Through the eyes of an urbanist: Cycling through Europe


Alexander Vasilyukha is an urbanist who deals with the development of cities and the design of public spaces. He and his friends embarked on a self-guided bike trip from Frankfurt to Amsterdam across four countries, and now talks about his trip, which included both over-urbanized capitals and the natural landscapes of northwestern Europe. Well, if you like the video format more, then you can watch videos about the trip on the Youtube channel.

I ride my bike all the time during the warmer months. My friend Yegor Obvintsev, an architect, is doing the same thing. For us, a bicycle is the main vehicle when there is no snow outside the window. Another friend, Ilya Polyanskikh, did not ride a bike for a long time, decided to test himself for strength and went with us on this race. So, in 2018, I bought my first road bike, and the next season, in 2019, we went on a 1000 km journey across Europe - from Frankfurt am Main to Amsterdam.

Probably, many have seen people with giant boxes at airports. These are not TVs - these are bicycles, but the people who carry them - fanatics of their hobby. Perhaps someone saw bike travelers on the road and felt sorry for them because it was hard for them. Sometimes it is really hard, but it’s such a pleasure to travel to a new place, city, country!

Cycling route

We built our route based on several factors: airports, terrain, distance, countries and places of interest, prices.

Airports. We went with our bicycles, and it was important for us that they flew in good condition. It depends on the airport and airline services. Therefore, we chose Frankfurt and Amsterdam - the most important transport hubs in Europe, where they can receive and send boxes of bicycles.

Relief. Thanks to Google maps or the Komoot app, you can study the steepness of the terrain and the total climb in advance, and not when you find that you are out of strength, but today you need to climb another 2 km.

Distance. You can drive 200 km a day, but the most comfortable is 90-120 km. Further, the number of vacation days is multiplied by these 90-120, of course, taking into account stops in interesting places and cities.

Countries and cities. During the planning, I understood that after a series of ascents, we would need rest, and the route was built so that after 2-3 days of active screwing there would be a day to rest and explore the city.

In general, we have almost completely covered the planned route. I had to miss only one very beautiful place in Belgium - the bike bridge across the lake (Cycling through water - Bokrijk). We always booked the same day, and there were no more budget-friendly places in this region. In bike rides you live either in hotels and hostels, which allows you to recover better, or in tents - then you understand the whole essence of cycling tourism. We chose the more comfortable first path. We also had sleeping bags, but you can't just sleep in them in campsites. At the same time, a pleasant part of provincial Europe is the opportunity to live in hundred-year-old houses, to tell the locals about Russia and about your journey, to immerse yourself in the life of real Belgians and Germans, and not just residents of the capital.

Frankfurt. The beginning of a cycling journey

Frankfurt amazed with its contrast: the quarter of financiers and the most influential bankers is adjacent to the streets, which are constantly patrolled by police officers. The city is showing the transformation of road infrastructure from cars to bicycles and public transport, but it cannot be said that it is convenient to cycle around the city - compared to the Netherlands, for example. This is expressed in little things: convenient turns to the left, waiting areas at traffic lights, intersections with stops. Drivers behave cautiously and do not yet understand how best to drive on the road when a cyclist is nearby.

Frankfurt. Starting a bike trip


If you come to Frankfurt by bike, then take the excellent opportunity to cycle along the Main on the bike path. It is really good: high-quality asphalt, there are places to rest, you can compete with barges - which we did.

Frankfurt - Reinböllen. 105 km and 785 meters ascent

At first it was nervous to go: did everyone take it, are we ready, how fast to move so that everyone is comfortable, how much water to drink, how often to eat. On the second day, we drove 105 km and were pleasantly surprised by the infrastructure between the cities. Still surprised by the silence. When you ride on Russian roads, you have to drive next to cars, and this is accompanied by constant noise and stress. Here, most of the bike paths run away from automobile roads.

For most of the first day's journey (70 km) we drove along the rivers: first there was the Main, and then the majestic Rhine. It is pure pleasure: flat terrain, many cyclists, thanks to whom there is a sense of belonging, from time to time there are places to rest under the trees by the river. It is very important for cyclists to create cycling communities because it is a struggle for the common good and justice. This is why cycling communities are among the most resilient. Many families and retirees ride the bike paths - thanks to the development of e-bike technology, more and more people continue to ride in old age.
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The road between Frankfurt and Bingen is a great holiday for 3-4 days if you find yourself in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Reinböllen - Trier. 106 km and 1239 meters ascent

When planning your trip, it is important to take into account the terrain so that there are points of interest and a varied landscape on the route. The changeability of the view around, turns and curvature of the road is important. It shouldn't be boring. When it gets bored, the brain looks for something to cling to, and the first thing it finds is your body. You start to feel discomfort in your body or notice sounds in the bike, which will then be annoying.

Riding on interesting terrain presupposes good physical condition. The most important thing is to skate regularly. Use your bike as a means of getting around the city, and then you don't need to prepare separately for the trip. Your body will get used to daily stresses, and their intensification during cycling will have little effect. Three weeks before departure, I started to ride 70 km 2-3 times a week to check myself and my bike. 4 days before the trip, I did not ride because I was immersed in work. Perhaps with this I gave rest to my legs. Listen to your body. During the trip, do not kill yourself, it is better to indicate the distance after which you will take long (30 minutes) breaks to collect water in special bottles, stretch your muscles and joints. We made 20 km throws, but in the hilly terrain we made small pauses when we climbed the hills. It is important not to forget about muscle massage and stretching, especially in the morning and in the evening, at every opportunity to warm up during the day, not to be driven and remember to rest.

In the places where we have been, bike paths often run parallel to rivers, just like automobile roads. The cyclists got "seats in the first row": the track goes 2-3 meters from the water. This fact again speaks to the priorities and strategies that increase cycling in general. When preparing your trip, pay attention to the rivers - perhaps there is a special route along one of them. There are several large cycling routes in the European Union - EURO VELO. One of them is the Rhine bike path, which begins in the Swiss Alps and ends in the Netherlands, near Rotterdam by the North Sea. It runs along the Rhine, of course. Part of our path went along it: navigation at all the forks, places for recreation, shops, cafes, relief without climbs. Beginner bike travelers can safely choose this route for their first ride. Along the Rhine, you can see vineyards, steep hillsides, old churches and towns, large cities and land capitals.

Trier - Luxembourg. 50 km and 627 meters ascent

We spent little time in Trier, a city with ancient Roman structures, but I remember the paving stones that are laid throughout the city. On this day we crossed the border Germany - Luxembourg. A large number of gas stations immediately caught my eye. In Luxembourg, gasoline is cheaper, so people in Germany come here to refuel.

trier-a-city-with-ancient-roman-buildings

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A high-quality urban environment appears in those cities and countries where basic needs are met. If the majority of city dwellers live in old and unusable housing stock, then new comfortable housing is of paramount importance for them. How it looks at the same time does not matter. Luxembourg is on the fourth line in the world ranking in terms of the level of well-being of its inhabitants. The economy of this small country is one of the most developed in Europe, and per capita income is the highest in the EU. The high cost of living is holding back the flow of migration. As a result, society is willing to pay for good architecture.

Here are examples of modern architecture in Luxembourg:

House of Metaform Architects. A carapace house, a scale house that is perfectly embedded in the landscape and seems too perfect for the real world.

House of Metaform Architects

One on One (Moreno Architecture). A building that fits perfectly into the structure of the streets (located at the corner) and the historical environment. It is absolutely modern, but does not shout about it and, at the same time, does not parody the buildings around.

One on One

Passenger lift bridge (Pfaffenthal Lift, STEINMETZDEMEYER). The city has a sharp drop in elevation, which reduces pedestrian connectivity. In 2013, an elevator was built with panoramic glazing, good materials and light.

Passenger lift bridge

Luxembourg - Brussels. 233 km and 1463 m ascent

I want to write Belgian bike paths in quotation marks. We traveled most of Belgium on the usual regional road, because the cycle path was dug up due to repairs; along the bike path with slabs, each joint of which you and your highway driver feel; on a busy highway. Only in Belgium did we encounter a situation when we were signaled because we were driving on a motor road, or drove close to us, and did not wait until it would be possible to overtake. The basis of a cycling infrastructure is respect for cyclists. If it is not there, then even if there are bike paths, conflicts, accidents, injuries and deaths will occur. It was only in Belgium that I felt tense because of the feeling of unsafe driving.
brussels-bruges
We arrived in Brussels tired, so we arranged a classic race around the sights of the EU capital: Central Square; Belgian waffles and Belgian chocolate, which was not very different from what I ate at home; an Apple store with interesting panoramic windows, the administrative district of the European Union (if you sign up in advance, you can get a free tour into the heart of the European bureaucracy).

Brussels - Bruges. 135 km, 363 m ascent

The closer you get to the Netherlands, the better the cycling infrastructure becomes. 10-15 km after leaving the capital of Belgium, an excellent cycle path begins along the canal, along which crowds of cyclists rush every now and then. This path lasted, probably, all 100 km. However, it is very boring to drive on it. The landscape does not change at all - the channel on the left, and the trees on the right; when you think you've covered fifteen kilometers, it turns out that you've only covered five. Wireless headphones saved me during this boredom. Our trip was to some extent a field trip, a journey with an exploratory character. So this is the main thesis of the research: you need to design a variety of cycling routes so that it is not boring. It was difficult to drive in Germany and Luxembourg, but it was interesting: the ascents on which you give all the best, the viewpoints on the peaks, the descents from which the eyes water.

In Belgium, it is worth going not to the capital Brussels, but to Ghent and Bruges: gingerbread houses, the neighborhood of old and new architecture (houses of the architect Chipperfield and houses of the 18th century), medieval churches and fortresses. Having already reached Bruges, we drove for another hour to the sea to catch the sunset. We were in a hurry, as if we were late for the plane, but still managed to “close the gate”.

The cathedral in Ghent made the biggest impression on me. This is something gigantic and superior to you. I support the prohibition not to build buildings above the main spire in the city. Now this ban is working on urban planning policy.

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Bruges - Rotterdam. 125 km and 200 m ascent

This part of the journey is one of the most memorable during the check-in. We drove 50 km along the sea. There were also bike paths along the dams, thanks to which more than 50% of the kingdom's territory is below sea level. On this day, we paid for the first trip, and the next - for the ferry crossing. The ferry also had its own cycling infrastructure: a barrier-free environment (ramps), special handrails to which the bicycle is attached, and on the handrails there were ropes that hold the bicycle during the swing.

In Rotterdam, we visited the MVRDV architectural bureau. It is known all over the world thanks to its projects and office, which consists of several studios divided by geographic direction: Asian department, European department, etc. In the office every week they organize a "bunch of bunch" - the format of short interesting lectures, and after them - a party of the whole office. Everything is aimed at communication between employees.

It was thanks to my friend, the program director of the program architects.rf, to get on a tour of the office. And after the excursion, we got to a concert of a musical group, in which the head of the MVRDV department plays the saxophone. The concert was on the street near one of the bars, but at 21:30 it turned out that it was no longer possible to play, because this is a residential area. The musicians remembered that there is a piano at the Central Station - and we went there. It was the concert at the station, where all the trains and buses arrive, that made the visit to Rotterdam whole. During the hour and a half of the musicians' jam, everything was seething inside me. The guys from the bar started to play, and in the process they were joined by musicians, acquaintances and just people who enjoyed the music.

Rotterdam - Amsterdam. 96 km and 246 meters ascent

On the last day of travel between cities, we stopped at Delft. This city is famous for its technical university, which is constantly in the top of the world rankings. Public institutions in European countries are often free to visit - Delft University and its library are no exception. Anyone can come here and read a book from the funds, work, hold a meeting. Of course, we could not help but go into the building of the Faculty of Architecture. This is where Dutch urbanism begins, and cutting-edge urban design ideas are invented. Vinnie Mass, one of the directors of the MVRDV bureau, opened his training studio here.

We are approaching the end of the journey. Amsterdam is a one-day tourist city. Many tourists specially arrange for themselves a 24-hour transfer to feel the atmosphere of free Amsterdam, so you need to be prepared for the crowds of tourists. I don't really like Amsterdam. The city is already densely populated, and when 18 million tourists come to it a year, the locals start to resent. The city administration listened to them (because it was elected) and decided to reduce the tourist flow: the apartment can be rented only for 30 days and only through Airbnb, the tourist tax has increased. And it works.

The journey is over. This 1000 km long route showed us all the delights of cycling tourism. Well, for a cycling trip to happen, you need a bike, a friend and a desire to travel and live interestingly.

Original: Through the eyes of an urbanist