First off, I am not a cyclist. I am, however, quick to take up a challenge. This is why when I saw a friend of mine had mapped out the entire route of the Berlin Wall into roughly 20 kilometre sections I thought challenge accepted.
When it comes to sports I tend towards endurance rather than speed (or skill). I like the thrill of getting further than previously thought possible under my own persistence. I tentatively would describe myself as a distance runner, although having only completed one marathon to date this might be a little premature.
The Berlin Wall measured roughly 155 Kilometres in length so my options were to break the distance down as my friend had done and run it over a series of days or, in the interest of time, a hip flexor injury and the spirit of epic adventure, I could cycle the route in one go.
To date I have made two attempts.
The first attempt was destined to fail even before we left. I set out with my flatmate on rented Lidl Bikes (Berlin’s answer to London’s Boris Bikes) hungover and two hours later than planned. This attempt was almost sarcastic in its lack of forethought. After five and a half hours, 64 kilometres and a thumb blister (who’s broken scab was still evident three weeks on) we called it a day and went for Thai food before heaving our sore bums and the heavy bikes back to the city in the S-Bahn.
I imagine the distance will split people into two camps; first those that consider 155k an almost impossible feat and those who don’t. Despite having never cycled more than about 40k, I have trained and chatted with too many long distance triathletes and therefore belong to the second group. I am often overly optimistic and stubborn to the point of naïvety. Sometimes this results in achievements above and beyond expectation, although just as often this ends with failure.
Failure is, however, just an extra good reason to try again. So on my penultimate day living in Berlin I took my last opportunity to complete the challenge. At eight AM I borrowed a racing mountain bike from friends and three of us hit the road.
Mauerweg is an officially marked route that forms a loop around the entirety of west Berlin, cutting the city in two and then hugging to the boarder of Berlin and Brandenburg. (For a longer than I am proud of I believed the Berlin wall cut a travers line though the whole of Germany - perhaps the shame of this belated revelation was an additional motivation for the trip.)
Our official journey started at Oberbaumbrücke where we decided to cycle clockwise. This way our last stretch would be through the city, passing Mauer Park, Brandenburger Tor, Checkpoint Charlie and finally Eastside Gallery. It would be epic but also streetlight and familiar - just incase we were out passed sunset. I had however already made plans to meet for a celebratory dinner because, as I expected; we’ll totally be done by seven.
The Mauerweg is unexpectedly beautiful. I had imagined that the whole route would be similar to the sections running through the city, namely along miscellaneous urban streets only with fewer iconic landmarks. On the contrary the city runs out very quickly as you head east. The path follows canals, winds through woodland and hugs the boundaries of fields where the city seems to truly have no more influence. There is very little evidence that the wall ever even existed except for sporadic commemorative signs and just once a lonely wall segment where we paused to take an obligatory tourist photo. I suppose the lack of any development stands testament to the wall once standing here.
On the outskirts of Potsdam there are expansive suburbs of enormous houses and mansions. Our amusement and incomprehension of them makes me uncomfortably aware of the socialist and a little bit hipster bubble that a year in Berlin had accustomed me to. The bursting of this bubble was cruelly paralleled by a flat tyre.
We stopped at the very bottom of Wannsee for the best part of an hour, snacking and checking the inner tube for leaks until it became apparent that we would not be able to repair it with the travel-size patch kit. This left us discussing whether to find a bike shop in Potsdam or to call it there. The conclusion was that I would continue while Kim and Björn got lunch and then the train home. It felt like having a pit team as they packed my bag with the remaining food and set the bike up with extra lights and two water bottles. Leaving them wheeling bikes towards the city was a sad parting of ways.
The lonely prospect of a solitary 100k was mitigated by good music, beautiful scenery and a sense of freedom. Shortly after Potsdam the route crosses Wannsee, here you have to take a ferry. Earlier we had joked about how much fun this would be, alone, however, with a 45 minute wait and the dawning comprehension of how much further I had to go, this was probably my moment of lowest moral.
Across the water the trail continues north passed Wannsee and Tegelsee. The forested sections feel remote and almost out of this world, there are just enough ascents to add interest with out being too strenuous and then the trees open out onto views across expansive waters. The lakes are one of the best things about Berlin. Within half an hour, From anywhere in the city, you can be swimming in open water with a not quite cold beer waiting on the shore. At this point I began to feel like a ‘real’ cyclist, I was now confident with the weight and feel of the borrowed bike and happily averaging my goal pace. Finished-by-seven however was now an increasingly unrealistic pipe dream.
Rounding the top of Tegelsee, and after nine hours on the road, exhaustion began to set in. Due to lack of food and shear repetition of motion I started to make mistakes. I was missing signs and having to double back. I will mostly remember this trip fondly and even the cobbled forrest has a dark, metaphoric humour. This is a weaving section must be about two kilometres long but with terrible terrain and waining energy it felt more like for ever. The trees all look alike and the constant corners had me believing that I could have taken a wrong turn and somehow be going in circles. Eventually the trail did emerge into open, smooth surfaced countryside, but I will never stop asking who the hell lays cobbles in a forest!?
By this point the threat of dusk was ever present and I began to wonder if I would really make it back to the city - perhaps it would be best to look out for the next S-Bahn station. The route is tantalising, passing through suburbs then country and back to suburbs. At each built up area I tell myself; this must be the edge of the city, only to be proved devastatingly wrong. I paused at a supermarket to buy a banana and a chocolate bar.
A short time after, riding up possibly the longest assent so far (this is not saying much - Berlin is forgivingly flat) the scenery became unnervingly familiar. With each metre of elevation I became increasingly convinced that I had come down this way earlier. Passing a gate and blossoming trees lining the path, I felt more and more sure and more and more crazy. Reaching the summit I could have cried. Protruding from the newly revealed horizon and visible for the first time, Fernseherturm blinked like a hazy lighthouse signalling for Alexander Platz, the city, and the correct route home.
It was a huge relief to be in the city again. Familiar places welcomed me home; a street where I had once viewed a flat near Tegal airport, the home of a friend from university and stations who's names I actually recognised. Once in the city it became difficult to spot the signs guiding me. It was now definitely dark. White spray paint arrows that I had followed for over 140k ran out along with my phones battery and my motivation.
I did not pass Mauer Park and Brandenburger Tor, nor Potsdamer Platz and Check Point Charlie and my journey did not conclude with the 1.2k wall section of east side gallery. I am still disappointed. Maybe I could have muddled it out close enough and finished more epically but out of frustration mixed up with exhaustion I took the shortest and most familiar route to return the bike. Although my watch showed that I had completed 155k it wasn’t quite the finish I had hoped for. Returning home alone to cook my last (late) dinner in Berlin I could not think challenge complete. Instead I was already planning how next time It could go better - any excuse to return to Berlin.
People third times a charm, right?
And thank you Emma for sharing your story with us.
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