“If you do well you should plan average about 12 km/h for the ride”. Marcus said just before we cycled to the Czech border with Germany to start line for the 1,240 km 2016 Grenzsteintrophy ride. He also told me that to date no woman had to date completed the Grenzsteintrophy (GST). This was going to be an adventure!
I had met the organizer Gunner Fehlau (www.overnighter.de) at the Outdoorsman in Butte during the Tour Divide. He mentioned that he had this ride which would challenge any Tour Divider. And so it did. If you are going to try and ride this the most important thing you need to have is a sense of humour. If you can’t laugh at the crazy situation you will find yourself in you will have a frustrating melt down. It is a 10/10 when it comes to an adventurous challenge and should be on any bike packing to-do list.
It’s a long way from Nelson New Zealand to the start line. In fact once I got there the other riders kept on asking did you really travel all way from New Zealand for this race? Yes. And it was worth it! For once Lis was with me. We bid my bike farewell in Nelson and then flew Nelson-Shanghai-Frankfurt. About 30 h.
The race starts at the Bavarian/Czech boarder about 25 km from the city of Hof. The best way to get there is to catch the intercity train from Frankfurt Airport. Problem is that they don’t take bikes. Gunnar advised me not to unpack my bike but to take it on the train, but lugging a box was daunting. Fortunately I found the solution on Ebay in the form of a ‘Giant Super Light Travel Bag’. Smaller than a water bottle, it was perfect. I transferred by bike from the box to the bag in Frankfurt and the next morning carried it on the train. I used velcro to hold it in place by a window and had a quick trip to Nuremburg.
There was local train from Nuremburg to Hof and I was joined by three other riders. Markus was a local and we rode together at the start of the race. Nice guy who runs a bike shop. My dream job. I used the opportunity to build my bike during the train ride which was a bit challenging at times!
When we arrived at Hof I went looking for a bike shop. I had identified the locations of two before I left New Zealand just in case I needed something, and just in case happened …. I had torn one of my shoes in Frankfurt airport and needed new shoes! Yes, I know you never start a race with *anything* new, but I had no choice. I bought some Scott shoes which worked, but I had a lot of discomfort towards the end, and for a while afterwards. But beggars can’t be choosers!
We had been provided two routes to the start line: road and off-road. I chose the road option to allow me to dial in any issues with my bike. Markus and the others chose the off-road route and I think they regretted it. Their bikes were full of mud and detritus at the start line!
The racers met at a small hotel. Like most of these races, we were mainly on the wrong side of 45, but there were a pair who had recently finished high school so we had both extremes. I was the only non-German speaking person there (my high school German doesn’t count), but in Europe English is the second language for so many it didn’t matter. We had a great dinner watching the European Cup and then we all slept in one room. Fortunately I had sleeping pills as there were some pretty heavy snorers who were cutting wood when I got up around 05:00.
The next morning it was raining and after breakfast we left about 7:30 and rode to the border to start at 08:00.
The word “grenzstein” in German is a border post and the GST follows the border wall that was established between the former East and West Germany. It snakes its way from the Czech border to the Baltic Sea. It alternates directions and for 2016 the start was in Bavaria in the south. This meant we essentially had the first 710 km of the ride in mountains, and the last 530 km in the flat.
One learns very quickly on that when the border was established it was not done with cyclists in mind. When it comes to a hill the line often just goes straight ahead. So there are these horrendously steep climbs which you inevitably end up pushing your bike on. So one needs to have shoes that are suitable for ‘hike-a-bike’ on the GST!
The steepness of the route is reflected by the climbing: I averaged 2,480 m per day for the first seven days, jumping into it on Day 1 with just under 2,200 m of climbing. And all this climbing was for an average distance of 115 km/day.
I used my trusty titanium Motebecane hard tail which had served me well on the Tour Divide attempts. Gunnar advised to fit as big a gear as possible—good advice. Casper Ort from Denmark advised me via Facebook to fit as wide a front tyre as my bike could take because of the “panzer plates” we would be riding on. My local bike shop suggested that I fit a 3” Specialized Ground Control on a 27.5” wheel and that worked really well. For the rear I ran a 2.35” Racing Ralph. Revelate Design bikepacking bags with a Topeak gastank bag. I used a 1.5 litre Camelback bladder in the handlebar bag, and a one litre bottle on the frame.
I took a Z-Packs sleeping bag, Mountain Laurel Designs superlight bivy, and Klymit X-Frame sleeping mat. While I was able to find Pensions near the route most nights, these still came in handy.
It was cold and wet for the first few days so I was very glad to have my Ground Effect Storm Trooper jacket, Showerpass rain trousers, and Gore-tex socks. The rain trousers came in useful much later when it wasn’t raining to protect my legs from stinging nettles. More on that later …
When the wall was built a road was constructed along the length for patrols. This formed the basis for what was the trail. Gunnar and his ‘scouts’ had gone to great lengths to locate the original route and how they did this is beyond me. In some places it was so overgrown that I wondered if I was lost, when suddenly I would find a bit of the border road or else some other sign of the border.
Most of the road was paved with “panzer plates”. Concrete plates with rectangular holes, most likely to allow for consolidation under load (although they also would have greatly reduced the cost!). These holes are perfectly designed for bicycle tyres to fit into. The photo below shows that even a 3” wide tyre will fit nicely into one of the holes. So the objective when riding is to navigate as much as possible the 4” or so strip between the holes. One soon learns that this is best done by looking about 5 metres ahead of you and not worrying where your front wheel will go.
Of course this is easier said than done, especially when for much of the route the plates are overgrown. Then you run the risk that you will go off the edge of the plate which has two challenges. First, you may slit a sidewall, but more likely your bike will flick out from under you as if you were on ice. The photo below is an example of this. On a good day I was thrown from my bike this way only once … more typically it was three or more times.
Fortunately, the design of the panzer plates varied depending on where you are. One becomes quite the aficionado after a while! Here are some examples:
My favourites. Lots of smooth concrete to ride.
More open spaces for riding.
Not as much fun unless the holes matched up at each end.
Horizontal. Almost as nice as your wheel rolls over the holes better.
Bliss. Replaced with new concrete!
Bliss. Interlocking paving stones!
Unfortunately, about 90% of the panzer plates were (or seemed to be!) the least conducive to riding, so you appreciated it when you had a nice surface to ride on. However, there were also times when you wished you had some panzer plates because of mud or other challenges. You know things are tough when you praying to have concrete holes to avoid!
There were lots of sections with muddy roads, some single track, amazing rides through forests, a few roads. So the trail had a bit of everything… including obstacles!
The challenges of the trail make the GST unique—it is simply not possible to ride it at night. Or at least extremely imprudent as you will almost certainly crash frequently. Fortunately, the days are long with sunrise after 05:00 and sunset about 22:00 so you can still get a lot of riding in.
There were lots of different obstacles. One afternoon I was riding and I could see what looked to be a major storm blowing in. There are villages near the route at regular intervals and I could see about 5 kilometres away a church spire. I put the hammer down and got to the village just as a huge storm hit, with winds well in excess of 100 km/h. Fortunately, the place I sheltered was next to a hotel so I had dinner and with the storm not letting up, called it a day.
The next morning I knew I made the right call because there was a lot of debris on the trail which continually got worse to the point where there were many trees downed blocking the trail. I spent hours hoisting my bike over them, at one time almost losing my Garmin when it was knocked off the mount.
At one section trees were blown down across the trail as far as I could see and there was no way to hike over them all so I had to reroute myself and dead reckon via GPS back to where I could connect with the trail.
It was more common to have obstacles in the form of overgrown trails. Below is one example of this. You had to trust your GPS—sometimes you could feel the panzer plates beneath your feet (if you were walking!)—and just push ahead. In some places like this I could see that a few others had been there, but often I was the first one pushing through what sometimes was dense bush.
It was during one of these bush bashing sessions that I had the best day of cycling ever. I was in the afternoon sun with grass up to my shoulders, riding through fields with no trail in sight. There was a marsh to my left with a chorus of frogs, there was a fine breeze with the sweet smells of grass. The freedom of the trail, the beauty of nature, and the adventure of the GST. Riding does not get better than this!
Besides the riding—which was hard for the first week of the ride in mountains—there were a number of other surprising challenges:
Language. Most Germans speak English, at least those under a certain age and who grew up in the old West Germany. However, when you get to villages in the old East Germany they are invariably mainly populated by middle-aged to elderly people who don’t speak English. My high school German was put to more use than I had expected! The most common word was “geschlossen” which depressingly means “closed”. Used in the context of food and accommodation (see below).
Food. Before the ride started I carefully reviewed the route and identified major villages and towns. Great in theory except very few of the towns had any form of shopping, and those that did were more often closed than open. Nothing is more frustrating than getting to a town and finding the few shops are closed 12:00 – 14:00 for lunch! Then there were the Gasthof’s. Many were closed (permanently!), and frustratingly some closed on Monday’s! I’m sure that the locals know how to handle it. Me? I carried two days of food with me but once that was not enough so I ended up going 15 km off route to a small city where I resupplied.
Accommodation. Even though it was June, a lot of pensions were closed. I had one frustrating evening where I went to a small town but the pension was closed. They said there was another in the next town about 5 km away so I headed over there, also wanting food. That pension was closed, as was the other one. There was a 40+ room hotel so I went there. Even though it was only 20:00, they advised that they didn’t want to come in to give me a room. So doing what all good Tour Dividers did, I slept in their disabled toilet, leaving before 06:00. It was great, had water, power and all the conveniences!
Water. This was unexpected. It was often difficult to find water but fortunately I brought along purification tablets which I used quite frequently. My 2.5 litres was on the low side—especially when it got hot—and a few times I had to go too many hours without a drink.
Stinging Nettles. One aspect to the ride was lots of ‘bush bashing’. Unfortunately they have lots of natural roses (i.e. thorns!) and stinging nettles. The problem is that you would be riding along and suddenly hit a patch of nettles or thorns, or swerve off a plate into them. The worst was when you had to bash your way through high grasses and then suddenly you are in these scratchy, stinging bushes. One day I forgot to put on my rain trousers and by the time I realized it was a bad situation it was too late. I was in so much discomfort that I could not ride and went off course and found a hotel where I spent three hours with cold compresses on my legs trying to get the pain down to manageable level. I once rode 400 km with a broken collar bone and that was less painful than these stinging nettles! I learned that DA Nuts chamois crème can help a bit … but it’s only temporary!
Besides the fact that it is an exceptionally challenging ride through incredibly beautiful terrain, the history of the route made it a unique experience. While everyone has heard of the Berlin wall, the entire border between East and West Germany over time evolved to being fortified through ditches, fences, guard towers, etc. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_German_border).
As one rides the GST the reality that the entire East German state was prison sinks in—especially when in the middle of nowhere you come across a sign commemorating someone who was killed at that location trying to escape. One regularly sees remnants of the wall, and where there were border crossings there are often larger memorials and displays: the largest of which was at ‘Observation Point Alpha’ which overlooks the Fulda gap which would have been a prime invasion route had war started.
There were control towers at regular intervals along the route, some of which had been restored as museums. In one they had a mannequin at the top dressed in a uniform—which I admit that I did double take. There were also several museums along the route which were fascinating to visit, but definitely challenged my German to understand the descriptions of the exhibits! It made me really appreciate the freedom that we have in our lives today. I took the photo below at a marker post: 30 years ago I would have been shot for being there.
In addition to the history of the border, there is the long history of the area. You will be cycling through wilderness and suddenly pop out into a town which is some 900 years old! Perhaps because of the lack of development, but the villages in the old East Germany were incredibly picturesque with amazing buildings—such as an entire village where every house was clad entirely in slate shingles.
It transpired that I was first to the finish line at the Baltic Ocean near Travemunde after 10 days, 5h 30 minutes! The next finisher was about 2.5 days after me so I didn’t do too badly. Of the 14 official starters doing the full length, four of us finished.
The Grenzsteintrophy should be on every serious bikepacking rider’s bucket list. It’s a challenging and adventurous course which you will find tests your endurance and perseverance. As I said at the beginning, the most important thing you need to have is a sense of humour. If you can’t laugh at the crazy situation you will find yourself in you will have a frustrating melt down. You will be cold and baked (it was freezing one morning; two days later 35 degrees C), expect rain and fog, but also brilliant sunshine. There are mountains and plains, with everything in between. Expect to be alone—after Day 3 I didn’t see another rider—but also to have great camaraderie from the other competitors when you see them!
It’s also great to ride in Europe because if things don’t go well it’s easy to bail and find transport. Even though I finished on a beach in the Baltic, five hours later I arrived in Denmark to meet my wife thanks to Germany’s efficient transportation system.
Very inspiring Chris. I’ve spent a little bit of time in Germany and surrounding countries but not bikepacking.. Certainly food for thought. My German is practically non-existent so I would need to add learning it to any training plan…
Wow. That sounds like nothing else Chris. Well done!