In 2016, we cycled the Eurovelo 15 (the Rhein route) from Leersum in The Netherlands to the Rheinfalls in Switzerland. It was our first long cycle tour, and it was a very steep learning curve! The Eurovelo 15 is the first of the eurovelo routes (long distance cycle routes criss-crossing europe) to have joined up signage the whole way, and it snakes along the river through The Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland. We camped everywhere, other than when we stayed with people and two nights in a hotel in Dusseldorf when I was feeling very sorry for myself.
Here are our 15 top tips for newbie cycle tourers looking to do the Eurovelo 15.
1. Buy the right maps!
You could, theoretically, ride this whole route without a map as it is signposted the whole way. However, aside from wanting to route plan and find campsites, you’ll see other reasons below why having a map is useful. When we left, we had no idea of what maps we might need, and we panic bought some road maps of the areas we were cycling through. We quickly found these weren’t detailed enough for route planning, and didn’t include cycle routes. In Gotterswickersham (Germany) we met a couple of cycle tourers who recommended the maps they were using and we bought some asap. They were flipbooks of the Rhein route, covering different sections and produced by bikeline cycling guides. You can buy them in advance but we had fun exploring map shops (there’s a great one in Amsterdam) and bookshops (although it meant our maps were in German which limited how useful their advice was…!)
2. Saying that – don’t be afraid to just take maps!
We didn’t take smart phones or GPS. Occasionally this was the source of great anxiety to us, and it made some things, like finding campsites or supermarkets off the route, or navigating detours, more difficult. But, it also made us more resourceful and resilient. It pushed us out of our comfort zone and encouraged us to ask for help. The route was straightforward (if in doubt, head for the river!) and getting lost taught us a lot about finding our way. GPS is great if you’re somewhere very remote or difficult to navigate, or if you have a tight time limit or are pushing your distances, but if you’ve got the time and energy, getting lost is totally worth it. As two people with social anxiety, who sometimes struggle with new places, this action gave us confidence, and resourcefulness to take home with us.
3. Try Warmshowers.
Warmshowers.org is like coach surfing for cycle tourers and we’ve had some great experiences through it; being hosted in The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. You create an account and contact available hosts – who are normally cyclists themselves full of advice, maps, and stories. We’re both introverts, so we learnt to follow up a warmshowers night with a night in a campsite to recharge. We had some totally lovely experiences though, and if you’re nervous don’t be afraid to set yourself some baseline criteria; boundaries are important folks. We decided originally we’d only contact couples or women, they had to have photos (preferably of them cycling) and we always had to know we had another option so we could back out last minute if we felt uncomfortable. There’s also a peer review system, so you can always see if they’ve hosted/been hosted before.
4. Don’t feel you have to follow the route to the letter.
Trust me, I feel the desire to stick to the route so strongly. It was one of the steepest learning curves, and a task of building confidence as a cyclist, to feel brave enough to plan a route on small roads that bypassed sections of the route, or took us on a detour, or avoided a detour. The route can be super windy, and take you on a scenic trip around a village only to spit you out 100m down the same road. If you want to get through a section fast (the area around Mainz is particularly bland agriculture) then experiment with plotting and taking shortcuts. This is also a great way to build up towards doing tours on different routes, which are more road heavy, or coming up with your own routes in the future.
5. Rivers run through valleys.
‘Rivers are flat’ we joked to people before we left who looked at us incredulously as we announced our cycle tour, how hard can they be? And it’s true, the route is very flat. However, river’s run in valleys and if you want to leave the river to find a place to eat, camp, sleep, or visit be prepared to haul ass (and your loaded bike) up some steep ass roads. Planning ahead is a good idea here (and it also helps to have a cycle specific map of the route as these often have campsites in detail, and gradient lines so you can at least be prepared.)
6. Bad means Bath in German.
All those towns you’re cycling through in the Upper Rhein Valley – Bad this, and Bad that – have, or had, Roman Baths. Make the most of these! We stopped at Bad Breisig, leaving our bikes and panniers haphazardly locked outside, and bundled into the geothermal baths. It was lush and did magic for our muscles. Also on the road you accumulate a perpetual layer of grime, bike oil and grit and there’s nothing like a long soak to feel CLEAN again.
7. Wear what makes you feel comfortable!
If you feel great in Lycra – wear Lycra! We stuck with cotton t-shirts and padded cycling shorts, although Abi didn’t wear padded shorts for the first 1,000km (see Abi’s blog about clothing for fat cycle tourers). We had a mix of camping clothes – including a fair bit of cold weather stuff as we were cycling from August through to late Autumn. You don’t need to buy and wear fancy cycling gear. Also, think realistically about what makes you comfortable. People often extoll a minimalist aesthetic when touring: ‘one to wear, one to wash’. But, if you’re travelling for more than a few weeks other factors come into play, for example Abi packed comfortable pyjama bottoms because she struggles with certain sensations and fabrics when she’s trying to sleep. Its a balance – think about what’s important to you!
8. Don’t feel you have to read ahead, but take advantage of local knowledge.
We didn’t have a guidebook, and travelled without researching places beforehand. Although this meant that sometimes we saw something interesting or cool (or frankly non-descript) and only retrospectively found out it was culturally or historically significant, it also meant that we relied upon, and were therefore open to, the knowledge, advice and hot tips of folks we met. This was how we wound up at Zollverein in Essen (the most beautiful coal mine in the world), at the wooden bridge at Bad Sackingenham (the oldest, or longest, I didn’t say my German was good) and at the amazing Rheinfall (the biggest waterfall in Europe!) There’s a balance, of course, and blundering into places as a white English person risks playing the bumbling englishman card of colonialism/cultural imperialism, but at the same time its worth being flexible and listening to what locals are recommending! We used Instagram for this a lot too and we appreciated the community online full of ideas and recommendations (esp. for top vegan buys in germany- tofu tortellini from DM for the win!)
9. Try Pole Camping
Paalkampeerterrein, or pole camping sites, in The Netherlands are a gentle introduction to the world of wild camping. Camping is legal within 10 metres of a pole in the middle of the forest. Otherwise there are no additional facilities. It was cool n scary sleeping in the quiet dark of the forest (also my air bed punctured in the night!) and although we were both nervous the night before, we woke up feeling really calm n wholesome n like badass outdoors people. Note: you need to make sure you have enough drinking water with you, as though there is often a pump at the pole campsites its not drinkable. You also need a trowel to dig holes for your morning business (nature is your toilet!)
I got us v.v.lost on our first day, like think 50km South rather than West on only half a flapjack each and you get the idea. The silver lining was we ended up camping at Fort Spion, a natturkamperterrien or natural camping site – part of an organisation of 146 campsites that are sympathetic to the local environment and prioritise tents. For 15Euro, you can join and receive a membership card and a guide to the others across the Netherlands. We stayed in two in the end – Fort Spion and Leersum – and would really rate them (as once we were in Germany we mostly stayed in larger campsites that were dominated by caravans and motorhomes)
11. The best bike is the bike you have!
Ok, no judgement if you decide you want a new bike to tour on – its your tour! But, this point is more there as a reassurance to folks worrying that their bike isn’t a good enough bike, or the wrong bike. We toured on two second hand steel framed bikes we’d bought off gumtree for £40 each. We took them to our local bike shop (the amazing Flat Planet Cycles in Cambridge) where Mark shared his experience and helped us fix them up to tour bit by bit. He swapped out our flat handlebars for butterfly bars, which give you more hand positions, sorted out a pannier rack which went with abi’s old school frame and told us to just go and do it! The only issue we had was Abi’s rear wheel. You can’t protect yourself from mechanical issues by spending money – especially not on a long trip – but there are loads of bike shops on the route, and everyone we talked to was super helpful. What was useful was knowing our bikes: what felt normal and what felt wrong, what their recurring problems were and what had worked to fix them. We made sure to keep the chains clean with a rag and washing up liquid, lube it up regularly and check for wear on places like the rims of our wheels. We did a super basic bike maintenance course at Outspoken cycles in cambridge and would definitely recommend this if you want to learn or solidify the basics. ((On our current tour, we are again on second hand rigid steel mountain bike frames – check out our post about our current bikes here.)))
12. Pay attention to what side of the river you are on!
The Eurovelo route often runs down both sides of the Rhein. One of the main things the maps are useful for is recommending which side to ride down; some sides are longer, take more detours, or travel on worse surfaces. We made arbitrary decisions about what side to ride on and the result was several very trying, and totally avoidable, days.
13. The quality of the path is… variable….
The path is all joined up (wooo), with consistent signage (wooo), but the quality of the path varies wildly (booo) from beautifully smooth tarmac to endless, rough gravel tracks. We were both cycling on wider tyres (not thin racing tyres, but not nobbly mountain bike tyres either) and it wasn’t pleasant but it was do-able. At times we opted for the road instead, braving traffic in exchange for a more ride-able surface.
14. Ignore the Rheinkilometers, they are evil (but also I guess cool.)
What are these large black and white numbers along the river? Why, they’re Rheinkilometers and since 1939 they have broken the Rhein river into kilometers – from 0 at Lake Constance to 1036 at the Hoek of Holland. Whilst it’s cool to have a measure of your progress along a single river, a word of warning: several kilometers of cycling along winding paths may not even add up to one kilometer on the river, so don’t use counting them down individually as motivation, it can be very dispiriting.
15. And finally our top tips: Fort Spion campsite in The Netherlands, vegan pub food in Essen (take a detour to Essen, follow the Ruhr river route back to rejoin the Rhein at Duisburg), the medieval city of Worms (cradle of the reformation), vegan food at Velicious in Strasbourg, Sonneneck campsite in the Upper Rhein Valley, the baths at Bad Breisag, the old/long bridge at Bad Sackingen, and visiting the Rheinfall.
We hope you find these helpful, and if you do end up doing the Eurovelo 15, let us know how you go!