There are at least 25 different stories about this ride. I wish I could tell them all, but I can only give you the organizer’s view.
In itself, a bicycle is a wonderfully versatile tool that can bring you just about anywhere. For some people though, it means much more than that.
Bicycles bring people together.
When I got into self-supported long-distance cycling, I realized the kind of people that I met on these rides was a special one. What I didn’t know back then is just how inspiring and important these people would become to me.
It’s not always obvious when you’re out there on one of these events, mostly on your own, maybe not even seeing the others. But there is an undeniable and powerful connection between all the riders on the trail.
This passion has enriched my life in many ways and I met most of my best friends through the power of bicycles. That led to a need to give something back.
The story of Taunus Bikepacking starts in 2016. I was looking for exciting and challenging long distance cycling routes in my area to train for the self supported races I was getting myself into. I’d ridden a lot of the designated routes, cross-region cycling tracks and signposted hiking trails. After finishing the inaugural Transatlantic Way in June 16, I stumbled upon the Schinderhannespfad in September of the same year. This is a hiking trail taking in a large loop of the Taunus region. I thought I already knew the area pretty well, after all I grew up here, but discovered many new, interesting places on that ride. I didn’t know it back then, but a seed was planted. While the trail was mostly fun to ride, there were just a lot of sections that I thought could be improved for my own taste. What if somebody planned a fun and challenging route taking in not only some of the region, but the entire one with all its highlights? The idea was to have a tough training course that I could get lost on for a few days on end right in front of my door. Then maybe I could even invite some people to try it out…
September 2017 saw me joining the inaugural Mainfrankengraveller. I loved the simplicity of the event and how Jochen just realized it without much time for planning. He had an idea and just went for it. Jochen encouraged me to keep on working on my route and told me he would come ride it when it’s done. So there was no way back, I put it online and started planning properly that October. The route would take in all my favourite places and connect these in a way that it was fun to ride from start to finish. Admittedly, I quickly got a bit obsessed over the route planning. Ok, REALLY obsessed. I spent most of my free time plotting tracks and riding them, collecting over 3,600 kilometers on these tracks. I “had” to ride my bike a lot anyway in preparation for the third Transatlantic Way, so I just spent a lot of my training time riding around and scouting the area. The result came quite close to what I had imagined. It was ready to be tested.
On the morning of August 5th 2018, 24 brave riders assembled at the start line in my hometown.
My friend Ryan Davis spontaneously decided to come over and take some pictures of the start. He takes some amazing photos and ended up staying all week, chasing riders with me to capture what was happening.
The field consisted of many old friends and some new ones and I was particularly proud to have a number of international riders, too. One of my favourite things about these kinds of events is the relaxed atmosphere. Some riders had come to race, most to try and finish the course in their own time limit or just enjoy and see what happens. Anything is possible and nothing is obligatory.
The nature of this course with its mixed surfaces and endless amount of steep hills lead to people showing up on all kinds of bikes, from a fat bike to a road bike with 28mm slicks and everything in between.
The region had been suffering from a severe drought and heatwave in the weeks before the start, and the heat was here to stay. This didn’t stop the racers in the field from riding at an intense pace right from the go. The more relaxed folks didn’t hang around either though, in the end every single rider averaged more than one hundred kilometers per day, which is not exactly a leisure cruise on this kind of terrain.
Whatever the motivation, there was the tangible sense of mutual respect that you always find among bikepackers. There is no bragging needed and no place for selfish competitiveness, everybody just gets on their bikes and rides for the pure joy of it. Everybody is a winner.
After a gentle flat first thirty kilometers, the route heads straight into the hills and stays there for good.
Under the burning sun, hydration became even more important than usual. Luckily, a beer garden is never far in Germany.
Some raced their hearts out and pushed it to the limit in the intense heat.
While the riders made their way north approaching Lahn valley, their “dots”, the visual representation of each rider on the tracking website, were being watched by many.
Tim, another friend I met on the TAW, was waiting for the front of the field with a camera, sending us live updates on the leading pack passing through.
“Just a quick live Update: I waited for the riders in Miellen, where they have to cross the Lahn river over a small bridge. First one to arrive was James. He told me that the route was quite tough. A bit later Holger and Ken appeared. Both in good spirits. They were behind James as he didn’t take a break when they did. Just a few minutes after they left Jörn showed up. We had a little chat about the (hot) weather before he left again.
James crossed the bridge at 21:24.
Holger and Ken crossed at 21:39.
Jörn at 21:46.
Destinations for the night were:
– let’s see what happens
– Bad Ems
So lets see what’ll happen…”
Quote and photos @timha1982
When the night set, most were looking for a place to sleep. Some found it under the stars with a view
others were invited to sleep in private gardens
or stayed in one of the many comfortable shelter huts along the route.
But not everybody slept – Monday morning we had to race to the checkpoint ourselves because James was approaching in the early hours, having covered 328 km in the incredible time of only 22 hours.
Hot on his heels was Holger who we managed to catch on the steep ramp up to Castle Hohenstein.
The checkpoint was a welcome break for most of the riders. I couldn’t believe how fast all of these guys were going, not just the front – at mid day it was a steady stream of riders passing through the checkpoint. Some stopped here longer than others and used the opportunity for some rest in the shade.
I hadn’t really made a big fuss about the ride beforehand in the sense of publicity or even marketing. This was a conscious decision – it was all an experiment, a little bit secretive on purpose. Most riders had found out about it because I personally told them, a few had found it online, all of them turned out to be friends of friends anyway. This “scene”, if you want to call it that, is still really small. But the interest is growing. At some point during the ride though, something remarkable happened. Random people found out what was going on and got inspired to go and check it out.
People living on or close to the course decided they wanted to see these riders. Photos taken by then complete strangers started to appear online.
We would be sitting outside a cafe later with the first three finishers when cyclists would come up, recognize the riders and ask for photos. This dynamic was hard to grasp for me. I had secretly hoped for something to this effect, but still couldn’t believe it. So many messages reached me these days and they still do. Many along the lines of “If I had only knew this was happening, I would have joined”. Maybe there are more people into this kind of thing than I thought.
While James’ dot inched ever closer towards the finish and seemed unstoppable, this wasn’t telling the whole story of his ride. Riding through intense heat on very little sleep, he suffered from a number of mechanicals and beat up his leg in a crash on the last morning. He finished first on Tuesday afternoon in good spirits, speaking of kind strangers offering their help and sharing old cheeseburgers with friendly dogs. So it’s possible to race this and even make friends along the way.
Holger followed him in the middle of the night, just 5 hours later. Another unbelievable ride.
In the early hours of the morning it became clear that Ken wasn’t going to stop either, after over 24 hours in the saddle since his last sleep, so I didn’t get any sleep that night myself. He came sprinting up the last hill to the chapel as if he had just warmed up, finishing an incredible last stint.
And so the “podium” was complete.
I love that you don’t need to call it a race, there will still always be some riders pushing it to the limits just for the sake of it. There is nothing to gain, they just like going fast and I can relate to it. But to each their own and to be fair, the ones that went a little bit slower might have had a more enjoyable time overall. It’s what you make of it.
The afternoon saw the arrival of more fast riders with even more tales to tell. The brothers van Raay finished side by side and shared their finish beer, thoroughly deserved.
Koen and Adrian finished within minutes of each other, having cycled together on the last stretch only to lose each other on a wrong turn on the final kilometers. They wouldn’t be the last ones to do so and had a laugh at it after some discussion.
Jörn sailed in quietly, content and thirsty.
Britta, Fabian and Dirk were set to finish together when they also got separated by a few wrong turns in the final, only to be reunited at the little chapel a few minutes later.
Tilman let me in on a secret at the finish. He never planned to ride the whole thing, but felt it would show a lack of respect to announce that beforehand. At some point during the ride his plans changed and he kept on going all the way.
Just minutes after he turned up at the chapel, a storm was approaching fast. The region had needed some rain, but this was a proper thunderstorm. The reports of roads flooding came in quickly from the riders still out on the course.
A couple of them were waiting out the storm in a supermarket in Rod an der Weil, watching the road get flooded within minutes. Others saw lightning strikes hit trees in the forest just a few hundred meters away from them. One rider was near the highest point of the route and only had a small, open bus stop for shelter. None of the dots were moving at one point.
I was relieved when they started moving again, and it didn’t take long for the first photos of the destruction to appear. A storm like this can change the track quite substantially and create some more obstacles in the form of fallen trees. Luckily the storm was over as fast as it came and left cooler air behind. The heatwave was finally over.
The next day already saw the arrival of the remaining field. I’d fully expected some of them to curse me for the steep and admittedly totally unnecessary climb to the chapel, but there were smiles all around. That afternoon we traded stories that could fill a book. This post is long enough, so some of those will have to wait.
I would like to thank all the riders for believing, committing and making this ride a reality. Some of you had a long way to travel and still showed up to suffer with a smile. Thank you. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help from my family, especially my parents who voluntarily sacrificed a lot of time (honestly, it felt like I had to stop them at times, they were that motivated) and I was really touched by everybody who reached out to say or show how they got inspired by what was happening.
And so the experiment was over in what felt like the blink of an eye. A lot of people asked if there would be another one next year. I hadn’t thought about that, but when I rode the whole route in one go myself two weeks later, I did notice a few things that I would like to change and improve. And so I get obsessed again, planning a new route based on favourite parts of the old one.
Taunus Bikepacking No. 2 will start on June 22nd, 2019.
The route will be longer, there will be a few “rules” or, better put, guidelines to make my life easier and more riders at the start line. It’s not going to be a radical change, but I believe that the course and event need to evolve. In that sense, it’s going to be a whole new experiment.
Registration opens October 22nd.