We're pleased to share this interview with Mathias Mueller, editor of BIKE BILD magazine. Mathias recently completed the Grenzsteintrophy 2020, a self-supported bikepacking ultra endurance event in Germany. While the event is extremely difficult in its own right, Mathias carried camera/video gear for the entire journey, and has created a short film sharing his GST experience. Our thanks to him for allowing us to share his film and story. -Kid
Salsa – Mathias, please introduce yourself and BIKE BILD Magazine.
MM – My name is Mathias Müller. I am already 53 years old, but still feel like I just graduated from college. I did a lot of triathlons from my mid-20’s to mid-40’s, finishing the Ironman Hawaii three times. But since I have three little children (ages 4, 7, and 9 years old) and became tired of riding the same boring tarmac training rounds, I discovered gravel bikes and then the bikepacking thing.
Three years ago, I began by taking part in the Candy B. Graveler event (640 kilometers; 3 days) from Frankfurt to Berlin, then did a 1,200-kilometer solo ride from Hamburg, Germany to Skagen, Denmark (4 days) and back, and the year after that I took part in the Hanse-Gravel (630 k) from Hamburg to Stettin in Poland.
Fortunately, three years ago, I became the chief editor of BIKE BILD, the biggest general interest cycle magazine in Germany. So now I can—every now and then—combine my passion and business. It’s the best thing ever!
Salsa – You are clearly a very experienced cyclist. Is there a type of cycling that you enjoy the most?
MM – As I mentioned above, I have changed my riding completely. I sold my racing bike last year. Nowadays almost no automobile drivers will see me during my rides because I am riding on gravel roads almost exclusively.
Salsa – How were you first introduced to the Grenzsteintrophy (GST)?
MM – The organizer of the Grenzsteintrophy is Gunnar Fehlau. He is very well-known in the German bikepacking community. And he is the organizer of the Candy B. Graveler, too. Actually, he introduced me to all of this stuff, because he is also a freelance editor for our magazine.
As my plans to ride the Tour Divide crashed because of COVID-19, I thought that perhaps I could ride the Bikepacking Trans-Germany Race. Then Gunnar called and said “Hey, if you can’t do the Tour Divide, just do the Grenzsteintrophy—it will be a very good and special experience”. I thought about it, and felt that riding along the former borderline between East and West Germany could be a good thing for a couple reasons: it would be a good test of my physical abilities and help me gain deeper understanding of the history of my country.
Salsa – The GST appears to be a very difficult journey. How would you describe the riding?
MM – One could think, if simply looking at the straight data, that this could be an easy one: 1,300 kilometers with a total ascent of 20,000 meters. But 20,000 meters where there are no mountains?! And most of the ascent is in the first 700 kilometers, until you reach the Brocken Mountain which is 1,140 meters high. Honestly, the profile of the track looks like a saw blade. Very short but very steep hills, one after another. Hills with 30 percent grades? Absolutely commonplace on the route! They are so steep they become unrideable with fully-loaded bikes. I remember one hill that was up to a 40 percent grade.
But that isn’t all of the challenge. Up to 600 kilometers of the course are still the old tank plates with holes in them—made for moving tanks and other wheeled military equipment! Oh dear!
Salsa – As the route follows the former inner border between East and West Germany, did it bring up any emotions as you rolled past by remnants of that very difficult history?
MM – Yes, it did. But not until the halfway point, because until then I was simply trying to find my way through this physical challenge. You will find not only many, many old guard towers and old sections of border fences, but you will also pass by a lot of tombstones or memorial markers, which remind you of the many people who lost their lives along this border. Many shot and killed by their own fellow countrymen who wanted to prevent them from fleeing to West Germany. That was really oppressive and sobering at some points.
Salsa – From your film, we can see you rode a Fargo with 27.5+ wheel/tire setup? Was that wheel size a good choice for the ride?
MM – It was the perfect choice for this event. To be honest, Daniel from Cosmic Sports (the German distributer for Salsa Cycles) loaned me the bike for this journey. I thought, “I cannot ride a bike with tires like a tractor.” Remember, not long ago I was riding on very aerodynamic time-trial bikes. But that worry about the 27.5 plus-wheeled Fargo didn’t last more than 200 meters on the tank plates before I knew that it was the best choice. With this setup I was able to just roll over the thousands and thousands of holes in the plates. And on the descents it gave me a great feeling of safety. Also, the Woodchipper bars made me feel like I was in complete control on the steep descents. I really loved it!
Salsa – Do you have one favorite moment from your GST ride?
MM – There were three special moments. The first one was reaching the top of the Brocken Mountain at 11 p.m. (after a long day of riding) under an almost dark sky with some great illumination of the Brocken building. The second one was 30 kilometers before reaching the finish. I rode through a beautiful landscape during a magnificent sunset. And the last, of course, is reaching the beach at the Baltic Sea and jumping into the water. It was so exhausting at some points that getting this thing done rewards you with a feeling so unbelievably satisfying—you can’t buy this type of feeling with any amount of money. You will find these moments in the film.
Salsa - Filming your own journey is not an easy task. How much difficulty did it add to your experience?
MM - You are absolutely right. Filming yourself means that even if you are in a riding flow you have to keep an eye on situations and the landscape, then to stop, grab all the necessary gear from the bottom of your bags, fix it on a tree or something else, ride back, ride through the film set, return, rotate the camera 180 degrees, and ride through the scene again. Then return, grab all the gear, put it in the bags again, and ride on – where did the flow go? Not to mention, you have to lay your 20-plus kilo bike to the ground, hundreds of times, and pick it up again each time. Plus, you will produce a lot of video clips that you won’t use in the movie later.
All of that means you not only lose time but also use a lot of your energy. Anyway, it was worth the effort, because now I have something that I can show my little children so they understand what their daddy did while he was away from home.
Salsa – When you finished the journey, were there any gear choices you would do differently the next time? Or anything that you didn’t bring that you wished you had?
MM – The bike was perfect. Only the titanium version would have done better because it weighs less! Hah! Handlebars, bags…everything was perfect. Actually I would have done better with one, two, or three easier gears. Your rear cassette’s largest cog should have at least 14 teeth more than your front chainring, and I only had 8 more in the rear. And yes, I had too much stuff with me. Mostly technical things which I needed to do some pictures for our magazine and to produce this film.
Salsa – Having successfully accomplished the GST, is it something you would consider riding again?
MM – Oh, I was afraid you would ask this. To be honest, next year’s Grenzsteintrophy will not see me again. First, because I just want to see other nice places in my own country and the world. Second, it was at many points so challenging that I am now just happy to have it under my belt. But if you would ask me if I could recommend riding the GST? Yes, absolutely. Just because it is very special. But please don’t underestimate the challenge.
Salsa – If someone is considering going to Germany in the future to ride the GST, what advice would you give them?
MM - First, be sure you have enough time. Don’t come to Germany only to do the GST because there are many other beautiful landscapes you can enjoy while cycling here. But if you are really interested in doing the GST: Take your time. There is no need to hurry. Be comfortable taking care of yourself. You won’t see a lot of people out there, although some cities are nearby. And, most importantly, you have to want to reach the finish line really badly. If you get down on yourself because of the difficulty, the GST will buck you like a wild mustang.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.