Join Philipp Schönauer - aka forstus - on a 1600km bike-packing journey taking him from Vienna to Copenhagen. A journey that’s not as much about the long ride as it is about reconnecting with life after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Last year in June I got diagnosed with testicular cancer. It happened shortly after overcoming a 2nd disc herniation. I was devastated. I was the most unfit I can remember being after 6 months off the bike, dependent on painkillers just to function.
And then: that diagnosis. An unpleasant story somehow started playing. One I didn’t know how would end. Before being examined I knew I had cancer. I was 100% sure about it. But to be proven right sent me into a mental carnage I didn’t expect. When I checked into the hospital 8 days after diagnosis to get surgery, I didn’t know if it had spread. If I would need chemotherapy or not.
At the same time, I felt a need to have something positive to focus on. Looking down at my hometown Vienna from my bed on the 13th floor at the hospital, seeing how a city of 2 million people came to life on a sunny summer's day, I made a promise to myself. If I got out of the hospital with a story that somehow didn’t involve chemo carboplatin therapy I would take that luck and do something with it.
I wanted to get back to a decent level of fitness and a leaner version of myself. To be out there, experience life, live life. See the landscape, feel the wind. The opposite of being on that 13th floor surrounded by cancer patients.
I promised myself to use my time wisely and spend more time with my family.
And I wanted to finally embark on something I’ve wanted to do for years: A solo bike-packing trip. I love solitude. I love being out there, riding my bike and I‘d neglected that for too long in the last few years. I came up with the idea to ride north, to Copenhagen. I’ve always had a great time in Copenhagen and as a relatively heavy rider, I wasn’t aiming for big days in the mountains. I was longing for rolling hills, headwinds and the lively life in sunny Copenhagen.
Fast forward. I was lucky. Left the hospital only needing surgery. No chemotherapy. I am still in a close monitoring phase for the next 4 years. If nothing pops up, I will be officially declared cancer free.
What I left the hospital with was those promises. So I started riding my bike again in August 2022. Started slow, 30 minutes. 60 minutes. And then it started adding up. Long rides. 150km gravel at the Jeroboam. Then a big week during New Year's celebrations in Sitges, Spain. That built a base for the Pas Normal Studios Brand Summit in Mallorca in April, where I sharpened up a bit more. Speed. In May I did a long Destination Everywhere trip. It rained a lot.
I was ready for my big solo bike-packing trip. Started the planning in the darkness of December. Gear laid out. Routes ready, legs supposedly ready and with time freed up between work and family. But mentally I wasn’t ready. I was somehow afraid of what awaited me. Afraid of failing. Or. Not failing on the ride. But afraid to fail on that promise I made to myself.
I started questioning my planning. Could I do that many hours with the bags on the bike? I had invested in a tent but wasn’t familiar with it just yet. And when my bike was finally ready, I only had time to do one ride before my planned departure from Vienna. I felt tired and slow. Felt the onset of a cold. I started doubting my resilience. All this led to a last-minute change of plans. I decided to skip the camping and go for long days on the bike and in return sleep and rest in hotels or Airbnb’s. So this was the plan, somehow long planned somehow improvised.
Leave the keys at home
Mentally I didn’t want to leave my family. It felt weird to leave the keys at home. I departed from Vienna with my friend Matthias. He joined me for the first 2 days. The first day was a 100km prologue to Wachau, Austria. The next day at 8 am I started my real journey into new territory, new roads, along with a great friend. 200km were ahead of me. Sun and warmth were on my side and as we edged closer to the first border I slowly found my rhythm. I started to feel at home on a bike heavy with bags and the weight of the reason for the ride. In Budweis, Czechia, Matthias and I parted ways. He turned around and headed home. I had 1400km to go.
I was on my own. The first day was great and I found an amazing apartment after around 200km and 2200hm. I was happy. I could even put some extra kilometres from the next day's ride in. So I kept going. Each day try to push further and get kilometres from the next day in. Or adding kilometres from the previous day. Each day I had one goal: over 200km.
I didn’t stop too often. When I did, I poured calories into my body and off I went again. If I rested it was when I was waiting on food or at night when I was sleeping. I kept pushing myself further than I had ever done. Each day. Good days followed by bad days, followed by good days. The route was lovely but doing a 200km ride from A to B can also feel exhaustingly linear. Traffic, cities, car drivers and flat tires drained me. Getting food or getting drinks was sometimes easy, sometimes hard. All this is normal on a ride like that.
Riding in the Czech Republic was amazing. The landscape was beautiful, the weather great and the roads small. The same with all the lovely small towns of Sachsen in Germany. Cobble-stoned city centres and all. And then there’s Kiel. Or the evenings of racing to a hotel before the check-in and kitchens closed. In the end, I made up 2 days and arrived in Copenhagen earlier than planned. Giving me 3 days straight to meet up with my friends, catching up and soaking up the food and the vibe. Crossing Czech Republic took me 2 days, Germany was 3 days and the final 2 days of riding in Denmark.
Reconnecting with life
Each bike-packing trip creates a unique story. For me the ride became secondary. I wanted to suffer through this, I wanted to push myself. I sometimes had the feeling that I was racing towards something specific. But no one made me do this. I had friends writing to me, encouraging me to take it easy. But I kept pushing. That urge, I believe, needs to come from somewhere inside yourself. No matter if you’re pushing yourself through a race – be it The Traka or Unbound or whatever race you can come up with – or a personal goal like doing 200km a day going from Vienna to Copenhagen.
Riding into Copenhagen meant reconnecting myself with life. The emptiness of the landscape and the solitude of the journey were a reminder to me that the cancer wasn’t something I could do anything about. But I could push on to reconnect myself with the life I want to live.
We live in a world where cancer is present, a given. For many reasons. 50% of men will get it at some point, statistic says. With my trip from Vienna to Copenhagen it felt like I was trying to do something against it. In reality, you are on a boat without navigation and you cannot do a lot - only react to upcoming storms when you see them. On the bike, I felt in control while also fulfilling the pledge to myself.
Get checked, once in a while
I feel lighter now, leaving a burden behind me. This was what I was racing towards. Now I know what I didn’t do when I left keyless my home. Each day for 8 days straight. 6 times 200+km to cleanse me mentally off. Cyclists have done crazier stuff and do crazier stuff all the time. But for me, that challenge was what I needed. Why I am telling that personal story, about a bike packing trip without many details on the route and the riding? There are so many routes and bike-packing stories out there, you don’t need to hear another one. But what you might need to hear, is the reason it took me to finally do it.
All the time, some things in life are more important, than taking time for yourself and being out there. If something like that is on your mind, don’t be like me. Don’t wait for that magical thing to happen. Sometimes we wait too long. Sometimes we have to push ourselves out of the door.
I was super lucky to be able to do stuff like this again. It’s an experience no one can take away from me. As they always say: life is precious, use the time you have on your hand. As much a cliche as it might sound. For me, this 8-day trip was a special one. I am looking forward to my next trip, next year, where I plan to soak up the ride more and finally do it camping style.
And for all the men out there, get checked up, once in a while