Sun, May 21, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Heinz Stucke rides through life

Heinz Stucke disliked working in a factory, so he got on his bike and set off into the unknown. Four decades later he has covered 150,000km having visited 211 countries and territories

By Matt Seaton  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

German cyclist Heinz Stucke on the beach in Portsmouth, southern England, May 9, where his bicycle was stolen within hours of arriving in the UK as he slept in his tent. Stucke has used the same bike to visit every country in the world.

PHOTO: AP

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.''

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