On the first weekend in August Klaus and I decided to do a short cycle tour, which ended up having the theme of ‘3’
The Wednesday before we realised that we had the weekend free of appointments and so thought it would be good to tour. I suggested we visit Liège and Maastricht, but that didn’t really work distance-wise for 3 days (we would go after work on Friday), so I added in Aachen to the mix as I knew that was somewhere Klaus wanted to visit.
I vaguely knew Aachen was up a bit of a hill but hey, who cares?!
Our plans came together. I booked hotels in Aachen and outside Maastricht and made preliminary GPS tracks, which Klaus then spent more than an hour refining. He was trying to reduce the cumulative ascent for the Aachen region as it was hilly.
He ended up having the Friday off work so when I returned from work at 13:00 he had a salad lunch ready and then it was time to set off with a last-minute pumping up of my bicycle tyres.
Here was our planned route for the three days:
And this is the download of actual distances travelled (the three days are highlighted in blue)
Day 1: Three Wheels to Aachen
We left at 14:15 with 98km to ride and some hills.
Here was our planned track for the day.
And here is the actual elevation data from that day. As you can see, there was a bit of a hill at the end!
But first of all we were riding our familiar roads westwards towards Grefrath under grey skies but with a pretty much ideal temperature of 21 degrees.
From Grefrath we took the Bahnradweg to Lobberich and then headed south to Boisheim, Dilkrath and then on less familiar roads to Wegberg.
From this point on it became noticeably hillier. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am not very keen on hills, they definitely don’t suit my cycling style (I am too heavy, I have too slow a cadence and I only have one power level like a diesel engine). But if we wanted to go to Aachen I would have to go up the hills, so I just had to get on with it.
We slowly started climbing, watching the wind turbines racing around. It was a very gusty windy day with either headwinds or sidewinds periodically buffeting us. The Milan is one of the best velomobiles in a sidewind which was good for me but Klaus has experienced previously that the Strada is a little more affected, although it wasn’t so bad this time.
We were onto more open roads with town and village names on signs that I had not seen before – a real clue that we had ventured outside our usual cycling territory! We were maintaining a comfortable average of 27kph.
At this point I will mention that I was actually carrying MORE luggage than for our 2 week Baltic Sea tour last month. This was because I had remembered to bring a third jersey so I had three sets of clothing. Normally we wash our clothing each day but on a 3 day tour I thought I could just bring 3 sets of clothing and not have to do any washing. Bonus! Everything else you need is the same for 3 days or 3 weeks – wash kit, tools, iPad, chargers, Garmin, shoes, normal clothing, food rations etc.
I was noticing the hills more now but it was still OK.
We approached Hückelhoven and just before we passed the town’s welcome sign there was a fantastic view down over the valley. This gave us warning that we were about to do our first significant descent, which was great fun but also a test of the brakes. Drum brakes can overheat on long downhills. I didn’t really know at what point this would happen as I don’t have experience of drum brakes withing Velomobile closed wheel boxes so I took it carefully but the brakes didn’t fade so all was OK.
We crossed the Rur river (not the Ruhr which is elsewhere in Nordrhein-Westfalen). We would cross this river again on our final day of the tour as it flows into the Maas at Roermond.
It was definitely time to stop for cake after 54km so we found an open bakery in Hückelhoven although it was just a Stehcafé (only standing tables, no seats – and no loo!) and the cake choice was a bit thin but we shared a large piece of Streuselkuchen which hit the spot!
Whilst we were inside that café various locals inspected our bikes.
We continued on after a break of about 25 minutes and headed further south, continuing our good progress and speed.
On a nice, smooth and wide road we had a really nasty close pass by a lady in a black BMW. Klaus was behind me and thinks she passed within about 20 centimetres of his elbow. I was ahead and she cut really close to me too. I shook my fist at her but I guess she was the sort of driver who doesn’t look in her rear view mirror. The other side of the road was completely empty of traffic so she could have overtaken us with metres to spare. Sigh.
The countdown to Aachen and the big hill was always on our minds and 25km before Aachen in Aldenhoven we spotted a McDonalds so stopped for a cold drink and to use their loo. I only had a 500ml bottle of water with me which wasn’t really enough, I tend to drink 1 litre every 25km on a hot day. The orange juice was refreshing!
After McDonalds we went straight onto another Bahnradweg (former railway line, now cycling track) and it was a very good surface mostly and gave us a very slight uphill over many kilometres, the ideal way for me to climb. If the ascent is less than about 3% I can ride it at pretty much my usual speed so we were travelling along at over 20km/h. This was looking positive!
At Warden the Bahnradweg ended and we crossed the A44 motorway and started climbing, making our way up to 200 metres in height. I was watching the elevation readout on my Garmin as I knew our maximum height was supposed to be 311 metres today; it was only later that I discovered the calibration between the GPS track and my Garmin are not all that similar!
The roads were quiet (chosen on purpose by Klaus because he knows how slow I am at climbing) and we worked our way up, past Aachen-Merzbrück Airport, crossing over the A44 again before going through an Industrial Park and shopping area before reaching the outskirts of Aachen properly. There were decent bike lanes marked on the road so we found ourselves able to make good progress apart from the usual traffic lights.
We zoomed our way towards the centre of Aachen, focussing on the purple line on our Garmins as we navigated an unfamiliar city. I had visited for a weekend about ten years ago but that was by train and I had no real recollection of how Aachen is laid out.
Our track took us to the front door of the hotel Benelux and we checked in.
The bike parking was in a Tiefgarage (underground garage) which we initially couldn’t find but the reception chappie helped us and Millie and Celeste would be undercover during the night which was good as the rain we had had off and on today was forecasted to be much heavier overnight and the next morning.
We had cycled 98.02km in just over four hours at an average of 23.9km/h. I had burned 2,403 calories which was a bonus! My average heart rate was quite high at 154 which I guess is explained by the hillier terrain.
We had a pretty small room in the hotel and the décor was very seventies but the customer service was brilliant. I asked if a cup of tea was possible and the guy gave me a kettle and some mugs, helped me with the lift and then ran upstairs to open the lift door for me on my floor as my hands were full of kettle etc. This is a level of customer service which is not so common in Germany, at least from my experience, and I think it explains why the hotel had a very good review score on Booking.com. It was also very reasonably priced.
I was peckish so popped to the Kebabbery just down the road and got a Döner Tasche. They were also selling Baklava which I love so bought some of those. Klaus had said he wasn’t hungry but after I had eaten my Döner and he had had a bit of a lie down he sprung into action and wanted to go for a walk into town. I was initially a bit reluctant as my right knee was complaining after all the hill climbing but he persuaded me so we walked from the hotel to the centre, only 500 metres or so.
Here is the cathedral with a sandpit installation in front.
We sat outside the Rathaus and Klaus had some soup. We then shared this waffle for dessert with our tea/coffee.
It was very interesting watching the passers-by. Aachen is a student town and this was very apparent, with huge numbers of young people. It was a lovely atmosphere with lots going on, lots of people sitting around enjoying food and drink, and watching the light changing on the Rathaus and the night drawing in.
We walked back to the hotel after 10pm, agreeing to have a bit of a lie-in the next morning as the weather forecast was for mega rain until about 11am. We would leave later to avoid the worst of the rain hopefully.
Here is Klaus’s brief commentary on the day:
1. Tag unserer 3-Ländertour. Was soll man machen, wenn man mal 2 Wochen am Stück durch Deutschland geradelt ist? Nun ja es gibt ja tolle Ziele am Niederrhein, aber im Hinterkopf hatte ich meine Todo-Liste und da stand Aachen und Maastricht drauf; 2 Ziele, die man mit einer Tour zusammen besuchen könnte. Ziemlich kurz entschlossen haben wir eine 3-Tagestour zusammengestellt und Lüttich, als Bonus mit hinzugenommen.
Das erste Etappenziel war Aachen. Helen musste noch bis Mittags arbeiten und so kamen wir erst gegen 14Uhr los. Auf bekannten Wegen ging es durch Grefrath und Lobberich gen Süden. Ab Wegberg war es für uns mehr oder weniger neues Radelterrain. Im Großen und Ganzen war das alles gut auf Kreis- und Landstraßen zu fahren. Der Wind blies aber teilweise recht böig aus westlicher Richtung, aber das ist im Velomobil eher ein kleineres Problem. 15 Kilometer vor Aachen ging es dann stetig Bergauf. Aber was heißt Bergauf…es waren letztendlich 150 Höhenmeter. Das ist noch keine wirkliche Bergetappe.
Nach exakt 5h (4h Bewegungszeit) sind wir an unserem Hotel, sehr Zentral in Aachen gelegen, angekommen. Die VM wurden sicher in der Tiefgarage verstaut und wir haben den Tag mit einem Stadtbummel ausklingen lassen. Morgen geht es nochmal ein Stückchen höher und dann herunter nach Lüttich.
Day 2: Three Wheels from Aachen via Liège to Maastricht
Here is our track for the day:
And here is the elevation profile. Notice the large climb right at the beginning!
We were woken by rain, lots of it. This was the view from our hotel room window at 9am.
The satellite view on our weather apps showed that the rain should ease from 11am so we had a very slow breakfast and then chilled in our room trying to wait it out. However, in the end we wanted to get a move on as we had 98km to ride and lots of hills, so we collected our bikes and eventually left at 10:30am.
Initial confusions with the one way system meant the first kilometre we rode solo, meeting each other back at the hotel but the right side of the one way system after a few minutes. A less than auspicious start!
There was no mercy at the beginning of this ride – it was straight up a hill after the first 200 metres of the ride and it just kept going up and up!
The rain was persistent but not too heavy; it meant I had to regularly wipe my glasses although I also had a baseball cap on. The roads were quiet but the rain was annoying. We went uphill, and more uphill.
We finally got to the top, hurrah! There should be great views. Oh.
Very soon we arrived at the Belgian border.
At this point two things happened. Firstly the road surfaces became much worse – rougher, more rutted with more potholes. We have suspension but velomobiles can be noisy and rattly and we were being jiggled about a bit. The second thing was that I discovered that my map for my Garmin was not, as I had thought, a Benelux map, but was in fact just a Netherlands map. This meant I had no map for Belgium.
In a way this shouldn’t have been a problem as after all we were just following the purple line on our pre-planned track. But actually in order to safely follow the purple line it helps to see when there is a junction rather than just a corner in the road etc, and of course if you need to do a diversion having no map is most unhelpful. Needless to say we had multiple diversions today!
Klaus did have a Belgium map (hurrah!) so I tended to follow him most of the time rather than sometimes riding ahead for the change in scenery but it was a little unsettling for me to never know if we were approaching a town, a junction, crossing a railway etc. I shall ensure I always have the correct maps loaded in future!
We were slow. Well, more accurately, I was slow and Klaus was gentlemanly. After 1 hour we had covered 11.5km, after 2 hours 30km. This was going to be a loooooong day!
Klaus’s route took us mostly off main roads onto quieter B-roads or farm tracks, unfortunately some were very poor quality. There were lots of short steep climbs and unfortunately my Schlumpf Mountain Drive started malfunctioning again.
Basically the Mountain Drive is a gearbox that sits in the chainring/pedals. It has a button each side of the bottom bracket which you push with your heel to change gear. Right heel = engage low gears (reduction of 2.5x), left heel return to ‘normal’ gears.
After the second-hand Schlumpf was fitted I had a problem with the button on the left hand (high gears) side falling off and getting lost. A new button was sourced, plus I bought two additional ones, and after that it was only ever the right hand side (low gears) button that popped off. As I almost never Schlumpf (use the low gears) this has not been a problem for the last few months but today every time I engaged the low gears the button popped off after about a minute. I got used to the sound it makes bouncing around inside the carbon fibre shell of Millie and I would stop, find it and screw it back in. I have the special allen key attached to my Tretlagermast in Millie so I can theoretically tighten the tiny allen bolt inside but nothing happens, it just spins round and round. I have a nasty feeling that part of one of the bolts has sheared inside so that is probably Game Over for this Schlumpf.
Anyway, I was getting used to hearing the noise of the button bouncing off, stopping, finding it and then putting it in my bag or screwing it back on (depending on whether I thought I needed to change to the low gears any time soon). When you are riding up hill very slowly, having to stop is not good at all but I couldn’t just ride on in case the button bounced out of the foot hole or did what it has done before and get jammed in the chain tunnel. But this was a real pain!
Liège was at about 50km on our route but we had all the hills before that and it was time for a break. The rough roads slowed me down a lot, as did the hills and Schlumpf issues, so when we whizzed downhill into Clermont which looked like a large town (my Garmin told me nothing about it of course!) I shouted to Klaus to find somewhere for a break.
Clermont seemed to have something happening though. There were marquees everywhere although not many people about. We sat under a marquee and ordered some tea (there was no food available).
I remembered my Baklava I had bought last night so we enjoyed those.
And then people started arriving – adults and children dressed in orange with balloons and tridents and all sorts of odd things.
I was a bit concerned with the mysterious orange goings-on that our exit from the town might get blocked if they closed some roads so we headed off, passing a load of people in red on the way out. A mystery!
There was a downhill to the next town which had another event on with lots of barriers on roads. Nothing orange or red here, there were oodles of cars with bikes on racks and advertising. Clearly some kind of cycling race.
Unfortunately our route went up a road which was closed – not for the race but for building work. The signage told us an alternative route (of course, back up the hill we had whizzed down) but Klaus spotted on his Garmin a Bahnradweg that might do – it went over our heads on a bridge over the road. But how to join it?
I had seen what I thought was a Bahnradweg crossing 1km up the road so we went back and it was indeed a place to join this route. Unfortunately it wasn’t asphalted but was instead packed earth which was quite muddy following the rain. Hard going again, I wasn’t able to ride much more than 12km/h.
I had refitted the Schlumpf button at the beginning of the Bahnradweg and noticed that it seemed to be sitting further in the slot than usual, there was very little visible to bang my heel against. So I tried it – no I couldn’t change gear with my heel. I could do it with my finger, but this is not exactly something you can do underway. Oh well, at least I could still change gear in an emergency!
As we crawled along the Bahnradweg (which appears to be called the RaVel 5) we found ourselves passing a huge concrete bunker, then another, then some other earthworks. This was the Fort de Battice which was one of many forts built to protect Liège and was in a 12 day battle during the second world war.
The rain had mostly gone away now and we just had a wet and grey day. It was disappointing not to have seen some of the very beautiful countryside in better weather but it couldn’t be helped. I kept my phone dry inside the Velomobile so didn’t take many pictures.
The ups and downs were hard for me, especially with my Schlumpf woes, plus we had some additional unexpected detours due to roadworks where Klaus had to find us an alternative, but finally finally we were on the downhill that we knew would lead us to Liège.
This was a descent of 150 metres over a couple of kilometres. I was on and off the brakes to try to keep them cool and Klaus could hear them squealing so although he was behind me and I have no brake lights he was able to safely follow, knowing when I was braking. My hearing loss means I couldn’t hear these sounds at all!
We were now back to ground level (well, our usual ground level in the Niederrhein region) and I hoped not to have too many hills as my knees were hurting because I had not been using the Schlumpf optimally.
On our way into Liège there was another road closure and we ended up riding around a rather dodgy estate of high rise buildings with loads of kids running towards us yelling. We made a hasty retreat.
Liège had random one way systems and cobbles but finally we found ourselves near the centre, passing a big demonstration or something with police everywhere. We stopped soon after at a Brasserie (called Brittanique!) near the Opera.
You can see from this picture that there were some well-dressed people about. That was my impression, that the men and women of Liège were taking care with their clothing, but we found the city noisy and too busy with cars and motorbikes and not very relaxing.
We ordered a warm lunch – I had lasagne, Klaus chose Spaghetti Bolognese.
Whilst we were there a storm blew up with more rain and mega wind. We gave up trying to sit outside, paid our bill having finished our food and decided to leave Liège after just being there one hour. We neither of us were particularly keen on staying longer in Liège, especially as someone had tried to climb into Millie!
However, the route out was a big improvement! We found ourselves on a path along the Maas and it was decent.
We were on this path the whole way from Liège to Maastricht, which was about 25km, and made good speed, averaging around 25 km/h. There were other cyclists which slowed us down a bit, as did a few too tight bends in the path for bridges etc (there had been an appalling one of these in Liège with a hairpin bend, and Klaus lifted me round it so I didn’t have to get out which was very kind). We went past lots of dogs in back gardens who enjoyed barking at us as we zoomed past. We also had another detour because of roadworks which we didn’t initially notice because a car had parked in front of the road closure sign. Fortunately we only had to retract our path a short distance.
As we got closer to Maastricht our speed had to reduce as there were lots of sleeping policemen on the riverside cycle route. These are a real pain for Millie who is very low-slung. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard that familiar scraping noise from the sacrificial strip of plastic on the bottom of her footwell.
We arrived in Maastricht to discover lots going on, metal barriers all over the place… it turns out there was to be an Iron Man competition the next day. We were able to find some space to park at a brasserie on the riverfront.
I enjoyed this very nice rice cake and Klaus had an apricot cake.
What was not so relaxing was the number of passers-by who touched the velomobiles. I shouted at one child who tried to climb in Millie and the parents looked at me as if I were a monster. Then a group of lads went past and one tried to jump into Celeste – so I shouted at him again. Several other people touched them and one lady banged on Millie’s nose, I guess to see what she was made of. Sometimes I think I should get a remote control klaxon alarm which I could press when people touch; I can’t understand why adults do this, surely they know these things belong to other people? I can more understand children wanting to touch, but their parents should stop the children, not just look at it all with total indifference.
This was surprisingly unrelaxing, not helped by the fact I was feeling really tired, my knee hurt and I had also managed to drop a chairleg on my toes – and I was wearing sandals! Maastricht looked like a really nice place and we would like to visit again, but maybe the Velomobiles should stay out of the way as they are too much of a draw!
Our route from Maastricht to our hotel was just 6km and mostly along the river again.
Poor Klaus fell victim to a bad bump in a bit of Dutch cycle path – his wheels hit at just the wrong angle which bounced him up in his seat and his fingers banged against the edge of the opening for Celeste where she is sharp – it was right across the joints of his fingers. There were lots of mystery German expressions of ouch being said for the next few minutes.
And then we were back in Belgium, just for one kilometre until we reached our hotel. And our hotel was fab!
It was like something out of Brideshead Revisited!
Kasteel Pietersheim had been opened as a hotel just three months before and the staff seemed very young but extremely helpful and friendly. Here’s a Wikipedia page on it in Dutch: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasteel_Pietersheim
We had asked for secure bike storage and this was no problem, but we had to get the bikes up the steps. No difficulties there, they would help us!
They were stored in the conference room and the chaps at the hotel were very interested about the velomobiles so we had a good chat.
Our room was very nice – Klaus said they mentioned to him that they had upgraded us, perhaps because of our cool bikes!
Here was the view from our bedroom window.
Although we hadn’t thought we would feel hungry of course we did after we had been relaxing for a while so we went downstairs to the bar for a cup of tea. I loved the way they supplied the milk for my tea!
And we ended up having dinner too – I had some soup, Klaus a salad.
It was very peaceful and quiet at Kasteel Pietersheim which was a very good way of finishing off what turned out to be quite a tough day.
Our total riding time today was 5 hours 35 minutes and the overall average speed was 17.5km/h. Interestingly my average heart rate was much lower than the day before, this time it was 121 for the 97.77km we rode, and I burned 2,192 calories (= cake allowance).
We both said after we left Liège that we don’t think we need to visit Belgium again, but we are making an honourable exception for Kasteel Pietersheim as we would very much like to visit again!
Day 3: Three Wheels from Maastricht to Kempen
After a great night’s sleep it was breakfast time and then a leisurely start to the day. We had 105km to ride today but pretty much all on the flat, and half of it had been ridden by us a few times before. We were visiting Roermond and Venlo on our way home to Kempen.
We left at about 10:15 after spending some time photographing the velomobiles in front of the house (the pictures at the end of yesterday’s report). Then it was off again, heading north east, enjoying the sunshine.
It would be a largely flat day but there were still a couple of hills in the shape of road or river bridges. I managed most of them without Schlumpfing but my knees felt it by the end of the day.
I stopped at the top of one bridge as I had spotted the British Flag flying… because of a tank.
We were making very good time as the route was easy. After 27 minutes we had covered the same distance as took us an hour yesterday and after two hours we had covered almost the 50km to Roermond. On the way we had found ourselves with some other cyclists who were clearly doing some kind of sportive or other ride. We had crossed a bridge behind a guy pedalling like mad on a singlespeed and whilst descending the other side we overtook a unicyclist whose legs were going mad at that speed. Just a few kilometres further on we passed three more unicyclists.
We were being photographed by various people along the route so clearly they assumed we were part of this race, more weird bikes to liven things up!
The roads were mostly lovely and empty, it being Sunday morning. As we were back in the Netherlands they were also largely smooth and pothole-free although still with quite a lot of drempels (sleeping policemen) which can be a bit scrapey with Millie. But I was enjoying the sunshine so a few dozen graunching scrapes were survivable.
We arrived in Roermond for lunch, aiming again for the burger place that we often eat at.
Celeste was here reflecting Millie’s cool flag. Klaus was not impressed.
Whilst getting my jumper out from my bag in Millie I noticed that the plastic cover on her underside near the rear wheel (which covers the gap where the rear wheel gets taken in and out) was hanging low. I looked further and could see something red sticking out… I pulled it out and lo and behold my mini toolbag, which was previously red but was now red-and-black-oil-coloured, came out. It must have fallen past my Isomatte baffle to stop things falling into the chainline, so no doubt I had been rubbing oil on it with every pedal rotation. I think the bag is a write-off but I am really glad I had not lost all my tools, including my second example of the world’s smallest allen key for the regularly-disappearing Schlumpf buttons. I will have to pack the drivetrain-side more carefully in future.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and Klaus endeavoured to drink more. He had a headache today and thought it could be because he wasn’t drinking enough. It seems to me that I drink twice as much as him and I still felt a bit dehydrated. Anyway, it was a good excuse to share a bottle of still water and relax in Roermond before the final 55km home.
We set off again on a route we have done several times but which is always nice. We crossed the river Maas by chain ferry at Beesel arriving in Reuver where I had to use my Schlumpf to get off the ferry and of course had to stop 100 metres later to catch the Schlumpf Button after it had made a bid for freedom. However this was the only time I had to Schlumpf in the afternoon which was a relief.
The path to Venlo was very busy with other cyclists so we had to weave around a bit and weren’t able to go as fast as we might otherwise have done, but soon we were in Venlo. Klaus’s headache was worse so he just had a drink but I enjoyed a waffle with ice cream.
We pushed on after a relatively short stop and soon were climbing the hill out of Venlo and then again the hill around Hinsbeck. I managed both of these without Schlumpfing but my knee complained a lot by the end. I am sure it will settle down in a few days.
We reached home with 105km on the clock with a ride time of 4 hours 18 minutes. Our average for today was 24.4km/h and my calorie burn was rather lower at 1,689. Not enough hills!
The total distance ridden was 300.19km so that added another 3 to our list of threes for this tour. We enjoyed it very much and learned a lot too; we learned that our brakes are OK for the sort of hills in our bit of Germany; we learned that I really need to do something about my Schlumpf, which may end up with me having to buy a new one; we learned that Belgian drivers are as bad as we had suspected with close passes; we learned that Customer Service can be very good in some of these places for those who are used to German levels of customer service (often very low!), and we had reinforced (we had learned it long ago) that velomobiles are great bikes to tour with!
Thanks to Klaus for being my riding partner and waiting for me at the top of the hills, also for planning the tracks so well for the maximum hill-avoidance possible considering we were riding in a hilly area. We both say we would like to go back to Kasteel Pietersheim someday, so perhaps we will indeed set foot or tyre in Belgium again!