Gravel Culture: The CandyB Gravelleur
Gravel Union On
12 April 2021
2020 started with so many exciting plans - for me one of them was to ride the route of the CandyB Gravelleur with some friends from Germany. The route, which runs from Frankfurt to Berlin, is based around the flight path of the CandyB bomber - or the Berlin Airlift (Luftbrücke) as it’s also known.
Devised by Gunnar Fehlau and his merry band of scouts and much like Gunnar’s other great bike packing route, the Grenzesteintrophy, the CandyB Gravelleur has previously been run as a bikepacking event. The event is normally run with the finish timed to arrive at the Velo Berlin bike festival at Tempelhof Airport. Whilst there was no official event planned for 2020, we’d decided to stick to the original April date to do our ride. Then Covid19 arrived on the scene. To start with, we thought it might be all cleared up by April….. then by summer…then we decided maybe early autumn would be ok. I’d spotted that it was the Candy Bomber’s 100th Birthday on the 10th of October, so we decided this would be a suitable date.
By late summer, even an October trip was looking like it might not happen. Finally, I gave in and booked some cheap flights, thinking I’d book the bike on the flight later and if it didn’t happen, or if I would be required to quarantine on return, then I wouldn’t have lost much if I cancelled the trip at the last minute and didn’t go.
Germany is governed as a series of states, each one having a different set of rules for Covid19. Luckily, I have friends all over Germany and each was separately keeping me updated with what was allowed where. However, it was these same friends that I was due to be riding with. Oli was stuck in Munich and was not allowed to leave, Andreas didn’t want to risk leaving Dusseldorf and Hendrik was 300kms away in Hamburg. Which left just me. I didn’t think the risk was that great, so decided to still try. By the Sunday night I’d decided it was safe to book the bike on the plane and to also book some airport parking so that I could fly out on the Tuesday. I mean, Frau Merkel wouldn’t change the Covid19 rules on a Sunday night would she? How wrong I was with this assumption!
Some very rapid internet research resulted in a high-speed, overnight, private Covid19 test being booked - hopefully the results would be back before I got to the plane. You do get a free test at the airport, but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a quarantine hotel for two weeks. Thankfully both tests came back negative and I could begin my trip.
The Berliner Luftbrücke - a few facts and figures.
“The Berlin Blockade began 70 years ago, in June 1948, and became one of the first great tests of the Cold War. The Allied response, in the form of the Berlin Airlift, contributed to the formation of NATO and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. It also prevented the starvation of the two and a half million inhabitants of Berlin. But the Airlift was entirely improvised, and for a long time no one could be sure that it would succeed.”
There are many stories that have come out of Berlin from this time, but this event essentially focuses on the achievements of U.S. Pilot Gail Halvorsen. He flew one of the C-47 bombers which were loaded up with supplies. Unlike most pilots, he would take a walk round with his camera during any free-time that he had. He had noticed a group of kids hanging around behind the fencing of Tempelhof Airport and went over and shared his two sticks of gum with them. He noted that the kids didn’t ask or beg for the gum, but shared it out between them. He promised to bring more on his next visit and to drop some to them from his plane. The kids asked how they would know which plane was his? He replied that he would wiggle his wings as he flew towards them. Sure enough, having made little parachutes, and with donations from the rest of the crew, he began to drop candy into West Berlin, resulting in him becoming known as “The Candy Bomber” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings”.
All was going well until one of his little parachute parcels landed on the head of an influential journalist. Halvorsen was called into his office, expecting the worst. His senior officer however had a stack of thank you letters on his desk and wanted to make the candy drop official. “Operation Little Vittles” was born, with many other pilots joining in.
The CandyB Gravelleur route starts right at Frankfurt Airport - a memorial and two C-47 bombers mark the spot. After skirting down the cycleway at the edge of the airport you’re straight into the woods. There’s always an air of nerves at the start of a trip. I’d felt extra nervous before this one - Germany is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been bikepacking, but I wasn’t sure how well a British accent would go down in the current climate, with so many “Plague Island” jokes doing the rounds. Luckily, I needn’t have worried.
The joy of Instagram, and my experience of chatting to cyclists from all over the place, means when you visit their country, they often come out and meet you. This time I was lucky enough for Kai Menze from Frankfurt to offer to come and ride a day with me. Whilst Kai wasn’t allowed to leave the Hesse region, he was able to tell me about lots of the places we were passing, like the wine region of Riesling as we rode through the vines.
Soon we reached the edge of the Hesse region and it was time for Kai to return home. I rode on. It was starting to feel a whole lot more like a normal adventure, passing silent towns, riding in and out of woodland. I’d packed differently for this trip and was carrying dried food for the night. It certainly simplifies things. That night I stopped just short of a town, knowing I’d roll in to find a bäckerei for fresh pretzels for breakfast.
The next day saw me crossing into the former East Germany at Point Alpha, the former American border crossing. I’d been here before on the Grenzesteintrophy. It was strange to find familiarity in the panzerweg (tank roads) and museums depicting the former wall. This time I was on a more suitable bike - the design of my prototype bike partly inspired by the concrete plates that made up the surface of the tank roads I was riding on. My 3” tyres made easy work of the holes cast into the concrete plates.
Passed houses made from crumbling shingles and bits of old out-of-use farms, into forgotten border towns for bratwurst and spare pretzels. Monte Kali, near Herringer towered up like a great white salt monster on the horizon. The tracks rolled ever forward towards Berlin.
A night in a hotel was greatly appreciated and a chance to wash everything including myself. I did wonder if I would set off the fire alarms as I used my tiny stove in the bathroom (even with the extractors on) but thankfully not. Why don’t European hotels have kettles?
Rolling out on kopfsteinpflaster (cobblestones) next morning and there was a chill in the air. I stayed wrapped up. I don’t usually go bikepacking when it’s cold and wet - I’m too soft for that and I want it to be fun. This time was different. I wanted to say happy 100th birthday to Gail Halvorsen in my own way. I rolled past fields of hops, mostly already harvested and off to make bier. The smell in the air was amazing.
Then it rained. Big rain. Cold rain. I could have wussed out and jumped in another hotel, but I was in the gap of empty space near Dessau. I charged onwards, trying to out-ride the rain. Usually a bivvy spot would magically appear, but it didn’t seem to be happening today. Skirting the banks of the Elbe whilst feeling rather soggy wasn’t so much fun. I gave in and pitched my tiny tent in a hurry and dived inside.
Next morning was chilly but dry and I set off once more. Passing beautiful timber-framed buildings like something from a chocolate box, then back onto the sandy tracks which lead into the outskirts of Potsdam where I stopped. I remembered getting the boat across here when I previously rode the Berliner Mauer bikepacking route.
Maybe I was a bit tired and dozy, but from somewhere I could hear my name being called. Glancing round in the bright sunlight, there were two friends of mine, Heinz and Wiebke! They’d come out to meet me and to ride the last stretch into Tempelhof with me. Heinz was even sporting a pair of Union Jack socks. Dancing in and out of the woods which surround Berlin I was quite glad to have a guide, especially as I was aware by now that my fitness had suffered during lockdown with a lack of big trips in my legs. Riding along with Wiebke was great - even before she began training to be a tour guide, she seemed to have a photographic memory for the whole of Germany, only now she has extended it to also knowing the history of every building you pass.
The sun was shining as we entered Tempelhof airport. It’s no longer in use for planes, but is open as a huge city park. It’s quite a surreal feeling, riding down the runway and then on towards the old terminal building. Wiebke guided us around to the Berlin Memorial. Rolling passed the stunning facade of the main terminal, architecturally it’s fascinating to look at. It has a classical grandeur, a far cry from budget flights on Ryanair! The shell-rich limestone glinted gold in the autumn light.
The history never stops, even the out-of-action Tempelhof still commanded an interest. Riding passed lots and lots of portacabins inside an enclosure, I asked Wiebke what they were as they seemed rather at odds with the splendid buildings. It turns out they were slightly controversial as they were to house asylum seekers. It should be noted that Germany has a significantly better record of assisting asylum seekers than many other European countries though! There is also something appropriate about the fact that Germany has already been paying back the Luftbrücke favour by sending aid by air back to the UK throughout the Covid19 crisis!
I’ll have to come back one day when Covid19 is gone to explore inside the Tempelhof buildings. I felt lucky to have managed to get one little trip in before all the borders closed once more, to see friends in Germany and to make new ones too. As Heinz pulled out a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate and Joachim my host in Berlin for the night appeared on his bike, we got chance to have a little pocket of normality and share stories. For this I am thankful.
Happy 100th Birthday Gail Halvorsen.