It’s been a struggle to write this ride report. Normally I can knock these out swiftly after the ride, but something prevented me from doing so this time. Perhaps it’s the enormity of the kindness we encountered or the truly amazing experience of being hosted at the Tour de France that’s left me grasping for the right words.
However, in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year I’ve given it another shot. Read on for the tale of a Good Ride Done Well.
The seeds for this ride started some time ago; you could say that there would be little reason to do this if it wasn’t for the events of 70 years ago. What would make anyone think that Düsseldorf would be a good destination to head for?
Have you noticed one of these when coming into Reading?
This group of cartwheeling boys was erected to mark the 30th anniversary of the friendship link between Reading and Düsseldorf. In 1947 the Mayor of Reading, Pheobe Cusden visited Düsseldorf in response to a call for help from the Royal Berkshire Regiment who were stationed there. She invited six children to Reading to stay and further exchanges followed. Since then many groups have made visits to each place creating further ties with the twinning becoming official for Reading in 1975.
More recently Robert Dimmock (chair of the Reading Düsseldorf Association) gave a talk at the Reading CTC club AGM in October 2016. It was the lightbulb moment for nascent tour leader Jeanette Jeans. She decided to organise a tour from Reading to Düsseldorf. Having seen how easy it was to get 17 people to Paris the year before this would be straightforward wouldn’t it? Then some bright spark suggested the ride should arrive in Düsseldorf for the first day of the Tour de France. Finding accommodation in a city which was expecting 200,000 extra people wouldn’t be hard would it?
These questions caused Jeannette to have the first of several kittens.
There was some help offered. I reviewed the route which was inspired by EuroVelo 5, the Rhine route. I’m glad I did as there were some frankly suspiciously straight bits which went directly across fields. I also elected myself cultural attaché; this absurd title came with two tasks. First to contact Robert to make the Association aware of our plans. The second was to arrange a meet-up with a cycling club in Düsseldorf with the hope of joining them for the first day of Le Tour.
Robert was completely supportive and alerted his counterparts in Düsseldorf that we would be coming. And there is a cycling club in Düsseldorf called, rather surprisingly, Cycling Club Düsseldorf. I contacted one of their members, Chris Durham, a Brit who had, in his earlier days, ridden with West Surrey CTC.
With numbers capped at 12 (with experience you realise that the main constraint on group size is getting space in cafes and restaurants) the list soon filled once word got out.
I never realised Düsseldorf would be so appealing.
So, to the group. Joining Jeanette and myself we had Al & Zoe, Greg D, Phil R, Sophie D, Crispin K, David R and Charles R with a guest appearance from him-up-north Steve A.
Four of us had some more time available and were able to ride the whole way. Enough of the back-story; onto Day 1.
Day 1 Reading to Blackmore, Monday 26th June 2017, 68 miles
Jeanette had left earlier, staying in London overnight with family and planning to meet up with Greg, Crispin and myself at a B&B in Blackmore, Essex. We headed off from Dinton and quickly realised we had something in common.
Team Croix de Fer took the Windsor route to London via Staines, Teddington, Richmond Park and Putney Bridge before following the cycle superhighway along the Embankment. This is superb now and fully segregated. Less superb, in fact downright useless, is the blue paint masquerading as “Superhighway” from Whitechapel to Stratford. We broke out of the smoke into the countryside at Collier Row with just over 9 miles to our B&B where we met Jeanette hovering outside. Now I’m an Essex boy so I’m fairly used to how special some Essex people can be. Our B&B hostess wavered between very welcoming and being very vocal about how annoying some guests could be. We could have been in Royston Vasey. No amount of poor reviews would ever change her because she had a monopoly as there’s not another B&B within 20 miles.
Day 2 Blackmore to Harwich, Tuesday 27th June, 67 miles
A good day’s ride for the four of us through the rather lovely Essex countryside (said with total prejudice), skirting Chelmsford, around Tiptree (no jams there) and south of Colchester. We struggled to find anywhere for lunch then serendipity provided us with a delightful place called Green Island Gardens near Bromley Cross.
We arrived in Harwich to discover there is more to the place than just a ferry terminal. The old town is interesting harbouring many good pubs. We’d chosen to rendezvous as a group at the Alma Inn on the very fine criteria that it was listed in Phil’s Good Beer Guide (otherwise known as the Cyclist’s Friend). Turned out to dish up some fine food as well.
A quick dash to board the ferry and we were off to the Netherlands on what looked like a spanking-new boat. Perhaps they’d had the decorators in. Couldn’t find the disco I remembered from my youth though.
Day 3 Hoek van Holland to Gorinchem, Wednesday 28th June, 52 miles
We grabbed breakfast soon after disembarking the boat. Phil and Charles chose the large sausage.
But I’m forgetting something. We’re in cycling nirvana. We have cycle paths to ourselves, drivers give way to us going around roundabouts and there are these little signs with arrows and puzzling numbers everywhere. There are bikes galore that look as comfortable as sofas, an almost complete absence of cycle helmet wearing and ferries and buses and trains that take bikes on board. It makes for easy relaxed touring where no one need shout car-up or car-down. And why is it like this?
Head back with me to the seventies. Flares, David Bowie, T-Rex and a complete absence of taste (think flock-wallpaper) are my memories of that time in the UK. Meanwhile in the Netherlands a group of mums took matters into their own hands at the growing menace of the motor car by blocking streets to allow their kids to play in safety. There were angry scenes but those in power took notice. A romanticised view of the what the Dutch did perhaps. But factor in the oil crisis in 1973 and the high number of deaths due to traffic accidents and those mums were pushing on an open door. More here if you are interested. From the mid-seventies onwards, the Dutch have developed an infrastructure that shows how we don’t have to be so dependent on motorised transport.
So, no “car-up” or “car-down” for this tour.
I can’t remember the number of ferries we took back and forth across the Rhine but one of them led us to this.
A polder containing over 39 windmills. The Kinderdijk Molens. And, of course, we could cycle through the middle. But they are not used for grinding wheat. The sails drive pumps to drain the land of water. The windmills are still occupied and preserved as a reminder of the past. And my Garmin wasn’t playing up – we really were, at times, below sea-level.
Day 4 Gorinchem to Arnheim, Thursday 29th June, 57 miles
Today was a day for riding on the tops of dykes
Today’s puzzle was; why are Dutch house so open to be nosed into. Not a net curtain in sight; always a centrepiece carefully on display in the window. And why is everywhere so clean and well-maintained? It stems from the control the Dutch have developed over Mother Nature by re-claiming land from the sea through dikes and water-pumps. A major storm in the spring of 1953 caused 2,000 deaths and resulted in a large construction phase of new walls and controls over the sea. The need to continuously maintain these controls extends to all aspects of life in the Netherlands. See the inside of my house? Yes, it is as clean and well-maintained as the rest of the country.
Day 5 Arnheim to Duisberg, Friday 30th June, 72 miles
Since contacting Chris Durham earlier in the year and having tentatively arranged to meet up at the Tour de France, arrangements had moved on a bit.
Behind the scenes work had been undertaken to invite us to attend the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, hosted by the Mayor of Düsseldorf, which made things a bit awkward for this cultural attaché. I alerted Chris that we would not be able to join CCD (Cycling Club Düsseldorf) at the Tour because we’d had a slightly better offer. He countered with an even better offer for some of his club to meet us and to ride together to Duisberg.
After having a bit of bother at the border between the Netherlands and Germany
Chris and his club-mates were the perfect hosts and insisted they we use our route rather than one they might prefer. We soon realised that the occasional bit of off-road (or rough-stuff) probably wasn’t something they did much. There were several times I heard “we’ve never come this way before”.
It was a great day to meet up with fellow cyclists. Though our style of riding was somewhat different we learnt a lot about Germany and had a shared love of cycling. We presented them with the tour duck and a decal. If they ever decide to tour the UK we will of course return the favour and host them.
Day 6, Duisberg to Düsseldorf, Saturday 1st July, 14 miles
Luggage on tour is usually a bit of a challenge. Large panniers can swallow items which leads to a great deal of opening, unrolling, packing and unpacking until the item sought is found.
This phenomenon is known as faffing. And we took it to extremes by adding another permutation.
Whose pannier is whose?
There was one sticky problem to solve first though. To get our invitations to the Grand Depart had involved overcoming many hurdles; this is a major sporting event so security is understandably tight. We had in our possession almost all the invites. But not all. We needed a couple more of these.
Many exceptional people had pulled strings to ensure we could pick up the outstanding invites. This required a ride to the Rathaus; a much better name than the Civic offices but with the same function.
I’d not quite got the scale of attending the Grand Depart. In my mind I thought there would a marquee somewhere near the finish line (it was a time-trial today). However, when we eventually found our way in, the marquee was rather grand.
We were spoiled-rotten, and Greg agreed. We raised several glasses to CCD and the Reading – Düsseldorf Association for their help in getting us here.
A grand day at the Grand Depart.
Day 7 Düsseldorf to Hoek van Holland, Sunday 2nd July, 35 miles
Keen readers will have noticed that today’s distance back to Hoek van Holland looks to be a mere 35 miles from Düsseldorf. We didn’t attempt to distort the space time continuum; instead we caught the train. Napping was much sought after.
Due to a bit of re-modelling that the Dutch like to do with their landscape and train lines, part of the line back to Hoek was out of service. We had a final group ride from Rotterdam (with lunch in the city harbour) to Hoek.
Day 8, Harwich to Colchester, Monday 3rd July, 30 miles
Final day. And just myself and Greg doing a short ride to Colchester, a train to London, another ride across the city and back to Reading.
All in all, a Good Ride Done Well.
Our grateful thanks to Jeanette Jeans for organising the tour, Robert Dimmock and Debbie Daniels for liaising with their counterparts in Düsseldorf (and getting the golden tickets to La Grand Depart), and Chris Durham for marshalling the riders of the Cycling Club Düsseldorf to welcome us to Germany.
Simon Bird, Cycling UK Reading (previously named Reading CTC), 30/12/2017