Ride to Emma

Posted by Lieven on Tuesday, December 29th, 2020

The Idea

In 2017, I rode my bike from Ghent to the Alps and really enjoyed the experience. In 2018, ideas for a new adventure started to materialise when one group of friends wanted to go to Lake Como in Italy for a week, another group wanted to go camping in the Black Forest in Germany, and yet another group wanted to go climbing for a weekend in the Ardennes in Belgium.

With some shuffling in our calendars, I was able to link the different trips with enough time in between to cycle from one place to the other.

The Plan

I'd first ride along with a rented minivan all the way to Lake Como, and at the end of the week, I'd cycle across the Alps towards the Black Forest, stay there for a week, cycle to the Ardennes, climb for a weekend and then cycle back to Ghent.

In terms of gear etc, I used pretty much the same stuff as last year, but of course, I'd have to bring more clothes etc. for each of the sub-trips. I took extra clothes in the van to Italy, left some extra stuff in the car for the Black Forest and finally my climbing gear would be brought by the last group.

The Trip

Day 1: Lake Como - Chur (145km)

The first day would undoubtedly be the most difficult of the entire trip. Coming from Lake Como, there's no other way towards Germany than up and over the Alps. Because our apartment was on the East side of the lake, I chose the Splügenpass, or Passo dello Spluga as it's called in Italian.

Starting to look Serious

Before I could get to the start of the climb, I already had to ride ±40km. A good warm-up, but it also meant I had to get up early if I wanted to make it all the way to Chur. I did know of some backup camp sites, but all of them meant I had to cross the Splügenpass either way.

Even the gradual ascent to the foot of the actual mountain pass was quite hard already, with the sun starting to burn. The first few kms of the mountain pass were extremely hot. Luckily there were some drinking fountains every now and then where I would just throw some water on my head and continue.

After a few km of climbing, cycling was suddenly forbidden. An obligatory shuttle service drove all cyclists a few km further up the mountain, presumably to avoid a building site or something. I didn't really understand what was so different about that stretch of road, but didn't really mind the short break either 😅

Looking back at Lago di Isola

We had already driven the van over the Splügenpass when driving from Belgium to Italy to avoid some traffic jams, so I knew what to expect. On the steepest parts, there are some tunnels and hairpin bends stacked on top of each other. Very cool to look at, but I wouldn't feel safe to ride there slowly with cars and trucks passing by, so I took the detour via Lago di Isola. This meant a small descent and extra climbing metres, but at least I'd be off the main road.

After having a croissant and some coffee at the lake, I continued back towards the main road. Even with my smallest gear, I had to take a break multiple times over the course of just a few kms. The Splügenpass was clearly out of my league. Nevertheless, there was no way back now, and I knew there were sections coming up that were less steep. The sound of thunderstorms in the background were good motivation not to stall too much either.


By the time I reached Montespluga, a small town a bit below the top of the pass, I was already about 2 hours behind my optimistic schedule. A quick bite later, I could start on the final 3km of the climb. By then it had started raining, but luckily the thunderstorms still seemed far off and the rain was actually quite refreshing after being practically grilled alive.

The top of the climb meant I had reached Switzerland and the highest point of the trip (2114m). I quickly put on my sweater and rain jacket and started the descent. Descending mountain pass with road works in the rain on a loaded bike is quite the adventure, but by the time I reached Splügen, the rain had stopped and with the road gradually descending constantly, I started to think I could reach Chur after all. Unfortunately the worst of the rain still had to come. Not being able to see through my glasses and getting pretty cold, I had no choice but to wait for the worst to pass, losing even more time.

After some really good Italian food, I decided to continue to Chur despite the delays. The remaining 35km were mainly flat, my legs felt OK and I still had a couple of hours of daylight left. The valley was lined with castles, bunkers and churches, the weather had calmed down and the mountains had a mysterious look. In the final descent to Chur, on an unpaved track through the forest, I think I heard a wolf warn its cubs and saw some deer. Pretty magical!

By the time I got to the camp site, it was almost dark and it had started raining again, so I just rented a bed in a cabin and slept extremely well.


Day 2: Chur - Liennheim (157km)


After a rather big breakfast, I packed my stuff and started on an ambitious journey again. Reaching my most ambitious goal on the first day meant I was - maybe overly - optimistic.

In the North of Switzerland, the Rhine river forms the border with Germany and - unlike the part of Switzerland I cycled through - there are quite a few camp sites along the river, so I set my goal there.

The weather was quite nice and leaving the Alps meant a gradual descent until noon. After having a nice lunch at a fancy restaurant along the Walensee I noticed the wind had picked up, unfortunately in the wrong direction. With still more than 100km to go along lakes and through open fields, I started to doubt I'd make it in time.


By the time I got to the Obersee, I needed sugar and a bit of a rest. First drank some coffee and then took a nap when I came across a nice and quiet spot. I wouldn't say it revived me completely, but at least I was able to continue onwards. Climbing out of the valley of the Zürichsee in Rapperswill luckily also meant it got less windy.

Quiet roads through the countryside lead me to Greiffensee, where I made a plate of spaghetti disappear in just a few minutes. With 40 more kms to go and only about 2 hours of daylight left, I had to hurry, but at least my goal was within reach.

Germany over the hill

During the final climb towards the edge of the Rhine valley, the sun was already setting over Germany. But it was all downhill from there!

When I arrived at the camp site, it was 9:55pm, so I was delighted to be there in time before it closed. I was even more delighted to see that there was still a lot of people at the bar. Unfortunately, the boss also had a few drinks already, and he didn't allow me in. Completely sweaty and tired, I asked "where do you suggest I go then?". His answer was "Anywhere but here!".

I didn't really follow his instructions, but rather put my tent on an empty spot behind some caravans and went straight to bed. The following morning, the same guy was very friendly and even let me use the showers. So basically, I got to camp for free. No idea what was going on in the guy's mind... 🤷‍♂️


Day 3. Liennheim - Muggenbrunn (72km)

Back to Switzerland for breakfast

Getting to the border the day before meant I had to ride "only" 72km to get to the campsite where friends from my choir already arrived the day before.

Finding a bakery in Germany proved to be difficult, but riding along the banks of the Rhine river, an older gentleman passed by on an e-bike and told me to cross the river back into Switzerland to Bad Zurzach. There I found a nice bakery, had a few coffees and decided to take it easy today.

Extremely Quiet

From there it wasn't too far until I left the Rhine valley and started ascending into the Black Forest. The first part was on a rather big road, but once I passed the Witznau reservoir (a pumped storage hydroelectric power station), the road became reserved for cyclists and pedestrians and extremely quiet.

By the time I climbed out of the Schwarza Valley it was already past noon and I was pretty hungry. After a few unsuccessful attempts to find a restaurant in Häuseren, I finally found one that was still open in the descent to Sankt Blasien. Just in time, it appeared, as the morning drizzle turned to heavy rain.

Being in Germany, the default lunch options were very meaty, but luckily the waiter was kind enough to ask the chef to prepare me something vegetarian.

I took quite a long break to let the rain pass and being able to start with a descent is always nice.

From Sankt Blasien to Todtnau, the large but quiet roads led me through beautiful landscapes with tiny skiing areas that don't mess up the environment like the bigger ones in the Alps do. Especially the descent all the way to Geschwend was really nice.


The final climb from Todtnau to our camp site in Muggenbrunn was not very pleasant though. Climbing with a heavy bike on a main road with aggressive German drivers during rush hour: not recommended. For the final 500 meters I decided to take the shortcut through the village, which turned out to be so steep I had to stop multiple times to catch my breath.

But I had made it to my first goal (in time for dinner!) and couldn't be happier. We spent an amazing week camping (or should I say "glamping"?) high in the hills of the Black Forest while the rest of Europe was suffering from a heat wave, and best of all: I fell in love with Emma!


Day 4: Muggenbrunn - Le Thillot (134km)

Partir, c'est mourir un peu

After packing our stuff, my choir friends - including Emma - went back to Belgium by car, leaving me in doubt what to do next. I had promised my climbing friends to meet them in the Ardennes the next weekend, but sticking to my original plan would mean I wouldn't see Emma for an entire week.

Whatever I'd do, I'd have to get out of the Black Forest first anyway, so I started cycling towards the wide Rhine valley, which separates the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains.

For some reason, my cellular connection hadn't been great in Germany and once I crossed the border into France, notifications started coming in.

"Do you mind if we cancel the climbing trip next weekend?"

I was delighted! But now I had to make a choice: either try to figure out how to get home by train, or continue cycling home.

Deciding what to do

On the one hand: last-minute train rides are quite difficult to plan (not all trains allow bicycles) and rather expensive. On the other hand: I hadn't looked forward to the last stage (from the Ardennes to Ghent) anyway, since it was fairly long and the roads would become gradually more familiar, rather than more exciting.

So, I made a decision: I'd ride to Belgium as quickly as possible and take local trains back to Ghent. This immediately changed my mood. I had a plan now!

Being in France meant I could speak the language so I felt more at home already. Crossing the wide and windy Rhine valley wasn't much fun (apart from being followed by some old timer tractors on their way to a tractor festival), but at least my goal for the day was right in sight: The Vosges mountains.

In Thann, at the foothills of the Vosges, it became less windy and the sun came out. After a nice dinner, I rode into the Thur valley, which has a really nice cycling route all the way to Oderen.

I got a bit annoyed by my squeaking chain but couldn't fix it because I didn't bring any chain lube. Luckily I saw someone cleaning up his garage and he was glad to help.

The Vosges surprised me by its beauty (definitely coming back here some day), the weather was nice and a bit further down the road I came across some deer:

All these positive experiences meant that I was feeling pretty good and decided to continue past my initial goal for the day. This meant an extra 25km, but more than that, another mountain pass (luckily not as high as the Splügenpass), but I figured if I could keep doing that for 3 days, I'd be able to arrive in Belgium a day early.

Looking down at Bussang

The Col d'Oderen and Col de Page are a nice alternative to get to Bussang compared to the Col the Bussang, which is on a busy main road. The road surface isn't great, so the descent was a bit sketchy, but once out of the forest, the asphalt got better and the view over valley opened up nicely.

Down in the valley there's both the source of the Moselle river and the start of the Voie Verte des Hautes Vosges, a segregated cycling route on an old railroad track, which I'd be able to follow downhill out of the Vosges all the way to Remiremont. Along the Voie Verte I found a cheap camp site in Le Thillot, quickly put up my tent as it was almost dark by then, called Emma, took a shower and got to bed.


Day 5: Vosges - Toul (147km)

Dog begging for croissants

The next morning, after cleaning up my tent, talking to an elderly couple and paying next to nothing at the reception I got back to the Voie Verte. A bit further I got breakfast at a Bar Tabac, which seemed to be the place to be. I love these types of places: everyone that arrives shook hands with everyone, you can get coffee and croissants, or just get straight to a beer and lottery tickets. In this particular Bar Tabac, there was a small dog that was apparently used to getting a piece of people's croissants because he was drooling like there was no tomorrow.

Voie Verte

Continuing on the Voie Verte was pretty nice: downhill, nice weather, no cars. Of course there are still the stupid infrastructure mistakes like the many barriers which you have to zig-zag through, but all in all, this is a very relaxing way of traveling.

Once past Remiremont, the cycling route was no longer on a segregated Voie Verte, so I had to make due with a sign "Lots of cyclists the next 24km" but judging by what people put up in their garden, at least there's some cycling spirit going on there.

Cool down

After a nice lunch in Epinal, I continued cycling along the Moselle river and its canal. There's a Voie Verte that went up to Charmes and should one day continue all the way to Toul. Charmes was supposed to be my goal for the day, but because I was quite far ahead of schedule I just used the camp site to cool down a bit with a freezie and refill my water bottles.

Hot Hot Hot

From there I tried to continue on the Voie Verte for a bit, but after a while it just stopped, so I had to climb out of the valley. This turned out to be quite steep and very hot with no place to hide from the burning sun.

People were very sympathetic when I asked for water though. One guy started chanting "Vive la Belgique" and shouting Belgian football players' names enthusiastically when he heard where I came from. Whenever people tell you about the French being grumpy, it's probably just because they forgot to say "bonjour" first ;-)


After about 30km I got back to the Moselle valley, ate pizza for dinner and continued along the Voie Verte towards Toul.

I had seen a camp site on the map near the city center of Toul, but unfortunately it turned out to be just a parking lot for camper vans. I didn't want to search for a hotel, so I just continued cycling out of Toul and tried to find a spot along the canal to put my tent. Right before the border between the Moselle and Meuse regions, I passed a guy working in his garden and asked him if I could camp there. Once he was sure I wasn't bringing a big group of friends and it was only for one night, he kindly agreed, offered me a safe place to put my bike and charge my phone and promised to make coffee in the morning.


Day 6: Toul - The Middle of Nowhere (156km)


The next morning I got up a bit earlier than usual, to get as far as possible while it wasn't extremely hot yet. The promised coffee turned out to be full breakfast and even some cookies for the road. Speaking French before my first coffee had sunk in turned out to be quite difficult though 😅

The first hill of the day brought me to the border of the Moselle and Meuse regions. Unfortunately there's no Voie Verte along the Haute Meuse, but the roads were quite nice anyway, riding through wide open fields and small villages.

Just before noon, I arrived at the camp site in Saint-Mihiel where I had planned to get to by the evening. I asked if I could take a shower there (one of the disadvantages of wild camping: no showers), and after some phone calls and waiting for the manager who filled out some paperwork (!), I just had to pay a couple of euros to use the facilities.

By the time I had taken a shower and washed out my clothes, it was already past noon, so I was happy to find a bakery just across the road. While I was eating a sandwich in the only shaded spot on the terrace, an elderly lady arrived and sat down in the sun. I invited her to my table so she wouldn't get sunburnt and we got to talking. Turned out she had quite some stories to tell. After living in Paris, losing her job and getting abused because of her vulnerable position, she had recently decided to come back to the region where she grew up, only to discover it to be impoverished, with no jobs to be found. A sobering thought of what's sometimes behind those quiet villages.


In the afternoon, I continued onwards towards Verdun. Even though I was cycling along a "Véloroute", there was quite a lot of heavy traffic, which was unfortunate. The Meuse region can definitely use some better cycling infrastructure. Just before Verdun though, the first parts of an actual cycling route started to appear, so I tried it out. Unfortunately it wasn't completely finished yet, so without warning I suddenly ended up in road works with no way out. Luckily the workers helped me out and I was back on my way.

Verdun looked like a nice city, but I wanted to have a shot at reaching the camp site in Sedan - another 90km away - so I didn't take time to stop. The North of the city looked more industrial and the ride out of the city was along pretty large roads again, luckily with less traffic. The route also passed through le Forêt Domaniale du Mort-Homme, a national forest which was created after agricultural land was destroyed by the bombs of World War 2. The trees provided some welcome shade from the burning sun.


When I got hungry, I deviated a bit from the cycling route to try to find a restaurant in Dun-sur-Meuse, but unfortunately all restaurants were closed there. The next village that had potential was Stenay, so I decided to take the route along the East bank of the Meuse, which turned out to be where all the traffic was.

In Stenay, most restaurants were closed too except for the local friterie. Being pretty close to Belgium, I had hoped that they'd know their stuff, but unfortunately it turned out to be very slow and not terribly good. Nothing beats Belgian fries!

The middle of nowhere

After losing more than an hour searching and waiting for food, it was clear that I wouldn't make Sedan in time, so I just continued cycling into the sunset until I found a nice spot to put my tent. Somewhere between 2 villages, I found a nice flat surface with a marvellous view. Perfect.



Day 7: The Middle of Nowhere - Dinant (161km)

Waking up with a view

I set my alarm quite early, which was rewarded with a great sunrise over the hills. After a quick bite and packing up the tent, I started cycling towards the farm on the top of the hill where I had heard dogs barking before. To my big surprise, it wasn't a dog that tried to stop me from passing but rather a pony who acted like he owned the place. I narrowly escaped.


The more North I came, the more arid the landscape became. Not something we're used to seeing in Belgium or the North of France, but I guess it's becoming the new normal.

Relaxed cycling

After cycling on small roads through rural villages, I got closer to one of the cycling routes I had initially planned my whole trip around: the Transardennes. It's a segregated cycling path along the banks of the Meuse river from the French city of Charleville-Mézières to the border town of Givet.

Nuclear power plant close to the border

Even though this was the day with the most kilometers, it felt very relaxing. A few km outside of Givet, the route suddenly skips one of the Meuse's bends. After a short climb, it became obvious why: Turns out the French put a nuclear power plant as close to the Belgian border as possible. Because of course, that's what good neighbours do 😅.

Road to Dinant

In Givet, the Transardennes stops and it was back to main roads again until the Belgian border. Right before the border I got stung in the upper lip by a wasp, which didn't really feel like a nice "welcome home" but after swearing and cursing for a bit, I could carry on. From the border to Waulsort, the Transardennes continues again, but from Waulsort to Dinant, it's back on the main road. Luckily it was recently renewed asphalt and with the wind in the back, it was smooth saling all the way to Dinant. I had reached my goal!

From Dinant, it was just a few train rides back to Ghent, where Emma - who had figured out my train schedule - was waiting for me at the station. Now that's what I call a "welcome home"!


The End