Exploring Backroads in Germany

Exploring Backroads in Germany

I recently visited relatives in Germany. They live in Bavaria, in the corner between Austria and the Czech Republic. The “Bavarian Forest” is a lovely landscape that offers some of the best cycling anywhere. The name is deceptive, because most of the “forest” is an agricultural landscape that has been farmed for many centuries.
Like most of Germany, this region is criss-crossed by an amazing road network. By German standards, the region is lightly populated, and many of the roads are very small and see almost no traffic.
I have an old 1970s Singer in Germany. It’s the very first Singer I bought, a decade-and-a-half ago. The frame was one of hundreds of sport-touring/racing frames that were sold to the U.S. during the bike boom. This one originally went to R&E Cycles in Seattle just after they opened, long before R&E started making their own bikes. It was repainted at some point, and many of the components aren’t what I’d choose today, but it still provides a lovely ride.
For this short trip to Germany, I hadn’t brought my handlebar bag along, so I did what the French do, and rolled up my spare tube and wallet into my raincoat, and bungeed them to the front rack. (Except that my raincoat was my big winter coat and not a cycling-specific jacket.) Then I rode into the hills.
In the past, I had ridden on the main roads around here. Two lanes divided by a painted strip with only an occasional car or truck, they are pleasant enough. But this time, I could not resist the temptation of the many narrow lanes that led into the steeper hills. Steep around here means 12% for a kilometer or so, with an equally steep downhill to follow.
The little roads didn’t even have lane markings, and some were only a single car wide. They led by through small villages and individual farms that dot the landscape.
The farm above was empty, but in good shape. Construction material piled on the side lets me hope that it will be revived and inhabited again the next time I come by.
I saw the baroque tower of the church at Marienstein peeking out of the forest. Reaching the church required another steep climb up a series of switchbacks. I enjoyed a quick peek inside: The church’s stark white interior contrasted with the more opulent baroque churches of this region.
My next destination was Falkenstein. This small town features an impressive church in the village, plus a castle and a second church on the steep hill. Most of the buildings in this photo are at least a century old, but the solar collectors on the roof on the right show that time has not stood still here.
The road up to the castle was another steep path, this one paved with large cobblestones. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to climb the tower this time, as darkness was approaching, and I wanted to explore more backroads on the way home. It was exciting to discover all these new roads and places in a region that I thought I knew well. Europeans sometimes look with envy at our reports of rides in the Cascades, where we don’t see a human habitation for many hours. I marvel at Europe’s wonderful rides through landscapes where humans have lived in relative harmony with nature for centuries. Good riding exists in many places, and exploring off the beaten path usually offers rich rewards.

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Comments (33)

  • Matthew J

    Nice. The late Autumn light brings interesting qualities to the pictures.

    January 6, 2013 at 8:37 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It was a day of rain showers in late December, with almost-sun breaks in between clouds.

      January 6, 2013 at 9:18 am
      • Matthew J

        Germany must be experincing an even more mild winter than here in Chicago what with the grass so green in December.

        January 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm
  • wfstekl

    Nice report, Jan.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:16 pm
  • Chris

    awesome report and pictures! A Euro trip is at the top of my bucket list for sure…

    January 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm
  • cbratina

    Thanks, did you by chance map the route? Looking for future trips to Europe. A big issue I had was getting off the darn bike path routes which seem to be everywhere. Not sure how to find routes on roads. Attached is a map from our tandem cycle tour this summer from Copenhagen to France, a WONDERFUL trip.
    Christian Bratina
    PO Box 1470
    171 South Street
    Litchfield, CT 06758

    January 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Didn’t map the route – I just picked roads that looked promising, and kept going until I was almost lost. It was with surprise when I realized that I had crossed the major road that I wanted to take (it was a narrow two-laner), and ended up on the Regen River… It added a few miles and a wonderful climb.
      It’ll be a topic for a future post or article in Bicycle Quarterly, but generally in Europe, all you need is a 1:200,000 map and then pick small roads that get you where you want to go.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm
      • Stevy

        “Almost Lost”…. that’s one of the best places to be!

        January 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm
    • Erik

      Like Jan says the Michelin 1:200 000 provide a good base. In some regions better maps are available. Along the coast of portugal all the way up to Denmark there is a route with signs that takes small roads with less then 1000 cars per day.
      When cycling in Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburgh you can load the Open Cycle map (just google it) on your GPS which is able to take you anywhere over backroads and allong paths. The same team has made cycle gps maps of some longer trips like Amsterdam-Rome.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:59 am
  • Tim J

    Thanks for the post Jan. You remind me why Germany is my favorite country for cycling, hands down.

    January 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm
  • Jörg

    Great reading. Jan, I can exactly imagine, what the region looks, smells and feels. Have been there, but only by car. Thanks to your report I develop the strong wish, to explore the area east of my hometown Hamburg on two muscle powered wheels, especially regions in Mecklenburg.

    January 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      One of my most memorable trips was along the Baltic coast from Lübeck to Rügen in 1990, just a few months after reunification. Back then, many of the main roads were still paved in centuries-old cobblestones, and I only had 28 mm tires (more like 25 mm actual). Even so, it was a wonderful trip.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm
      • Tim J

        I cycled the opposite direction, from Peenemunde to Amsterdam along the Baltic (or Oostzee) a couple years ago. The bike paths in the former East Germany had terrific scenery but possibly the worst paving I’ve ever experienced: concrete slabs about 2 meters long with steel edged gaps at each end… Thankfully I reached West Germany before dental or psychiatric treatment was needed.

        January 15, 2013 at 12:56 pm
  • Zbyszek Kolendo

    Oh Jan! Before I came across the likes of you my European plan to visit the USA was a very straightforward one: get there, get a car, and drive across the country from east to west. It’s not so simple any more, and you may well be aware of you is to blame. I’m back at square one with all that planning! You know what happened? A thought is beginning to creep into my mind that even cycling within just one of the states and meeting the people of your kind would be a much better thing to do …
    You’re right. We, here in Europe, can’t help dreaming about riding a bike for hours without any human habitation in sight. Because no matter how quiet or picturesque the area happens to be there is always soma cottage, castle, church or something else that says hello to you from the bygone days with a message from your or some other nation’s ancestors. And you have to relate to it. Just like you yourself did to that deserted farm on your ride. I’m not saying it’s wrong, on the contrary, but we do long for what we can’t have here, and you have there.
    That’s why people travel, if you forgive me this somehow too obvious a statement. But what I really do envy you Americans is the vast areas for powder skiing! From my side of the Atlantic it looks like heaven.

    January 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think focusing on one area is a great idea. Trying to get a feel for an entire country requires driving many miles on major roads, where you see little and meet few people. I recall a wonderful bike tour around Colorado, an equally interesting one in Utah. Riding up or down the Pacific coast is great, too. New England has wonderful riding. And there are many other areas to be explored. People off the beaten path are more interesting and more accessible, since they don’t get to see so many strangers.
      For us Americans, it’s lovely to see human habitations that are part of the landscape. Around here, all too often, human habitation means mobile homes, Wal-Marts and the like. So we often avoid human habitations. You are right though – it’s an awesome feeling to ride or hike and realize that in a radius of 10 miles, there are at most a handful of people. To see the stars without the light pollution that goes with human habitation.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm
  • John Ferguson

    Jan–did you map out your routes or do you have any specific recommendations for routes in the area? I’m off to Prague at the end of February for business and am planning a few extra days for some riding. The area immediately surrounding Prague is far from ideal for riding.

    January 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I didn’t map my routes, and if you are in the area, it doesn’t make much sense to follow my improvised route. I suggest getting good maps (1:200,000) of the area where you plan to ride, and map your own route. If Prague really doesn’t offer good cycling, take the train to Regensburg and set out eastward from there… If you prefer flat, go along the Regen River with its lovely bike path, or head into the hills south of there (Wenzenbach, Rossbach and beyond).

      January 7, 2013 at 5:34 am
  • Tristan

    I see that you were using toe clips, what did you use for footwear?

    January 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Old Sidi touring shoes. They are great for rides of up to 100 miles. Going further, the lack of stiffness in the sole starts to hurt my feet.

      January 7, 2013 at 5:32 am
  • Alexander Krauss

    Hi there, I happen to live in Regensburg, the next bigger city to where Jan rode and the places are quite familiar to me.
    So if anyone of the Bicycling Quartlery Readers comes here, I will be happy to provide a lawnspace in the garden or suggestions for scenic roads.
    I am on the warmshowers list: Alexander Krauss Regensburg. (If you leave a comment with your Email I can send you contacts)
    I thought since some left a comment indicating interest in touring in Germany I can conribute some useful information:
    There is a very great website called Radweit http://radweit.de/index/entrance.html
    The guy volunteers to put the best and most efficient connections bewtween places in Germany on the web. Some of the maps look slightly irritating at first sight, but they work very well.
    Some are also tracked in GPS, you will find them in the most useful gps Portal for Germany
    A good scenic route is from Regensburg to Prague:
    Regensburg is a very pitoresque old town city and Czech Republic has a grid of very good bike routes on quiet backroads.
    If you like to explore Bavaria in a Brevet: the largest organizer in Germany is near the very scenic Altmühltal. There is a full series every year and even a 1200k. Great place , great guy (Karl Weimann 5 x PBP finisher and his wife Heidi). Expect participation of 40 to 200 riders of all speed classes.
    There is information on Bike pathways on the net, but often “path ” must be read literally, they are meandering through the landscape and do not make much sense for Randonneur style touring.
    http://www.bayernbike.de/ (In German)
    A scenic but sensible (although slow) route is the “König Ludwig Radweg” from lake Constance to the “Watzman” along the German Alpine Range.
    Another recommendable tour (650 B required) is the “Via Claudia” from Bavaria to Venice through the Alps following the line of a road from the Roman empire.
    For planning tours in Germany look for these maps
    They provide information on suitable roads. They display roads by density of traffic.
    OK, that should give you a start…

    January 7, 2013 at 7:23 am
  • Bryan Bussard

    These are my favorite posts, Jan. While I enjoy reading all your posts, these are the ones that stand out.

    January 7, 2013 at 4:58 pm
  • marmotte27

    Nice ride,but I’m weeping at seeing pictures like that in late december. Green grass and rain! This isn’t the same country that I grew up in the 70’s/80’s.

    January 8, 2013 at 12:47 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The snow actually just had melted. It’s a meteorological phenomenon called “Weihnachtstauwetter” or “Christmas Thaw” that happens almost every year. Yes, temperatures have been increasing overall, but this isn’t that unusual. The warm weather on Christmas Eve was unusual, though! In Munich, temperatures supposedly reached 20°C (68°F).

      January 8, 2013 at 6:42 am
      • marmotte27

        Yes, it happened regularlry even when I was a kid, but not on that scale. You had a few days of thaw, but on the whole, in December snow fell and stayed more or less till the end of February. And temperatures well above 10° where extremely rare.

        January 8, 2013 at 11:17 am
    • Jörg

      Strange weather indeed. Does climate change come through? In northern Germany temperatures are unuseally high at the moment: average arround 8°C. Definatley to warm for the season.

      January 8, 2013 at 6:55 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        There is no doubt that during the middle of the last century, winters were much colder, especially in Europe. Since the Middle Ages, temperatures had decreased during the “Little Ice Age.” This trend has reversed for about 150 years now – coincidentally also the time since humans have been introducing large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. It appears that part of the warming is natural, and part human-induced. (My Ph.D. was looking at climate change during the last 15,000 years roughly.) It’s difficult to determine exact causation, and even more difficult to predict the future – something that is exploited by the fossil fuel interests.
        The main take-home, however, is that any rapid environmental change is disruptive beyond most people’s imagination, and that burning almost all the carbon stored in the Earth must have disruptive consequences. Fortunately, as cyclists, we are part of the solution, as long as we use our bikes for transportation, and not only for recreation. That said, my trip to Europe burned most of my annual “carbon budget,” since flying is incredibly energy-intensive.

        January 8, 2013 at 8:07 am
  • Michael

    Thanks for sharing. Like the pictures.

    January 8, 2013 at 8:03 am
  • Josef

    Wow, you were just around the corner – almost could have dropped by for a cup of coffee.
    The way you describe to find your way around the “Bayerischer Wald” is about the same I do. Used to take the motorcycle in this area – my motorbike trips have been rather short, around 150-200 km per day. My favorite maps are the 1/50000 by Fritsch, Kompass or the topographical maps by the Bayerisches Landesvermessungsamt München. Those maps are very accurate and you can find your way around on small routes very good.
    If any of the follow readers need any help around here in Lower Bavaria (Niederbayern) just drop a note.

    January 8, 2013 at 10:16 am
  • Willem

    What a wonderful report. The region is on the summer holiday cycle camping trip from Holland to Italy through southern Germany and Austria that we are considering. For such trips we normally use published cycle route guides. Examples are those published by Esterbauer http://www.esterbauer.com/ There are also many Dutch guides, see e.g. http://europafietsers.nl/klik/routes-all.htm and http://www.cyclingeurope.nl/ I like these guides because they provide a convenient way to connect the many local routes in Europe into a larger trip such as from Holland to Rome, and give additional; information on hotels, campsites etc.Of nearly all these routes there are now also gps tracks.

    January 8, 2013 at 2:01 pm
  • Benjamin Van Orsdol

    Another gorgeous ride on another gorgeous bike. Where do you keep all of these bikes? It would seem that you have a mini museum of bicycles. I sure wouldn’t mind reading more about this bike! Classic blue and chrome. Reminds me of a shinier/ fendered version of my dad’s ’83 TREK 720.

    January 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There aren’t that many bikes in my stable… When our son was 1 year old, we spent six months in Germany and France. I took this Singer with me, and left it at my family’s house when we returned. Back then, old Singers didn’t cost a lot, so the bike doesn’t represent a huge investment. It’s nice to have a bike there when I visit.

      January 8, 2013 at 6:44 pm

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