Cycling the Rhine
The Rhine is one of Europe’s biggest rivers, and is steeped in history and folklore. From spectacular Alpine views, around the source of the river in Switzerland, to battle-scarred WW2 (and earlier wars) fortifications, to fairy-tale castles, beautiful valleys adorned with vineyards, plus much more, it has something for everyone. No wonder that the Rhine cycle route is one of Europe’s most popular long-distance cycle routes.
Planes, trains and automobiles. And bicycles, obviously
I’ve been flight-free since 2007. Flying remains essential for some people – try taking a ship to Australia – but most flights are for leisure, and simply carry people going on holiday. We’re on the cusp of runaway climate change, and no exotic holiday is worth killing off the future for. Precisely because of this, I’m determined to get to the start of the ride, Andermatt, in Switzerland, without flying. This limits me to just three other options: get to the start by train or coach, drive to the start, or cycle to the start. Much as I’d love to, I simply won’t have time to cycle to the start – that would require a further two weeks that I simply won’t have.
My preferred option is to take the train. That means – at best – 18 hours of train travel, and arriving in Andermatt around 10pm at night. By anyone’s measure, that’s quite a long journey. Unlike a long-haul flight, it also includes short bits of cycling between stations, and lots of train changes.
You’d think that, with so many people wanting to cycle the Rhine, from source to sea, public transport options for getting to the start with your bicycle would be so much easier. Sadly, the reality is that it is extremely challenging. Some trains will carry normal, non-folding bicycles, but most won’t. Some coaches will, but most won’t. Obviously, people come from all over to cycle the Rhine, so my example isn’t typical for everyone, as my route to the start is different to that of so many others. Despite that, the principle applies to a great many, and not simply those who want to cycle the Rhine.
Trouble in paradise
I use paradise loosely, of course. I think nobody would disagree when I say train journeys, especially with a laden bicycle, aren’t quite paradise! The trouble is train services in the UK and France are very hostile to anyone wanting to travel with a full-size bike. After a lot of research, I’m starting to think that it’s easier to take your bike on a train in the UK! What doesn’t help is the language barrier – I don’t speak French. And yes, that’s a me problem – I’m not expecting an entire nation translate all their train sites to English just to accommodate me. I do however expect, and very reasonably so, that it should be far easier to book a journey like this!
Some trains carry non-folding bicycles, some carry them, but only at certain times, and most will only carry them if you box them up. In an era of climate breakdown, surely we should do all we can to encourage more sustainable forms of transport. Already. most people would simply fly to the start, as it would take just 2 or 3 hours, instead of 18 hours minimum by train. I can take the time penalty, and work that into my plans, but I simply cannot risk getting halfway, then being unable to continue my journey to the start of the Rhine.
Across much of Europe there is a coach company called Flixbus, and many of their coaches do take bicycles. However, I’ve been unsuccessful in planning a route that gets me to Andermatt, even when using a combination of train and coach travel.
I’m a South African citizen, permanently resident in the UK. That means, before travelling to Europe, I need a Schengen visa. However, I was planning on visiting Amsterdam in September. The Netherlands, like may other countries, have outsourced their visa application process to a private company, and that company is absolutely awful. They “release” visa application appointments in the middle of the month, each month, but you as an individual stand absolutely no chance of landing one of those slots. That’s because they’re snapped up in bulk by visa agencies. In practice, this meant I was unable to even get an appointment to apply for the visa I needed. Well, strictly speaking that’s not true: by paying an additional £145, I could get an appointment via such an agency.
That system is, in my opinion, nothing but state-sanctioned open corruption, and I rather strongly feel that especially the Netherlands needs to hang their heads in shame.
A change of heart
Given all these obstacles I face, long before I can even set off on the ride, it is with great regret that I have had to accept that I’ll have to cancel my plans to go cycle the Rhine. I’m not saying I will never cycle it – hopefully the logistics of getting there gets easier – but at this stage, it seems highly unlikely.