Top 10 Highlights – 2018

The main aim of the 2018 Tour de Travoy was to cycle the length of the Iron Curtain from Stettin in Poland on the Baltic Sea to Trieste in Italy on the Adriatic Sea. After completing the Iron Curtain, I then crossed over the Dolomites in Italy and the Alps in Austria before going to Normandy in time to see the Tour de France. The 2018 Tour de Travoy ended up being about 6,200 km in length through 15 different countries and took a total of 79 days to complete. However, some days were better and more noteworthy than others, so I have picked out the top 10 highlights below.

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#1 Cycling through the Dolomites in Italy The Dolomites really is cycling heaven and I was out of breath almost the whole time there not from the climbs but from the views. Having been to the Pyrenees and the French Alps on previous tours. I had thought I had seen it all when it comes to mountain climbs but the Dolomites are on a different level altogether. I cycled through the Dolomites roughly a week before the world famous Maratona dles Dolomiti, the biggest amateur cycle endurance race in the world. This probably explains why there were thousands of cyclists getting in some last minute training before the big event. It was great to see but it did my ego no good to be dropped by so many cyclists. But I didn’t mind too much as nowhere else I have ever been to has views as good as in the Dolomites.

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#2 Visiting Berlin  I was only in Berlin for 2 days but could easily have stayed for 2 weeks. There is history on practically every street in Berlin and with so much to see, it can be overwhelming trying to take it all in. Thankfully, I had a bike and while Berlin is huge, the city is totally flat making it easy to cycle anywhere. My only disappointment is that there was little to see from the Communist era. Apart from the TV Tower, the Marx and Engels statue and the short section of the Berlin Wall near the East Side metro station., there is very little trace of 45 years of Communist rule anywhere in Berlin. The shabby chic of East Berlin has been swept aside and replaced with a much more modern and shinier version of West Berlin. Even the famous murals on the East Side Gallery mostly date from the early 1990’s after the Wall fell. Incredibly, Brigit Kinder’s famous mural showing a Trabant driving through the Wall shown above only dates from 2009 as the original one from 1990 ended up being covered with graffiti and had to be re-painted. But just like many of the murals on the East Side Gallery, the whole of East Berlin has been done up and renovated over the last 30 years. No other city in Europe has changed as much during my lifetime and it was incredible to compare Berlin nowadays to photos of how it looked when the Berlin Wall divided this city in 2. Berlin has been totally re-built in the space of a few years and this transformation was just incredible to see making it by far my favorite city on this year’s tour.

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#3 Climbing Monte Zoncolan The climb of the Zoncolan is one of the most feared climbs in cycling and it certainly lives up to the hype. I cycled up the Zoncolan roughly a month after Chris Froome had won the stage here during the 2018 Giro d’Italia. There were hundreds of thousands of people on the Zoncolan that day but on June the 21st, it was mostly quiet. I only spotted about 5 cyclists all day but one of them was no ordinary cyclist. For on my way down this monster climb, I passed by a professional woman cyclist from the Cervelo Bigla team. Almost certainly it was South African cyclist Ashleigh Moolman Pasio who was getting in a training run before the start of the Giro Donne, the Giro d’Italia for female cyclists. Two weeks and 2 days after her training spin, Ashleigh finished second on Stage 7 of the 2019 Giro Donne, which finished at the summit of the Zoncolan. In 2016, I was lucky to spot Bob Jungels out training in Luxembourg but he was going so fast, I hadn’t time to get a photo. So Ashleigh was the first pro out training that  I managed to capture on film in 4 years of touring around Europe. And not just any training run but out for a spin on Monte Zoncolan, one of the most famous climbs in cycling.

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#4 Watching the Tour de France go by in Normandy I had cycled like crazy for 2 weeks all the way from the Dolomites in Italy trying to get to see the Tour de France in Normandy in France. There were a few occasions when I didn’t think I would make on time before eventually reaching the small town of Les Andeleys about an hour before the Tour de France cavalcade. But after waiting for 3 hours, the peloton whooshed by in about 10 seconds. Not only that but my video footage was mostly rubbish as I tried to retrieve a bottle thrown by a Lotto Soudal rider. But you almost need reflexes like Floyd Mayweather to get any merchandise from the Tour and I was beaten to the bidon by a much faster French kid. But when I reviewed the footage from my camera, I noticed I had got a shot of Australian cyclist Richie Porte as he went past. Richie had crashed out of the 2017 Tour de France on Stage 9 and the same thing would happen in 2018 the day after this photo was taken. That’s what makes this photo really poignant and while I may have missed out on a bidon, at least I got a great shot.

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#5 Visiting the Stasi interrogation room at the former East German border crossing in Marienborn The main aim of the 2018 Tour de Travoy was to cycle the Iron Curtain and here at Marienborn in the former East Germany, the border crossing has been preserved exactly as it looked during the Communist era. Being located alongside the A2 motorway between Hamburg and Berlin, this was the busiest border crossing in East Germany. Over 2,000 personnel worked here a one time keeping tabs on any Germans and foreigners passing through here. Anyone unfortunate to be stopped for further questioning was then interrogated in the room shown above. It must have been terrifying to have to answer questions as Eric Honeker stared down at you as a Stasi officer typed up all your replies. The border crossing features lots of photos and equipment from the Communist era but the highlight by far is interrogation room shown above as it really brings to life what it must have been like to live in East Germany, 30 years ago.

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#6 Visiting the World War 1 battlefield near Verdun  On my 3 previous tours, I had passed by close to Verdun but never got the time to visit so with 2018 being the centenary of the end of World War 1, I was determined to make it there this year. On my way to Verdun, I passed this German cemetery near Azannes. Incredibly, each of these crosses represents 100 bodies and there are 560 crosses in this graveyard meaning 56,000 German soldiers are buried here. Imagine if the crowd at huge football stadium like Anfield or Old Trafford was buried in an area the size of the pitch, well that would be similar to this mass grave here at Azannes. Incredibly, this is just one of 2 German cemeteries in Azannes and there are dozens like it scattered around this region such was the slaughter at Verdun. While the main French cemeteries and ossuary at Douamont get millions of visitors a year, the German cemetery here at Azannes is rarely visited which only makes it even more poignant.

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#7 Visiting the Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart A major theme of this year’s tour was the German car industry and here at the Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart was a replica of the first car ever built and the car that started the German car industry. This is the Benz Patent Motorwagen, which was built by Karl Benz in Mannheim in 1885. This was also the car used by Karl Benz’s wife Bertha to complete the first long distance car journey in August 1888. The last part of that journey was between Karlsruhe and Pforzheim and I was lucky enough to cycle more or less the same route on my way to Luxembourg. Bertha Benz only averaged 8 km/h during her trip in this car but within a decade, cars were almost as fast as they are now. The pace of innovation in the early car industry in the 1890’s was incredible and something I might explore in a future tour. The early cars were powered by all sorts of fuel but practically every car built since the 1890’s has been powered by either petrol or diesel but that is likely to change considerably in the next decade or so. The falling price of batteries and environmental concerns over pollution and climate change means that by 2030 most cars being built will be electric powered. A quarter of the German population works in the car industry and arguably no other event over the next decade will have a bigger effect on the German economy than the transformation to electric cars. How the German car companies are managing the transition to electrification was a major theme of this year’s tour. In short, VW, Audi and Porsche got an A, Mercedes Benz a B+ and BMW a C-. In 2019, I hope to visit some French and Italian car factories and will be reporting on Peugeot, Renault and Fiat’s efforts to electrify their vehicles. A German may have invented the car in 1885 but many of the innovations in the early years of the car industry were as a result of French and Italian companies. The first cars may have all been German but within a few years, they were being overtaken by French and Italian models. Likewise, the biggest selling electric car in Germany at the moment is actually the French built Renault Zoe but that will almost certainly change over the next few years as more electric German models hit the market. One thing for sure is that the German car industry will change more in the next decade than in practically any other decade since the car was first invented here by Karl Benz over 130 years ago.

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#8 Climbing the Stelvio Pass Anyone who has climbed the Stelvio on a bike knows how difficult the climb can be but to attempt to scale the same mountain pass in a wheelchair is beyond words. In 4 years of touring around Europe, I have came across all sorts but never have I ever seen anything as incredible as someone making their way up the Stelvio in a wheelchair. The road up to the Stelvio Pass is an extraordinary climb with 48 hairpins on it’s northern side from Trafoi and over 40 on its southern side from Bormio. Unfortunately, it’s mythical status means it also attracts motorbikers from all over Europe. In all, I counted over 1500 motorbikes in roughly 5 hours climbing both sides of the Stelvio. That is an average of one every 10 seconds which is just too much when you are gasping for air on such a long climb. To be fair, most motorcyclists give you more room than the average car drivers but it is the sheer number and the noise that is the issue. I tackled the Stelvio in June and I guess the situation is even worse in July and August. Last year, I climbed the Iseran and the Bonette Restefond, which are even higher than the Stelvio but there were very few motorbikes on those climbs. I assume that the Stelvio’s proximity to Germany is why there were so many motorbikers on the climb. Perhaps if there was a toll on the Stelvio like on the Grossglockner in Austria, there would be fewer motorbikes on the climb. Or perhaps, if there was a gentleman’s agreement for no motorbikes before say 9 or 10 in the morning, this would give cyclists and hikers and even wheelchair users a chance to climb the Stelvio in relative peace.

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#9 Visiting Porsche’s headquarters in Zuffenhausen A major theme of this year’s Tour de Travoy was the German car industry and how it is coping with the transition to electrification. I went to VW’s HQ in Wolfsburg, Audi’s HQ in Ingoldstadt, BMW’s HQ in Munich and Mercedes Benz HQ in Stuttgart but there was little sign of any electrification efforts at those locations. For example, only at VW’s factory in Dresden where they build the e-Golf did I come across a charging station but ironically, the only vehicles charging there were two Tesla Model S cars. But here at Porsche’s HQ in Zuffenhausen near Stuttgart, there was considerable evidence of a transition under way. The main billboard here featured a Porsche Taycan, Porsche’s first electric car and due to be launched in September 2019. The main Porsche factory here in Zuffenhausen has already been transformed ready to start building the Taycan in 2019. Prototype Taycans were regularly being tested during 2018 at Porsche’s own race track near their design centre at Weissach. I passed by this facility on my tour and was lucky to get talking to a Porsche employee on his way home after a day’s work on an electric bike. He worked in interior design but when I asked about the Mission E electric car he said something along the lines of “that was way above his pay scale”. Employees at design and development centres have to be very careful not to disclose any information about projects they are working on so perhaps that is why he was so coy about discussing the Mission E prototype. It is hard to believe that a Porsche employee on an electric bike didn’t know about Porsche’s electric car plans but perhaps he was unsure if the program had been officially disclosed and didn’t want to give any inside information, in case it was still classified. In hindsight, I should have mentioned that there was a huge Taycan billboard in Zuffenhausen and perhaps he may have been a little more forthcoming. I may not have got a scoop but you could tell that the employee was really proud to work for Porsche and no wonder as this German car company is really going places.

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#10 Crossing into the Czech Republic  I really enjoyed the Czech Republic and any country that has a beer with your name on it has to be good. Certainly the variety in the Czech Republic was a sight for sore eyes after 3 weeks touring around Germany. The countryside in Germany is lovely but there is no variety from one region to another and even East Germany now looks exactly like West Germany. I made a huge de-tour to get to the Czech Republic and only did so after deciding you can’t do a tour of the Iron Curtain without going to what was previously called Czechoslovakia. I am so glad I did as it turned out to be one of the highlights of this year’s tour.

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#Bonus Extra Highlight Cycling the Iron Curtain The main aim of the 2018 Tour de Travoy was to cycle the length of the Iron Curtain from Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland  to Trieste in Italy. It took me almost a fortnight to get to Poland and another 4 weeks to get to Trieste only to discover there is almost no trace of the Iron Curtain to be seen anywhere. Indeed, cycling along the Iron Curtain is a bit like cycling along the the Northern Ireland border where all the checkpoints and barriers have vanished since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, in Sopron in Hungary, a small section of the Iron Curtain has been preserved along with a watchtower. A lovely peaceful memorial park has been built here where the first crack occurred in the Iron Curtain during a picnic in August 1988. Likewise, the old East German border checkpoints at Marienborn and Modlareuth have both been preserved but everywhere else, there is little trace of the Iron Curtain to be seen anywhere. In fact, the most visible trace of this region’s Communist past is in the sheer number of Trabants still on the road. The 2 in the photo above are obviously not road worthy but believe me, there are plenty other examples that still are. It is estimated that there are 50,000 Trabants still being driven mostly in East Germany, which is incredible as the last Trabant was built in Zwickau in 1991 almost 30 years ago. That there are more Trabants on German roads nowadays than there are electric cars is just ridiculous in a country that prides itself on it’s green credentials. Germany has spent billions on transforming it’s electricity supply and last year, over 40% of electricity in Germany came from renewable sources. But when it comes to cars, old habits die hard. The Iron Curtain may be gone from Germany and elsewhere but the Iron Combustion Engine lives on.

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#Bonus Extra Highlight Meeting up with relatives in Munich The Dolomites may have been the highlight of this year’s Tour de Travoy but my biggest highlight all summer was meeting up with my sister Karen and niece Aoibheann in Munich. It was great to get some rest for 2 days and catch up with all the news from back home. I also got to stay in a hotel and not have to sleep in a cramped tent. The highlight of our time in Munich by far was BMW World which was really cool though our trip to the Allianz Arena was anything but. However, we also had time to get a train to Salzburg in Austria to see some of the locations where the Sound of Music was filmed. Salzburg is lovely and the views of the Austrian Alps in the distance are incredible but it is over-run with tourists and we actually preferred Munich. But that being said, on previous tours, I have met up with Karen in Bilbao and in Paris and both those cities are way ahead of Munich in terms of places to visit. Munich for much of it’s history was a provincial capital and only really entered the world stage with the Olympics in 1972. But while the likes of Berlin and elsewhere have been totally transformed over the last 50 years, very little has changed in Munich. It’s heyday was over a century ago when it was the seat of the Bavarian Royal family and a bit like Vienna, it is the sort of city that appears to be stuck in the past. Indeed, it was only when leaving Munich and coming across some surfers on an artificial wave in the English Garden, that it struck me there may be more to Munich than meets the eye. Perhaps, beneath the surface, that there is quite a vibrant culture in Munich if you only know where to look.

Top 10 Tweets from the 2018 Tour de Travoy

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