Western Ukrainian snapshots; August 2014

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Images from our time in Western Ukraine.  This part of the country is characterized by Euro-Ukrainian cities such as Lviv, Uzhorod, and Ivano-Frankivsk, with roots also in Poland, Galicia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, and more; a narrow swathe of the Carpathian Mountains, forested and crawling with people growing things and herding things and collecting things, and some tourists like ourselves; and a unique take on the state and future of the country, naturally.  Most of our time was spent in the mountains, and on either side of the mountains riding to and from Lviv and Uzhorod.  We spent a few days in transit to visit family in the southwest, or perhaps it may be called the south-central part of the county.  It is closer to Odessa and the Moldovian border than I realized.  Technically, this is all from the western half of the country, at the crossroads of our lives and Ukrainian life.  

The billboard reads, “My dad protects Ukraine! Are you ready?”  

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29 years in Ukraine

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My birthday comes near the end of August.  Once again, I dine amongst distant relatives near the village where my grandfather was born.  Twelve months ago these people were all unknown to me, but we’re closer relatives than before, even if I still don’t know exactly how we’re related.  What I know is that when we arrive in town everyone wants to feed us, house us, and spend time with us.  That’s family. 

Overnight rain from Volovets in the Karpaty to Vinnytsia.  This is the Uzhorod-Kyiv train line.

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Bus from Vinnytsia to Bershad.

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You can take a bus from far eastern Ukraine all the way to Munich.  Or at least, at one time you could.

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First business in town is to visit with Lida and Lonya.  Lonya is my mom’s first cousin and our closest relative in Bershad and in the nearby village of Romanivka.  His father Simeon visited us in New York when I was young, shortly after Ukraine gained independence in the 1990’s.

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Last year, a kind young man drove us to Romanivka and patiently assisted us as we visited with family.  Not until the end of the first day did we realize that our driver is also our cousin, Yaroslav.  His mother Olya and his father Vitaliy provide a place to stay on our brief visit this year.  They have a simple house near the edge of town.  Their location allows them the space to keep animals and grow most of their food.  They buy bread and some specialty items.  

In addition to fruits and vegetables, they also keep cows, pigs, and chickens; make homemade samohon and fruit compote; and keep nearly twenty young pigs for sale.  Both keep jobs in the small city of Bershad as well. 

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No such thing as too much garlic.

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As in the mountains, I suspect the nearby forest is also a food source.  In the right season, mushrooms are abundant, although in general, much of Ukraine is hot and dry in the summer.

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We return from a walk to a house transformed, with a table set for 15 people.

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Even the kovbasa is made of their own pork.

Слава Україна!  Героим Слава!  

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!

We all drink to Ukraine.  We all drink to my birthday, and to our family, and to Ukraine a few more times.  

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Moments before dark, we all find our way outside for pictures.  All throughout the day we’ve looked at every personal photo archive at each house.  For the older generation in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world, real photos are powerful and memorable.  I’ve got to remember to print and share more photos.  The young people all want to know if I have Фейсбуки, or Facebook.  

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The young man on the left is on the right in the next photo, all grown up.

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Our hosts Olya and Vitaliy, and my mom.  

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High ISO, a 12-second timer, and a flash make 15 smiling faces.

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Inside for some cake, coffee, more samohon, sleep, and in the morning another 30 hours of travel back to our bikes.  It is a brief visit and at one time I questioned whether it is worth it.  It was.  

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Lviv, Ukraine; August 18-19, 2014

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Following a few days at the hostel in Kolochava, and a few more days of riding, I finally received word from my mom that she was coming to visit us in Ukraine, again.  Last year, as we selected an eastward trajectory from France, we conspired to set a date and she bought a plane ticket to Ukraine.  We would meet just before my birthday.  We planned to visit her father’s family in the southwest, and her mother’s family in the far east, near Luhansk. 

Last Monday she wrote, telling me that she would not be able to come visit again this year, regretfully.  On Wednesday she wrote again, telling me that she had bought a plane ticket.  On Friday, she and my brother arrived in Kyiv and immediately boarded a train to Lviv.  Lael and I composed a roundabout route back towards Strij though the mountains.  We boarded an electro-poyizd (regional electric train) for the final 60km to Lviv.

Lviv is busy and beautiful, full of pedestrian boulevards and sidewalk cafes.  There are tourists, but mostly they are Ukrainian or from elsewhere in nearby Eastern Europe.  The city is rustic but not rusting; while many historic structures remain, they are artfully maintained, not artificially renovated as in more popular destinations.  To my tastes the city feels more like an improvement upon Prague and even Bratislava.  The streets are narrow and cobbled, not wide as in Kyiv, part of which was planned during the Soviet era.  And while comparisons to both Paris and Prague are in order for any charming European city, I’d choose neither of those over Lviv. The time to visit Lviv is now, before Ukraine’s economy booms upward and the city becomes more expensive and the cafes are replaced with tourist shops and the Ukrainians are replaced by English and German and Japanese tourists.  I believe Lviv is experiencing yet another high period in its long history.  It is exceptional.  

Lviv may also be the most Ukrainian city, not because it is the most even slice of the country.  Rather, the people here intend to preserve Ukrainian language and culture more than anywhere else in Ukraine.  Western Ukraine– hundreds of miles from Russia– is also the most Ukrainian part of Ukraine.  However, Ukrainianism here is not without fault.  The popular red and black flag of the УПА  (Ukrainian Insurgent Army)– an organization notorious for fighting both the Nazis and the Russians during WWII, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera– stands as one of several symbols important to nationalistic Ukrainians.  This militaristic organization is also responsible for the death of coutless Poles in the region.  Nationalism, in almost any form, often has a dark side.  Incidentally, the grave of Bandera was recently vandalized in Germany.  And yesterday, several Ukrainians ascended a high-rise structure in Moscow, repainting a soviet star in the blue and yellow pattern of the Ukrainian flag, marking their work with a Ukrainian flag atop the 32-story building.  These are a sign of the times in this part of the world, although the actual situation is much more grave.  

We have been unable to make calls to our family in Stakhanov, in the Luhansk Oblast near the Russian border for several weeks.  We hope they are safe.

Into Lviv.

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This region is known for changing borders.  The former Galician empire included much of the Ukrainian Carpathian region, and some of Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

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Someone has decided that smashing the windows of the Russian bank is a good idea.

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No military presence is felt in Lviv, although memorials are scattered throughout the city.  

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As is lighter fare, such as this toilet paper being sold at the touristic market.

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Mostly, life continues for residents of Lviv.  Tourism is down.  Young men and mothers worry about being drafted.  Over 2000 Ukrainians have died in the “anti-terrorist” conflict since this spring.

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A walk around the city reveals characteristic scenes of Lviv.  The aging Lada sedan is ever-present in Ukraine.

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Chruches are full on Sunday.  We’ve discovered that while riding through the country, we can visit as many as five or six churches on a Sunday morning, during active service.

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The Armenian cathedral in Lviv dates to the 1300’s.

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Taras Shevchenko is the most famous Ukrainian.  A poet, painter, and a fervent supporter of the idea of an independent Ukrainian nation, his likeness or bust stands tall in most every Ukrainian city.  He was born a serf in 1814.  He died briefly after a period of exile in Russia.  He died seven days before the official emancipation of serfs in tsarist Russia in 1861.

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Mostly, life continues as usual in Lviv.

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Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

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The discoveries of one day become the fuel for another.  For this reason, I have a tendency to revisit the same places and choose another path.  We’ve ridden up and down the west coast a few times, twice down the Divide, to Colorado and the southwest for a third season of fall riding, and to Europe for a second summer in a row.  Each ride leaves unridden routes.  When touring on pavement, we used to say that the world was getting smaller with each pedal stroke.  But the discoveries of off-pavement touring seem to make the world bigger.  These opportunities are not always apparent from afar.  Up close, they come into view.  Zoom in close on the GPS and a network or serpentine red lines appear.

Last summer, we hardly knew what to expect when we touched down in Amsterdam with our bikes.  We return to Europe this summer with the knowledge that there are overwhelming opportunities for off-pavement riding.  Last summer, we crossed borders from west to east until crossing into Ukraine, where things changed greatly.  This summer we return to the east and to Ukraine with an understanding of how things work, how some things just don’t work, and how to get around on two wheels.  We return to the Karpaty in spite of the cold rainy weather from last fall.  

This time around, being in Ukraine is familiar.  The weather is cooperating.  The roads and rides have been great, so far.  We’ve discovered that on Sunday mornings we can visit as many as a half-dozen churches, in active service, while riding through villages.  We also learned that the Ukrainian currency has plummeted in value by 50% in the last few months.  Last time we calculated about 8 hryvnia to the dollar, this time it is more than 12.  As such, a cup of coffee or tea is much less than a dollar, a cold pint of Obolon is often only sixty cents, and a cup of borsch is barely a full American bill.

Surely, there are reasons for this dramatic change.  We’re in Kolochava for a few days, enjoying the hospitality of a large guest house.  The televisor spits out images and details of the situation near Donetsk, in between dubbed American films, infomercials for butt-shaping walking shoes, and Russian soaps.  The Ukrainian border guard made jokes about Lael’s passport photo, calling out to his superior that she looks like a pro-Russian militant, laughing (she does).  The superior paused for a closer look, took a serious look at us, took another look at the passport, and waved us on.  There are some serious things happening on that side of the country, nearly a thousand miles away.  Not that nobody cares, but here it makes for small talk, mostly.  Tourism to this historic mountain village is reported to be about half of normal this summer.  For current English-language news from Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is a good source in addition to some major news organizations such as the BBC.  We’ve also discovered a substantial monthly publication entitled New Eastern Europe, full of essays and editorials from the region, in English.  The magazine is published in Poland, and the current issue focuses on the Ukrainian situation, through the lens of Polish, Georgian, Belorussian, and Ukrainan writers, among others.  The opening interview is with former Polish president Lech Wałȩsa.  

Riding from Slovakia, we detour though Uzghorod, and into the mountains on a series of forest roads and small paved roads.  We shoot for Volovets, to return to Polonina Borzhava.  Przemek led us up the mountain for the first time last year, before an impending thunderstorm sent us bombing down the mountainsides.  An long-term forecast for rain convinced us to catch a train to Crimea.  We intersect our route last year to follow an unfinished path through the Ukrainian Karpaty to Romania.  

Coming over the hill into Volovets.  One of the larger towns in the region, it features a regional train to Lviv for only a dollar or two, and more than a few food stores.  As such, it is a popular starting point for adventures.  There are nicer towns to visit in the mountains, although the setting is scenic.

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Soviet murals exist on large buildings and bus stops.  This is one of my favorites, featuring a couple in traditional mountain dress backdropped by sheep and a rocket and a radio antenna.  The man is holding a chainsaw.

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Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.

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Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy.  Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.  

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We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves.  The light improves as the evening passes.

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The mud ends, the sun sets, and we encounter a flat spot to camp.  Before dawn, people are quietly talking and walking up the mountain.  I suspect they are up early to pick mushrooms.  

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The next day, we discover that everyone is hiking up high to pick and rake blueberries.  These kids from Mukacheve are planning to haul a barrel of berries down the mountain at the end of the day.  They bring a sample of last year’s wine.

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We climb up the steep road at about the same rate as a 67 year old woman, walking.  Czechia?  Polscha?  

Amerikansky, I reply.  

Everyone thinks we are Czech.  In Czech, they all think we are German.  In France, they suppose we are Dutch.  In Holland, they know we are American.

She loves the Karpaty, and swoons when we tell her we have a whole month to enjoy.

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Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft.  There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.

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From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.

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Everyone is picking berries up high.  Dots on distant hillsides slowly work side to side, clearing only a fraction of the berries on the mountain. 

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This truck full of gypsies will spend the day collecting berries, before driving back down the mountain.  It is a steep drive up and down, especially with twenty people in the back of the truck.  The Ukrainian Roma are much friendlier than those in Slovakia, thus far.  

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Everyone is enjoying the weather up high, on Saturday.  People walk up from Volovets and Pylypets; motorcycles scream past, and a truck full of novice parasailers circle the sky.

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We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year.  The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.

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Our snack bags are nearly empty, and we point towards Mizhhir’ya at the end of this segment of the red trail.  Rutted roads, no longer is use by four-wheels vehicles, descend the mountain.

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Juniper.

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Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

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From here, a quick up and over into the next valley.  That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.

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Passing the first few homes, I stop to photograph an especially characteristic wooden home.  A woman calls out from the shade, “Dobre vechyr!”  I call back.

Within minutes, we’ve holding bowls of hot mushroom soup and bread.  She offers a bottle of cold beer.  No kidding.  We’re pretty lucky.

Soon, she’s talking about where we will sleep, and what we’ll eat for breakfast.  I compromise and agree to stay, but we will sleep outside, I tell her.  And for breakfast, we only want coffee and tea.  Don’t bother to make too much food for us.  She agrees, and we still awake to a feast of fried potatoes with salo, onion with salt and vinegar, tomatoes, and bread.  I oblige, out of necessity.

Христина was born here.  Her children live in nearby villages, and her mother died about five years ago.  She now keeps three small homes on this property, by herself.  She shows us pictures of her family.  We all sit down to watch the televisor, as she explains the complicated backstory behind Natasha and Mykyta’s love, and his relation to the other girl that lives on the Black Sea in a nice house, and the doctor, and the other red-haired woman and the attractive blond guy.  “Quiet.  Listen.”,  she says.  Then she continues talking about what is happening in the show.  The program captivates her imagination.  She turns it off and we sit outside on the grass for dinner.  

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Ukraine, so far

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This is when and where everything becomes more infrequent, digitally.  There is internet, but there are also lots of dirt roads and rustic crumbling paved roads and old churches and inviting groups of men with horilka at lunch, and woman selling mushrooms by the side of the road, and kids who chase on bicycles and just a few weeks of summer left.  We left more than a few weeks of summer in Alaska, and we’re chasing the last of them in Ukraine.  We climb up Polonina Borzhava again tonight, almost a year later. 

Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine:  Uzhorod, to the Karpaty via dirt roads, some small paved road, to Volovets…

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Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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Up…

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up…

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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To Slovakia!–nothing not to like

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It has been a long time coming, our return to Slovakia.  We grazed the border of Slovakia on several occasions last summer.  Once, en route to meet Przemek for the first time, we rode through Slovakia for part of a day.  Unwilling to participate in yet another currency, we starved ourselves for the afternoon and raced into Poland to begin our ride on the red trails of southern Poland (Note: they use Euros in Slovakia, we started the day with Czech kroner and ended with Polish zloty).  On another occasion, we detoured from the red trails in Poland to spend a few days writing for Bunyan Velo,  We crossed the border a few times in two days, curious about the pace of life in Slovakia.  Poland is a dreamy place, as long as you are in the woods.  On the roads and in town, the energy is high.  Slovakia, like Czech, is relaxed and kind.  We liked it, but the trails, and Przemek, were in Poland.

The country is crossed with mountains, and farms, and relatively few people.  The beer, as in Czech, is cheap.  The mountains, as we are coming to find, are laced with roads and trails, accessible by a plethora of hiking and cycling routes.  These things are always easier to discover in country.  The women– I promise I won’t let this become a place to review the women of the world– have long legs and have obviously spent the summer outdoors doing things they enjoy.  Seriously, Lael agrees, and we marvel at the discovery of Slovakian women– they are beautiful and healthy.  It’s like they’ve never outgrown the age of 12.  We find this to be an interesting social and cultural marker.  The men?  Well, they mostly look like sunburnt farmers.

When crafting a plan for this summer while back in Alaska, the far eastern part of Europe invited us once again.  I want to spend more time in Ukraine, and the other half of the Carpathian Mountain chain in Romania.  Lael wants to learn some Romanian, and bulk up her Ukrainian vocabulary.  We both want to ride bikes in the countryside and mountains in places that are habitable and arable, but not yet overcome by the hypermodern life we know.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  That’s the plan for now, at least as much of a plan as there will ever be.  Beyond that?  Greece and Macedonia?  Spain and Corsica and Morocco?  There are many opportunities further afield, but we’ve really just begun.  Its not fair to this end of the trip to focus on that end of the trip.  We’re focusing on this side of Slovakia for now, trying not to look too far forward.

We took advantage of the Condor Airlines flight over the pole, which runs nonstop all summer from Anchorage to Frankfurt for about $500.  To hone our eastern aspect, we chose a connecting flight to Vienna, which is only 40 miles from Slovakia.  While I am reading maps, Lael is honing her Euro style.

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Look who met us at the airport in Vienna– Przemek!  He came bearing gifts for Lael’s birthday, including homemade currant liqueur and a small loaf of his mother’s bread.  I’m not supposed to tell, but he also made the three hour drive to the airport the day before.  Upon returning home, deflated, he realized that we had departed on the 22nd, but would not arrive until the 23rd.  Thanks for coming back a second time.

We may have the chance to spend a few more weeks with him later this summer.  Our tentative plan is to rendezvous in Romania in late August or early September.  He’s currently living in Slovenia for work.  He still does a very good impression of a Polish man, in English, for our benefit.

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We’d planned a Warmshowers.org host in Vienna, although a delayed arrival and the time it took to reassemble our bikes meant it would be too late to ride into the city.  Neither of us had much interest in the big city, for now.  Rather, we pedaled towards Slovakia.  Head east!

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We connect to a bike path adjacent to the road, only a short distance from the airport.  We ride through several small towns, over the autobahn, and onto a signed hiking route on a small dirt road.  This leads to a dirt track along the Danube River, dotted with rustic fishing cabins.  We slept well on our first night, on a dirt road, alongside a river, only three miles from the airport.  Even the passing “dinner and dance” barges from Vienna didn’t bother us.

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Awake early, without a plan, we pedal.  Several hours later, barely 7:30, we realize we must have been up before 5AM.  This never happens, although we appreciate the extra hours.

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What time is it?

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Immediately, our eastward route intersects the EuroVelo6 route, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea; the local St. James Way, which eventually leads to the local Camino de Santiago route in Spain; and a plethora of local walking and cycling routes along the Donau (Danube).

Signposts are stacked with signs and maps covered in colored routes.  The pathways are in constant use by a steady stream of riders, runners, rollerbladers, and walkers.  Many cycling routes incorporate graded gravel farm roads or unpaved cycling paths.  Most routes utilize existing facilities.  Creating bikeable routes is sometimes as easy as providing maps and signage.  Rest stops like this one are also welcomed, which include drinking water, a bike rack, a detailed map, a covered picnic area, wooden reclining chairs, and some green space.  These are luxuries to a cyclist on a long ride.

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The red and white signage indicates a hiking route.  The shell signifies the way of St. James, whose terminus is in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The most prominent portion of the route is in Spain, although routes and signage begin much further afield.

907 must be the hiking route number.  We’re not in (907)Alaska anymore.

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A short way down the river, Bratislava comes into view.  The capital city of Slovakia borders both Austria and Hungary.  Of the three countries we choose Slovakia, although the long-distance “blue trail” in Hungary is enticing. It claims to be the oldest long-distance footpath in Europe (c. 1938), and comprises part of the modern E4 route across Europe.

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We find easy entrance into the city on paved trails.  Some public maps suggest an off-pavement exit.

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Large Soviet housing projects are common in these eastern cities.

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Europe is full of signed and mapped routes for walking and cycling.  Many walking paths are great fun to ride.  Some cycling routes include mellow dirt tracks, although most prefer pavement.  Dirt routes begins immediately outside the city, climbing into the Malé Karpaty mountains.

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The park includes many features benefitting activity and community.  The greater area includes routes for miles, trending northward through the mountains.

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Dirt, right out of the city.

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The red and white is a walking route, the colored “C” routes are cycling routes.  They diverge, and converge, in this case.

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Along the way, we find dozens of picnic tables, gazebos, and grassy areas.

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And plenty of signage.  Lots of signage.

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Segments of genuine singletrack are exciting, through managed forests dominated by beech trees.

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Some of our route convenes with the race route of an upcoming series.

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Even some hike a bike on day one.  Not bad, considering we don’t have a plan.

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22-32.  This one gets a lot of use.

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Further from the city, the moutnains grow taller and all the cycling routes descend into the valley.  We continue for a time on walking routes, with some pushing.

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Descending from the mountains, we direct ourselves north and east.  A near goal is to get to Ukraine, although there is plenty of riding in Slovakia to keep us busy for years.  We’ll sample some along the way, including some of the 1000 Miles Adventure Route, which crosses Czech and Slovakia.

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Fruit falls onto the roadways.  Camping is abundant.  Nothing not to like.

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Swimming.  Once a day keeps the stink away.  Public laundromats don’t exist where we’re going.

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More cycling and walking routes in the mountains.  So many options.

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The beech forests!–generouslly spaced trees, filtered sunlight, singletrack.

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Dobra Voda.

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Descend to Dobra Voda.  Ascend from Dobra Voda, through a cemetery.

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To a castle.  We didn’t expect a castle at the top of this hill.  Not that this is the fist castle we’ve seen in this corner of Slovakia.  There are dozens.

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A short distance away, we make camp at the top of the mountain, along the red trail.  Red trails are most often major routes, which cover longer distances.

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From the top, we descend through more scenic beech forests to town.  Slovakia is a new favorite.  Nothing not to like.

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The E8 walking trail, like the E4 and the E2, crosses the European continent from Ireland to Turkey.

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This map locates all the castles, in reference to cycling routes.

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Searching for chain lube, we go looking for small town bikes shops.  It seems WD-40 in spray cans is preferred.

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We choose pavement for a few days to make some distance north, and east.  When possible, we interject mellow dirt routes chosen from local signage.  A forecast for heavy rain will keep us off the dirt for a few days.  Much of the dirt riding ahead of us promises to be steep, as we enter higher mountains.  Lael also has a nagging ankle injury that likes to ride a bike, but not to push bikes up steep grades.

Postcard Slovakia: Soviet housing, sunflowers, rolling hills, and blue skies.

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Tidy houses, forested hills, small farm plots, and fruit trees.

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Swim in a cold stream, a castle on the hill.

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Slovakians love to ride.  There are often families and groups of riders on the weekends.  Through the week, people commute to work and ride to the store to get what they need.  Most often, older men and women ride vintage step-through frames with 24×1 3/8″ tires and rider bars, perfectly practical for this kind of riding.

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Proper bike shops are infrequent, although bikes from the past several decades are still riding alongside newer bikes.  It is not uncommon to see a 30 year old bike with patina and signs of use, still exhibiting smooth operation.  This is what happens when you value the things you have, and take care of them.  The values of our grandparents are still alive here.

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Aside from maps and signs by the roadside, detailed guidebooks and “Active” maps for hiking and cycling are available from local bookstores and supermarkets.  This book details cyclings routes around Slovakia, concentrated in the southwest corner, nearby much of the country’s population.  This book includes paved and unpaved routes, and many routes which combine the two.

Check our this digital resource for all the walking routes in Slovakia.  Cycling routes are all here.  An Android App called Hiking Map Slovakia is also useful, and is currently installed on Lael’s Nexus tablet.

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Look for these maps as well, in country or online.

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Cycling signposts also include directions to local attractions such as castles, swimming pools, and this BIKEPARK.  Mountain biking is increasingly popular here.

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Cycling routes are surprising in Slovakia, ranging from busy two-lane roads to this levee singletrack.  A mountain bike makes a versatile touring bike in this county.

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As anywhere, it ensures the right tool to avoid busy roadways.

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Much like in Czech, beer is everpresent.  When we order kava at 7AM, it is not uncommon to see a table of townspeople talking over tall glasses of beer.  At about 4%, a beer or two in the morning is like a strong cup of coffee with sugar, right?

Hops and wheat, from which beer is made.  Slovakian lowlands are filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

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We’ve had such good luck finding campsites all over Europe.  As a rule, as night falls, find a small road and ride uphill.  Ride past the last house, ride onto dirt, and soon, the place will appear.  In this case, as we ascended a dirt road we passed several mountain bikers coming down, including several young boys with full face helmets.  We ascended to find an historic logging railbed.  We camped alongside a picnic table in the woods several kilometers from the nearest town, 500ft down in the valley.  Nothing not to like about the touring life in Slovakia.

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The best part is that every morning, sooner or later, we descend to a town.  A period of rest each day, including kava and pivo and ubiquitous free WiFi, encourages enough energy to pull out the maps and plan another day’s ride up and over something.  Our immediate goal is to explore some of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, which is an adventure race route organized by Czech racer Jan Kopka from the border of Germany and Czech to the other edge of Slovakia, on the border of Ukraine.  The mixed terrain route promises some significant challenges, but also a largely pedalable route across the country.  Incidentally, I met Jan this winter before the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  He and Greg came over from Speedway to buy all of our fatbike tubes at the shop.  If Lael’s ankle cooperates and the weather is not too wet, we’ll follow as much of this route as we want across the country.  Soon enough, some time in Ukraine is also a priority.  And Przemek will be waiting at the Romanian border in another month or so.

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We’re trying not to make plans.  Mostly, were trying to do a lot of this, if we can find it.

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Alaska Smorgasbord (Last chance, AK)

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Whatever time is left before leaving, will always be filled.  Our bikes were ready to ride weeks ago, but in the interim, I’ve built them to be even better.  New tires, chain, cassette, chainrings, bottom bracket, shifters, brake levers, and brake pads are all fit to Lael’s bike; water storage and lighting systems designed and built for mine; and thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs, I’m in possession of the most advanced off-pavement touring bags ever.  We’ll talk more on this later, but the framebag doesn’t have a zipper and the seatpack fits a Macbook Air.  After 6 years, I’m finally rack-free and zipper-lite.  Zipper-free 2015?  

Whatever space is made on the bicycle, will always be filled.  As such, I’m running a slimmer kit than usual, but with a longer travel fork and wider rims and tires.  Lael has done the same.  By design, the bikes can do more without any weight gain.  It should be a fun summer of riding.

Our final weeks in Anchorage are busy, as expected.  I’ve worked six to seven days week since late March, finding limited time to ride, write, and plan.  Lael and I finished work a week before our scheduled departure.  We spent three days hurriedly preparing for “The Art of Bikepacking” event.  I printed photos and we prepared a program and food for over 100 people.  Eric talked about sewing and biking.  Dan talked about taking pictures, and biking, and carrying olive oil around Spain in panniers (a good use for panniers, if any).  I read from my article in Bicycle Times.  If ever a sign that people enjoyed themselves, the beer was gone before we started talking.  The food was gone by the end of the night.  Good times with great people, talking about bikes.  Thanks to Surly, Velo Orange, Adventure Cycling, Revelate Designs, Midnight Sun Brewery, and Bunyan Velo for providing great prizes.  Thanks to Eric, Dan, Jamin, Lael and all the guys at The Bicycle Shop, Dimond for all the help.

Thereafter, we did everything else that needed to be done before leaving.  On the last day, I’m sifting though giveaway piles and bank receipts and gear bags, trying to make the most of a big mess.  As I put the last staple into our bike boxes outside The Bicycle Shop, Eric rings the final bell, barely completing a game-changing seatpack at 2:39 in the afternoon.  We hitch a ride from Lael’s sister to the airport at 2:45.  We are drinking Warsteiner over the North Pole– en route to Frankfurt– by dinnertime.

In spite of the sprint to the finish, there are some fun memories from our last weeks in town.

On the 4th of July, choosing not to leave town with everyone else, I choose a mellow pedal over Powerline Pass.  The pile of snow at the top of the pass is visible from Midtown Anchorage– from my work, from the grocery store, and the bank, and all the way home on my commute.  I wanted to ride over the pass before leaving town.  

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Goats in the distance.

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Good thing some real tires are in the mail.  This happened just 50 yards from the top of the pass.    

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Visiting my friend Harrison at Fatbikes.com and 9zero7, I am shown a prototype of the new 170mm Rohloff hub for fatbikes.  I’ve seen images of the internals, and as you may expect it is a standard 135mm hub with an oversized shell and an internal spacer.  Some people are really excited for this hub. 

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Following Lael’s big win at the Fireweed 400, we join several hundred at the Bear Tooth Theatre for an awards ceremony.  A film from this years race was especially fun for Lael’s nephew Joshua, who now thinks that every woman in an aero helmet is “Lael!”.  

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Since Joshua failed to win the raffle for an Ultegra road wheelset at the event (he was disappointed), we went looking for a more suitable pair of wheels for the 2-year old.  A 12″ wheel balance bike is just the ticket.  Letting a little guy pick out his own bike is a challenging request.  At one point he wanted a pink bike with training wheels, and then a 26″ wheel bike.  We finally settle on a red pair of 12″ wheels without pedals.

Learning to hike a bike.

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He’s also learning to coast.  Mostly, he walks slowly, barely letting his feet off the ground, although a growing level of familiarity shows that he will soon be coasting on his own.  Some coaxing from dad teaches him what it is all about.

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Mostly, ride within your means and stay safe.  The rest is fun and games.  No little kids were injured in the documentation of this event.  He barely even cried.

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Jada also receives a new bike, thanks to Aunt Lael.  Her XS 26″ wheel bike elevates her riding to a whole new level.  The other day she rode 9 miles out to Kincaid Park, and 11 miles home.  

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Wheelies!  These kids will be missed.

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The Art of Bikepacking event was a huge success.  Afterwards, we dismantled the web of photos.  I’ve since sent over 100 photos all around the world.

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That evening, we also displayed a variety of bikes packed for adventure.  I especially like this father-son overnight pairing.  A couple of small handlebar rolls would round out the system for a summertime romp.  The 20″ wheel Specialized Hotrock is wearing a Jandd Frame Pack in reverse.

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Lael’s new favorite, the carbon Specialized Ruby.  This is much like the bike she borrowed for her road rides this spring and summer.

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These two Salsa Vaya bikes compare a traditional rack and pannier system to a lightweight bikepacking approach.  Next time we plan an event like this, I hope to pack bikes with actual camping gear and allow test rides.

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Thanks to everyone that participated.  It was especially impressive to see so many customized bikes and luggage systems outside.  A bike with some trail grit says much more than an unridden bike on a showroom floor.

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Standing room only with nearly 120 or 130 people.

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I told everyone to ride to the event.  Dan rode in on his new Salsa Fargo 2.  Once he finishes the final draft of his book on adventure photography, Dan and his Fargo are going on an extended bike trip.

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The same weekend, an army of singlespeeders from around the world descend into Anchorage for SSWC.  It’s a wild bunch.  It involves a lot of beer, and very few gears.

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This Surly 1×1 is one of my favorites of the weekend.  It features 40mm Spank rims and 2.75″ Surly Dirt Wizard tires.  Simple and durable– 26″ wheels aren’t dead yet.

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This custom titanium Moonmen frame blends the function of a fatbike with the aesthetic of a BMX bike.  The frame is 100% gorgeous, with features similar to some Black Sheep designs.  No wonder, as Moonmen is a new company in Fort Collins, CO with ten years experience working at Black Sheep.

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Chain tensioner and demontable design.  100mm BB and 135mm rear end= SS specific, or maybe a few gears on an SS hub.

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On Thursday afternoon, we all roll over to the new Revelate Designs shop on Fireweed for some silk-screening, sewing, and of course, beer.  Eric hosted a DIY silk-screening party to show off the new space.  Despite their appearance, the Surly folks are always amazingly kind.

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That evening, registration for the event (not to be confused with a race) was held at Speedway Cycles. home of the Fatback.  This custom painted carbon Corvus frame is dressed in prototype Maxxis Chronicle 29×3.0″ tires on Surly Rabbit Hole rims, singlespeed.  Those big yellow letters inspire confidence, and elicit excitement.  Maxxis EXO tires are awesome.

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A Corvus hanging from the ceiling also wears a pair of prototype Maxxis fatbike tires.  Looks like an Ardent for a fatbike, nice.

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Out on the trail, I spot this 2016 Surly prototype.  It looks to be a carbon fatbike frame with a forward thinking trail geometry, or is it a dedicated lightweight 29+ adventure bike?.  Not sure on the spec of the Surly suspension fork, but it appears to fit a full fatbike tire as well as this 29×3.0″ Knard.  The new Surly carbon cranks look nice.

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Meet at the Midnight Sun Brewery for a ride.

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Ride familiar trails out the Campbell Tract and onto the Hillside STA trails.

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Speedway Trail.

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Visiting from Germany.

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Slovenia.

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Dressed for the “race”.

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Race kit.

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Mandatory race stop.  Ok, this isn’t the race.  That happens sometime on Saturday or Sunday, or whenever Dejay wants it to happen.  Some people think waiting to know is fun and funny, others prefer more order.  Rumor says, the race start will be announced at the Carousel Bar at last call on Saturday night at 2:45AM.  This editorial about SSWC on the Bike Mag website is the best I have read

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Friday is also Lael’s birthday.  

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Then back to the SSWC festivities.  We weren’t officially involved, although me manage to intercept more than a few rides and activities in our last few days in town.

This qualifier involves a bike and a blindfold and about 100 people.

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This guy decides when things happen.  Or, they just happen.  

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Stay between the orange barrier.  Wear a costume if you want.

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Or not.

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More places in Anchorage you won’t read about in a Lonely Planet guidebook.  SSWC, if nothing else, was a nice way to discover Anchorage trails and dive bars. 

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On Saturday, we rallied a few friends together for a ride up to Resurrection Pass from Hope.

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Our food stop before leaving town was an Asian-import store.  Who knows what’s inside the Muay Thai energy drink, but it seems to be working.

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This trail isn’t too overgrown, for Alaska.  Some of this stuff is itchy and prickly.

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Christina is the ever-ready ringleader.  She was the crux of Lael’s support crew for the Fireweed 400.

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She’s riding her brand new Trek Fuel EX.  After a shoulder injury from a collision with a car in SF, she’s happy to be back on the bike.

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Up near the pass, we head back down to the trailhead with a chance of rain.  As we arrive at 11PM, rain is falling steadily.  

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We return to Anchorage in time to find out when the SSWC race will take place.  With bleary eyes, we enter the Carousel Lounge at 2AM, past a huge bike pile.  The bar is full of drunken singlespeeders, costumes, a metal band, and a mosh pit.  I’m all gears and country-rock, I discover.   

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The last two days in town are a blur.  Fix stuff, sell stuff, give stuff away, organize stuff, mail stuff, visit people, drill holes in stuff,  ride bikes, pack bikes, sleep little.  Looking forward to less stuff in my life, and more riding.  It has been a busy winter, spring, and summer.  Hopefully we’ll find a few more months of warm sunny days.  

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Eric completes a very special framebag the day before we leave town.  We’d talked about a special seatpack as well.  What time do you leave tomorrow?

5PM.

Oh, plenty of time.  See you tomorrow.

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30 minute box job, times two.  Receive seatpack from Eric.  Ride to the airport.  Check in.  Take a seat on the plane.  Sleep.  

By now, we’re somewhere in Slovakia, I hope.

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Yes, by now we are in Slovakia.  More soon!

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If you’re looking to keep up this summer, keep your eye on Lael’s Globe of Adventure for more current words and images.

Photos for sale, this weekend only!

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Edit: As there has been so much interest in the “Bikepacking Europe” photo series, I have extended the sale to Tuesday morning, 8AM Alaska time.  Thanks to everyone that has shown interest!  

The photo collection from The Art of Bikepacking is available for sale.  Individual 4×6″ prints with white border are available for $10, 3 for $25, 15 for $100.  Most of the photos have been featured on the blog, and were printed locally in Anchorage, AK.  Each photo will be mailed in an envelope with a brief handwritten note from myself and Lael.  International addresses, add $1.

The numbered series of photos were displayed on a fish net sourced from a local commercial fishing supply store.  Two hundred wooden clothespins held the whole thing together, weaving a wave of memories from the North Sea to the Black Sea.

Here’s the catch: I’m leaving town on Tuesday for Vienna and an extended period of travel.  I choose which photos are sent.  If you have any strong interest in one subject area (Crimea, Belgium, food, bikes, trail facilities, cities, nature), leave a note with your payment  and I will do my best to comply.  Consider it a small donation to the blog and our upcoming trip. The best photos go in the mailbox first, so hurry up.  The last chance to donate and receive a unique print is Tuesday, July 22 at 8AM .  After that, I’ll have both feet out the door.

There are a few of you that will receive a photo in the mail, gratis.  Andy, Shawn, Willet, event sponsors, our parents, and a few others need not apply– it’s in the mail.  Also, there are three people who did not receive postcards back in 2012, and were promised.  Iain, I think you were one of them?  E-mail me with a current address.

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Bicycle Times: Bikepacking Europe

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We spent half of last year bikepacking across Europe, and are soon to embark on another period of travel beginning in Eastern Europe where we left off last time.  Read about our exploratory summer in Europe in the most recent edition of Bicycle Times, Issue #30.  I’m proud to be sharing pages with Cass Gilbert, Keith Bontrager, and Jason Boucher.  Bicycle Times is one of my favorite rags, and has been improving ever since it started as a place to review fenders and share DIY bike tricks.

My article entitled “Bikepacking Europe” begins on page 34.  Recognize the painted man on the cover?  That’s Jeremy, as photographed by Cass on a bikepacking trip near Glorieta, NM.  You may remember Jeremy from our ride at White Mesa when we first met, or a year later between Flagstaff and Sedona.

Buy you copy of Bicycle Times from your local newsstand or bicycle shop, or order a print or digital subscription straight from the source.  

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If you live in Anchorage, come see us at The Bicycle Shop, Dimond at 7PM tonight for an event called The Art of Bikepacking.  I’ll be there talking about this and other stuff, with a ton of photos on display.  Free food, beer and prizes.  Ride your bike!