In search of volcanos
Are there actually volcanoes in Germany? A question you might answer in third grade science class – or if you just had to cancel a trip to Italy for an ultra race between two volcanoes.
But from the beginning:
At the end of October I was registered for the Two Volcano Sprint, a “short” ultra distance race, without support over 1,200 km through southern Italy from Vesuvius to Etna. For me, the big milestone I’d been working towards for the last few months (and a welcome alibi for a week’s vacation in Sicily to soak up the sun before winter). For the ultra-distance scene, the big bang at the end of the season with a sensationally populated starting field.
The suitcases – or rather the bikepacking bags – were almost packed, the route loaded onto the Garmin and the bike stowed in the transport bag for the train ride to Naples, when late in the evening on the day before departure Corona threw a spanner in the works: Naples, the region where the race started three days later, was declared a risk area. Home office is not an option in my line of work, so I had no way to simply sit out a possible quarantine upon return. Basta, the dream of gelato stops on the Amalfi Coast and pizza at the finish line just shattered.
Emily Chapell, vividly describes in her book “Where there is a will,” the emotional hole one can fall into after an ultra-distance race. If you are prevented by external circumstances from starting in the first place, you also first fall into an emotional hole – except that it is harder to justify when you destroy too much chocolate then. You have not exactly burned calories for days without sitting on the saddle. So in order not to sink completely into frustration and to have an excuse to eat lots of ice cream after all, I had to come up with a new plan, my Two Volcano alternative. The question of whether there are volcanoes in Germany was quickly answered – no active fire breathers, but a bunch of mountains and mountainous regions formed from volcanic eruptions. So i quickly had a plan. Set up a route on Komoot, packed a few extra layers of warmth for the German fall weather, and I was ready to go for my little alternative adventure.
At least the journey to the start was a bit less complicated than to Italy. With only two regional trains I arrived in Singen at the foot of the Hohentwiel in the Hegau, the first volcano of my trip. For the start, I had located a somewhat whimsical sculpture in the town center – after all, there was also an impressive statue at the start line of the Two Volcano Sprint. No substitute for the magic of starting in the twinkling lights of a large group of cyclists, but still. The way out of the sleeping city was not long and after a short crisp climb I was already on the first volcano of the tour, Hohentwiel. Since I had come on the -in retrospect little sensible- idea to start in the late evening in complete darkness, there was of course nothing to see of the view and the gates to the ruins of the fortress on the hilltop were closed. So no castle tour and no nice photos, but volcano 1/7 was done.
After the bumpy descent from Hohentwiel, it was off towards the Black Forest. I rolled quite peacefully in the dark through the slowly rising landscape. I like the quiet atmosphere at night on the bike, you perceive the environment through a completely different filter. In the brightly lit cone of the headlight, everything is contrasted by the strong shadows. Sounds sound more impressive than in the bright light, when you are much more busy processing countless visual impressions. And yet, especially on a clear night, you can see a surprising amount even in the “dark,” at least in densely populated Germany, where it doesn’t get really dark almost anywhere.
I had planned to simply ride through the first night and then arrive at the second volcano in the morning. The euphoria of finally being on the road lasted only for a few kilometers, but then I was caught up by the cold reality: Autumn nights in the Black Forest are anything but warm. I didn’t realize how cold it was until it was far too late, and by the time I started putting on layer after layer of extra clothing, I was already chilled out. It quickly became clear that I urgently needed to warm up. So the first stage came to an abrupt end after just 50 kilometers and I lay shivering in my bivac. It took an hour before I stopped freezing, enough time to think about my mistake of dressing warm enough too late. After all, the best gear is no good if you don’t use it properly.
Before dawn, I peeled myself back out of the cozy down sleeping bag and made sure I really had everything on that I could put on before getting back on the bike. As the sun slowly pushed towards the horizon, I rode straight over a small mountain ridge and had a clear view diagonally behind me of the red-lit Alpine chain to the southeast. The hoarfrost wrapped the meadows between the dark firs of the Black Forest in an icy dress. My toes were already bitterly cold again, but the fairytale landscape more than made up for it. Then from the Kandel, one of the Black Forest’s most popular road bike climbs, I could glimpse the Kaiserstuhl deep down in the Rhine plain. The last remnant of the annoyance about my slow progress was blown away by the driving wind on the curvy descent.
In the Kaiserstuhl magnificent weather was announced, everything shone in the most beautiful autumn colors. I had picked the Totenkopf of course only because of its name as a target summit in the Kaiserstuhl, but it was in retrospect a good choice, on the summit there was namely a small observation tower and hence to the beautiful weather, even a view. Which would later turn out to be the absolute exception in my volcano visits.
On the way out of the Kaiserstuhl I finally found an ice cream parlor along the route – I had really earned the first ice cream of the tour with the short but steep climbs through the vineyards. In addition, it was very much time to work on my ice cream balance. After all, in good old tradition, I had my friends bet on how many different types of ice cream I would eat during the Two Volcano Sprint – and of course I didn’t let the bet lapse with the change of plans. Ice cream bets are honor bets!
Now, first of all, there was a flat and not very spectacular section ahead of me. So it didn’t matter that I rode much of it in the dark, it wouldn’t have been particularly spectacular even by day. After some searching I ended up in a cornfield to sleep. Frankly, it was neither idyllic nor comfortable. In relatively densely populated areas, I often have a hard time finding a comfortable place to sleep. Somehow, I always feel a little out of place in such regions, spreading out my minimalist sleeping kit so close to all the comforts of civilization. Simply sleeping on the ground in a patch of forest is actually the most natural thing in the world – and yet it radically breaks the rules of this civilization, as this has been drilled into me all my life. “You don’t do that.” And when you do, sometimes it’s not convenient, but nobody ever bought freedom with convenience. And so I lay rather lopsided and somewhat muddy in this cornfield, listening to the occasional car and truck rumble by the nearby highway, wondering why anyone would actually volunteer to do something so bizarre on their vacation, and yet somehow feeling proud that I was doing something I would never have dared to do a few years ago: simply sleeping outside in a cornfield.
Simply sleeping on the ground in a patch of forest is actually the most natural thing in the world – and yet it radically breaks the rules of this civilization.
Besides sleeping outside, there are other things that can be less pleasant when cycling. Crashing, for example. I have a theory, though, that everyone has a crash account. If you regularly pay harmless crashes into it, the account is always well filled, and so you get past having to take a more serious injuries. So then, at least in my mind, there is something good about scraping your elbow and thighs. However, I had to recite this mantra to myself several times when, out of the blue, I slid out of a curve on a flat bike path and sat quite inelegantly on the ground next to my bike. Gummy bears also help in such moments. And then quickly got back on the bike and rode on before thinking too much about the next downfall that will come at some point.
After cutting short the Rhine bend near Mainz across the Palatinate Forest, I came back to a section of the Rhine I’d wanted to ride for a long time: The Middle Rhine area between Bingen and Boppard. And the route with all the castles, vineyards and rugged rocks really did not disappoint me – but that could also be due to the almost summer weather. Of course, also the best conditions to drive the ice counter up!
From the Rhine, i then climbed steeply over a foothill of the Hunsrück on course to the next volcano. Lake Laach fills a volcanic crater that erupted “only” 13,000 years ago. As I could already see the mountain from a distance in the evening sun, I was still well in time to get to the top for a sunset photo. The weather also played along – but it was not supposed to be with me and the volcano photos. I had naively assumed that I would surely pass a good vantage point. But nothing there: The lake was completely surrounded by forest, through which I thus raced until the sun went down and I had to bury the hope for a photo of the crater lake. The day was still a perfect vacation day to finish with pizza and tiramisu.
A spontaneously planned route is full of surprises. For example, white spots on one’s mental map unexpectedly fill in. Or you can locate places you had only vaguely heard of before and connect them with real images. That’s what happened to me with the Westerwald. The name of the low mountain range had previously been only an empty word for me, I had no clue where to locate it. And now I rode right through it. The quietly rolling landscape could not keep up with the previous spectacular day, perhaps I should have chosen the small detour along the Lahn. But I had by no means had enough of the autumn colors against the bright blue sky. And you do not always need spectacular, sometimes just beautiful is enough.
But maybe I rolled along a little too relaxed. Or it should be simply so that I did not bring about beautiful summit photos. When I arrived on the Hoherodskopf in the Vogelsberg, which would have given a perfect view for the sunset, it was already pitch dark. The timing just wasn’t my thing.
You always have to divide a long distance into smaller sections in your head, that’s probably the first basic rule of mental strategy for long distances on the bike. If you don’t have a somehow tangible goal in mind, it’s too easy to be intimidated by the distance still ahead. In a race, it’s often checkpoints. On my volcano tour, it was, of course, the volcanoes. The section from Vogelsberg to Wasserkuppe was the shortest of these, otherwise I might have given in when I passed through Fulda late at night and the thought crossed my mind to look for a hotel after all and just let the night be night. But of course I knew that I would then have missed something.
Riding at night through the mountains with the bike – when you never have done this, you will probably think to yourselves that this is a more than strange idea. Not too long ago, I probably would have found it bizarre as well. But it’s perhaps the best way to find real peace on the bike on the road. The starry sky, the empty streets, only now and then a small place with shining windows. And that silence. One pedal stroke after the other, crank turn after crank turn up the hill. Quieter and quieter.
I was almost disappointed that the climb was already over when I arrived at the Wasserkuppe. And that after I had almost softened the thought of a warm hotel room in town. The closer you are to give up, the more uplifting is the feeling of making it and arriving at the top after all. Instead of the warm hotel room, I then found a shelter for the night on a playground. Even a roof over my head! As I lay down, I realized my mistake: Between the boards above me were wide gaps. So after all no protection from the announced rain, but I didn’t care meanwhile, my eyes had already fallen shut.
The announced rain came, but at least not in torrents. The fog was super dense. And so there was no nice sunrise again. But somehow the fog suited the landmark of the Wasserkuppe: The radome, under whose dome eavesdropping devices were hidden during the Cold War, is a mysterious motif on the summit photo even without a view.
Descending over wet asphalt in dense fog with almost no one on the road in the early morning on the remote roads through the Rhön. It is wet, it is cold – and yet beautiful. Washed by the rain, the trees shine yellow, red and brown. The clouds hanging low between the hills creating a raw atmosphere. On such a picturesque autumn day, despite all the romance of racing, there are great advantages of being on vacation rather than in a race: I simply drank a second coffee and ate another piece of cake when I wanted to warm up a little longer in a café before I continued.
Another advantage of being “just” on vacation: You can also just take a vacation from your vacation. I took a break from cycling shortly after Wasserkuppe over the weekend to visit friends. And on Monday back on the bike it continued gain – the rain. From my experience, I always have more fun cycling in the rain than I think beforehand. Or at least the reality is usually much less bad than imagining how wet and cold it will surely get. But sometimes my motivation is also sorely tested, especially without the adrenaline and ticking clock of a race. In negotiating with my inner bastard, the first remedy of choice was very classic sugar. Six degrees and rain may not be classic ice cream weather, but in Bayreuth, right next to the famous opera house, I was surprised with some fantastic ice cream.
But I had to dig deeper into my bag of tricks to keep myself happy. I knew there were some shelters in the woods around the nearest volcano, so I would certainly have found a dry place to spend the night, but I decided to bribe myself with the prospect of a warm shower. Spontaneous findings are sometimes the best, and so a quick search for a place to stay let me find an absolute gem for the night: a glass pavilion at the end of a farm garden. Almost like sleeping outside, but just with the comfort of a cozy bed, a coffee machine, and not only a hot shower, but even a bathtub. And as the icing on the cake, the landlady of this little paradise was so excited about my bike ride through the wet autumn that she brought me a whole tray full of cheese, bread and fruit, even though I had assured her that I still had enough to eat. An evening can simply only be this cozy if you have bravely fought your way through the wet and cold beforehand!
The Rauhe Kulm must be an impressive mountain despite its height of just 681 meters. Strictly speaking, it is not a real volcano, since it never erupted – it was formed about 21 million years ago when the basalt column of magma that had risen to just below the earth’s crust was exposed by erosion. That is why the mountain has its unusual shape with a kind of dome on top. At least that’s what it looked like on the photos I found during my research. Again, I was up in time for sunrise. But from the basalt dome of the sixth volcano of my tour I saw exactly: nothing. The clouds hung exactly on the same height. Was it slowly becoming a tradition that I just didn’t have a lucky hand for light and weather conditions on the volcanoes?
Final spurt. Well, probably not quite – there were still 400 km and 6,000 hm ahead of me. But at least the last section was peppered with small highlights. The next landmark was the former three-country corner on the border between East Germany, West Germany and the Czech Republic. Here I had started my tour along the former inner-German border a year earlier on German Unity Day. I allowed myself a small deviation from the rules I had set myself and crossed the border into the official Corona risk area of the Czech Republic. A few meters behind the border stone there are covered picnic tables. With no human being in sight except me, I could reconcile this small outbreak with my epidemiological conscience.
The next nostalgic moment was waiting for me later in the evening: The pass Hefekloß in the Ore Mountains. A humorous highlight in itself, but crowned by the memories of Maurice Brocco 400 race in the summer, when I stood there in the drizzle with my friend Pauline and we took the obligatory mountain top photo. Carried by the memories of past adventures, the day flew by and found its crowning conclusion on the Fichtelberg. I had located a quaint shelter with a peaked roof very near the summit. (As it turned out later a popular bikepacking hotel: An acquaintance wrote me when I had shared a photo of the hut, that he had also slept there once). The clouds hung thick between the trees all around and the wind whistled over the roof. But what could be more comfortable than lying in a warm sleeping bag in the woods, in a dry cabin, listening to the forest and having a clear view of the brilliant sky that suddenly exposed by the wind between the clouds?
I had altogether few thoughts about how long exactly I would need for my tour. I just wanted to see how it turned out. But somewhere in the Erzgebirge my ambition caught me and the plan to ride the remaining distance to the last volcano in one go grew up. The whole day i rolled smooth and fast and as it became slowly dark, the Lausche was within reach. In the Saxon Switzerland I hesitated once again briefly. Should i skip sleep and ride through the darkness or should i continue the ride at daylight through this landscape, which I wanted to visit for a long time. But at that point i had crossed the point of no return and continued my ride.
One big advantage of riding at nighttime is that you don’t feel like you’re being watched doing pretty nonsensical things to yourself and your bike. For example, pushing your bike up a steep forest trail to a summit in the dark. In shoes that are definitely not made for hiking. Only to bump back down at a snail’s pace with the brakes on. It takes a little stubbornness to scramble up a mountain on carbon soles. And to live out one’s stubbornness peacefully at four o’clock in the morning, alone in the forest, is perhaps easier than under the watchful eyes of other people.
Cultivated stubbornness. In well-dosed portions, it is a healthy character trait. At least it is good for memorable experiences. Without my stubbornness to ride up to my last volcano in the middle of the night, I would have missed the most inhospitable sleeping place of my bivac career so far. Remember: In strong winds, a summit is a conceivably unprotected spot. There was no shelter to be taken seriously, but I was far from abandoning my plan to stay on the Lausche for sunrise. Secretly, I already knew that there would, of course, once again be no view at all for me, but such is the way with stubbornness. So for the remaining darkness, I huddled in a corner between walls that kept at least some of the gusts of wind sweeping over me. To my own surprise, I fell asleep immediately and woke up reasonably refreshed as it slowly became light. I had to laugh when I admitted to myself that the clouds would not break up again by any stretch of the imagination.
About the destination
And suddenly the journey was over. The fact that it wasn’t a race hadn’t been so clear to me since the lonely start. No one was waiting at the finish, there was no party, and no stamp. No cheering and no sweaty hugs. No stories about improvised repairs of seemingly irretrievably destroyed components. So nothing kept me at the destination of my journey, and within fifteen minutes I was on the next train on my way home. But that was exactly right, because Zittau had never been the destination. I had already reached the goal long ago, right on the first night, when the cold had caught up with me in the Black Forest at night: the goal was to dive into another world and be far away from daily routine for a few days. I don’t need an organized race for that. I don’t need to travel to another country for that either. It’s enough for me to saddle up my bike, close the apartment door behind me and go outside. Out into a small but beautiful adventure.
Find all information about Andrea and her adventures on Instagram.