BIKEMAN'S AMAZING ADVENTURE
He may be the world's most traveled man. Heinz Stucke has circled the globe ten times or more, the hard way, by bicycle. He's been shot at, robbed, arrested, and celebrated, embraced and admired in every corner of the planet. But Stucke rarely sticks around for the accolades. He's a timeless wanderer. The Bikeman just keeps rolling.
By Ron Gluckman /Mongolia, Beijing and Hong Kong
HE'S THE RIP VAN WINKLE OF THE ROAD, riding the ultimate road book. On a bike. Ten times around the planet. And still with plenty of pedal power.
Heinz Stucke is cycling into his fourth decade on the ultimate biking tour that began in 1962. When he released his kick stand and set forth from his home of Hovelhof, Germany, the Beatles hadn't hit the charts, John F. Kennedy was in the White House and Oliver Stone hadn't even heard of the Vietnam War.
And a man on the moon? That seemed as outrageous an idea as someone steadfast as a rock, rolling for nearly 40 years on a bicycle.
Of course, Stucke, who claims to be "the most traveled man in history," had modest ambitions at the outset. When he was 22, he planned to circle the world within a few years. He set out with the best intentions. He simply forgot to stop.
"It's interesting to note how many times I said I'd go home and how many times I was wrong," confides the short, stocky German whose huge thighs have been hardened by the 350,000 kilometers he has pedaled - about 10 times around the planet.
"I started this going-home business in the Sixties." Next came the 1972 Olympics. Then the 1974 World Cup. Now, he says, "I'll go home when I run out of new countries."
Traveling under the banner of pedal power, this green James Dean has already rounded a curve on Marco Polo's mark for a quarter-century of travels. And the possibilities have yet to be exhausted. Stucke came close to the finish line in the early 1990s, when he struggled up the mountains of Mongolia and inched closer to the elusive goal of North Korea. Only a handful of tiny republics remained untracked.
He was picking up his visa for Siberia in the Soviet embassy in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator when he heard of the attempted coup. By the time Stucke reached the border, his biking guide had grown to include a dozen newly-independent countries. His response to the reports of turmoil in Russia was a giddy glee. "The break-up of the Soviet Union means there's that many more countries I haven't yet visited."
A positive attitude is essential when you're free-wheeling around the world on pennies per day. Stucke has been shot at by Nkomos rebels in Zambia, stung by bees in Gambia, singed by volcanoes in Central America, arrested at pistol point in Cameroon, and involved in accidents in Alaska, Iran, Chile and Guatemala.
Yet, Stucke says the worst pests of the world, after mosquitoes and sand fleas are bureaucracies and their bizarre border regulations. He says you swerve around government barriers like any ruts in the road.
Vietnam, which once had strict restrictions on independent travel, was no problem for this gallivanting gypsy. "I never had any permission," he says of his months of travel. "Once you're inside a country, nobody asks any questions about what you are doing. When you come pedaling past on your bicycle, everybody figures you must be approved."
The approach isn't fool proof. Stymied in Cambodia, he left his bike in Bangkok and toured the country like a common tourist. Certain other parts of the planet aren't suited to cycling, either. Stucke estimates that he has traveled nearly 600,000 kilometers by train, plane, bus and car on his unconventional global tour.
Sometimes, you simply have no choice. Like when crossing oceans. Even aboard container ships, Stucke strives to maintain his daily regime. He often pedals 30-40 kilometers daily on deck.
It becomes a routine, he says. He normally wakes and shakes a mixture of powdered milk, sugar and instant coffee. He breaks camp while drinking this morning pick me up, then pedals forward for a daily average of 100-120 kilometers. "My personal record was 300 kilometers in 12 hours," he says. "I was crossing the Syrian desert with a tailwind."
Stucke's infatuation with the freedom of bicycle travel began early. The youngest of three children in a working-class Catholic family, he began setting off on week-long trips as a teen-aged apprentice to a tool maker. "I'd go as far as I could in one week," he says, "then I'd turn around and ride back the second week."
The circle of rural routes in Germany gradually grew to encompass Italy, France and the United Kingdom. In 1958, he took his first extended trip, five months and 6,000 miles around the Mediterranean. He was hooked.
Two years later, he was off again, this time touring 20 countries and riding over 10,000 miles. He returned home after two years on the road, but not for long. Within months he set out again on his first worldwide cycle trip, which he figured would take three years.
Almost 40 years later, Stucke figures he has visited nearly 200 countries. He has learned enough lessons of life to fill a biker's bible. "No matter how bad things get," he says, "you just have to continue up the road, where everything is different. That's what I like most. It's the unknown around the corner that turns my wheel."
"My motto," Stucke says, "Every blow that does not kill me only makes me stronger."
His eyesight is failing and the pounds are piling up on his stocky frame. But Stucke is still riding the ancient three-speed with which he started his amazing journey. Nearly every part has been replaced, and he has gone through perhaps seven times as many tires as the 14 passports he has filled on his epic excursion.
The old cycle weighs 25 kilos and Stucke's baggage adds 35-55 kilos more. He has gone without cooking equipment and proper clothing, often to disastrous results. And lack of water nearly killed him in what he says was his most perilous moments in the Sahara.
His baggage includes camera equipment, binoculars and staples of rice, noodles and sardines. Deep in the packs, he buries emergency packets of coffee and candy. Most precious of all are the heavy bound books that contain addresses and his daily diary.
Stucke, who pays no tax, has no fax, phone or home, is nonetheless a very social creature who loves contact. "People always ask me to send them letters," he says, "but I just don't have the time when I'm riding."
However, holed up in Hong Kong, where we had a reunion after a chance meeting in Mongolia, Stucke was planning his assault on the final few countries that have alluded him all these years. And he was tackling the backlog of postcards. By the thousands. He writes to folks who saved his life by sharing precious supplies of water during his Trans-Sahara crossing in 1985. To lads who put him up in London later that year, and friends in Laos, Pakistan, Africa and the South Pacific.
Some of the people crossed paths with Stucke 10-20 years ago. But there is a method to the madness of this bike maniac. Stucke has survived on less than 50 cents per day, subsisting on spare road supplies bought with funds sent by a London agent, who handles sales of Stucke's slides. The income has been limited and unpredictable. When money runs low, Stucke invests in postcards.
The cards are printed with an update on his adventures, ending with a simple pitch for funds. No amount is specified. But anyone writing back is rewarded with a picture booklet that Stucke himself edits and illustrates. Stucke sometime sells them in street stalls.
The process has proven profitable. In Japan some years ago, Stucke raised US$20,000 in this manner. The money financed his meager travel budget for six years. Stucke's staggering self-confidence wavers slightly as he sheepishly admits to opening his first bank account to accommodate the current fund-raising campaign. Indeed, a minimalist dependence on cash seems his only concession to conventional life.
Not that Stucke lives high on the hog. He has slept in ditches, caves, stables, yachts, canoes, prison cells, truck stops, even once in a telephone box. Among the Hong Kong high-rises and glittering shopping centers, his present bunk is atop 10,000 of his booklets in the garage of a Kowloon bike shop.
Owner Alfred Li has taken a liking to the Don Quixote antics of this bike-aholic, as have numerous fans. A family that met Stucke while caravaning across the south coast of Australia, promptly flew to Hong Kong for a visit after receiving his card. "He's impossible to keep up with, even when he's walking he's a little dynamo," says the daughter, a 27-year-old teacher who was seven when they first met.
Stucke concedes that he cannot slow down. "I'm always so busy. That's why I've got to get back on the bike and get out of here. Everyone wants to talk, visit. I have so much business to take care of, and no time to write."
He always rides alone. "That way, I can do anything I want, when I want. Sure, it can be lonely," he admits, "but I have to have this freedom."
Stucke scoffs both at the critics who cannot see the purpose of his pedaling and the admirers who romanticize it. "I just do what I do. As to happiness, you can never just be happy. One moment you are, and the next you're not. There's happiness and sadness as you go.
"Why?" he ponders. "Why not? Every human endeavor is irrelevant in some ways. It's up to each individual to achieve their own objectives. I got into this and don't want to stop."
He stares at the beer before him, then adds with a touch of sadness, "What would I do, if I did stop? This is my reason for existence. I cannot stop."
So, the miles continue to pile on his computerized bike counter. As to the finish line, he says, "that's never in sight.
"Along the road, in the end, you will find a gateway, and over it will be a sign. The sign will say, 'cemetery.' Thousands have gone the same road before. I just feel privileged to have traveled so far, so many miles."
"It's the unknown around the corner that turns my wheel," he adds.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, which ran one version of this story. Ron Gluckman also wrote about the Bikeman for Winds, the South China Morning Post, Peak and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
And check back, as Ron is tracking Heinz for an updated tour with the Bikeman for National Geographic Adventure.
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