Tilmann Waldthaler: 30+ years burning down the road
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tilmann Waldthaler: 30+ years burning down the road

by Bjorn Haake at 5:07 PM EST   comments
Categories: General

Globetrotter Tilmann Waldthaler will soon embark on the final journey of his long and interesting cycle touring life, which has spanned 32 years and 430,000 kilometers so far. In May, the German will start a bike tour that is scheduled to end where everything started in 1977, in New Zealand. Being Waldthaler, his travel will not be a short few months - he is not expected to end his last ride until 2012, adding another 30,000 kilometers in the process.

But don't expect the energetic Waldthaler, who turns 68 on March 24, to just sit back and retire. "I will turn 70 in March 2012 and I think that is a nice way to end the cycle touring. There are other things I want to do still. I need to get started with those before I get too old," Waldthaler said to VeloNation at the recent 'bike aktiv' fair in Freiburg, Germany.

Waldthaler has always kept his curiosity about places and people when he started his tours, which would take months and sometimes years to complete. "I never set out to lecture people - I always traveled to learn from them. This is beautiful, because you are just the guy who came to learn from the locals."

He admitted that it requires him to have some cultural empathy. "You first check out how they live, how they eat." For Waldthaler making that contact was never a problem. "I am a loner by nature, but when you travel as a single person, you are never really alone. There is nothing easier than to get connections with people while traveling alone."

With more than one person, local contact is more cumbersome. "When traveling with others, you are already in a group and people are more reluctant to approach you. For a single person, they seem to feel sorry and make contact easily."

So despite being a loner, he is never lonely. "When I want to talk I just approach people - it is of course essential that you are an outgoing person and not introverted. It is also necessary to speak foreign languages."

Learning by doing

But how does someone get started with traveling by bike in the first place? "I met someone traveling by bike in 1975. At that point it was really exotic to see this guy. I talked to him, and he was so fascinating that I thought 'I could try that myself.'" There was no plan to ride around the world. "I just wanted to see if I could handle it. I bought this outrageously expensive bicycle - it cost 3200 German Mark at the time." He ordered it in 1975, received it in 1976 and started his first trip in 1977.

He had given himself three weeks to see how it would go, ready to add more if he'd like it. "In those three weeks I had so much fun with this movement [pedaling] that I just continued - those three weeks became 32 years."

The very beginning was much tougher. "It is the wish of every child to have a bicycle, but I grew up in a poor family. My mom always slapped me in the face when I told her I wanted to have a bicycle. 'That is something for rich people,' she would say." His mom was single and raised four kids. Plus, after the second World War, everybody's budget was tight. "She had no understanding that her son wanted a bicycle," Waldthaler says.

He reckons he was already 11 or 12 by the time he learned to ride a bicycle, but it was not too late. "When I had my confirmation, my godfather rode me to church on his bicycle - I sat on the cross bar," he recalls. At the time it was a tradition that the kids would receive a watch as a present for the confirmation. "But I told him I'd rather want to have a bicycle, so he gave me his - although it was way too big."

Later, his sister worked in Switzerland and Waldthaler has not forgotten one particular time when she visited the family back home. "She told me:
'Hey, I'll buy you a bicycle!' For me that was the ultimate - somebody buying me a bicycle without asking why and what for."

Waldthaler enjoyed this form of transportation and when he was a kid, not everybody could afford one. When he started an apprenticeship to become a confectioner, he rode his bike to work.

Out into the world

After his apprenticeship, the people around him said that in order to make it, he would need to travel, learn languages, cook and bake in the big hotels. "So I did that, but then at home they complained that I was never there! I replied that I am doing exactly what they wanted."

He had caught the travel bug and his cooking and baking skills made it easy to earn money when he started running low while on the road. "You have to be convinced by yourself and you have to be able to convince others that you can do your stuff. Regardless if I was in Asia, Australia or Africa, I just went to larger hotels and asked for work. They were always looking for people from Germany, Switzerland or Austria."

Waldthaler is happy to answer questions from anybody, but he has noted a behavioral change. "The times, the world, the traditions have changed - kids today do not dream so much of having a bicycle anymore." They still want to travel, though. "I receive a lot of emails from students who graduated and want to go on a big Tour. They ask me how I did get sponsored. I tell them 'I worked!' In the first ten years I rode from hotel to hotel and asked if they needed a hand."

Problems in the kitchen

This has allowed him to establish his reputation as a traveler, author, presenter, equipment tester. He is glad that there is no more need to stop by at the hotels. "Now I only cook for my wife and myself - and friends, when they are over. The problem as a cook is that when the party is going on, you are stuck in the kitchen." There are other problems as well. "Many cooks become alcoholics. For one, they sit at the source. Secondly, the guests often give alcoholic presents. I also worked as a disc jockey, and they, too, often receive invitations to drink."

You have to have the control and the ability to say no - not everybody can do it. "I worked in the Victoria Falls hotel in Zimbabwe. One day, the chief cook just fell over dead. Every day he had a bottle of whiskey that he started drinking at ten o'clock in the morning. By noon he was completely wasted and wouldn't get up off his chair. He just wrote the menus while seated and delegated the work."

There is an additional aspect. "In Australia, the young cooks also told me that there was a lot of competition - who would be first, second and third cook."

Waldthaler for his part is not competitive - he will even stop a tour if circumstances outside his control require it. In his early, pre-internet days, that was problematic if he was traveling faster than the information. During his first trip he ended up in Iran's Islamic revolution, at a time when even diplomats in the American embassy were held hostage. "I was almost killed by a woman back then," he recalls the chaotic time.

But mostly he remembers the positive things and those included meeting Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Indirah Gandhi. Thanks to the internet he can now keep people informed about his adventures. The times they are a-changing.



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