One Saturday morning I woke up to find a blue sky over Düsseldorf. It made me so stunningly happy that I pulled out google maps and thought, geez, maybe I’ll bike to the Netherlands. It can’t be that far, it’s only an hour by car…? I mapped a route and found it was 50 miles one way to Roermond. I figured, “I can do this”, but then I accounted for roundtrip, calculated it would be 100 miles and at least 8 hours. Looked at the time – it was about 9 am. So, that day wasn’t the day. Before I abandoned, I tried to figure out how to take a train back – I could ride one way and train it back, was my logic – but I couldn’t figure that out easily. Maybe it was good I didn’t bike that day since I apparently wasn’t firing on all cylinders… I added the bike ride to the Netherlands to my “things to do before I move back to the US” list and went for a bike ride to Kaiserwerth.
Since a ride to the Netherlands was on my list and I needed some logistical and route-planning support, I mentioned it to my local biking friends. One of my friends gave me a bike route map for the state of Nord Rhein Westfalen. A Dutch friend confirmed that, yes, in fact, I could catch a train back. But when I mentioned it to my friend John, he shot back with an email, with co-conspirators copied in (basically I was trapped…) that said – why just go to the Netherlands, when you can also go to Belgium, and why only bike one way when we could bike the whole thing??? So, it began that 5 of us signed on for a “3 Countries in a Day” bike tour. Peer pressure, I mistakenly thought it would fade as I got older!
John asked his son to make us a route – he’s got a snazzy Garmin watch that he uses when he does rides like this, apparently he eats them for lunch – ah to be young again… So, he started with a route he’d already ridden, then used the power of user-generated data to add some tweaks that included routes generated via a heat map for where a lot of people bike. John emailed us the route and we began to discuss it.
The route was 160 kilometers long with a mostly flat elevation. The biggest challenge we considered to face was the wind in our face on the way out. Oh, and the fact that we needed to cover such a great distance between 7 am (sunrise) and 8:30 pm (sunset).
John sent us our marching orders:
Peter – loaded the route on to his Teasi and would be our trail-blazer.
Jaap – responsible for getting us shirts to mark the absolutely mad event.
Peter Josef – now I don’t remember his task, but I think it was to finish!
Greg – a friend who offered to provide sag support during the day and meet us at lunch time and with a bottle of Sekt at the Belgian border.
Natalie – good weather.
John – captain and coordinator.
Another friend of mine also wanted to be in on the action, but she didn’t want to bike the route, so she offered to meet us for afternoon tea.
I spent the three weeks before our ride in America where I mountain biked with my husband and took long walks in the woods near our property. But, the upcoming long miles whispered to me most days and my fear of the big day slowly grew. Besides I couldn’t resist mentioning it to some friends, perhaps mostly so I wouldn’t back out.
5 days before the ride I checked the forecast: rain. Wait a minute, how was I going to deliver my part of the deal?! Due to the high amount of peer pressure and the fact that 3 of the fellow riders were either from Great Britain or had lived there for years, I knew that saying I didn’t want to bike in the rain wouldn’t fly. So, we forged ahead with our plans.
Then the unexpected happened: Peter Josef was commuting to work by bike on a rainy morning and slid out and crashed, cutting his leg and generally making him unable to join our tour, by bike. John declared that was the most creative and perhaps overly dramatic way to avoid the ride. But then Peter Josef surprised me by offering to drive our sag vehicle for the day. He would be along with a dry change of clothes, snacks, a bike rack in case we had an infixable mechanical issue and, most importantly(!) a bottle of Sekt for us to pop open after we crossed the border in to Belgium.
The day before our ride we met in the cafeteria at work for a planning meeting while we carb-loaded. We debated which direction to take the route. Considered the pros and cons of elevation grades from both directions and when we would be going in to a headwind. We generally avoided the topic of weather and ran back through our check-list of supplies. The decision was dictated by John that we would meet at the outdoor pools north of Düsseldorf at the ungodly hour of 6:50 am. He was the captain so we had no option but to follow orders! Then we lugged along our bags out to the sag vehicle and back to our offices to finish out the afternoon, I must admit, mightily distracted by what lay ahead.
The rain began that afternoon. On the drive home it was still going. I decided to run to the store to buy some spare inner tubes and texted the guys to see what they needed. All requested tubes and Jaap made a very wise request…could I grab him a lightweight rain coat? I jumped on my town bike and pedaled through the, now pouring, rain to Lucky Bikes. Located the tubes and agonized over the right jacket. After riding in the pouring rainy to Lucky Bike, the rain coat was a no brainer! It turned out to be the best purchase I made all year! My purchases complete, I biked back home through the pouring rain and really began to question the wisdom of being part of a Bike Gang dominated by British folks. I mean, most other people would just bail, postpone, seriously, demand a rain check. But, not these guys! My awesome Bike Gang had given no indication that there was any option but to proceed with our plan come hell or high water (literally)! I was afraid and I was also very proud! Proud to call these fellows my friends.
I laid out all my supplies, pumped up my tires, wiped and greased my chain, and checked the brakes. I unsuccessfully tried to find my lights, and improvised by taping an LED flashlight to my handlebar stem. Then, I tried to sleep. You can guess how that went. I think I woke up every hour that night.
The alarm woke me at 5:30 am. It was still raining. It hadn’t stopped all night, which meant the roads would be slick. This is when I realized the 4 of us had never biked together as a group. This can be dicey under normal circumstances, but on flooded roads with more rain coming it could be a problem. I was happy we had a sag vehicle. I set my worries aside and turned on the kettle to brew a cup of coffee. After a quick shower I threw on my UC Davis racing uniform (I needed all the luck I could get!). Then I sat down for a quick breakfast of yogurt and granola, twice my normal dose. I checked my phone and saw a message from my husband that read: “we all know you’re tough, don’t be afraid to take a 🚗 or 🚂 “. I felt relieved to have that pressure lifted but I knew there was no escape.
One more quick bathroom stop (I wouldn’t see a proper toilet again for a while) then I threw on my backpack loaded with the spare tubes, rain coat for Jaap, and a surprise gift for the Gang. Pulled the Velcro on my biking shoes snug and clipped in for the ride to the Apollo Theatre to meet John.
The roads were slick. I braked carefully in the corners, taking special care to cross the street car tracks at a perpendicular angle. This is when I was reminded again that we’d never biked together and would need to be extra careful to avoid colliding into each other on the rainy roads. Groups dynamics do need to be learned.
As I pulled under the Rheinbrücke and stopped in front of the Apollo theatre to wait for John’s arrival, I took in my surroundings. I like to know what and who are around me, especially at an odd hour. There was a man speaking passionately into his smartphone which was mounted to a selfie stick. He stood next to a forklift prattling away. Hmmmm, curious, I kept my distance. Another fellow sat in a black hatchback car. He appeared to be waiting. Seeing that all was clear I relaxed and waited for John to arrive. A couple of early mornings walkers strolled by. The man in the car stepped out and walked up to the Apollo theatre. Donning a security guard uniform, I understood what he’d been waiting for – the start of his shift. I had no way to tell time since my phone was tucked inside a plastic ziploc bag in my jersey pocket under my rain coat. I waited a few more minutes and saw a bright headlight approaching on the bike path. Sure enough it was John – wearing a red jacket – nearly the same shade as the jacket I was wearing and which Jaap would be wearing as well. How ironic!
We commiserated a bit about our bad luck with weather, then took off, up the on-ramp and across the bridge to meet the rest of the Bike Gang at the outdoor pools in north Düsseldorf. We chatted as we pedaled along in the semi-darkness. A rabbit on a suicide run dashed across our path. Fortunately, we passed him without incident.
As we pulled up to the starting point parking lot, Jaap was standing near his car preparing his bike. Peter Josef pulled up soon after. As it was still raining, I pulled out my gift for the gang which I’d purchased at Lucky Bike on a whim the evening before. Red Rain Caps for our helmets. I was suspicious about their ability to keep our heads dry for the day, but I figured it was worth a try, besides anyone who was willing to pedal with me for 170 kilometers in the rain deserved a consolation prize! The guys delightedly secured the rain caps to their helmets. Peter pulled up on his touring bike with the route programmed in to his Teasi. I declared I had a gift for him and he said (seriously, I can’t make this stuff up!) – “is it a rain cap?”. And it was! The gift was a big hit and it actually made us look like a bicycle club, so double the fun!
Not in a mood to stand around in the rain, we took off. John noticed his brakes were rubbing and sure enough he had a hop in his wheel. Right away he blamed his sons for getting his wheel out of true. He proceeded to open his calipers a bit and we were off. Later we speculated he may have acquired the wheel hop on the cobble stones leading in to the parking lot. No matter, after a few miles we all forgot about it.
As we departed, Peter noted it was astronomical sunrise. A term I’d never heard before – this is a smart bunch! We headed out of the parking lot, turned right and hopped up the bike path and were on our way. We quickly learned how to ride in a group – deciding on hand signals and call outs. We noted some differences between countries. In England the call out for a car coming is “oil” while in America it is “car up” or “car back”.
15 kilometers into our route we turned off the road and onto a dedicated bike path that took us past yellowing corn and freshly harvest carrot fields. After a kilometer, Peter had our first flat. I do believe that all of us thought this might be a sign of what was to come. We had calculated that we needed to travel at an average pace of 20 km/hr in order to finish our ride in about 10 hours. Accounting for about 2 hours of breaks and only about 13 hours of day-light the schedule was tight. Our goal was to push steady for the first 40 km, then check our pacing and adjust accordingly. The flat slowed us down a bit. As Peter was busy changing his tube, John and Jaap stamped their feet trying to stay warm in the rain and wind.
The tire repaired, we resumed our journey. Jaap and John raced ahead a bit to warm up and Peter and I chugged along behind. A few moments later we caught the racers and shouted in delight as the rain petered out. About 2 hours in to our ride, it seemed like it was time for a bio-break. We pulled in to the first cornfield on the left. This is when I questioned the wisdom of wearing bib shorts. Let’s just say that every stop wasn’t near as speedy as it could have been. But, boy those shorts were comfy!!!
We wolfed down a quick snack and then trucked along to the Netherlands. As we climbed a hill through Schwalmtal, I looked up at the church spire and noted it as now 10:15 am. About 40 minutes later, we passed through a bank of trees and then began rolling down a section of paving on a country road that looked oddly like a bike path.
Jaap confirmed that we had indeed passed into his homeland. We were in the countryside near the town of Herkenbosch and it was time to take an official group photo. We pulled off the street and Jaap secured his iPhone on a fence post and used a fancy photo delay feature to snap our group photo.
A few minutes after this I was roaring with laughter after I saw a caution sign that was labeled “wildrooster”. Seriously, it said “wildrooster”. I asked Jaap, the native, the meaning of this sign. It was a marking for a cattleguard. I was thrilled beyond delight at this funny moment lost in translation and couldn’t resist snapping a photo with the sign. I needed photographic evidence!
We entered into a beautiful park and didn’t pass any other bikers for miles and miles. I noticed some beautiful irridescent green beetles marching across the road. Throughout the day, I also saw more slugs than I could count… As we broke out of the forest I paused to snap a selfie near a beautiful restored windmill.
This is when John began to comment on the frequency of photos and how it was going to ruin our average. I took note. It felt like time for a full coffee and pie refreshing stop so, we made a plan to meet Peter Josef in the town of Sint Odilienberg. We raced along past pastures and fields as we closed in on the town, the rain began to gently fall again and a warm, welcoming cafe was certainly in order. Peter Josef waited for us near the church, which was easy to locate as the spire loomed over the city.
We parked our bikes outside Cafe Smeets and stripped off our rain coats to give them a chance to dry. A proper toilet felt like a luxury. The coffee was hot and the pies were sweet. We chased it all down with a shot of Genever.
Our next stop was Belgium! We set our sights on Kessenick and estimated the time for Peter Josef to meet us for our toast of Sekt. Rain misted on us as we continued pedaling through the countryside, pleasantly warm from the coffee and Genever in our bellies. After about 30 minutes, we saw a herd of goats in a side yard and then the border sign was in sight.
We hopped off our bikes, leaned them up against fence posts and trees and waited for Peter Josef to meet us for the toast. Mercifully the rain had stopped and we enjoyed the sounds of the goats bleating and waved at the fellow passing bicyclists. At this moment it was actually sunny – I think we saw the sun three times that day – so everyone was in a great mood. Also, we were about halfway done.
Peter Josef pulled up and hopped out to snap some photos as Jaap popped the top on the Sekt. We didn’t have any glasses, so we passed it around for swigs. There was a bench just to the right of our gathering spot and it felt like this event needed a toast. I stepped up on the bench, carefully – I was wearing cleats – and raised a toast to each of my fellow cyclists. Finally, I toasted Peter Josef for bring us the Sekt, which as you can imagine could sound suspiciously like another word. This got the guys to talking on another subject, but fortunately not for too long, as we still had half our ride ahead and next stop was Roermond for lunch and extended sit-down break. Such a luxury!!!
There is a video of the speech but I’m too cheap to upgrade my WordPress account so you won’t be able to see it here. Send donations if you want video content in the future. I can direct you to a PayPal account. 😂
During our brief stop in Belgium I had (ahem) fertilized some corn plants. This required stepping into the rich dirt between the rows, which packed itself into my cleats. As we took off I discovered it was impossible to get clipped in to my speed play pedals. I stopped to clean them in a few puddles and gave a few good stamps and then I was truly ready to go.
We were now about 60 or 70 kilometers in and I was relieved to find that my body felt fit and strong. My head was still dry and my feet were good too as we’d pedaled through some dry stretches. My legs and saddle felt good. The only thing that began to ache was the fronts of my shoulders and my upper biceps. The ache started then and stayed with me the entire day – prompting me to occasionally swing my arms backward in a large circle to stretch out the muscles.
About 20 minutes later we began to enter a more built-up area and it was clear to all we were approaching Roermond – cold beer and warm food and a seat off the bike! And another real toilet! We rolled into the city center which was quite packed with people as it was now beautifully sunny overhead. A quick text message helped us locate Peter Josef who also had two guests with him – his girlfriend Sabrina and our co-worker Greg. We picked a spot in the sun, leaned our bikes up against the wall and sat down. Greg and Sabrina were amazed at what we’d managed so far and what we still had ahead. I would say for us, we were so in the moment that we couldn’t really think of it. We hadn’t gotten to the point where we were just pedaling along kilometer by kilometer, dreading the next one, that would come later (no, seriously, it actually never felt like that for me).
Time was running and after eating quickly we jumped back on our bikes. It was now 3:30 and we had about 4 hours of daylight and about 65 kilometers still to go. Our schedule would allow for one more break as long as we stayed on pace, another friend was planning to meet us for a mid afternoon tea break, which sounded lovely!
As we rolled out of Roermond, the sky darkened and rain began to fall again, slowly. I annoyed the guys by stopping to throw on my rain pants, which turned out to be an excellent decision. A few moments later, the sky literally opened up on us and buckets of rain began to fall. I did the only thing I could do, which was to laugh and continue carefully pedaling along, through puddles that were quickly becoming small ponds. We kept a bit more distance between each of us to account for slower braking and avoid the rooster tail in the face effect, although the water was coming from every direction and in such volume as I’d only ever biked in once in Louisiana. Which, incidentally, was a night when I met a fascinating woman who was also biking in a torrential downpour.
I thought to myself, geez Europe, I get it that you’re sad I’m leaving, but you don’t have to cry so much, I’ll be back again just 12 days after I leave!
The rain continued for about an hour and our speed dropped considerably. We were barely averaging 15 km/hr and it became clear we couldn’t afford the luxury of an afternoon break. As we pedaled along a nice stretch of bike path I paused under a tree (which didn’t help much to break the rain, as it was still coming down strong) to call my friend and explain we couldn’t meet for afternoon tea. I was sad, but it’s what we had to do, besides, although we were on route, we didn’t actually know where we were which we needed to know in order to meet her. Then this made my friend worried as she thought we were lost. I reassured her we were on course.
We shoved off again and this is when we began the treacherous, bumpy section of the route. The first bump took me by surprise and sent a shock through my hands, which made me yelp out loud. After that I kept my grip a bit loser. A few kilometers of bumps and then I was relieved to be back on smooth roads again.
Now we were on the home stretch. John noted that we appeared to be tracking with the progression of the rain storm. How lovely! Fortunately, it eventually stopped and we paused for two more breaks – once to relieve ourselves and a second time for a snack as we consulted the map to ensure we were still on course. By 6:30, weariness had begun to settle in and we began to double-check the turns to ensure we were on course.
Around 7:30 we began to enter familiar territory, and picked up our pace a bit as the finish line, and the promise of a warm shower (!), approached. At this point, I’d describe our mood as tired but pretty ecstatic! I learned that this was a greater distance than either Jaap or Peter had ever pedaled! Quite remarkable to just jump out and do it one day and to do it so well! John and I had both gone the distance before. Myself, back in Davis as a participant in the Foxy fall century, maybe in 2001, so it had been some time.
As we pedaled along Jaap noted that a bird had sh*t on my helmet cover. We both decided this was good luck!
Then we made a steady push to home. As we pedaled up on to the banks of the Rhein to say farewell to Peter, we were filled with pride and joy. A quick round of hugs and thanks for the fantastic route guiding and Peter headed north while we raced south.
And race we did, how we still had anything left in our legs is a mystery to me. Eventually, I began to fall off and yelled “gap” to which the fellows promptly responded and gave me a chance to catch them.
The final stretch was a treacherous cobblestone path which Jaap raced over while John and I opted for a smooth surface just to the right. As we pulled into the parking lot, Peter Josef was there smiling and snapping photos of the red hat gang completing the journey. We gave a leap of joy and then got the heck off of our bikes to enjoy a ride in a cage (the biker term for car) back to town for a warm shower and dinner.
What a send off! A day I’ll never forget. The next morning I woke up to find a blue bird sky and it didn’t rain a lick. But I’ve got to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I mean, I’ve had loads of bluebird day bike rides and most are forgotten, but riding through a torrential rain storm, just because we could, well that I’ll never forget!
Musings from John (aka The Captain):
“6 am found me stood on the balcony, coffee in hand looking at the dark relentless rain. A twinge of guilt cut across my soul for the phrase “It’s only rain “ and I toast to whatever cycling gods are awake at this hour to keep us safe and throw the dregs of coffee over the balcony.
Such an arduous adventure reveals the true character of those involved and what a positive group of people , never a cross word, never really a grumble (except me when I fell off my bike into a puddle , predictably) and Peter Josef who couldn’t cycle supported us heroically. I recall stopping at some traffic lights in the pouring rain early in the day. The van driver next to us lowered the window ,” where are you going in this weather ?” he asked ? “ Belgium” came the reply to his astonishment , then, “and back” shouted Jaap which made him laugh out loud. Belgium as has been said by many was anticlimactic except for the quote of the day from our esteemed pathfinder . “ you come all this way and the route ends up a goat “ no idea what he was talking about. Natalie’s impromptu speech at this point has been captured for all eternity in a short video, needless to say it is nonsense but heartfelt nonsense.
Roemond with beer, food and friends was great but I worried that it would be difficult to get going again, it was in the rain that was like cycling along a stream while someone trained a hosepipe full on in your face. Then the weather improved, distance left became conceivable, and the evening light was saying “ well done , you can have it easy from this point” and it was . We had used the light of the whole day plus a bit more , we had challenged the elements and survived, we had talked philosophy and punctures and more importantly we had had a good laugh.
I enjoyed my beers that night.”
And Peter (aka the pathfinder):
“I too was apprehensive about riding over 100 miles for the first time in my life; in the rain too. As I left home I wished for two things: a helmet cover and shoe covers. By some magical serendipity Natalie fulfilled the first wish, and the water drained out of the holes in my shoes just fine. I’m a Brit. We do rain.
Sorry about the puncture: rear wheel of course. I’d fitted brand new outer tyres because I know that punctures are more likely on old tyres in the rain. It turned out to be a faulty inner tube. Thanks to the team for the patience and Jaap for figuring out how to get the rotor between the brake pads.
As we left the Belgian border the effect of the Sekt started to wear off and the ride home seemed impossible. The tailwind and lunch in Roermond motivated me to hang on in there with the gang. In the back of my mind was the thought that I could catch a train home if the legs seized up. But they didn’t. Also, I was the only one who could navigate. We rode on steadily, stopping more often to rest and snack. As the rain cleared we picked up speed and soon the Düsseldorf Rheinturm was in sight. Home! We parted on the Rhein dyke near Meerbusch and I cycled northwards along the river in the dusk. My incredulous and slightly anxious wife was there to welcome me home. The soak in a hot bath was most welcome. I was even able to move and sit down the following day. We made it together.
How far away is France?
Here’s the day by the numbers:
- 170 kilometers
- 3 countries
- 12.5 hours
- 1 flat (puncture depending on your country of origin)
- One funny joke about a goat
- Nearly 1 bottle of Sekt, 4 shots of Genever and 3 beers
- About 20 minutes of sunshine
- Approximately a solid foot of rain (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but maybe not)
- 4 proud bicyclists and the best sag crew a gal could wish for!