Over the years, my wife has witnessed me in countless scenarios that present a very poor advertisement for bicycle touring. Pallid and babbling at the summit of Mont Ventoux, skeletal and hypothermic in snowbound Lapland, a weepy red mess across the broiled Balkans. Even on the good days, I’ve struggled to impress my sometime support driver with the upsides. Bigging up the dogged accumulation of distance, altitude and well-earned suppers has proved a tough sell to a very occasional high-road cyclist. It’s an awfully long time since my wife rode a bike without a basket on the handlebars. In common with most hard-working, rational human beings, she goes on holiday to put her feet up, not rotate them several thousand times towards the ragged edge of endurance.
Without wishing to make lazy gender assumptions, I doubt our partnership is unique in pairing a middle-aged man in Lycra with a middle-aged woman in low heels and a flowery skirt. It was surely with the intention of bridging this familiar divide that Butterfield & Robinson, doyens of the high-end guided bicycle tour, devised their new Rhine Cruise Biking trip, a week-long luxury sail up the mighty river from Basel to Amsterdam, with daily disembarkations for a few gentle hours of in-saddle sightseeing up pan-flat bike paths. “A self-selecting group of nice husbands,” my wife declared, after an introductory hotel breakfast with the dozen-odd couples who comprised our group. Like me, these men had nobly reined in their male-pattern, two-wheeled urge to conquer brutal landscapes, fuelled by sweaty pockets full of stolen breakfast rolls. I nodded manfully. How marvellous to frame this holiday as an act of chivalrous self-denial, without having to admit that I’m getting too old for all that grim punishment; I was in fact secretly delighted by the relaxed itinerary and the promise of all-inclusive on-board indulgence.
A morning bus ride through the Black Forest delivered us to our three guides, their two minibuses and our bikes — each one already set up according to our individual measurements, bidons primed. The recommended machine was a Bianchi hybrid, though a few had plumped for other options. Carmine, who shaved his legs and told me he rode 6,000 miles a year back home in New York, had insisted on a road bike. He’d hit his sixties, but refused to envisage any future interest in the Bosch pedal-assist electric bikes that were also on offer. “You see me on one of those, just shoot me in the head.” Our peloton was a broad church, drawn from Canada to Kenya and most points along the cycling-proficiency spectrum. Just the one flowery skirt in our ranks, mind you, though I did insist that my wife put a pair of bike shorts on under it.
The first stage, a sunny downstream trundle across three borders to meet up with our ship at Basel docks, brought familiarity with the satnav tablets clamped to our handlebars. These came pre-programmed with the day’s route, allowing everyone to proceed at their own pace without ending up in the wrong country. We were guided through a succession of trim and quietly prosperous German villages, and then along the dappled banks of a Rhenish tributary.
This was nobody’s idea of a tough schedule, yet after barely an hour we rounded a meander and found our guides — a tirelessly amiable and efficient trio — waiting by a trestle table piled with snacks and refreshments. After barely another, our satnavs bleeped up a jaunty bespoke message: “What better place to meet for lunch than the Fondation Beyeler? We’re waiting for you!” And so to an al fresco spread in the grounds of a Renzo Piano-designed art gallery, served on crisp linen and accompanied by a quantity of Riesling that would have been a very bad idea if we’d had more than six kilometres left to ride.
Viewed from the river bank, Rhine cruise ships look like overgrown Bâteaux Mouches — four-square, three-deck, double-glazed barges. But the SS Antoinette was much better from the inside: bars fore and aft and another on the open deck, a bijou resistance pool, a gym and a cinema. Our stateroom, dominated by a vast, plump bed, had a marble-panelled en-suite bathroom and a full-width window that hummed all the way down at the touch of a button. Only now, watching my wife stock the wardrobes and every shelf in the bathroom, did I appreciate the standout advantage of a ship as a cyclo-touring base: there would be no more packing or unpacking between here and Amsterdam. I confess to a pang of regret, denied the chance to showcase those 30-second pannier-cramming morning checkouts honed on my one-man tours. Perhaps I was thinking of these when I reflexively flung my shorts and jersey into our sink and squirted in a sachet of shower gel. My wife put her head round the door, saw me elbow-deep in suds and, with a small sigh, described the on-board laundry and its battery of complimentary Miele washing machines.
Our crew was predominantly eastern European and unfailingly courteous. My wife floated regally through the dining room on a rolling coo of compliments: “Looking beautiful as ever, my lady.” Every well-presented dinner came paired with choice local wines — Germany’s output is far less one-dimensional these days — and a new set of tablemates. On the dressier nights, our ageless setting and cast of wealthy world travellers came to feel very Agatha Christie. It struck us that two dozen companions — our merry band of B&R brothers among the Antoinette’s 120-odd passengers — hit the sweet spot as a tour-group community: small enough that you got to know everyone, and the order in which they might be murdered, yet large enough to allow you to slope off on occasion without looking too rude.
We sloped off quite early on that first evening, keen to savour the experience so winningly captured in our itinerary: “motoring stealthily through the night”. With the air warm and our cabin window right down, we lay in bed and watched the Black Forest slide by above those moon-spangled waters. It was delightful, even when the silhouetted trees were interrupted by less conventionally appealing riverside features, most of them topped with a floodlit clutch of steaming chimneys. The Rhine is a working river that never sleeps, clotted with more bulk commodity barges than pleasure cruisers. At some point in the small hours I pulled back the curtains for a bleary check on our progress, and was memorably presented with a flank of wet black concrete falling slowly past my nose at a distance of about three inches. We squeezed through 11 locks in all. And it was always a small thrill to wake up without knowing what to expect when you looked out of the window. We lucked out with a starboard cabin, which afforded a full range of bustling and bucolic prospects across the wide water. Our port-side shipmates generally began their days exchanging close-up yawns with passengers on the rival cruise vessel we’d moored up against.
The pattern was set as we motored stealthily north-west. We’d load up with an unnecessary surfeit of carbs at the ship’s breakfast buffet, muster at our onshore bike assembly point, then head off in small groups for a 40km freewheel through poppy-girdled vineyards and half-timbered towns. There is nowhere more relaxing to ride a bike than Germany: cyclists are invariably awarded their own velvet-paved path, and on the rare and brief occasions when they aren’t, motorists give way and hang back with elaborate deference. The cloudless skies didn’t hurt. Nor did all those refreshment stops: sauerkraut and schnitzel in the welcome cool of an ancient wine cellar; espressos under a parasol on medieval cobbles; table after riverside table of chilled cans and cashews. At the showpiece cities — Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Koblenz and in due course Cologne — we dismounted, split into two groups and toured the cathedrals and castles on foot with a local guide. Afterwards there was usually the option of riding the long way back to the ship, for those with some pent-up fast kilometres curdling in their legs. I always signed up. As lovely as all this smooth and windless flatness was for companionable tootling, it made for an even better pocket time trial. Consulting my Google Maps timeline after I came home, I noted with quiet pride — well, quiet-ish — that the algorithm had decided I’d covered the last few miles of most days by car.
The scenic majesty peaked in the Rhine Gorge, the waters hemmed in by rearing walls of rock topped with a hundred fairytale turrets. It was a weekend, and for two days we saw the working Rhine at play: topless red fishermen sitting on jetties, families picnicking along little beaches carved out of the sandy banks, a day out at the stand-in seaside for people who live hundreds of kilometres from the nearest coast. On deck and in saddle, there was much waving to be done. The strawberry-pickers, the marching bands and happy campers, all living the hale and hearty Mitteleuropean dream. At times it felt like riding through a model village come to life. And finally, outside Koblenz, we went up a hill. It was short, but it was sharp. Carmine took the points at the top and the rest of us wobbled up the hairpins in his wake, supplementing our tans with a glow of physical achievement.
Just in time, because that was it for the cycling. My wife and I overdid our stealthy-motoring night watch, and slept through the valedictory early-morning ride up the Cologne riverbank. Our final haul, through the Rhine’s relentlessly industrial upper reaches, would be dispatched in one nonstop sail, motoring brazenly through the day past cooling towers and car plants. We docked in Amsterdam and said fond farewells. As someone who has done almost all of his cycling solo, I’d been charmed to experience the unique camaraderie of riding in company. So too, as someone who’s done almost no cycling, had my wife. Though when I suggested renting city bikes to kill our five hours in Amsterdam, she couldn’t fire up Uber fast enough.
More laid-back cycling
Tuscany by e-bike The hills of Chianti are beautiful but surprisingly brutal, so there’s no shame in accepting the helping hand of an e-bike. Cycling for Softies has a five-night self-guided circular tour, starting and ending in Cortona. Guests get fully serviced e-bikes, route notes and their luggage transferred to a different hotel each night. From £1,145; cycling-for-softies.co.uk
Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast A guided week-long group trip takes cyclists from Split to Dubrovnik, but uses ferries to cut the daily distance to an average of just 23 miles. The route hops from the mainland to the islands of Hvar and Korcula, with plenty of time to cool off in quiet coves. From £1,060; bspoketours.com
Whisky on Speyside Headwater’s self-guided trip takes riders on a loop from Inverness, along the Moray Coast then into the Highlands. Each day, they cover no more than 34 miles but stop at up to three distilleries, from giants such as Glenfiddich to much smaller brands such as Benromach. A week’s trip costs from £669, including daily luggage transfers. headwater.com
Tim Moore was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com). Its seven-night Rhine Cruise Biking trip starts from £5,875 based on two people sharing. Next departures in September
Tim Moore is the author of ‘French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France’ and ‘Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy’
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