Riding EuroVelo 19 – The Meuse Cycle Route – An Interview with Cyclotourist Matt Davidson

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By Lou Melini — I have known Matt Davidson for nearly 2 decades from a few group bike tours. He has taken a number of tours, mostly as solo self-supported. In 2023 Matt did a guided tour in the Netherlands with his wife having his gear shuttled from hotel to hotel [See companion story]. Upon completion of that ride, he did a completely self-supported tour on EuroVelo 19 – Meuse Cycle Route (en.eurovelo.com/ev19).

Cycling West: Was this your first European trip? What other bike tours have you done in Europe?

Matt Davidson: My September 2023 tour was my inaugural European bike ride, and my second international tour following one in Thailand a few years ago. While I designed the self-supported portion of this tour to last two weeks, I knew I wanted to cycle in more than one country just to experience different languages, food, and cultures. It’s not too difficult to patch together a route that accomplishes 3-4 countries in two weeks, considering how small some of the European countries are. It is easy to do 50-75 mile distances daily on a bike tour averaging a leisurely 10mph. I have completed seven other multi-day tours spanning from 2-30 days in the United States. I still want to cover different areas of the US in the future, but this trip was designed for a completely different experience where I would be out of my comfort zone.

CW: Matt, you rode EuroVelo 19 – Meuse Cycle Route. Discuss briefly the EuroVelo system in Europe. What was your general route and why did you choose that route? 

MD: After deciding that I wanted to bike tour in Europe, I started researching some route options and studying a map of Europe. Then I browsed several travel books and looked at online journals from crazyguyonabike.com to see what other routes people have done throughout Europe. I also joined several Facebook groups for bike touring in Europe. You would be absolutely amazed at how many different permutations there are for European bike touring groups – Bikepacking, European Cycling, EuroVelo Routes, and so forth … And then somewhere along the way I saw someone’s comments about EuroVelo 19 which originates in France and follows the Meuse River towards Rotterdam, matching my rough destination of Amsterdam and allowing several cycling days in France at the start. 

Views along the Meuse today had me gazing at the architecture and lots of stone…bridges, houses, and castle/mansions. Photo by Matt Davidson

EuroVelo.com is a great resource and starting point – their website explains, “EuroVelo is a network of 19 long-distance cycle routes that cross and connect Europe. The routes can be used by long-distance cycle tourists, as well as by local people making daily journeys. Only routes approved by the European Cyclists’ Federation can be called “EuroVelo.” Simply put, in choosing my route for a first tour in Europe, why reinvent the wheel?

Additionally, GPX route files are available for download on the EuroVelo.com website making it super simple to follow any one or a combination of routes via your bicycling computer or a bicycling cell phone app with turn-by-turn directions. Those apps are essentially similar to your cell phone’s Google Maps driving directions, for following a pre-established bicycle route.

Given my chipper age of 63, I prefer flatter routes even though I can trudge up hills like a 17-year-old, albeit much slower but surely cresting eventually. Therefore, following any river sounded both scenic and flat-ish.

EuroVelo 19 starts in a small town due north of Dijon, France called Langres and then meets up with a barely flowing creek that has been designated as the Meuse River. Following the Meuse, the route heads north through quiet, small villages, in between fields of commercially grown sunflowers for their oil, and directly into Verdun. Several towns have massive 15th century castles.

The route then turns west toward Belgium, Netherlands, and eventually to Rotterdam on the coast. In Rotterdam, the Meuse is wide enough to accommodate industrial barges that look like they could hold a football field. And as an added bonus for EV19, there was a Warmshowers host in Langres, France that agreed to host me and would accept a UPS bike box delivery in advance of my arrival by train.

Most of my Warmshowers or camping accommodations didn’t always align with EuroVelo 19, but that didn’t cause any problems to re-route back towards the next destination along my original targeted path. It’s also a trade-off sometimes when the established route bypasses small towns that could offer interesting monuments, and vice-versa when I wanted to shorten my day due to rain and make a beeline to dry lodging for the night.

CW: Did you carry anything special or specific for European travel such as an electrical plug that was compatible with European outlets?

MD: Absolutely, a European adaptor plug is a necessity. In fact, I should have brought two multi-port adaptors in case I lost one and to eliminate having to swap between my shaver and my items needing overnight charging. These adaptors are small and lightweight, so having a backup could save an immense amount of last-minute scrambling to replace one.

Smooth sailing along La Meuse. St. Mihiel, France to Laneuville Sur Meuse, France. Photo by Matt Davidson

Although it is not a European necessity, I am a big fan of bringing and using my bright-orange distancing flag that helps draw attention to me on the road, especially when the shoulder is narrow. Interestingly, I was advised that using my distancing flag in the Netherlands was considered “rude” because all Dutch cyclists and drivers are extremely considerate of bicyclists on the road, to the point where bike riders are considered King and cars take a secondary or almost subservient role on the roads! A flag sticking out only takes up space that other cyclists could use when passing. No need for additional European bike equipment in my experience, especially in The Netherlands. The Dutch roads are almost always designed around bike commuting pathways as biking is part of their culture and city governments’ objectives. However, if you are biking through Amsterdam, a good lock is necessary because your unlocked bike will be stolen faster than you can say Amstel Light.

CW: You mentioned several apps in your crazy-guy-on-a-bike journal. Could you discuss the apps that you used, which ones were helpful and not helpful. Were the apps specific for different countries. 

MD: I have to preface this answer with why I relied on cell phone navigation rather than a GPS-enabled bike computer. And I won’t try to compare bike computers vs. cell phone apps, since I didn’t bring a Garmin-type bike computer on my trip. I figured that’s one less piece of technology to deal with. In addition, a cell phone along with a backup battery gets the job done for navigation. Some more tech-savvy cyclists would point out that cycle computer batteries will outlast cell phone navigation 2x-3x and they’re right. Maybe on the next tour I’ll invest in a Garmin and get more comfortable using that device for touring. Until then, I can only share my experience with navigation by cell apps.

I’m positive that the sign means “Flat, super-smooth bike path in a Dutch cycling wonderland.” Photo by Matt Davidson

Many European cyclists rely on a German based app called Komoot that is similar to Strava. So, I started my navigation while in France on Komoot. Unlike the Strava’s free version, Komoot provides verbal turn-by-turn navigation which was extremely helpful for my purposes. Also, I was not building a route that apps like RideWithGPS offer, and only using imported GPX route files so Komoot seemed to work well. Several times, Komoot sent me down some insurmountable paths that would have required two flights of stairs from a bridge to the eventual bike path, and down a farm path that eventually just stopped. I knew it wasn’t my senior-user-error when two Belgian 20-something bike tourers confirmed they experienced the same Komoot pathway spaghetti.

However, one time in the Netherlands, one of my Warmshowers hosts recommended the Fietsknoop app that guides you through scenic sites using destinations or node markers, not just A to B on the shortest path. Most importantly for the Dutch cyclists, every bike path in the whole country has a unique regional node number assignment, and Fietsknoop synchs with node mapping. Scenic path guidance was clearly evident when the app suggested I follow a horse-shoe shaped route and I, instead, almost cut across the two ends of the circuitous pathway only to discover a beautiful village and public art display as suggested along the Komoot route.

CW: Your daily mileage seemed lower than your U.S. trips. Did you lower your daily mileage purposely to see the sights?

MD: You’re correct that I did cycle shorter distances the last several days of my tour. During the first week, after departing from Langres, France I averaged 52 miles per day, and at that point I realized that I’ll end up in Amsterdam too early. I added several shorter days and gave myself more time to sight-see. For example, I spent an afternoon walking through the Sedan Castle rather than riding more miles.

Cheese-mongers in the Geldermalsen, Netherlands Farmers Market answering my request to pose for a pic in Cycling West! Photo by Matt Davidson

Other factors that impacted my daily mileage were the location of my Warmshowers hosts and my focus on not arriving too late in Amsterdam to meet my wife and make it in time for the flight home. I could have created a bigger loop route to Amsterdam, and in hindsight that could have allowed me to see another country, Luxembourg, by veering off the EV19. On this particular tour, I only pre-booked and knew exactly where I would be staying for the very first night. After that, beginning on Day 2 I made up my daily distances depending on that night’s lodging, between camping or hotel or a Warmshowers stay.

CW: You met a lot of people either from Warmshowers or at cafes. Could you reflect on some of the interactions that were helpful, humorous, etc.

MD: Unless you really don’t like talking to people and prefer to spend your non-riding time alone, Warmshowers is the way to tour when feasible. Every Warmshowers host has been super friendly, and almost always offer a comfortable bed to spend the night. Mostly hosts are bike tourists themselves, so they can provide local route advice, equipment suggestions, and understand your quest for adventure. 

Funny stories: probably one of my memorable Warmshowers experience was being hosted on a beautiful interior designed Netherlands houseboat. There were two children ages 3 and 5 who spoke only Dutch, of course. In the evening, I got down on the floor and watched in wonder as they spoke continuous Dutch to me, telling me all about each plastic animal, and various knick-knack toys, believing that I completely understood what they were saying. Amazingly, I learned about the universal language of play, completely absorbing what they were telling me, without knowing any of the exact words. It felt magical.

Over past tours, I’ve learned that bike touring opens conversations with 99% of all strangers. Where are you going? Where did you start? Where are you from? No, not England, United States. In Europe, I found that even when people are not interested in your bike tour stats, opening up a conversation with a “hello” in their native tongue, instantly tags you as a foreigner and opens up conversation for learning more about their country, city, town, or village. When I stumbled upon a group of retired Belgian men sharing their weekly coffee at a 7-11 type store, I joined the table and had a lively conversation about their country. When I asked one man, “What concerns you about Belgium these days?” he shared his concerns about the cultural divisions between Belgium’s North conservative populace and the South’s more liberal French speaking regions — not only cultural divisions but competition for state budget and infrastructure Euro allocations. Somehow it was reassuring to know that the U.S. is not alone in our regional differences, even in a small country like Belgium.

CW: Matt, tell me about a happenstance moment that was memorable.

MD: The answer to this requires yet another Warmshowers story… Each Warmshowers host profile has a few sentences about themself, sometimes brief and other times lengthy and detailed. Frequently, there are several hosts listed within a city limits, so there could be options as to whom you ask for a hosted night.

In one small Netherlands village, only one host was listed, and the profile description was a bit unconventional, so I almost considered camping instead of asking to stay. Good thing I didn’t choose to camp because this particular host actually turned out to be a most gracious and welcoming host. He shared a ton of history and cultural knowledge about the Dutch, a great dinner, and also provided a much-needed laundry service. 

On the evening of my stay, my host asked if I would like to bike with him to the outdoor market the next day. Of course!

In the morning, we biked a mile together to the weekly local town square and I was the only tourist in sight. At each mobile food stall, my host would introduce me in Dutch to his proprietor friends like the fish mongers and describe a bit about my journey.

Instantly, I received warm village welcomes complete with good English explanations and prodigious sampling of their wares – different local cheeses (no I can’t carry the whole wheel), freshly baked breads unlike any in the U.S., bakeries, various cookies and marzipan cakes, many shaped Drop (licorice), and fish that almost seemed to be still wiggling and pulled the previous hour from the North Sea. I stuffed my panniers with my newfound delicacies, rode off towards the next town, smiling the whole way because I knew that this weekly small village shopping experience happened by a stroke of luck and could not have even been planned had I pre-booked the experience in a tour.

CW: Are you ever concerned about your safety when bike touring?

MD: Yes, I am concerned but not overwhelmed enough to prevent me from touring. I try to minimize my risk, by electing less traveled roads, wearing bright clothing, using a red-flashing blinker, and adding on my bright orange distancing flag to provide added visibility. 

Other than car-related safety, I have found that bike touring notifies observers that you are a harmless, friendly traveler, only arriving somewhere or passing through to explore and experience the area. On my last tour, I was once asked, “How do I know you’re not a criminal?” Naturally, I answered that no criminal would use a fully loaded touring bike as a get-away vehicle! And to spend all my energy and calories bike touring and publicly blogging about it just wouldn’t make any sense if someone wanted to commit crimes.

Read all about Matt’s adventures on crazyguyonabike.com – profile link: cgoab.com/Mattdd60. It’s a wonderful way to travel and experience an area, interacting with friendly locals, and seeing the world at 10 miles per hour!

Trip Details

  • Number of days: 12
  • Total Miles: 517
  • Route start and Finish: Langres, France to Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Trip Date: September 2023 after the Self-Guided, paid tour with wife and friends
  • Trip Tip: Unless you like the solitude of hotels, try Warmshowers and meet ultra-friendly bike tourists.

 

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