About cycling and navigating in Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain.

In this post I write about my experiences I made with cycling and navigating on my last long distance cycling trip from Berlin to València (August 2018). You can also find weekly journals of the trip for more detailed information here: week 1, week 2, week 3 and week 4.

Germany

The bike tracks in Germany were mostly well sign posted and layed out. I followed the R1, D3, D11, RDE (German Reunion Path), Elbe and Halle-Saale cycling track, Euro Velo 15 and tons of local cycling tracks in Germany. I never had to switch to a national road, sometimes the bike lanes were next to them though. They were mostly asphalt, around Darmstadt and down to Basel sometimes gravel. Tree rots breaking up the asphalts were the most danger and annoyance, far more than cars or pedestrians. In Hessen someone seemed to have fun turning the signs into wrong directions, that’s actually the only time I really needed a map. Since I used so many different trails, and often some I didn’t even know about before taking them, I used a combination of little index cards I wrote the names of the locations I’d cycle through on, and the Mapout map I had worked out previously (read about the Mapout mapping here).

Switzerland

In Switzerland, the route was the best signposted route I have ever cycled so far. All the way to Geneva I did not get lost once, nor needed my phone for navigation. But the landscape was of such redicoulus beauty, I could not put my cell phone away. My phone also functions as a camera. Also, the car drivers treated me as a cyclist very respectfully. Well, apart from the cities where there always seems to be war on the streets. The cycling infrastructure seems very well planned and taken care of (under 10 km of gravel in total, the rest clean and well rolling asphalt) and I happily pay tourist tax for that service.

For an overview of the available bike routes in Switzerland I recommend SchweizMobil. There is also an App. The service lets you plan almost any kind of outdoors activity, in the summer or winter – hiking, cycling, mountain biking, skating, canoeing, snow shoe trekking, sledging and cross country skiing is provided. Did you know, they have a 385 km long skating route from Lake Constance to Lac de Neuchâtel … I feel a challenge coming up … Anyway, I had lot’s of fun playing with it. There is a plus version you have to pay for with more functions but the free version was enough for my planning.

France and Spain

Three years ago, I cycled from Karlsruhe to Mont-Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast via Straßbourg, Nancy and Paris. From there I took the Euro Velo 1 all the way down to Lacanau. In Lacanau I went inland and joined  the Canal des 2 Mers to get to the Mediterranean Sea via Bordeaux,  Toulouse and Narbonne . In Narbonne I left the Canal des 2 Mers and continued south via Port-la-Nouvelle, Argelès-sur-Mer, Le Boulou to la Jonquera, Figueres, Barcelona and finally València. During that trip I cycled on French country roads for about 1000 km and felt absolutely safe. Of course, there were some stressful and dangerous situations in roundabouts or at busy intersections, but all in all it was pretty smooth. The two cars that cut me short had German number plates, the French drivers overtook with enough distance. The rest of the kilometres were along the Euro Velo network with most cycling lanes separated from streets. I was in shock when I came to the Coll de Panissars, which is the border crossing I took to get from France to Spain. Until then, in France, it was a narrow but paved road climbing the 324 altitude meters for about 10 km. Whilst climbing I passed little villages and had beautiful views of the French Pyrénées-Orientales. At the Coll was a tollgate – literarily a cut tree arranged to a barrier, and after the bar, a washed out and very steep mountain bike track which, I could see that from the top, ended in the highway to la Jonquera. I somehow managed to carry my bike and myself down the trail without falling, lifted it over the side rail of the highway – there was really no other way at that point – and looked for a bike lane to the city. On the other side of the highway I was able to make out a sign for a camino to Santiago, next to it a prostitute sitting on a beach chair, smoking and drinking coca-cola. I didn’t dare to take a photo but managed to cross the highway and asked her for the way to la Jonquera. She was terribly bored and just nodded to the emergency lane of the highway with her empty eyes. That’s how I learned how much Spain cares about long distance cycling routes (this trail is part of the Euro Velo 8 route according to my map). I found it very stressful to cycle in Spain back then (2015).

This time it was different, almost turned around. I followed Euro Velo routes in France most of the time as well, but on the roads and off the bike tracks I found the drivers rather disrespectful. They overtook immediately, also in curves and other dangerous situations, and often very close to me. I had a rear mirror on my left handlebar and could see them approach without slowing down or giving way, almost feeling them. Also, Zebra crossings meant nothing and the „right before left“-rule was respected among cars but not when a bike was coming from right. The new bike lanes France of the Euro Velo 17 though are awesome. Shielded off cars and with fresh asphalt a dream to ride. It’s not entirely implemented yet, but signposted all along. See images  below with information about which stretches are completed, provisional or on shared roads.

Spain is just starting to establish long distance bike lanes and I came across quite a couple in Catalonia. They are pretty landscape wise but uncycleable for roadbikes. Spain uses gravel and sand for dedicated bike lanes, which is probably great for trekking or mountain bikes but not for road bikes. But racing is pretty big in Spain and the drivers seemed to be used to bikes on the smaller roads. I was not once overtaken without too little distance, in the mountains they would go behind me for minutes and minutes until I’d wave them to overtake and even then go slow and with a big distance. Often I got a thank you honk while in France I almost got run over while signing the car behind me to wait because of upcoming traffic – unsuccessfully and almost ending in a crash for them and the car in the opposite lane. From Tarragona to Valencia it’s a very long stretch of national road which is pretty stressful because of the noise, attention that has to be paid and sometimes it’s so wide it almost feels like a highway and the cars speed accordingly. But at least, also here, the cars switched the lane most of the time when they overtook me.

Most of the time I followed sign posted bike trails on this journey. From Sète onwards it was the Euro Velo 8, but since it’s not really sign posted yet I switched to just follow the coast line or memorising the villages I wanted to go to that day. That worked pretty well. The last stretch, from Barcelona to València, I used Komoot for navigation. It found a route with a little less national roads than I did on my trip three year ago but still appropriate roads for my bike and even less kilometres than my Mapout plot.

I’m looking forward to going further south for weekend trips. I heard there are some great cycling roads even the pros take to during the winter training. If you have any tips, please drop me a line or write in the comments below.

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