By Robbie Broughton
Markus Stitz has just returned from a year long trip cycling around the world. In this age of bike tourers you might think that’s very commendable but not unusual, until you find out that Markus completed the whole adventure on a single speed bike. What was it that made this 37 year old German who resettled in Edinburgh want to cycle 34,000 miles in nearly 12 months without any gears?
“I just love the simplicity of it…it’s just a chain and some brakes. I last rode a bike with gears in 2010. When I spoke to the guys at Ison (bike distributors) about what bike to take they said, ‘Well, you’ve been riding single speed for so long you obviously have the legs for it.’ It was a five minute decision and I just bought this single speed bike online and that was it.”
Someone with this ambition must have the athletic constitution of an Olympian, but Markus claims that his worst subject at school was sport. “I was possibly the most unsporty child.” He worked as a DJ and led the unhealthy lifestyle that goes with that until he decided to do something about it. He started running for a year or so, then got bored of that. When he went to university he bought a mountain bike to get around and became instantly hooked.
A stint living and working in New Zealand in marketing gave him the opportunity to explore trails and the beautiful landscape that had him planning longer and longer trips. Then on his return to the UK in 2006 he rode the west Highland Way which was tough but set a spark alight in him.
Markus handed in his notice at work in March of 2015 which gave him about four months to plan his trip. The bike he got was a Surly mountain bike with Schwalbe tyres and a 32/18 ratio to allow him to get up as many hills as possible, although this would mean a high cadence on any flat roads. He took the absolute minimum of equipment with him – even so the weight of his bike, fully loaded, came in at 33kg.
He started in Western Europe winding his way through the Pyrenees and into Barcelona. He crossed Iceland to experience the Aurora Borealis, then the United States from New York to California before flying to his beloved New Zealand to ride the Aotearoa route. Then came Australia and South East Asia before cycling across Iran, up to Turkey and back into Europe again.
The toughest parts of his trip were overcoming the mental difficulties presented by the pan flat roads of Kansas. “You look at a water tower and you realise you still have another 3 hours to get there.” Then there was the stretch between Adelaide and Perth with heavy winds, total isolation and the feeling that there’s absolutely nothing, “not even a kangaroo,” for 250km stretches. The off road tracks in New Zealand were physically tougher, but the beauty of the landscape and the exciting riding kept him going.
He also had his fair share of adventure like the time when he was camping in a quarry in Iran surrounded by wild wolves. In New Zealand he had to traverse a tricky mountain track under the pressure of knowing that he had to get to the Wanganui river in time to meet the speed boat that was to take him out of the remote area. He made it with two minutes to spare!
Like his simple bike, Markus loved the simple lifestyle of being on the road. Initially he struggled with the isolation but after a couple of months enjoyed the simple decisions of where to stop for lunch, and where his destination would be at the end of the day. Then it was just a matter of pedalling from A to B. But if the trip has taught him one thing about his life it’s that, “I’m an utterly social person.” The long stints on his own were easy to cope with as long as he knew there was going to be some human contact within a couple of days.
He loved the fact that he was doing this for himself, was responsible for his own decisions and had to bear the brunt of them himself if they turned out to be the wrong ones. As a result he has developed a chilled philosophy on life. “If you have a bad day just go to bed, wake up in the morning and you can make a difference the next day.” What’s the point of getting angry over a puncture in the middle of the Australian dessert. Just get on with it and fix it.
Sadly for Markus he suffered personal loss while away on the trip when he learnt of his father’s death. He returned to Germany for a month to be with family but takes solace in the fact that the last time he saw his dad he had been in good spirits and they’d left on good terms. It’s a lesson he carries with him in his everyday life – to try to resolve differences in his personal or professional life because you never know what might happen.
The whole experience was life affirming and has left Markus with an optimistic and positive view of human nature. The abiding memory he takes away with him is, “the people other than anything else, how nice and helpful people can be in a totally unconditional way, something we’ve lost a bit in our western society.”
The hardest part has been coming back and trying to live with the complexity of everyday life in our modern world. But Markus has a great tool kit for dealing with these frustrations picked up on his travels – a philosophical outlook on life. He intends to go to back to work now but vows to be back on the road again in the not too distant future although on shorter trips. He also plans to write a book and make a documentary from the many hours of Go-pro footage he has from his travels. We can’t wait to see that!