I went into this event very confident and mentally strong. This was going to be a practice run for my Tour Divide Race attempt in 2012. GST 2011, so I thought, would be about a 6 – 8 day “race” for me and a new friend from England Paul Errington. We would both be riding singlespeed mountain bikes with a gearing of 32 -18. As it turned out it ended for Paul and I a lot sooner; let me explain in detail.
On Thursday the 16th of June we drove up to the north German town of Lübeck-Travemünde. All of the starters for the GST would be meeting at a restaurant for some last minute details and a couple of beers. There was a colorful mix of people; all men except one woman with her husband or boyfriend. Ages varied between 20’s to 50’s; one guy named Rüdiger was 71!
Now, for those of you that are not familiar with the GST; it’s not a race, just a group start to a ride or tour if you will. Some take as a race and try bang it out as fast as their bodies will allow; that was my goal. Some just want to ride it, enjoy the scenery and take two weeks. That’s probably the best attitude.
So Friday morning, 7 o’clock I’m out of bed getting gear packed and trying to wolf down some breakfast; I’m all of a sudden a little nervous. I hadn’t been the whole time leading up to this but on this Friday the 17th of June, I’ve got the jitters. Normal Paul tells me. He’s an experienced racer, has done races all over Europe and even in Asia. We finish breakfast and head out to meet the other riders for some pictures. It’s all a easy going laid back atmosphere and I’m not nervous anymore. Just excited to get rolling.
At nine O’clock Gunnar gives us the start signal and we start pedaling. Paul and I were at the front setting the pace. I’m thinking at any minute they’re all going to roar by us but they don’t. After less than 2 km we are turning right onto a single track through the woods. A couple riders do go by and we settle into our rhythm which is almost too fast for me. Paul is pedaling a fast cadence and I’m trying to keep up. This goes on for three hours before we make our first stop at a campground to fill up water bottles and use the WC. The terrain for the first day is mostly flat but there are also some small short climbs, we just storm up them. I started to get tired around KM 80, so we slowed our pace a bit. At Km 90 we had to take a ferry across the Elbe River; Edmund, Walter, Paul and I enjoy the ride across.
After the ferry, Paul and I hit the next bakery and some pastries and coke. Also two espressos. The next section, if I remember correctly was along the west side of the river and it followed the bluffs. Short but super steep sand hills that had to be pushed up; probably even the gearies had to push, it was that steep!
Hours later we had dinner at a small restaurant in Hitzacker on the Elbe River. After we ate we rode to next town where there was a campground, found a good spot near the toilets but not too near! 😉 rolled out our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. I think it was 10 PM by this time. A long day in the saddle but we both felt good and satisfied about how far we had gone.
I couldn’t sleep; I kept tossing and turning in my bag. The mosquitos messing with me. My bivi sack has a bug net but still i could hear them buzzing around. At some point I did manage to fall asleep for a little bit. But at 12:30 I was awake again, and then it started to rain! I got up to look for some shelter. The building where the toilets are in had a Recreation room that was unlocked, so I went in and laid my bag on the floor. About 5 minutes later Paul came in. Finally I did fall asleep but only for two to three hours. At 4:15 we got up and started packing our stuff for the day. Just before 5AM we rolled out in a light rain. My spirits were still high and I was sure that it wouldn’t rain all day. Through the morning we rode on sandy roads and equestrian trails, luckily it had rained during the night because if it hadn’t the sand roads would have been unridable. It was still hard and it felt like a long climb, even though it was flat. When we weren’t riding on sand we were on the Tank plates that marked the patrol road for the East German border guards. They are not fun to ride on. They are about 8 feet by three and have four rows of slots. The slots are about three inches wide and maybe six to eight inches long. It’s hard to miss them so it’s almost like a washboarded dirt road. Maybe
worse. You can’t really look around and enjoy the country side because of the damned things. Always have to concentrate. As a result you drink and eat less which results in bonking if you’re not careful.
Rene caught up to us and rode together until we hit a town with a little imbiss, a small restaurant where they serve food. Mostly some kind of meat, pork or chicken, also sausages in rolls, and all kind of soft drinks. After our pit stop we continued on; Rene was faster and he took off. The route on day was flat and boring, but because of the sand and the sometimes overgrown tank plates still quite demanding. We wanted to get in at least 200 km, why? Because we wanted to finish by day 8. So pushed through the shity roads and ghost towns where no one was out on streets, and no stores, nothing. Really strange here in Germany to see towns with no people in them. The houses were kept and orderly and cars were in front in driveways but no people. We weren’t in any need of food or water but it would’ve been nice to get a cup of coffee and a snack. We meet up with Gunnar sometime in mid-afternoon; he was looking for the track. It had wanted to steer us through an unridable section of woods. Sometimes the track just shot off were there was no road or trail. Pretty frustrating; and we just “winged it” and found our own way. Eventually we made it back the official route.
Later in the afternoon we caught up to the “Boss” Gunnar, he started the GST thing. Anyway, he was looking for the right way; the track had us going through a farm field with new crops. We took a parallel road.
By this time the pain in my knee was starting to get my attension; I had been ignoring it so far but now there was no more of that. It just plain hurt. We took a break to eat some food at a pizza place. I voiced my knee problems as the hills were coming up soon.
After dinner it was more flat miles and a strong tailwind, sometimes side wind or full on head wind. The route was constanly changing directions.
We stopped at a store to resupply and meet Stephan there doing the same. We most of looked funny; four grown men buying gobs of junk food. And eating some of it in front of the store. So with full bags and full bellies we headed into our first real climb. It wasn’t too bad except that my knee was screaming at me. I mean, we had only ridden 200 km and had been riding since 5 in the morning. No reason for my knee to hurt. I had to get off and push a little bit. It felt good to work other muscles. Around 8:30 we started looking for a place to bivi for the night. The first had nothing; I asked at a rundown looking house. The man behind looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if we could all crash in his barn, no way! L
On to the next town. We scored there! A school with a sheltered entrance, invisible from the road. This was a cool bivi spot. Everyone set up their stuff; Paul got out his stove and whipped up a cup of tea. By the time we settled in and got to sleep it must have been 11:00 or so. I slept really good except for the noises the neo air pads made when someone rolled over. Like they were lying on a bag of potato chips.
We were rolling by five AM; it was a nice morning with a few high clouds. There were 50 or fairly flat kms to do before the Brocken Mtn; the longest climb of the whole route. I knew I’d be pushing some of it with my single speed but it didn’t bother me. At the base of the climb the track took us on a really cool single track, probably the best so far. I had a great time on it.
We had coffee at a guest house in a town before the real climbing started. After that it was back to some more single track and then the dreaded “Panzer Platen”. It wasn’t too steep and normaly I would have ridden it but my knee was screaming at me again, so I got and walked. Gunnar and Paul left me behind. I can’t remember how long it too but it seemed like forever till I was able to ride again. I came to a reservoir and the view was spectacular! Luckily the track had flated out a bit and I was able to ride; my knee still hurting though, every pedal stroke like a jab of fire through my knee. By this time I knew that my race was over but I still tried to push thoughts away.
After the reservoir the trail made a sharp left turn and went straight up! I mean up; steep and of course the freaking tank plates again. I was off the bike pushing. The one good thing about pushing is that my knee didn’t hurt. This time I saw signs showing me how far to the top; the first one said 4,3 km. Shit I thought, that’s a long way! Another hour of this. The wind was howling and soon it started to rain; ah… I love this weather! It got steeper and the cement slabs became a blessing; using the slots in them for traction; kind of like a ladder.
I pushed my bike more on the Brocken than I did when I rode over Imogene Pass in Colorado, Imogene is 14000 feet! I only pushed up it because I couldn’t get any air. Here it was just too steep. Maybe with no gear on my bike and gears I could ride it but it would be an all out effort.
Then it really started to rain hard and the wind picked up more speed. I couldn’t see very far ahead but I heard the whistle of the train that goes to the top; I knew I wasn’t very far from the summit. But the hill just kept going.
All this time I kept thinking why aren’t there any switch backs here, it’s crazy! Just straight up! On the trail I saw 1000 meters spray painted on the surface. Good only 142 meters to go. Still no sign of the top. Everxthing shrouded in thick clouds even though the wind was blowing hard.
I couldn’t give up here, no one to resucue me; but I felt like lying down. I was so tired and all of a sudden hungery. Through all of the wind, rain and pushing I forgot to eat or drink. I was on a full on bonk! Then I saw the buildings at the top, the towers where the Russians and East Germans would listen and watch the West.
When I made it to the restaurant I saw Gunnar’s bike leaning against the wall. No sign though of Paul’s. Gunnar was sitting at a table finishing up his lunch. He said that he lost Paul on the Climb. I just needed some food, so I loaded up my tray with all kinds of goodies. After two large cokes, a bowl of pea soup with Frankfurters and a side of fried potatoes and two pieces of cake I started to feel human again.
Still no sign of Paul; I thought that either he was waiting for me somewhere or he didn’t find the restaurant and just kept going. The top was covered in thick clouds and visibility down to a minimum. Gunnar and I decided to push on; we had a long downhill ahead of us.
Back out in the cold I had one thought; get off of this f..king mountain. The Brocken has some of, if not the worst weather in Germany. Something like over 300 days of rain and clouds! Yikes! It’s a rare day when you have a clear view off the mountain. Good place to watch your enemies, eh?
The downhill off the mountain wasn’t nearly long enough for me; soon we were going up again! On a trail overgrown with huge ferns, actually quite pretty but when everything is dripping wet not much fun. The trail was thrashed too; totally washed out from run-off water. I guess no one here has heard of trail maintenance.
The route got back on the Tank plates and started going up and down; straight up or down. Almost like a roller coaster ride, except on the uphills I had to get off and push. Funny, my knee was feeling better after the long push up the Brocken. But soon it was hurting again.
We finally met up with Paul; he was waiting on the side of the trail for us for an hour. It was a good reunion, and I was glad that we were all together again. Later Stephan caught back up to us and we rode the rest of the afternoon together. Stephan was on his way home; he lives in a town not too far off route and he had some things to take care of at home so he wasn’t riding the whole route. We parted ways later in the afternoon and the three of us rode on in the rain, it had started and looked like it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
We came to a small town and started looking for a place to hole up until the rain stopped. A man walked by us and Gunnar asked him if he knew of an Inn or restaurant; he did. So we followed him to his parents house where they rented out rooms for the night. What luck!! The woman there was really nice, she even got the wood stove going so we could dry out our stuff. After the fire was going and we got warm it was pretty much clear to me that I would be staying there for the night. My knee again. I knew that I was done; at least for the day. Deep down I also knew that my race was over; and I was pretty bummed about it.
The night went by fast and at 4:30 my alarm went off; I didn’t want to get up! My legs were so stiff and sore! I was slow to get but finally did; I was glad to see that Gunnar and Paul were also moving slow. I think that it was justified after the last three days we had ridden 330 miles in. The first few miles of the days were rough and I kept thinking I’ve got to stop or I might do serious damage to my knee. It was just so hard to stop. Gunnar finally made the decision for me; he had been having issues with his Achilles so when he said that he was done I went right along with him. I don’t know how long I would’ve gone before tossing the towel but I think it was the right choice.
Looking back on the whole thing and the time leading up to it, I realize that I made some mistakes. It probably wasn’t a good idea to take off two weeks before the start and then hammer the first two days like there’s no tomorrow. Those were my two biggest mistakes. I didn’t really ride too hard just too long. Mabe next time I’ll be better prepared. I still have the Divide bug and I’d like to ride it. Maybe not race it, just ride it someday, with a couple of good friends. Take some fishing gear and stop once and awhile and beat the water. For now though I’ll be just riding here in good old Germany racing here there. Having fun, that’s what I want to do now. J