Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mountain Bike - Schwäbische Alb and Schwarzwald

And now for something more exotic: A few shorter trips in Europe and, in particular, Southern Germany.  There are two longer official mountain bike routes in Southern Germany that I wanted to check out. They cross two "Mittelgebirge" (low mountain ranges): Schwäbische Alb and Schwarzwald.

The Bike-Crossing Schwäbische Alb is about 370 km long with a bit under 10000m of climbing;  the Schwarzwald route is about 450 km and 16000m. They can easily be combined into a grand loop with a bit of pavement riding, but on bike routes. The routes themselves are largely forest service roads, some pavement, and a few sprinkles of single track. But little to no motorized traffic to deal with.

The two ranges feel very different. The Alb is more of a Mesa, some sides are vertical cliffs, others are more gentle slopes, but the top is relatively flat.

Schwäbische Alb
In contrast, the Schwarzwald is broken into many narrow valleys and there never are long stretches of riding on top. But you don't want to stay in the valleys because they are congested with traffic and narrow roads, so back up onto the next mountain quickly.

Their official webpages are here:

the markings for Schwäbische Alb Mountain Bike X-ing

Obin and I explored them during our family vacation in Germany this year, one we did credit card touring style (staying in hotels), the other bikepacking style (sleeping outside). In both cases, we cut the route a bit short because we rode back to our starting point rather than completing the full route and then going onto a train. Except for the expensive intercity trains (some requiring advance reservations for bikes, the fastest not allowing bikes), you can just roll the bike onto a train, no advance planning needed there.

We first needed another bike and I found an almost unused 29er Canyon carbon hardtail on e-bay. Obin got to use my retired 26 Iron Horse that we put to pasture in Germany after I had ridden it vigorously, including touring the Great Divide Mountain bike route a decade our ago. 

We tested things out on a long day ride in the Schwäbische Alb where I had ideas for some more challenging trails. We did about 120km that day. 

We started riding through the Schönbuch forest to Tübingen and then into the Alb. Overcast and cool temperatures, but dry. However, the forest was still damp because it had rained the previous days. 

We quickly found some good trails and hardly saw anybody for a long time. Technically, they are not really allowed for bikes or horses, but people use them anyway and it isn't an issue.  There is the Waldgesetz in Baden-Wuerttemberg, which has a 2m rule: No biking on trail/path/road narrower than 2 m unless specifically signed for other use (bikes have more access than horses: for horses, there is a 3 m rule). But more evidence of horses than of bikes on those trails. 

Wet forest trails and climbing up onto the Alb meant some hike-a-bike.
Obin found it easier to carry the bike as the wheels clogged up with mud on this stretch

and this got us to the top of the first mountain, the Filsenberg. Gloomy sky, but it didn't rain until late in the afternoon.

A few ups and downs, once we backtracked to get onto a less muddy road.  Biggest surprise was when after another hike-a-bike, we came out at a big parking lot for the Nebelhöhle, definitely a tourist attraction.
Didn't expect that this hike-a-bike comes out at a parking lot!
Liechtenstein castle is a tourist trap, we quickly continued. 

Then we stayed higher up, passed another tourist attraction, Liechtenstein castle, and crossed over to the Burgwanderweg, definitely the highlight.  This hiking trail goes along the steep cliffs of the Alb, just a wonderful bike trail as well. No horses here as it would be too dangerous for them (aside from technically not legal) .

There was some hollering just vertically above us: Those cliffs are popular with climbers

And those toy houses just in front are actually real houses, just far below us.

Bike X-ing Schwäbische Alb

Day 1

Now on to the real thing. The route is equally good both direction and we went north to south, starting in Aalen. We rode the bikes from Waldenbuch along the Sieben-Mühlen-Tal (a rail-to-trail conversion) to the S-Bahn in Leinfelden, then switched to a regional train in Stuttgart. You can take bicycles on any regional train and there are special compartments for them. Bikes are free on the S-Bahn, too, but I believe you have to wait until after rush hour (so after 9 am is ok). Two hours later we were on the route. 

S-Bahn to Stuttgart

There isn't a whole lot of single track, but there is some once in a while, as in the picture below. But the forest roads are very nice riding, too.

Ski jumping area looks bizarre in mid-summer

And in the valleys, there are plenty of well groomed bike routes that are fine for any bike (although you would want tires wider than 23 road tires). Not challenging, but enjoyable to ride
Towards the end of the day, we ended up on the top of the Alb again, with a great view. That was followed by a steep muddy descent (official route).

A lot muddier than it looks. 
However, we missed a turn somewhere, that was an overgrown stretch,  and then had to do another road climb to get back to the route. Eventually we stopped at a hotel in Wiesensteig.

Day 2:

Long up, long down (Obin was stung by a bee on the descent), then we saw the Hohenneuffen in front of us, so yet another climb up, still early morning.

The medieval castle is situated on a large Jurassic age rock on the edge of the Alb at about 750 m. It dates back to about 1200 and certainly must have been a strategically advantageous location. Near the top, the forest road (closed to regular traffic) we used to climb that mountain ends in a parking lot: There is a paved road from the backside as well. It is a short ride or hike from the parking lot into the castle, nothing like ascending from the valley, yet many people tried to drive into the castle center anyway. While taking a break, we overheard some virtuous Germans who walked from the parking lot and discussed that Americans would never do something as hard as walking from the parking lot. 

And back down again, to the town of Bad Urach, where we grabbed some ice cream before the next climb.

The climb out of Bad Urach back to the plateau was hard. Maybe because it was the third climb of the day and still before lunch, maybe also because it was just that little bit steeper. That climb is not part of the route, we took a different way. The actual route goes towards Reutlingen, easier riding, but more pavement. We skipped this part as it would retrace part of the way we did already on our test ride and add urban area otherwise.

Finally on top, we did enjoy lunch at the St. Johann horse stables. Typical lentils and Spätzle fare.

Then I don't know what we did, definitely were off route for a while.  

Down some meadow, no idea where exactly we were, but we connected with the official route pretty soon and then made a stop at the Albquell Bräuhaus in Trochtelfingen for an afternoon snack (the second brewery stop on our route).

We rode on for a while in the late afternoon and found a place in a private home near Burladingen, not really that town, but a small village. Strangely enough, that village had a artsy theater and bistro that would not have been out of place in West Hollywood. But otherwise, the only activity seen were tractors moving manure around.

Day 3

On we went after breakfast, heading west. We would drop into Albstadt and from there the route  turns south to Tuttlingen. Albstadt is known for mountain bike racing, including the World Cup, but we didn't get on any of those trails. We did not continue all the way to Tuttlingen, but instead dropped into the Neckartal and rode back to Waldenbuch to arrive just after sunset.

One of the more spectacular views on the way back is Burg Hohenzollern. Just like Hohenneuffen, a castle on a strategic mountain, overlooking the Neckar valley. The first fortress existed in the 12th century, but was completely destroyed in the 1400s after an almost year-long siege. A sturdier castle was then built, but gradually fell into disrepair. The current structure is new, mid 1800s, and really just a nostalgia castle than any true historic significance. That puts it into the same company as Neuschwanstein and is one  of the most visited castles. 


Day 1

Same start as for the Alb-Tour, S-Bahn to Stuttgart, but then the train to Pforzheim. This time, we packed sleeping bags. 

Regional trains have all space for bikes, we weren't the only cyclists on that train

As with the Alb, there isn't a whole lot of single track, but there is a bit. The following probably wasn't even considered single track, but wider, except that it sees so little use that it is totally overgrown. It took us longer that day as my chain broke and we needed to detour. I was able to keep the chain together with one side of a plate, but didn't have a master link with me, so we had to find a bike store that had one. Wasn't too difficult, but cost us a bit over an hour.

The official route
At some point, we lost the route, but I trusted my forest instinct and we just kept going. 

This is not part of the official route
It didn't take long before we found the sign again:

Signage for the Schwarzwald route
We stopped in Bad Wildbad for dinner. A very odd town, empty, except a few immigrants and several groups of people in motorized wheelchairs. None of the regular population one would expect, as if the town was cleared. There were two other "Bad" something towns we went through that had a similarly strange feel. Devoid of a population that would go with towns of that size, just abandoned.

Long, tough climb out of Bad Wildbad, and we crossed a downhill bike park several times. Maybe that is there to maintain the motorized wheelchair population of Bad Wildbad. There were some other mountain bike parks on the route. 

We regularly came across those Brunnen to refill our water. Easier than filtering from a stream. This was very good tasting water.

We kept on going long after sunset, passing by several attractive camping spots, but riding was fun. Eventually, we stopped before the next downhill with a hut near a big meadow and lay down in the shorter grass.

Day 2

Passing the earlier spots turned out to be a mistake. Well before 5, Obin woke me up that we have to go, bugs all over him, he was clearly unhappy. Turns out that being so close to a wild meadow meant that there were countless little insects that explored us by taking an excursion  from the tall grass. They didn't bite, sting, or anything, but there just were hundreds, felt a bit like spider webs, but it was little bugs crawling, flying over your face. Made for a short night and we were riding before sunrise.

Sunrise in the Black Forest

I've had the bike now for a week, magic number appearing on the new odommeter

another single track section for a long downhill
And another Brunnen, but this one didn't taste good:

Time to refill

Yuck, this one tastes awful.

Lots of climbing gets nice views.

The short previous night caught up with Obin and he took a long nap in the afternoon. No grass bugs here.
The weather forecast was for some really hot days coming up, so we decided to leave the route and start heading east to ride back the next day before getting baked in 40 degrees (this year was an extremely hot summer). We stopped for the second night in a forest, much better sleeping, no grass bugs.

And it was much harder to get him going the next morning. Note how nicely he even hung up his Campanolo jersey for the night.

Day 3

Not much to say about this day. A few more ups and downs to get out of the Schwarzwald, although we started on top and went to the Neckar valley again, so a net loss. We cruised back quickly, although Obin was sufficiently tired to ride into a street sign. Temperatures were heating up, but we were back in Waldenbuch by mid-afternoon. 

As we came towards Tübingen, there is always the cute Wurmlinger Kapelle:

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