Against All Odds—Mapping by Bicycle Along the Elbe in Spring

Mapillary is a distributed team of 55 employees in eight different time zones and twice a year we all get together at company offsites. We are all mappers at heart, so after the last gathering Tobias Ollmann, one of Mapillary’s Computer Vision Engineers, decided his trip home to Graz, Austria would be the perfect time to capture imagery for the Mapillary platform. For this reason, he decided to ride his bicycle 1,500 km from Sweden to Austria, and even though all of the odds seemed stacked against him, he was determined to finish his ride.

The plan was to have no plan other than knowing the direction he wanted to go. Tobias estimated he could finish the 1,500 km from Ystad, Sweden to Graz, Austria in about 16 days, and he is no stranger to long bicycle trips. About ten years ago he did a similar trip with a friend through the Austrian Alps, but they were carrying tents and sleeping along their route. According to Tobias, he was looking for a little more comfort this time around:

My approach this time was to know the direction I wanted to go, and then to check around lunch time how far I would get that day. That’s when I would call some bed and breakfasts to find somewhere to rest.

Tobias Ollman and his bicycle Tobias strapped a GoPro Hero 7 to his bicycle for mapping his journey

First, Tobias needed to get his bicycle to Sweden. For a bit of practice, he decided to take the train to Hamburg, Germany, from Graz, Austria, and to ride his bicycle from there. Once in Hamburg, he set off on a one-day 102 km ride to Travemünde where he caught the overnight ferry to Trelleborg, Sweden. Because he was traveling by bicycle, Tobias had to enter the ferry along with the cars and trucks—something that was surprising to the ferry workers as they don’t see too many bicycle travelers at this time of year. Even the dinner cook was surprised to have a bicyclist stop by for dinner and initially mistook Tobias for a truck driver.

From Trelleborg it was just an 88 km ride to Ystad to meet the rest of the Mapillary team. On the way, he made a short detour to stop at Ales Stenar and visit the ancient stone monument that some call Sweden’s own Stonehenge.

The trip home

Day One (Ystad to Travemünde: 58 km)

On the final day of the offsite, Tobias waited to say goodbye to everyone from Mapillary as they started their own journeys home. After changing into his riding gear, a curious hotel worker asked where he was off to.

I told her I was going to Austria and she laughed because she thought I was joking. Once she realized I was serious, she told me to wait for a moment and brought some chocolate for me. I think she felt a little embarrassed for laughing, but it was very nice of her.

In the late afternoon, with sunny weather and the wind at his back, he made his way to Trelleborg, Sweden, where he spent another night on the ferry boat back to Travemünde, Germany.

Day Two (Travemünde to Lütkenwisch: 139 km)

At 7:00 AM, Tobias arrived in Travemünde and made his way towards the Elbe river. The Elbe is one of the major rivers of Central Europe and would provide a guide for finding his way. For his first full day of riding, Tobias was able to go a little further than he expected and finished his day in Lütkenwisch, Germany—a small town of only 21 people that he found on OSMAnd.

Day Three (Lütkenwisch to Schartau: 137 km)

Tobias continued his journey along the Elbe river. The Elbe has an extensive network of bicycle lanes, most of which are on top of or next to dikes. The Elbe Cycle Route follows the river for nearly 1,300 km through Germany and the Czech Republic. In Germany, it is known as the most popular route for cyclists due to its relative flatness and collection of sites to see along the way. For those looking to travel this cycling route, there are numerous online guides to help with planning.

Day Four (Schartau to Dessau: 93 km)

By Monday I was starting to get a little bored by the flatness of the landscape. I saw a hill on the map, so I thought why not go there.

That hill turned out to be a little disappointing, and now he was no longer riding along the river. Knowing this route would take him through the major city of Magdeburg, Germany, where he did not want to spend the night, Tobias decided to take a bypass of the city. However, after moving away from the river and the bicycle lanes he ended up riding on large roads where the number of trucks passing was making him uncomfortable. After crossing the Elbe for the first time, Tobias settled in Dessau for the night.

Day Five (Dessau to Torgau: 96 km)

Tobias wanted to follow the river again, but there were many unpaved roads and construction sites.

I was worried about my racing bike that wasn’t made for these types of roads, but it ended up being ok because these sections of road were not very long and I had new tires so there was no damage to the wheels.

Eventually Tobias came to Sieglitz Berg, a forest park that opened in 1777 and was once home to a therapeutic bath that Leopold III, a German prince, had designed to relieve his rheumatism. To mark the entrances of this retreat, ornate castle gates were constructed that still stand today.

Day Six (Torgau to Dresden: 104 km)

Shortly after leaving Torgau, the landscape began to change. By mid-day, instead of being bound by dikes, the Elbe ran through a valley bounded by hills.

My first reaction was frustration because of the additional effort. Then I realized that this was exactly what I had been wishing for the days before and I started to enjoy going up. But I also really liked going downhill afterwards.

After a long ride to Dresden, Tobias decided it was time to take a break. Both his body and his equipment needed some time to rest and recharge so he booked two nights in a Dresden hotel. On the morning of his day off, Tobias decided to do some sight-seeing since Dresden is well known for interesting architecture. Unfortunately for him most of the buildings were undergoing renovations and concealed by scaffolding.

Even though everything was hidden, there were still so many tourists. A lot of school trips and groups were walking around. At lunch time I decided to just go back to my hotel and spend the rest of the day at the sauna.

Day Seven (Dresden to Litoměřice: 119 km)

At this point, it was getting very cold, and Tobias needed to put on all of his layers to go outside but he found something interesting on his way out of Dresden that seemed to be pointing the way home.

I had a strange experience when I started to see streets named after Austrian regions. I decided to follow them and eventually ended up in a place called Austrian street.

Austrain street names in Dresden, Germany

Leaving Dresden, Tobias passed by Saxon Switzerland—a popular area for climbers from around the world. To protect the natural sandstone in Saxon, metal safety equipment was banned and the area became the birthplace of the popular free climbing style.


The sandstone peaks of Saxon Switzerland are visible across the Elbe river

When Tobias crossed the border into the Czech Republic, he was greeted by light snow. In spite of the weather, he kept good time and made it to Litoměřice, but for the first time, Tobias had a hard time finding a place to stay for the night since a garden fair was in town. The first hotel he came across had no available room, but directed him to a tourist information center. Luckily for him, the woman behind the desk was fluent in German and nice enough to call around until she was able to find somewhere for him to settle down for the night. It took a few tries, but the seventh one was the charm.

Day Eight (Litoměřice to Prague: 99 km)

At this point, I was starting to think about canceling because it was too cold and unpleasant to continue.

When Tobias arrived in Mělník, Czech Republic, that day he decided it was time to go home. Nighttime temperatures were now falling below freezing and for the first time he had an equipment malfunction—his luggage rack broke. He was able to get his luggage rack repaired on his own, and headed right for the railway station in Prague, but with another stroke of bad luck, there was a railway replacement service that day that would not take his bicycle.

After finding out the last bus of the day was leaving in ten minutes, he raced to find it and convince the driver to take him and his bike—even though he had not reserved a bike rack.

I looked so tired that the driver allowed me to check it as luggage.

Summary

All together Tobias rode his bicycle 1,035 km at a pace of about 103 km per day. Due to bad weather, he wasn’t able to finish the remaining 500 km or so to complete his journey to Graz, but would he do it again?

I would, but not in April, it’s too cold, and not with such a tight timeline. I like to take the time I need and not be restricted by having to be somewhere at a specific time. Next time I will do a separate trip and not combine it with other travels where I’m away from home for more than two weeks. I missed my wife.

/Lindsey, Communications Assistant

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