Friday, November 02, 2007

Ahead by a century

And we're off - the odometer at zero

Our two-year anniversary having coincided with my parents visit, Amynah and I decided to celebrate it this weekend. The “weekend” in this case having started Thursday, in honour of All Saint’s Day.

We decided to go with a “two” theme for our celebrations, (as opposed to cotton or china, as is apparently traditional) and thus dragged out our two-wheeled means of transportation (both second-hand, appropriately enough). Our destination: Basel, over one hundred kilometers away (we thought it was 120 km. Oh, what naïve fools we were!)

I had made an offhand suggestion to do this some time ago, and earlier this week had, without any sincere regret, mentioned that it was a shame that we hadn’t had a chance to do it this summer. My wife, being insane, said we should so it now, on the first of November, when neither of us had really been biking much at all for months.

In preparation, in the days leading up to our journey, I resolutely refused to think about it, on the assumption that a) Amynah would come to her senses or b) if she didn’t, I was better to not be dreading the misery ahead.

Nonethless, I made sure the brand-new odometer my younger sister and her fiancé bought me for my birthday was functional, and invested in a bike lamp, rack and pannier bag.

The forecast for Thursday was sunny, with highs in the low teens. However, the day dawned with a thick, cold fog blanketing Alsace, and temperatures hovering around five degrees. Also, I had the beginnings of a migraine.

Deciding to ignore it, and I still in the hopes that Amynah would admit to the whole enterprise being a practical joke, we saddled up, and headed to the Rhine-Rhone canal, that we were planning on following pretty much all the way to Switzerland.

It was not to be. Somewhere past Illkirch, we hit a “deviation” which sent us wandering through farmer’s fields and the empty little villages of Hipsheim and Nordhouse. This added at least 15 km, one hour of map-contemplating backtracking, and two or three extra degrees of pain in my head.

The detour through the land that God forgot

After getting back on the canal (after asking about six different sets of direction from six different people) we stopped for lunch at the fifty km mark. Damp and cold from the fog, nauseous from my headache and already aching, we decided to call it a day if we made it as far a Selestat, another 25 km away. Ignoring the strong smells emanating from the nearby hog barn, we choked down our sandwiches and pushed on.

Then, a miracle occurred – a cruel, terrible miracle. The fog began to lift, the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Suddenly our miserable slog through a brume-choked wasteland became a pleasant ride through sun blessed Autumnal countryside. Worse, my headache, which in retrospect I am convinced was my body urgently hammering the “Eject! Eject!” button, went away.

Soon, the villages began to fly by: Witternheim, Bindernheim, Wittleheim, Boesesheim, Schlobsheim, Hessenheim, Marckolsheim, Artzenheim, Baltzenheim, Kunheim… they all blended into one glorious “heim.”

We did, however, keep losing the route. At the 90 km mark, we stopped in a village (Bielsheim) and accosted a spandex-clad gentleman on a kitted-out racing bike, figuring he’d know all the local routes. His wide-eyed reply, on being asked where the route to Basel was, “Oh, you’re ambitious.”

Failing to take that as the warning it was, we pushed on. Sunset greeted us near Nambsheim, just as we hit the 100 km mark.

Soon, we were biking in the dark. And let me tell you, dark in an Alsatian village on All Saints Day is dark indeed. Worse, the fog of the morning arrived for an encore performance, penetrating our clothes, and chilling us to our very bones.

Soon, we were reduced to pedaling, half-frozen automatons, half-hoping the few cars that would appears out of nowhere in the foggy night would put us out of our misery. Balgau, Blodelsheim, Rumersheim-le-Haut… at Blantzheim we gave up on the bike paths, as my headlamp was failing in the cold and the only illumination we had was therefore coming from passing cars on the highway (Amynah’s bike had a generator-powered lamp but, as she was wearing a white jacket while I was wearing a black coat over a black fleece over a black t-shirt, I needed her nice and visible behind me).

Ottmarsheim, Petit-Landau, St Martin, Niffer, Kembs… we were beginning to run out of time. It was pushing 8 pm, and the last train left Basel back to Strasbourg at 9:20. We hadn’t brought enough for dinner, and I was paying less attention to the road – after the 130 km mark – than I was to the visions of the Basel Burger King, the only representative of that fine culinary institution I’ve seen in Continental Europe. My half-congealed brain wondered whether I should order two Whoppers at the same time, or each singly, to receive them at maximum heat. The coffee, I decided, would be poured directly over my feet which, having done nothing but sit on my pedals all day, had frozen solid.

Richardhaueser, Rosenau, Village-Nuef… at St Louis we were fooled by the directional signs which, in an effort to reduce traffic through their downtown, directed those seeking Basel to the Autoroute, a passage not recommended for two exhaused Canadians on bikes. After that detour, we zipped through Swiss customs, cheering and whooping. Though they don’t check passports there anymore (thank god: we had forgotten ours) we wanted to stop and tell the guards “Do you know where we just came from?”

Happy to be in Basel, and Basel's happy we're there.

At this point it was about 9:30 so, after snapping a photo of the carnival the people of Basel were throwing in honour of our accomplishment, we headed directly to the train station, with a plan to buy our tickets, and then run to the Burger King across the street. We got to the wicket, and the lady told us that the last train was leaving in five minutes, on track 12 – a four-minute walk away.

“Burger King….” I moaned, piteously, as Amynah started to run to the platform. We caught the train, and sat, shivering, sore, devoid of thought. Whatever sense of accomplishment I felt (it’s still sinking in) was overwhelmed by the unpleasant sensation of what it feels like to cry burger-deprived tears when you don’t actually have any liquid left in your body.

It's hard to read because of the crappy light, but trust me, it says 163 km. It took us 12 hours (nine and three quarters of actual riding) at just under 17 km/hr average. Given that Amynah rides a bike stitched together from old tin cans that has only three speeds, I will choose to believe this is impressive.


Greg said...

Well, actually they do check passports there, but it is rare. So, yes you technically do need to be carrying your passport when you visit Switzerland.

Impressive ride though. That even takes a bit of time when one is driving a car!

Victor said...

Mark, it seems that the more you suffer, the better your writing gets.

Mark Reynolds said...

Hi Greg! Thanks for stopping by. I'd no idea I still needed a passport there; I can't imagine how upset I'd have been to have gotten to the border and not able to cross. It wasn't that bad a ride though - very flat, almost no wind. In the spring or summer it'd have been wonderful.

Victor: it seems the more I suffer, the more you like it.

carol said...

Mark, not to also revel in your suffering, I was thinking your humourous misadventures would make a great collection as a book... Think you might pitch something like that? I tell you, you will win a Leacock one day. :)

Mark Reynolds said...

Hey Carol - I owe you an email. Amynah has also suggested I write a book about our adventures here. However, I'm not entirely convinced there's a market for tales of my ineptitude - I'm sure your average reader would eventually be muttering under their breath "hasn't this guy heard of a train schedule?"