There is an old hiking tradition on the Rennsteig Trail that travellers should pick up a stone from the Werra River in Hörschel at the beginning of the 169-kilometre route and keep it in their pocket until the finish in Blankenstein, where it should be thrown in the Selbitz River. Only when this ritual has been performed is the journey considered complete.
For Liam Yates and his five riding companions who embarked on a 700km bikepacking trip across central Germany, including the Rennsteig Trail, the reward at the end of their journey was a little less traditional. “We settled for a few beers on the train, instead,” explains Yates, from back home in the UK.
Yates and the squad he completed his Germany West to East adventure with are a bunch mostly made up of vloggers and influencers, representative of a new digital age, whereby creating content and inspiring others by documenting adventures has become a way to make a living. It’s a lifestyle without the usual structure of a nine-to-five office job, and it means that if an idea pops up that sounds like it could be an interesting challenge, they can jump at the opportunity to go for it. Yates is the son of Tour de France stage winner and former yellow jersey wearer Sean: you couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the changing face of cycling than their differing career trajectories.
“I met Nick for the first time in November,” says Yates. He’s referring to Nicholas Roché, a member of the ‘Things That Happen’ alternative racing team which is run by Yates himself. “I was telling him how great bikepacking is and we were thinking of what sort of idea we could do while making it easy for him to get involved. He lives in Germany, it’s somewhere I’ve not really explored before, so I went with that as our country of choice and then it just progressed to, let’s try to make a route.”
And it really was as simple as that for the 28-year-old British rider. A few phone calls to a couple of mates who he thought would be keen to get in on the action, a visit to the Canyon factory in Koblenz pencilled in en route, and the stage for a big adventure was set.
“Me, Nick and Lawrence Carpenter agreed to do the route and then Lawrence mentioned it to Tom Hardie, who was pretty keen to get involved, and we were more than happy to have another rider in the group,” explains Yates. “Then Alina [Jäger] from Girona, who we’d met a few weeks before, got involved.
“She’s a full-time cyclist and she had been backpacking around Spain just before we started our trip. And then Cleo [Jensen] was cycling around Europe and was in Germany riding with Tom when we started the route. She was just going to join for one day originally, but then after a little stop off at Decathlon to buy some sleeping equipment, she stayed for the whole thing. And we were a group of six.”
Ain’t nothing better than a gravel bike
The route kicked off in Aachen, a city on Germany’s Western border and, loaded with bikepacking bags, the group skirted the river Rhine, ticking off 161km on the opening day. Day two was a smooth one, too, in a literal sense, mostly on tarmac roads, as the team came closer to the start of the Rennsteig trail. “Not too much faffing or drama,” Hardie said of the first two days of the trip. That was all still to come.
Yates himself planned the ride partly on asphalt and partly on gravel, yet all six riders opted for a specific gravel bike, not just due to the unpredictability of terrain ahead, but due to the nature of the trip in its entirety.
“I think having a gravel bike gets people out of the serious zone they might be in if they were on a full-on road race bike,” says Yates. “I feel like it relaxes everyone a little bit. It means that you can never really get in trouble either.”
“Even if you come across a 10-kilometre mountain bike trail, you’re going to be able to ride down it and it’s not going to ruin your day. Or if you have to take a deviation due to a closed road, you’ve got the tools for the job, whatever that job might be. When you’re crossing a country, you know, anything can happen.”
“We could still do all the stuff that was on a road bike, but also see loads of places that you just wouldn’t otherwise see. Like, we ended up in ski villages and like all sorts of places that you just wouldn’t go if you’ve done a road ride,” adds Hardie. “You can pick any track you want to go down. There are so many places where you just cut through a farmer’s field and you’re in a completely different landscape. I think for me, it’s the most versatile bike and the best way to go about it.”
Dancing in the rain
It was a night spent under the stars that gave many of the riders their first taste of true bikepacking. “I don’t know if anyone else had bivvy-ed before,” says Hardie. “For Alina and Cleo it was definitely the first time – Cleo literally bought her first set of camping stuff on day two.” Cold weather and a 5am sunrise meant barely a few hours of sleep for the not-so-happy campers, who had 166km of riding ahead of them that day.
A bakery breakfast for the intrepid travellers before they got on their way was the high point of that miserable day. “It started pissing it down at about one o'clock in the afternoon,” says Hardie. “It was like, okay, as long as it stops, we’ll be able to get dry and then sleep outside but it just kept on raining.”
“We’re not Marines, so we didn’t wait for each other. There was a mutual understanding that it became every rider for themselves that day,” jokes Yates.
Under grey, unrelenting clouds, the group pressed on to the start of the Rennsteig trail, where they would stop for the night before hopping on to the 700-year-old track the following morning. “We were soaking wet and the sun was on its way down, so we didn’t fancy sleeping outside. There was a bit of a gap in the group and Lawrence caught up with us and was like, right, I’ve booked an AirBnB,” explains Hardie.
I ask the group if sleeping indoors felt like a sort of cheat on a bikepacking trip, and they were quick to point out that this was a journey with no rules. It wasn’t about pushing the body to its limits or covering the route in the quickest way possible. “It was about riding with friends, just chilled, enjoying things,” says Yates. “The reason we took the camping stuff was to have no routine. So we could just roll up and then decide what to do when we were there.”
Aboard the Rennsteig Express
The group describe the days that followed that treacherous battle in the rain as the highlights of the trip. As they climbed up from the town of Hörschel to begin the Rennsteig trail on day three, 175 kilometres of traffic-free, gravel paths awaited them. Lush green trees, smooth gravel trails and bright blue skies were the backdrop to two stunning days of their journey.
The Rennsteig trail is one steeped in history, and as they traversed the Thuringian Forest, our protagonists found a little bit of that for themselves, They took in some of the 1,300 historical boundary stones and, coming into the final stretch of the trail, their tyres hit concrete tank tracks, a stark reminder of the area’s Cold War past. “You really get a sense of the history of where you are,” says Yates.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing along the trail, and there were challenges on the way, namely a 35 per cent descent on the concrete slabs which was “a highlight because it was totally crazy, but a lowlight because Lawrence now has a video for the rest of my life of me walking my bike down a hill because I was too afraid to go down it,” says Roché.
The final day of the adventure saw the group leave the Rennsteig trail to finish in Cheb, a town in the Czech Republic which borders Germany. It was there that the group of friends departed, some heading to a Beer Fest in another part of Germany, others continuing on a bikepacking journey and others returning home. They left with a new-found bond, though, and one that can only be experienced when exploring on two wheels.
It is in the relaxed nature of the conversation between the participants that the spirit of the West to East journey shines through: it wasn’t about completing the distance in a set time or seeing who was the strongest rider. Instead, the goal was to have fun with friends and explore new places on two wheels.
“No one has mentioned this, but we also did see one Mr. Greipel at the top of a hill which was just crazy. In the middle of nowhere in Germany, a tiny village steaming up this hill is Greipel,” says Roché.
“Nah, I didn’t see him, so I still don’t believe you guys,” says Carpenter..
But whether the figure of the famous sprinter was a hallucination, or whether it was just a case of mistaken identity, it didn’t really matter to the group of friends. “The thing is about the whole trip, it was more about the people than the place,” says Carpenter.
“It’s true,” agrees Roché. “I’d never met Tom before this trip, but we have this accelerated friendship now, which is really cool.”
“When you meet someone for the first time and you’re on a trip like this, then one week, in this kind of environment is equivalent to six, seven months with them in the normal world. It’s unique,” adds Yates.
In a world where things are getting more complicated by the day, the West to East trip served as an escape for the entire group. “It's like a simplification. There’s nothing to do and nothing to think about other than, today we’re moving forward, just following the little line on the screen. There’s just nothing to deal with. It’s just food, water, and moving forward.”
Canyon Grizl CF SLX 8 Di2
Liam Yates tackled his 700-kilometre bikepacking extravaganza aboard Canyon’s Grizl, the German brand’s “do anything, go anywhere” gravel bike. It’s a stunning piece of machinery with geometry that is an ode to Canyon’s racing DNA, but it’s coupled with everything you need when heading to the rough stuff. The integrated seat-post clamp gives exceptional rear compliance, while an extended wheelbase, wide bars, a dropped chainstay and shorter stem allow stability and responsiveness. “It handles really well, even with all the luggage I was carrying,” says Yates.
The bike’s versatility made it the perfect choice for the British rider on an adventure which traversed a variety of terrain: it rolls fast on tarmac and is comfortable on gravel but can also help riders push the limits on challenging surfaces. This is largely due to the broad range of tyre widths and treads that the bike can take – the wider the tyres, the more you can get away with. “I used Hutchinson MTB tyres which are super fun to ride and mean I can tackle basically anything,” explains Yates.
The Grizl’s carefully considered mounting options were also an asset for Yates in Germany. He loaded the bike with Apidura packing systems: a pack on the handlebars, a bag in the main frame triangle and an extended saddle bag. Even then he wasn’t utilising the full extent of the bike’s options - there are also mounting points on the forks if needed.
It’s fair to say that there’s little else Yates could have asked for from a bike to carry him across the length of a country. The Grizl’s conventional cockpit design helps make repairs easier on the move, while it is robust without making sacrifices on weight or aerodynamics. Confidence in your equipment when tackling a huge challenge is imperative.