Legends Series: Heinz Stücke

In November 1962, 22-year old Heinz Stücke cycled out of his hometown in Germany. The legendary bike tourer then continued to pedal for the next 50 years. He rode through 196 countries and covered a staggering 648,000km.

Missing the Olympics — by 7 years

Before setting off in 1962, he had done shorter journeys around the Mediterranean and to Asia. These cemented his love for life on two wheels. He decided that he wanted to cycle through Africa to South Africa, then through the U.S. before making his way to Tokyo. He has never been one for strict timelines, but he loosely hoped to make it to Tokyo for the 1964 Olympics. He arrived in 1971.

Photo: @heinzstucke

 

As he discovered just how long these journeys take, Stücke realized that he needed a way to subsidize his lifestyle. His explorations could not continue without it. He had always taken photos as he cycled, so he made booklets of his travels.

How he financed his travels

Initially, he intended them to serve as a big business card, but people were happy to buy them. He sold out his first batch within hours. These little booklets, along with photos and postcards, funded his journey for years. When he cycled through South America, he sold thousands in every country. Then in 1995, he took it a step further and self-published a memoir, Mit dem Fahrrad um die Welt (“Cycling Around the World”).

Over the years, Stücke’s approach to cycling changed.

“In the earlier days, I wanted to reach cities, and I wanted to go out in the evening, to go drinking and to bars and things like that,” he told TravellingTwo.

But as the years ticked by, he came to prefer a slower pace and wild camping. He settled into a rhythm. He looked for a picturesque camp spot, then cooked, read, and listened to the radio.

His seemingly idyllic lifestyle included many challenges and setbacks. A truck sideswiped him in the Atacama Desert, soldiers beat him unconscious in Egypt, bees attacked him in Mozambique, and the Cameroon military detained him. His bike was stolen six times. Luckily, he always managed to recover it.

Photo: brompton.com

 

Terrifying encounters

Two terrifying encounters particularly stand out. In 1980 in Zambia, Nkomos rebels stopped Stücke as he was cycling toward Lusaka and shot him in the foot. Threatening to shoot him again, they tore off most of his clothes and destroyed his belongings.

Luckily, a German named Buttner who was working for the Zambian government happened to pass in his car. He heard Stücke screaming that he was just a German tourist. Though Buttner initially sped away, since his wife and children were also in the car, he quickly returned with five policemen. Stücke stayed with Buttner and his family for 10 days while he recovered.

The second close call came in 2012 in South Africa. After cycling through vineyards near Cape Town, he was attacked in broad daylight. After refusing to hand over his belongings, the attacker dislocated his arm and broke many of his teeth. The robber then stole Stücke’s backpack and many of his possessions. Stücke suffered chronic pain in his shoulder after that.

196 countries

Despite these few dangerous situations, Stücke believed that he was very lucky. He has traveled through 196 countries, alone. He accepted that he couldn’t be safe all the time.

After so many years on the road, the German can’t name a favorite country. Instead, he believes that every country has one standout quality. He also admits that he is not an expert on any of the places he has visited. He usually stayed in a country for three to five months, “and then it’s time to move on.”

Photo: cyclingnorthwales.co.uk

 

In the early years, he wanted to go to places that seemed exotic. He shunned Germany’s neighboring countries for almost 20 years in favor of those on the other side of the world. Then he decided that he needed a goal. He made up his mind to visit every country in the world. Back in Europe, he was surprised to discover that he felt a little more comfortable there. The societies more closely mirrored those he grew up in. Language barriers lessened.

A committed wanderer

In 1996, he reached his final country –- Seychelles. Instead of feeling elated at meeting his goal, it seemed anticlimactic to him. He was still not ready to stop cycling. There was still so much to see. He continued on for another 16 years. In 1995, he set a Guinness World Record for bike touring.

One of the most remarkable things about Stücke is how long he traveled. He did not return home for 50 years. He never felt the need to. The urge to see one more country was always stronger.

He also suspected that if he went home, he might feel some pressure to settle down. He didn’t want that to happen. “I resolutely keep going on, there is no time for depression or to think about what would have been if you had had a different life,” he explained.

Photo: The Design Museum

 

Only two bikes

In a time when there everyone wants the most high-tech gear, Stücke has used just two bikes on his travels. For the first 580,000km, he used the same model, a 25kg basic steel-framed bike. Over the years, it has been welded in multiple places, stripped down, sandblasted, and built back up a number of times. It is covered in world maps, and Stücke has added small paintings to the tubing.

Finally, when no more repairs were possible, Stücke got a Brompton bike. He used this for the last 68,000km of his epic journey and still uses it today.

After 50 years on the road, Stücke returned to Germany in 2012. He is 82 now, and his long-distance years are behind him. But his stubbornly nomadic lifestyle remains an inspiration to cyclists and explorers.

“It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels,” he once said.

Rebecca is a freelance writer and science teacher based in the UK. She is a keen traveler and has been lucky enough to backpack her way around parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. With a background in marine biology, she is interested in everything to do with the oceans. Her areas of expertise include open water sports, marine wildlife and adventure travel.

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