Cycling, Reports 3

Amsterdam to The Alps: By Bicycle: In Winter

This is my first long distance bike trip, starting from Amsterdam, heading to Zurich. My plan is to camp outdoors, although in the Netherlands, I stayed at friends places. This is my first night in the tent and I found a beautiful place in the woods near Alphen. It took me a while to build a fire because all of the wood was soaking wet. The outside temperatures were around 8ºC, so nice and warm with a decent fire.

The next morning I headed for Belgium after a short breakfast. The scenery and the beautiful weather were absolutely breathtaking. Trees with golden leaves which are just about falling down. Together with the icy morning sun in the blue sky and Jose Gonzalez jamming in my headphones, it was the perfect riding vibe.

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Die Vennbahn – After a never ending ascent from Aachen to Roetgen, I really had it carrying the heavy load on my bike. 35kg is just too much. I need to bring less camera’s, less stuff. How could this ever work in the Alps..! But after the highest point (531m) I soon ended up on the Vennbahn, a former railroad which has been revamped into a cycle route form Aachen to Troisvierges. This means no traffic, no noise and no steep climbs or descents. Only a sunny sky on a silent road with breathtaking views. They left bits and peaces of the old railroad, train wagons and buildings. So far I’ve been very lucky with the weather. Since I left Amsterdam under a grey sky it has been sunny all the time with a few drops during the night.

Traveling in winter is new for me and suprisingly beautiful. It’s not warm. But for cycling it’s perfect if your wear proper clothing. In November most trees are still carrying there last leaves and together with the low sun in the sky the golden colours are endless. This cycling life is growing on me.

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Yesterday was one of those days things went not as expected. It was grey and wet, not that I can complain about the weather because the past days were spoiled with sun. After leaving St. Vith I took the wrong turn, a nice long descent which I had to climb all the way back up. The gps on my iPad gets stuck at one place now and then.

But soon I got on one of those dedicated cycle routes, which are great. You are isolated from all other traffic and you can ride like a Formula 1 driver on an empty circuit. Especially in winter, there is nobody there and I felt like flying through the hills.

“My legs were killing me and the weather was depressing.”

Later when I got off the cycle route, Google Maps was starting to point me to closed roads, probably closed during winter. Most of the time I was able to take a detour from the route Maps suggested, but soon enough I ended up in fields and got stuck on muddy roads. No fun with such a heavy load and normal tires. Few times I had to walk my bike through the mud till the end of the road, and it was getting dark already. I decided to go back and aim for Bitburg to spend the night. It seemed like the few people that lived in the countryside were not there at all – the fog and cloudy weather made it creepy silent. Finally got myself in Bitburg and booked a hotel. Never been so happy with a warm soft bed.

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Took a day of rest in Bitburg and yesterday I broke my personal record of 127km in one day with some epic climbs. Spent the night along the Saar under the highway after cycling till 11pm. The area was too urban to make a fire so I decided to ride on till sleeping time and get in the tent right away. I needed to get some oil for my chain because it has started wheeping. Then heading straight south and hope to reach Basel in 2 two days.

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On this trip I have been crossing borders about 10 times in between Holland, Germany, Belgium, France and Switzerland. It’s confusing. I really don’t know what to say anymore when I walk into a restaurant. Now, I just point and smile.

“In the last two months I have been ordering coffee in Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German.”

Three days have past and I haven’t seen the sun. It’s very monotonous. Luckily, I have my music to keep me sane. I have been cycling through a number of villages where I haven’t seen any people. Total silence. Just me pedaling through. The absorbing grey skies make it even more silent. It’s peaceful, but you need to keep your mind straight.

Saturday I decided to sleep in a hotel. It was colder and all my camping gear was dirty and wet. I aimed for Phalsbourg, because it was the biggest settlement in the area and I didn’t want to go into approaching woods which looked very hilly on google maps. The only hotel I could find appeared to be fully booked. This meant I had to go climb the hills in the dark. I manned up and rode out of town into the pitch black forest. I couldn’t see a thing and needed my extra headlamp to see the road. It started with an descent and I was waiting for a long climb, but it kept going down. The odometer hit 48km/h. After a few miles ‘flying’, I rolled into a little town with an even nicer hotel. I was the only guest and the lady gave me une grande bière (Big Beers) from the house. Parfait!

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The Alps [1] – The day before I reached Zurich I broke my daily record of 154 km. I also broke my chain, 100m from a bicycle shop. Bad luck timed well? Because the days are so short in December, half of the distance I cycled in the dark. I remember cycling in between two canals for hours and hours. A cycle path, barely 2 meters wide, trees and bushes on both sides. It was so dark I needed to put on my headlamp to make sure I did not end up in one of the canals because the lights on my bike were not powerful enough. Lots of of moths and insects rushing by lighting up in front of my eyes. It felt like riding through the jungle. I cycled on till 11.30 pm and camped on the side of the road.

“Thoughts about ‘The Blair Witch Project’ gave me the creeps, but after turning on Bruce Springsteen it was actually quite fun!”

Switzerland was getting more hilly up till Zurich but not more than I encountered in France or Germany. I rented an Airbnb in the center of Zurich so I could leave behind most of my camping gear, laptop and other heavy stuff I could miss for two days. I wanted to get into fresh snow and because the past 5 days had been cloudy, I wanted to go up beyond the clouds to see some sunlight again. However, most mountain passes are closed during winter so I didn’t know how far I could get. The goal was set to Andermatt in the middle of the Alps, about 115 km from Zurich.

I planned to leave early in the afternoon but I had some troubles at the bicycle shop where I exchanged my normal tires into snow tires. There was a ‘bubble’ in the tire and it took an hour or two to take it out. It was dark before I left Zurich and made it till Altdorf where I spend the night the first hotel where time has been standing still since 1970. Brown, flowery tablecloths over everything and ashtrays in the rooms. But nothing was going to keep me from a nice deep sleep.

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The Alps [2] – From the valley of Altdorf it would be serious pedalling. Andermatt was situated 1000m higher and about 20km further. It started all green and friendly and after a few miles the landscape was getting more grey and desolate. An old lady with a dog was calling me back and told me I had to go to Goschen and take the train from there because the roads were closed. I said I wanted to get stuck in the snow and then return. She didn’t understand me and I went on.

I was daydreaming about the Gotthard Pass where I had driven with the car on my way to Italy a few years back. I love those remote areas which I have also seen in Norway and Iceland. The daydreaming soon made way to heavy breathing and cursing. The road was getting steeper and steeper. One thing I was constantly reminded of is that your body doesn’t want to do this. It wants to sit on the couch at home watching Netflix, all day.

“I needed to convince myself that I wanted to achieve this. One thing is for sure: the more physically exhausting, the more mentally rewarding.”

It didn’t take long before the thick clouds were no longer above me, but around me. With the sun peaking through it gave a beautiful misty atmosphere. I passed a sign with a bicycle and a cross through it. I didn’t know/care what it meant, so I cycled on. From here it was getting tricky. The road was zigzagging up through small tunnels where cars and trucks rushed by. Not safe, because my speed was only 7 km/h and it was difficult to keep my steer right on this steep climb.

At 16.00 I passed the welcome sign of Andermatt, totally exhausted. I treated myself on warm apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce and a hot cappuccino.

However I made it to Andermatt, there was no snow. The winter had been mild so far, which disappointed me a bit. I didn’t put on snow tires for nothing so I went further up the Oberalp Pass. It was closed, but I ignored the sign. I would see how far I get and then head back. Another zigzag road which gave a great view over Andermatt and the valley with the setting sun behind the mountains.

I made it up till 1750 meters when it got too dark to continue. I decided to stop and make this the end of my journey. I had made it much further then I planned to. I put on an extra layer of clothes and started the descent. The clouds were gone and it was a full moon. The views were breathaking when I let myself roll of the mountains with 50km/h. My hands were hurting of squeezing the brakes. I have never seen such a bright moon straight up in the sky. Absolutely magical.

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My Gear List

CAMPING

  • Quechua 1-person 2 seconds tent – extremely cheap (EUR39,-), but I like it because it’s fairly lightweight and packs in a flat circle which I can put easily on top the Ortlieb backrollers. You also don’t need pegs when it’s not too windy so it really just take a few seconds to set up.
  • Quechua inflatable sleeping mat – definitely not the most compact or lightest, but very comfortable.
  • Appalachian 1900 Sleeping bag – nice & warm down till minus 10 degrees.
  • Cocoon Air-Core travel pillow
  • Ticket To The Moon tarp
  • Optimus Crux Lite burner – very small and compact, but it’s not my favourite because you need to turn it fully open otherwise the flame will die.
  • Coleman 250 gas can
  • Quechua cooking set 2 persons
  • Quechua Aluminium cup
  • Mini sized salt, pepper, sugar, dishwasher components
  • Two 5mm rope of 10m
  • Tactikka headlamp – great quality lamp, I used it on the bike in dark woods and during camping you couldn’t do without it.
    pot of instant coffee premixed with sugar – I prefer to bring my percolator but it’s a bit on the size. The smaller ones are nice though.
  • Firestarters
  • Zippo
  • Buck Cocobolo – I love this knife. It’s big, nice and not cheap.
  • Sog Tactical Tomahawk – very useful if you need to get a decent fire going.
  • Toilet Paper
  • Calve Pindakaas – the one and only Dutch peanut butter.
  • Toiletry bag
  • Quachua travel towel

BIKE

CLOTHING

  • 2x Btwin long sleeves – synthetic quick drying material
  • 2x Quechua fleece jumper
  • 1x long thermo underwear – mainly for the night
  • 1x long bike trousers
  • 1x bike short
  • 1x Hagslöf Rando Flex trousers
  • buff
  • 4x Quechua hiking socks
  • Quechua waterproof hiking shoes – Great for in winter, for in summer I would go for a lighter option.
  • Hat
  • Chapka
  • Bicycle helmet

CAMERA GEAR

  • Panasonic Gh4 – It’s a great photo camera and even greater video camera. It’s not so heavy as a Canon 5d or 7d. Especially the micro four third lenses are weight and size savers
  • Voightlander 25mm, Lumix 7-14mm and 35-100mm
  • 2 spare batteries + charger
  • GoPro Hero 3 + extra battery
  • Gopro flex clamp – great to clamp on the steer to film the road and talk to the camera.
  • Gopro head strap
  • Minolta SRT 303 – It shoots film, old school from the seventies. I could really leave this at home because it’s heavy and I made just one picture with it.
  • 16 and 32 gb SD-Card
  • 15-inch retina Macbook
  • Macbook charger
  • Ipad – for Google Maps on the road. It’s stored in my handlebar pannier. I download the maps when I have wifi.
  • Iphone 4s for listening to music.
  • Sennheiser headphones – they are big but I prefer those more than earplugs because they catch too much wind while cycling
  • 2TB WD Elements harddisk

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martijngearlist

Words and Photographs by Martijn Doolaard. Martijn is a designer, videographer and musician based in Amsterdam and New York. You can review his work on his website at DAMP Design. (Source: Espiritu Libre)

Editor’s Note: Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventure with us Martijn. We hope this first long bikepacking trip is only one of many to come. Cheers to an adventurous 2015!

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  • Daniel McCaullaghn

    Martijn, hey man props on the ride that couldnt have been easy in the winter time! I am shocked you didnt need more to keep warm! Maybe I’ll see you out there one day I am heading for Ireland soon on my Salsa Fargo, then who knows. Cheers mate.

    • Martijn

      Thanks, Daniel! My water resistant jacket is actually missing from the list, but the the temperatures didnt go below zero so if you keep moving 3 layers is more than enough to keep you warm.

  • David Traxler

    Beautiful story with stunning pictures. Thank you for sharing so those of us who can’t get out there can enjoy the experience with you.