We were old enough to have known better. Well, all right, two of the six were still in their fifties at the time, but only just. The rest of us were certainly old enough. Here we were, old friends, mostly retired daily newspapermen with an average age of sixty-eight and we were about to set off on a 1 000 km cycle ride down the River Danube. Perhaps, in the end, it was nearer to 900 km but I am speaking of genuine kilometres, the sort they have in France. We planned to follow the Danube from Passau in Germany, across Austria, across the tip of Slovakia and into Hungary as far as Budapest.
I had worked out that the ride would be downhill all the way. “Anyway it’s logical,” I had explained to my prospective though hesitant companions. “River courses are famous for running downhill; ipso facto the cycle track along the Danube must do something similar.” It certainly made sense at the time but it was the first of many assumptions that proved to be not terribly accurate.
The upshot of it all was that a few months later the six of us, early one spring morning, found ourselves inside a bicycle hire depot on the periphery of the medieval town of Passau in Bavaria inspecting the Austrian-made trek bikes we were about to sit astride for the next couple of weeks.
Harvey, the most senior of us, contended that from a physical comfort point of view picking the right bike was as important as picking the right mate. “It must,” he said, “be a bicycle of docile but steadfast character with gentle saddle and - vitally important - of precise and peculiar height to suit the rider.” In other words, it was no good anybody trying to adjust a bike that was suitable for Richard or Alan, the two youngest and who happened to be the tallest (both were around 2 metres above sea level), to suit Rex and me who were considerably shorter.
We minutely inspected the bikes; we rang their bells listening to them intently and professionally as if tuning a harp. We squeezed the tyres and clicked the gears. There were twenty-one of them.
“I’ve never seen so many gears,” muttered Rex who is inclined to growl into his clipped beard which, like his close-cropped hair, is silver.
“What’s that? So many years what?” asked Harvey who, like me, is somewhat deaf. Harvey at seventy-three hardly had a grey strand in his thick mop of hair and has the stamina of a Sherpa.
“Gears, gears,” repeated Rex whose low resonance voice means he has to repeat practically everything he says no matter to whom he is speaking.
The rest of my companions were as inexperienced as I. None of us even owned a bike until three months before we set out and not one of us had seriously cycled since our first childhood.
The fellow in charge of the cycle depot came over and asked us with more anxiety in his voice than I thought was warranted: “Are you sure you are going to be all right?”
We were, I suppose, an odd-looking group. We were attired in form-fitting sky blue, bum-hugging Lycra cycling shorts and canary yellow shirts stretched, in my case, to splitting point over a thickened waistline. The shirts were emblazoned with the words “Cycle Lab”, the name of the cycle firm that had fitted us out.
Yet despite our professional appearance the cycle hire man looked genuinely concerned, even alarmed. I realised afterwards that he had probably been misled by the word “Lab” on our shirts. He might have thought we were part of some heartless geriatric experiment.
One by one we mounted our bikes and wobbled out of the shed and on to the small cobbled square outside Passau’s bahnhof . It was quiet in the station’s cobbled forecourt as we tested our bikes but we realised that traversing Passau town centre would be something else entirely. We were going to have to cycle through it in peak morning traffic.
We had spent the previous day walking around the medieval section of Passau which is set on a great river junction on a wedge of land between the Rivers Danube and Inn. The River Ilz enters at the north end of the town and the whole is surrounded by steep forested hills. The town’s denizens have traditionally made fine swords that over the centuries have done a lot to trim the population of Central Europe.
It would have been sensible for us to have spent the previous evening carbo-loading and having an early night but without our wives around to say “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” we had recklessly spent it wining and dining and offering each other toasts - a toast to our cycling success; a toast to our boundless courage; a toast to our good health; a toast to our wives back home (God bless them, I think somebody said) and to many other worthy things all now a little hazy.
The expedition had, more by accident than design, been labelled the “Tour de Farce” and the name has stuck to this day. But as we circled the cobbled square testing our bikes outside the bahnhof the whole enterprise had suddenly become very serious and I felt the first pang of anxiety. I had good reason to feel apprehensive, for being the Obergruppenführer I felt responsible for the welfare of these men and for ensuring that they were returned more or less intact to their loved ones. Harvey, Rex and Richard had been successive editors of a big daily newspaper and I had worked under their lash for most of my career. For the purpose of this expedition they had unanimously recognised my leadership abilities though I found it strange that they had never mentioned it over the preceding years. They were now happy to sit back and allow me the privilege - as they put it - of doing the planning for the expedition and the organising and negotiating with cycle hire companies and cycling outfitters, as well as organising the air tickets and connections.
In fact, among the toasts on the eve of our departure from Passau they had stood and toasted me as a “Terribly Good Leader.” I was a little embarrassed and might have shuffled the feet a little. I told them that I didn’t need praise because I was a terribly modest person. Rex growled something.
“What’s was that?” asked Harvey, cupping his ear again.
“I was quoting Churchill,” Rex said, this time a little louder, “I was saying that Jim has quite a lot to be modest about.”
I was quite touched by Rex’s little homily and felt myself colouring a little.
I had led everybody to believe that all we had to do at the next day’s start was to get on our bikes and persuade some friendly German to give each of us a little push and we’d then be able to freewheel all the way to Vienna.
“What if our brakes fail?” Harvey asked. “Then,” said Alan, who has a way of bringing complicated matters down to basics, “if Jim is right and it is downhill all the way we’ll go screaming through five countries and end up being pitched headlong into the Black Sea.”
I did a final check of my bike, ran a professional eye over my rear wheel panniers, clicked my gears one final time, retested the bell and announced with just a hint of drama that I felt the occasion demanded, “Right gentlemen, let’s go!”
They had in fact already gone.
I caught up with them as they were baulking at the formidable stream of traffic that was slowly crowding into the modern part of town. The city’s main thoroughfare was undergoing extensive repairs and there were many confusing deviations and many temporary signs in very poor English, such as Ausfahrt, Shritt fahren, Radweg kreuzt and Umgehungsstrasse. Frankly I find that everything in German sounds a little intimidating. To my ear even Ich liebe dich sounds like an order for a Panzer division to move forward.
I was ushered to the front to lead the peloton through the city. And so we merged with the jockeying traffic in much the same way that the Allies merged with the Germans in Normandy in 1944. The traffic immediately engulfed us and we became helplessly scattered - a yellow figure here and a yellow figure there. I had anticipated this and had suggested at the outset that we would probably have to make our individual ways through town and that the survivors should muster on the north bank of the Danube where the riverside cycle track began.
Obviously some of my colleagues must have been hopelessly disoriented because at one point I came across Harvey pedalling towards me and later, as I crossed a flyover, I spotted a yellow-shirted figure, head down, pedalling furiously at right angles beneath me. Yet, much later I came across all five of them lounging under a tree at the appointed spot. They said they had been waiting twenty minutes.
It was not to be the last time they were to wait for me and, not for the first time was I greatly touched by their reliance on my leadership and their nervousness about going on without me. After a great deal of handshaking we set off. Naturally they insisted I go in front.
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