The Luxembourgish Way

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Three days in Luxembourg.  The National Holiday falls on the solstice.  It celebrates, well, the National Holiday.  Nobody could tell us if it meant anything in particular, except that it wasn’t always scheduled in the middle of the summer as it is now.  Even in late June, partygoers are still bundled in rain jackets and scarves.  It is a wet country, and this is a particularly wet year.  The language of Luxembourg?  Luxembourgish, German and French, officially, as well as some Dutch and English.  The cuisine of Luxembourg?  German, French, and Belgian.  The people are Luxembourgish, although in French they are called Luxembourgeois.  Luxembourg claims the highest GDP of any country in the world.  They still have a monarch, the Grand Duchy, who appears in shop windows all over the cities and is very well dressed.  Luxembourg is home to piss beer–Diekirch and Bofferding; some big names in cycling– Frank and Andy Schleck, for example; and some of the friendliest and most contented people anywhere.  Some of the obvious questions about Luxembourg have been answered by our brief trip, although much remains a mystery.  One thing is certain: the Luxembourgeois know how to throw a party.

Diverting from the GR5 along the Our River at Vianden, we follow rural roads and urban cycling routes to the big city– Luxembourg (City).  It has been a wet summer, which brings a bounty of life and an excess or surface water.  The country is very orderly.

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A party requires a party dress.  Fourteen euro at a discount clothing store next to the supermarket scores a lightweight packable number.  Joe Cruz calls this hobo-chic.  In this case, a little more chic than usual.  Bikepackers need not sacrifice style.

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A pleasant place to live and travel, for sure.  Luxembourg is calm.  Enjoying a dry moment in the park before the festival, we enjoy a picnic of baguette, cheese, and Bitburger.  Bitburg, Germany is less than a day away by bike.  It is always fun to shop for food in Europe.  It is always amazing to see what Lael pulls out of her seatpack.  Eggs, arugula, wine, odorous cheeses, and saucissons are common fare.

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The city lives on a hill above the Alzette River.

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How to throw a party.  Invite the Duchy and his wife, for sure.  Sit him down with a bunch of his friends and parade the entire country in in front of him.

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Flags.

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Kids with drums and torches.

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Relic firefighting equipment, including a wagon with a barrel of water on it, dating from the 1700’s.

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Must have music.  Invite Canadian, English, and America bands to headline the festival.  Everybody loves Celtic-Canadian-Mexican-English folk-pop-rock-world fusion.  Flutes and fiddles get people in the mood.

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And when the party is over and the sun begins to rise, it is time for a quick dash out of the city.  Fifteen kilometers later– including an elevator, lots of stairs, some wrong turns, and finally, empty roads– we arrive in the countryside, on a dirt road, at our temporary home.

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Awaking the next afternoon, we shoot for France.  Instead, we encounter a professional cycling race.  More beer and sausage.  The Schleck brothers were on hand.  We spectated.

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Again, escaping towards France, we encounter another festival celebrating the National Holiday in Kayl.  More quaint than the party in the city, we linger to sample Luxembourgish food– German spätzle, French (Alsacienne) tarte flambé, and Belgian gaufres.

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Dodging rainclouds, we make one last camp in Luxembourg, only 4 km from the French border.

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In the morning, we connect local mountainbiking routes intertwined with abandoned iron mines.  Feels much like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to me– beautiful, rusty, and abandoned.

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Luxembourg uses unique signage for their national routes, including the GR5/E2 route we had been following.  Arriving in France, we resume our hunt for red and white signage– a familiar and welcomed sight.

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Quickly, we find changing soil and terrain– the region’s terroir–to stifle our forward motion by bicycle.  Clay rich soil makes for a particularly tacky type of mud.  Considering other routes…

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GR5: Stavelot to Vianden

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More of the same, which is nothing to complain about.  Climb out of Stavelot by bike, on foot, and back on the bike towards the top.  The trail often climbs steeply out of town between fencelines, sandwiched between diverse properties.  Further up, forests and farms leave room for a more generous track or trail.  Some great roads and trails exist in these forested hilltops.  It is amazing to find so many signed routes in this county– for walking, cycling, and mountain biking.  Europe is relatively dense with people and things, but an abundance of trails and resources makes adventures like this possible.  The same is true of the vast network of forest service roads in the American west, in contrast to places like Alaska that do not invite visitors by bicycle.  Access is the word.

Access is enabled by facilities and resources.  Roads and trails are required, yet maps and signage must make them known and easy to follow.  The latter require little public funds– maps, signs, and painted blazes are cheap.  Consider that the Great Divide Route is entirely a mapped resource, with no on-the-ground facilities (excepting a few errant signs).  The former, such as paved trails, can be more costly and potentially more valuable, but they should not serve as an absolute benchmark for all projects.  More affordable facilities have the capacity to enrich communities and enliven local economies, even in small towns where money is tight.  Numerous local walking and biking routes are proof that facilities are not always expensive.  

These aren’t answers, exactly, but the questions that come to mind every day in Europe are important.  Why do we have so much money for roads in America, but very little money for human-scale facilities?  Why are many American cities decentralizing, even when we love our losing ‘Main Streets’ and we travel to Europe to photograph and remark at the history?  How long before we invest in ourselves and our communities, as one takes an interest in their own health?

Climbing out of Stavelot.

   

 

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Little used forest tracks, inundated with water.  

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Except for the 4×6′ patch of ground inhabited by our tent.

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In Burg-Reuland, on the border of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg.  Rent and E-bike!  Lots of walking and biking tourism here.

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Drying, eating, cleaning, lubing.

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And back up.

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In Luxembourg, following the Our River.  Red and white blazes have disappeared without notice, although a half-dozen other markings take their place.  Mostly, we follow the radiant sun of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and various local walking and cycling routes.  Luxembourg is densely crumpled, rising and falling steeply.  For now, it is saturated after months of rain.  A little more like coastal Oregon than Pennsylvania around here.

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The diversity of trail surface is astounding.  Some highly rideable and pleasant, some prickly and challenging.

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Wet from days of rain, swollen rivers serve to soothe tired muscles and launder muddy t-shirts.

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And just before the skies opened again, we happen upon a free camping zone along the road.  This is the first that we have seen like this.  The timing could have not been any better.  As soon as the rainfly was affixed, it poured.

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On pavement on our way to Luxembourg City to connect with a friend.  

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Road construction nudges us back onto singletrack, and some prickly hike-a-bike around a reservoir.  Should have taken the advised road detour.  

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After some delay, we finally drop into Vianden, marked by a castle on the hill.  Finally, sunny skies for the afternoon.

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On our way to Luxembourg City for the national holiday and all-night parties in the streets.  Partying the Luxembourgish way.  

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GR5: Genk to Stavelot

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In the Netherlands, the GR5 was an interesting ramble through town and country.  In northern Belgium, the route frequently follows managed forest tracks and local mountain bike routes, often abandoned doubletrack.  Passing near Maastricht and Liège, the routes enters the famed Ardennes Mountains, famed for being the only mountains in Belgium.  If this were Pennsylvania, which is how it looks from squinted eyes atop a hill, we would joke that these are mere hills.  But the same is true both here and there, these are steep hills approaching 1000ft in elevation range, and after riding up and over a couple I am happy to regard them as mountains.  Finally, this is real mountain biking.  The diversity of the trail has not diminished, simply more time is spent off-pavement and even off-road– yes, there is a distinction.  Some hiking required, and many challenging ascents and technical descents, but mostly pleasant riding.  ‘Bikepacking the Ardennes’ may be a ready made route, and an instant classic.

These images are from the last three days, as hills turn to mountains.  Only 1550km to Nice.  Not sure if we are going there.  Always passing through tunnels.  

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We never leave at first light, but we ride until the last hour almost every night.  The sun retires past 10PM, lingering below the horizon for another hour.  As the days get warmer, evening becomes a nice time to ride.  

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Mornings are equally nice– cool and full of excitement for the day.  Change is the essence of this route, and scouting the next turn keeps us busy all day.  Shopping for food, picnicking, and swimming revive our muscles and our interests in riding.  Belgian beer, chocolate, and waffles keep our energy levels high for the next climb.   More than a few locals have been interested in our curious ‘touring bikes’.

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We share the route with a few others, including farmers, cattle, cars, hikers; nettles, raspberry brambles, deer ticks, tall grasses, overgrown trees, mud, rock, roots; and very infrequently, other cyclists.

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The Ardennes are wonderful.  Growing up in rural New York, I hunger for these kinds of landscapes.  Touring in the Rockies the past few summers and living in New Mexico, I had forgotten about humidity altogether.  Mud and nettles; rocks and steeps; cities and steps all got together. 

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Many stone buildings do not have provisions for exterior plumbing, which can make it hard to find unattended water sources.  Cemeteries are a safe bet.  In the mountains, streams are always found in the valleys.

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Camping has almost never been easier.  Much of the trail passes through public forests.  A bench, like a picnic table, is a nice feature.

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In 2009, the GR5 marked its 50th anniversary.  

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Here, our descent to Stavelot–  a half-day in the life of a GR5 thru-biker.

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 A tunnel completes the route to town.  Both natural and manufactured features make the GR routes exceptional.  The footpath shares this tunnel with a small stream.

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Riding south, hoping to reach Luxembourg City this weekend.  A friend from Tacoma performs with The Paperboys at midnight on Saturday.  

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Nouvelle Belgique

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Belgium is a good place to ride a bike.  The GR trails have been a better host than we could have even imagined.

Thanks to Jo (of the circus), Matthieu and Annelise for welcoming us back into the country.  Thanks to Scott for the fine bikepacking equipment; each day my framebag fits more 75cl beers than the last.  Between Bruxelles and the border of Luxembourg, Lael and I found some hills, soon to become mountains.  Real mountain biking, plus the usual European diversions, coming soon.

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GR daydreams

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My visit with my grandmother in her final days has strengthened my resolve to live simply and to live well, as she did.  My thoughts return to Europe and to our continental scavenger hunt.  I look forward to chasing red and white blazes again.  I look forward to bumbling around the world on bikes with Lael.  I look forward to a vigorous outdoor life.  I am on a plane back to Bruxelles right now.

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Ah, the good life, even if a little work.

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Hey Lael!  Miss you, see you soon.

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Philadelphia at 𝑓/1.7

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Walking, mostly, with my little brother and my new Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7.  Many images were shot with the lens wide open to explore the creative potential of this particular lens.  Philadelphia today, Jersey shore tomorrow, return to Bruxelles Wednesday.  Soon to be a lot more bikes and riding here again.  For now, lots of cameras.

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Lael’s new office

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For many cyclists an iPhone is a self-contained office, including a basic camera with photo editing and publishing apps.  Lael and I traveled for years without any electronics, eventually graduating to a single iPod Touch that we shared.  We mapped routes, sent e-mails, and even applied for a job from the small touchscreen (I got the job!).  In fact, I started this blog two years ago on an iPod Touch, on a whim.  However, the leap to a proper camera requires a laptop to upload, edit and publish photos.  For a heavy workload including writing and photo editing, that is still the best way.  If your needs are less demanding, the new generation of touchscreen tablets provide a more portable and affordable solution to cyclists.

I purchased a new camera and a new lens this past week.  Lael gets my old camera– an Olympus E-PM1— with the 14-42mm kit lens.  For just over $200, I picked up a 32GB Google Nexus 7 tablet for her as well.  To upload images to the Nexus, I sourced a generic Micro-USB (male) to USB (female) converter, and a miniature SD card reader.  Additionally, I purchased the Nexus Media Importer from the Google Play store, a source for apps, games, and media.  Also included below: the USB wall charger for the Nexus 7 and the battery charger for the E-PM1.  The charger and power cord for the camera battery are bulky and heavy.  Lucky for Lael, the E-PM1 uses the same battery as my new E-P3 camera so she won’t have to carry a charger.  Aftermarket chargers that plug directly into an outlet are available, and they should save weight and space.  This will be Lael‘s new office.

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The E-PM1 camera body is barely larger than an iPhone, and begs for a quality pancake lens to make a nearly pocketable system.  This kit zoom is versatile, and will be familiar in Lael’s hands.

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This lens is lightweight and packable, as it retracts into itself when not in use.  Extended on the left; retracted for storage on the right.

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Barely $10 of electronic hardware and a $2.99 app transform the Nexus 7 from a fun e-reader and web browser into a mobile office for a traveling amateur photographer.

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The Nexus 7 is less than half the size of my MacBook Air and should have no trouble finding a home in a framebag or handlebar bag.  The claimed weight is a mere 340g, less than the weight of most fatbike tubes.  However, if you are riding a fatbike you should be riding tubeless anyway.

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While I drooled over the OM-D EM-5, I settled for the E-P3 at one-third the price.  So far, it is everything I wanted and nothing I don’t need.

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The Olympus E-P3 is available for about $375 from several online retailers.

Check Lael’s Globe of Adventure in the coming weeks to see the new system in action. We will be back on the trail in Belgium at the end of next week.

・ Sep ・ 64

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Syracuse, NY.  September, 1964.  My mom and her new Columbia bicycle.

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Perhaps, if not for this moment: She may not have bought a Lotus mixte road bike in the early 1980’s.  She may not have borrowed the trailer from the family down the street and towed me into the countryside more than a couple times, out beyond the asphalt plant, beyond the dairy farms and the corn fields.  She may not have held my seat as I teetered on two wheels, falling more than once, knees bloodied before bed.  I would not have enjoyed riding so much to ignore the fact that I had inherited a Cabbage Patch themed bicycle from my older sister, with tassels, white wicker basket, banana seat and solid rubber tires.  I would not have graduated to pneumatic tires and a more BMX-themed bicycle, and slipped on the gravel at the bottom of the driveway while cornering at high speed, loosening more than one tooth. I would not have received a 5-speed bike with shocks for my birthday, and proceeded to huck it off every available driveway end, where the curb slopes upward at such an angle to make a real sweet kicker on a small-wheeled bike.  I would not have spent the money from my first lawnmowing job on a real bike, a mid-nineties Trek 820 Mt. Track.  It was orange.  I would not have actually taken it off-pavement and into the hills and forests, as the marketing suggested.  I would not have begged for a Gary Fisher Tassajara— a seemingly real, real bike compared to the Trek– and ridden some real trails on it and enjoyed it.  I would not have taken the Fisher to college, where it was eventually stolen and replaced by other bikes and skateboards and things with wheels, including an old Sears three-speed not unlike the Columbia from 1964.  I would not have purchased a singlespeed Bianchi San Jose with my first paycheck as a dockhand at the marina, to replace the functional, but failing three-speed.  I would not have commuted every day for two years in Tacoma before eventually riding 45 miles to Seattle with Lael on a fixed-gear iteration of the San Jose, because we didn’t have money for bus fare.  We would not have decided that we could; we would not have declared that we would ride across the country.  We left that fall, Sept 2008.  It has been five years.

If not for that moment in Syracuse, NY in 1964, the last five years would look very different.  Thanks mom.

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