Setting off - The Middle of Sweden - CycleBlaze

January 15, 2018

Setting off

First relaxing, then not so much...

The ferry leg of the "Dutch Flyer" sets off late in the evening. I would make my way slowly over to Harwich, sleep on the ferry overnight, and then would begin my journey overland. After packing, repacking and repeatedly convincing myself I'd left something behind, I finally wheeled off down the road out and headed out of Potton on the lovely sandy tracks that lead to, well, Sandy station.

On reaching King's cross, my first task was to cross the centre of London to get to Liverpool Street. I'm generally pretty wary about cycling in London, but having hours of spare time and it being a sunny and slow-moving afternoon made it even pleasant. I even got asked where I was headed by some friendly fellow cyclists (and confused them a great deal by answering "Liverpool Street" before I cottoned on). I actually got to the station several hours before my booked train, so decided to jump on the next one headed for Ipswich. In theory you need a reservation to take bikes in the guards carriage on this route, but in practice, unless it's rammed you won't have any trouble. As well as passing this advice onto another passenger trying to transport their bike, the highlight of this journey was seeing several of the cast of Detectorists chatting away a few seats in front of me.

The (notorious) change at Manningtree wasn't a problem - the lifts still aren't working, but I was pleased to find I could still pull the fully-laden shift up a set of platform stairs. All this meant I got to the ferry terminal ludicrously early, where I wisely spent the time eating chips and watching alarming world events unravel on the news in the terminal cafe. The first of four ferry boardings, but the novelty didn't wear off - all the bikes have to hang around with the motorcyclists, and board at the same time. Riding in convoy with a whole load of middle-aged Germans on Harleys, trying to keep pace with them going up the ramps and into the belly of the ship is great fun. You then get directed to (what is generally) a few cords attached to pipes or other bits of metalwork integral to the ship. Tie your bike up with a couple of granny knots and you're good to go! A couple of beers on deck as we watched the sun set over Harwich, and then we set off.

So far, so much to plan. The next bit worried me though. Rather unfortunately my trip was coinciding with the upgrade to the tram system connecting Hoek to Rotterdam that was being made over the summer. As such, there is no public transport that can take bikes between the ferry port at Hoek and the nearest rail stations, at Rotterdam or Den Haag - a distance of around 18 miles. The problem with this is that in order to make my train connections work: I had booked trains from Den Haag to Osnabruck, then to Hamburg, and finally Lubeck and Travemund - I had only a couple of hours to get myself between the two. Well, I had a good guide (from and the distance wasn't that far - plus the wind should be in my favour, right?

Waiting with the bikers for the Dutch Flyer ferry
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Sunset over Harwich
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Harwich docks by night
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I was up bright and early and after a quick croissant for breakfast, down on the car deck as soon as we were allowed to untie my bike and get going. It took a while to get off the deck, with lots of revving and accumulation of car fumes. Eventually they let us out, but in reverse order - so the bikes and motorbikes had to wait almost until last. Once we rolled onto the dock, my heart sank - there was another passport check, with a long queue of cars. As the handful of cyclists we were directed down the side of the queue, but then oddly there was no real way to break in to get our passports checked. After watching a few cars go by, I decided the time had come for assertiveness and cut in, with apologetic waves ... nobody seemed to mind though.

Documents checked and in a jiffy I was out in the very suburban streets that surround the ferry port, with about 100 minutes to go. I'd assiduously checked the first kilometre, so I knew exactly where to head, and once I figured out which signs were referred to by the Dutch cycle guide was soon flying to dunes to the North (there are two types of sign - the type I was using uses a point-to-point numbering, so with a list of sign numbers you can navigate in stages - the other has a number for the route itself. The signs look rather different but it's not immediately clear which is which). This worked a treat initially, and the route is lovely, weaving between the dunes and expanses of glasshouses and well away from the traffic, and I cleared the 10km to Monster quickly (with only a minor moment of forgetfulness of the cycling-on-the-right variety with a very forgiving cycling coming the other way - oops). I passed some other loaded tourers who I'd come off the ferry with, setting off on the North Sea circuit by the looks of things, and waved my greetings.

And then the inevitable happened - the very clear path popped out of the dunes into a more built-up area on the outskirts of Den Haag, and the signs completely disappeared. After a frantic cycle up and down the promenade, and asking a couple of people I was pointed away from the sea and told the centre wasn't far. Any sign of the route completely disappeared, and I found myself on well-maintained separate bike paths in increasingly urban surroundings. It looked promising, but there was zero indication on where either the centre or the station might be. I followed groups of cyclists, took arbitrary turns because the lights happened to be green, and tried to obey the traffic laws all the while glancing nervously at the time.

Eventually I could see pedestrianised streets where I wasn't sure I could ride, and popped out in a square next to a monument with some tourists milling around. While squinting at the typically impenetrable "you are here" map, one came over and I asked him - what square was this? He looked amused and told me he had no idea himself! Ah well, better than inaccurate directions, I guess. I pressed on into the city, and suddenly saw a sign for the station. The last hundred metres were a dash through a pedestrian section. I had about 10 minutes before the train departed which I used to buy a sandwich, and decline both a kind offer of a free bike ticket from a random commuter and the opportunity to buy some hash from a sketchy, talkative guy wandering between the trains.

The Dutch take their bikes everywhere by train as a matter of course. The attitude in the Netherlands - very different from that in Germany, as I was to find out - is pretty laissez-faire. On the routes out of Den Haag, at least, there are sizeable vestibules which seem officially to be for two bikes, but with a bit of enthusiasm can fit three or four. I was the first into my vestibule, but as a biking family arrived we all helped to cram them in and disentangle them when we got to our destinations. I was very impressed with how they got on with it, making sure everyone could get where they needed to with minimum of fuss - particularly the young children who helped hand my pannier bags down to me when I got off at Amersfoort.

Here I would be switching to a German train, heading all the way to Berlin, to cross the border. I had bought my tickets in advance from Deutsche Bahn (you can do most of this online, apart from the international bike reservations which still need to be done over the phone), so in theory I was all prepared. But I can't emphasise enough that they take the system - which admittedly is excellent - very serious indeed. Coming from my Dutch experiences, and seeing that there were about twenty cyclists trying to get on an already full train, I got on as quickly and plonked my bike down in the first available space and then sat down to get out the way. We all got on - though I have never seem so many bikes crammed into a carriage - and the train set off.

The most bikes I have ever seen crammed onto a train
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Most of the journey passed without incident - I was having a nice chat with the guy next to me, who had ridden into Sweden himself, and also recommended Norway. There was a frankly bizarre incident at the border where a buy who had been inoffensively standing in the vestibule with his skateboard had to leave the train - according to my new friend his ticket was wrong on some minor technicality - which somehow led to him being searched by the transport police and busted for possessing cannabis! On the other hand, they didn't arrest him - his punishment seemed to only be being kicked off the train at the middle-of-nowhere border station.

As me and my neighbour were wondering over this, the guards were very systematically checking all the bikes, and seemed to be puzzling over a few of them. "Oh don't worry, they're just trying to figure out who owns that bike" he said. Which bike? Oh, just the tall blue one over there. I pushed my way through the thronged carriage and gesticulated with bad German to let them know I had the right ticket. There was a bit of frowning, and some mystification as to why, then it was in the wrong place. I didn't have a good answer to this, so they point to where it should have been - deep down the carriage. It was a nightmare job to try to move the bike down, even without panniers, and moreover seemed to be pretty pointless considering I was getting off at the next stop - but I felt bad for messing up the system, and to their credit they started to help me move it. As we got wedged sideways in the aisle and they announced Osnabruck was coming up on the tanoy, I thought it was worth protesting again. There was an almighty "aaah!" and virtual facepalming from all around, and I was allowed to stay put until I got off, feeling rather foolish. If you're ever taking a bike on this international train, bear this in mind - I never once got my own ticket checked, but they are all over the bikes. In hindsight it was a bit of a culture clash moment - the English are obsessed with getting out of the way ASAP and not making a fuss, while the Germans know that sticking with the well worked-out system will make things end better.

Another station, and another cycle of detaching and the re-attaching my panniers, and I was starting to get exhausted. Fortunately, the journey to Hamburg was much less eventful. In Hamburg I had to carry the bike up and down between the rammed platforms, and again crammed myself onto a local train busy with commuters. I'd eaten nothing but sandwiches all day, and my arms and back were aching from lugging the loaded bike and panniers around stations with short time. I was very glad to see Travemund, even if there was a bit of rain - getting off at the Ferry terminal station with a few hours to spare, I wheeled into town, and it actually turned out to be very pleasant. It was the home of Thomas Mann for many years, and unlike many ferry ports is something of a resort in itself. I chained up the bike and found an umbrella'd cafe where I could sit and watch it while taking advantage of cheap and excellent German beer.

Travemund is surprisingly nice
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Unfortunately it's pronounced "Shee-ser"
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After being so refreshed, I had an embarrassing moment when I was incapable of retracing my steps back to the Ferry port station. I had a mad moment when I tried to just make a beeline for the coast, figuring it couldn't be far, but then sanity returned and I found my way back to the station. There's actually a rather elaborate route that you need to take to cross the railway, but soon I picked up signs and could see the ferry port.

The now familiar rigmarole of getting the bike secured. I would generally bring a couple of panniers into my cabin so I could look at the maps, have a change of clothes etc. For the entire trip up until this point I was vaguely wondering what I would leave behind - there's always something. I seemed to get my answer when I finally flopped down in the cabin and went through my clothes pannier: I had exactly one pair of padded shorts with me. Now that's a tricky one - it's not a trip-ending disaster, but promises sufficient unpleasantness that you probably need to make a detour to fix it. Still, it was possible I had, for some reason, distributed them amongst my other panniers (in with the food, say). But why would I do that?

Anyway, since it wasn't the time to worry about that I headed to the restaurant for a meal and beer as we sailed out of Travemund by sunset. I would at least get to Sweden!

The second ferry, to cross the Baltic this time
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Not quite as good as "FinnAir"
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Leaving Travemund
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Today's ride: 18 miles (29 km)
Total: 18 miles (29 km)

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