American Geoff Garver and his sisters undertook the cycling trip of a lifetime in June 2023. They retraced their mother’s epic and courageous 400 km cycle journey in May 1945 from Potsdam in east Germany, to the northwest German coast, to flee the oncoming Russian army.
Here, Geoff tells us all about their very long, emotional and unforgettable summer ride…
I’ve always been fascinated by the long, arduous and dangerous cycle journey my mother took in the late stages of World War Two. After first fleeing her home town of Potsdam, near Berlin, in May 1945 she fled a bomb shelter in nearby Brandenburg with a local woman and her 16-year-old daughter, in order to escape potential violence at the hands of rapidly approaching Russian soldiers.
And it really was in the nick of time – the Russians got to their shelter just half an hour after they left! They decided to travel as far away as possible, to Schleswig-Holstein in the safer, northern tip of Germany, some 400 km away, using the only means of transport they had – their bicycles.
When my sisters and I were growing up, our late mother Anneliese used to tell us about that bike escape. And about 10 years ago she read excerpts from her journal to me about it, so I made a map of her journey, marking key towns along the way.
But it wasn’t until 2022, when I decided to go to a conference in Potsdam in June 2023, that I got serious about retracing her journey, and experiencing to some degree what that one-way bike trip was like. So between 19-24 June, that’s exactly what my sisters Julia, Mimi and I, and two other close friends did!
There was a lot of planning – which route would we follow? Where would we spend the nights? And how many kilometers would we cycle each day – taking into account that we ranged in age from 62 to 70? Ultimately, we decided to follow our mother’s route from Brandenburg to Lübeck, but then ride from there directly to Hamburg instead of continuing on her route to Loose, the small town near the Danish border where she ended up.
Finding bikes was another challenge. Bringing our bikes over would’ve been far too expensive and logistically difficult. And we couldn’t just ask the typical tourist bike hire shops if we could take their bikes on a long, one-way trip.
After an online search, I found ListNRide – and it was perfect for hiring bikes for our one-way trip. I was able to find out what suitable trekking bikes were available for hire for pick up in Berlin and drop off in Hamburg. The brilliant bikes came fully equipped with helmets, lights, repair kits, and two 20 L panniers per bike, which transported all the clothes and equipment we needed for our trek.
Arriving in Berlin on June 19, Julia and I first did some great sightseeing before meeting up with Mimi, and then it was time to pick up our bikes at ListNRide’s bike shop partner, Fahrradstation Berlin on Dorotheenstrasse. The process was super smooth and the staff were so helpful in getting us set up and ready to ride. Soon we were packed up and ready to go!
After all the planning, it was a wonderful feeling to be on the road and finally doing the trip. And at the same time, I had a sense of our mother being along with us on the ride, and living on in me and my sisters. We thought a lot about what she had to endure, and how she was forced to undertake this unexpected bike ride at a time of great suffering, and in awful conditions.
The contrast in the journeys was stark, when I thought about the modern bikes we were using for our trip, as well as staying in nice hotels and eating great food along the way! She only had her simple bike and a small suitcase, and pedalled the journey half-starving most of the time. Her only advantage over us was her youth – she was 23 at the time. There was a real healing element for us retracing her ride – in some way we were attempting to heal the intergenerational trauma of her experience.
After the relatively short ride from Berlin to Potsdam, we visited the places where our mother grew up, such as the Church of Peace, where she was baptized, on the palace grounds of the magnificent Sanssouci Park – a beautiful park where she also spent a lot of time as a girl.
One of the biggest surprises we had was in Rathenow, where we ended our second day. Out of the blue, my second cousin from my mother’s side of the family, Kathi, texted me during supper – she had seen my online posts about our big ride, and it turns she lives in Rathenow! Next thing we knew, Kathi and her mother, Ingrid, joined us at the restaurant. It was an absolutely amazing meeting, which would never have happened without us deciding to do our bike trip.
Our most challenging ride was from Rathenow to Perleberg. Not only was it one of our lengthiest riding days at over 80 km, we also had to ride into a steady headwind most of the day. Although the terrain all the way from Berlin to Hamburg was pretty flat, with no long steep uphill climbs, that day, with its constant headwinds, was especially tough. In that part of Germany, the prevailing winds are west to east, and we were riding east to west, so we were probably lucky not to have had more headwinds than we did.
The German countryside is absolutely one of the best and most magical environments to ride in, and the well-maintained cycleways and other exceptional accommodations for cyclists made biking a pleasure. We experienced all the joys of riding through the beautiful forests and fields of Germany, along picturesque lakes and rivers, enjoying the strong smell of the Linden trees, eating wonderful German cake, and delicious local and seasonal foods such as fresh fruit, fish and Spargel (asparagus). Actually, we ate Spargel almost every day and we didn’t get tired of it!
The Cube trekking bikes we rented through ListNRide were ideal. We really appreciated that through their partnership with bike shops, they could set us up with excellent bikes, which were well-suited for our long journey. Although we had to make some adjustments along the way, such as adjusting gear settings, fixing a slipped derailleur, amongst other minor things, plus a couple of little tumbles, the bikes were comfortable and performed really well.
As much as we were in cycling bliss riding along on our bike trip of a lifetime, all the while we were thinking of our mother and how she once did the same under very different circumstances.
At the time, Germany was in chaos, and for the first several days, until she crossed into the region controlled by the British and Americans, she was terrified that the Russian army was drawing nearer, or would overtake them and they’d be trapped. Her will to survive and to reach a safer region spurred her on, despite her mental and physical exhaustion and extreme hunger. She also had to deal with the anguish of having to leave her mother and sister (my grandmother and aunt) behind.
We decided to end our journey in wonderful city of Hamburg. It would have added too much time and been too complicated to go to Loose, as we would still have had to get back to Hamburg to return the bikes to the bike hire shop. But I definitely feel like we honored the spirit of my mother’s journey by retracing most of it, and hopefully one day I will go back and bike that last 110 km from Lübeck to Loose.
The bike trip really gave me a sense of connection to my family’s history, to a deeper, shared experience of seeing and being in the places where our mother grew up and some of our relatives still live. Ultimately, it was a great way of turning her negative experience of war into a positive, hopeful and life-affirming experience for us, and an emotional celebration of her remarkable life. I’m so very glad we did it.
Thanks to Stefan at Fahradsstation Berlin, Gert-Jan at ListNRide, Birger with One Way Bike Tours, and everyone else who helped make our trip work out.
You can watch a video diary of Geoff’s epic bike journey here on YouTube:
Are you itching to take your own personal cycling journey of a lifetime? Then don’t delay – go for it! For example, you could follow a similar route to Geoffrey’s as part of a Berlin to Copenhagen one-way bike journey – find out more about renting bikes for an A to B bike trip.
After you’ve chosen your starting destination, here’s how you can rent your ideal bike or e-bike, in four easy steps.
Remember, all ListNRide’s bike rentals in the European Economic Area (EEA) are covered by Laka bike insurance, including coverage for e-bikes. Plus, there’s emergency cover of up to 200 euros in expenses. So you can have peace of mind, while you’re out enjoying your unforgettable tour.