What you won't do for love... by Gustav Thuesen
What motivates someone to ride 1065 km from Copenhagen to Salzburg? Love. When my girlfriend had the opportunity to work in Salzburg for six months I knew I would come and visit her multiple times – and I had to do the +1000 km trip by bike from Copenhagen once.
I knew it would be long and I knew I wanted to do it fast. Just me, the bike, a sleeping bag and a mat. I had done a 1700 km bikepacking trip before from Copenhagen to Bergen but that was done over a leisurous 15 days. This time I wanted to do it in under 72 hours.
Before taking off I had done one 200 km ride and one 300 km just to get a feel of how my body responded to long days in the saddle. I found out that if I just ride conservatively and keep a steady pace I could go on seemingly forever – if I just kept fueling myself correctly.
My Canyon Ultimate was setup with HUNT 30 Carbon Aero Disc wheels and tires setup tubeless. An Apidura seatpack held my sleeping equipment and a bit of extra clothing. A small frame bag for tools and spares. A military utility pouch on the bars to keep the snacks close at hand.
An early September Friday morning I rode out the front door into a light drizzle on the streets of Copenhagen. Bar bag filled with gummies and body filled with excitement. I knew it was going to be a challenge but how big? Was I able to do it? Physically? Mentally? It was time to do – not think.
I made it out of the city pointed my front wheel south. Salzburg is situated almost in a straight line south of Copenhagen. The first 150 km was through flat Danish farmlands to the ferry that would take me to Germany. I was battling a heavy crosswind the first 100 km. With 50 km to the ferry my direction turned a bit and I was given a helping hand from a generous tailwind. I watched the clock. 11:21 AM. I knew that if I smashed hard on the pedals I would most likely be able to reach the ferry at 1:00 PM which was two hours earlier than expected. Otherwise I would miss the departure by a few minutes and have to wait two hours for the next one. So, I pushed hard. Which was far from the conservative riding plan. However, I knew I had a two-hour ferry crossing to recover from the effort. At 12:45 I rushed into the ticket office and secured my ferry ticket and my two-hour advantage. Relieved to make it I rolled on board and shortly after I destroyed the buffet.
With Germany in sight I knew the real challenge was about to begin. I rolled of the ferry and was relieved to see that the ferry had brought the tailwind along. Flags were pointing south. I rolled off the ferry and after the usual “how the hell do I get out of here” through the harbor I eventually rolled out of the city and left Rostock behind. The tailwind blew me through the flat landscape and I enjoyed a few sections of gravel and b-roads in the late afternoon sunshine.
After riding for a couple of hours I came to a halt. How far was I? I opened Google maps on my phone. The blue dot looked like it was still on the coastline of northern Germany. At that moment, I was realized what the hell I had gotten myself into. There was a long way to Salzburg! Slightly demotivated by my slow progress I rolled onwards.
The sun was slowly disappearing behind the horizon but made a beautiful exit of warmly lit skies. Day turned to dusk. I knew that I would have to stock up on snacks as the shops would be closed during the night. And so, I did. 700 grams (1.5 lbs) of gummies, value pack of knock-off milk slice, two bananas, chocolate, Coke and iced tea. When I came out of the store the sun was gone. As I mounted my lights on the bike and packed my newly acquired snacks I chatted with some local young guys. I tried to explain to them in half German half English what I was doing. I don’t think they either understood or believed me. Rightly so.
It was 12 hours since I had left my front door in Copenhagen. Legs were feeling good and I could start to see some progress on the map. With renewed energy and motivation, I rode out into the night leaving the street lights of the small town behind. The darkness was thick. The only thing that reminded me that I was moving forward was the slight swoosh of the wheels turning and the hypnotic coming and going of the markings on the road. At that moment, I took my hands of the bars and spread my arms to the side like I was ready to take off into the night sky. A rush of happiness and freedom came over me. There was no other place in the world I wanted to be. The next hours were spent riding through eternal flat farmlands. 20 km straight on the same road. Then a small town with a few turns. Repeat.
Around midnight I was getting sleepy. But it was also a lot colder than my kit was made for. I found a suitable bus shelter and rolled out my sleeping bag on the bench. 26 minutes later the alarm rang. It was cold out but after some time I managed to collect courage to get out of the sleeping bag and back on the bike. The cold was brutal. If I was riding hard enough to produce heat the wind chill cooled me down and if I was riding slower to avoid the unforgiving wind chill I couldn’t produce enough heat to stay warm. I had to stop and get creative. The only warm things I had was my sleeping bag and a pair of underwear. I stuffed my ultralight sleeping bag under my jersey and wrapped my single pair of underwear around my coldest hand. Onwards. I managed to keep riding until 5 AM. At that point, it was so cold and I was riding so slow to avoid the wind chill that I figured that it would make more sense to sleep until the sun was back. I had ridden almost 500 km with 31.4 km/h average (thanks tailwind) at this point.
After holding the fetal position for 2 hours in a bus shelter I snuck my head out of my sleeping bag and was very delighted to see the sun was rising. I waited until the warmth of the sunrays got some purchase before I crawled out of my sleeping bag. Eating a few milk slices to fuel-up the engine before slowly crawling back on the bike and start spinning the legs again.
Next stop was a supermarket where I bought the entire bakery department. I enjoyed my croissants, pain au chocolats, rolls and yoghurt for breakfast in the sun on the parking lot.
The next 200 kilometers were horrible. Flat straight roads with a lot of traffic and bad cycle paths – if any. Hard to stay motivated. Thankfully the weather was good and I still had slight tailwind, otherwise I think that this section could have broken me mentally. However, the vertical monotony of the flat farmlands was slowly exchanged by rolling hills. Though demanding it was a welcoming break from the flats. The rolling hills then turned into mountains – and climbs. After an 11 km climb around the 700-km mark I reached 1100 masl. This was the highest point of the route. This also marked my entry into Czech Republic where I would ride 150 km before returning to Germany. As I reached the top the sun was setting. I could immediately feel it getting colder as the sun disappeared and I could hardly bear the thought of another cold night caught out in the cold. Before descending on the Czech side, I put on my lights and stuffed my fleece lined inflatable pillow under my jersey.
After a fast descend the last light of day disappeared. Shortly after I rolled through the town of Karlovy Vary. A beautiful old town where I stocked up on a few Red Bulls before continuing into the dark cold night. The first hour after Karlovy Vary I was riding on a great road with smooth tarmac and a meter-wide road shoulder. Then the route took a right turn up a steep climb (15 %) through a forest where the road was littered with big potholes and gravel sections where the tarmac was completely gone. I swore a fair bit up this ugly nocturnal monster and was about to get off the bike and walk multiple times.
The next couple of hours is a blur of riding through small villages, farm lands and forests. It had gotten gradually colder and another unbearably cold night had begun. At around midnight I saw a gas station in the middle of nowhere close to some warehouses. It was like seeing an oasis in the middle of a hot desert. At first it seemed closed. I was desperate. Caught In the ruthless grip of the cold. Desperate situations call for desperate solutions. So, I got creative. I tried to stuff the paper towels next to the pumps up under my sleeves to give some isolation. After fiddling around for 10 minutes my left arm looked like a mogul filled ski piste. A car came into the gas station. Filled the tank and walked inside to pay. The shop was actually open! The doors of heaven opened and the heat wrapped around my body like a warming hug from my girlfriend. I got myself a coffee, some chocolate and they even had some real gloves! I was standing enjoying my new found paradise. All of a sudden I felt a little nauseous and light headed. I thought to myself “Is this how it feels just before you pass out?”. The next thing I remember is laying on the floor with the two shopkeepers asking if I was ok. They had me sit on a chair and brought me a glass of water. I was ok, although slightly chocked. At that point I had ridden over 700 km on 2.5 hours of sleep. I asked if could take a nap inside the shop. Of course. 30 minutes later I left the warm paradise behind and disappeared into the night. What a lunatic the shopkeepers must have thought. Rightly so.
Shortly after I came to a halt at a bus shelter. I was tired, cold and my balance was a little funky. I inflated my sleeping mat and rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled in. There was music playing from a house behind and a man who was having a smoke walked by. He saw me and started talking to me in Czech. “English?” I mumbled. He said something in Czech and left. I tried to fall asleep but weirdly couldn’t. I put on a wind-down meditation on my phone which helped me drift into sleep, finally.
6 hours later I crawled out of my sleeping bag again. The sun was back. During the 6 hours I had been up to take a piss three or four times and considered moving on each time but the cold quickly made me turn back to my somewhat warm sleeping bag. The comfort limit of the sleeping bag was 10 degrees celcius and it was 7 degrees celcius so it wasn’t the warmest night of my life – but a lot warmer than being on the bike. Nonetheless, I was delighted to see the sun again. I rolled out into a beautiful morning and the sun quickly gained purchase and after about an hour of riding I was riding in short sleeves.
I passed the 830 km mark as I crossed the border back into Germany and rode through the rolling hills of the Bavarian Forest Naturepark. To my surprise my body was still feeling alright. Apart from a natural decline in power from the legs I had only slightly sore knees and sleepy pinky fingers but other than that I was feeling good. But tired. I knew I had to keep fueling my body but it was Sunday and everything was closed. Thankfully I found a gas station with a bakery attached that was open. I ate and drank until I was about to burst and then took a sweaty nap in the baking sun. Quite the contrast to the cold night.
I left the gas station just past noon. With 200 km to go I knew I entered the final phase of the trip. I figured that I could be in Salzburg by the evening. Along the course of the trip I had calculated and recalculated my arrival time multiple times. First I thought, very optimistically, that I might make it late Saturday night. That most certainly did not happen. Then Sunday morning. Didn’t happen – my girlfriend had even bought breakfast. Then Sunday noon, afternoon, dinner, evening. However, at this point one thing was for certain: I was not going to spend another in the relentless cold. Which I was very delighted about although it was easy to forget the cold of nights when the afternoon sun was baking and temperatures almost reached into the 30’s.
I kept pushing and the rolling hills were slowly changing to flat low-land terrain again. The hills kept me awake as I had to be on my toes but the return of the vertical monotony made me drowsy. I came to a stop at a cemetery first and foremost in the hope to fill my water bottles as the afternoon heat had drained me. I found some water in a barrel took a sip. Ew. Then found comfort on the cold stairs in the entrance and took a quick nap followed by my only caffeine gel. Two hours later another nap followed by a Red Bull.
The sun was slowly dropping towards the horizon as I passed the 1000 km mark which also marked the Austrian border. So close, but yet so far. In the last warm rays of the sinking sun I made it over the last ascent and in the horizon, I could see a wall of mountains: The Alps. I knew Salzburg was just before the Alps. With 40 km to go I put the hammer down and rode into the night giving it all that was left in the tank. With each pedal stroke I was reeling in the last bit of road in front of me.
After smashing the last 40 km with a 33,5 km/h average I finally rolled into Salzburg a humid Sunday night. “Holy shit, I did it.” I thought to myself as I cruised the last kilometers along the Salzach river into the city. At 21:19 I clicked out of my pedals for the last time on this trip. I Leaned the bike against the building and shortly after the doors to the real heaven opened and out came what I had come so far to see: My lovely girlfriend with a big smile on her face.
Sitting in bed after a hot shower eating semi cold pasta (sorry for being late for dinner, Elena) felt unreal – or actually the past 61 hours and 15 minutes felt unreal. I felt like I was just awakened from a wild dream that had gone from paradise to a nightmare and back again multiple times.
I love my girlfriend and I love cycling.
What you won’t do for love…
(Check out the Strava ride HERE)