Christmas is a time for celebration, but also a time for reflection. With the joy of being able to sit back and catch up with family and friends for a few days comes time to look back on the year that has passed and make plans for the year ahead.
We asked adventure rider, Markus Stitz, to share his thoughts on why he chose to cycle home for Christmas last year from Edinburgh to Schwobfeld in Germany and what he reflected on while spending 4 days on his bike.
2.15am. As my phone rings, I try to turn around, hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. I can’t. I have less than an hour to get dressed, get some coffee down my throat and leave. Ready to roll home for Christmas. Ready to embrace long distance cycling again. It is the biggest gift I can wish for this Christmas.
While the prospect of having to cycle from Edinburgh to the middle of Germany in less than four days might be a daunting thought for some, for me it isn’t any more. I have done this journey three times in winter. The first time in 2010, on a singlespeed bike with panniers, taking 14 days to crawl through one of the worst winters Europe has seen in recent times. In 2011 I cycled home again, this time after being struck down for weeks with a really bad cough, not being able to cycle for weeks before. And then in 2014, with the thought of cycling around the world in my mind, using the Christmas journey as the final straw to finally hand in my notice three months later and tackle a journey of a lifetime.
After two hours I dare to look down at my Garmin for the first time. As usual there were a few last-minute things that needed attention, so I had left the first pedal stroke a little later than intended. But standing on a pavement in Loanhead, I have to look again, and again. 27.2 km/h average for the first stretch, a number that terrifies and motivates me in equal measures. I am on a fully loaded steel gravel bike with 39 mm tires. Surely, I can’t be that fast.
I didn’t announce this journey until the very last minute as I wasn’t sure if I’d find the right motivation to do it. A few things happened in the last two years that made cycling big distances very difficult, at times unbearable. While cycling around the world I had to say farewell to my father exactly three months into the trip. He died of serious head injuries after crashing his bike on an empty country road in Germany. On the last three trips home, he’d been there to welcome me, this time he wouldn’t.
The death of my father was the first time I had to face mortality. I was hit again earlier this year, shocked to the bones by the news of the death of Mike Hall at the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. Mike was and still is one of my biggest inspirations, and having cycled on a section of the very same highway he died on in Australia, I still find the news of his passing hard to comprehend. As long-distance cycling is not so much about physical strength as it is about being in the right head space, I simply hadn’t been in the right place for a long time. And despite trying hard and almost succeeding a few times recently, the ability to ‘fly’ down the roads simply hadn’t returned yet.
Not yet. As I approach the English-Scottish Border, the sun rises gently over the Reiver Country, one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. While I turn my head towards the Ale Water Valley and Melrose, most recognisable by the Eildon Hills towering above the beautiful countryside, my Garmin already shows 107 km as I climb to the top of the first big hill.
In the last few months I had been craving the lightness, ease and fun I had enjoyed so many times when being out on two wheels. But as with all things in life, the more desperate we get trying too hard, the more we are spoiling our chances. As I roll through the starry night, with Frankie Goes to Hollywood putting my mind to rest, gradually a feeling of ease returns. With glimpses of civilisation appearing and disappearing again into the night, my mind is fully focused on the road ahead, only a little distracted by the Christmas songs piped repetitively into my ears.
It’s that feeling that will stay with me on the days to come. While cycling to the ferry in North Shields felt like a breeze, the second day turns out harder than I expected. Thick fog paired with long straight cycle paths are a challenging combination, but as I dive through the lit-up streets with their Christmas decorations through the Netherlands to the German border, I get the exact same feeling from the day before again. Day three ends on a high as I end up in a beautifully lit German town after 170 km and enjoy conversation and hospitality in a small local bar. And although day four turns out to be much harder than any of the days before, having to carry the bike over trees that block the gravel paths and pushing through deep mud at times, I finally choose the most challenging option to end the trip. I push and roll over parts of the former German Border, before the lights of Schwobfeld appear in the not too far distance to the sound of The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ playing in my ears.
For the last three days and 14 hours I have found the courage again to dream big and make the endless kilometres seem insignificant in comparison; to enjoy rolling down endless tarmac roads and gravel paths through starry nights; to find the courage to love and care about what I am doing best, and to commit to it again. And while it’s nice to get my teeth into a freshly baked piece of Stollen while I sit at the dining table with my mum and my brother, I finally begin to realise one thing. The biggest gift this Christmas was the ability to take the journey here.