Steppenwolf 2023

Sitting on the concrete floor of a large abandoned aircraft hangar, Jack examines a split ziplock bag filled with peanut butter. Carefully peeling the two halves of plastic away from each other, he reaches for his spoon. Rachel starts rummaging through her frame bag and pulls out an apple. As she takes a bite, the hangar amplifies the sound to a comically loud volume. We crease up and laugh hysterically, it’s day 3 of Steppenwolf and the sleep-deprived hysteria is setting in.

Steppenwolf is an ultra event that has two routes, the 750km wild track and the 500km gravel track. Both routes go through the same 3 checkpoints where you can get food, a shower and a camp spot. It’s a truly luxurious ultra experience. Founded by brothers Markus and Jonathan and run on donations, Steppenwolf is free to enter and strives to be an inclusive event. Due to opening up applications to women and non-binary people early, the participant list boasts a 50/50 gender split – almost unheard of at events like this.

I line up at the start line with my friend Jack and his friend Nis, we’re going to ride the wild track as a ‘pack’. The sun is shining and spirits are high as we set off. The route quickly ventures into the forest and the pace is fast as we weave through tall, skinny pine trees on flowy descents. Nis is on a gravel bike and manoevers it around the trails with the confidence of someone on a full sus. After tackling a few steep hike-a-bike sections in the hot afternoon sun we cross the Polish border. The dappled woodland single-track turns into an expanse of sandy double-track, interspersed with bone-rattling stretches of chunky cobblestone.

As afternoon turns to evening we pull up to a pizza restaurant and Nis decides to end his ride while a train station is nearby. He’s developed a bad migraine that’s effecting his vision. I mumble awkwardly to the waitress. I realise with embarrassment that I don’t even know how to say hello in Polish. With little certainty that I’ve ordered two pizzas, Jack and I begin the ritual of filling up various water bladders and bottles in the bathroom. When the pizzas arrive they are the biggest pizzas I’ve ever seen, so big that the waitress sets them down on an adjacent 4-person table. We stare at them, intimidated. We finish about three-quarters of a single pizza and then stuff as many slices as we possibly can into two ziplock bags.

With frame bags full of pizza we venture back onto the route and follow giant gas pipes that snake along the roads, engulfing small cottages and shooting up into the air at every junction.

We reach CP1 at around 10pm. The checkpoint is 175km into the route and located at a campsite on the edge of a large forest. When we arrive, the Steppenwolf volunteers are cooking pasta for all the riders coming in. We set up camp under a gazebo and set our alarms for 4am so we can tackle the upcoming single-track in daylight.

We’re an hour or so into an 80km stretch that is pancake flat. There isn’t a tree in sight. The route follows a gravel cycle path around the perimeter of Poland’s largest lake. The monotony pulls focus to the aches and pains setting in. Without the ups, downs and sharp turns of the trails, you become very still, each touchpoint between you and the bike loudly making itself known. We’re keeping an eye out for the perfect lunch spot but it doesn’t show up, finally deciding that literally anywhere will do. We stop and sit down on the course gravel and blink at the sun. Rachel, who we haven’t seen since the start line, pulls up. Unimpressed with our chosen spot, but just as keen for a break, she joins us. From ziplock bags, we pull out old pizza slices that have been reheated by the sun, and swat away swarms of mosquitos as we tuck in.

Eventually we venture back into the trees and things get more interesting. My GPS starts to have a meltdown every time we enter the forest, constantly beeping at me and insisting we’re going the wrong way. As it’s right less than half the time, I grow distrustful of its complaints. We end up going around in circles, trying to find the tire tracks left by previous riders. After more confusion and some hike-a-bike, we emerge from the forest to find that the exit has been closed off. In its place is a construction site with a huge mountain of sand that we slide down to get to the road. After emptying the sand from our shoes we speed off down the tarmac, it’s already 6pm and we still have 70km to go until the checkpoint.

We make our way back into Germany along the coast, we have about 45km to go until CP2. The sun is setting over the ocean, casting a beautiful light across the wooden boardwalk. The route takes us back into the forest, where we carefully navigate along cliff edge single-track, the water calm and serene below us. It’s now completely dark and we’re getting hungry. We stop at a bench in a small forest clearing and under the red light of my head-torch, I start slicing up a mozzarella with the blunt edge of a titanium spoon. A family walks past us and starts to hurriedly converse with us in German, we make our apologies and they switch to English, ‘Are you ok? Are you hurt?’ We look at each other, taking in our dishevelled appearances, and then at our bikes, carelessly strewn on the floor. ‘Yes we’re fine, we’re just eating dinner!’ They laugh, ‘We thought you’d crashed!’ ‘Enjoy your meal!’. The family continues their walk, still laughing amongst themselves.

It turns out that CP2 is the family home of the organisers and they’ve decided that 100+ disheveled riders coming in and out to use their bathroom sounds like fun. We sit around the kitchen table and drink tea and chat with the volunteers. This event is truly special. The garden is already full of tents so we lay out our bivies in the field opposite. It’s cold so close to the coast and I struggle to fall sleep.

I wake up on day 3 damp from condensation, and the familiar ultra fatigue is beginning to settle in. We only have 154km until the next checkpoint and our plan is to get there before dark and then push on, making a dent in the final 186km before stopping to sleep. The first hour is slow as we make our way along dirt tracks through the fields, our aching bodies gradually loosening up with each pedal rotation.

We pass through many villages in the afternoon hoping to find a shop, restaurant, or even someone in their garden to top up our dwindling water supplies. Each village is a ghost town, and we don’t see a single person for hours. Pulling into the last populated area for a while, we come across a village hall advertising a restaurant inside. Hoping someone will be working, we stop and try the front door — it opens. Stepping into the darkness, it becomes clear that we’re alone. We quickly fill up our water bladders in the bathroom, the cleats on our cycling shoes echoing through the vast, empty building.

We pull up to a supermarket 10 minutes before closing. Tomorrow is a Sunday and all shops will be closed so it’s important we stock up now. We hurry up and down the aisles, exhausted, blinking at the overwhelming amount of options. I’m starving and everything looks amazing but somehow not what I want or what my body needs. 10 minutes becomes 5 minutes and I start to grab stuff indiscriminately. Back outside I look back and forth between the huge pile of food, and my small framebag. After an almost impossible game of snack tetris we push on, framebag zips bulging.

CP3 is located at a beautiful community-run home and for the first time we arrive in daylight. Volunteers have made a huge pot of vegetable curry and some of the gravel track riders are enjoying a beer. Although it’s really tempting to stay, we need to crack on if we want to finish tomorrow evening.

A kilometre up the road we pass a beautiful sandy lake where some riders are enjoying a swim as the sun sets. We round the corner and enjoy a fast downhill into the forest. At the bottom of the hill, Jack realises he’s left his phone charging at the checkpoint. Fearing we’ll lose momentum if we return to the paradise of CP3, we decide to press on without it.

Riding deep into the night is exciting, the camaraderie of riding as a pair buffers the creepy sounds of the forest and we make quick progress. Our chosen sleep spot is a large arid field on the edge of the trees that put some distance between us and the bugs.

Waking up to tackle the final 165km, we have some breakfast, pack away our wet sleeping gear, and roll back into the forest. We know resupply will be scarce today but we set our sights on the town of Lychen, in the hope we can at least find some caffeine. Rolling into the quiet town, things aren’t looking hopeful as we pass by shuttered shops and cafes. Our luck changes when we stumble across an open bakery with fresh bread and coffee, moments like these on an ultra feel euphoric.

After Lychen with no more goals but 'let's get this done' our mood starts to dip. Grinding away on sandy double track, with the finish line still many hours away, the route starts to kick our butts. We roll up to a series of disused aircraft hangars and find Rachel sitting inside one of them.

With morale topped up we set off on the final 80km, which tick by faster than the last few hours. As we approach Berlin the route started to feel more familiar to Jack who often cycles the trails around the city. He picks up pace as he anticipates every twist, turn, and downed tree.

Crossing the finish line at 21.10 we’re greeted by Markus who puts the final stamp in our brevet cards. 3 days, 13 hours.

After tackling Atlas Mountain Race earlier in the year, I went into Steppenwolf thinking I'd have a fairly easy time of it. I was happily surprised to be consistently challenged by the route, being relatively new to mountain biking I learnt a lot and feel I finished as a more confident rider than I started. Steppenwolf has something to offer everyone, and that's what makes it such a special event.