Capture the flags: One cyclist’s journey to visit every country on Earth

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There are many great things about cycling: the health benefits, the social interaction, the challenge — the list goes on. There’s also the bicycle’s ability to help us explore, to see the world around us. Patrick Schroeder is a German explorer who, over the past 10 years, has used the bicycle to visit countries all around the world. Indeed, it’s his goal to visit every country around the world. George Tyson caught up with Schroeder ahead of his latest cycling adventure.

In the middle of December 2015, on a quiet beach in Anfeh, Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border, Patrick Martin Schroeder laid down his bike and set up his tent for the night. He’d ridden 100 miles (160km) of his Middle Eastern bikepacking tour as part of a bid to visit all 193 recognised countries of the world, and had found a secluded spot to recover and prepare for the following day.

Patrick was reading by torchlight before dropping off to sleep when a passing soldier tore open his tent and yelled at him unintelligibly in Arabic.

Thinking it was simply a routine passport check – he was close to the border, after all – Patrick threw the man his bag containing his documents. As the soldier pocketed the emergency stash of currency and small valuables that were also in the bag, it became clear this was not an official encounter.

Shouts of “no” stopped the soldier’s search, only for him to reach for his pistol and load it – an action that requires no translation. Patrick surrendered to the robbery and, once it was over, hurriedly packed his belongings and rode off into the night.

In 2007, aged 19, Patrick had just completed national service in Germany and was about to enroll at university. Following the well-beaten path of countless others before him, a period of travelling would sate his wanderlust before three further years of studying. But a change came that brought about an alternative option, and would lead to the beginning of his mission to visit every country on earth.

“I was about to start university when I inherited a house,” says Patrick. “I rented it out, and used the money to carry on travelling. After spending time in Europe I bought a bike to use as my main means of travel.

“My first big bicycle tour took me to South Africa, and it was after this trip that the idea developed to visit every country. At that point I’d already visited 50 countries, and it was working quite well, so now I’m slowly chipping away.”

Patrick is currently around 70% through his goal, having visited 141 of 193 United Nations member states.

“I spend on average around six to nine months on tour, and the remainder of the year resting and planning,” he explains from his current base in Germany. “When I planned the South American leg of my trip, I’d never been to that continent before, and thought I might as well visit every country while I’m there. I looked at a world map, and all the countries I’d visited, and realised it was looking rather full.

“I guess it’s like a coin collection – it’s a challenge I’ve set for myself, and I want to collect them all.”

Following the success of his South American trip, riding the Pan-American Highway from Argentina to Canada, Patrick decided that travelling in this way was the most efficient method of visiting the greatest number of places. He has also completed a yearlong cycling tour through Africa, as well as riding from Russia to China then back to Europe via the Silk Road.

“The trips get easier, so I set myself challenges every year. Just taking a normal touring bike is boring – so next year I’ll ride a bamboo bike,” Patrick said at the end of 2016. “In 2016 I rode a Brompton folding bike, and the year before I rode a full suspension mountain bike. As long as I can pack my things on it, then it’s fine.

“In most developing or third-world countries, it’s a necessity to take a tent, because you can’t guarantee anywhere to stay. It makes it much easier if you have your house with you.”

Travelling in this way requires a certain level of trust in your fellow man. And for Patrick, even the incident in Lebanon didn’t affect his ability to put his faith in other people. The evening after the robbery he set up a crowdfunding effort, and after two days, he’d recovered enough money to replace his stolen belongings and get back on the road.

“You’re constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers,” he says. “When you’re riding in very remote areas, people run after you and try to figure out what the hell you’re doing. I’ve had more invitations for tea or offers of a bed for the night in Africa than anywhere else in the world.”

Patrick’s attitude to adventure is enviable. Last summer he rode to Mont Blanc — the highest mountain in the French Alps — carrying his climbing equipment with him – including ice picks and crampons – then soloed the mountain. Mont Blanc climbed, he continued to his destination, Europe’s annual cycling exhibition, Eurobike. On the way home he stopped at the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, and also summited that “because it was there.”

His ambitions include endeavours that, for others, are achievements of a lifetime. But for Patrick, accruing these experiences is the same as collecting countries on his tireless quest to visit the world. And he takes everything in his larger-than-life stride.

“I want to climb the seven summits [the highest peaks of the seven continents],” he says. “Five of them are easy, but two give me trouble. Mount Vinson in Antarctica is shielded by bureaucracy – I’ve tried arranging a bike trip there for years but acquiring the permits and travel is proving difficult.”

Now, in January 2017, Patrick is back on the road. After some initial passport troubles — the German postal system “misplaced” his passport for a time — Patrick has departed for West Africa on his bamboo bike. His aim: to visit a further eight countries and spend two weeks in each.

Patrick is sponsored by bike brand MyBoo and bag brand Apidura.

As his end goal creeps nearer, Patrick’s motivations and approach to adventure seem to be shifting.

“In the beginning I just wanted to see a bit of the world, but now, I’ve set myself a goal and it’s more structured,” he says. “I’m not the 19-year-old backpacker bumbling around anymore, but I’m still learning about myself. I appreciate luxury and the safety and comfort of the western world, and look at our materialistic culture in a very different way.”

Ten years have passed since Patrick started his journey, the original timescale for completing his unique collection. When asked about the future of the challenge, he’s reticent.

“At some point I might say it’s not worth it for the last 10 or 20 countries,” Patrick says. “A visit to North Korea costs $1,000, and Bhutan charge $250 a day – but who knows.”

For now at least, he’ll continue exploring the world by bike, one country at a time.

“I always think that I should write a book, but that means stopping to write it.”

To read more about Patrick’s adventures, be sure to check out the terrific Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) he did in December last year. You can follow his latest adventure at his website, on Twitter and on Facebook.

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