Germany is a country I enjoy being in. The food matches my pallet, which is fairly easy when meat and potatoes are the foundation. The Germans like design and engineering of their products, as do I. They also like the biggest, baddest tool for the job, even if a smaller one would do. That last one may be an over-exaggeration, but I think it is mostly true.
I have also found some amazing friends that happen to be German. Peter Bumgartner happens to be one of those friends. A conversation with him over beers kicked off a spark that grew into the forest fire of this bikepacking trip.
Stories from my youth of the East and West German border have always intrigued me. When I heard of an endurance race that followed the former borderline, I was intrigued. I wanted to tour this route. I wanted to see the history. I wanted to ride the tank plates and get a better understanding of the wall that once separated a nation. Peter agreed that it was a ride he wanted to be on…with a twist.
Being from the small village of Furt, Peter was no stranger to the border. He was on the western side, but not by much. He grew up in the midst of the turmoil and told stories of the day the border was removed. These stories further fueled my curiosity. The twist he tossed into this journey was a singletack trail. Not just any singletrack trail, but a historical trail that merchants and messengers have used for hundreds of years, with the first recorded mention ranging back to the 1330’s. The German Rennsteig is most commonly used as a hiking trail, with the occasional mountain bike track left imprinted in the black dirt, broken only by the numerous slick-as-ice tree roots. This 170 kilometer trail would lead us back to Peter’s hometown and the finish of our journey.
Day One: The Shakedown
Salsa Brand Ambassador Eric Fredrickson joined me on this ride. We landed in Nuremberg where we built our Fargos and loaded them down with gear. The shakedown ride consisted of a tour of the Nazi party grounds where Hitler used to speak to many of his soldiers about his master plan. The grounds were immense. The feelings were intense. The bikes were ready and my curiosity was getting its first taste of what was to come.
Day 2: The Tank Plates
The border between East and West Germany was paved with a roughly two by four foot blocks of concrete that the East German tanks traveled up and down the border on to keep their citizens from escaping to the west. The tank plates followed the border with no regard for topography. We pedaled out of town with Gunnar Fehlau, the organizer for the race mentioned earlier. He would be our guide for the first two days of the ride. Gunnar is a funny man. Very German from looks to personality, he was a great guy to have led us into this ride. The first day consisted of gravel roads that were much like what you would see here in the Midwest. We then started up the first hill - the first of many, many hills to come. The difference between a German hill on a Fargo and a good ol’ Midwestern hill on the same bike is something I did not plan on or prepare for.
On that first hill I assumed a position I would become very familiar with on this trip. Hands planted in the drops, feet on the left side of the bike, and body at a 45-degree angle to the ground, pushing the bike up to the top of a hill. Not long after my dismount Peter joined me and we joked between breaths. If we only knew the amount of climbing that lay ahead.
We pushed hard to make our first night’s camp, stopping only a few times to take in a five-minute history lesson or a forty-five minute meal. That first night we decided to stay close to a little village along our route that had one open restaurant with hot food and cold beer. A few young locals sat at the same table as the four stinky bikers and giggled at the two Americans that spoke with funny, tired voices. A pedal to the local soccer field would be the last leg of the twelve-hour day. We found an equipment shed with an overhang that made for a great camp spot. In Germany, you can only set up camp in an official campsite or RV park, so no tent was packed on this trip, just a sleeping bag and a tarp.
Day Three: The Ride To Sausages!
We woke up to weather that was a bit warmer than we expected. It was roughly three-degrees Celsius. Loaded up, we stopped at a bakery for some breakfast and a quick restroom break to freshen up. Today we would wander through a few more fields of tank tracks and end up at the River Werra in Horschel. This is the official start of the Rennsteig. Tradition says you must pick up a stone from the River Werra and it must complete the journey to Blankenstein, whereupon you throw the rock into the River Saale, and all of your wishes and dreams come true…or at least by the end of the trip, my mind had conjured up the “all of your wishes and dreams come true” part of the fairy tale.
I was not prepared for the extreme landscape changes that the tank plates followed. I am actually surprised that tanks could even make it up the grades we climbed. I had convinced myself that since the Rennsteig was a hiking trail it would follow a gentler contour of the land. Oh, how I was wrong!
We picked up our rock from the river, took a picture, and started to climb up our first mountain. Over the coming days we would tackle multiple mountain ranges throughout each day. Climbing may not be my strong suit, but climbing up 30% grades that were clearly carved out by hikers looking to get from point A to point B as the crow flies was really tough. We went straight up and straight down!
The rendezvous point for the evening was Gunnar’s wife’s parents’ house. A blasting ride through the woods down off the Rennsteig led us to the village of the Black Woods. Everyone met us with open arms and Gunnar’s family was not different. They were happy to see us and had food and drink ready. Oh, the sausages! The tastiest meat I have ever had! Perhaps because of the tough day and kilometers pedaled, or maybe from the rich conversation we had, but nonetheless it was one of my best meals I have ever had on any of my journeys. Gunnar’s wife told stories of growing up in East Germany and what it was like living in that era. Her parents told stories of how fast the border was built up. It happened in some areas so quickly that children visiting friends in West Germany were cut off, and would be separated from their families until the wall came down so many decades later. All of these stories helped me better understand the world we live in and the part each of us plays.
We had to find a spot to sleep for the night after the dinner we enjoyed. Gunnar’s wife saw there was weather moving in and found us a monastery to take shelter in for the night. Two monks greeted us as we pedaled onto their grounds in the darkness of night. It was a great night of sleep indoors as the rain came down.
Day Four: Back Up To The Trail
A quick meal in the morning and a consult of the map - did we know where we were? Did we know how to get back on course? Did we have another day of climbing and pushing in us? Or another two days?
Gunnar had ridden hard, and had ridden us hard. He has a spirit that he utilized to keep us pedaling up and up when the team morale started to get low. “Only one more hill Justin!” he would shout. This phrase will forever be etched into my brain. Gunnar also was the only member of our four-man tribe that had ever been on these trails. Now, he was now gone. It was time for us to unite into a three-man super team or crumble into a group of cyclist trying to make it home. The rain continued. We questioned if it made sense to continue on. We knew if we didn’t get to the next waypoint today we would not make the first flight of our trip home and would have to take a train back. Did we travel all this way for it to end like this?
No, it would not end here. The rain gear came out and the bikes were wheeled out of the warm dry room. We settled up with the monks and started the pedal back up the mountain. A few fun turns led us up back onto the Rennsteig. The rain kept coming down; not a rain that washed out the local creek beds, but a rain that gathered on your helmet visor and dripped down into your eyes every two minutes and ten seconds or so. Not that I was counting.
The trail looked to get easier on the topo map that was conveniently placed at the entrance of every small village. The little line didn’t climb to the heavens like the days before, but it did not forecast the roots and crazy terrain we were about to encounter.
Roots are always a tricky obstacle when you encounter them. Here in the Midwest, we usually only have to navigate a half dozen or so and continue on with our trail ride. Germany likes to take that to a whole new level. I have never seen so many roots on a mile stretch ever! Crisscrossing under our tires, we tried to pick the right line that would not land us on our butts. Add the dampness to the atmosphere and we had a downright white-knuckle experience on our hands. This was difficult fun in my book.
That evening we had a town in mind to stop for the night. As the darkness crept up on us, we asked the ever-looming question of “Can we make it?” Since none of us actually had ever been on this trail, we were going by huts Peter had logged into his GPS. He believed we were on track to finding a good one, and he was right. The hut we found had four walls and two windows. The only issue was those windows faced the direction the wind was blowing and the rain was coming in.
We rationed out our food supplies for each of us to get a good meal and a healthy slab of Wisconsin beef jerky Eric had brought along. We determined which of use would be sleeping on the floor and which way our heads would be oriented to get the least amount of rain spray. Another tough day of riding had been accomplished, and by the spirits in the room, it had been a tough day indeed. Sleep would be good for us all.
Day Five: The Finish Line
We woke up from our wet slumber and got our morning coffee going. Packing your stuff takes on a new level of difficult when it is all soaked. You want to keep your dry stuff dry, but you need to get your wet stuff into your bags. We were loaded and had our wet clothes back on from the day before. A few kilometers down the trail we hit the next village. This day was much different than the days before. The Rennsteig was hosting a running race that started in multiple villages along the trail at the same time! Hundreds and hundreds of contestants filed out of busses onto the streets. We knew that we needed to step it up into high gear or we would have to be passing runners by the masses and potentially miss making it to our last stop. Go!
We were lucky to have started our journey early enough to miss any of the race traffic for the first part of the morning. This did, however, mean stops didn’t happen and the 30-minute pastry and coffee stop was eliminated from the list of things to do. The next village had one restaurant in it. No traffic, no lights, but the door was cracked open. Peter checked and the owner was more than happy to let us fill our water supply in their washroom. Onward we pedaled preparing for the moment we would encounter a wall of runners.
The rain had not stopped. Nor had it gotten any worse. The trail still had many roots and wet rocks, but the spirit of the group seemed higher than normal. It was the last day of the ride. Temps stayed around 0-degrees Celsius, but this allowed us to wear rain gear while cycling and remain comfortable.
Eric is a much stronger rider than I am, and Peter really amazed me with his ability to hammer up the climbs. I, however, was dubbed the “Root Master” this day. I was able to pull through and sometimes past my two hombres with little trouble or even foot dabbing required. I say it is because I had a weight advantage. However, on the hills, these boys liked to make me eat their dust.
The Conclusion: Throwing The Rock Into The River
We were able to miss most of the runners by dumb luck. And we were able to grab another meat and potato lunch and still pedal on to make it to our destination, the River Saale. This is where I would throw the rock that had hitched a ride in my Revelate Designs Gas Tank bag for the past three days. There was no ticker tape parade for us like there was for the runners that had accomplished their 50 km runs. There was no karaoke party happening for us like the one we passed to get to the river. There was nothing. The only thing we had were our smiles as we pedaled up to the concrete stairs that allowed us to uneventfully toss our rocks into the river; mission complete.
I am extremely grateful for this trip. It pushed me in ways that I hadn’t pushed my mind and body and soul in a long time. I believe this kind of push helps remind us why we are alive. They put the small things into perspective and reset what troubles us in our daily lives. Doing it the hard way and putting yourself in the mindset of being thankful for all the technologies that make our lives easier than the days where people walked the news between these two rivers is something that helps you focus on what is important. Who cares if your phone isn’t fast enough today, or your tent isn’t the lightest, or your bike isn’t the shiniest; be thankful that you have them period. And be even more thankful for the friends and family in your life to share the moments with; thank you Peter, Eric and Gunnar.
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Justin Julian (Red)
I am lucky enough to be the General Manager of Salsa Cycles. I hail from central Missouri where the hills hide some of the most fascinating treasures. Moonshine being one of them, great singletrack being the second. Bikes have been an important part of my life from the ripe ol’ age of 3. I have raced, rode, crashed and enjoyed motorcycles for going on 34 years now. The bicycle has been a critical part of my motorcycle career (loosely used) in terms of training, enjoyment, rehab, and escape from the day to day. Both of these two-wheeled contraptions are the reason I exist. They are very much part of my life and being. Cycling and motorsports are also a strength and bond that connects my wife and two boys. Live to ride, ride to live!