Michael Fiebach

I discovered quickly that I won't get lonely on this route. The path was a narrow tube, requiring cyclists to follow one another like geese stepping across the road. Cyclists tended to travel in packs. The leader of the pack boldly forged ahead, pioneering the way with help of a handlebar mounted map. The laptop sized map case on the front of the bike resembled a little desk, giving the appearance of cycling along with a prayer book on the hood for guidance. All that was needed to complete the picture, was for them to burst out in song of a church hymn. The sturdy map case held the map at a 45 degree angle, for better deciphering while coasting along. This way the fearless leader could quickly recognize one of the many cryptic optional detours through the towns, so as not to miss a special cathedral, the statue of a bishop, or a monastery. I was so impressed by this desk on a bike, I decided to get one myself. It would be perfect for attaching a pen, and taking notes for writing a guide book. The rest of the entourage followed the leader, like geese crossing the road, feet rotating to the intermittent rhythm of chirping birds, displaying all the haste deserving of a lazy mild midsummer's day, boldly coasting where thousands have coasted before.

Two to ten cyclists made up the average sized group. Their dress revealed that they were on a long tour. Men and women wore comfortable shorts and loosely fitting shirts and blouses. If this was a short ride from home, women might sport a skirt, and men might wear creased pants. They rode upright bicycles with fenders and generator driven lights. The handlebars were also mostly upright, some of the more racy models sporting curly bars. All were equipped for touring, either panniers or baskets containing clothes, sandwiches and an air pump thrown in. All seemed to have an aversion to narrow bike seats, preferring the spring loaded platforms the size of tractor seats, to give them support where they thought they needed it. A decidedly sporty contingent in the crowd wore Lycra shorts with wild colored stripes, and jerseys so outlandish they would make Greg Lemond would stand out like a patch of asphalt in front of a circus tent. It was surprising that any kind of connected foot shoe interface was a rarity, even for the obviously more fashion conscious modern contingent .

Around 12 o'clock the paths emptied. But this crowd did not seek shelter in the shade of a guardrail, to peel back the cellophane on a power bar. This crowd took a different approach to the lunch stop concept. Instead of standing by the side of a 7-11, they searched out groups of chairs at cozy open air restaurants and beer gardens. Instead of sucking down artificial carbohydrate juice from a bag on their backs, they ordered monumental glasses of Weizenbeer, with a perfect head of foam, crowned by a slice of lime. They didn't use their fingers to form pieces of power bars with limited elasticity into manageable clay eggs. No ! They picked up a a fork and knife simultaneously, and started to carve up elaborately prepared combinations of meet and potatoes, residing on fine porcelain plates. Real food carried a high priority. Anything wrapped in cellophane was deemed uncultured and unfashionable, not real food. Real drink was just as important. Any drink with a head of foam on it, was deemed better than one without. The favorite way to spend lunch was perched under the vines of a beergarden, working away at heaping plates of pickled pig knuckles, jellied goathead, little spears of schaschlick, spooning away at oxtail soup. A rare progressive vegetarian in the group could always have opted for French Fries, and the hearty bread with the consistency of a hockey puck. But, stuffing a bag of goo in their mouths while riding would not occur in their worst nightmares. Isn't it fascinating how different cultural groups approach bicycling differently ?

An alternative way to spend lunch, just as popular, was to stop at one of the many benches along the trail. River views from benches invited to step off the old wire donkey (Drahtesel) several times each mile. Here they sat down with sandwiches and potato salad and perhaps an accompanying bottle of Weissbeer, and gazed out on the murky pond like water surface lost in discussion. In the distance you could hear a car zoom by ever so faintly, on the other side of the river.

I was riding along an entertaining spectacle, a different approach to bicycling than in the US. These were Germany's bicycle wanderers, a tradition that is older than automobile touring. It's a popular way to spend a week on a family or group vacation. Enjoyment is derived from consuming food and beer, as much as from consuming miles. Children cycled along on bikes with tiny wheels, or on tandem trailers. The smallest ones were mounted on a baby seat on the rear rack, or relegated into the confines of a dreaded trailer. This last option was rather uncommon though. Distances are short enough that the bicycle has always been a viable means of transport, even before the advent of cyclomax, titanium and camelbacks. The bicycle wanderers are a special sector of the bicycle culture in this country. Their favorite habitat are all the aforementioned river bike paths. Hills don't exist, and should you really get behind schedule, you can always cut off a meander and reduce the distance yet to be covered, to virtually zero.

The racing contingent exists in Germany just as in other countries. They prefer the small side road habitat to the bike paths, since passing these flocks of geese is often quite an involved maneuver, causing them to loose cadence needlessly, and harvest scornful looks in the process. I often had the feeling that other river path cyclists were worried about my health, seeing me exert myself on the bike. The look in their faces said "You are going to have a heart attack if you keep pedaling that fast". Another reason makes the appearance of the racing subspecies on the river paths a rare phenomenon. The river bike paths often turn to dirt, for miles at a time, completely without warning, as if dirt was as natural for a bike path as ,well, dirt. This of course is unacceptable to the modern techno road biker and his finely tuned equipment.

You might think that a mountain bike is a perfect vehicle for this terrain, and I do. But I think many of these folks still look on a mountain bike as a fad, preferring their customary pivotless dark lugged frames, with easy chair touring geometry, and webbing over the rear wheel to keep the skirts from getting caught in the spokes. Other bikes feature completely encased drive trains, reducing the possibility of the dreaded grease stains on the creased pants to virtually zero. Another peculiarity of many bikes is the spoke lock, a two inch stick that is locked into place in the spokes, keeping one of the wheels from turning. Apparently, thieves capable of actually carrying off bicycles haven't made it yet to this part of the universe.