The allied nations’ response to the Berlin Blockade, the Berlin Airlift, kept West Berliners alive for over a year between June 1948 and September 1949. Flying along three twenty-mile-wide air corridors, pilots flew in thousands of tons of food and fuel to Tempelhof airport every day to keep West Berliners alive. With planes stopping at incredible three minute intervals, the allies were able to sustain a whole city by air alone, after the Soviets cut off all other supply routes as a response to the introduction of the Deutsche Mark.
Moved after talking to forlorn children standing outside Tempelhof airport, USAF pilot Gail ‘Hal’ Halvorsen decided to start dropping off packages of candy via handkerchief parachutes out of his plane just before he landed. Halvorsen’s idea gained momentum, soon becoming an official operation: Operation ‘Little Vittles’. With USAF pilots dropping candy off every other day, all children in West Berlin were soon able to have chocolate and chewing gum, supplied by American confectionery companies. Halvorsen’s legend was cemented, and he became known by the nickname of the Berlin Candy Bomber.
For Göttingen resident, journalist, author and all-round cycling expert, Gunnar Fehlau, the southern airlift corridor represented a great opportunity to marry his love of adventure cycling with a poignant historical story: offering ambitious cyclists not only the chance to challenge themselves by riding 650km of gravel but also by delivering a symbolic care package. The ride would take cyclists along the route of the former southern airlift corridor from Frankfurt to Berlin – the same route the Candy Bomber once flew.
Gunnar was kind enough to answer our questions about the story and format of the ride:
This year was the second Candy B Graveler. How did you come up with this idea?
So in about 2007, there was a 5-line-long news item in a bike magazine here saying that the mechanic of the magazine would take part in this crazy ride called the Tour Divide. I saw this and thought ‘hey, that sounds crazy!’ and started looking online to find out what it was about. So I thought, hey this is great, but doesn’t really work for me in my circumstances: I have kids and a full time job…
So you wanted to ride the Tour Divide, but couldn’t…
Yeah. There was no way to cut off 5 weeks to get over to America and ride the Tour Divide. So the idea was ok, if the preacher can’t come to the church, bring the church to the preacher. So in 2009, I did the Grenzsteintrophy, which is a self-supported mountain bike ride following the former iron curtain trail: East Germany/West Germany: 1300kms, a lot of climbing and a lot of weird terrain. Of course, the border doesn’t follow the way you would build a street, just like the Berlin wall.
So it’s similar to the Berliner Mauerweg…
Sure, but that has no climbs! But yeah, it is similar, just with a lot of climbs, going through Germany. This was probably the first European bikepacking race. I don’t know about anything that happened before this: the idea of it being self-supported and so on. And then, finally in 2013, I at least started the Tour Divide. But I only made it to Butte. Anyway, it was great fun. That was about 500 miles. There are three groups of people on the Tour Divide: people who don’t make it to the start, people who don’t make it to the finish and the smallest group: the people who finish. So I feel pretty good about that. So with a delay of 7 years, I finally made it to Banff to do the ride.
Nevertheless, the Grenzsteintrophy continues to happen every year…but it’s pretty hard, because of the terrain – steep uphills and downhills of 25-30%, mud with tank tracks still on it. It’s not this ‘Montana-cruising-average-speed’ thing of the Tour Divide, but something totally different. So every year they have a very high percentage of ‘do not finish’. A lot of people underestimate it. They can’t imagine something like that in the middle of Germany.
So I thought, let’s do a small sister race or a smaller, more convenient, less tough ride. The GST is tough by itself. It’s not the speed that makes it tough, it’s just tough because it’s tough. With a lot of rides, it’s the old idea that ‘speed kills’ – that if you go slow, it’s not that hard…with the GST, the climbs are incredibly hard and the downhills are so tricky and slow, and so risky that it’s not a question of fitness.
So I was thinking of doing an event, or doing a ride, where the toughness is closely related to the speed you take – something a little less difficult. I was riding off traffic a lot with my road bike, anyway. Now they call it gravel biking. In German I always called that bike my ‘Breitreifenrennrad’ because it’s about the tire width and not about the surface. I was previously totally into long distance endurance road stuff: I did Paris-Brest-Paris, randonneurs and stuff like that, then I did a lot of bikepacking mtb stuff, but right now by favourite bike is my gravel bike: I have a Stolz, which is from a custom frame builder in Switzerland: a custom-made titanium gravel bike with S&S coupling. I love it.
So I was thinking, what would be a nice route to ride? And I like things with historical connections, like the GST, but I was thinking, these were bad times: I don’t wanna have a story about war and blood, I want a story that’s about hope and humanity and about help. And for some reason, this Luftbrücke came into my mind. I thought ok, let’s do the air corridor where they flew, and just ride that route. And there was the idea – I don’t wanna take money – for me these kind of rides aret a non-organisational and non-budget thing. On the other hand, if it’s free, a lot of people sign up but don’t actually show up, so what I said was – ok, everybody gives a donation to charity that’s somehow connected to the idea of the Luftbrücke. So everybody has to give a donation, I want to know who’s taking part so everybody needs to send a picture and a short letter of intent. So these three things get you on the starting list.
I didn’t wanna have a really huge ride so I limited the number – pretty simple rules. Last year it was limited to 69, because the Luftbrücke started 69 years ago. So this year it was 70 and next year 71, just to keep the numbers limited for organisational/back office reasons. And If the numbers are limited, it also makes the ride somehow seem more attractive. The riders make sure to sign up on time for that reason.
Then we had this idea that because the Candy Bomber flew stuff over to Berlin and brought some candy, we should do the same. So everyone carries a small care packet to Berlin. So we had a mission. It’s not only about taking part, but getting the mission done.
I dropped an email to a couple of folks I knew living close to the corridor and they did the route scouting. I asked my freelancer who does a lot of graphic work for me, and who’s also a cyclist – I said this is voluntary charity work – would you like to take part? This is the main reason I go to all this effort – for the charity aspect of the ride. That’s what I like about the project.
So in 2017 there were 69 riders?
It was limited to 69, and I think 68 started.
How many people finished?
I don’t know exactly, because we didn’t do a proper data file about that. Not everybody kept to the codex (planned route), some of them went off the track or did whatever. I guess ¾ finished, and keeping to the codex around 60%.
What kind of people ride it?
It’s totally mixed. That was surprising. The GST is pretty much just hardcore bikepacking folks. But the candy attracts a lot of different people. Of course, there are really competitive, fast endurance road-riding types.
Are there any rules?
In 2017, on every road long-distance bikepacking event, a cyclist died. So I was thinking – it’s not because it’s risky, it’s because the people underestimate it, and there are cars. In the woods, there are wild animals, but there are no cars. So most of the accidents are car accidents. So what we did is, just to make sure that people get at least a short break, we specified that you have to do a 5 hour break every night of the event. It’s your decision: but between 9pm and 9am you have to take a 5 hour break. I don’t mind if you go to the cinema, or have dinner or go and play pool for 5 hours or if you sleep for 5 hours. But either way, your blue dot needs to stop moving for at least 5 hours. This had three results: it kept out all these I-ride-the-whole-time-and-I-don’t-want-to-sleep type people – mission completed – we wanted to keep some types of cyclists out of the ride. Secondly, you have some kind of tactical strategy idea of where and when to take the break, which gives another dimension to the ride. And thirdly, it keeps the thing awake in every sense of the word: people are more awake because they’ve slept, and it kept the momentum of the ride going. I like that idea, and we’ll keep it.
How long is the ride?
The average time?
I don’t know. I don’t want to do a ranking or anything like that, because I don’t want to do a race! The fastest person this year did it in 38 hours. He took one break, so his strategy was to complete the ride just before you have to take the second break. So he cycled the maximum, took the first break and then cycled the maximum again. The last rider did it in 6 days, or 5 and a half. I guess the average – 80% of the riders – make it within 2 or three days.
Is it a requirement to ride a gravel bike, or can you ride a road bike or a mountain bike?
You can even take a shopping cart if you want. I don’t mind, as long as it’s human powered, take whatever you want. You can walk it if you want!
How much of the ride is off road?
The scout had a tough job, to find ‘off traffic tarmac’ – sometimes you have these tarmac roads in the woods which are not for cars. 2/3rds is in the woods, whether it’s tarmac, gravel, soil, or single track.
Does the route go through big towns?
We start in Frankfurt next to the airport. We go through the outskirts of Darmstadt. Then we go right through the centre of Fulda, touch Dessau and then finish in Berlin. So it goes from urban area to urban area but in between it’s pretty much just in the middle of nowhere.
Do all of the riders take tents?
We have all sorts. There is no rule to sleep outside, but sleeping outside makes you faster. We have these ‘I go for a hotel every night’ folks, and these ‘I just need a summer sleeping bag’, the ‘I don’t need a mat because I’m a tough guy’, and everything in between. We have people who use tarps, hammocks, bivy sacks and everything else. This year on the second day was quite rainy, and a lot people got pissed off. It was really a tough section.
Did you ride it this year?
Yeah, but just for a day.
So the ride finished this year at the VELO in Berlin?
Yeah. We planned it because that was right next to the Luftbrücke Denkmal (memorial) in Berlin, so it was perfect. We planned it backwards – I knew most people would take about three or four days, so we started it on the Thursday morning.
Is next year already planned?
We don’t have a date or a strategy for next year. I don’t know if everything will stay the same, or if we’ll change something. So, no plan. But it will happen next year. The web page will be alive again late summer, and everything will be on the page. There will be an announcement of the date, and there will be an announcement of when to send your three-part application.
Do you have international riders?
There are some international riders. But it could be attractive, especially for Americans, y’know: ‘my Grandpa flew it, and now I’m riding it’ – that could be an idea. This hasn’t happened yet, but that would be a great story. I’d love to get some more international attention.