There wasn’t meant to be a hill. We’d spent days slogging up through the steeple forests of Westphalia, precisely to reach this promised Rhineland.
And for good reason. The cycle path from Koblenz all the way to Switzerland runs along the Rhine, Europe’s second grandest river. It’s not that we’re particularly enamoured with the river birds dipping for trout, or even devouring the same caught and smoked by more human devices. It’s not the fairy tale cobbles and timber-frame peach-painted churches. It’s not even the sight of the world’s largest hand-carved cuckoo clock, a dubiously self-appointed tourist attraction if ever I photographed one.
No: the Rhine is our route because water, like us, prefers the path of least resistance: our thousand metre climbing days flattened to perhaps a couple of hundred.
Bikes aren’t the only traffic making good use of the easy riding: railways and roads run both sides of the waterway. Freight is hauled by trains, lorries and barges. Pleasure cruisers lifting binoculars, commuters looking up from their newspapers, motorbike tourers leathering north and south.
The point is that there are no hills. So I don’t know what possesses us, after spending a night in a Rhineside orchard, to decide to go cross country, cutting around the easy river.
But here we are, standing on our pedals, cranking into the face of an isoceles hill. Sweat stinks the shirt on my back and my knee starts to wobble. C is somewhere behind me. ‘I’m going to be sick.’ She hasn’t had lunch yet. I don’t know what’s holding her together.
I look back. We’re holding up a grumble of traffic. Round another corner. More hill. One of the grumbles growls past us and pulls into a vineyard up ahead. A dog and two humans disgorge themselves and pause to envy our perseverance. The hill rises to the challenge and essays a passable impression of the Eiger.
Imperceptibly, we haul ourselves level with the dog walkers. He shouts something in German at us, something about a tree. My German GCSE wasn’t for nothing. I thank him beautiful and curse him under my spent breath.
We reach the tree and the shouting German’s wisdom gloriously reveals itself in the summit. The wheels of my bike remember they’re round and start to help me out a bit. I pull over to the vineyard and wait for C: ‘This is the worst decision we’ve ever made.’
We wheel the bikes out to the view, over the autobahn cycling of the Rhine. The ride we could have taken. C settles her stomach with lunch. I unstuff my camping mat, pull my sweat-soaked shirt over my eyes, and fall asleep.