I set off from Quedlinburg with dark grey clouds looming. Unfortunately I didn't have time to explore the town; I'd arranged to stay tonight in Dessau, over 100 km away, even with shortcuts (the R1 route would take me over 150 km). I had decided this was doable, as there was a big of downhill and otherwise flat, and my fitness level now should surely allow me to cover that distance in a day? Of course, those thoughts had been before the experiences of the day before, and I dreaded to think what road quality lay ahead of me. Maps just don't provide that kind of information.
My bike was still in pretty good shape except for the brakes - the front one in particular was scraping against the wheel every revolution. I tried to remember what to do about it (I went on a one-day bike maintenance workshop a couple of months before setting off) but couldn't for the life of me think which screw to turn and which way. Having found the only bike shop in town closed for the day, I decided to disable the front brake altogether and stop at the next town. (That of course assumed that the back brake was still working, or I wouldn't be stopping anywhere!)
I'd planned my route as carefully as I could, shortcutting my way back to the R1, then following it where it made sense (on the assumption that it would avoid the worst of roads), and short-cutting when it was just being frankly silly. But a few kilometres outside Quedlinburg, my initial plans were thwarted, as a road was completely closed to roadworks, and I had to find a major detour round, adding nearly 10km to my journey. The black clouds had opened now; not heavily, but enough to cover up in full raingear, though it didn't look like it would last too long. Sure enough, after about half an hour it seemed dry enough to strip off again. I needn't have bothered: 5 minutes laters, the heavens opened again, and I stopped to get kitted out once more. And it rained. And rained. And rained. There were no clouds visible in the sky. It was a single shade of dark grey, as far as the eyes could see, in every direction. All day. Rain meant covering my luggage, including the handlebar bag that the map was on, so I could only see that by pulling it out occasionally to glance at.
Fotunately the surfaces weren't generally too bad, though about half an hour before Stassfurt took me along a track so overgrown that I was being whacked on all sides by plants, nettles, and low-hanging tree-branches. The alternative was the farm track running alongside, with all the rocks and potholes that entailed, so I preferred to ensure the arboreal bruising, even finding some of the ducking and dodging exhilirating, and keeping quite a pace.
This is an international cycle path!
In Stassfurt, I found a bike shop, where they attended to my brakes free of charge, and after a spot of lunch, I set off again - there was still 65 km to cover. Unfortunately, just a few short kilometres out of town, I could hear the brake scraping against the wheel again, and could certainly feel it slowing me down. With the rain still falling (ironically there was a brief respite just while I stopped for lunch), I wasn't in any mood to consider looking at it, so I just disabled the brake again and pedelled on. I can't say today's ride was particularly pleasureable; it was just a matter of getting through the distance. I'm not as bothered by rain now as I was - it helps to be prepared - but after several hours of constant wet, it becomes a chore. The waterproof clothes are doing a better job than it feels, but they still feel wet on the inside and the trousers cling to my skin. The waterproof shoes that served so well in the morning seem now to have allowed some water to run in, and I can feel it sloshing and squelching with every turn.
Another short-cut takes me along a main road, but it is an excellent surface, and I pedal hard and count down the kilometres. By Aken I'm flagging - less than 20 km from Dessau, but find an ice-cream cafe (the most popular kind of cafe in Germany), and fortify myself with a hot chocolate,
Earlier in the day, I'd given myself only 50:50 odds of reaching Dessau that night, but finally I plough on and into the city. 105 km later, my longest distance yet, I arrive wet to the bone, at Bernadett's house. She has the very dubious pleasure of hosting a soggy dirty couchsurfer, with his soggy dirty luggage.
A hot shower and dry clothes puts me quickly back in good spirits, and we set about putting clothes in the machine, and leaving shoes out to dry. I also discover that despite careful packing involving lots of plastic bags, some of the things inside my luggage has got wet, including my hardly-read book and my passport. Nothing irrecoverable though, but it reminds me how important it is to pack well - the bottom of one of the pannier bags seems to have acquired a puddle.
I've earned a day off. I've been on the move for 7 constant days since Muenster, so Bernadett has kindly agreed for me to stay two nights. We spend the first evening at the local 'Kartoffelhaus' with some interesting friends of hers. She's Hungarian, and we meet up with a Kosovan and a couple of German friends, and later joined by a Pole who is astounded to hear an Englishman speak Polish. We don't stay out late though; if I was exhausted the day before, I'm just as much so after the day's slog.
The next day, Friday, I get on my bike for no more than a few hundred yards to a bike shop, to have the brakes checked one more time. I think the bar-bag isn't helping as it's gently pressing on the brake cables, so I make sure that's attached while they attend to it. Hopefully, that will make the difference this time. For the rest of the day, I decide to head to Leipzig for a day-trip on the train. With rain forecast all day, I go prepared, but never need the coat. I've long wanted to visit Leipzig, and often meant to but never made it. It played a pivotal role in the fall of the DDR that kept us glued to TV sets in 1989 (especially during German lessons at school). It was bigger than I was expecting, with many beautiful buildings (and of course many building works, as seems to have been the case across Germany constantly for the last twenty years). I found time to visit the Stasi-museum, hosted in the former Stasi building (with some of the rooms left intact), and a museum documenting life in East Germany. Both of these were excellent and fascinating. I spent too long here to get to the Bach museum which I'd also hoped for, but I headed back to Dessau in the early evening. Bernadett was out working a night shift that evening, so I had the place to myself, and finally read a bit more of my book - now nearly twice the size after having expanded from getting wet!
I'd worn sandals that day as the shoes were stil wet, leaving the shoes by an open window to dry, but they were still soggy that night, and the next morning. So on Saturday I set off again, fully prepared for rain from the outset, wearing full raingear and sandals.
Destination: Belzig. Via the R1: 90km. Direct route on Google Maps: 52km. Well, I could compromise. I found a route that used some marked paths that would be a 65km ride; that was acceptable. My destination was a cheap hotel recommended by another cyclist. Brian raved about the comfy room, friendly staff, but mostly about the power shower and big fluffy towels! That sold me.
From Dessau I started off east following the river Elbe towards Worlitz. Not far out of town, the roadside cycle lanes turned into good countryside paths, with glimpses of the river through the greenery. Then a covered bridge, reminiscent of Madison County, if not as pretty, crossing a stream, and down into a dip. This was the Elbe floodplains, and things were certainly waterlogged now. The path turned into something of a ford and I cycled through a long puddle a couple of inches deep, the bottom of my feet just getting wet. A short distance on though, and I could see a much longer stretch of underwater path, and this time a little deeper. I checked the map, and decided to detour to a nearby road. But just a minute or so away, the road turned into something of a lake. A car approached from the other direction, and quickly turned back. It was too deep for the car, and way too deep for me. So back I went to check the path. I could head all the way back to Dessau, or I could brave this and continue. I didn't like retracing my steps, nor admitting defeat, so I set off, gently gently to minimise the splash, keen to keepmy luggage dry. I was glad I was wearing the sandals now, and I didn't care if my feet got wet.
I made it through to the other side unscathed, and the water hadn't quite touched the underside of one of the bags. A group of cyclists were soon behind me, and I stopped to watch them enjoy the experience. Another few hundred metres on though, we rounded a bend and were confronted by yet another water obstacle, this time clearly a little deeper and longer. The group rubbed their chins. I now had spectators, and couldn't admit defeat, This time though, I pushed my bike across, wading through the water, carrying the more precious (and less waterproof) of my pannier bags. Glad not to have turned back for a long detour, I then cycled on as adry path stretched ahead of me. The group had stopped rubbing their chins and decided they weren't as stupid as me. They clearly didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them.
Cycling through the floods
Inevitably, the next water-crossing came, and I tackled it much like the last, wading through water above my ankles. I wasn't going to turn back now! I did have to pause and think at the next one though. Not only was it deeper, there was a visible current running across! Still, I'd come this far. I didn't get where I am today by (mumble mumble mumble), Big Fluffy Towels. The last crossing had dipped the bottom of my bag into the water, so this time, I lifted one bag to rest on the handlebars, so that I could hoist the back wheel off the ground lifting the other bag to safety. I then wobbled my way across, knee-deep in riverwater, steering the front wheel while trying not to drop the balancing bag. Halfway along, the two sides of the floodplain joined forming a reasonable current, and shoals of small fish swum about my feet. But I got to the other side, rearranged the luggage and set on my way again. Who needs the Amazon rainforest when you've got Northern Europe?
Fortunately, that was the last of them through this nature reserve, confirmed a kilometre further along when I met people again! I warned them about the path that faced them ahead, and as they didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them in Dessau, they decided not to bother. The next stretch to Worlitz took me along a raised path and felt something like cycling on top of a wall, but at least it was keeping me above the water-line. I detoured to cycle round Worlitz, worth a look apparently, but quickly came back out to press on. I wasn't following the R1 now, but was on another recognised route that would take me across the Elbe, and I'd hope that the roads northwards were well paved.
Five or six kilometres on, I reached the bridge over the Elbe. That was strange. There was no bridge. The road simply ran straight into the wide river. There was a stop sign, and nothing else. I checked the map more closely to find it was marked with a tiny ferry symbol, but becuse it followed a cycle route, it looked like a road. There was no obvious ferry to befound, and I asked in a nearby cafe, and was told that there wasn't a ferry. The next bridge back the way was the Autobahn, which I couldn't use, or all the way back in Dessau. The next one on was a 26km detour to Wittenberg. Either way, the only road back took me through Worlitz again. So finally I was defeated, as I retraced my steps, and found the road round to Wittenburg.
Defeat - can't cross the Elbe
At least it had stayed dry above the surface. I was still kitted out prepared for rain, and the clouds threatened, but it was a new road all the way to Wittenberg, and I was determined to make up for some time, and pedalled as hard as I could. Being the weekend, the roads were pretty quiet, and it was flat all the way. I put these extra miles behind me with the reminder of the big fluffy towels awaiting me. What could have been 52km was now creeping up to a 90km day.
I stopped in Wittenberg for lunch (yet another schnitzel I'm afraid), and pulled out the details of the hotel - time to check out exactly where it was, and program the address into the GPS unit. Oh horror! It turns out that the hotel isn't actually in Belzig at all, but like any good Ryanair airport, TWENTY-NINE KILOMETRES AWAY. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I'd put 50km behind me (some of those underwater), but now found I still had 70 to go.
Or did I? I hadn't paid for this room. I didn't have to go all that way, especially as the next day I wasn't going much further to Postdam. I could just find somewhere else on the way to stop. (Big fluffy towels). But did I want to admit defeat a second time in a day? Big fluffy towels. Well I didn't have to decide straight away. But I did decide that as the rain hadn't yet come I'd risk being back in T-shirt and shorts.
Chess-like monks in Wittenberg
Apart from one gentle hill, the area was flat. I had to decide between the R1 route, or some unknown roads that may or may not be paved; the distance was now about the same. I opted for the R1, but it was pretty variable... maybe the grass would have been greener, but I propelled myself on, thinking of the towels. The kilometres that had flown by coming in to Wittenberg were now taking longer and longer. While the surface through a forest wasn't full of potholes, it was soft and slighty shaly, and doubled the effort required. Eventually I got on to a nice tarmac path, and a sign for Belzig 22 km away. It should be easier from here, but I was tired, and the 30km/hour flats that I was managing earlier in the day were halved. I wasn't sure I'd make it past Belzig. (Big fluffy towels, big fluffy towels).
Eventually I reached the town, and searched around for a rest stop. I'd done 90 km now, and still had thirty to go if I was going to make it, but I was seriously flagging. Being a Saturday afternoon, hardly anything was open, but I finally found a bakery cafe, and ordered my magic potion of hot chocolate, and treated myself to a slice of Apfelkuchen to go with it.
That, and 30 minutes rest was just what the doctor ordered. Back on the bike, I had energy again, and was quickly back up to 25 or even 30 km/hour, and while I couldn't maintain that all the way, I could count down the final kilometres quickly enough, and the hotel got closer and closer. I arrived that evening at about 6.30, though it felt much later, greeted by the friendly staff who were expecting me. I struggled not to just collapse on the comfy bed again, but had a top-class dinner at the hotel (after 120km, I wasn't going another metre on the bike).
Oh, and the towels. Well, they were a bit of a let down! Certainly wouldn't describe them as fluffy, or particularly big. But compared to the ones you're given at most hostels, then I suppose they were ok. Not sure they were worth racing 120km for!
Big fluffy towel
Cyclists welcome at the hotel near Beelitz