The RouteThe 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 the 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 up. 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 in elevation gain per day for the first seven days, jumping into it on day 1 with just under 2,200 m of climbing. All this climbing was for an average distance of 115 km/day.
Gear ListI used my trusty titanium Motebecane hard tail which had served me well on my 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. I used Revelate Design bikepacking bags with a Topeak gastank bag. For water I carried 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 …
The ‘Trail’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:
ChallengesBesides 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!
HistoryBesides 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).
In ClosingThe Grenzsteintrophy should be on every serious bikepaking 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 (after 10:5:30), five hours later I arrived in Denmark to meet my wife thanks to Germany’s efficient transportation system.
For more from Christopher, head over to his website, https://triduffer.wordpress.com/