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Markus Stitz: Opening up a world of bikepacking adventures in the Highlands

By John Davidson

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On the Moray coast at Findhorn. Picture: Markus Stitz
On the Moray coast at Findhorn. Picture: Markus Stitz

Markus Stitz admits to not being your typical German. “I grew up behind the Iron Curtain until I was 10 years old,” he says, “so I would say my career and my life is not typically German! For a lot of my German friends, security is a really important thing, a job, a pension lined up. That never interested me at all.”

You’re much more likely to come across Markus on the wild trails of Scotland – including around the vast hill tracks and drove roads of the Highlands – though he has spent time living in New Zealand, New York and San Francisco as well.

In 2015-16 he cycled around the globe on a singlespeed bike, which he’d ended up using to keep things simple on long-distance winter rides from his newfound Edinburgh home back to Germany on successive Christmases.

“I moved permanently to Scotland in 2009,” he said. “In that first year, I did some long-distance cycling, but nothing extraordinary. When I had lived in New Zealand I had a proper job, so you have to plan your annual leave, and Christmas was always a good time to get lots of days off.

“In my three Christmases in New Zealand I always used that time to have a long adventure, but then I came back to Scotland and it was quite depressing in that first year as the weather was a bit miserable.

“I spent Christmas 2009 without riding my bike and I thought, I’m not going to do that again, because it was something I really enjoyed.”

So in 2010 he rode “home” to Germany from his Edinburgh base.

Markus Stitz of Bikepacking Scotland.
Markus Stitz of Bikepacking Scotland.

“As it got closer I went shopping online and bought myself a singlespeed bike, because it’s easier to look after in winter,” he explained. “So I bought a singlespeed, put a cycle rack on it and rode it home over 14 days.

“That trip was a bit nuts but I got quite a bit of attention. I really enjoyed it and had a great time.

“I kept riding singlespeed bikes from then until the round-the-world trip because I really liked the bike, it was simple. Pretty much all my trips in Scotland were done on that bike.”

Markus had caught the bug for adventure riding while living in New Zealand between 2007 and 2009, but has really made Scotland his home, creating routes for destination organisations, making films, writing for magazines and founding Bikepacking Scotland.

He loves to explore, whether by cycle touring or bikepacking (the name is not important, he says, as there’s so much overlap between the two) – describing each as “a bit nerdy and a bit niche”.

“What I really like about the bikepacking community is it’s kind of like a big family, people know each other,” he says. “It has changed now and has become much bigger but in essence it has stayed a grassroots, really friendly community of people who are really welcoming of new people into the sport.”

The 43-year-old has just written his second solo book, which is due out later this month. Bikepacking Scotland features 20 multi-day cycling adventures “off the beaten track”.

A stiff climb up the Burma Road on the Coast to Barrel route. Picture: Markus Stitz
A stiff climb up the Burma Road on the Coast to Barrel route. Picture: Markus Stitz
Heading up the Burma Road outside Aviemore. Picture: Markus Stitz
Heading up the Burma Road outside Aviemore. Picture: Markus Stitz

He explains how he discovered this “wonderful network” of potential routes when he picked up a leaflet in the Borders while on the Scottish National Trail.

“The leaflet included a route on a drove road – up until that point, I didn’t have any knowledge of these routes. I thought, this is interesting, and just rode that route, as it was close to Edinburgh, and that absolutely got me hooked.

“When I discovered all of the historical pathways it was like realising that there was so much more to Scotland than just trail centres and stuff which is mapped in some shape or form. All of a sudden I discovered this network of long-distance routes that could be pretty nice for long-distance travel – so that got me back off road again.

“Looking at this off-road network, I don’t know, you kind of feel like a wee boy all of the time – when you’ve got the freedom and with your first bike, all of a sudden you can move much further away.

“It was exactly that feeling again when you go, there’s plenty to do here – the only limitation is your imagination.”

Riding through the forest in the Moray section of the Coast to Barrel route.
Riding through the forest in the Moray section of the Coast to Barrel route.

Markus has used that imagination to link together so many of these tracks and trails – some of them rideable and a few which he admits to needing to push the bike a little – in his book.

There are plenty of suggestions in the Highlands, including a number starting from Inverness and using the train as a means of getting about (“I really believe that adventure or access to the outdoors shouldn’t depend on owning a car,” he says), including an alternative North Coast 500 route and the “Coast to Barrel” route.

The latter one starts at the railway station in Inverness and follows a stunning route through Moray and Speyside, into the Cairngorms National Park before following General Wade's military road back into the city.

“There are two bits in the route that I really wanted to include,” Markus explains. “One is the Burma Road from Aviemore – and then the stretch that follows from there is a bit I discovered when I did a filming project with Sustrans a couple of years back, that takes you into Inverness on the Wade’s road. It’s an amazing piece of trail, it’s so nice to ride!”

His routes and his love for adventure are proving an inspiration to many people, and he admits that he still has to remind himself that the best remedy for a hard day at work is “jumping on the bike for an hour or so”.

“The thing which is most important to me is that people get outside and do something with their time, do something meaningful and get some headspace.”

Bikepacking Scotland by Markus Stitz is out on May 18.
Bikepacking Scotland by Markus Stitz is out on May 18.

* Bikepacking Scotland by Markus Stitz is published Vertebrate Publishing on May 18, priced £20.

* An evening with Markus Stitz (part of the BikeMore festival), Badaguish Outdoor Centre, Glenmore, near Aviemore. Thursday, May 11 at 7.30pm. Tickets from £12 available at: www.bike-more.co.uk/whats-on-the-weekend

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