Forty-four years on the road and 150,000km have given Heinz Stucke a philosophical cast of mind. Within hours of getting off the ferry from France in Portsmouth in southern England earlier this month, the bicycle that has been his
constant companion since 1962 was stolen. But he's not bitter.
"I trust everybody,'' he says, "because if you didn't, you just wouldn't go around the world. You take a calculated risk all the time everywhere you go.''
In fact, his bike -- a unique artifact which already has a place booked for it in a museum of cycling back in Heinz's native Germany -- was returned to him little more than 36 hours after its theft. After the story was picked up by the national media, the thief probably realized that Heinz's steed might be more trouble than it was worth.
When he meets me at Portsmouth harbor station, England, he and his bike attract a small crowd of curious wellwishers. We convoy through busy traffic to a quieter spot by the beach. His bulky bike makes stately progress. When he signals to change lane, Heinz has the air of a benevolent if diminutive emperor: a lord of the open road.
In the course of amassing his world-beating tally of 211
countries and territories, Heinz has seen it all before. This is not the first time his bike has been stolen; it's the sixth. "The last time was in 1997 -- almost every 10 years it's been stolen. That's not bad in 150,000km.''
The last occasion was in Siberia, in a town about 1,000km east of lake Baikal. Then, too, local media got involved and his bike and luggage were soon recovered. One item not returned was his belt, so a Russian police officer gave him hers -- one of many mementoes from his 16,000 days on the road.
It all started in the small town of Hovelhof, Germany, in the late 1950s, when he was apprenticed as a tool and die maker. "I hated it every morning,'' he recalls. "I was 14 and getting up at 20 to six every morning to catch the train.''
Travel offered an escape. But his experience in metallurgy has come in handy. His bike frame has been mended 16 times -- looking closely, I can see how patched and dented it is under the black enamel and painted place names.
At one time, part of the tubing was rusting because of the sweat dripping off his nose. "I do believe there is nobody in this world who has sweated as much as I have,'' he jokes. "Probably two liters a day.''
And there have been the inevitable crashes, especially every cyclist's nightmare -- the car door opening. But with a bike weighing 25kg, loaded with another 40-50kg of luggage, Heinz says the car doors tend to come off worse. My lightweight racer looks positively puny next to his tank, yet he pilots it past the lunchtime joggers on the harborside with an easy grace. He only doesn't like riding in the rain, he says -- it gives him a skin rash.
He has encountered more exotic hazards -- twice attacked and severely injured by swarms of bees in Africa. Perhaps his closest shave came in Zambia in 1980, when, near the border with the newly independent Zimbabwe, he ran into some disgruntled former fighters from Joshua Nkomo's Zapu guerrilla army.
"I saw armed people walking on the road. They saw me coming and stopped me. One put his hand here on my handlebars. I said I was a tourist from Germany, and I moved to get my passport. Maybe he thought I was going to get my gun.''
The bike toppled over and Heinz jumped clear.
"I said, `What do you want?' And he shot at me, just like that. I didn't even know the bullet had gone through my big toe. There was no pain or anything. But then they all closed in on me.''
It was only when they took his shoes that he realized he was bleeding from the wound. Then he was pushed into a ditch at the side of the road. Did he think the end had come?
"I had no idea. At that time, there was no thinking, no anything. All I was trying to do was not provoke them in any way.''
He was rescued after a passing German aid worker raised the alarm with the Zambian police. Fortunately, the bullet had just grazed the bone.
These days, he chiefly earns the money to finance his travels by selling an illustrated booklet about his experiences. He just sets his bike on its stand and that's his pitch. He is constantly meeting people yet it's a solitary road he travels. Is he never lonely?
"You need female companionship sometimes, but this is another person. And that's too bad because you have to deal with another person.''
In any case, he is not much of a catch these days, he says with a chuckle: "I've had many little affairs. Now, it's more complicated: I'm 66, and on a bicycle, and I sleep in a tent.
"The only woman I knew for a long time was my Russian girlfriend (Zoya), for eight years. Until one time I came back from a trip around the Caribbean, I called her and she said, `I'm married now.'"
Just like that. I didn't want to believe it really.
"But you have to understand her, as well, because a woman wants maybe more companionship than just every few months.''
Did he ever imagine when he set out, 44 years ago, that he would be on the road all this time?
"Nobody knows that far ahead. Ten years into the journey, it was `I don't want to go back to the factory.' But then it just becomes such a part of you.''
The freedom of travel is some-thing many people crave -- one reason they love his story and buy his brochure. But, he says, it takes special commitment.
"That dream is for everybody all the time, but unfortunately it can't be easily realized. You really have to cut all your relations, family, and be free. You have some saved-up money for a year or two, and then you have to find new money. Eventually, people wind up again where they started from. Or they get a good job somewhere else. And then the woman comes, you know. And then they buy a house and then, maybe, children come.
"And then only the dream stays.''
And with that, he pedals on his way.
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