Autumn, natures last big show before the deep sleep until Spring. Colours shift, weather is often at its most calm and the senses can absorb all the subtleties in change. As a northern European cyclist autumn is an intensive period of riding as we try and grab every last minute of fair and settled weather before the low temperatures and ice seek to dethrone us in winter. Every opportunity to pedal is seized. The joy of XPDTN3 is not only the travel but often the travel to places that may previously have never been considered. In this case a collaboration with online retailer Bike Components brought us to northern Germany and the city of Aachen. Aachen, sits far west in Germany within easy reach of its borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. The centre is filled with beautiful historical architecture and cobbled streets which in previous years have seen themselves featured in pro tour racing.
Our first point of call upon arriving in Germany is the Bike Components headquarters and warehouse facility. Myself and Marc representing XPDTN3 had no idea what to expect, maybe we had many pre-conceived ideas about online retailing. What we found surprised us both. As we entered the large open plan office space with one of our guides for the trip, Jonas Schmidt, it was obvious this wasn’t just a place of business but a curated homage to cycling. We had passed the bike storage for those who ride to work outside and the quality and diversity of its contents though noticed had obviously not registered. This office was a place for cyclists to come and gather, talk bikes and yes sell other cyclists some parts. So far the trip had already offered up a fresh outlook.
DAY ONE – Aachen to Heimbach, 81km, 1159m ascent
We would begin our journey at the Bike Components store in Aachen city centre, a combination of collection point and top-class workshop. We made use of this well-equipped workshop to build and prep our bikes while the other riders that would be joining us arrived. The trip would be comprised of 7 riders. Myself and Marc would be joined by two competition winners who entered to join the trip, Jeff and Ulli. Jef a strong looking Belgian and Ulli being a native German who also looked like he wasn’t afraid of a good turn of speed. Along with a local journalist and rider Gunter. The trip would be led by the Bike Components guys Jonas and Bjoern. Bjoern being the engineer of the route for this adventure. The riding for the next 3 days was to be gravel focussed with some connecting trails and roads. The distances looked fairly standard for an XPDTN3 trip and there were promises of good beer.
Not long after leaving the start after some navigating through the city we were already on to trails closely followed by gravel roads. Bikes were fettled as positions were adjusted and people got used to the sensation of riding with bikepacking bags. The pace was kept civilised but consistent. Marc was shooting a lot from the saddle to keep the flow of the ride while grabbing the images to document the trip.The trees were now in full show with autumnal colours of red, yellow and gold saturating the landscape. We often rode on a thick carpet of foliage with little sight as to what lay beneath and just placing all trust in our bikes to steer safe passage. The gravel roads we rode on sat nestled between tall trees and we rode these ‘tunnels’ from intersection to intersection.
The elevation gain was being delivered in much shorter bursts than I had endured during some trips and races this year. There was certainly a natural order being developed and it seemed our competition winners were both as strong on a bike as they were in their ability to complete competition entry forms. As we started a gravel road climb I rode off the front, the Exploro really getting in to the climb and using all the roads to navigate the bends quickly. As soon as I had gone I was joined by Ulli and Jeff, it was obvious at this time it was game on. As much as I pushed they stayed and when I was done Jeff took the front with Ulli in close order. Our legs had been stretched, our new Exploro riders had discovered the joys of the bike and importantly the ice had been broken as we all now relaxed a little more.
Bjorn had spent many of his recent riding days researching this route and it was obvious. The day had such good flow and the trails were excellent. At one point, we descended a fantastic singletrack trail for a few km’s down to the side of the Rur Reservoir, the trail was close on the limit of the bike and the varied tyre choices were interesting to view. The trail then took us on to a gravel road running alongside the water. This road afforded some outstanding views across the reservoir allowing us again to take in the autumnal landscape. We ended day one in the village of Heimbach. The efficiency of the group was apparent as the hotel wasn’t open so we rode to a café where myself and Marc demonstrated some pro level coffee and cake eating to the others.
DAY TWO – Heimbach to Ligneuville, 90km, 1218m ascent
Already everyone was a lot slicker packing up their bags and setting up the bikes so we were quickly out on to a steady tarmac climb. The days sights were firmly fixed on Belgium. As we finished day one we start day two with again some excellent gravel roads. As soon as we are up and making progress we are halted by an explosive end to an inner tube on my bike which in its final moments decided to take the tyre with it. A quick round of trailside repairs proved unsuccessful so we call upon the Bike Components concierge service and arrange for some new tyres to be brought to the next village a few km’s away. While we wait again myself and Marc up the cake and coffee game. New tyres fitted the pace is again consistent and progress quick.
The riding today is again forested by we climb up along more dirt than gravel trails and enjoy some fantastic views as we gain elevation. As we get closer to the end of the ride we drop to a lakeside for some fun singletrack riding, rooted with multiple line choices … even a fully loaded bike can be fun on these type of trails. As we descend in to village we will overnight we stop 100m short of our accommodation to rectify the lack of real lunch stop, again myself and Marc lead the charge. Now in Belgium beers are next in the order of priority.
DAY THREE – Lignueville to Aachen, 77km, 503m ascent
The final leg back to the Bike Components office. Though the shortest day with the least climbing the adversity was instead being provided by the weather. As we looked out of our hotel the low cloud and rainfall provided little motivation for a quick exit. First day wearing the waterproof and the winter gloves. There was a distinct feel of winter about this last day, like the trip was perfectly positioned for us to see out the last days of autumn in fine fashion then embrace the start of winter.
The early part of the days riding was punctuated by a series of river crossings as we climbed up in to the woods. There was generally an option of a dismount and a bridge but the game of who can ride the deepest water had started and Ulli was winning. As the day progressed the temperatures dropped, the conversations tailed off and all focus was on just a warm place with a warm drink. As we roll in to the car park of Bike Components everyone is a little relieved to be able to get warm but a little disappointed our trip is at an end.
The 3 days riding had provided an opportunity to see a completely new region to ride and enjoy it with some interesting people. Never was the scenery, trails or company dull and even the cold and damp finish didn’t cast a shadow on the experience. Should the opportunity ever present itself to ride in this place and also to do so in Autumn we suggest you embrace it, you won’t be disappointed.
What do you get when you lock a boxer, a karate ninja, a judoka and Taekwondo fighter together in a cage? Right, it’s called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It is sports entertainment’s latest big hit, and not only since the night when the boxing legend Floyd Mayweather stepped into the ring with MMA fighting star Conor McGregor. But why do I tell you all this? Well, there are certain parallels to cycling. What do you get when you put an Enduro rider, a Cross Country racer and a Roadie on a bicycle that is fun for each of them? “GRAVEL” is the answer.
A combination of technical and endurance riding, multiple surfaces, with Gravel there is something in it for everybody. Pedal power meets bike handling, the divisions between the different cycling disciplines start fading. Gravel bikes bring together types of riders that otherwise would have never met. Purebred mountain bikers now ride side by side with asphalt warriors and each can demonstrate their strengths. In the end, all have fun. Even though it’s not a race, each type of rider is looking to “knock out” the other in their own discipline, not unlike the MMA fighters.
Expedition into the Eifel, Ardennes and the High Fens
Together with 3T , we had the chance to re-discover and present our local trails in a new way, setting off on a bikepacking tour. For that purpose, 3T and other partners developed a really special format: An expedition on Gravel Bikes and set in a 3-day format. This demonstrates really well that bikepacking and gravel riding work nearly anywhere, be it San Francisco, the Moab desert, South Africa or in our case, the Eifel and Ardennes region on the border between Germany and Belgium. Bikepacking and gravel riding open a whole new micro-adventure world, right on bike-components’ doorstep.
Uli, who won a spot on the team and took part in the adventure, already wrote a great post on his experience as a rider. The beautiful scenery and the challenging terrain in combination with the bikepacking made for an awesome adventure. We have put together detailed route descriptions for each day’s stage with all the important information that you might need in order to follow us in our tracks.
Stage 1: Aachen – Heimbach / 82 km – 1393 vertical metres
We start at the bc store in the centre of Aachen. Make sure you drop in for a cappuccino before you set off. After a few kilometres, you hit the first singletrack. It is not the most challenging trail, but it provides you with a first idea of the capabilities of a Gravel Bike. We cross an old rail road track now turned bike path and continue our track into the hills of the Eifel, making our way towards the Wehebachtalsperre, a large man-made lake formed by a dam. The singletrack is starting to get more technically challenging here and all the riders now feature a bright grin on their mud-sprinkled faces. First we hit the dam and ride across it. Later on, we will return to the Wehebachtalsperre from a different angle on the rougher southern shore. We continue, going up for about 100 vertical meters parallel to the stream that feeds the lake. Then we hit another creek, the Tiefenbach and follow it down its valley on a wide gravel road that offers great views of the beautiful scenery.
At the foot of the descent, we turn into the Kalltal, another valley and around kilometre 56, we arrive at Mestrenger Mühle. The old mill turned café makes for a great rest stop. No worries, there is ample chance to ride off the extra calories just taken in. After crossing a small sleepy Eifel village, you hit a steep climb with about 200 vertical metres, leading you out of the narrow valley. The challenging accent requires all your concentration to keep your rear wheel from slipping.
Up on top, yet another challenge is waiting for you, maybe the toughest of the stage in form of steep, rock-covered singletrack that takes you down to the Rursee, another man-made lake. You can spot the water through the trees while descending the trail. The views are quite splendid, especially when the sun shines through the foliage. Now there are only a few kilometres before you reach Heimbach, the end of stage 1.
Stage 2: Heimbach – Ligneuville / 92 km – 1580 vertical metres
Stage 2 starts where stage 1 let off, in Heimbach. Again, we follow the eastern lake shore for about 20 kilometres. The riding is great fun as every turn offers a different view of the lake. Right before you leave the lake behind, there is a chance to stop for food and rest. Then it’s on into less inhabited territory along less travelled paths. After all, the event does not have expedition in its name for nothing.
After an epic uphill-trail that climbs for about 250 vertical metres, the route takes you down again to yet another lake, the Oleftalsperre. Now, ever steeper, unpaved logging roads lead you deeper and deeper into the thick pine forests. Without notice, you have crossed into Belgium before reaching a few little hamlets. You get to the northern shore of Lake Bütgenbacher See. It features great singletrack for gravel riding that goes all around, but since the stage is not finished, this is left for another day.
This part of Belgium is French speaking and the views across the rugged, but quaint landscape are awesome. The final kilometres leading into Ligneuville bring back memories of the one-day road classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They suck the last bit of energy out of your legs before you arrive after long and tough hours in the saddle. It’s a great stage finish though as the local cuisine and craft beer scene make up for the day’s suffering.
Stage 3: Ligneuville – Aachen / 78 km – 985 hm
The start of stage 3 does not hold back its cruel character. As soon as your tyres hit the road, it’s all uphill and a crude reminder of the previous day’s work. Then you get to Malmedy and you begin to follow the Warche River. Normally a little creek, when we were around it had grown to the actual size of a river, resulting in a few wet feet as we had to get on the other side of it. There is a little bridge for the faint hearted, but we crossed on two wheels and let this part of the stage earn its top rank in the epic rating. At kilometre 30, you are not far from Signals de Botrange, Belgium’s highest peak. And, surprise, surprise, there even is a little ski area to match it. The wind usually blows hard from the front here and will accompany you all the way down from the High Fens. At kilometre 43, you reach Eupen and with it the last man-made lake of the trip. Here is another chance to stop for coffee. We then follow side roads back to Würselen near Aachen.
After a total of 252 kilometres, 3958 vertical metres, ever changing views of the rolling hills of Eifel and Ardennes, and a ride flavoured with the different cultures and languages of Germany and Belgium, you are back where you started. Your legs and bodies are tired and in need of rest, but it was an awesome experience and you’ll have many stories to tell. The smiles on your faces will reflect this.
This micro-adventure gave us the chance to re-discover the Eifel, Ardennes and High Fens region in a new way. There are so many great places right in front of our doorstep, one just has to look for them. The beautiful Eifel region is classified as a national park and makes a visit worthwhile even from further away, be it for a day, a long weekend or even longer. There is always another gravel road to travel.
The featured route leads over unpaved roads for about 75% of the way. Cyclocross tyres (700c / 33 mm) are great, but wider tyres (700c 38-42mm or 27.5″ / 47mm) make for a more comfortable ride.
In regards to the weather, it can be sunshine in one moment and rain the other, so be prepared. Even in summer you want protection against wind and cold nights. Fall, winter and spring require more insulation.
Bring a GPS device for navigation and a power bank to charge it. Occasional closures during the hunting season are possible and might require alternative routing to get back on the track.