In seiner letzten Kolumne schrieb CLEAT-Chefredakteur Max Marquardt über einen ungewöhnlichen Zufall mit einem Fixie-Fahrer, den er in seinem oberbayrischen Kaff an einer Kreuzung traf. Jetzt, nach vielen Wochen, hat sich der Durchreisende tatsächlich zurückgemeldet und uns einen formidablen Text seiner Eindrücke zugeschickt – und natürlich ein paar Fotos. Auf seinen persönlichen Wunsch hin, haben wir den Text im englischen Original belassen.
Text & Fotos: Sticky Barry,Marco Paška
Max Marquardt: Gleich mal vorweg: „Congo“ heißt gar nicht so, sondern eigentlich Marco. Als Journalist ist mir das ja wirklich peinlich, denn gerade dann sollte man es besser können: Aber ich habe oftmals Probleme mir Namen zu merken – auch, wenn sie so kurz wie „Marco“ sind. Als ich ihm unser Foto per Airdrop zuschickte, erschien in meinem Smartphone-Display zuerst „Congo“ (wohl wegen „Congstar“, dem britischen Kommunikationkonzern). Als ich daheim dann den Artikel zusammenfasste, war mir der echte Name schon längt wieder entfallen. „Congo“ hatte sich aber irgendwie eingebrannt, weswegen ich ihn in meiner Kolumne so genannt habe. Ich hatte ehrlich gesagt auch nicht damit gerechnet, dass ich nochmal etwas von dem fremden Durchreisenden hören würde. Denn heutzutage sind ein „Ja, machen wir“, oder ein „Ich melde mich dann“ meistens hohle Phrasen. Bei einem Typen wie Marco hätte mir jedoch bewusst sein müssen, dass er zu seinem Wort stehen würde. Und so erhielt ich knapp zwei Monate nach unser Zusammenkunft tatsächlich diesen langen und ausführlichen Text von ihm. Und sogar ein paar starke Fotos. Danke Marco! Und nun wünsche ich beste Unterhaltung mit seinem Erfahrungsbericht!
On a cycle through Bavaria. A dude overtakes me going twice my speed on a fixed gear. Those who ride fixed got to acknowledge one another. I pick up the pace to give chase. I catch up and say hello: ‘’Cool bike.’’ Dude glances my machine and returns a warm smile. We become best friends. For half an hour.
His name is Max. I tell him I’ve been on the road for 12 days. ‘’Started in Scotland, heading to Hungary.’’ I should arrive in Salzburg tomorrow midday, then join a group ride to Budapest for ECMC 2023. Before I depart, Max mentions he’s an editor of a cycling magazine in Munich. He likes my story and tells me I should write about my travels. ‘’I wanna publish it’’ he says. Alright than. Lets do this!
I just finished my third winter working as a bike messenger in Glasgow. Three completed winters is the cut-off point to being considered a rookie. It was around this time that work started to feel like pushing a boulder uphill, for nine hours a day. I needed a new challenge.
Luckily, in July of 2023, Hungary would organize ECMC in ‘’the Paris of the East’’, formally known as Budapest. European Cycle Messenger Championship is a bike courier festival and the mecca of European Messengerhood.
Theres a long-standing tradition of working on track bikes in the messenger community. No caliper brakes. Your feet are clipped directly to your rear wheel. You regulate your speed intuitively through your musculature. Applying pressure forward to speed or backwards to slow.
An epic adventure sprung to mind. I bagged my tent, put on my red ‘’BUDAPEST“ cap and hopped on my track bike to cycle from Glasgow to Budapest. A 2000-kilometer Mitteleuropean odyssey.
The coming narrative describes the final 600 kilometers, a group ride organized by couriers, for couriers, from Salzburg, heading to ECMC 2023 in Budapest.
Twelve days after I left Scotland. I burned all my matches traversing rush hour Munich today. It was pure chaos. Commuters ride damn aggressively. Fatigue set in. I keep the inertia rolling at slow squad pace. I camp for the night in Wasserburg, as Max suggested.
Lucky day thirteen. Have irritable breakfast in a MacDonalds listening to the dreadful pop music they always play. I would have to overcome the final hills to get to Salzburg.
I find myself in lovely little alpine villages. It would be a heavenly scene had it not been goddamn scorching. It’s about 30 degrees. I’m sweating like a pig. Salt patterns on my back resemble the psychedelic paintings of Alex Grey.
I was checking elevation data religiously. A particular sharp spike gave me the fear. I was looking at it, weeks ago, as the final bossfight of my journey. I was mentally preparing myself to overcome this ‘’Big Bad Wolf’’. I start the preliminary climbs. My legs feel sapped. I run out of water half way up. There are no shops nearby so I resort to hopping a fence and harvesting some poor farmers water hose.
The climbing got tough, but manageable. The fear of the ‘’Big Bad Wolf’’ still lingered, taking up real estate in my consciousness, compromising my attention span while I should focus on cycling. I am expecting the worst still to come. Surely when I turn the corner I will be confronted by the final hill, the Big Bad Wolf incarnate. Instead, the horizon flattens out. I check elevation map again. It’s all flat. I conquered the final boss without even noticing.
Fear created a monster in my head. It failed to square up to reality. We always end up fearing things that never materialize. We forget that what we fear as possible, is not necessarily inevitable. With the big bad wolf slayed, I descent down to Austria.
My solo journey concludes on Friday, the thirteenth day of my journey. I made the route and carried my stuff from Glasgow. From Salzburg I join a motor supported group ride heading to Budapest. I get to renounce responsibility and avoid the pain of decision-making. I ride with the pack.
ECMC 2022 was my introduction to the madness that is the Messenger Multiverse. As part of Team Scotland, I took a Ferry from Newcastle to Holland. We joined a group ride heading from Amsterdam, through Bremen, into Berlin. This ride was the inception of a loose guild of Western European based bike messengers. We came to call ourselves the ‘’Pilgrims of Motherfuckerland.’’ We unified multiple scenes into one whole.
This fellowship consisted of team Amsterdam, Swiss and French pelotoners, Austrians and Germans, various Eastern Europeans and other random international messengers. Not to forget, Team Britain. I am part of its subdivision, Team Scotland. Team Amsterdam organized the group ride in 2022. A year later, it was now Team Salzburg’s turn. A supported group ride from Salzburg to Budapest, 600km over 4 days.
First up, Salzburg to Linz. My gear ratio, 44×18, was perfect for climbing. After clearing Salzburg the road turned downhill. I turned into a fish outta water. We got a tailwind. This damn near killed me. I was spinning-out, going full hamster. I spun comfortably at around 25km/h. Cycling at 35km/h was as fast as I could spin. I had to spin to my limit, for hours, just to keep up with the freewheeling pack. I never experienced anything like it before. The wind was taunting me to go faster but I physically couldn’t spin a higher cadence.
Descending was the greatest challenge to my journey. I had to carry my weight manually, without help from caliper brakes. Holding on for dear life and applying pressure backwards to slow down. If I see where the downhill leads, I unclip and wedge my foot between the seat and the down tube for balance. Then use my left shoe against the rear tyre to stave off some speed to catch the spinning cranks safely. ‘’Click.’’ Every hill became potential trouble. My descending strategy was to go slow and avoid skidding.
I had no choice this time. Keeping up with the group meant descending far faster than I would normally feel comfortable with. I shredded through my rear tyre getting to Linz. Had like 10 burned-off rubber patches.
Luckily, Team Linz got me a brand new Gatorskin. Further luckily, Team Salzburg forced me to buy a 15 tooth sprocket back in Salzburg. Changed the sprocket in Linz. My new ratio was 44×15. Next up: Linz to Vienna, over 200km.
My gear ratio went from 2.44 to 2.93. The difference was night and day. I no longer struggled to keep up. I now hung out at the front, spinning comfortably at 35km/h. Pushing the pace to repair my pride wounded from yesterday. We conquered Vienna in the dark and stayed at some sort of hippie commune. Next day we would enter Slovakia and conquer Bratislava. Homecoming at last! Wait, had I forgot to mention?
I wasn’t lying when I called this mission an odyssey. I am Slovak. From Bratislava. It’s a lovely town. Far smaller than Vienna or Prague. It’s a pretty chill place surrounded on all sides by forests. You can see the stars at night! I shrieked with excitement when I heard ECMC 2023 would come to Budapest. Budapest lies on the Danube, 200km down from Bratislava. I would pass my hometown on way to Hungary.
Ain’t that just perfect. I always wanted to cycle it home from Glasgow. After I finished my third winter on the bike, I quit my job, renounced my apartment and lived in my tent bikepacking Ireland and the Highlands. Being unemployed and homeless gets exhausting after a while. No worries, my childhood room was waiting for me in Bratislava, some 2000 km ride from Glasgow.
It was in Linz that I found out we had a problem with the support vehicle. We had carried the stuff of about thirty couriers. It would not fit in one car. So a dude had to sacrifice his group ride to ride another car. But he could only ride as far as Vienna. We had no one to carry our stuff onwards through Slovakia to Budapest. It was time for me to use my local powers.
My parents live in Bratislava. A 10 minute cycle from Austria, or an hours drive to Vienna. My dad has a medium sized work van. They agreed to support our group ride, carrying everyones stuff from Vienna to a camping spot in Slovakia, then onwards to Budapest.
I did not sleep much in Vienna. Big day ahead. Excitement made me wake up before my alarm, wired to the gills. My parents arrive in Vienna in the morning. Been a while since I’ve seen them. ‘’Im home!’’ I hug mom with tears in my eyes. I asked parents to bring with them my secret weapon. I left it in Slovakia months ago, as preparation for this very day. I would ride into Eastern Europe with style. They hand me my favorite toy. The ace up my sleeve is my titanium track bike made by Wittson, a small Lithuanian frame builder.
I rode something like 1.8 thousand kilometers on my steel machine. Hopping on the Titan felt like a dream. It weights as much as a feather. You put two crank spins in and it’s already flying. Floating in a state of weightlessness. I don’t get how it’s possible. Climbing hills is an absolute joy. I swear I got out of shape since I got it. Any other bike feels sluggish and heavy in comparison. It’s a mythical bike. If Hermes, the Greek God of messengers, rode a track bike, this would be the one.
We needed a lay-over spot in Bratislava. Team Salzburg asked if I know any local couriers. Yeah, I met them at a Bratislava alleycat, so I ask the bossman of the local courier company Švihaj Šuhaj whether I can bring 30 Western European couriers to their base. Bossman says why not. He vows to prepare some food as well. I have no idea what to expect. At least we have a place to head towards.
Time to conquer Slovakia, 70km from Vienna. Team Salzburg leads the group out down the Danube. We ride with the wind and somehow appear by Hainburg. I am bamboozled at our speed. Did I teleport here? Titanium is a hell of a drug. Hainburg is the last city before crossing into Slovakia. Last city before Eastern Europe. I used to cycle Bratislava to Hainburg daily as a teenager. This is my turf.
During a short break someone passes me a joint. Inhale, exhale. My mind enters overdrive and the magnitude of the situation dawns upon me. I have damn near arrived home. Profound anxiety springs into my soul. Or rather, profound excitement. Anxiety and excitement are the same neurological responses. It’s up to us how we interpret it.
“Follow me I know the way.“ I ride on instincts and miss the turn onto the cycle path, leading 30 vagabond cyclists on the main road through Hainburg. Panic sets in. Was it this way? I honestly cannot recall. But there’s no turning back now. I plan to stop at a red light but no one else does. Couriers pass me from every direction like bees. Fuck it, it’s anarchy. Riding a convoy like this, rules of the road don’t apply to you.
I glance the Hainburg Gate. Thank god, this is the right path. We cross the town and get on the cycle path again. I can see the outline of Bratislava in the distance. Excitement takes over as our group separates and part of us race to conquer Slovakia. Eastern Europe awaits lads! The castle in the distance gets bigger by the minute. A middle aged MTB rider joins our peloton, taking turn drafting. Reliving his glory days no doubt. I glance the old border. A sense of relief sets in as we cross it. Slovakia’s lost son has returned. I took the long way.
We regroup by the UFO bridge opposite Bratislava’s historic centre. I fantasied about conquering Bratislava for months. Now I get to lead our whole convoy to the Švihaj Šuhaj messenger base. I chose the scenic route. We cross the bridge, get into the old town and take a right turn onto Panská. A narrow, picturesque street, where tourist traps abound. I planned the route months ago, cycling Bratislava, lost in my head fantasizing. ‘’Is that the Tour de France?’’ a local asks. We cross a tram line and arrive at Švihaj Šuhaj.
I did not know what to expect. I glance the Slovak couriers, jump off my bike and give them hugs. I brought thirty vagabonds with me. We are welcomed by a feast. Hummus for days, beer, focaccias etc. Our minds are blown. We eat, drink, smoke and chat in the shade. We are all a family here. Looking at our diverse set of coworkers I get talking with my fellow Slovaks. It was a beautiful scene we agreed. There was no communication between the ‘’Pilgrims of Motherfuckerland’’ and Slovak couriers. We just extended our borders. We united a scene.
We sat in the shade shooting the shit for hours. Four grandmas walk past us. ‘’What a bunch of weird people’’ I understand them say. They are not wrong. We look like a traveling circus. Messengers are very individually expressive. We have a strong sense of identity. We love over-the-top tattoos, facial hair and the like. We spend our spare cash on gathering the most bling gear. We spec up our bikes into oblivion with silly details no-one ever notices. We never get rich, but the bikes get nicer.
There are no gods left to worship in the 21st century so we are condemned to worship ourselves. Ancient sources of purpose dried up with the Enlightenment, so we are damned to search for a meaning to our lives ourselves. In our post-modern world, objective truth died and gave way to subjective expression.
Thats where being a messenger pays off. It’s more than just a hobby, it’s our work, it’s our essence. We get to source the meaning of our lives from belonging to something greater than our individual selves. After putting in the time, we get to join a tribe of like minded folk and are, on paper, never alone again.
We camp in Southern Slovakia just opposite the Hungarian border. The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen descend down on us come midnight. A mad thunder storm. A windblast lifts me and my tent off the ground. I did not nail it down properly. Never have I experienced a deluge such as this before. One of the lads whips up a speaker and starts blasting hard techno. A rave materialized out of the chaos. Ravers howl like mad dogs with each thunder blast.
Power was out in the morning. Broken trees inches from tents. It was a rough night. Though our mission continued. One last day. Today we ride for Budapest.
I ride with slow squad. For an hour we sit on grass just outside Budapest drinking beer and smoking spliffs. We line up on both sides of the road and give everyone who cycles past us a heroes welcome. We scream “CHISTOOOOLE” or “ALLEZ, ALLEZ, ALLEZ” at the top of our lungs as moral support. Just goofing around really. Cyclists return fire with “BENGA BENGA BENGA!” – I have no clue what that means.
We arrived in Budapest just after dark. I turn up to ECMC HQ hoping for a floor to sleep on. I get a bed. ECMC organizers managed to book a whole student accommodation. About 30 rooms per floor. Four stories tall. A Messenger Hostel. The hostel entrance became the party. It was 35 degrees in the city. I could not be bothered with the events. My mission has concluded. I spent most my time at the hostel hanging out with a never ending rotation of European couriers.
How do I conclude this whole thing? What was my journey about? I always wanted to cycle from Glasgow to Bratislava. The Gods set up the cards and it was up to me to seize the opportunity. It was a homecoming rite, I think.
After nearly a 2000 km journey, I got to conquer my hometown on a titanium super bike. What a joy it is to ride! I cannot express the honor of leading my comrades through my hometown. I introduced the West to the East. Helped unify a scene. It felt as my personal Roman triumph, a celebration of my last three years grinding it as a cycle delivery-boy.
In closing, I believe you can ride a track bike on the road safely, without endangering yourself or others. It depends on the rider, not the bike. It forces you to be wholly present. It’s not for everybody, but for me, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Once it ‘’clicks“ and you feel the rhythm of your environment, you, your bike and your surrounding merge into one. Lost in the flow you momentarily return to innocence. It feels terribly flimsy until it ‘’clicks’‘ and you learn to let the bike do its thing. It’s wonderfully conductive to a flow response.
It took me 17 days to get from Glasgow to Budapest. 2000 kilometers, averaging 125km per day. I think I found my shtick. Im not about to beat Mark Beaumonts 80 day around-the-world record. Sounds exhausting! I can form my own records. A British dude cycled the world on a unicycle. So how long would it take to ride the world over on a track bike? Red Bull, if you want to sponsor something stupid and illegal, call me and we can find out.