Words and photos by Ambassador Barry McWilliams.

“Drop your heels. Relaxed shoulders…Nice. Smooth circles. Good. Loosen the elbows…”

It’s a mantra running through my head as I roll down one, then another and still one more gravel road, Forstweg or stretch of pave, somewhere in the middle of Brandenburg (the German state surrounding Berlin). I’ve mapped out a route that, from the front door of my apartment in Neukölln (a neighbourhood in Berlin) and back, is 120k, 80k of which isn’t paved. Berlin isn’t Girona, the Alps or even Los Angeles. It’s not a cycling destination. Riding here can be boring. And that boredom is sometimes enchanting. 

I moved here nine months ago from Los Angeles, California. #LASucksForCycling. LA, where I could leave my house and within 5 miles climb 1,000’ on roads closed to cars, or do 100-mile loops with 10,000’ of climbing. Here, on a recent roundtrip to Poland, it took me 120 miles to find 1,200’ of climbing.   

There’s no getting around it. Berlin is flat. Pancake flat. Pfannekucken pflat. And riding flat roads is boring. Climbing and descending are what engage me on the bike. Not because I’m a good climber. I’m not. I’m reliably in the middle back of any group ride. It engages me because it’s so singularly-focused. When you’re climbing on a road bike, all you’re doing is riding uphill. Whether you’re going fast or slow, the climbing is there. The gradient bites your legs. You feel it in every pedal stroke. Even when you get distracted by the view or back off the pace just enough that you can talk to your friends, the climbing is always there as a constant focus. 

That’s the riding I missed when I got to Berlin. I found lots of pretty roads through the countryside. I found great pavement (much better than in LA). I found an active cycling community. And I found that the riding all felt the same after a surprisingly short while. What’s there to do on a group ride when the road is flat, straight and featureless? Go fast. Get better at sitting in a paceline. Learn to enjoy riding in crosswinds – all thing lots of people enjoy, but not a single one of the bikes I brought to Berlin could conceivably be called “aero”. My stems aren’t all slammed. That’s not the kind of rider I am. So even though the roads are still new and the views still charming, the riding lost some of its luster pretty quickly. Until I found the Waldwege (“forest trails”). Brandenburg is littered with them and, unbelievably, they’re all mapped.

Dog walking trails next to the Autobahn are mapped, so are logging roads, abandoned train routes, overgrown hunters’ paths and kilometre after kilometre of Forstsraße, Rückeweg, Radweg and Holzweg. I’ve spent hours building routes on Komoot, tweaking them to see how little pavement I could ride and how far out of the city I could get in a few hours of riding. Inevitably there’s been some trial and error. Blame it on the map database, GPS drift or my poor Wahoo reading skills but I’ve not gone for a gravel ride this summer that didn’t involve hike-a-bike through the un-tracked forest – even as the map said I was right on track. But I guess if I’m not prepared to push my bike, I’m not prepared to ride gravel.

And riding gravel has brought Brandenburg to life for me.

On an average ride, I’ll ride along Sees (lakes), through protected wildlife areas, small towns, and past tiny hiking shelters. In the middle of nowhere, I’ll come across a couple in their 60’s with a barbecue grill and full panniers strapped to their bikes, or a young couple with dogs. Slow down. Wave “Hallo”. Wish each other a “schönes Wochenende.” Soon enough, I’m all alone again on a long, straight gravel road…pedaling smoothly, loosely, regaining momentum and dropping into the kind of half-focus Brandenburg gravel asks for.

“Drop your heels. Relaxed shoulders…Nice. Smooth circles. Good. Loosen the elbows…”

The straight, flat gravel roads here don’t require you to be laser-focused on your line. Eyes open for sandpits (there is a reason people call this region ‘Sandenburg’) and the occasional rut, but it’s not singletrack. It’s not about precision. It’s about staying loose. It’s floating over the chatter instead of fighting it. A death grip on the bars, locked elbows, and a half-cringe as you anticipate the next bump is a great way to crash. When I’m riding gravel well, it’s because I’ve found a cadence. I’m loose, pedaling smoothly and in a state that’s either unfocused attention or focused boredom brought on by the simple repetitiveness of bike riding. On a long ride, my first pedal stroke isn’t fundamentally different than my 500th. Or my 50,000th. “Drop your heels. Relaxed shoulders…Nice. Smooth circles. Good. Loosen the elbows…”

I’m paying only partial attention to my line. I’m breathing & staying loose. I’m in the middle of the woods, alone, hearing the crunch of gravel and watching the trees roll by. I’m rooted in the moment, kept in it through thousands of tiny repetitions. 

“Drop your heels. Relaxed shoulders…Nice. Smooth circles. Good. Loosen the elbows…”

Nothing is happening except for me riding my bike, which is a big reason why I ride my bike.