Riding The Iron Curtain

The Grenzsteintrophy – a mountain bike ride of 1,280 km (800 miles) along the Iron Curtain in Germany…

When Peter of Cosmic Sports sent an email asking for some help giving some Salsa folks some experience of what self-supported touring is like in Germany, I was very pleased to be able to help.

It was the summer of 2013. A few days after the Eurobike and Interbike shows were over, Eric Fredrickson and Justin Julian of Salsa showed up, guided by Peter Baumgärtel of Cosmic Sports, Salsa’s distributor for Germany. My wife and I were proud to host these three hungry cyclists for a pre-tour dinner at our home, serving some typical German soup with sausages and, of course, plenty of cold German beer. It was to be a long evening and an early start the next morning!

My suggestion was to start right in front of my office, where the pressedienst-fahrrad and the fahrstil-magazine used to be located. Due to the fact, that Americans tend to love old historical (stone) buildings, I tried very hard to cover as many old (we’re talking about 400 hundred years and older) buildings as possible on our way.

Our route started in Göttingen, covering about ten miles before we hit the tank plates of the Iron Curtain dividing what was once East and West Germany. After less than two miles we climbed the hill to the Diemardener Warte, built in 1409!

There was no way to get into it but soon after getting to the former Border we could see the Burg Hanstein Castle. A few miles down the track it was time to get some fuel in the system, so we enjoyed a late second breakfast at the “Teufelskanzel” (Devil's Pulpit), which is build out of wood instead of stone, but still had good food and drink. It was the 3rd of Oktober which is German Unity Day so the former border was kind of overcrowded. We met more people in this one day than I had met in my three previous Grenzsteintrophy rides combined.

The Grenzsteintrophy – Continental Europe’s first self-supported race, started in 2009…

The Grenzsteintrophy (GST) is a mountain bike ride of 1,280km (800 miles). 20 years after the fall of the inner German border, it takes its riders alongside the former Iron Curtain from Lübeck-Travemünde to Mittelhammer in the Vogtland area.

GST is not strictly a race, but it is no easy Sunday afternoon ride either. It’s a self-supported ride which means no help from outside, no support cars, no pre-placing of food bags, etc. Everything the riders needs they have to bring themselves or purchase enroute.

The organisers doesn’t use the term “race” for legal reasons, but there is also a philosophical reason: “The GST is no race. We want friendship and sociability, instead of competition,” explains H. David Koßmann of the organisation team.

The GST is not a tourist event either. 15,000 meters of elevation gain and an intriguing political dimension keep the starting field quite small. The letters “GST” are the same initials that were used by the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, a paramilitary youth organisation of the former GDR. The route follows the “Todesstreifen” (Death Strip), a corridor of land next to the inner German border. To successfully cross this corridor for the people of the former GDR meant risking their lives when trying to flee to freedom. About 900 people lost their lives there before 1989.

A pathway called “Kolonnenweg” ran parallel to the border and was the main military support road for the East German army. Its main character comes from concrete slabs which are made for tanks and heavy trucks. These tank tracks had three-inch by eight-inch holes in them to allow rain and snow to drain. There are always four holes next to each other and seven in a row, making this a rough route of man-made potholes. Only wide low-pressure tires, good suspension and carrying enough speed make this rideable. Being abandoned for 20 years the old military road has in some places been taken back by nature and is overgrown by grass and shrubs.

Eric, Justin, Peter and I arrived at Schifflersgrund by lunchtime, which is the first memorial site of its kind in Germany. It’s a macabre scene. The architecture of death seems even clearer when suddenly the Green Belt becomes a conserved “antifascist barrier” from the past. This isn´t a place for having lunch, so we headed into the hilly woods next to the river Werra and rode some tough miles before getting to Heldra where we were very happy to find a restaurant still serving food and beer.

While eating some local teenage boys start talking to us, which was a good opportunity to get some inside information for finding a proper bivvy spot for the night. To keep a long story short, the boys guided us on their own bikes to a local football field on the outskirts of a neighbouring village. It took us less then twelve hours to become a well operating team. While Eric and I were gathering some firewood, Peter checked the ideal place for the campfire and Justin grabbed some old sport furniture to sit on.

In front of the fire it was time to share some more special surprises. All day I had carried a two-pound piece of “Stracke” which is a local delicacy sausage. We enjoyed this tremendously with some “BUM”, an overnighter-friendly pre-packed ready-to-drink mix of Vodka and lemon flavour…packaged just like a sports gel!

Aisle of Death Becomes Eco-Oasis

The next morning we hit the tank plates again. What separated the two German states until 1990 is a strip that stretches exactly 1,328km (825 miles) long. The former Western border of the Eastern State was a deadly aisle full of landmines and watchtowers. Today it is a strip of wilderness only accessible by the old military road of the border guards.

The Green Belt nowadays is seen as a special chain of extraordinary valuable biotopes. According to the BUND (German chapter of Friends of the Earth) in the Green Belt there are 109 biotope types, half of which can be found on the “red list” of endangered biotopes. More than 25% of this Green Belt is nature reserve. Back in June of 2003, the Day of Biodiversity was celebrated in the The Green Belt and in 24 hours 5,200 species of flora and fauna were noted by scientists and other experts. Some species where found that were believed to be extinct throughout Germany.

Riding The Rennsteig

After crossing the Autobahn #04 we left the GST-Route and switched to the Rennsteig Ridge Walk. The Rennsteig is one of Germany’s best long distance hiking tracks. When following the Rennsteig we circled around the Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther was hidden. The ride ended in the backyard of my parents-in-law. They live in a small village next the Rennsteig. The BBQ was so delicious because this area is well known for making the best BBQ-sausages in Germany, known as Thüringer Bratwurst.

And you bet, my father-in-law is proud of it! He was very happy to introduce this food culture to Eric and Justin, even without speaking a single word of English. It seems that the language of open fire, good meat and beer is quite international, al least for the male part of the world! Because of obligations I was not able to join Eric, Justin and Peter for the last two days of the trip to the Finish of the Rennsteig in Blankenstein. Nevertheless, we had some great miles together and I look forward to the next international overnighter with them, no matter which side of the ocean it takes place on!

2015 Event!

In 2015 the GST will go north to south following the tank-plates as close as possible: Lots of hiking! Look for information on my website: Overnighter.de

Author: Gunnar Fehlau
Translation of the basic text: Elmar Egner & Mike ‘Kid’ Riemer

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER

West German-born Gunnar Fehlau rides to live and lives to ride. He started to occupy himself with bicycle more intensively in the mid-1980’s, when getting involved in the Human Power Speed Vehicle scene. After randoneuring in the1990’s and early 2000’s, riding Trondheim-Oslo, Bordeaux-Madrid, Paris-Brest-Paris, TransNorway and the first Edition of the MTB-stage-race TransAl, he became fascinated by the Great Divide Race when he first heard about it in 2007. Because private and business obligations would not allow him to ride the Great Divide Race or Tour Divide, he created the Grenzsteintrophy in 2009. His day job is working with the “pressedienst-fahrrad”, an institution to promote cycling in the media. In 2010 he was one of the instigators of fahrstil, a bike magazine. His private blog is overnighter.de. Gunnar runs a Media Content Service on the Topic of Cycling called pressedienst-fahrrad, being the Publisher of the award-winning bike culture magazine fahrstil. When offline he enjoys going for a ride with his kids or I hiking with his wife.

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This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Fargo Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Overnighter Touring Travel

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COMMENTS (3)

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brianW | October 6th, 2014

Stationed in Bad Herfeld, Germany from ‘88 to ‘91 and did many days patrolling the border.  Clearly remember seeing the memorials and pictures of those that lost their lives trying to escape from the East.  Also remember the night of November 9th and the morning of the 10th in 1989 when we soldiers on duty did not know what was going on, just an increase of East German border troops tearing down the fence.  Later to see the tears of East Germans flowing across to the West.  Amazing.  Brought back many memories.

Kid Riemer

Kid Riemer | October 6th, 2014

brianW - Honestly, your comment adds a whole new dimension to this. Thanks very much for sharing your memories.

Markus Boscher | October 7th, 2014

I rode the GST this year in early August and it was quite hard for body and mind! Seperating both Germanys with a boarder is so unbelievable and brutal…I’m happy to have the possibility to cycle along the Iron Courtain nowadays!

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