Tobias Renggli auf dem bepackten Fahrrad, im Hintergrund ein Berg in der Abendsonne.


Bikepacking: by bike to all the capitals of Europe

  • #Gravel bike
  • #Cycling trip
  • #Cycling
Portraitfoto von Torge
Guest author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

Experiencing and consciously exceeding the limits of what is possible: Tobias Renggli travelled to the capitals and highest peaks of (almost) all European countries on his own in just over 200 days.​

I met the talented young sportsman at Pilatus in Lucerne to talk about his travels, his spirit of adventure and his motivation...

Tobias, how did you come up with the idea of such a trip at the age of 18?
(laughs) Because the time was right and it felt like the right thing to do. I think that taking a time-out in life opens up opportunities for adventure, and adventure was what I had in mind. When you visit the capital and the highest point of a country, you get a good impression and see a lot.

But on your own by bike and on foot?
Oh, I already had a bike, and I think it’s the ideal means of transport: fast enough to cover distances; slow enough to really enjoy the changing landscapes. You’re not so isolated from the noise, the wind and the smells of the surroundings. The highest mountains can only be reached on foot, anyway.

Okay, but not everyone would dare embark on such an adventure.
Tobi gazes into the distance, as if he were looking for the right words. He seems mature for his age. He chooses his words carefully, and you can sense how his trip has shaped him. He pauses, weighs his words and contemplates the play of clouds in the sky.

When I was twelve, my world was turned upside down by a sudden death. Such formative events do something to you. Since then, I have been very aware of the finite nature of life. I need to feel passion and explore my limits, not have a run-of-the-mill life. I don’t want to regret how I chose how to spend my time later on. The adventures really started when I was 16: I visited all 250 towns and cities in Switzerland and climbed the highest mountains in all the cantons for my diploma. It was a similar project – only on a smaller scale – and it gave me appetite for more. After graduating from secondary school, I thought to myself: Hey, there’s more! And a week after completing my military service, I left.

  • Tobias Renggli auf eniem Grat beim Wandern.
    Photo © Torge Fahl
  • Kurvenreiche Strasse beim Malojapass, es liegt Schnee.

    Almost 1,500 of 250,000 kilometres: the Maloja Pass.

    Photo © Torge Fahl
  • Tobias Renggli auf einem Grat bei Pilatus.

    The interview was conducted on Mount Pilatus, Tobias’s local mountain.

    Photo © Torge Fahl

But doesn’t such a monumental trip require meticulous planning?
For me, an adventure begins when the planning stops. With such a huge project, you can’t plan more than a few days in advance anyway. I simply chose two places each in 44 countries – the capital and the highest peak – which amounts to roughly 90 firm destinations. But it was more of a checklist to avoid travelling through Europe completely aimlessly. I set off heading south on my bike in November, and the rest is history.

What luggage did you have with you?
I limited myself to the bare essentials, i.e. my bike, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, my clothes, some mountain equipment and a pair of sturdy trail running shoes. Having only light, minimal equipment makes such a trip possible. Some might say that I could have left the ice pick at home, but I’d always bring it along. It has become my guardian angel, both for mountain climbing and to deter wild dogs.

Tobias is travelling light today, too: dressed only in trail runners, shorts and a thin jacket, he moves agilely through the terrain. He instinctively grabs his ice pick from his backpack to negotiate steep sections in the snow. He doesn’t seem at all tired after seven months of travelling, nor does his drive seem to have lessened.

Describe the daily routine on your trip.
Well, essentially, the days consisted of getting up, riding my bike and going back to sleep. But there were some towns and mountains in between. (laughs) You can sleep anywhere if you get up at five in the morning. I slept in my cycling attire and used the jacket as a pillow, so I could get back on the road in ten minutes. Then, you ride your bike all day, stopping every now and then to take a photo or raid a supermarket. Then onward until midnight: find a place to sleep, unpack the sleeping mat and slip into the sleeping bag. It’s okay to spend the night under a bridge; it makes a bus stop seem almost like a hotel room.

Bikepacking bags

Sounds exhausting. How often did you reach your limit?
Every day challenged my limits. But I remember some experiences in particular: I was arrested at the border with Belarus; a dog bit me in Albania and I had to go to hospital; I got severe food poisoning in Turkey; and I had such a sunstroke in Greece that I no longer knew where or who I was. And then there was the drug dealer...

Drug dealer? What?!
I was riding through Montenegro when a driver invited me to his home, which turned out to be a remote cabin in the woods. He and his brother got terribly drunk. He then showed me his marijuana farm and a variety of firearms, which were hidden under the couch.

Didn’t you worry that something might happen to you?
It didn’t feel great at the time, but everything was fine in the end. Things can happen to you anywhere. All it takes is for one driver to overlook you, especially in cities and on streets. I appreciate the mountains. They also have their risks, but you can control them. To be honest, I think a completely safe life is an illusion.

We head on. He moves along the ridge in powerful, even steps, his head bouncing from side to side. Neither the altitude nor the gradient seem to slow him down. Tobias radiates unbridled energy.

Porträtbild Tobias Renggli
Photo © Torge Fahl

Tobias Renggli (20)

comes from Buchrain near Lucerne and studies health sciences and technology at the ETH in Zurich. The competitive mountain runner gives lectures about his trip through Europe in his spare

Didn’t you sometimes think about giving up during your 204-day adventure?
In Norway I was stuck in the rain for two weeks and my clothes didn’t dry out at all. In Sweden I had to struggle 20 kilometres through a snowstorm to reach Kebnekaise, only to turn back just below the summit due to the difficult weather conditions. At Haltitunturi in Finland I suddenly found myself in such a white-out that I got completely lost. Luckily, I managed to follow my own footprints, otherwise I would probably still be walking around in circles... But it wasn’t only hard: it was also incredibly beautiful and enriching on many levels. Anyway, I had to get home somehow, which made it easier to just carry on!

How have these challenging experiences and solitude changed you?
I think that’s easier for others to say. But I’ve definitely gained a little more confidence. I’m also more at peace with myself, more relaxed, and at the same time more open to new ideas. When you’re alone for so long, you have time to think and reflect. But there’s always something to do at the same time, so I always managed to keep thinking straight! (laughs)

Did you have any exciting encounters along the way?
When you ride your bike 35,000 kilometres through Europe at such a young age with an ice pick on your back, people are curious and ask questions. I was approached in Portugal by someone who was wondering what I was doing with an ice pick so far south, and got invited to Paris a little while later. I met Toni in Greece on Mount Olympus: he was already 65, but had never travelled in his life. He realised his dream of mountaineering by selling two cows and just heading off.

Are there any places you remember with particular fondness?
That’s a hard question. London, Paris and Lisbon are impressive, of course, especially when you approach slowly through the suburbs towards the centre. The city emerges slowly, like a crescendo, in complete contrast to a plane ride. I particularly remember places that are less frequented and less well-known such as Sarajevo, Warsaw, Albania and Montenegro. The local hospitality is incomparable, and there are so few tourists that the cities and countries have retained their character.

Looking back, what was the absolute highlight of your trip?
The last summit was something very special. I originally wanted to climb Mont Blanc, but the difficult conditions in summer and the high risk of falling rocks didn’t allow that. It’s incredibly frustrating when you get so far and then the last piece in this gigantic puzzle is missing. I chose the Gran Paradiso instead, the highest mountain that’s entirely in Italy. It wasn’t such a difficult climb, so I did it alone. I had been way out of my comfort zone for 204 days, and didn’t think I’d make it. Then, standing on the summit, enjoying the first rays of sunshine and knowing that I had completed this journey despite all the challenges and self-doubt – that was really fulfilling.

What would you do differently on your next trip?
I would take more time. I rode about 200 kilometres every day. That’s only four days in each country on average. With so much to experience, so many places to visit and so many encounters, I was sometimes completely overstimulated.

You talk about your trip at lectures – what can the audience expect?
Besides a lot of anecdotes and impressions, I take the audience along on a multimedia lesson about dealing with mistakes, risk assessment, boundary-pushing experiences and top performance. I learned a lot on my trip and would like to pass it on. I want to offer people more than just entertainment. I enjoy talking to like-minded people: it makes me think about my trip all over again.

  • Zelt auf einem Berg in Glarus, man sieht verschneite Gipfel und einen See.

    Norway? No: Glarus! This picture was taken a few weeks after the end of the trip.

    Photo © Tobias Renggli
  • Tobias Renggli steht mit seinem bepackten Fahrrad vor dem Eiffelturm in Paris.

    Stopover in Paris.

    Photo © Tobias Renggli
  • Tobias Renggli auf dem Fahrrad, er fährt eine Passstrasse hoch.
    Photo © Daniel Schürch

What advice would you give someone interested in going on a similar adventure?
You have to have the drive. You have to be 100 percent self-motivated. Apart from that, I wouldn’t plan too meticulously as it takes away the adventurous character of a trip. Don’t worry too much about the route, but do try out your equipment. Ultimately, everything has to be right and this can determine the success or failure of your trip. I do have one very specific piece of advice, though: sawing off your toothbrush handle won’t make you much faster! (laughs)

What’s next for you?
I have currently swapped the bike for the lecture hall. I started studying in Zurich, but my urge to try new things is unquenched. I also still have a score to settle with Mont Blanc! I can’t say what will happen next, and I don’t know the destination either. I just feel like I’m heading in the right direction for now.

  • #Gravel bike

  • #Cycling trip

  • #Cycling

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