Cycling the Rhine river


By Callum Ruddock, 2nd year Politics and International Relations

Following his fathers path down the Rhine river, Callum Ruddock spends a youthful summer pedalling through Germany on an adventure of his own.

Nursing both a coffee and a hangover serves somewhat as a paradox. It was this situation I found myself in one cold morning during the summer of 2014. Foreshadowing my actions more than three decades later, my father had cycled the Moselle - Rhine rivers riding atop a three geared postman’s bike. His outlook rugged and with his brother alongside; he’d conquered 1000 kilometres and overcome undesirable conditions to complete what he would later consider, the ride of his life. And so, facing the gloomy potential of living in my Father’s shadow, and genuinely convinced I would end my life having amassed half the good stories he had, I’d set off to south Germany with a sense of adventure and the only friend I knew who could speak German. Aged sixteen, wide eyed and with an ego to match, what lay ahead were lessons in spent youth, the romance of the summer bike ride and plenty of stories.

We’d decided to start our journey in the border town of Trier. Having bribed the municipal bike shop allowing us to skip the rental queue, things began in arguably underwhelming circumstances. First on the agenda was to find a terrace for a beer, then to produce a plan. In all honesty the bars we encountered along the way were awful. Even at sixteen it was apparent I had some understanding of what constituted a good beer and what didn’t.

Compared to many European cities Trier was nice. Not wholly chiq, but ample sun and plenty of pretty buildings offset any foul atmosphere made obvious by the lack things to do. Our plan was simple; cycle down the river banks finding a spot to camp each night. Unload. Drink. Sleep. Load. Cycle. Repeat. Our Goal? A cold beer in the industrial city of Koblenz underneath the Deutsches Eck.

I distinctly remember the heat and the sirens. The air was dry and the Feuerwehr out in force dealing with the effects of the heat. The timing was oddly poetic. Each evening as we lay in the soft sun enjoying the cooling air and letting our muscles relax, only the next morning to pack-up, roll on. Our bikes were city cruises at best. Heavy steal, cheaply built city bikes with panniers jerry rigged onto the back. As punishment for our queue skipping, we’d been given women’s bike seats. Whilst women's bike seats might look comfy; 200 km down the line, you begin to realise that all the bits that stick up are in the wrong places.

The adventure of it all pushed us on and off route. The Moselle’s deep valleys project their beauty upwards. The vineyards cling to steep cliffs; their angle of attack near vertical. Workers use helicopters which dip and dive over rows of grapes spraying water as they go. There is an odd technologist beauty in it all. The vines becoming an ever-present feature of our journey.

As we traipsed onwards the going remained flat. The heat did not. We were in for a beating and prepared for the worst. Next came a stormy collapse. Turbulent weather shook our tent and tore our tent poles. Finding ourselves looking for distraction, we turned to the river. Sat with his feet dangling into the water was a stout, topless old man. He turned, clasped his hands together, and chimed “namaste”. Next came a lecture on Buddhist social dynamics, all conducted in GCSE French, and then a simple vegetable dinner concluding with polite goodbyes. We couldn’t have imagined that we’d find Buddhism in the German foothills. Interactions like these would continue to define our trip. Individuals equally as displaced as we were. Those looking to fill their free time; those looking to find something, and then those looking for adventure.

Flickr / Bud Ellison 

Flatline corners, German borders. We ate, slept, bickered and rode.

Take the bureaucracy of the bike and the man who couldn’t disagree. As we neared our final stop, we met a wiry and polite Dutchman. His steed was a beastly electric bike that came with its own number plate and indicators. When confronted on why this was, he remarked, ‘all in the name of safety and legality’. I softly queried this reality, pointing out that surely this level of bureaucracy was limiting? He quickly changed tack acknowledging my point, in some ways taking it further. In fact, any point that was raised was quickly adopted as truth. This man couldn’t disagree. That said, his task was clear: cycle the rivers of the European Union and then retire. He embraced this calling with open arms. We’d embraced a journey that we perhaps couldn’t finish. The journey hadn’t been particularly significant, and we were tired of the cyclical nature of our day.

Koblenz could be described as the most beautiful of ugly cities. Aesthetically, the most striking feature of the city was fort on the hill. Tourist numbers we’re low, and quiet streets remained neat but lonely. The sense of motion that had accompanied us throughout the trip quickly faded and we attempted to measure up the meaning drawn from those many hours riding bikes. Total joy replaced by moderate reflection. Our body’s broken we quickly gave into the luxuries we’d gone without. The significance of the whole affair drawn into context. In times like this I would turn to poetry and so I will allow a quote gleaned from a slick Patagonia commercial to best summarise our excursion:

We were hardened by wind, bike seats and cold-water plunges.
Altitude, sun and lengthy approaches.
We laughed with and at each other,

And gave witness to the true beauty of the sierra,
In a slow-paced intimate way.

And with that our trip had ended. Our time in the sun over. The great expedition finding closure. Was I a changed young man? No. Did I have plenty of stories to tell? I will let you decide …

Featured image: Flickr/Pietro

Have you been on a cycling holiday? Let us know!

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