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It’s six o’clock in the morning, and everything’s as usual: Get up, take ashower, have breakfast, go to school. But something is different today. Beforethis day is over we will have cycled more than 160km. Today is the first dayof a six week bicycle tour around the North Sea, along the world’s longestsigned cycle path – The North Sea Cycle Route. Months of planning liebehind us. We’ve been waiting for this day, impatiently, for weeks on end,and yet, this morning, we have very mixed feelings about this project. . .
The three lessons we have to spend in school this morning seem to stretch
endlessly, our anxiety rises with every minute the clock advances to 12:00pm– our planned starting time – and with every word of encouragement we hearfrom friends and teachers. Incidentally, all the weeks that we spent tellingpeople about our project (which was a vital part of our strategy – the morepeople know about what we’re up to, we figured, the harder we’ll try to liveup to the newly raised expectations) we only once encountered someone whodidn’t give us credit in advance quite so easily: My former German teacher,who frankly told us that we weren’t going to make it anyway. We’ll see aboutthat!
After we are handed our reports, we drive to the bike shop one more time.
Yes, we treated ourselves to taking the car to school this morning. Johannisn’t quite sure if the valve on our air-pump is actually doing its job for hisPresta valves. Turns out it is. ”It has to sound like no air is going into thetyre but everywhere else instead, that’s a good sign!”
Back at home, at around 11:00am, the atmosphere’s hectic. I know I
promised myself to have everything packed and lying there ready for us thenight before, but there’s always the one or two little things you just can’tpack till an hour before departure. Like the insurance documents. And ofcourse, then you can’t find them in time. Something for mum to do oncewe’ve departed.
Since we have to spend the first night camping by ourselves, the bicycles
are a lot more heavily laden than they are going to be for the majority of thetour: Two rear panniers on each bike, two sleeping bags, two mats, a tent
on mine, a handlebar bag on Johann’s. Oh, the rain jackets. It doesn’t lookthe least bit like rain, but we just cannot be bothered into taking taking allthe delicately balanced gear off in order to get to the bags, so we just putthem on top. The pure volume of our belongings (and maybe the fact thatwe protect the sleeping bags and mats with garbage bags) makes us look likehobos – If it weren’t for our cycling outfit, which gives an interesting twistto the overall impression we make.
As we finally pull out of the driveway at 12:12pm, with parents and
grandparents present patting our backs and photographing and the Germansun blazing, we feel incredible. At long last the moment we’ve waited forhas arrived, we’re on our way. The bikes feel totally different to our usualunladen riding, but this just reinforces the feeling that this isn’t just anotherbike ride.
The first 30 km from our hometown of Oldenburg to the first city on the
official route, Varel, are nothing new to us: A good part of this road consti-tutes our daily trip to school, the last stretch to Varel we’ve ridden severaltimes visiting friends who live there. Still, the atmosphere is uncomparable.
As we spot the first of the route signs which are going to be our companionsfor the next five and a half weeks, we get almost euphoric, and, like any truetourist, we have to take a photograph of this fateful signpost. From now on,every kilometre we cycle is going to be new to us. For us, this is the truestart of the tour.
We cycle little paths through the perfectly flat Frisian landscape with
strong tailwinds pushing us forward and raising our mood further with everyrotation of the pedal. If conditions stay like this, this is going to be a pieceof cake. The route is well sign-posted, the map is accurate, our bikes rollsmoothly along the evenly paved roads. We cycle up a dyke to catch our firstglimpse of the North Sea. Unfortunately it is low tide. Ah well, we’re boundto see it at some stage along our route. . .
According to our schedule, we’re going to take the ferry across the Weser
from Blexen to Wilhelmshaven around 7pm and arrive at our booked camp-site in Wremen at 7:30. Due to the good run we have, we reach the ferryat 6. Nothing can stop us. ”Ferry not operating today”, a sign is trying totell us. ”Good joke”, we tell ourselves. ”You’re not going to cross over heretoday”, some people standing on the pier explain. ”See that truck on theferry? It weighs 80tons, they’re doing an endurance test today. Isn’t thatfascinating?”. It’s not. With a vague description of how to find the closestferry (”You just cycle 20 km upstream and take the ferry to Dedesdorf”) we
get on our way again. Heck, we can almost see our campground, and now wehave to do an extra 40 km? Ah well, that’s not going to stop us. Or rather,if this little mishap could stop us, we needn’t even hope to do the whole tour.
So we try to stay cheerful, and indeed, the trip along the river is quite fun,mostly due to the tailwind. Hang on, if we have tailwinds upstream, doesn’tthat mean that we’ll have to go against the wind on our way downstream. . . ?Indeed, we do. And this isn’t just a breeze, it’s real wind. The 20 km onthe opposite site of the river are frustrating, we’re not yet used to distancesover 100 km, it’s getting chilly and the thought that we could long be at ourdestination if it wasn’t for that endurance test does nothing to improve ourmood.
We finally arrive in Bremerhaven, with the sun still above the horizon,
which placates us a little. I’m cycling in front when I hear Johann callingout, in quite an aggressive tone ”There’s no need to go this fast.” I’m not,yet Johann has fallen quite far behind. I’m almost ready to shout somethingprovocative back, when he realizes it isn’t due to my superior physical abilitiesthat he cannot keep up, but rather due to a flat rear tube. We stop to mendthe puncture and install a plastic band which is supposed to stop any sharpobjects penetrating his tyre again, and after twenty lost minutes I just can’tconstrain myself and explain how unnecessary this delay was: I invested avast amount of money into supposedly puncture-proof tyres while a little bitof glass is enough to hold him up. Of course I know that my little commentis of little help to the situation, and for the last ten kilometres of the firstday there’s an icy silence between the two of us. Still, we arrive at ourcampground, having cycled 160 instead of our planned easy 126 km, put upthe tent, take a hot shower, eat our packed cold dinner and call our parentsto give them the list of things I forgot to take along: My key for the lock,my cycling gloves, and the map for day three. . .
The alarm clock we took along proves to be invaluable: If we could have, Ibelieve we wouldn’t have got up at all today. But we have no choice, so wecrawl out of our tent at 8 in the morning, blinking into the bright sun, freshenup and have breakfast. We sure can feel our legs, and a bed is definetely morecomfortable than our mats, but the wind blowing from the west acts as awelcome prozac. After packing up and paying we get on our way again, and
half an hour later the morning stiffness is gone – life is fun. Once againthe sun is shining and the wind is pushing us forward. We travel throughpitoresque little towns and actually see the Sea. What more can you ask for.
Exactly 40 km down the road, we stop to have brunch – a habit that is goingto stay with us for the rest of the tour. Chocolate bars mightn’t be the kindof snack a nutritionist would recommend for world-class athletes such as us,but they sure taste good.
Cycling is easy again, up to the point when Johann calls for a stop in a
little path again. He has another puncture. On the rear tyre again. Turnsout that the plastic band we put in yesterday has pinched the tube, leavingtwo rather big holes. We change the tube without putting the so-called anti-puncture band in again, and vow to buy another set of the tyres I have assoon as we get the chance.
We’re behind schedule again, but we still take the time to stop at a little
bakery in the ”Altes Land”, a famous fruit growing region west of Hamburg,and have a slice of locally made apple pie. And another one. And a breadroll each. And ten kilometres down the road, we buy a bag of apples. Andeat it. Then we’re not quite so hungry anymore.
After a little odyssey through the suburbs of Hamburg, we eventually
find the ferry crossing the Elbe. On board, we meet a cyclist who had justcome back from a tour to the north cape in Norway a week earlier, and spendthe whole trip exchanging experiences. It sure feels good to be accepted asserious cyclists so quickly.
At 8pm, we arrive at our aunt ”Dr. Tine” ’s house and pick up the key
from her next door neighbour, as she is going to be home rather late thatnight. We spend the evening eating vast amounts of bread with differentsalads, watching TV and rubbing our sore legs. Then we go to sleep in thelast real beds for a long time. . .
Our aunt wakes us up to a set breakfast table and hands us the copies of themap that our parents had faxed the night before. We stock up on bread rollsand get on our way well-rested, well-fed and once again well-motivated dueto Dr. Tine’s hospitality.
The tour takes us along the Elbe on an excellent bike path for quite
some distance and is generally well-signed, so we hardly need the copies of
the map at all. Around noon, our parents call to agree on a meeting pointfurther along the route. They have tied up all the loose ends at home andare now on their way to join us. A look on our cycling map suggests the”‘St¨
orsperrwerk”’, a river barrier, as a ”cannot-be-missed” landmark. At first
glance, our parents are unable to find this monumental construction on theirroad map, but we tell them they’re bound to find it once they get in the area.
And so we set off, looking forward to getting rid of the tent, the sleeping bagsand all that unnecessary weigth we’re carrying around with us. We arriveat the Sperrwerk an hour later, our parents estimate that they’ll be there aswell in about ten minutes. Perfect timing. 45 minutes later they pull intothe parking lot next to the barrier. Seems the designers of cycling and roadmaps have different priorities about what is relevant for the traveller.
After another 20 minutes of resting, eating and unloading the bikes, we
get on our way again. The difference in handling is unbelievable. It feels likewe don’t need to put any pressure on the pedals at all, and we’re still fasterthan before. If only this feeling lasted. Alas, it doesn’t. Of course. An hourlater, riding feels just the same as before.
A message from our mum, who is already at our destination, tells us to
come to the campground ”‘Zur Perle”’, a little north of the town of B¨
usum takes longer than expected as the locals are celebrat-
ing some kind of festival, blocking the – otherwise excellent – bike pathswith little stalls and rides. And of course the visitors have no understandingwhatsoever for two tired cyclists just trying to get through the busy area asfast and with as little contact as possible. Eventually we do leave the townand find the campground – or what we think is the campground. It turns outthere’s about five campgrounds in B¨
usum, all closely huddled together in one
area. But the one named ”‘Zur Perle”’ can’t possibly be the one our mum ison. It just consists of a small property with grass and a toilet block, but thedescription we received on how to get to the tent is far more complicated.
We cycle around the area, checking all the other campgrounds, but still wecannot find the tent. Our dad, who started to cycle at the Sperrwerk as well,arrives, and in a combined effort we spot the right site, just a little off thearea where all the other campgrounds are. We shower, have dinner and fallasleep in the huge tent our mother put up all by herself, a procedure that isnot going to differ much over the next five weeks.
We sleep in today, it’s already 9am and the sun is high up in the sky whenwe finally pull ourselves together and crawl out of the tent to be greeted bya set breakfast table. An excellent feeling, what can go wrong now? Eating,we plan the day’s ride, with the aid of an initial itinerary I had prepared athome. Dageb¨
ull, in far northern Germany is the destination for today.
Strong headwinds for most of the day soon eradicate the morning’s eu-
phoric feeling and we start to develop a skill that is going to be invaluable forthe success of the tour: apathy. Initially, we would get rather frustrated withthe constant hostile winds, mutter, try to ride harder and think unproductivethoughts about how bad an idea the whole project was. But today I try adifferent approach, putting into practice what is so often preached: Acceptthe facts, put your head down and just take it easy. Works astonishinglywell. The more often you look at the odometer, the more frustrating it iswhen there’s headwinds to tackle, so the aim is to get into a state of mindwhere you don’t even notice you’re cycling. I admit, occasionally I did lookat the map and wonder how slow it is possible to go, but everyday I got moreadept at riding almost subconsciously.
We stop for a break in the very likeable town of Husum. The fish stall
on the marketplace is just closing as we arrive, but he suggests trying at afish shop on the other side of the road, which, incidentally, is also preparingto close at the time. However, the shopkeeper takes the trouble to fetch thelast remaining sandwiches from the cooling room, something which confirmsour favourable opinion of the town. We stroll around the pleasant town fora while, then get on the bikes again to cycle the last remaining kilometres toDageb¨
Arriving at a cosy campground with the tent set in a secluded corner,
we find everything to be set for a relaxing evening. Now all we need are thecoins for the showers. It turns out you get them at the bar of the adjoininghotel, not exactly the place you’d like to be at when you’re wearing nothingbut a towel, but after 160km with headwinds most of the way I couldn’t careless.
The last 30 km on German grounds turn out to be more adventurous thanexpected. Approximately one kilometre leads over nothing but grass, noteven a track is visible, and one of the last North Sea Cycle Route signs inGermany has been turned to point in the wrong direction, away from theDanish border. Without the aid of the map that we luckily have, we’d prob-ably be going to Italy now. Yet we do reach the first border on the routewithout too much trouble. What an awesome feeling. We stop shortly afterthe crossing to have breakfast and to get an overview of all the differences.
There aren’t too many actually, the weather’s the same, the landscape isidentical, we still have our bikes. Hang on, there’s a different currency. Al-though the cycle route is a European project, only two countries (Germanyand the Netherlands) have the Euro, and one country (Norway) isn’t evenpart of the European Union. After we have stomached this realisation, weget on our way again.
The excellent signage tells us to turn off the major road and points down
a gravel road. Being used to what was ”‘unsealed roads”’, as they’re called inthe map, were in Germany, we look forward to travelling on less used roadsfor a while. However, this changes after we have succesfully left behind thefirst stretch of this in Denmark. The unsealed roads aren’t just unsealed,they’re pebbles. It’s amazing that tractors can use this roads, with bicyclesit’s near impossible. And this wasn’t going to be the last gravel road.
With the sun blazing, the wind blowing from the front and no town or
petrol station to get something cold to drink, we’re more than happy tofinally arrive in the town of Esbjerg at the end of the day.
The day begins with another looong stretch of exhausting gravel road, theconditions almost identical to yesterday. But today, at least there are lotsof occasions to take a break and buy some refreshments. We discover thatthe Danes are quite happy to accept Euros, at least at petrol stations and ofcourse at their own exchange rates.
It’s a long day, we are planning to cycle about 180 km so we’ll be at
Thyboron at night, from which a ferry will take us from the peninsula we’reon now back to the mainland. The headwinds take their toll, and I’m prettyburnt out later on in the day. The last part of the day’s route looks prettyscary on the map: 8 km of perfectly straight road in totally open landscape.
And of course the road points directly into the wind. Sure enough, my fearscome true: There’s no tree whatsoever to break the wind, and so we creepalong at about 13km/h.
At some point we gather our last reserves and
accelerate to 15km/h. As we arrive at the campground, we both agree thatthis was the most exhausting day yet.
Although we were so worn out the night before, as we plan the next coupleof days we decide to increase our daily average to about 195 km so that wewill be in Sweden one day earlier than originally planned. Today it’s goingto be 198 km, so we get up earlier than usual to get the 8 am ferry. We leavethe campground at 7:45, and head to what we think is the jetty. After wehave circled the industrial port for quite some time, getting more and morehectic, we ask a man walking his dog how to get to the ferry. He looks at us,disbelieving, and tells us quietly and slowly that we are not going to make itin time. I’m close to screaming at him, but get a grip on myself and tell himin a voice no less quiet and slow, that ”‘we know, but we would still like totry. So could you please tell us?”’. He explains the route, and with every turnI get more nervous. We push ourselves to the limit and arrive at the jettyat 8:02. The ferry’s still there. Wow, how lucky are we? Hang on, it’s not
moving, is it? It is. I almost throw my bike off the quay in anger, Johann islaughing his head off and we return to the campground, to the astonishmentof our parents and the other guests who saw us depart in the morning. Wetry to make the best of the situation and use the time to clean the bikes. Atquarter to nine we dare a second attempt and of course we arrive with plentyof time left.
The further we cycle, the more the direction turns to the east, which
means we’re slowly getting rid of the annoying headwinds. Around noonwe’re riding at almost exactly 90 degrees to the wind, and about an hourlater we get into dense woods. What a relief. How good is it going to bewhen we’re cycling south for the last part of the route in Denmark? As I’mstill thinking how much easier cycling is now than it was two hours ago, theground changes from perfectly paved road to the by now notorious unsealeddanish roads. When we arrive on the absolutely fully booked campground inBlokhus – where our parents were only able to get a tentsite by explaining indetail just how tired and frustrated the two cyclists they’re expecting wouldbe if they had to go any further – I notice that I cannot change to the smallestsprocket (which means I can’t use the lowest gears) because a screw cameloose and fell off on the dirt road. Not important now, as the landscape isstill mostly flat, but thinking of the fjords in Norway, we’ll have to get thatspare part somehow.
A few kilometres east of Blokhus, the route leads along the beach. Not justfor a short stretch, but for 15 km, right on the sand. The only possible way ofgetting forward there is to go really close to the water, where the cars whichare also permitted to drive along the beach have created something similarto a track, with the sand packed more densely than further up, but it’s stillhard work. Occasionally, there’s little stretches of soft sand, which are everso hard to pass without falling, and so those 15 km turn out to be harderthan expected, yet they also make up some of the most interesting cyclingon the whole tour.
The route passes close to the most northerly point of the Danish mainland
where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet, a geographic point of interestwe cannot possibly afford to miss, so we meet with our parents in Skagen,have a huge serving of Danish ice cream and cycle the five kilometres from
Skagen to the tip of Denmark together. A short walk along the beach leadsto that magic mini-peninsula, with masses of tourists taking the opportunityto stand in two oceans at the same time. We on the other hand are thinkingmore about the fact that in ten days, we’ll hopefully be standing on the otherside of this ocean, on Norways most southerly point.
Going south from Skagen, the route leads along an absolutely magnificent
cycling path through a national park, a wide and curvy paved track, and withstrong tailwinds we easily keep an average speed of almost 30 km/h. It’s thosetimes, when cycling is no work at all, that we forget all the past efforts andare truly glad to have decided to do this tour. Even as the cycling path endsand we have to cycle along a busy road, spirits are still high and we reachthe campground in Saeby in as good a mood as seldom before.
Another ”‘Last Day”’ lies before us. The wind pushes us forward, and al-though we’re cycling over 200 km today, it seems almost effortless.
getting a bit cooler, and the prospect of ”‘finishing”’ another country is quitea motivation to push ourselves a bit harder than usual. Our average speedtoday is higher than any other day, and we even take the time to stop at theferry terminal from which we are going to depart tomorrow morning, andhave someone take a photo of us. The distance we’ve already travelled isstarting to look good on the map, with the entire Danish west coast coveredand the first of three major ferry crossings is another milestone. We take thisas a reason to do a more intense checkup on the bikes after dinner, replacingthe brake shoes, retightening a few loosened spokes (how on earth can thathappen? Scary.) and just that annoying cleaning of all the little corners.
Dark clouds are gathering, yet we are optimistic about the things still tocome.
The sky is still overcast as we get up at around 10 a.m. in the morning. Theferry doesn’t depart until 1 p.m. so there’s no point in getting up any earlier.
What a luxury. Although the ferry terminal is no more than 4 km away fromthe campground, we get in our usual cycling gear, as we are planning to cycleabout 50 km in Sweden to make the most of the time that we are ahead ofschedule.
Having helped our parents packing up for the first time, we ride to the
terminal with in a constant, cold drizzle of rain. Is this the rain we had fearedfor so long before the start of the tour, the downpour that we practiced forby cycling in any weather condition back at home, regardless of whether itwould have been smarter to take the car or to stay at home? Well, if it is,that’s fine with us.
We warm up at the check-in building waiting for our parents to arrive.
When they finally do, we find out that one of us is going to have to put thebike onto the car instead of cycling onto the ferry because that’s the cheapestfare and there is no way of getting an additional passenger onto the ferry asit’s fully booked. No big deal, one might think, but to us it is. We drawstraws, and I win, happily cycling to the lane with all the waiting bikers andcyclists, while Johann grudgingly gets in the car. Who knows, maybe thesefive hundred metres will be the distance that will make it possible for me tosay that I cycled further than my brother. Then again, maybe not.
On the ferry, we put some ‘real’ clothes over the undoubtedly sexy, yet
still not fully socially accepted lycra shorts, then treat ourselves to the buf-fet, although the food really isn’t all that much better than what our mumprepares everyday, there’s simply more of it. It’s fun to discover that thetruism that cycling for long distances makes you hungry really is true. . .
Although we really shouldn’t be tired anymore after such a long sleep and
so little activity, I can hardly keep my eyes open and find myself a cosy littlecorner of the floor amidst masses of other people doing the same.
Leaving the ferry after four hours after we boarded it, we find Sweden to
be not all that differerent from the last day of Denmark, both weather- and
landscapewise. It’s flat and rainy. After I meet the others in the car park, wedecide on a campground which unfortunately lies about 10 km off the route,but there’s no better alternative. We get on our bikes again and discoverthat the map we organised before the start of the tour, a free tourist cyclingmap, is hardly better than the little maps you find in geography textbooks.
According to this map, all of Southern Sweden is yellow, with about tencities in all, represented by red dots of identical size. The route is shown byconnecting a few of these cities with straight lines – simple as that. However,after guessing the first couple of corners, we find the first route signs, whichwe will have to entirely rely on for the whole trip through Sweden. Luckilythe Swedes did quite a good job putting up the signs.
About ten kilometres down the road, the constant, cold drizzle, turns
into a constant, cold downpour. Yesterday’s 200 km take an additional tollon us and we experience first-hand how quickly moods can change. Rightnow, all I’m feeling is frustration and fatigue. However, there’s yet anothermoodswing to come. After having passed the first female blonde swedishcyclist of the tour, Johann and I look at each other, smiling. Today’s notsuch a bad day after all, it seems, and if the view stays as splendid as it isnow, Sweden will work its way up our ”Favourite Countries of the North SeaCycle Route” list quite quickly.
Passing the first bright red houses, finally all the children’s books conno-
tations of Sweden are called up as well, and so we actually enjoy our firstday in this new country more than we should, looking at the weather. Asthe campground isn’t marked on the map, we have to rely on our parentsdescriptions on how to find the day’s destination, which isn’t easy, seeingthat they had taken a different route and can only describe which way to gofrom the motorway. After asking for directions at a petrol station, however,we find that we could easily have trusted in our gut feeling and just riddenon, since we were about to cross the motorway in question anyway. Fromthere on it’s just an easy five or so kilometres to the campground, which, aswe find out, doesn’t have a whole lot of space for tents, but the other facili-ties easily make up for that: The friendly old lady tending the campgroundcomes up to as after we just arrived, telling us that there’s a coin operatedlaundry dryer as well as an ”activities room” – essentially a TV room withtables. This ”activities room” is turned into our dinner room as well, andsince it’s not much fun to cook in the rain, we opt for porridge with aboutfour kilos of fresh Swedish yoghurt. And since there’s a TV right in front ofus, why not use it. A weird feeling, watching a Hollywood movie in English,
with Swedish subtitles. A bad one it is too, ”Green Card”. Well, if you’retired, you’re not picky about the TV program anymore.
The weather isn’t much better. At least it’s not raining anymore, but it lookslike it could start to any minute. After breakfast, we set off, determinedto find a place to purchase a decent cycling map. After about twenty orso kilometers, we lose the route and find ourselves on a huge main road,hopefully going towards G¨
oteborg. Shouldn’t there be signs here, telling us
we’re going in the right direction? After all, it’s not very far to G¨
Before we end up in Finland, we decide we should take the hassle of asking forthe way. Chance has it that we’re right in front of a gigantic shopping center.
Surely, there must be a place where we can ask for directions and buy a mapin there somewhere. The first thing we learn, however, is that shoppingcenter car parks weren’t meant for bikes. You can see where you want togo, but somehow you never get there, the roads always take a bend justbefore you think you’ve reached the building, or there’s cars coming towardsyou because you’re going the wrong way down a one way street. Inside thebuilding, there actually is a bike shop, but of course they don’t have cyclingmaps. But at least they know the way to G¨
description of which way to go but are unable to remember anything but thevague bearing. Back on the main street, we still feel lost, until we finally seethe first road signs confirming our way. Once inside G¨
last some cycling signs again, an unbelievably encouraging feeling. We takea break at an internet cafe and devour some danish pastry before getting onour way again. The sun finally finds its way through the clouds and we enjoybeing off the main roads for a while. Closer to Lysekil, we have to cross afew fjords on tiny car ferries in absence of any bridges. On the first of twofree ferries, we meet our father, who has decided to cycle part of the route aswell. On the other side, we part again, reaching the second ferry just beforeits departure. During the crossing, we see our dad arriving at the terminal aswell. Nobody likes waiting, so we set out although it would have taken all often minutes to wait for the ferry to go back and forth. A couple of kilometresdown the road, we arrive in a very pleasant town on the fjord on which Lysekilis also situated, with an hour to spare before the last ferry makes its crossing.
About twenty minutes before departure, our father arrives and we decide to
cycle the last bit to the campground in Lysekil together. During the ferryride, we get a stunningly beautiful view of the city, nestled comfortably onthe mountainside. What a pleasant way to end the day, one might think,but unfortunately, it’s not to be that easy. Finding the campground turnsout to be harder than expected, and after going up and down the wrong hillsfor a couple of times, we once again ask for directions. Finally, we reach theovercrowded campground more tired than we really should be and are all themore irritated by the noisy party animals in the tent next to ours. Not theideal conditions for a good nights sleep, and the fact that Johann has to fixhis chain fender that has come loose somewhere along the way, dragging onhis chain, does the rest.
A short day lies before us, with no big cities to hold us up, so we normallywould depart relatively relaxed, if it wasn’t for Johann’s chain fender thathe wasn’t able to repair the night before. With a constant crunching sound,we get on our way. Some time around noon, we have enough and pull in ata petrol station with a car garage. While I buy some lunch, Johann borrowssome real tools (including a hammer. . .
similar to the principle of ”brute force”. But try as we might, we are unableto fix the problem, as it’s not simply a matter of bending some metal, butwe would rather have to open the bottom bracket to rotate the attachmentholding the fender. For that, however, we would need special tools that thecar garage doesn’t stock, and of course there is no bike shop to be found.
Frustrated, we get into a fight and I ride off ignoring Johann’s handicap.
Although it does feel good to be able to ride that much faster and morerelaxed, I get a guilty conscience and wait for him ten kilometres down theroad in the sunshine. We sort of make up, but ride most of the way in silence,with only the now familiar crunching commenting the situation. The routefollows very quiet minor roads, meandering through wooded hills, a lighttailwind trying to ease the hardship Johann has to face.
We planned to spend the night on a campground on the Swedish side of
the border, but the tent symbol on the map turns out to represent a youthhostel. We call our parents and find out that there does not seem to be acampsite before the border anymore, so we have to leave Sweden the sameday. There really is no choice, so we get onto the main road leading up to the
Svinesund. The closer we get to the border, the heavier traffic becomes. Aswe come around the final bend on Swedish soil, we are overwhelmed by theview expecting us: The Svinesund bridge constituting the border to Norwayis huge, wide and does not have a bike path. We get into the middle ofthe right lane to deter any motorist thinking about overtaking us in ourlane and start pedalling. There is a constant descent and with a velocityof over 65 kph, we fly out of one country, over a breathtakingly picturesquefjord and into the next. Behind the bridge, signs indicate for cyclist to leavethe motorway, an order we gladly follow. It takes us all of the last remainingkilometres on the quiet road to recover from the frightening yet unforgettableexperience, and although we only cycled about 180 kilometres, we are deadtired as we arrive on the nice campsite in Hoysand.
Good morning Norway. So we’ve really made it to the country we’d beenfearing most all through our preparations. In our minds, Norway was allrugged, steep fjells, constant rain and reindeer blocking the road aroundevery other corner. However, waking up with the first sunbeams warmingup the tent on a quiet fjord just north of the border, there is not much ofa difference to be noticed to the previous days: We’re cruising over gentlyundulating terrain, the water never far away and there’s a light cloud coveroverhead. There aren’t more North Sea Cycle Route signs either. In fact,there are none. And although we were always fascinated and intimidatedby the prospect of cycling Norway, looking at height charts and pictures ofbridges without railings, we did not put so much effort into the preparationsas to organise proper maps beforehand. What we did have was a road mapand a little picture out of some brochure in which the cycle route was marked.
Not much. So once inside Sarpsborg, a city we would not have entered hadwe had more information on the route, Johann decides to stop by a bikeshop and have his bike fixed at any price, while I take the time to pay thelocal tourist information office a visit to purchase the official North Sea CycleRoute Map of Norway, Part I. This relatively expensive piece of paper is goingto last about four days, then we will have to have been able to get hold ofPart II as well. Why worry now?
Getting out of Sarpsborg turns out to be much harder than getting in.
We try to take a short cut back to the official route by crossing a river viaa huge bridge we find on the map. Unfortunately, the map seems to assumethat all cyclists strictly keep to the route, which probably is why there is nonote to be found informing us that this bridge is strictly motorists only. Andseriously, it is. Of course there’s the obligatory sign at the ramp, with thecrossed out bicycle. In this case, and this is unusual, they could probablyhave done without the sign. No sane cyclist would consider cycling this steep,heavily trafficked and unbelievably long bridge. Beaten, we go all the wayback through Sarpsborg, past the tourist information and the cycle shop thatactually managed to repair Johann’s bike. But the map turns out not to be
the most reliable so far. Of course, a small scale makes the distances lookmuch less discouraging, but it makes navigation really hard in built-up areas,which is why we lose our way several times before we get to the ferry takingus over the Oslofjord.
When we get back onto solid ground after a very relaxing ferry trip, we
can hardly believe our eyes as we spot the first North Sea Cycle Route sign.
And there’s another! Wow! It’s almost to good to be true. But only almost.
For the rest of the Norwegian part of our journey, the signage is excellent,comparable to that in Denmark, sometimes even better and definetely moreconsistent in style. Every sign we see makes our hearts jump, and there’s alot of signs today, making it easy for us to find our way to today’s destination,Stavern.
In the afternoon, we arrive in Kragero, a charming little town on a peninsulafrom where we have to take a ferry, that, for a change, does not operate everytwenty minutes, but only five times a day. Knowing that missing one ferryby only a few minutes means waiting for a couple of hours, we get more andmore nervous the closer we get to the ferry terminal. For no sensible reason,as we find out, as the last ferry left half an hour ago and the next is dueto depart in two. If we can read the timetable right; after all, Norwegian isnot as closely related to German as it might sound to English ears. At first,we decide to just bear it and wait, then get edgy as we see a boat dockingon ”our” quay. It can’t be ours yet, can it? Well, why shouldn’t it be? It’ssummer, they probably have a few additional services today. So we boardthe ferry along with about ten cars and twenty other cyclists, purchase ourticket and enjoy the ride. I follow the trip on the map. Hang on, why isthat island on our right and not our left? A short inquiry reveals that we didboard the wrong ferry. No, this boat does not go to Stabbestad. Yes, we gostraight back to Kragero once we reach Langoy. Yes, we’ll be back in timefor the last ferry to Stabbestad. No, you won’t have to pay again. Strike!So instead of boring ourselves to death in Kragero, we get a free round-tripferry ride.
Still, the delay is quite annoying. There’s no way we can make it to the
day’s last ferry in time, so we are forced to leave the official route, skippingabout 40 km of supposedly beautiful terrain. The first 20 km of our alter-
native route lead through beautiful forests, along a quiet road in excellentcondition. Halfway along the way, however, the scenery changes dramatically.
The trees make way for rocky fjells and we have to tackle our first seriousclimb of the tour without being mentally prepared for it, and, incidentally,without having any food left over. Panting and sweating, we do somehowreach the top and are rewarded with a magnificent view of the fjord we justcycled along, but also have to experience what running out of carbohydratesmeans. Although the next couple of kilometres are really not very hard, wemove at a sickeningly slow pace. Finally, there’s a little town with a shopthat – fortunately – is still open. While I go inside to buy all the chocolatein stock, Johann stays with the bicycles. As I come back, I find him in aconversation with an eldery, yet fit-looking man. Coming closer, it becomesobvious they are talking about our ride. The man noticed that the bikes areGerman by looking at the hub dynamos and recognised the North Sea CycleRoute logo on Johann’s vest. He tells us that he himself is an avid roadcyclist and saw the first group of rider’s on the tour, wearing the same vestsas us. He too would be cycling the route in one go, if only his wife would lethim. We ask him for the easiest way to get to Holt, where our parents havealready put up the tent. He thinks for a while, looks at us conspiciously,then lowers his voice and tells us: ”Well, the way I always take when cyclingis straight down this motorway. There’s a sign prohibiting cycling about fivekilometres from here, but really, no one cares.”
Trust the locals, the motorway is excellent to cycle, there’s a wide shoul-
der and the route is almost perfectly flat. Up to the aforementioned sign.
A few hundred metres down the road, the wide shoulder becomes uncom-fortably narrow, and instead of lawn on our right-hand side, there now isa low concrete wall and behind it a sharp drop. We tense up immediately,trying desperately not to sway to either side, and after a while actually getaccustomed to this precise style of riding. But lack of space is of coursenot bad enough, it gets worse. Around a curve, we look into the mouth ofa dark tunnel. I don’t know about Johann, but I believe I did not take asingle breath all the way through the admittedly short tunnel. There was noshoulder at all, just bare rock to our right with signs poking out and truckovertaking on our left. Coming out, the narrow shoulder actually constitutesa relief, and some kilometres later we can finally see the signs pointing to ourcampground.
The first half of the day passes by with relatively few surprises, just theomnipresent breathtaking scenery posing a welcome distraction. About 50km into the day, however, a change is about to happen. While we havegotten used to the well-paved roads and the sometimes long, yet hardly toochallenging, climbs, for nine kilometres the route follows what is called ”theOld King’s Road”, an ”undulating earth-road”. This ”earth-road” turns outto be an old track, supposedly the main road in western Norway for centuries,that has recently been refurbished with fresh gravel. In many parts, this trackis so steep that there is no way of getting up the climbs with a bicycle. It’sphysically impossible, for the gravel does not provide any grip whatsoever,and frequently we seriously wondered how in the old days, people travelledthis road with horse-drawn carts. But the hardship is partly compensatedfor by the tremendous landscape, the peace and quiet and the excitementconnected to off-road cycling. After having navigated this stretch of the OldKing’s Road, we definetely have to take a break, and while we’re sitting theretaking in the sunshine, I start to read ahead in the second Norwegian map.
A mixture of thrill, fear and frustration creeps up on me as I discover thatthere are several more stretches of the Old King’s Road waiting for us in thefuture. . .
The remaining part of the day can almost be called relaxing, compared
to the stretch of gravel road that now lies behind us. Cycling along theTovdalselva River, there are no steep climbs anymore, and vast stretches ofstrawberry feels beckon for us to stop and save the hassle of buying lunch.
After this idyllic nature episode, we have to fight our way through a largertown once more. Although frequently, detailed maps of the city centres areprovided in the maps, it is still almost impossible to get through a city of,say, 50,000 inhabitants without getting lost at least once. Kristiansand is nodifferent in that respect, but the rectangular streets make it easy to find away back onto the right way. A few kilometres out of Kristiansand, we turndown another track, this time called the ”Post Road”. This dirt road is mucheasier to ride, although there is one very hard climb to master. From thereon, it’s only some 15 km before we arrive on an idyllic campground right bythe sea. We go for a swim in the ocean, and since we’re on the very southcoast of Norway, we imagine being able to see Skagen in Denmark, the pointfrom which we looked north just a few days but many kilometres earlier.
For the first 30 km of the day, the sky is overcast, always threatening tounload its wet cargo upon us any minute. And just as we once more leavea perfectly fine sealed road to experience another stretch of the Old King’sRoad, the clouds decide that the time is right to cool us off and give us andour bikes a thorough cleaning at the same time. It’s literally pouring down,and it’s not just a shower, it’s getting worse all the time. The gravel roadis no easier to cycle when it’s wet, quite the opposite is the case, and eventhe otherwise rather euphemistic cycle guide calls the climb we’re tackling”somewhat strenuous”. Somehow, we survive the steep and narrow stretch ofdirt road and come into Vigeland, where we take a rest under the first coverwe can find, a cinema’s canopy. An elderly lady too finds refuge here, looksat our bikes, looks at us, smiles and then releases a gush of words that mustmean something nice and encouraging, the way grandmothers all over theworld talk to young and inexperienced people, but it is Norwegian, and sowe have to admit that we’re the kind of annoying tourists that do not botherto learn the language of the country they’re travelling in. She understandsand repeats all of the nice things in English, wishes us best of luck, thentrods out into the now receding rain.
We too decide that we’ve had enough of a forced break, after all we only
just departed. We go out of Vigeland the wrong way, but this time we turnaround before we go on the motorway. Incidentally, just as we turn back, ourparents pass us in the car, coming from the motorway. We wave frantically,but they show no reaction at all. It makes you think: We wear a red and ayellow jacket, neon yellow vests and both our lights are on. If our parentsdon’t see us, what about the other motorists? Are we that camouflaged?Going through Vigeland again, we see the car parked in the main street, asupermarket on the one side, a bakery on the other. ”I bet they’re doing theshopping.” ”Nah, they wouldn’t shop in a supermarket this small. They’reprobably just buying bread in the bakery.” We try the supermarket first, andof course there’s no trace of them. In the small, cosy bakery we find themdrinking coffee and enjoying pastry. After we too warm up a bit, we get onour way again, at last without rain again. Up to now we’ve been obscenelylucky concerning the weather, the sunburn on arms and lower legs has alreadyturned into a solid tan and my hair has become as blonde as it was when Iwas five, so we’ll be forgiving about this rainfall as long as it doesn’t happenagain.
The ride is quite possibly the most strenuous so far, there are a lot of
hard, steep climbs, but each one is made up for by the inevitable descent tofollow. Speeds of 50 kph to 60 kph are becoming routine to us, we’re surelynot going to brake just because there’s a tight curve in front of us. Afterall, every metre we’re rolling down is the result of hard work, so we justhope that there’s no cars cutting corners and take turns going down first.
The person following always keeps a great deal of distance, and if the personin front makes it down alive, so will the one trailing: Everything set for athrilling downhill bike ride. Until we get to the next mountain. . .
There are some relatively flat stretches, but a few kilometres before we
reach the campground, we have to cycle around a classical long U-shapedglacial valley: The 12 km on the southern bank are nothing but downhill,from a height of 220 metres down to almost sea level. 12 kilometres withoutpedalling while still maintaining a velocity of 30 kph to 40 kph – a cyclistsdream. There are three more hard climbs before we finally reach the camp-ground in Flekkefjord and our muscles feel as sore as on day one.
Today is the day we are going to reach the highest altitude on the wholetour (at least that’s what we thought at the time. Turns out that there’s aneven higher point in Scotland, but it’s not as impressive) and at the sametime tackle two of the hardest climbs of the North Sea Cycle Route: Goingfrom sea level in Ana-Sida to a height of 275 m over a distance of 5 km, thengoing back to zero and climbing to 180 m in about 3 km. It would be a lieto say that we are not intimidated by this prospect. We take the expectedhardship as an excuse to have an extra long breakfast and then set out toget it behind us. The long climb turns out to be not as hard as feared, butit is still a long way to go. On the summit, we are glad to find an officialsign with the altitude on it and with a great deal of effort manage to takea picture of the two of us with the sign using the automatic release. Thesecond climb is much more strenuous than the first, but the view to be hadis absolutely unforgettable.
More climbs and descents follow, and we’re finally getting used to it – no
longer trying to keep close together but rather splitting up, each of us goingup at his own pace and then meeting on the summit – when, behind anotherlong stretch of the Old King’s Road, the landscape suddenly changes. The
land is perfectly flat and we automatically think of Northern Germany, wherea height difference of ten metres is called a hill. At first we are grateful forthese new conditions, especiall as there’s a light tailwind so cycling couldhardly be easier, but after a while we realise that we are getting bored. Nodoubt about it, cycling in flat country is easier and more effective, but moun-taineous areas are just more exciting to tackle. Sixty uneventful kilometreslater, we arrive on the campground in Olberg, deeply satisfied with havingput behind us the hardest parts of the Norwegian North Sea Cycle Route.
We are scheduled to meet the coordinator of the Norwegian part of the route,Eli Viten, in Haugesund, some sixty kilometres north of our campgroundearly in the afternoon, with one ferry and the large town of Stavanger tomaster, so we get going relatively quickly. Going into Stavanger turns out tobe even harder than expected, although again there is a relatively detailedmap of the inner city in our guide book.
suburbs and at least four times in Stavanger itself, although there are signseverywhere. Although Stavanger is a charming town, it’s a relief to get outof it. The delay means that we have to rush in order to reach the ferry whichonly operates four times a day. It’s starting to drizzle again, and with abouttwenty minutes to spare we reach the quay, shivering.
On the other side of the Boknafjord, the sun is shining brightly again, with
no clouds in sight. The closer we get to Haugesund, however, the more darkclouds build up. As we meet Eli, whom we find to be an absolutely charmingperson, the sky is completely overcast. Eli takes a few pictures for the localnewspaper, and then invites us to lunch in a great restaurant nearby. Wetalk intensely for much over an hour, before we pull ourselves together andget going again. About ten minutes after our departure, it starts to drizzleagain, turning into rain and finally into a torrential downpour. In minutes,we are soaked to the bones, the heavy drops hurting the eyes. It’s too latenow to look for cover, what good is it going to do except make us go cold,so we just keep going apathically. After half an hour or so, the rain stops assuddenly as it started and the sun peers out the now lightening clouds as ifnothing happened. The bikes are squeaking, we are relieved and revitalised,and only the sandflies on our campground lower the euphoric mood that hasdeveloped unnoticed due to the fact that we are nearing Bergen, the end of
the Norwegian part of our journey. . .
Not the slightest trace of a cloud can be found in the sky, only the largepuddles on the ground are silent witnesses of the previous day’s apocalyp-tic rainfall. We begin the day by riding over two huge suspension bridgesproviding once more a panoramic view of the beautiful Norwegian coastallandscape. We’re going to miss this country, that much is clear althoughwe still have to ride 100 km with a climb described as ”the hardest climbsince Jossingfjord”, which does sound quite intimidating to anyone who hasbeen to Jossingfjord. Halfway through the day, we have to take a ferry rideof about 50 minutes, and with each minute, we get more excited. The lastkilometres are again quite hilly, and the final climb really is strenuous, butsomehow we are magically attracted to Bergen, which helps a lot. We takea rest on top of the 230 m high hill 25 km south of Bergen, before we go forour final Norwegian descent. Hard to believe, but we really cycled all of thesouthern Norwegian coast.
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