The Syncronicles, Living the Vanlife

It must have been around 1991 when I first sat in a VW T3. After my mom died, I grew up in an orphanage and there we had two of those white VW T3 Transporter vans we used to get around in. Back then the orphanage was led by Christian nuns, so they were driving these things – not really well – so it has always been an adventure. I remember really funny stories when we drove down to Italy during the summer holidays for our annual two-week beach vacations. It was the highlight of the year. It was all about camping out, eating outside and living under the pine trees at the beach. We never had any issues with the Vans – they brought us back safely, sunburned and happy.

The years went by and when I was 19 my summer vacation took me to the Atlantic coast in France to learn how to surf. Again – Camping out under pine trees with many other surf people and their customized adventure mobiles. The camp ground was packed and no more space was available. There I spotted this perfection of a VW van – a much higher T3 with larger tires and the 4×4 Syncro decals on it. And it was parked on top of a small sand dune where no other car without all-wheel drive could get up.

In 2007 I made the investment and bought a T3 Syncro –the Van or at least a good base to build the van of my dreams. It used to be an old, empty military transporter van with plastic seats but with little rust and low milage. I paid 5400 Euro – which was a lot for such an old van 8 years ago, but nothing compared to the prices that are asked for very basic Syncro vans today. It seemed like a solid base to start a long conversion process. First I stripped the interior down to the metal and cleaned everything. I applied sound deadening matts everywhere and insulated the full body. The rear got a foldable bed and some storage underneath for the second battery, electronics, sound and the Webasto diesel heater. I made new wooden sides and roof panels and covered them with real alcantara fabric. On Ebay I found some used pilot seats and a good Alpine radio. Later I invested into some larger offroad wheels

I drove the van like that for 6 years. But the salty winter use and the bad military matte paint job destroyed the body very fast. Massive rust popped up everywhere and as soon as you look deeper whats under the “bubbles” the more you get frustrated when the screwdriver bores itself through the porous metal. The old engine made more and more problems as well so, two years ago, in fall 2013 I had to make a decision whether to give up on it or invest again to get the Van back on track.

I didn’t plan to invest a huge amount of either time or money.

But due to my research for a good car body paint shop I ran into Marco Romaldini and his company Romaldini & Biccario in Munich. He is only a couple years older than me, a Mountainbike enthusiast and runs one of the best paint shops in Germany. His carpark was full with Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin supercars when I rolled in with my old rusty Van. I was like – fu*k it, this is the wrong place, turn around and look for something less exclusive. But luckily I didn’t. After a couple minutes with Marco, I knew he is the right person I could trust. That was in fall 2013 and the start of a full restoration process. The van needed some new metal body parts, some professional welding and rust removal.

To be honest, I had no clue what I had begun.

If I have known back then how much work it would be, I probably would have never started. I took the half car apart, removed the windows, the doors, the complete dashboard and so on to have a good access to all small corners and edges. Marco gave me the opportunity to do all the pre-paint work by myself in a corner of his shop. I thought I would be done with the van in like two weeks. It took more than two months. When I stood in front of the van – everything stripped, the hanging lights which looked like popped out eyeballs I lost faith in the project!

“Throw it away, stop here and now… It’s a massive waste of time and money!”

I often said to myself. There were days I came home from the workshop deeply frustrated because I couldn’t see an end. But Marco and his team kept me somehow motivated even they thought was completely crazy to put that much work into such a rusty f*cked up car. I kept going and did what had to be done. There was no way back anyhow…

At the point when I began to sand the body, I figured that when I make such an effort I could also give the car completely new and different paint. I was over the military nato-olive-green and thought the Van would look great in a more modern grey suit. Marco showed me the 200+ grey options I had to choose from… unbelievable. I listened to his expertise and we made a decision to use a metallic dark grey paint with a matte clear coat on top.

When the Van rolled out of the cabin with the fresh paint, applied by the master, all doubts and worries were blown away. The perfection of the new paint – the new fresh look made me feel uncomfortable when I thought that I would run the car with the old engine and live in the old interior. So I had to step up the game completely and made the decision to re-do everything for the second time of the vans life.

The engine has been replaced by a modern 120hp TDI with many custom parts. All taken to perfection by Alexander Schank – a real master and specialist in for custom built engines and transmissions. It took him a couple months to build a solid engine that changed the character of the Van enormously. A huge benefit is not just the extra power but also the modern and more eco-friendly technology that has been built in.

The car meets all modern standards – for real – not like in the latest modified VW cheating manner. I’ve spent the spring of 2015 rebuilding the complete interior and made all door, roof and side panels new. I changed many old cables and installed LED lights and new instruments to have control over my engine at any time when driving. I invested in some new Recaro seating because there is nothing more important than proper seats when traveling for thousands of miles on and off the road. To be completely self-sufficient when setting up camp far away from camp sites I installed two new batteries, new chargers and a mobile 100-watt solar panel to have enough power at any time.

Due to the fact that my little family was growing as well, I needed think how to fit us all in the van. We are now 4 when we travel as a family, so far we had space on the large bed in the back but with another kid, it’s getting way too tight. I’ve spent many nights thinking about how I could fit them all when we camp out without cutting the roof and install a classic Westfalia pop-up roof. Well, it’s not bad at all to have it, but I need for my job a heavy duty roof rack to more than I need a pop-up roof all year long. I found a solution and made a HEIMPLANET tent fit onto my roof rack. Its set up within 5 minutes, works excellent and solves my space problem in an aesthetically cool way too.

The last huge remaining work that had to be done was the complete underbody. Mechanically as well as fighting rust and protect the metal good enough for the next decade or two. Again with the help of Romaldini I had a workshop for my use. I took everything apart – which sounds easier than it was. It took me a week to open the 25 year old bolts. Most of them didn’t move at all so it hat to cut and drill them open. I replaced the old shocks with new GMB-Mount height adjustable ones. These are a lot stronger and more firm for a good drive with a heavy loaded van on and off the road. I also replaced all the bushings, joints and bolts. Everything new. I also kicked out the old drum brakes and installed new discs for better braking performance as well. Last but not least the underbody got a 2-way bitumen metallic wax coating to protect the metal for many more years of heavy winter and off-road use to come.

Finally, I’ve built the van of my dreams and learned tons about cars in the process.
It’s the most versatile car I can think of (well maybe apart from Richie’s G Wagon.)

Am I finished? I wish, but I guess not.
But it was more than worth it.
Rob J Heran.

Filming by Sebastian Doerk, Infinite Trails

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THE MINE

Um ehrlich zu sein, hatte ich Kentucky vor dieser Reise nicht wirklich auf dem Schirm. Was ich mit Kentucky in Verbindung brachte, war lediglich die Fastfood-Kette mit dem alten Mann im Logo. Bis letzten Herbst! Als ich im Internet plötzlich auf die Bilder eines neuen Untergrund-Mountainbike-Parks in einer alten, stillgelegten Kalksteinmine gestoßen bin, wurde ich neugierig. Der Megacavern Bikepark ist in Louisville/Kentucky. Eine Gegend die bekannt ist für Bourbon Whiskey und Legenden wie Muhamed Ali, aber von Bikeparks hatte ich dort noch nichts gehört.

Da ich richtig Biken will, zu Hause aber tiefster Winter herrscht, gab ich dem Untergrund eine Chance. Also wurde ein Flug gebucht, mein Canyon Spectral AL 29 und das Stitched eingepackt und schon war ich wenige Tage später in Kentucky. Bei eiskalten -24°Celsius vor Ort kann man nicht von einer Winterpause sprechen. Für den Osten Amerikas hatte sich eine der härtesten Kältefronten der letzten 15 Jahren für diese Woche angesagt. Bingo! Sogar die Niagara Fälle waren teilweise eingefroren.

In meiner Vorstellung erhoffte ich mir beim Betreten der Mine zunächst einen rustikalen Aufzug der mich zum Mittelpunkt der Erde bringt. Tatsächlich konnte man dort einfach mit dem Auto hineinfahren und so in die gewaltigen „Räume“ gelangen. Die Mine ist heute tatsächlich als unterirdisches „Gebäude“ deklariert und ist mit 100 Hektar Fläche das größte im Bundesstaat Kentucky. In den 30er Jahren wurden in den Limestone-Minen große Mengen Kalkstein zum Straßen- und Brückenbau aus dem Fels gesprengt. Über 40 Jahre war das ein blühendes Geschäft und wäre es wahrscheinlich bis heute noch, wenn der darüber liegende Zoo nicht protestiert hätte. Seit der Stilllegung der Mine stand diese über 20 Jahre brach, bis ein Geschäftsmann aus der Abfallwirtschaft auf die Idee kam, das Bergwerk mit Bauschutt, Lehm und Altreifen wieder aufzufüllen. So wurden nach und nach die 25 Meter hohen Räume wieder aufgefüllt. Tom, der smarte Geschäftsmann hinter der Idee erklärte mir alles ausführlich. Nach einigen Stunden Besichtigung wollte ich dann aber endlich aufs Rad und den Bike Park sehen. Auch wenn ich auf ersten Bildern nur die Dirt Jumps gesehen hatte, wusste ich, dass es hier vor allem richtige Trails gibt. Tatsächlich besteht der Großteil des Areals aus Singletrails. Der äußere Rand ist eine grün gekennzeichnete Strecke. Die verschiedenen Farben kennzeichnen die Schwierigkeitsgrade. Neben den einfachen grünen Lines gibt es eine Vielzahl blauer Strecken mit Bodenwellen, engen Kurven und einfachen Sprüngen. Die schwarzen Tracks sind dann schon mit Drops und steilen Kickern versehen. Es sind so unfassbar viele kleine Abzweigungen, Verbindungen und Lines, dass ich einige Stunden brauchte, um mir einen groben Überblick auf dem etwa 100.000 qm großen Areal zu verschaffen.

Circa 45 Trails sollen es sein, wenn alles fertig ist. Unglaublich wie hier jeder Meter sinnvoll genutzt wurde. Verantwortlich dafür ist der erfahrene und bekannte Trail Builder Joseph Prisel vom Burlington Bike Park. Er baut hier seit Monaten an dem größten Indoor Bike Park der Welt. Nach ein paar Runden fahren komme ich tatsächlich ins Schwitzen. Der Großteil der Wege lässt sich wie ein endloser Pumptrack fahren. Um mit Speed durch die Lines zu kommen, muss ich richtig pushen und die Wellen und Kurven ausnutzen. In den hinteren Bereichen des Parks liegt die Temperatur bei angenehmen und geothermisch aufgewärmten 16°Celsius. Kaum vorstellbar, dass man bei den eisigen Temperaturen über der Erde dort unten in T-Shirt und Shorts biken kann. Im Winter ist es aber nicht nur warm, sondern vor allem trocken. Der Staub in der Mine stellt allerdings ein kleines Problem dar. Bei hohem Fahrbetrieb entstehen relativ große Staubverwirbelungen. Deswegen werden die Lines permanent bewässert. Im Sommer hat man dort unten eine hohe Luftfeuchtigkeit und man kann sich das Bewässern sparen. Es ist sehr beeindruckend welche Hingabe und Manpower hier gleich von Anfang an in die Streckenpflege und Sicherheit gesteckt wurde. Jeden Tag werden zwei Stunden vor Eröffnung des Parks die Sprünge ausgebessert, Lines geshaped und von losem Dreck und Geröll befreit.

Mit meinem 29er Spectral AL bin ich auf den Trails mit dem richtigen Bike unterwegs. Doch für die Jumpline muss das Dirtbike her. Und schon hat man wieder mehr als 15 Optionen um durch die drei Hauptlines zu kommen. In der Megacavern treffen sich die BMX Kids, Racer, Dirt Jumper und auch einige auf ihren Enduros, um etwas Airtime zu schnuppern. So einen Mix unterschiedlichster Bikes an einer Location habe ich vorher noch nie gesehen. Manche Fahrer sind seit 10 Jahren nicht mehr auf dem Bike gefahren. Da es nun diese Möglichkeit gibt, graben alle ihre alten Dirt Bikes, BMX oder Klunker aus der Garage. Hauptsache es hat zwei Räder und rollt über den Dreck.

Ich hatte schon diverse Gerüchte im Vorfeld über diesen Park gehört. Aber als ich das Potential dieser Anlage mit meinen eigenen Augen gesehen habe, wusste ich, dass dort etwas Großartiges erschaffen wurde. Von diesem Spot wird man in den nächsten Jahren mit Sicherheit noch eine Menge hören. Die Motivation mit der die Leute vor Ort an die Sache gehen, konnte man in jedem Detail erkennen. Es ist nicht nur eine Spinnerei für eine Saison sondern alles hat Hand und Fuss und eine Nachhaltigkeit für die kommenden Jahre.

Nach ein paar produktiven und intensiven Sessions unter Tage und einer sehr guten Zeit in Louisville, kann ich nur sagen, dass dieser Bike Park bei jedem Mountainbiker auf der „To-Do-Liste“ weit oben stehen sollte.

Filming by Sebastian Doerk, Infinite Trails | Canyon Bikes

NEPAL

Into thin air

The air is thin up here. I hike up the last steep slope to around 4500 metres and try to extract everything that my legs and lungs have to give. I’m right on the limit and about to start the last descent of my time here in Nepal, on the Lubra Trail deep in the Upper Mustang and surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world. Annapurna (8091 m), Dhaulagiri (8167 m) and the Nilgiri (7061 m) are just a few of the summits I can see. Surrounding these giants are several “smaller” six-thousanders that haven’t even been named yet, our guide Mandil tells us as that there are simply too many of them. How many undiscovered trails and lines are still out there? How much can still be ridden? The possibilities appear endless. They are. Before dropping in and riding the trail down to the riverbed of the mighty Kali Gandaki for the last time, I spy an enormous ammergeyer floating on the thermals, majestically soaring across this ancient kingdom without a single beat of its wings.

This is what it’s all about. At these moments, right in the here and now, time stands still. For the next thirty minutes I have the whole trail to myself. You ride yourself into a trance, the senses become hyper-alert, reading what lies ahead so that each movement flows seamlessly into the next. The trail’s a high-speed mix of loose corners interspersed with steep, exposed sections all the way down to the bottom. Make a mistake riding this fast and you’re in serious trouble, but thoughts of “what if?” have no place in the mind right now. I’m utterly consumed by the experience.

The perfect ride? It’s definitely one of the best trails I’ve ever ridden. The crowning glory of my time in Nepal.

This journey was so much more than just another trip into the backcountry to go and ride. There were points when it felt like we’d gone on a journey back through time, to an era when old values still counted for something, an existence we all too often seem to have lost touch with in the western world. Up in Mustang, people still live their lives as they have been doing for centuries, perfectly in time with nature’s rhythm. This entire area has only recently become accessible to outsiders, meaning modern influences have yet to take a hold, people do things as they always have done. Everything is made by hand. Whatever they undertake, they do it with full dedication and take their time until every last detail is perfect. It’s like they go beyond Buddhism. Nothing gets rushed. All actions are carried out with a constant, unwavering attachment to their religion.

This will not be the last time I travel to Nepal. The terrain has so much more to offer, it’s just waiting to be discovered. I also want to learn more about the people here and their rich culture. And when I do come back, I’m going to take my time. It’ll be worth it. Especially when the stifling effect of modern life’s stress, pressure and imbalance makes our air too
thin to breathe.

Filming by Sebastian Doerk, Infinite Trails | Canyon Bikes

WHAT IF

This is not a bike film, well not as you’d expect it i guess. And even though it’s narrated by Alan Watts, a philosopher, the question it brings up is rather basic.

What if you wouldn’t be scared, scared to give up the job you hate, scared to leave for a better place.

What if you could dream your whole life in one night and make changes the nights following. Would you still be the same person when you wake up? Can a simple dream change your everyday life?

„I wonder, I wonder, what you would do if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream. And you would of course be able to alter your time sense, and slip seventy-five years of subjective time into eight hours of sleep.

You would I suppose start out by fulfilling all your wishes. You could design for yourself what would be the most ecstatic life. And then after a couple of months of this sort of thing at seventy-five years a night, you’d be getting a little taste for something different, and you’d move over to an adventurous dimension, where there were certain dangers involved, and the thrill of dealing with dangers. And after you had done that for awhile, you’d think up a new wrinkle, to forget that you were dreaming, and think that is was all for real.“ Alan Watts

„Free you mind and the rest will follow“ is easier said than done, but it’s worth thinking about it once in a while. Are you as good in postponing to the very last moment as i am? When it comes to life, your life, this moment might be too late to get epic shit done.

Great filming and editing by Sebastian Doerk. Thank you so much.
Thanks Canyon and ION bike for supporting this project. Turn up the volume and enjoy.