plugged in my GPS device and offered me a seat to rest. After about fifteen minutes, I continued on towards Giessen.
It is hard to describe how beautiful this part of Germany is. The fresh air, open skies, rolling hills, and setting sun made for spectacular riding. I rode for miles and miles on small roads with no traffic at all and on dedicated cycling paths. Sometimes animals lined both sides of the road. The steep climbs brought fast, thrilling descents. The sky was ablaze in various shades of purple – I was treated to a dramatic sunset.
I descended a huge windy hill just east of the small town of Greifenstein on a road called Tolstrosse. The descent had sustained grades of more than 12 percent. My speed exceeded 40 miles per hour as I leaned into the sharp turns. A car behind me had difficulty keeping pace on the steep curves.
I neared Giessen after dark, riding parallel to the Lahn river, a 152-mile-long tributary of the Rhine. Giessen is a university town with 78,000 residents, of which 24,000 are students. Heavy bombing destroyed about 75 percent of of Giessen in 1944, including most of the town’s historic buildings.
About 5 miles away from my hotel in the outskirts of Giessen, my GPS device directed me onto a narrow sandy path across a dark field. As soon as I entered the field, I heard flapping sounds all around my head. My headlamp caught fleeting views of black wings. I realized I was surrounded by bats. I kept my head down, helmet up, and rode quickly to the edge of the field and through a small tunnel to the nearest road.
At about 9:45 pm, after a short but brutal climb, I arrived at the Best Western Plus Steinsgarten overlooking Giessen, and wiped many dead flies off my sweaty legs before taking a long shower. I felt tired but flooded with endorphins. I opened the big windows of my hotel room and took some deep breaths of the cool night air. I had completed the first two long days of the trip, 260 miles in total, and everything was going smoothly.
Distance: 112.3 miles
Elevation Climbed: 5,377 feet
Average Speed: 15.2 mph
Maximum Speed: 43.6 mph
Total Distance: 260.5 miles
Day 3 – Giessen to Darmstadt
Day 3 was going to be somewhat of a rest day – a 55-mile ride south from Giessen, past Butzbach, through Frankfurt, and on to Darmstadt. Church bells ringing across from my hotel started Sunday earlier than I would have liked. On this day, it was a little hard to get going at good speed in the morning. My legs felt a little sore from riding 260 miles over the previous two days. But after riding for about an hour or so my legs loosened up and I felt great. This pattern repeated itself on a few subsequent days – I would sometimes feel a bit sore starting out but pedaling at a high cadence would loosen my legs and I usually felt fresh and energetic in a short time.
The riding south from Giessen was very hilly at first, and continuously beautiful, up and over long rolling hills, on many dedicated bike paths, and through small towns very sleepy on a Sunday morning in rural Germany. Almost all stores are closed on Sunday in Germany. That can be inconvenient if you need to buy something like a sandwich but it means the roads are not busy and people have a chance to relax – no shopping, no weekend errands. Maybe a bike ride.
I encountered an old German couple climbing a long hill on heavy bicycles with apparent ease. At the top, they happily took a picture of me, and waited patiently so I could get another picture without my helmet on. Stopping for pictures was sometimes difficult, interrupting my rhythm and focus, but I wanted to make sure I would have a visual record of this magnificent trip. I rode on. The weather was beautiful, though the winds were unhelpful. One path took me along a prison wall topped with barbed wire.
That morning I came the closest on the whole trip to a mishap. I was riding along a narrow road, through fields, and encountered a campsite for what appeared to be a strange traveling carnival. I took my eyes off the road for a few seconds too long and failed to notice a black electrical wire laying at a 45-degree angle across the road. When I hit the wire at less than the appropriate perpendicular angle, my front tire caught the wire instead of rolling over it, and my loaded bike began tipping sideways. Just in time I was able to lean my body the opposite way and lift my wheel over the wire – and realize that whoever had laid the plug across the street to power an RV was clearly not thinking of cyclists and perpendicular angles.
The route flattened out as I passed Butzbach, continued through Bad Nauheim, and approached Frankfurt. Bad Nauheim is a world-famous resort town, noted for its salt springs which are used to treat heart and nerve diseases. Hitler had a command complex near Bad Nauheim in Langenhain-Ziegenberg called Alderhost, “the Eagle’s Nest.” Despite its proximity to Frankfurt and Hitler’s command complex, Bad Nauheim was totally spared from Allied bombing. As a young child, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had spent extended time in Bad Nauheim where his father was treated for a heart condition. Rumor has it that President Roosevelt loved the town so much from his days there that he ordered it spared. After the war, Bad Nauheim was used as a residential area for American occupation forces.
I continued south and crossed the Rhine, once again, into Frankfurt. Frankfurt is a beautiful, modern, bustling city with amazing bike infrastructure. I was envious of groups of cyclists speeding along on fresh legs carrying nothing but what they could fit in their jersey pockets. But I guessed they surely would have enjoyed the trip I was taking – I even noticed some lingering looks at my bike set-up as they passed. It was delightful riding passing through sunny Frankfurt and continuing south to Darmstadt.
Most of the cyclists I encountered were engaged and looked serious as cyclists tend to, but not some passengers who were obviously not too enthralled by the whole thing and just fell asleep.
In the southern outskirts of Frankfurt, I was suddenly famished. That happens on a bike more quickly than normally. A pang of hunger can fast become an immediate need for food. I stopped for a few slices of vegetable pizza to help power me through the last twenty miles to Darmstadt. Upon entering Darmstadt, I stopped at a gas station to refill my water bottles. After drinking gallons of blue mountain berry Powerade during the past three days to the point I think my sweat was tinged blue, it was fantastic to have some lime-flavored Powerade.
During World War 2, Darmstadt suffered 35 separate bombing raids, including the first use of the firestorm technique (incendiary bombs followed by explosive bombs to create massive fires) which was subsequently used to devastating effect on the city of Dresden. Over three-quarters of Darmstadt was obliterated. Today, Darmstadt is a thriving, major center of scientific institutions, universities, and high technology companies. The European Space Operations Centre is located in Darmstadt.
At 5:30 pm, I arrived at the wonderful Maritim Konferenzhotel where I was greeted by the very friendly receptionists, and a doorman who wheeled my bike inside the hotel. I felt great, and had one of the best showers of my life, a powerful rainfall-style shower with digital heating controls.
After three days of riding, I was excited for what the next five days would bring and happy that my legs felt good. Troubling, however, was the foreboding forecast of heavy rain and headwinds the next day as I would head south away from Darmstadt.
Distance: 55.3 miles
Total Distance: 315.8 miles
Day 4 – Darmstadt to Stuttgart
I was expecting the ride south from Darmstadt to Stuttgart to be the hardest leg of the trip so far. The forecast at the beginning of the day was especially troubling: strong winds from the south all day and heavy rains predicted for the afternoon. At 9:45 am, after a great breakfast of granola and milk, two bowls of yogurt, French toast, croissants with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and too many pieces of pie, I departed overcast Darmstadt and began heading south, making steady progress towards the first landmark city of Heidelberg.
This day was characterized by two different halves. For the first forty miles, the headwinds were strong and persistent but the clouds generally held up. An occasional passing shower though hinted at what was to come. The GPS routing sent me on some beautiful routes through woods, and past steep vineyards and orchards. Many of these paths were not paved – this made for challenging but beautiful riding. The route for the first 50 miles was mostly flat, sometimes monotonous, but usually beautiful.
I have enough data points on my GPS device to keep my attention during the monotonous stretches. I am sometimes asked if I wear headphones when I ride. I would never. For me, one of the main enjoyments of cycling is the quiet and peacefulness – I would not intrude on that with music. I prefer to enjoy the sounds of a finely-tuned cycling machine humming along, wheels whirring, and hubs ticking. And it is necessary to listen carefully for traffic approaching from behind.
The route continued south from Heidelberg through Wiesloch. The city pharmacy in Wiesloch was the first “filling station” in the world. Bertha Benz stopped there on August 5, 1888, on the first long-distance car trip ever taken, to refill the tank of her automobile, which her husband Karl Benz had invented.
I rode through many miles of rolling farmland, orchards, and vineyards. The area between Heidelberg and Stuttgart is sparsely populated. A few times I rode for thirty minutes or so without seeing anyone else or any other vehicles. I passed through the middle of beautiful farms on gravel and sand paths, and could smell the grapes growing in the vineyards. I passed through quiet forests, where all I could hear were birds chirping and my tires rolling. The air was humid and thick, but delightful.
At about 4 pm, the threatening skies finally opened up, and heavy rains began to fall. The wind picked up too. The rain was driving sideways. At the time, I was climbing a steep gravel path in a forest. The switchbacks on gravel were very difficult in my easiest gear. I could hardly see in front of me due to the rain. Water flowed down both sides of the path. Eventually I went over the top and descended to a road.
The area was desolate and very hilly with no one around and no shops open. Riding in the rain awakens all of your senses. I was wearing full rain gear but was soaked and cold. The heavy rain continued unabated. I struggled to read the directions on my GPS device. 85 miles in, about 25 to go. I climbed and descended steep roads through heavily wooded areas. Water flowed across the road, and I had to be careful on descents with reduced braking and to avoid hydroplaning. On one climb I gained 900 feet on a steady nine-percent gradient.
After riding for many miles and only occasionally seeing a car but no open stores, I finally came across an inviting bakery in the small mountain village of Unterriexingen. I ordered a cheese-filled croissant, large slice of pie, and a cappuccino. I sat at the one table in the bakery, dripping water on the floor and slowly warming up. The proprietor could not have been more friendly. She greeted everyone who walked in by name – they all took a second look at the wet cyclist eating pie in their local bakery. I cannot remember ever having a better-testing pie or enjoying a hot drink as much as I did then. The cappuccino was great and lifted my spirits, and I filled my water bottle with another. The climb out of town was 1,000 feet high, and helped warm me some more. I continued south toward Stuttgart through the cold rain.
The approach to Stuttgart was hilly. The GPS routing took me on some extremely steep narrow paths approaching the city. I even had to climb about 75 stairs along one steep path. I got lost as I entered the city, and my GPS recalculated the route, adding another ten miles to what was already a difficult day.
Stuttgart is the fourth-most populated city in Germany and the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg state. It has long been known as a manufacturing hub. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche have sprawling headquarters and museums in Stuttgart. I passed these icons to the automobile, in the rain on my bicycle. Riding up the hills in Stuttgart in the pouring rain, I drew some comfort from seeing another cyclist passing in the opposite direction. We exchanged head nods, the secret greeting between cyclists, appreciated even more on cold rainy days when most people travel in a vehicle protected from the elements.
I eventually arrived at the Parkhotel Stuttgart Messe at about 7:30 pm, for a long, hot shower and hot food. My fingertips remained wrinkled for about an hour but I was warm and recovering from a long, difficult ride.
Distance: 106.4 miles
Maximum Heart Rate: 171 beats per minute
Elevation Climbed: 4,957 feet
Temperature Range: 75℉ to 55℉
Total Distance: 422.2 miles
Day 5 – Stuttgart to Augsburg
Riding east southeast from Stuttgart to Augsburg I knew would be very hilly for the first half of the ride. My legs felt great on this morning and I thought I had a lot of energy for whatever terrain I would encounter. The route did not disappoint. Ten miles into the day’s ride, I climbed from an elevation of 841 feet to 2,422 feet into the beautiful Swabian Jura mountain range. The climbing was intense and very steep. But the sun shined brightly once again, there was only a minimal headwind, and the riding was great. My cycling kit, which had not dried completely overnight and despite my best efforts with a hairdryer in the morning, dried quickly on the hot climbs. At every stop along the way to refill my water bottles and take on energy bars, the Germans were friendly, sometimes asking where I was headed and offering encouragement.
The road surfaces here as in most parts of Germany were excellent. The descents were comfortable and thrilling. At one point, after climbing a long hill, I encountered a sign that I interpreted as saying the road was closed due to tree cutting. I stopped to check my iPhone for a potential alternate route but realized that I would have to go approximately twenty miles out of the way over very hilly terrain to continue along my selected route. I ducked under the chain hanging across the road and continued for about eight miles on the deserted, closed road. The sides of the road were covered in piles of felled evergreen trees and the road surface was poor but I could safely pass on a bike if I avoided the pine cones and areas of the road covered in sawdust. I made it to the other end of the closed road without incident. I continued eastward back on open roads, eventually beginning to gradually descend. The scenery here was predominately open fields and big skies. At the crest of some small hills, I could sometimes see for what seemed like 50 miles. I wondered if somewhere in the distance I was seeing my eventual destination of Augsburg.
After a thrilling 20-mile descent from Geislingen an der Steige (Geislingen “on the climb”) and a few steep climbs as I crossed into Bavaria, the route generally flattened out and became rolling hills and countryside. I passed thousands of acres of farmland and cornfields, and dozens of small farming villages. During the afternoon, a blessed tailwind finally arrived. The wind blew from the west at about 10 miles per hour, effectively adding a motor to my bike. Leaving the hills behind and speeding eastward through the Bavarian countryside toward Augsburg was exhilarating and great riding. I stopped for an excellent tuna sandwich in the town of Gunzburg.
After riding for long stretches at over 20 miles per hour aided by the wonderful tailwinds, and encountering several cyclists on long-distance rides, I crossed the Lech River (a 164-mile long tributary of the Danube River) into the outskirts of Augsburg. Augsburg is the third-oldest city in Germany dating back to the Roman era, and was the headquarters of the Messerschmitt military aircraft firm during World War 2.
Bavaria had a slightly different feel than the German states of Hesse and Baden-Wurttemberg where I had spent the past few days. It was hard to put my finger on it, but the area just felt more Eastern European. The Germans I encountered, at a supermarket where I stopped for drinks and a campsite eatery where I tried without success to find a sandwich, were exceptionally friendly.
At about 8:15 pm, I arrived at the Quality Hotel in Augsburg, just as the sun was fading from the sky. The delightful receptionist and his manager colleague were astonished that I rode from Stuttgart, and asked all about my trip. They upgraded me for free to the nicest suite in the hotel with a huge balcony overlooking the city.
Distance: 105.1 miles
Average Speed: 16.2 miles per hour
Maximum Speed: 40.9 miles per hour
Elevation Climbed: 5,807 feet
Temperature Range: 79℉ to 54℉
Total Distance: 527.3 miles
Day 6 – Augsburg to Innsbruck
Riding south from Augsburg to Innsbruck was going to be a very hilly day. I had to cross the Scharnitz Pass over the Northern Limestone Alps separating Germany and Austria. The first 55 miles southward from Augsburg through Bavaria was a constant slight uphill gradient rising 1,000 feet in elevation. The riding here was spectacular but the headwinds were brutal. The sun shined brightly overhead, not a cloud was in the sky. I rode with my head down into the wind for long stretches.
The route took me along incredible dedicated long-distance cycling paths that linked towns and cities with no cars in sight. I travelled through thick forests, endless fields with crops of all types, across meandering streams, and around charming villages.
I passed the town of Kissing, went through the 1000-year-old town of Mering, then rode for ten miles along the west bank of the beautiful Ammersee lake to my first landmark city of Weilheim in Oberbayern. As I travelled these long miles, my thoughts wandered to my family and occasionally to work, but my daydreaming was routinely interrupted by a picture-perfect landscape, the beeping of my GPS device signaling a turn, or calculating whether I could make it to the next town on my remaining Powerade.
Then, the mighty Alps began to loom in the background, getting ever closer as I continued to head south. I knew that I needed to get to the other side of this section of the Alps before I reached Austria. The riding here was long and hard, always slightly uphill. But the scenery never ceased to be breathtaking. The weather gods continued to smile at me with beautiful sunshine. Two fighter jets, flying in formation extremely fast, roared overhead and then over the mountains. I met and rode with a fast German cyclist who told me he had played a German general in a Broadway musical.
I stopped in Murnau am Staffelsee for a lunch of two giant sandwiches and a frozen yogurt, then continued alongside the Bavarian Alps following the Losiach River southward towards Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the last major German town before the climb up to the Scharnitz Pass and into Austria. I was briefly envious of a passing group of motorcyclists, who could accelerate uphill with only the flick of a wrist.
The GPS routing sent me briefly out of the way onto an unpaved path with a short 26-percent incline. It felt like I had to lean all the way forward while cycling up that incline to avoid toppling backwards. The GPS device was apparently trying to send me on a goat path over a huge mountain covered in evergreen trees instead of on the road around the mountain. Eventually, I turned around and rejoined the main road even though my GPS device kept telling me to make a U-Turn.
From Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the road pointed straight uphill towards Austria. I climbed from 2,071-feet elevation through Klais and Mittenwald up to 3,922-feet elevation at the height of the pass, before finally crossing into Tirol, Austria as the sun was caught behind the towering peaks and the light began to fade in the deep valley.
The scenery was spectacular as I continued climbing further into Austria. I encountered several cyclists, including one who was incredulous that I would make it to Innsbruck that day. Much too far and steep, he said. But I continued onwards and upwards. I passed ski resorts and remote huts high in the mountains. I knew that for all this climbing, I would eventually point my bike downhill and enjoy a speedy descent.
Sure enough, as I crested the mountain pass in Austria at Seefeld, the road pointed downwards toward Innsbruck. Very steeply downwards. Other than on skis, I have never descended any hill nearly this steep for such a sustained distance, let alone on my bike.
The road signs constantly warned about the steep grade of the hills. Every quarter of a mile there were truck runoffs for brake failures. A strong smell of burning brake rubber permeated the air. Cars and trucks descended slowly and gingerly down the hills. The shoulder was very narrow so I took the middle of the car lane.
Descending one hill, I squeezed my brakes as hard as I could just to avoid gaining speed and careening into the opposite traffic lane and the dump trucks struggling up the other side of the road. At certain points on the descent, I do not think it would have been possible to bring my loaded bike to a stop. I felt my brakes straining against the hill. At one point, squeezing the brakes as hard as I could, I was still gaining speed. This was a little scary, but I leaned back on the rear wheel and managed to control my speed around sharp curves sometimes containing no guardrail separating the road from the drop-offs into oblivion on the side.
As the sun set, I descended closer to beautiful Innsbruck. The rapidly setting sun casting various shades of purple on the mountain peaks surrounding the city. The impossible, ethereal beauty of the slowly-changing panorama cannot be described in words or captured in pictures.
After an exhilarating descent into Innsbruck, and no doubt a little fatigued, I miscalculated a turn indicated by my GPS device, and wound up on a long entrance ramp onto the Autobahn. It took only a few seconds for an Austrian police car to pull up behind me. Two policemen got out of the car, asked for my passport, and where I was going. They said I would have to pay a Euro 35 fine for cycling on the Autobahn. I explained that I had just ridden 170 kilometers from Augsburg, Germany, and must have missed a turn. They looked at each other, apparently wondering whether to believe me, but let me go with a smile and no fine. They directed me towards a dirt path running parallel to the highway, which eventually led to the road into Innsbruck.
I reached the Alphotel in Innsbruck just after nightfall. I will long remember the arduous climb up to the Germany/Austria border, the breathtaking sunset reflecting on the massive mountains all around me, and the thrilling descent into Innsbruck.
Distance: 114.5 miles
Average Speed: 14.6 miles per hour
Elevation Climbed: 5,269 feet
Moving Time: 7:52
Steepest Gradients: 26.9% and -17.8%
Total Distance: 641.8 miles
Day 7 – Innsbruck To Trento
Setting out from Innsbruck towards the Brenner Pass and the border with Italy, I knew that I was facing a very challenging day, probably the hardest of the trip. The roads out of Innsbruck were immediately very steep. I climbed consistent ten-percent gradients up roads hugging the valley walls, and heading away from the city. My GPS routing sent me along the side of the valley, rather than along what would have been an easier, steady grade following the base of the valley towards the Brenner Pass.
There was no extended flat surface for the first twenty miles of riding. It was mostly uphill, with a few short downhills. I passed through small mountain towns perched on the hillsides. Occasionally, groups of motorcyclists chugged past me. I got a kick out of groups of motorcyclists stopped to rest on the top of hills, when I had arrived by bicycle. Eventually, the route took me closer to the Brenner Pass, as the valley narrowed. The scenery was spectacular, impossible to adequately capture in a few pictures. 360-degree panoramas of magnificent beauty. The road surfaces were perfect. It is hard to imagine a more magical place to ride a bike.
Steep mountains lined both sides of the road carved through the deep valley and along a gushing river. I encountered several cyclists speeding down from the Brenner Pass in the opposite direction. I needed to remind myself several times to focus on the road rather than getting distracted by the mind-blowing scenery all around me. I kept spinning my legs, slowly gaining altitude up what seemed like an interminable climb. I noticed some car passengers taking a second look at me. This was the kind of climb that is difficult on a unloaded road bike, but much more so on a bike carrying an extra fifteen pounds of gear. I have climbed more difficult climbs before but never with a loaded bike. I was happy that I had packed carefully, and my body weight was low.
After two hours of steady climbing I had only covered only 22 miles. Finally, I approached the top of the Brenner Pass. I had climbed from an altitude of 1,800 feet to 4,200 feet. A road has crossed the historic Brenner Pass since Roman times. The pass has been one of Europe’s great trade routes since the 14th century. Napoleon and his armies crossed the pass in September 1796. Hitler and Mussolini met at the pass on March 18, 1940 to celebrate their Pact of Steel.
With my legs burning from the constant brutal climbing, it felt wonderful to crest the top of the pass and enter Italy. Only a small sign and a flag on the side of a building marked the entrance to the fourth country on my bicycle trip.
I stopped at a roadside food stand for a burger and two-foot-long hot dog, which I could feel my body working on immediately to refuel and repair strained muscles. Then I began a thrilling, speedy 40-mile-long steady descent into Italy, interrupted by a few brief climbs. The descent was equally as gorgeous as the climb to the pass. I reminded myself again to focus on the road. Descending mountain roads in Italy with less than perfect surfaces at 35 miles per hour—on tires with total contact patches (the portion of the tire’s tread that touches the road) of less than a square inch—is no place for distracted cycling.
I rode past small Italian towns, alongside hundreds of acres of vineyards and olive groves toward Brixen and then Bolzano. The bike paths were splendid. I cycled through tunnels, over bridges, and on the side of mountain faces, following the Eisack River all the way to Bolzano.
For some stretches along this descent, I maintained a speed of 30 miles per hour for extended periods. The miles ticked by quickly. The wind in my face felt delightful.
I rode past castles high on the hillsides, and through sleepy Italian villages. The sun was shining and I was having one of my best days on a bike. The riding was what road cycling dreams are made of; the scenery breathtaking the entire way.
Eventually I got closer to 2000-year-old Bolzano. I knew that from Bolzano I had about 35 miles to go to Trento; the city was my last landmark before Trento. As I approached Bolzano, the road generally flattened out except for a few steep grades, but a challenging late afternoon headwind kicked up and made me work for every mile. In every direction craggy mountains dominated the skyline.
I stopped in Bolzano at the side of a river, as the sun began to set, for two very refreshing ice cream bars. At this point, I had ridden almost 90 miles and was starting to think about arriving in Trento, but there were still many more miles to cover.
Shortly after departing Bolzano, I got my first flat tire. This was not a puncture but a pinch flat, resulting from hopping up a curb with my tubes not sufficiently inflated. The tubes needed to be topped off after riding 500 miles, but I had neglected to do that. This is the beautiful roadside location where I changed my rear tube tube. My Lezyne inflator with a CO2 cartridge worked perfectly. I was back on the bike in seven minutes.
I continued southward from Bolzano following the valley to Trento. In the deep valley, dusk lasted for very short time. As soon as the sun tucked behind the giant Dolomites, it became dark very quickly. The advantage of riding at night was diminished winds and few cars on the roads.
I continued south under the light of a full moon illuminating the towering peaks around me. The road passed through fields and vineyards and small Italian villages with hardly anyone in sight. There were no streetlights except in the occasional village. I rode by the lights on my helmet and handlebars. My red blinking rear lights would be easily visible, I hoped, even to tired, distracted drivers.
It was surreal riding on deserted roads through tremendous granite mountains reflecting the light of a full moon. I felt like a ghost, a tired one at that. But the riding was fantastic on undulating terrain. Occasionally, small animals would dash across the dark roads just out of sight of my lights, sending a shiver down my spine. Luckily, I encountered no mountain lions or anything like that.
I thought of Gino Bartali, the legendary Italian cyclist. His record of the largest gap between winning the Tour de France of ten years, in 1938 and 1948, still stands, and he won the Giro d’Italia twice before WW2 and once afterward.
Bartali is the subject of the fascinating book Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation. His postwar Tour de France victory came right after Italy’s communist party leader was shot and the country was on the brink of civil war. Bartali’s amazing comeback to win the Tour de France again, turned the focus from violence to sports, calmed the nation, and conflict was avoided.
During the war, Bartali used his fame to carry messages and documents for the Italian resistance. Under the guise of training, he traveled hundreds of miles between resistance outposts, convents, monasteries, and safe-houses, carrying forged identity documents, ‘escape’ visas, and important messages, hidden in his bicycle frame. He rode from Florence through Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, sometimes as far as Rome, always wearing his racing jersey emblazoned with his name. Neither the Fascist police nor German troops risked discontent by stopping and searching him. Nor would they dare to tinker with the adjustments on his bike to discover what was inside. Every part and component, he told them, was precisely set to maximize performance.
In 1943, Bartali himself helped Jewish refugees escape to the Swiss Alps. He cycled pulling a wagon with a secret compartment, telling patrols the contraption was part of his training. He is credited with personally saving 800 lives. The loudmouth cyclist and fierce competitor discussed his wartime exploits with no one. He explained: “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”
Finally, at 10 pm, after cycling in the dark for more than two hours, I rolled silently into the city limits of Trento. Trento is one of Italy’s wealthiest and and most prosperous cities. Trento was conquered by the Romans in the late 1st century BC. The mountains surrounding Trento were the site of some of the fiercest battles of World War 1. The city is a charming mix of modern and old.
As I cycled through Trento and my GPS indicated three miles to go, I began winding down the motors in my legs. I thought about about removing my toes from my hard cycling shoes and into flip flops. Then, my GPS indicated an abrupt left turn out of the city. I remembered that my hotel was high in the mountains overlooking the city (along the route of the next day’s ride). So, after 115 miles, I began a 750-foot climb for two miles that had some of the steepest sections of the day. The climb was a brutal but fitting end to an exhilarating day of cycling. At about 10:20 pm, I arrived at the hotel Villa Madruzzo, overlooking steep vineyards high above the twinkling city in the valley.
I encountered a small problem though – the hotel’s kitchen and every nearby eatery was already closed. I was famished. The receptionist said that a restaurant at a nearby football field might be open until 11 pm.
After a shower I dashed to the Ristorante Pizzeria Cognola but alas the owner told me the kitchen was closed. I told him that I just cycled nearly 200 kilometers from Innsbruck and desperately needed some good food. He looked at me then at the waitress. His response: My kitchen will reopen for you.
His staff prepared several sumptuous dishes like only an Italian restaurant in Italy could, and I ate to my heart’s content. The locally-sourced oil and vinegar was perfect on the hot rolls; the carpaccio di manzo excellent. The owner joined me for dessert to hear about the trip, and we shared a few shots of locally-produced heidelberry liquor, his treat. That night I slept especially soundly – I dreamed of cycling beside towering mountains.
Distance: 116.9 miles
Moving time: 8:57
Elevation Climbed: 6,171 feet
Calories Burned: 3,857
Total Distance: 757.7 miles
Day 8 – Trento To Venice
When I awoke on the final morning of the trip, I was feeling a bit melancholy. I did not want this amazing journey to end, but I knew that eventually it must. I sat on my hotel room balcony for a few extra minutes as my jersey finished drying, and enjoyed the view of the vineyards and the majestic Dolomites. I had a wonderful breakfast, with too many Italian pastries.
Leaving Trento and heading southeast toward Venice, I encountered some of the most beautiful riding I had experienced on the whole trip; that bar was set very high now. The road pointed mostly downhill, and the winds were calm. I wondered if I could physically and mentally continue bike touring for another month. The answer was yes.
During the morning of this last day’s riding, I rode more slowly, making sure to soak in the views of the mountains and fields and small towns, the sounds of the birds chirping, and the smells of the fields, vineyards and orchards. The bright sun, which had been a loyal companion on every day of the trip except one, shined brightest on this day. The sky was all blue. The winds were light; my bike wheels hummed along making that pleasant sound only bike wheels can.
I continued south through luscious valleys and deep gorges with endless fields and vineyards surrounded by towering mountains. My first significant landmark was Lago di Caldonazzo, at an elevation of 1,473 feet.
The route took me along the west side of this breathtaking lake surrounded on all sides by high mountains. Here, I began to encounter a steady stream of Italian cyclists of all types, from families on slow trips to lycra-clad speedsters. Road cycling is deeply engrained in the Italian tradition.
From the beautiful mountain lake, I continued due east through Levico and Borgo Valsugana. Here, the route took me through endless apple orchards and more vineyards. Many of the orchards had a small basket filled with apples for passerbys. The cycling here was spectacular. The mountains and fields sparkled in the midday sunlight.
Borgo was a typical charming Italian small town in the Dolomites, beautiful from afar and enchanting up close. Few stores were open. I continued southward.
The next landmark city was fifty miles due south, Bassano del Grappa. A paved bike path ran for miles along the river valley, with 5,000-foot-high peaks on all sides. The gradual descent out of the mountains towards the Mediterranean, and great surface, allowed for some very fast riding. If only I could incorporate this bike path into my regular 28-mile Sunday training loop.
I crossed bridges, rode through tunnels, and even drafted for a few miles behind a speedy Italian cyclist. He spoke not a word of English but kindly allowed me to take advantage of his fresh legs, much fresher than mine after 800 miles. We rocketed along at 25 miles per hour for about twenty minutes, until sadly, he took a right turn when my route went straight. What a thrill to ride so quickly with a stranger I could not communicate with, but a kindred spirit, through such beautiful terrain.
The route continued along a spectacular bike path in a deep valley following a gushing river. Overhangs protected the path from rocks tumbling down the cliffs above. Here, I encountered many cyclists, even a few touring cyclists. I felt a strong kinship with others who know the joys of riding long, with everything for the trip on the bike.
I continued southward away from Bassano towards Castelfranco. The roads here were great; the granite hillsides glistened in the sun. The terrain continued ever so slightly downhill.
Again, I rode with another friendly Italian cyclist, and even took a turn doing some pulls at the front; but it was mostly me drafting behind him. He was a tall cyclist and provided wonderful shelter from the wind as we cruised along at 20 miles per hour. I earned the right to draft, I thought, after facing headwinds for many days on my own.
At long last, I made it to Castelfranco Veneto, the last landmark city before Venice. Castelfranco is named for a castle in the city center dating back to 1195. I met a few American tourists outside the castle who were nice enough to take a picture of me but did not quite understand how I had cycled there from Amsterdam.
About two hours later, I arrived at Venice’s Marco Polo airport to begin my return trip home via Frankfurt to Newark. As an added bonus, the friendly Lufthansa agents in Venice and Frankfurt waived the fee to transport my unpackaged bike on the two flights. Lufthansa’s airplanes have bike racks in their cargo holds. The airline prefers bikes to be unboxed for transport. If you are ever travelling with a bicycle, you cannot find a more accommodating airline than Lufthansa.
Distance: 100.6 miles
Moving Time: 6:20
Average Speed: 16.1 miles per hour
Elevation Climbed: 2,500 feet
Total Distance: 858.3 miles
Total Elevation Climbed: 34,582 feet
Total Calories Burned: 27,913