Avoiding the big red cycle routes - Bohemian Rhapsody - CycleBlaze

August 21, 2019

Avoiding the big red cycle routes

Oelsnitz - Bad Blankenburg

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When I woke up, the rain had stopped and it was a bright, clear morning. I wandered out into the youth hostel kitchen and got a leisurely and filling breakfast. I was given a bunch of food by the nice couple I had met the night before since they were leaving today - just before an amazing din announced the arrival of about 40 German schoolkids (which was likely the reason why the hostel staff were so hesitant to say they had space free the night before). I slowly became surrounded by them, until me and my ADFC map was as a bit of an island amongst all the clamour.

It seemed like a good time to get going, so I went and gathered my stuff, and headed out. It took a little time to get to pay, but I was slightly relieved that the charge for the room was €30, as that was exactly what I had on in my wallet (and suspected they wouldn't take card) - I really didn't want to have to ride back into Oelsnitz to get some cash.

I loaded my panniers again, not looking too closely at the tent which had now been stored wet for three nights. As I pedalled back towards the highway in the unfamiliar sunshine, the motorbikers from the night before gave me a cheery wave to set me on my way. It was still, clear and warm, and I certainly felt a lot better than I had for the last two days.

[Unfortunately it became clear that my antiquated camera had managed to chew through all my batteries this morning, so there are no photos for the first half of today. Fortunately the nice scenery only really started in the afternoon!]

Following the useful chat about topography and plausible distances with the German lads, I was a bit more circumspect about how much distance I would travel. On the one hand, I definitely took their concerns seriously, and realised that my earlier (rather naive) plan of going strait across the Thuringerwald was probably a non-starter. On the other hand, my pig-headedness is such that I also viewed it as a bit of a challenge. I was covering distances that had surprised them - perhaps I could make it all the way to Kassel in three days?

To avoid the big hills and endless woods of the Thuringerwald, I would need to head to the Saale valley. On the map, the Saale looks much like the Mosel at this point: lengthy meanders between steep, impassible banks, greatly increasing the distance if you want to follow it. I wasn't sure if I should follow the river or attempt to cut off the meanders on the high ground to the South - but either way, I had to head north as well as west, and that meant a good target for the morning was the town of Scheiz.

The morning's ride was a sunny, rolling, and rather jolly spin through a series of small villages. After crossing under the autobahn it was easy to get the next village of Weischlitz - and I then had 25km of gentle climbing, which I took nice and slow, and some rapid descents. It wasn't too hot and the hills weren't too steep - my altitude quickly above 400m and ranged up to 600m - this was good, as it meant I wouldn't need to climb too significantly to cut off some of the loops of the Saale.

I arrived in Schleiz before midday, and - after a slightly dopey trawl around the main square, where I failed to find anywhere that might sell me batteries (but did get more euros) - I found the local Netto where not only did I have success on the battery front, but there was an unexpectedly excellent bakery where I could buy a sandwich for lunch.

The local Netto in Schleiz. Not the most exciting photo of the day, but the only one from the morning
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I had some navigational decisions to make now. I'd covered 30-odd kilometres and was feeling good - but was aware that the terrain was going to get tougher from here on. Rather a mass of cycleways - the "big red cycling routes" - spread out west of Schleiz on my map, most of them heading to the river. While I appreciate the care and effort that goes into creating and maintaining these radwegs, it can be said that they're often not the most direct or straightforward routes. They can generally be relied on to be scenic and low-traffic, but on the other hand they can go to (sometimes amazing) lengths to avoid even a short patch of B road. And you can get the feeling that they go out of their way to take you up any hill in the surroundings.

With the Saale radweg it looked like you would get this in spades. Because the valley is so narrow, the cycleway zig-zagged up and down the - obviously very steep - banks, in an effort to follow it. It looked exhausting. The problem with the ADFC maps is that the cycleways are so prominent - and the (usually perfectly good) back roads so faint - that it can be hard to see the sometimes preferable alternative route. But I thought I could see one here: if I instead cut up on the highland to the south, through the village of Remptendorf, I should be able to cut off the worst meanders and descend to the river where I liked. 

The obvious route to Remptendorf cut through the oddly-named village of Burgk. Some chevrons and the GPS indicated it would be a beastly descent and climb. Weirdly, if I went further to the south and near the neck of the river and the Bleiloch lake, it would be much less of a descent, and hence a climb. I could really figure out how the topology worked here, but was willing to trust the map (and it soon became clear).

I left Schleiz and picked up the perfectly surfaced and separate cycleway towards Gräfenwarth. There was a long, steady climb up to 500m again - I was starting to feel it a bit in the legs now.

Deserted cycleway out of Schleiz
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It really was a lovely day for it
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Luminously rolling hills of Thuringia
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One over the top - and having been overtaken by a couple of E-bikes on the way up - I went flying down a rather long and smooth descent, picking up significant speed. I passed a family out riding, and sped through the village of Gräfenwarth and over a rather dramatic bridge. It was only checking my compass that I realised: hmm, I really shoulnd't still be going south. I couldn't figure out where I had gone wrong - the crossing was surely the Saale as it left the loch - but as usual, the compass is right, and it turns out I was going down the east bank of the loch. Queue a rather painful re-ascent, passing the sympathic looking family who were still coming down, to the turn I'd wizzed past - and which I now noticed had a rather prominent closure sign.

If I could get around the loch by this route my plan was a bit stuffed: I'd need to go all the way back to Schleiz. I had no intention of this, so merrily turned off on the Remptendorf road. This was an absolutely gorgeous high-level road suspended above the steep north side of the Bleiloch.

Some tree cutting was blocking the road. So *this* was what the road closure was about - no problem, I could just push the bike around. Closure explanation #1...
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The loch peeking between the trees
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Coming down to the neck of the lock and the Saale
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As I approached the real Saale crossing, the weird height difference I could see on the map became clear: this was actually a dam, and the loch was at a much higher level than the Saale which flowed out of it to the north. Confusingly, the road was closed here as well - the route across the top of the dam was extremely narrow - but it wasn't a problem to get the bike across.

The Bleiloch
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Seeing this I had some inkling that a hydroelectric dam might be near
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The dammed north end of the loch. This is pretty cool, but is actually only the third-most impressive dam I would cross today.
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Closure explanation #2. The road across the top of the dam is, erm, damned narrow, and today it had been officially closed with a gate. No problem, there was an official path for bikes...
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The Saale continues far below. This explains why I would have had to lose so much height if I wanted to cross the river at Burgk, to the north
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I look rather pleased with myself, having avoided all the points the road was apparently blocked to traffic
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On the other side I had a bit of minor, if steep climbing, and found the turn to Remptendorf (away from the Saale). Slightly worryingly, the road closure signs were repeated here, in a more prominent and urgent fashion. I'd come this far...

The road to Remptendorf was alarmingly deserted. I relieved myself in some pine trees, and didn't particularly feel the need to hide myself. I only hoped that there would be a way through. Once I arrived in the village it all became eminently clear...

Closure reason #3, and the final and proper one... Remptendorf. The *entire* village appeared to be being dug up, all at once. The ways around seemed to involve going through several farm tracks, and I saw some (rather put-out looking) villagers having to navigate through them to get to their own houses. I wheeled the Shift through the trickiest part, past the diggers and workmen, who seemed utterly unphased by my appearance.
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The actual village looked very pretty in the sunshine. And the roads were *quiet*.
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Out of Remptendorf, I decided that I would take a prepossessing-looking off-road stretch before rejoining the road towards Lückenmühle. It was indeed lovely, but also incredibly steep. Sweat was pouring off me as I found the top, and rather thankfully coasted back to the road.

The off-road stretch outside Remptendorf. Pretty and well-surfaced, but steep and hot.
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Nice field of sunflowers near Lückenmühle
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Mush!
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High and gently rolling land under fluffy clouds. No traffic to speak of. Pretty good!
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I continued through Lückenmühle. At this point it made sense to start to descend to Drognitz, near the river, and follow it west, as the worst of the meanders were behind. I took the turn to Wiesbach - and cut to the north, losing surprisingly little height.

Weisbach. I'd covered the 20+ km from Schleiz in only a couple of hours.
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A rather charming place
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The rather open farmland that surprised me when I had expected a quick descent to the river. I was jonesing for lunch now, but promised myself I'd get to the Saale first.
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Now this is an *elaborate* slide
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Popping out in Drognitz, and picking back up the big red cycle route. 30km to Saalfeld!
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Though I really wanted to get down to the Saale before lunch, it was now mid afternoon, and with 70+ km on the clock I felt I deserved it. When I passed a set of benches at a viewpoint it seemed churlish not to stop. I had a bit of a feast, my German sandwich supplemented with the huge amount of Czech food I had carried from Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad while looking out over the view.

A good view for lunch. A couple of cyclists passed as I was eating hear - I waved, but they didn't wave back (I always find this weird).
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The Saale's down there somewhere
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I ate up reasonably quickly, and after getting back on the bike, the descent began almost immediately. Open and wide at first, the road soon narrowed and started to zigzag down into the valley of the Saale, which is almost a wide gorge. The gradient was steep - over 5% downhill - and constant, and I despite the exhilaration I had to carefully keep the speed under 40kph to avoid coming a cropper on the bends, or while distracted by the spectacular views of the water below. I descended 200m in less than 4km, slowly being eaten up by the steep-walled valley.

The Saale valley - that's where we're going!
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It got pretty steep pretty quickly, and didn't let up from there. The road was good here and 40kph felt fine..
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The broad Saale, quite some distance below
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After all the rolling it was rather wonderful to spin down the scenic road with no effort at all - I covered the 4km in just 10 minutes, and a whole 10km of winding switchbacks and meanders - the river coming and going from view, and passing canoeists and daytrippers at speed - to the dam at Hohenwarte in about 20 minutes. It's a reminder of just how fast a bike can be when you don't have to peddle...

The dam at Hohenwarte is, as has been carefully arranged by my expert route-planning, even more impressive than the one at Gräfenwarth.

Top of the dam at Hohenwarte. There were a fair few more visitors checking out the view here
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A biker's cafe at the dam
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It's pretty impressive. I stopped and emptied my rubbish into the strategically-positioned bins along the side (presumably as an incentive not to throw stuff over the edge)
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The dammed Saale on one side...
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...and the vertiginous drop on the other
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I was now under 300m, and thought my descending fun was over. But the river wasn't done with me yet, and I found myself drawn on downhill, to lower altitudes than I'd seen through the whole Czech republic. The bike seemed to ride itself as I clocked up the kilometres down the scenic valley and past yet more hydroelectric installations. It was so broad and open I could completely take the hands off the brakes, letting the Shift top 50kph and just about managing to break the speed limit.

Within 20 minutes I'd got to Kaulsdorf, where the nice quiet road (unfortunately) ended. I had a choice - I could take the dotted, and frankly crazy-looking cycle route up on the steep hills across the Saale - or I could take the 85 main road into Saalfeld. The day was wearing on and I wanted to make as much distance as possible - so the main road it was.

Mysterious pipes up the hillside. I don't know if this is a system to store power by pumping water to higher levels?
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Flying down an endless, gentle, descent alongside the Saale. A dream!
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Another hydroelectric dam (actually, this one isn't as impressive as the first).
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Kaulsdorf - end of the picturesque stretch
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The 89 was, in contrast, pretty busy and had some serious truck traffic. There was no cycleway, and I was joined on the main road by quite a number of other riders, a couple of which said hello as they (inevitably) overtook me. The trucks were very courteous and careful, and I stopped a couple of times to let them pass, especially if we were going uphill and my speed had dropped below the 10kph mark. 

I arrived in Saalfeld without mishap. Less than an hour had passed since I'd been at the big dam, but it felt like the afternoon was wearing on. I'd rather defied expectations as to how far I'd get - both of the other cyclists and my own - and originally I'd eyeballed some of the campsites further up the Saale as a stopping point. This was great news for keeping on track, but I needed to figure out where I'd be stopping, as 100km was creeping up on the clock and I was getting pretty tired. Both Rudolstadt - which had been recommended as a target to reach in two days - and the amusingly-named Bad Blankenburg had both campsites and youth hostels marked. I was a touch untrusting of the ADFC map following the complete absence of the Oelsnitz site yesterday, so figured I didn't really want to go out of my way to the north and Rudolstadt. West to Bad B. it was!

I was a bit relieved to get off the bad road once I got to Saalfeld. Good rock formations are to the right, and the train line which does *not* follow the river to the left
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I got excited when I first saw this, as I though Saalfeld might be twinned with the amusingly-named Staines(-upon-Thames). But it's a different, French, Stains - which I'm sure is much nicer...
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Going into Saalfeld along the river, there is a massive chocolate factory!
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It's really quite venerable, and enormous. This is the Mauxion, now Rotstern, chocolate factory - apparently the largest in the GDR
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Looking back up the gorge of the Saale and the chocolate factory. I tried to take a shortcut through it, and got a bit lost.
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You seem to get these old water/watchtowers quite a lot in Germany. I like the clash of different architectures here
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Don't draw attention to it!
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Saalfeld is actually quite a sizeable place, with a pretty historic centre which seemed to be full of young kids. Once I crossed the river, I could descend to the riverside path that was also the cycleway, and then had to deftly avoid a few of them as I weaved along the river. I passed the huge school where they had obviously disgorged from, before picking up the cycleways again and following the signs to Bad Blankenburg.

Crossing the Saale
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Centre of Saalfeld
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Descending the steps after crossing the river, I picked up the cycleway and the ubiquitous white/green signs again
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At first looks it's not super-clear what's happening here ... it's actually a "range" for people to practice their fishing line casting technique
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I was hot and tired now, and after avoiding running down any of the young citizens of Saalfeld - including a dubious bit where the signed cycleway seemed to go through the middle of a waterside restaurant - the thought of what I'd do if, as I half expected, both the campsite and jugendherberge did not materialize.

I was quite happy to find a place to camp, but, around the Schwarza, the landscape was rather impressively industrial. I passed a huge and frankly gleaming installation that seemed to be a paper factory. The contrast with the industry I'd seen (was it just the day before?) in north Bohemia was striking.

Huge factory near Schwarza
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It's a paper mill, I think
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Impressive chimney, and only 5 clicks to go till Bad B.
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The landscape opened up a bit as the cycleway cut west towards Bad B. It wasn't ideal, but I could probably get down to the level of the fields and camp in the wooded margin, if I needed to.

Coming into Bad B., I had a bad feeling. The approach was a long, straight and rather bleak strip, with the odd fast food restaurant. There was nothing that seemed to indicate a campsite (let alone a youth hostel). As I approached the centre, though, I spied a (rather tiny) unmistakable sign. Following this towards the outskirts, this lead me a slightly merry dance between parks and recreation grounds - until depositing me outside what was doubtless a small campingplatz.

I was very glad to see this
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And - it was lovely. The only downside seemed to be that it was very quiet, and - while there was a sign telling campers to enquire in the restaurant next door - this was shut up, with a sign saying they had gone on holiday. Following my "better to ask for forgiveness" approach - and not wanting to waste the warm sunshine that could be used to dry my poor, wet, tent, I went ahead and set it up.

It positively steamed in the hot afternoon, but soon started to dry (and smell less damp). No permanent damage seemed to have been done, but clearly three days in a damp bag is not recommended maintenance. Having the outer and inner separate made them easier to dry as well.

While this dried, I wondered over to see if I could get some water and use the toilets. Damn - locked! It soon became clear there was a key system - with a special tool for using the water taps. There was a large container of returned keys, and I was mightily tempted to try to hook one out - but fortunately thought better of it when a lady came over from one of the caravans and happily let me into the toilet block.

I wasted no time (realising I might not be able to get back in), and got straight in the shower to wash off the days salt. Once I emerged, the owner had materialized, a jolly lady who took my €12 payment and issued me with a key of my very own.

After using the excellently reliable "find nearby restaurants" feature on the GPS - I really wanted as calorific pizza as I could find, given I'd last had a proper meal in Plzen - I headed off into town. The sun was going down through the parks and it was very peaceful.

Hilarious anthropomorphic bowling ball in the retro bowling alley opposite the campsite
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Rather mysterious ... bathing pool, in the park
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I dined at a pretty basic kebab/pizza house. As in Mainz last year, in Germany these are every bit as cheap as those in the UK, but in contradt really can be quite good. As before I got an inexpensive beer straight out the fridge, and sat outside, watching the rather sparse citizens of Bad B come and go.

After I ate my pizza I got another beer to take back to the campsite, and the owner came up for what transpired to be a slightly weird German/English chat. He quickly got that I was cycling across Germany, and told me a strange story about a friend of his who had completely abandoned his family to walk across Canada. Hopefully he didn't equate the two endeavours...

Sitting outside the basic pizzeria in Bad Blankenburg, watching the sunset and studying the maps
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I sat on the edge of the firepit, read and drank my beer, before turning in. Another 110km+ day, over really quite challenging (if scenic) terrain. I still had 200km to go over two days, but making Kassel now seemed a bit more doable...

Today's ride: 111 km (69 miles)
Total: 1,096 km (681 miles)

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