The term ‘couchsurfing’ needs no introduction and the website is used by millions worldwide. But fewer people are aware of one website offering the same kind of network specifically to cyclists: warmshowers.org. The advantage for the touring cyclist? Your host won’t hold anything against you for turning up in some kind of musky, damp state (whether sweat or weather induced) with a bike that is dirty, dusty, muddy, oily, or any of the above.
Living in the centre of Saarbrücken, I’m just 3 minutes away from the ‘Saar-Mosel Radweg’, a bike path running from near Trier down towards Sarre-Union in France. Unsurprisingly, I often get sent requests to host during the summer months – many people stop off here on their way between Luxembourg and the Rhine valley.
It was slightly more surprising, however, when I received one last Friday evening. As my laptop chirped its email notification, I was sitting in my warm room watching sluggish snowflakes the size of ping pong balls settling with the lightest of thuds on the rooftops across the road.
“I’m in Luxembourg at the moment and planning to get to Saarbrücken on Sunday evening. Any chance you could host me?” Josh got the same reaction from me as he did from most people – disbelief and overwhelming respect in equal measure. (I’d hazard a guess that most people would prefer touring when the temperature is above zero.) I had work at 7:30am on Monday but there was no way I was going to turn the man down, so I quickly sent off a reply to tell him he had hot food and a hot shower waiting for him on arrival.
Josh riding along the Maginot Line, France.
Another advantage of using Warmshowers? Anyone willing to sit on a bike for a week or more and lug their belongings around usually has a passion for cycling, so that’s immediately one thing in common. Reading Josh’s bio on the website was like reading my own – only a year younger and from a parallel universe where my dream jobs had come true. Four years riding as a pro in Belgium before a stint as a journalist for Cyclist magazine. Then, three weeks ago he started riding from Scotland to Hong Kong, hoping to complete the distance over the course of a year. I had a feeling we’d get on pretty well. Indeed, a conservative estimate of how much conversation was consumed by cycling comes in at 80%. (My girlfriend would no doubt argue otherwise, considering my childlike curiosity to know anything and everything about life as a pro-cyclist and cycling journalist).
Warmshowers has a knack of bringing interesting people your way. Well-travelled people who are open to the world around them are full of interesting stories, and always prompt my urge to explore to rise up within me. This time was no different, in fact more so because the tour I’m planning for June will see me take similar roads to those Josh had – albeit hopefully a tad warmer. (I’ll be riding a loop from Saarbrücken to Cherbourg via Paris, onto Windsor, and then back to Saarbrücken via Belgium. The plan is to do it in two weeks, with one week riding from Paris to Windsor as part of Help For Heroes’ Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2015.)
Provisional plans for my June 2015 tour.
After 9:30 on Monday, I had a break until 17:45 (freelancing has its advantages), so I jumped at the chance to join Josh for a part of his journey on towards Hagenau, his half-way stop before reaching the Black Forest. The recent snow fall hadn’t stopped me cycling, but since it’d begun I hadn’t ventured out too far afield, preferring familiar roads closer to home that promised a quick escape route home in case extremities started dropping off in the cold. (Even when I layer up like an onion the cold seems to find a way in eventually).
Riding partners are always good motivation however, and before long we’d reached Wittring, 30 kilometres away along the Saar. From there, we began a gentle climb up towards Rohrbach-les-Bitche. We were heading into the Parc National des Vosges du Nord, and with every pedal stroke the scenery got whiter and whiter. As the road flattened out a blanketed landscape spread out before us, its soft mottled textures mirroring that of the overcast sky overhead. Except now a streak of blue was doing its best to break through. Josh had seen more than enough snow in Luxembourg already, but for me it was a revelation to ride in this wintery wonderland. Even a puncture wasn’t enough to wipe the grin off my face, and I easily ignored the biting wind on my gloveless fingers as I did the job at hand.
We rode on through villages where locals stopped clearing their driveways to give us looks of ‘what-on-earth-are-they-doing?’, probably wondering why we were a) riding at all and b) what kind of bet I’d won to make my mate carry all of the bags. Each bend in the road led on to another feast for my eyes, the black tarmac of our road winding its way across the powdery undulations, occasionally, delightfully, accompanied by blue sky and sunshine.
Inevitably, however, the point I’d begun to dread eventually arrived. After 60km of grinning like a Cheshire cat, my Garmin told me it was time to turn back home. I wished I could simply carry on all the way and worry about getting home another time. But English lessons don’t teach themselves.
Taking part in one three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of Josh’s adventure had been a real privilege and for me a whole adventure in itself. He rode on and I reluctantly turned my bike round into the headwind home, back the way we’d come. Ten minutes later I found myself riding head-on into a snow storm, squinting my eyes away from the stinging flakes as others lodged themselves in my smile.
Josh and I had talked about the Saar valley between Konz and Mettlach, him having just ridden along it that Sunday. I’d seen it from the train on a handful of occasions and had envisioned riding along it and up into the vineyards and forests on either side, but had never actually done so.
Two days later, on Wednesday morning, I clicked into my pedals outside Mettlach train station and rode off into the hills.
When inspiration comes knocking on your door (or inbox), you’d do well to let it in, give it some warm food and shelter, and listen to what it has to say. It might just help you find your next adventure.