Rider Q&A: Markus Stitz

Posted By Gravel Union On 20 January 2021

Markus first came to the UK from his native Germany back in 2005, fell in love with Scotland and has stayed on ever since. In his career so far, he can list cycling around the world on a singlespeed, being a DJ, setting up Scotland’s biggest resource for bikepacking and being a well-respected adventure filmmaker. Not a bad palmares! We caught up with him recently and tried to find out what makes him tick.

GU - What brought you to the UK and to Scotland in particular?

MS - I used to work in the arts for a long time - my background is in music. I hated sport as a child and so art and creating things was pretty much always at the core of what I was doing. I ran a music festival in Germany for five years. There is only so much you can do in a small town in Germany and a whole world to discover. So when I finished with the festival, I went the furthest away I could find which was New Zealand. I continued to work in the arts over there, working as a marketing manager for a theatre. I came to Edinburgh in 2005 for the first time while on an internship - I had a month to spare and the festival was on. I wanted to work at Fringe Festival and I was fortunate enough to get a job within two days! Those four weeks pretty much were enough to fall in love with Scotland, I think. But, I was gutted because I didn't bring my bike back. So the next year I came back and I brought my bike and everything.

I think what is very, very crucial for me and I think this is this is an interesting thing for Scotland, is Glentress and the mountain bike routes there. It's pretty much at the very core of my personal story, because that was my first mountain bike ride from Edinburgh on knobbly tyres. Forty five kilometres there, then riding the black trail and then riding back again and the next morning having to serve customers as box office manager, which is an interesting thing to do. I always love the combination of the art and cycling because they're very, very different from each other, but they have so much in common as well.

GU - When did you first get into adventure riding?

MS - I discovered cycling in New Zealand, more by accident than anything else, because I was never really into cycling up to that point. But moving to New Zealand with a suitcase and a bicycle kind of basically forced me to do exactly that. I think once you're forced to do something - you kind of actually appreciate that. I got into cycling long distances with a backpack, but around this time was when bike packing bags first came out. It just immediately got so much easier, because you can chuck your stuff on the bike and don't have to hang it off your back all the time, which is quite painful at times. I think cycling really provided the purpose I needed to come to Scotland.

GU - Why did you choose to ride around the world on a singlespeed rather than a geared bike?

MS - Simplicity is the very, very simple reason for that! I think the essence of cycling is that it gives you so much freedom. I think that freedom should be replicated in your bike as well. Also, I must say, I wanted to make the trip a little bit special – more than just taking a bike around the world. I needed something which provided a the red line to the whole trip so I wouldn't just bumble around on a bike. I didn't want to do a world record. I think I was quite explicit about that and before the trip. For me, what is really important is storytelling - meeting other people and if needed, spending a bit more time with them [and riding on a singlespeed bike allowed me to do this, because I was travelling at a less hectic pace]. I’m still in touch with some of the people I met!

I think singlespeeding made it really simple. And I really love the attraction of that. I started to ride singlespeed after my time in Wellington - I lived in Wellington from 2007 to 2009 and during that time there were loads of people riding singlespeed bikes there. That was partly just because they were cycling couriers, but had no interest in maintaining their bikes! I thought it was quite tough in Wellington because they have some massive hills there and it's a very windy city as well. So, if you're not battling uphill, you'll be battling against the wind. When I started to see the attraction, I kept on riding singlespeed. So, when it came to the round the world trip, I knew I wanted to do the trip that way.

I said to myself, I'm going to do it on a singlespeed, something no-one's done before as far as I know! It will be a challenge. But no doubt it will for me make the whole thing a little bit easier because I don't really have to worry about the bike. It is possibly a little bit difficult to understand for people - why would you deliberately do that? You really have to have the mindset that once you're on the bike, that's what you have and you have to make the best out of it. If you are riding singlespeed and you go up a hill, I try not to think “I could do this much more easily if I would have gears”. Yes, that is a fact - not for a single second was I thinking about the fact that I only have one gear and this is going to slow me down. I would think to myself - if I need to zigzag or push then I need to zigzag or push. That's it. That's the bike I have. I love what I'm doing here. I might as well do it!

GU - You’re a prolific photographer and Instagram fan – tell us where your handle “reizkultur” comes from?

MS - I think you could say it translates to “expect the unexpected”. I used to be a DJ for 15 years maybe, although now my turntables are in Germany unfortunately. So that's back in the day. I think I like things a little bit quirky and that fits well with that theme. I was DJing with a friend and we needed a name for us - we didn't want to just call ourselves Mike and Markus because that sounded a bit daft. So, we wanted something that actually made people think a bit!

I think if you have a good picture, it expresses so much more than words. In my pictures, it doesn't matter whether I'm using German or English I guess! It just kind of reminds me that I probably need to get my turntables over here so I get it into music again!

GU - Can you tell us a bit about Bikepacking Scotland?

MS - The inspiration for this was two things - my time in New Zealand was basically defined by reading two guidebooks and trying to ride as many routes as possible out of those two guidebooks. Before I left New Zealand, I spent two months on the road in a van with a mountain bike, and I was cycling basically every day - trying a new track from the guidebook book every day. It was amazing because you had a great itinerary, which you could trust. So, when I came back to Scotland I thought there was something missing like this but for Scotland.

There's this amazing trail network, which is great, but it appeals to a certain type of cyclist. Then there's the 7Stanes MTB centres. The problem with trail centres is that I think once you've ridden there a number of times, that it loses a little bit of the attraction, especially if you're someone like me and you were trying to do everything a bit differently! I don't like doing things two or three times - I'd much rather do something new, even if it's a fail every now and then and you end up pushing your bike up something that you can't ride up.

So, all of this resulted in me in 2014 kind of thinking is there something I could do? You know, I’m at a stage in my life where I've cycled a lot. I know Scotland reasonably well. I'm also interested in the history of Scotland. I came across a leaflet from Cameron McNeish, (a well-known mountaineer and a well-known figure in Scotland). He had created the Scottish National Trail. There was a leaflet I found in a pub which was describing a section in the Scottish Borders, which I had never been to, even though it was so close to Edinburgh. Why have I not been there? I persuaded my girlfriend back then to drive me to the start and then I cycled the stretch of the Southern Uplands Way. I ended up riding all day, then spending a night in a hostel and then cycling that stretch of Cameron's route. And it was amazing. And I thought, why is there not more like this in Scotland?

I was really inspired by that and I thought what about making a trail around Edinburgh? Back in 2014, I rode the Highland550 for the first time, so I really got into bikepacking. It was my first ever backpacking trip and was ridden with bags that I had borrowed, on a singlespeed bike I had fixed the night beforehand. So, you know, quite, quite chaotic! Then I basically spent the time before my round the world trip, riding my bike around the Scottish borders and East Lothian and coming up with the Capital Trail. And that was the last project I finished before leaving for the round the world trip.

This project meant doing all the cycling research on top of working a 40, 50, 60 hour job, which is pretty crazy! After my round the world trip I had a really good think about what I wanted to do for the foreseeable future. And this is what I did! The Capital Trail was well received. I ran it first as an event with about 100 people riding it. They all had a cracking time, even though it's a really tough route in places actually. When I came back from riding around the world, it was like I've just done a loop, a lap of the world. I've got some good contacts in the cycling world. I had some attention for the trip, which was a good starting place to start from. I thought, can I do anything with this now to avoid having to go back to a 40 or 50 hour a week job and then doing all this stuff on top of it?

It took a number of months for me to come up with a solution to this. In winter, I just registered a web domain and that was where Bikepacking Scotland was born. There were a few core principles from the very beginning - because I was using Cameron’s maps which were free to download and freely available, I felt like I whatever I'm doing, I would quite like to try to find a way of doing it so that I can make at least the product or the GPX or whatever available for people for free.

I work with people in the bike industry to inspire riders to go bikepacking. The website is full of routes that routes that are fully tested and that are, of course, quite individually influenced by me. I think I've got a certain time type of riding and this is why I always tell people to use Bikepacking Scotland as something that gets you thinking. It gets you thinking about what you could do and hopefully inspires you come up with your own routes too – after all, you know what you like. If you don't like camping in the ditch or, you know, on top of a mountain, don't do it. If you if you want to sleep in five star hotels, do it, please.

The Bikepacking Scotland project works in the same way that I have worked on most of the projects I've done so far - I work with regions in Scotland that want to get more people there, that want to get more cyclists there. Those tend to be the regions that are not in the top of the top 10 list in Scotland on Instagram. The first part of the project was the Wild About Argyll Trail – an utterly stunning part of Scotland, very remote, super nice people. I was tasked to come up with something that meant people would not just travel from Glasgow to Fort William, but would stop and explore what was in between. And that's exactly what the Wild About ArgyllTtrail is.

I think the core of the idea is that I want to work with areas in Scotland that can benefit from cycling. I do also think that there are places in Scotland that unfortunately are not the best places to go any longer for cycling, because there is simply too much traffic there. I think it's up to people whether someone wants to drive their car around Scotland, when in some cases they might have a really valid reason to do that - I think that's fine. I've flown back and forth on the plane around the world, so my carbon footprint is absolutely disgusting. So, you know, I'm not the sort of person to tell people not to take their car. But I also do think there's a huge potential for alternatives.

This is this is why the next project I'm working on right now is about sustainable tourism (much more than it is about just cycling) I think that that's hugely important. I think that what all of those routes have in common that they are accessible by public transport, so I don't want to design something which is only accessible by car and unfortunately that's the case with some trail centres. And I think we've got some work to do there - to really encourage people not just to cycle, but also, you know, if they do off road cycling, they should have a means of getting there without having to use their car. So that's one principle behind it as well. I see these long distance cycling routes as a great alternative to road cycling itineraries as they do incorporate the Sustrans routes every now and then. I did some work on the Caledonia Way, for example. And it's a great itinerary as well. There's also routes from Cycling UK, like the Great North Trail, for example.

I think all of these things can happily co-exist with each other and actually complement each other - this is why I think working in partnership in anything that's got to do with cycling is hugely important, because I think if we if we can get more people to cycle - we can only win . I think there is so much more potential for people to cycling. You know, if I create another ten routes in Scotland that, you know, there'll be plenty of people actually to cycle that. And I think that's the core of what I'm trying to do. Let's just get more people into cycling full stop, and provide them with things they can do. And, you know, their cycling will be very different. Someone will take great pride of having finished a 10 kilometre loop. And, you know, I think that's a cool thing as well. And other people like me cycle 200 kilometres a day and a long day, and that's cool, too. And I think this is just so brilliant.

Our conversation with Markus continued onwards to riding with injuries, music choices in adventure films, prototype bikepacking bikes and the distribution of “hairy coos” (Highland cattle) around Scotland, but we’ll save all that for another day!

To find out more about Bikepacking Scotland – check out their website here and for up-to-date information about Markus’ future adventures, check out his blog here. For great gravel routes you can also check out the Highland Perthshire Gravel trails here