As a prelude to the 37th IVCA Rally held in Karlsruhe, on the initiative of Glen Norcliffe 14 riders completed a ride of 230 kilometers between Nancy (in France) and Karlsruhe (in Germany) on draisines to commemorate the bicentenary of this invention.
This account of a great adventure is written by Alain Cuvier, co-organizer and director of this expedition.
- The prologue
Friday 19th May saw a great migration as the riders arrived by various means, some flying from North America, and some driving from Belgium, England, France or the Czech Republic. Dirk and Sabrina arrived the previous day from Belgium and had already explored the city, while Bob Taylor had ridden from Paris on his highwheeler with his bags in a small trailer hitched to the back of his bicycle. He showed us images taken en route with his drone.
A throng gathers in the foyer of the hotel with various accents all mixed up as old friends happily embrace each other and new acquaintances are made.
For our first outing we present ourselves at 5 pm in period costume on our riding machines in front of the hotel for a short tour of the city.
A local cyclotourist – Jean-Marie – comes to guide us and we soon reach Place Stanislas, the historic heart of Nancy (and a UNESCO World Heritage site), somewhat deserted on this warm spring afternoon but several onlookers walking there looked at us in surprise and amusement. It should be pointed out that a troop of 15 cavaliers in period costumes riding these strange machines do not go unnoticed.
We direct ourselves to the City Hall, an impressive building which occupies one complete side of the immense square in front of which we await a charming city official and her assistant.
After words of welcome and short presentations on practical aspects of the machines, we participate in a long photographic session in front of the city hall, and then in front of the fantastic golden gates that guard the entrance to the celebrated Place Stanislas. We then leave in the shade of a long avenue which leads us towards the Porte de la Craffe, the oldest medieval gates of the city, ending up on the terrace of one of the numerous cafes that surround the square.
The evening ends in a festive manner in one of those much-loved small bistros which serve a traditional cuisine with a convivial ambience and moreover this one not only served meals but brewed beer on site, so we could not have made a better choice.
- Saturday 20th May
There is a hive of activity in the hotel as everyone is busy with preparations, and loading bags for 28 persons in the support vehicles is no small matter. The draisines are lined up in front of the hotel attracting the interest of passers-by. We are rejoined by Jean-Marie who as on the previous evening will guide us out of the town as far as the midday break, accompanied by several other cyclists who join us along the route. At the appointed time we leave for Place Stanislas where representatives of the City are awaiting us. A microphone has been installed and each of the brief speeches renders homage to Baron Drais and his wonderful invention. A member of the French branch of the Drais family living in Nancy honours us with his presence.
The spectacle of these draisines lined up in the centre of the square or surrounding the statue of the King of Poland is very colourful and the object of numerous photos.
The costumes rival one another in their elegance. While the majority has adopted the fashion of the middle class of the early nineteenth century, Stuart has chosen the yellow costume with red stripes which was illustrated on the prospectus of Baron Drais. Bruno is very elegant in his smart military uniform, while Robert has chosen a much more raunchy style with pirate’s pantaloons, a coarsely woven shirt with wide sleeves and a tricorne hat which matches well his machine and saddle covered with a large sheepskin and a big bundle of clothes wrapped in a linen cloth at the back (see the videos).
Most of our draisines are faithful copies of the original draisine on view at the Museum at Donaueschingen which carries the trade mark of Baron Drais, the others are copies of the Denis Johnson machine among which the most elegant – without any doubt – is that of Diane with its flamingo motif. These machines are simpler and easier to steer than Drais’s thanks to their direct steering. Lastly is a machine attracting interest though it lacks historic roots and blends rustic and modern themes using an elegant varnished lacquer design and a figurehead reminiscent of a prehistoric animal (was the ancestor of this draisine a velociraptor?)
Soon it is time to set off on this long excursion leading us to Karlsruhe so Jean-Paul sounds the signal to leave more or less in tune on his bugle. Keizo takes the opportunity to shout his new war-cry with a resounding “En Maaarche” to general laughter. In practice we will never know if it in support of our activity which consists of walking while seated between two wheels, or rather is a malicious wink at a new French political party called “La République en Marche” whose founder was to win the French presidential election, but the opportunity was too tempting.
We cross for a last time the uneven cobblestones of the royal plaza and head back to our hotel to change into more comfortable clothing.
It is this spot that marks the real point of departure and guided by Jean-Marie we follow relatively quiet streets on this Saturday morning to connect with the designated Marne-to-Rhine cycle route which we follow for 140 kilometers. As we leave Nancy already a problem arises in the form of a steep climb which obliges the group to dismount and walk up pushing their machines and causing a small traffic jam of motorists surprised to come across such a convoy.
At Varangeville we stop for our first coffee break and already we have our first difficulty: Bob who is riding with us on a highwheeler, has a problem with his handlebars as the brazing which holds the left side in a socket gives way and is only held on with wire. We set out to find a workshop that can repair it but it is the weekend and all the establishments are closed. Our friend Bob has to carry on with this handicap, steering his bicycle with one hand.
At Dombasle sur Meurthe we finally leave the Nancy agglomeration. Here the banks of the canal are no longer improved but the arrows marking bicycle route # 54 lead us on narrow country roads and we encounter little traffic. The time for lunch approaches and our support team lead by Pascale waits for us in the village of Crévic for a copious and welcome lunch. After several more kilometers on a gently rolling narrow road the difficulties of the day are over as we pick up the towpath beside the canal which has an asphalt surface that is perfect for cycling. Once or twice we pass a pleasure boat making a friendly wave and exchange pleasantries while they are in the locks.
Now we arrive at the end of our stage and the 47 kilometers of this first day have tested our bodies and the discomfort of the saddles becomes noticeable for some riders. It was a great comfort for the riders to leave the machines in a schoolyard kindly made available by the mayor in the delightful village of Lorrain de Lagarde who welcome us in front of the municipal office accompanied by several councilors and residents happy to hold such an event in a small village. A warm reception waits for us under the covered shelter of the schoolyard and everyone takes pleasure in explaining the purpose of our expedition with a glass in hand with listeners delighted to see the draisines and even try to ride these funny machines round the schoolyard.
It is time to take our leave from this happy group and go to our hotel 30 kilometers away which was, however, not without problems due to certain malicious GPS systems.
- Sunday 21 May
Once again we find the mayor in front of the municipal office with all the persons we met the previous evening who do not wish to miss the departure for this stage. Today there are only 33 kilometers on the program so as to recover a bit from the exertions of the previous day so we take time to take photographs. Keizo is unquestionably in great form and happy to be there so he takes his draisine in his arms and holds it above his head delighting us with a resounding “Banzaï” which pleases the journalist who is there. That photo made the front page of the local newspaper the next day.
It is time to leave to the sound of the bugle which is still terrible and croaky, followed by Keizo’s war-cry “En Maaarche” and the small group clatters out of the village with the encouragement of the villagers. A short stage, you might say but the first part is quite testing.
A long straightaway of 6 kilometers is waiting for us with a succession of steep hills which often oblige us to dismount and push the machines while the downhills are also steep and require the greatest caution with the exception of several kamikazes such as Stuart, our “Crazy Rider”, whose GPS on his tiller records a top speed of 38 km/h.
Finally the road flattens out with a long gentle downhill leading us to the heart of the village of Moussey where we gather round our support vehicles for light refreshment. The rest of the route will be much more peaceful since we return to the banks of the canal for a short section on an unimproved towpath. The bicycle route crosses a vast wetland composed of ponds, forests and marshes, an immense nature reserve and paradise for walkers and cyclists.
We ride beside Réchicourt Lake through the middle of which the canal disappears except for some marker buoys while the pathway twists around sometimes in the middle of a magnificent forest and sometimes between two bodies of water leading us to the locks of Réchicourt le Chateau. This impressive work of art built in 1965 is the highest in France with a 16 meter rise, replacing in one step the 6 locks that had to be negotiated previously. We take the opportunity to admire several pleasure craft doing this maneuver. We continue along our path beside the canal bordered on one side by the forest and on the other by marshes which are a paradise for white herons, and then we reach Lake Gondrexange, a large body of water crossed in the middle by the canal which here has the novelty of being several meters lower than the level of the ponds. Thus we move on between the sky and the water along this path only bothered occasionally by the passing of a pleasure boat.
We have gone through more than 10 kilometers of this exceptional ecosystem when we reach Gondrexange where we enjoy a copious lunch set up in the shade by our super support team.
After a long break we set off satisfied and well rested for part two of this day still beside the canal which we soon leave behind to pass through some delightful small Lorraine villages on empty roads on this warm Sunday afternoon. We are approaching our destination when several reckless people led by Glen decide to take a short-cut crossing a deep valley crossed by a stream. Carried away by his enthusiasm and loosing control of his steed, our unwise cavalier falls heavily into the brook from which he contritely emerges covered with mud from head to toe to the amusement of his companions.
A few kilometers further and we arrive at the hotel and a welcome shower. The evening ends in good spirits on a welcoming terrace where we celebrate the wedding anniversary of Dirk and Sabrina.
- Monday 22 May
We leave at 8:30m this morning as the stage is long – 54 kilometers crossing the Vosges. Several put their machines in a van and leave for Niderviller to shorten the stage a little. The route is attractive and without much traffic and on leaving Ardzviller we return to the canal which emerges from a tunnel over 2 kilometers long and head for Saint-Louis where a lift-lock takes boats down 44 meters thus eliminating 17 locks. We pass above this installation in order to follow the former canal through the valley of the locks on a path designed for cyclists.
We are now on the European Bicycle Route #5 which crosses the Vosges in a mineral world of great beauty. We encounter a group of Austrian cyclists who are astonished to see us on such machines and Robert, delighted to be able to converse in German with them, explains the purpose of our expedition. With incredulous admiration they wish us bon voyage.
The abandoned locks are spaced every 200 meters with some of the lock-keepers cottages still inhabited. The gates of the locks are left half-open fixed by time and the aquatic plants that have colonized the bottom of the canal and profiting from the bit of water still flowing. This bucolic place is extraordinarily charming with on one side the steep rock-face colonized by some trees while on the other side is the new canal which we return to at Lutzelbourg.
The draisines make the most of this setting, all rolling downhill in single file while taking in the fabulous scenery.
At Lutzelbourg we rejoin our caravan for a welcome small snack. Robert, who moves a bit slower with his heavy draisine on wheels that do not have rubber tyres, decides to press on while we continue our break. Having missed the midday break we catch him up several kilometers before our destination.
The canal now snakes about following the railway and the main road in a large valley between two forested mountainous ridges dominated by a medieval fortress. We greatly enjoy this exceptional panorama despite the proximity of the other routeways. The mountain suddenly opens and we enter Saverne, the gateway to Alsace, at lunchtime. The canal passes through the centre of this charming city of splendid half-timbered houses with abundant flowers. The roads are crowded with people and the restaurants’ patios are crowded at this time of the day and hunger makes itself known but there is nowhere to park the vehicles so we rejoin our vehicles several kilometers further on, far from the bustle of the town.
Just when we were setting off Bruno sees that the rear wheel of his draisine is sloping at an angle and is loose and the housing at the bottom of the rear forks has broken so that the axle has developed a worrisome wobble. After a quick repair we rejoin the group. We get back together to enter Waltenheim sur Zorn, the end of this stage where a substantial welcoming committee is waiting for us. Thierry, the president of the local cultural committee has prepared a warm welcome on the banks of the canal with several councilors, village schoolchildren and their parents. Parents and children alike are delighted to see these strange machines and to be able to try riding one.
We leave the banks of the canal to go up into this typical Alsatian village built on the flank of a hill. The climb is steep and we have to push our draisines to get to the Village Hall where there is a pleasant reception offering a sampling of local specialities. Our host leads us to the yard of a splendid vernacular house where our machines will be stored for the night.
We exchange impressions of the draisines with interested local inhabitants who approve of our project and while I was chatting with our new friend Bob joins us with the broken handlebar in his hand. Our friend looks at the part in a doubtful manner and ends up by calling over the owner of the premises. After careful examination and several explanations, he nods his head and says to me “you will have it tomorrow morning”. Bob, who gathered the gist of the proposal, looked at me incredulous and delighted. Solidarity and friendship has once again worked, his handlebars will be repaired and he will be able to safely continue on his ride.
We leave at last this admirable gathering to go to our hotel located 15 kilometers away.
- Tuesday 23 May
The yard where our draisines are stored is teeming with schoolchildren who have come with their teachers to be at our departure. Like every morning there is a ritual of checking everything mechanical and oiling the machines, then we go out on the street surrounded by the pack of children excited by the spectacle. A blast on the bugle, the cry of Keizo, and we set off carefully down a long downhill which brings us to the banks of the canal. A last wave, a last good-bye, and we set off on our 4th stage which will be 41 kilometers.
Already 4 kilometers under our wheels and a bridge presents an opportunity to cross to the opposite bank. The modest Diane who is very fit takes the lead, while the laggards are still well behind. The tailing group arrives several minutes later with at its head Dirk cursing his machine which goes from right to left and from left to right in big swerves as a result of the uncoordinated strides of its rider. Once the bridge was crossed our distraught and agitated comrade says it will go no further, that he can no longer steer it, and that it needs repairing. A detailed examination of the machine reveals nothing that can hinder its progress but the fellow insists that he doesn’t wish to continue.
We are in an isolated spot and there is no alternative but to continue so after several long minutes of rest we set of peacefully when we come across Bob lying on the canal bank rummaging about in the water with a makeshift tool. The unfortunate had made a bad maneuver in piloting his drone and the light aircraft had crashed in the water, fortunately close to the bank. We carry on while Stuart, Marco and Bruno arrive to support Bob who finds a few branches in the water but not his beloved drone.
Faced with this desperate situation Stuart, our crazy rider, quickly takes off his cycling outfit and transforms into a great white dolphin and plunges into the mucky canal water. After two unsuccessful attempts he comes up finally triumphant holding the flimsy object in his beak … um … at the end of his arm. The owner was very happy.
Meanwhile we reached the spot where we must leave the canal to cross the flatlands of Alsace and catch up with our caravan. Our friend Dirk arrives soon after, his machine still seeming untamable as it moves unevenly with the strides of its animated rider. The poor machine had all the right qualities but was heard to threaten to stop cooperating until the end of the trip but without counting on the presence at this spot of its creator who mounted it, all the while stroking its neck like one does with a nervous horse. Quickly calmed down the animal allowed itself to be tamed and in the hands of an expert, in several strides backwards and forwards it began to ride in a straight line at a good speed just like the day she left the workshop of the master.
The small group sets off again without the handsome blue draisine which is back on a bicycle rack behind a vehicle. We spin along now towards the Rhine and follow a long dirt road which for some of the machines was a reminder of the original roads of their childhood.
The sun has been with us since our departure from Nancy and becomes hotter and hotter so providentially at Hoerdt a bar gives us the chance to refresh and we take a long break on the patio drinking a cool beer. 2 kilometers before Gambsheim we find Guy and Marie-Christine who were present at our departure from Nancy; Guy films us going past and does several interviews for the forum Tonton Vélo. Our support team is awaiting us at the leisure centre at the entrance to the village and as usual has prepared a royal picnic and refreshments. It is great to ride a bicycle without having to worry about supplies. Thank you, ladies.
After this copious lunch on the grass our friend Dirk has found his good humour and assurance and decides to ride again and enthusiastically mounts his old nag. He sees that his steed stops its pranks and rides straight like on its first day. We now have 18 kilometers to reach Sessenheim, the end of this stage where the mayor has prepared for us a very pleasant reception which ends over a glass of wine after photos of riding in front of the Town Hall.
The only hotel in the village being too small for the entire group, several go to a hotel in a neighbouring village and we all dine together at this establishment.
This dinner was the occasion to honour our support team who each morning shopped for the provisions and prepared the midday picnic for the 28 persons who made up our group of riders and followers on bicycles or in vehicles. The team was lead by Pascale with Marie-Chantale, Sabrina, Arlette, Martine and Marc, the only man on the team.
- Wednesday 24 May
The fifth and final stage of our ride, we feel fatigue but also enthusiasm and the prospect of arriving in Karlsruhe energizes the group. We begin the day by a demonstration in the schoolyard where the children have been impatiently waiting.
It is also an occasion to meet a representative of the department of Bas-Rhin who announces the up-coming inauguration of the 1000th kilometer of cycleways in this department, an indicator of the current standing of the bicycle in daily life and its evolution since the invention of the draisine.
It is already very warm at this morning time so we set off to the cheering of the pupils delighted by this interlude.
Small villages with their half-timbered houses surrounded by flowers so typical of Alsace are encountered very two kilometers until Beinheim where we leave the main road and follow European Bike Route # 15 marked out in this part of France by the military relics of the Maginot Line.
This bikeway, which follows the Rhine for 1233km from its source in the Swiss mountains to its mouth in the North Sea, is well used and we pass several heavily loaded long-distance cyclotourists who pass us at high speed on their beautiful carbon-fibre bicycles, stirring moments which illustrate the 200 years that separate us from each other.
Still others on bikes often with battery-assist and equipped with panniers loaded with the needs for 2 or 3 days of touring, stop to chat with us or accompany us along the pathway for a bit.
The ferry at Seltz is closed for repairs but the welcoming inn which sits on the frontier offers us the use of their parasols on the terrace which we hurry to occupy to quench our thirst.
The bikeway now follows the river very closely and there is no traffic to disturb the peace of this place, as we cross the magnificent nature reserve of the Sauer delta where a multitude of mute swans and other aquatic birds can be seen.
At the entrance to Munchhausen a big shady parking area welcomes us with a superb view of the Sauer delta where we meet up with our support vehicles and Italian friends who have come to encourage us. Diane takes advantage of this to remove her backwheel as the axle is beginning to bind on the hub and has to be repaired in case it totally seizes up.
Still several more kilometers and we reach close to Lauterbourg, a frontier town where we are to meet up with Pascale’s team for our last picnic lunch but several hundred meters before this meeting point Gary swerves and falls heavily and injures his head quite severely.
An immediate call for an ambulance which takes him to the hospital at Wissembourg, Pascale and Sabrina take charge of collecting him with 6 stitches on his eyebrow and a large bruise on his eye. After this unfortunate incident we set off in the direction of the ferry at Neuberg am Rhein to cross the Rhine. This is the natural frontier between the Rhine Palatinate and Baden-Wurtemburg, where the river flows slowly and offers idyllic calm landscapes.
Ten kilometers before our destination we meet up with 3 German cyclists sent to meet us and guide us over this final section. We have 50 kilometers today and the mercury shows over 300C and our bodies are tired and also bruised, so it is with relief that we reach the centre of the city in front of the monument celebrating Baron Drais. Our support team is already there with Gary who rejoins us in extremis as we quickly take off our cycling clothes and put on our handsome period costumes.
Forgetting the fatigue, the heat and other small irritations, it is with great joy we are all line up on our machines beneath the bust of our beloved Baron. We have covered 230 kilometers since Nancy to render homage to him, and we there, in his town, at the foot of the monument erected in his honour. This is an emotional moment of great pride.
There remains now 2 kilometers to ride and we arrive with the castle in view where a dense crowd surrounds us and welcomes us as heroes.
We are once again lined up for a last photo between the two giant Ferris wheels which have been erected in front of the chateau symbolising the wheels of the draisine.
That is the end of our epic ride, and we gather in one of the salons of the castle with stars in our heads to toast this wonderful event with the organisers of the IVCA rally in which we will now participate.
The draisine riders were:
Gary SANDERSON, “The Dean”
Glen NORCLIFFE, “The Esteemed”
Alain CUVIER, “The Guiding Angel”
Dave GRAY, “The Mysterious”
Ken GRAY, “Junior”
Carey WILLIAMS, “The Tactful”
Diane BLAKE, “The Lady”
Keizo KOBAYASHI, “The Fanatic”
Jean-Paul TOURNEREAU, “The Dreadful Bugler”
Marco LEBRETON, “The Dandy”
Stuart MASON ALLIOTT, “Crazy Rider”
Bruno GUASCONI, “The aristocrat”
Dirk van LUCHEM, “The President”
Jirka FIALA, “The Stylish”
Robert J. HUMMEL, “Jack Sparrow”