Friday, August 15, 2008

Traveling by bike - Europe and the U.S.

I'll come back to mapping our route across Wisconsin, but first a little interruption to write about the differences between cycling in Europe and the U.S. -- or more specifically, cycling in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands versus Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Size: Wisconsin is more than four times the size of the Netherlands and more than twice the size of Austria, and Minnesota is even larger than Wisconsin. Together, Minnesota and Wisconsin are larger than Germany. Population is a different matter: Germany is 82.4 million, the Netherlands 16.5 million, Austria 8.2 million, while Minnesota has about 5 million and Wisconsin about 5.5 million. You have to ride a lot further to get to populated areas and interesting sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin than in Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria.

Routes between cities: except where there are rails-to-trails routes, you are generally on the road in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Only the freeways and a few large highways are forbidden to bikes, but some of the smaller roads are more bike-friendly than others. Wide paved shoulders on many of the roads make cycling with traffic tolerable. The Wisconsin Bike Federation publishes detailed maps with the bike-friendly and bike-unfriendly roads color coded. In the Netherlands and north Germany, intercity routes are on parallel bike trails. In many areas, these are well-labeled and well-maintained. There are some rails-to-trails routes in Germany, and other trails follow old towpaths along the rivers and canals. Austria has the Danube bike route and some other bike paths along rivers and around Neusiedler See, as well as designated bike routes on lightly-traveled roads, but does not have many separate bike trails along the country roads. Where there is a bike path in Germany and the Netherlands, cyclists are generally obligated to ride on it.

Routes within cities: in areas of the Netherlands and northern Germany where bikes are used for transportation, there seems to be an assumption that the rider knows the city. There are directions into town, but once you get there, you often won't find any directions for getting out. Be sure to have good maps and/or a GPS unit. In the U.S. (and in Austria), the edge of town is often car territory, with heavily-traveled streets that have no space for bikes. The green-coded country roads on the bike maps for Wisconsin turn to red around many of the cities, but "urban escape routes" are starting to appear in some areas. Rails-to-trails routes in Minneapolis and St. Paul reach into the center of the cities. City centers in many towns are car-free in these European countries.

Accommodations: the bike-friendly routes through the countryside in Wisconsin require advance planning and packing, because you can ride for dozens of miles without finding any place to eat or sleep. Motels are easiest to find where the small roads intersect the freeways. They generally allow the bikes to be stored in the rooms. Breakfast is usually included with the stay, but it is likely to consist of uninteresting baked goods, coffee, and juice; frequently there is a waffle maker for the guests to use. Internet access is usually free in the small motels across the middle United States, but it doesn't always work. In the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Austria, hotels are much easier to find. Breakfasts are usually generous and tasty. There is likely to be bike parking, often in a secure storage room, but you won't be able to keep the bikes in the bedroom.

Laundry: The biggest barrier to multi-day tours in Austria is the complete lack of coin laundries. You can wash clothes by hand and hang them in special drying rooms in a few bike-friendly hotels, but for the most part you will need quick-drying clothing and some bungee cords to hang them on. Coin laundries still exist in the Netherlands, especially in the large cities. In Wisconsin, we were amazed to find motels with guest laundry facilities -- a large coin-operated washer and dryer; bring lots of quarters!

No comments: