Using OsmAnd+ for long-distance cycling

OsmAnd+ routeJust as Hoover came to define vacuum cleaners, Garmin has unfortunately become synonymous with GPS navigator for bikes. To the irritating extent that one of my riding groups recently announced Garmins are mandatory on this ride. As Andy Matthews said in an excellent blog post Garmin are a lazy company … They’ve largely captured the market for cycling computers and seemingly not through excellence but from being first to market and being good enough. Caroline and I have collectively owned five Garmin devices and experienced the highs and lows: liberation from the stress and delays of navigating with paper maps, but numerous irritations such as random reboots, confusingly different and proprietary file formats, unreliable navigation, limited configurability.

Entering the 2016 Transcontinental Race (a single-stage continuous bike race from Flanders to Gallipoli where the clock never stops) prompted me to re-evaluate. In theory a smartphone with OpenStreetMap and a decent mapping application should be capable of overcoming many of these limitations and providing a much better navigation experience. But, as Yogi Berra said, the difference between theory and practice is that in theory there’s no difference but in practice there is.

I identified my requirements:

  • Ability to follow a pre-planned route. For TCR, Audax, tours and indeed most of my training rides, I plan in advance and create GPX files with tools such as bikehike and brouter. The main use case is simply to keep me following the planned route.
  • Ability to navigate on demand to off-route locations. In TCR I expected I would need to find hotels, food stops, bike shops which might be somewhat off-route. I want to be able to rely on the mapping app to choose a fast, bike-suitable route for these relatively short deviations from my planned route.
  • A database of relevant points of interest. Bike shops, supermarkets, fuel stations, restaurants; bonus points for hours of operation (I relied on 24-hour fuel stations for food and drink).
  • Clear, simple map display, easy to control on the move (e.g. change zoom and map orientation)
  • Easy access to good quality maps for all of Europe.
  • Able to record a ride and easily upload to Strava over the air.
  • Physically robust and able to survive heavy rain – Garmin’s trump card; ours have survived several high-speed falls from the bike, and when the rain comes down, we’ll be far more anxious about covering ourselves with waterproofs than covering the Garmins.
  • Ability to ride 15 hours a day without battery worries.

I chose to use the Android app OsmAnd+ on a Motorola Moto G (3rd gen) phone, but carried a Garmin Edge 605 as backup. The good news is that OsmAnd led me through several long Audaxes including the 600km Brimstone in May, a 1,700km tour along the Rhine in June, successful completion of the Transcontinental in August (3,800km in 16 days). OsmAnd has its own quirks, and can be a little daunting at first, but it was the single most valuable piece of kit I carried on that long ride from Geraardsbergen to Çanakkale. OsmAnd never failed and the Garmin remained turned off in my bag.

This piece explains my thought process in selecting OsmAnd and Moto G3, details how I used it, and highlights some of the quirks and areas for improvement. I’ve shared an album of screen shots that show, in some detail, the step-by-step process of installing, configuring and using OsmAnd. I’ve included a few key screen shots directly in this post.

I should perhaps say: I am a techie, I’m not daunted by more complex technology, and perhaps my preference for OsmAnd reflects this. Nonetheless I want to try and make this description as clear and complete as I can, because I feel OsmAnd really rewards the effort to install and learn to use it.

The device

Moto G3I have no knowledge of, or interest in iPhones, so for me it’s an Android. Water-resistant Android phones are becoming far more common. There are self-consciously ruggedised models, including some pretty cheap Chinese brands. There are high-end models such as Sony Experia Z3, which make a song and dance about their water-resistance and have received good feedback from other TCR finishers including Simon Romaine. I chose a Moto G 3rd Generation because I could justify £150 to update my phone even with the risk it wouldn’t meet the more stringent requirements as a navigation device. It’s allegedly IPX7 rated, meaning it can be dunked in up to one metre of water for up to 30 minutes (with videos to demonstrate). In a lab perhaps, but I was far from confident in real-life conditions. But so far, so good. [Update: the new, 4th gen Moto G no longer has the IPX7 water-resistance rating. My guess is the design hasn’t changed but Motorola is taking a more cautious stance, perhaps due to warranty claims. But you may want to consider alternatives which advertise water-resistance.]

If you are planning on riding across Europe, you’ll need plenty of storage space for maps, stored tracks and photos, so I’d suggest getting a phone that will allow you to plug in an SD card. My Moto G3 came with 16GB internal storage, which I use mainly for installed apps, and I plugged in a 32GB SD card. Maybe overkill, but it only cost £10 so why worry.

The mapping software

I was already happily using OpenStreetMap maps on the Garmin so I had no hesitation in choosing them for TCR. For those who don’t know, OSM is the Wikipedia of mapping; it’s compiled through the contributions of volunteers. Mapping coverage was faultless, even throughout the Balkan phase of TCR (I crossed Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia). Oddly enough, the only place I’ve found a few gaps in OSM mapping was in deepest mid-Wales, when I followed-up TCR with Mike Hall’s Valleycat in September. Of course OSM encourages you to correct any errors and we’ve fixed one or two.

OsmAnd stores maps offline so you have no dependence on mobile/Wifi network coverage when you’re on the road. It’s super-easy to download new countries or regions, just click on each of them while you are on-network and wait… they are quite large files: For TCR, I carried 3.3GB of maps for 16 countries (including some contingency countries off my planned route; be prepared!). Smaller countries tend to be packaged as a single map file, larger ones have a file per region, so I ended up with 43 map files. The free version of OsmAnd is limited to 10 downloads (maps, voice files, etc.). So if you only want UK maps you might be able to get by with the free version of OsmAnd, but the paid version (designated OsmAnd+ in the Play store) only costs £5.99 so I’d suggest paying up.

I know some TCR riders have had success with downloading offline Google maps. It seems to me a little more awkward than with OsmAnd, but perhaps I’m just not so familiar. The Google mapping is inferior to OSM for cycling, especially regarding details of road surface and status. And when you need a dry place to spend the night in rural France, it’s truly wonderful to locate and navigate to a bus stop using OSM!

By the way OsmAnd is also available for IPhone but I don’t have any personal experience.

Battery life

Two factors dominate battery usage: network usage and illuminating the screen.

I discovered that switching the phone to aeroplane mode led to a vast improvement in battery life. Connecting to the mobile network seems to be very power-consuming, especially in areas of poor coverage, where the phone is often seeking a signal.

As for the screen, I turn off adaptive brightness, and lower the brightness level, normally to one notch above the lowest setting. The map remains perfectly visible on dull days in the UK. In the TCR, in the middle of bright sunny days, I found I needed to turn the brightness up. Adaptive brightness would seem useful to avoid this faff, but I find that it turns the brightness higher than really necessary, even if the manual slider is at its minimum setting. (In an earlier Android version, adaptive brightness also seemed to have a bug whereby the brightness would occasionally be turned down so low as to be invisible; hard then to find the controls to turn it up again! I think that’s now fixed though.)

Together, aeroplane mode and low brightness give me something between six and nine hours turn-by-turn navigation on my Moto G3 with the screen permanently turned on. For best battery life you should also close any unnecessary apps, but I think aeroplane mode and brightness are the two biggies.

For a long time I was convinced I needed the software to be able to turn off the screen when following a continuous road, but wake the screen and alert me when a turn is coming up. OsmAnd can do this, and it would no doubt extend battery life, but here’s the snag. What is straight on? I found I would sometimes miss a turn when the main road curved right, and my fork went straight on. Conversely, spurious bends in the main road are often announced as turns. Too many times I missed an unannounced turn. So I gave up on turning the screen off, except manually when I absolutely knew the road ahead was long and continuous.

Remember my requirement was 15 hours a day without battery worries? We’re some way short of that, with six to nine hours of low brightness-aeroplane mode. I always carry a small USB battery pack, a Zendure A2, which gives me a couple of full phone charges at a cost of 200g extra weight. I also used a Shutter Precision dynamo hooked up to B&M Luxos U light and USB charger. So I can keep either the phone or battery topped up while riding.

A couple of snags to be aware of though:

  • In theory the Zendure supports charge-through and I’m pretty sure it did when I first started testing. However I had a near-disaster on Day 1 of TCR, when I found every time I tried to charge-through from the Luxos via Zendure to the phone, the front lamp would come on. Eventually I realised it was fine to charge either phone, or battery pack, but not charge-through both. So no disaster but a slight annoyance. I think the Luxos is probably at fault.
  • Charging from dynamo works great on normal days, but alpine climbing days with more than 5,000 meters of ascent are not normal! Because of the long hours at speeds less than 10 km/hour, I wasn’t getting much juice out of the dynamo. I still managed to get through two days riding without need for an additional charge (my pattern was alternate nights in hotels and roadside bivvying). But I was eating into the reserves of my battery pack on those days.

Attaching phone to bike

NC-17 Stem BagI’ve been using an NC-17 Connect Smartphone Stem Bag for the best part of a year. It’s got a lot of good points and one really bad point. The phone slides into a slim pocket underneath the transparent window. The touch screen works pretty well despite the extra layer of plastic. With practice you can still use the screen on-off switch and volume rocker on the right side of the phone. The larger zippered space under the phone has plenty of room for a battery pack, and it has an opening underneath the bag through which I feed the USB output of the Luxos U, so all the vulnerable electrical interconnects are protected within the bag. My Moto G3 is a tight fit within the bag, especially with a micro-USB charging cable plugged in at the bottom. I had to choose a cable with a short ‘collar’ and even then it has become quite deformed from the pressure of the zipped-up bag. I worried that this would cause a broken connection, but so far no problem.

Shower CapThe major flaw though is that it’s not at all waterproof. It’s billed as water repellent but the seams leak water like a sieve. And, though the ingress of water caused no apparent damage to the phone (it’s IPX7, remember?), once the bag is saturated, the clear plastic cover gets covered in mist and water droplets and it’s nigh-on impossible to see the screen. The solution, which, though crude, I’m rather proud of, is to carry a hotel shower cap and slap it over the phone at the first drop of rain.

If you really trust the waterproofness of the phone, you could use a free-range alternative such as Quad Lock or Finn. These seem a neater solution than my rather ugly stem bag, but on the other hand I’d fear for the vulnerability of charging connections on a wet day.

Installing OsmAnd

The version I’m describing is OsmAnd 2.5.4. It’s a straightforward install from the Play store. You’ll want to do the following from a WiFi network, as it involves downloading a lot of application and map files. I’m going to assume you will install OsmAnd (the free version) first, and you can then later install OsmAnd+ if you want a greater number of maps or the additional features of the paid version. [Update: I discovered while writing this that OsmAnd+ installs as a separate app alongside the free OsmAnd, so if you later pay for OsmAnd+ you would need to repeat the configuration and map download.]

Search for OsmAnd on the Play store, and hit install. When the install completes and you tap the new OsmAnd icon on your home screen, you will be invited to Get Started, and then OsmAnd will detect your location and suggest a first map. Before you download the map, if you have an SD card, I suggest you tap the button at the bottom of the screen to change data storage location. You need to Allow OsmAnd to access photos, media, etc. Choose Memory card as the data storage folder.

You can now tap Download to get your first map. You’ll see your local map, and the World overview map gradually downloading.

When the download has completed you can go to map. You might need to Allow OsmAnd to access this device’s location. You can tap the + icon to zoom in and you should see a detailed map of your local area.

Now is a good time to download voice files if you want to hear turn-by-turn announcements. At the bottom-left you will see an icon with three horizontal bars. Let’s call this the Menu button. If it’s not visible, just tap anywhere on the map and it should appear. Tap Menu then select Download maps (oddly, voice files are downloaded from the same menu as maps). Scroll to the very bottom, where you will see Voice prompts. Text-to-speech (TTS)-synthesised voices are recommended by OsmAnd. There are many TTS language options, including English and English (UK). Sadly the English (UK) option actually has a US accent. Tap the down-arrow on the right to download your chosen TTS language. Alternatively you can choose Voice prompts (recorded), and under this there is a UK English voice, which has a nicer accent, but is a bit staccato. By all means install several voice files and see which you prefer. Back-arrow to the map screen when you’ve downloaded your voice files.

General settingsYou now probably want to set up defaults for bicycle use. Tap Menu then Settings. On the next screen, tap General settings and then Default profile and finally select Bicycle. Still on the Global app settings screen, scroll down and tap Voice guidance then select your preferred voice file that you recently downloaded.

If you wish you can set personal preferences here, such as language and units of measure. Back-arrow until you get back to the map.

Configure mapTap Menu once more, then Configure map. Mid-way down the Configure map screen are icons for car, bicycle and walking. If it’s not already highlighted, tap the bike. Scroll down to Map rendering. Your tastes may differ, but I usually switch Map mode to Day; Text size to 75%; Map language to English. Back-arrow to the map screen.

You are now ready to navigate your first route.

Navigating a pre-planned route

I’ll spare you (for now) the details of how I prepared my routes. That will make a whole other blog post. In short though: good routing software that can offer multiple route options and evaluate distance and climbing; meticulous attention to details especially road surface, Google street view and and satellite images. On the whole I was really pleased with my route choices. This section is about how to follow them.

The first aspect is file format. Garmin uses some proprietary file formats such as TCX. Standard GPX flavours include Routes, Waypoints and Tracks that differ in the type of GPX coordinates they use, and how closely-spaced they are (some GPX routes have the points far apart and expect the navigation device or human to fill in the gaps). I experimented with all of these and I find GPX Tracks absolutely the best. This type of file contains GPX track points spaced just a few metres apart, so there are essentially no navigation decisions left for OsmAnd. The tools I typically use to make GPX tracks are brouter and bikehike, but I’m sure many other tools are capable.

Now you need to get the GPX file onto the phone. I’m going to assume you know how to get files onto the phone. Either by plugging the phone into your computer via USB cable. Or, what I do, connect over WiFi to our home network file server and use an app such as ES File Explorer to copy the GPX file from the server to phone. I guess Dropbox would be another way.

Whatever the method, the key thing is to put the GPX file into the folder from which OsmAnd loads tracks. If you have set up OsmAnd to use an SD card for storage, the folder will be:

SD card/Android/data/

Now, from the OsmAnd home screen, tap Menu (bottom left of screen), then Configure map, then GPX track, then tap on the name of the GPX file. A tick should appear on the right of the file name. Then OK at the bottom, and back-arrow to go back the home map screen. Your GPX track should now be visible on the map, perhaps as a red line if you haven’t changed the defaults.

When it comes to riding, you might be happy just to follow the red line. The map should pan as it tracks your current position (if it doesn’t, tap the blue compass icon at the bottom towards the right).

Mini-mapBut if you prefer turn-by-turn directions, with voice prompts, you need to tap the curved arrow icon at the bottom towards the left). A menu will pop up asking whether you want to use the displayed track for navigation. Tap yes, and you’ll see a mini-map with your planned route highlighted in purple. The first time you do this, you’ll want to set some default options for cycling. Make sure the bike icon is highlighted above the From: and To: addresses. Tap the cog icon at the bottom of the screen. Set options as follows:

Voice guidance
Select the voice you downloaded in the previous section.
Pass along entire track
Make sure this is NOT ticked, however tempting!
Calculate OsmAnd route for first and last route segment

And then tap Navigation settings, check that the following screen references Bicycle at the top, and then select Navigation options as follows:

I suggest you tick Avoid motorways and Avoid stairs, but suit yourself!
Snap to road
I have always had this ticked (which is the default) but as I write, it occurs to me that unticked might be better, especially if you are taking off-road routes.
I generally untick all except GPX waypoints.
Unit of speed
Your choice.
Turn screen on
This allows OsmAnd to turn on the screen when you are approaching a turn, and specifies how long to leave it turned on. It’s worth selecting a time here, e.g. 30 seconds, even if you generally intend to keep the screen turned on permanently as discussed under Battery Life. You will then be asked to Activate device administrator for lock screen; tap Activate at the bottom of the screen.

Back-arrow to the navigation screen and tap Go next to the blue arrow.

Navigation modeYou are now in turn-by-turn mode. The fat purple line shows your route, with yellow arrows indicating turns. An icon on the left-middle of the screen controls the orientation of the map. It has three options: North up, To direction of movement, or To compass. The menu and navigation icons at bottom left will disappear after a short while, to give you a clearer view of the map, but you can make them re-appear by tapping anywhere on the map.

One thing you might want to configure is the display at the top-right of the routing screen. By default you get distance to destination, OsmAnd’s estimated arrival time, speed and altitude. To select different display data, tap Menu and then Configure screen. You can turn off the default data items, and add preferred items to your heart’s content. There are similar options for the navigation display in the left panel, which by default shows distance to and direction of the next turn (and below that the second next turn).

If you want to stop navigation, tap on the map to make the icons at bottom left reappear, tap the blue arrow, and then X in the bottom left to dismiss the route.

One important note. If you are resuming a GPX track part-way through, you will want to set the From: location to ‘My Position’ rather than the beginning of the track.

Ad-hoc Routing

So far, so good. We’ve installed OsmAnd and used it to follow a pre-planned route. But now we want to divert and find food, or a hotel, or a bus stop. There are three main ways I do this: search by category, free-text search, or directly selecting a point on the map.

Category search

Search by category
Tap Menu, then Search, then Categories, and you will see a list of categories e.g. Cafe and restaurant. Tap a category and you will see a list of items of this category, in this case restaurants, ordered closest first. I found this absolutely brilliant on TCR, when I would frequently need to know where is the closest food store, or restaurant, or filling station, or hotel. You will even find opening hours for some items, if the good people of OSM have captured this information. Now tap one of the items and you’ll be taken back to the map, with a push-pin marker showing the location of that item. If you want to go there, tap the blue arrow or blue flag (depends whether you are currently in turn-by-turn routing), and OsmAnd will choose a route and present it to you. Just tap Go and you’ll get turn-by-turn directions.
Free-text search
Tap Menu, then Search. At the top of the Search screen is a free-text entry box. You can type pizza or parking or Brighton or Acacia Avenue or doctors… whatever you want. OsmAnd will do a text search across all items and display them below in order of distance from your current location. Tap an item in the search results and it might take you into a more detailed list of search items, e.g. tapping Brighton will show a list of Brighton street names. Alternatively, if you tap a specific item such as Pizza Express, Bridge Street, Winchester, it will take you to the map with the usual push-pin marker and blue arrow/flag.
Directly select a point on the map
If you know where you want to go, and you can find it on the map, just long-press on the map, and the usual push-pin will appear, with an invitation to route to that point.

OsmAnd’s route selection seems pretty good. I wouldn’t trust it to plan an all-day route; I’d definitely want to review that on a large screen map ahead of time. But for short, spontaneous diversions it seems to pick sensible cycling routes (obviously assuming you’ve set suitable options such as Avoid Motorways).

Recording rides

Many of us want to record our rides, e.g. to upload to Strava. OsmAnd has a free plugin to record a GPX file of your ride. I would imagine it’s a pretty battery-efficient way to do it, given you’re already using OsmAnd for navigation. But I don’t use it as a rule, instead I use the Strava app for Android. The reason is simply that the Strava app makes it so easy to upload its track at the end of a ride, whereas uploading a GPX file captured by a different device is a bit fiddly (you have to use a web browser to visit and repeatedly say ‘no, I don’t want to use the Strava app’).

The Strava app is pretty battery-efficient (I understand it uses around 2% of battery per hour) so it’s no big deal, but perhaps one day I’ll experiment with using OsmAnd to capture ride logs. If you want to do this: Menu, Plugins, Trip recording, three-dots, Enable. You’ll then see an additional item ‘GPX’ on the top right of the map. Tap this and the circle next to GPX will light up in red and you are capturing a track.

Other cool features

There is a plugin for Contour lines. I’ve never tried it. I think you need the plugin enabled, and also you need to download the contour data for the relevant country, so it will count as an additional one of your ten downloads if you are sticking with the free version of the app.

Map with finance POIs displayedPoints of Interest (POIs): You can choose to display markers for categories of interest. For instance, on TCR when I had a non-urgent need for an ATM, I wouldn’t necessarily search for a specific one and then route to it, but instead turn on POI display for category:Finance, and then keep an eye on the map in case I passed near a bank. To enable display of POIs: Menu, Configure map, POI, select category. If you want to display more than one category of POI at the same time, you need to tap the double-tick icon at bottom-left whereupon tick boxes will appear alongside the categories.

From the Download maps menu option, you can also download Wikipedia data for each country (this feature is available only in OsmAnd+). You then have the option to display these as POIs on the map, and tap for additional text. I guess this could be very useful if you are touring and want to access interesting facts about landmarks you see along the way.

Favourites: You can create your own list of favourite locations, and then use them as routing destinations. Any time you see a push-pin marker on the screen, e.g. after a search, or after directly-selecting a point on the map, there should be a five-pointed star at bottom left. Tap that and you will be invited to add this point as a favourite. I added all the TCR checkpoints and parcours as favourites. If you have coordinates of multiple favourites like TCR checkpoints, a quicker way is to create a GPX file of these points and open the file in OsmAnd. This document describes a way to do this.

Map updates: There is a very active community constantly making improvements so it’s well worth updating your downloaded maps from time to time (Menu, Download maps, Update).

Alternative offline routers: OsmAnd has an architecture to allow alternative routing engines to be plugged-in. You set up your preferred routing engine via Menu, Settings, Navigation settings, Navigation service. OSMAND is the only out-of-the-box offline router that supports bikes, so it’s the obvious choice and does a good job. But my favourite web routing engine, brouter, also offers an offline engine for installation in OsmAnd. I briefly tried this and couldn’t immediately make it work, but it’s worth knowing that alternatives do exist.

Quirks and annoyances

I already mentioned the issue of occasional turns that are not announced (because the fork goes straight ahead) and more often, random bends on the road being announced as turns. As far as I can see, OSM doesn’t seem to have a way to model the dashed white lines at a junction that indicate right-of-way, so it simply relies on the shape of the road to guess. It’s a pretty common issue for all navigation systems.

A related problem is that the voice announcements try to describe the approach, entry and exit from a roundabout using only the words left and right. There’s no enter roundabout and leave by the third exit. Of course it’s perfectly clear when you look on the map, but the voice announcements alone can be misleading.

When you are navigating a GPX track turn-by-turn, but you go off-route, OsmAnd tends to be quite persistent in telling you to go back and complete the whole planned route. Of course, by looking at the map you have probably found a way to divert then re-converge with the route a little further down the road. OsmAnd may panic but you shouldn’t! Just keep navigating to the convergence point and OsmAnd will eventually calm down and recognise that you are back on track.

As I already mentioned, when you install OsmAnd+ (to lift restrictions on number of downloads) after starting out with free OsmAnd, you will need to repeat the initial configuration, and download maps once again. In this case you will most likely want to uninstall free OsmAnd and delete its associated folders, to save storage space on your phone.

I haven’t found a way to show a profile of elevation along the route. When I used Garmin, I used to torture myself by looking at the elevation profile and watching my slow progress towards the top of a hill. Unless I’ve overlooked it, it seems OsmAnd doesn’t allow that masochistic experience.

Summary and recommendation

I heartily recommend OsmAnd+ for navigating long-distance cycling events. Compared to the Garmin devices I have owned, I find it has a larger and clearer display, fewer software problems, and it has powerful and easy-to-use features for ad-hoc routing on the move. I ran OsmAnd+ on an inexpensive phone, which I would in any case have taken on TCR for communication, thus potentially saving one device. That said, I would still recommend TCR competitors have a backup navigation device of some form.

I’d really like a fully waterproof bag to protect phone, battery pack and USB charging connections, so I could retire my hotel shower caps! This remains my biggest concern.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you tried OsmAnd? Was it successful for you? Have you solved the bike-mounting issue? Is there anything I haven’t described clearly? Please use comments to provide feedback.


Transcontinental Race, Belgium-Turkey, 2,400 miles 59,000m ascent (that’s six and a half Everests)

IMG_20160726_202350917-50On Friday 29th July I will join around 250 other cyclists on the start line of the Transcontinental Race in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. The race is quite unusual in several ways:

  • The clock never stops, racers choose where, when and if at all to rest.
  • No outside support is permitted, we can use only what we take with us, or find en route at commercially available services.
  • There is no defined route, just four mandatory controls; naturally they are located at high altitude in the Massif Central, Alps, Dolomites and Balkans.

The finish is at Çanakkale near the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. Part of my motivation is to remember my grandfather who survived an extraordinary bloodbath when he landed at Gallipoli 101 years ago.

I hope to complete the course in 18 days or less, but it’s a very tough race and last year almost 50% did not finish. I’m not seeking sponsorship but I’d be thrilled to receive any words of encouragement en route. My race number is 61 and you can read brief updates from me on Twitter (@robjordan and #TCRNo4s061), view my daily rides by following me on Strava (Rob Jordan, Winchester) or email me: We will each carry a satellite tracker and you can view position updates every 5 minutes here: (beware, it can be addictive!)

You can read lots more about the race at


Gorinchem – Rotterdam

De Goesting B&B, GorinchemOur B&B at Gorinchem was very special. Christina and her husband had bought a plot of dock-side land 20-odd years ago, and, while living on a houseboat, built, brick-by-brick, a house for themselves and an apartment to let out. They clearly love to sit beside the water, reading and drinking coffee. The B&B apartment was charming; so close to the water it felt like a houseboat, though apparently without risk of flooding as the water level is carefully managed. We slept in a box-bed; a cupboard containing a full-length bed.

Christina had helpfully provided some tourist information, including timetables for the local ferries, which forced a change of plan. The ferries we had planned to take to Woudrichem, and later across the Steur, would not start running until noon on a Sunday, so we were forced to re-route via bridges. It was not a big inconvenience, the main thing was to reach the Biesbosch, a glorious wetland well-populated with bird life. It was a rare warm sunny day and we enjoyed the luxury of an easy-paced comfortable ride, stopping at the wildlife museum on Biesbosch Museum Island for coffee and cake.

Being Sunday, racing cyclists were on the road in large groups with team jerseys. It made us realise that we had seen very few fast cyclists in Germany, but the Netherlands certainly made up for that.

In Dordrecht, we stopped for sandwiches on the docks where a couple of young lads were larking and apparently practising their English. “The monkey is in the the car” said one repeatedly, while the other replied “fuck off!”

We reached Kinderdijk, and the spectacular sequence of windmills standing alongside a canal. This is a popular tourist attraction, with many people of all nations tottering on rented bicycles. Here we needed to take a ferry to Slikkerveer via the Ridderkirk ferry terminal. This turned out to be quite tricky because the ferry stop at Kinderdijk had been moved and there was no advertised timetable. But, as so often, we were lucky that the right ferry (number 6) arrived by chance just as we had started to contemplate a 15 mile diversion to reach Rotterdam.

Happy cyclistsWe excitedly took on the final leg into Rotterdam, past the Feyenoord stadium, and celebrated success as we crossed the Erasmus bridge, our last crossing of the mighty Rhine.


Arnhem – Gorinchem

Woodland near ArnhemArnhem has a brand new railway station with fantastic bike-parking facilities. When leaving the parking area, the cyclist must flash an ID card at the attendant to show they are owner of the bike. They do this nonchalantly, en passant, without breaking pedal stroke. The station is on several levels, but these slope and merge without noticeable staircases or escalators. The building won architectural awards. Sadly, the roof leaks.

We had a nice vegetarian rijstafel in Arnhem. The proprietor told us how the many special leaves used in this cuisine give Indonesian workers the ability to work in the fields for 14 or 15 hours a day. Sounds like they need a trade union.

The morning ride out of Arnhem led us on paved but narrow paths through woodland. It also featured a few hills! We’d forgotten about those after many flat days. In the afternoon hard rain and wind reappeared and we had to fight our way to Gorinchem. The final yards were puzzling as we passed through council flats looking for our B&B in a most unlikely area. But Caroline, master of the accommodation bookings, knew what to expect, and it was something quite special.


Orsoy – Arnhem

XantenOrsoy’s an odd little historic crossroads village in the shadow of power station cooling towers. Terrible news from England cast a pall over our stay, but we enjoyed our accommodation in the Schlafkammer, a grand 19th century house divided into commodious apartments. More often used by long-term tenants, we shared the breakfast with a team from Dummen Orange, a cut flower company based in the Netherlands. Though we were still in Germany there were strong Dutch flavours emerging.

Among the odd spectacles seen in the last of Germany: A nuclear power station converted into a family fun park (apparently never commissioned because it was completed just as Chernobyl melted down). An old people’s home in Grieth from which a succession of seniors emerged on mobility scooters for their daily constitutional.

We proceeded towards Arnhem via numerous small ferries, including one that was anchored in the middle of the river and propelled by the natural water current and presumably a rudder. The Netherlands arrived unannounced. A small cattle gate, similar to many others, sat at the border but the only evidence was that signage changed language.

On the next ferry we met a British couple riding Bromptons from Basel to Rotterdam. Mrs Brompton had taken a tumble from her bike in Köln, while crossing a tram track. She needed a bit of medical attention, so dropped in at a surgery. Inside 30 minutes she was examined, stitched and sent on her way. No bill, no paperwork. Good old EU.


Köln – Orsoy

We had a two-night stay in Köln and a priority was to get some attention for Paul’s rattly front wheel. Because we were long-distance travellers, Herr Schneider at Schneider Rad Sport made time in a busy day to repack the bearings. Paul rolled sweetly afterwards. Herr S also stroked Paul’s Campag shifters lovingly and said “what a nice bike”.

Our 2-night stay in Köln was hosted by the absolutely delightful and attentive Jens, proprietor of the Hotel am Museum. In his devotion to ensuring visitors’ enjoyment of Köln he gave and demanded a detailed exchange of information, sometimes comically intrusive: “How much did your bike repair cost?”; “Why are you taking your back-pack on your walking tour of the city?”

To the latter question, we reacted sheepishly as we had borrowed towels and a bathrobe from the room for our visit to the Neptunbad Spa, a fantastic 1912 bath house. Great saunas, hot tub and pools, only very slightly spoiled when a heavyweight naked man slipped on a sauna bench and landed with his whole body weight on my toes. Luckily this happened during the ice aufguss, so resulted only in colourful bruising, not swelling.

We ate one evening in one of Köln’s brauerai, serving local beer in tiny 20ml glasses, allegedly so it always remains acceptably cold. We later found out the waiter keeps delivering these until you cover an empty glass with a beer mat; could have been an expensive evening.

The weather in Köln was bizarre. Sunny spells would suddenly end with a colossal thunderstorm and torrential rain, lasting only five or ten minutes.

Düsseldorf glimpsed through the trees.The route onwards from Köln took us through Dusseldorf, a much lovelier old town than we expected, and Duisburg, a crumbling giant of heavy industry where the Rhine and Ruhr come together to form one absolutely gigantic waterway.


Koblenz – Köln

Our evening in Koblenz included a nice meal but with the most frustratingly slow service! The restaurant was Cafe Miljoo, perhaps not the most promising name at least for English speakers. The waitress was a charming young woman but we sensed she couldn’t hold two ideas in her head at once, and needed a little sit down behind the scenes to recover after each one. It took ages to get menus, to have our order taken, and to get our table cleared. I probably didn’t help matters, trying to force the pace a bit, when asked: “alles war in ordnung?” (was everything all right?) I answered “zitronenkuchen” (lemon cake). After that she decided we were lunatics and brought neither lemon cake nor a bill. I tried so hard to catch her attention I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets, but she seemed to be suffering from tunnel vision.

Kaiser WilhelmKoblenz is at the junction of Rhine and Moselle (a junction guarded by a colossal and unattractive equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm), so it receives many cruise boats. As we strolled past one, an entertainer was playing the organ, while thrusting his hips rhythmically and suggestively. Meanwhile, the audience were raising and lowering their arms in time, Mexican wave style. Each to their own.

The ride to Köln was a bit of a faff. Flooding has increased with all the recent rain so we were dodging closures. A German man heading in the opposite direction asked Caroline for intelligence about the state of the path, while his wife sat on a bench, arms folded, as if to say “I’m not going another metre on this stupid bike track.” When C confirmed the next bit was open he dog-whistled his wife to come along. Maybe the flood wasn’t their only problem.

We pointlessly crossed the river by ferry twice, wasting time and money, because our guide book recommends an overnight stay on the other side for those moving at half our speed. We should have spotted that in planning, schoolboy error. The final approach to Köln is industrial and busy, and another German cyclist pedalled in the opposite direction yelling something to me and the only word I could make out was “Autofähre” (car ferry). Maybe it was: “Haha you are the crazy pair who pointlessly crossed the Rhine twice by car ferry!”

But the final arrival was splendid, the Rhine is straddled in Köln by numerous huge and spectacular bridges, and with kids on the waterfront skate-boarding to hip hop, one could be in New York. We have a day off tomorrow, bye for now.


Mainz – Koblenz (Hunsrück and the road to Schabbach)

The smithy in Geilwehler / SchabbachWhile Caroline continued along the Rhine banks, I took an excursion to the Hunsrück to visit some scenes from my all-time favourite TV/film series, Heimat. In case you don’t know it, Heimat is an epic (53 hours) history of a Hunsrück family through 4 generations. I’ve been preoccupied with it since the first series was shown in 1984. It begins in 1919 and ends in 2000. The family comes from the fictional village of Schabbach where the patriarch is blacksmith. While several Hunsrück towns stood in for different parts of Schabbach, it was the smithy I really wanted to see, and that is in the village of Gehlweiler.

I made an early 5am start and at first followed the south/west bank of the Rhine, then turned left for a stiff climb in steady rain to the Hunsrück, which is a kind of elevated plain at 500m. First sightseeing stop at Simmern was a disappointment. The watchmaker’s shop, which is a reference point in the rise of persecution of Jews and early Nazism, has had a complete makeover and now has a modern plate glass shop front.

Selfie fake: I'm standing inside a 360 degree photo showing Gehlweiler as it was for the filming of HeimatBut from Simmern onwards the beauty of the Hunsrück landscape started to take hold, and the long descent to Gemunden was magical. Just around the corner from Gemunden is Gehlweiler. Without any great fuss, the village preserves its older buildings and highlights with photos the role each played in the films. There is a 360 degree photo stand, where a smaller man (or a stooping six footer) could (and did) take a selfie surrounded by the village as it was for filming in the early 1980s, and representing the pre-war small town Hunsrück. The smithy was there, with all tools still laid out on the bench. As the rain intensified to an absolute torrent I was happy to see the real Schabbach at last.

The gunderoderhausThere are many more sights that could have been visited but not easily within a single day’s cycling. But I included one for Caroline. The star-crossed lovers of Die Zweite Heimat, Hermann and Clarissa, finally get it together in Heimat 3. They meet as the wall falls in Berlin 1989, and renovate (with cheap East German labour) a decrepit house high on hillside overlooking the Rhine at Oberwesel. That is now the Gunderoderhaus, a restaurant and film venue and tribute to the creator of Heimat, Edgar Reitz. The view from the GunderoderhausIt’s a magnificent spot and is a mere 1km, (and 200m of climbing!) from the Rhine cycleway. We reunited there and had a lovely lunch in Hermann and Clarissa’s dream house, overlooking the most famous section of the Rhine, near the Lorelei rock.