Meet Joe Cruz (Czech Postcard)

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You know, Joe Cruz.  The ageless limitlessly energetic little guy that rode his Surly Pugsley through South America.  He writes– about his travels in South America and everywhere else– in an overunderwhelming manner where everything is amazing and everything is normal.  E-mail tells me he will be in Prague in a week.  “Unfortunately, we won’t catch you this time”, I tell him.

A day later, I reply again, “In fact, we are now prioritizing our Eastern European travel, and the chance to intercept you for a beer and a sausage”.  We take a train to the border of Germany and the Czech Republic, nearly.  Ride over the border on dirt roads, crossing a small wooden bridge into the country.  Then, we ride to meet Joe and Margaret.

Lael and I have been touring for years, over many tens of thousands of miles that we can’t recount exactly, on increasingly rough and rustic routes through hills and mountains.  To reach Prague in a few days, and to meet Joe, we accept the old-fashiond method of bike touring on roads, following road signage, and visiting town centers.  It is not a bad way to travel, especially in the Czech Republic, and we take to it with enthusiasm.  For us, as long as the roads are reasonably quiet, it feels like a vacation.  Covering distances rapidly– relatively– we enjoy a glimpse of the Czech Republic.

In Sumava National Park near the German border, we enjoy plentiful signage and quiet routes.

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Churches and water are essential to a town.

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Wheat is essential to central and eastern Europe.

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Larger towns feature touristic offices with free area maps, including cycling maps.  Posted public maps are also helpful.  Who knew that the Czech Republic has more advanced bicycle infrastructure than the United States?

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The Czech Republic is surprisingly progressive in other ways– below, featuring an array of solar panels– although the countryside often reminds us of the United States from the 1980’s, or the 1930’s.  Imaginatively, we construct our own histories of the country based upon what we see and what we know.  This is the act of ‘doing history’, although our version is seriously incomplete.  Travel instigates an interest in local history.  Along the way, we are learning.

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Hot July days require cooling measures.  Soviet-era swimming pools are unchlorinated, yet refreshing.  Pondlike– they feature at least a few fish amongst algae.

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The month is called červen, which refers to the ripening  or reddening of fruits.  Cherries abound on the roadside.

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Czech cyclists are hardy– willing to ride through rough stuff and over big hills.  They sweat, unapologetically, and pack much lighter than German and Dutch cyclists.  With no more than basic camping equipment and the equivalent of a $400 hybrid or mountain bike per person, this group of eight men are traveling together for a few days.  Beer, at 10:30 AM, is completely normal.  We join them.  They discover sausages and sandwiches in their panniers, smoke cigarettes, and fart into the bench as unapolagetically as they sweat.  Small production frame bags are standard on modern Czech bikes.

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Off the the post-lunchbeercigarette races!  Lael takes the lead.

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Road signage, as in most of Europe, directs us to the next town.  With such plentiful signage, a basic roadmap allows us to orient ourselves.  Bicycle signage follows below.  Bicycle maps are free from tourists offices.

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Nothing not to like, especially for an East Coast kid like myself.  The smell of cows and the look of expansive fields are home.

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Czech wines are “emergent”, which is Lonely Planet-speak for ‘not that great’.  They can be quite good, although many eastern European wines tend to be sweet and unrefined.  These are not characteristics we distaste in everything.  ‘Sweet and unrefined’ may describe many rural Czech.  We love it here!

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Suburbia exists, entering a smaller city.  We still wonder what wonders Prague will bring.  It holds power amongst Europeans, as if a ‘Paris of the east’.

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Despite familiar brands and flavors, we mostly subsist on sausage, cheese, rye bread, knudel, and sauerkraut.  Add pivo and onions for an authentic trailside meal.  Poppyseed– a staple of my Ukrainian-American youth– finds it’s place daily.

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Guaranteed 48% poppyseed!

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Czech towns are brilliant.  Despite an enculturated modern atheism, churches stand at the center.  Lively bars serve as the true town center, where important decisions and discussions are held.  Pivo is about $1 in the countryside, although it is twice as much in big cities and touristic centers.  At 4.2-4.6% ABV, one can participate at any time of day.

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Finally, Praha is in sight.

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Further, the Czech love cycling!

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Our route into Prague includes a series of post-modern outdoor living rooms along the bicycle path.

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But then the bike trail diminishes.  It reappears.

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On summer weekends every town promotes small events, this one a bit more Black Sabbath than anything else.

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Bikepark.

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Bathing.

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Junkyard.

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Flood remains (look in the tree).

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Graffitti– Fuck you!.  These images inform our perspective of Prague as we enter the city.  Despite– absolutely– despite, what the old part of the city brings.

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Enter Prague at warpspeed on our way to meet Joe and Margaret.

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At 5PM, we stop outside a McDonalds restaurant in the city to check our e-mail, and refer to online maps.  I receive the following e-mail.

Lael, Nick,

Hope you slept soundly in the woods nearby last night. We’ve been walking around Prague for a half day. It’s an inspired mix of history, charm, and tourist shitshowmania. We’ve held off exploring much by bike, figuring you might like to join us in that. Hard to tell, really, how bike friendly it is; much less so than Vienna, for sure.

Anyway! How about a plan to rendezvous. The easiest, if it works, is to call my mobile if you can.

Let’s have a backup plan. Let’s meet at the Gothic arch on the Charles Bridge at 5pm. We’ll go there and wait for at least a half hour.

–Joe

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Amongst a cluster of Dutch, German, English, American, French, Italian, Japanese tourists, we eventually find Joe.

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Finally, as I lose my focus to a blind performer of questionable skill along the Charles Bridge, I find Joe.

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9 Trains, 5 Days, 4 countries, 2 bicycles

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On the heels of the TMV, we had planned to ride a brief section of pavement to connect with the Grand Traversee du Jura, which begins less than a day away by bicycle.  The Jura Mountains straddle the French/Swiss border, and both countries claim a mountain bike touring route (French route here, Swiss route here).  Our research led us to find the better of the two routes.  Deep in the details of both routes, we discovered a missing enthusiasm for the upcoming riding.  Of course, the camping would be great; the riding would be very nice; and we could continue the remainder of the summer on similar routes in southern France, the Pyrennees, and Spain.  However, the thought of resigning the rest of the summer to culturally familiar living, and pleasant riding and camping received unenthusiastic votes at best.  “Sounds nice”, we both agreed.  But something was lingering beneath, or behind, those words.  

Then, my inbox peeped.  Joe Cruz will be along the Danube this week, southern Czech this weekend, Prague next week, then Munich.  Chasing Joe Cruz, like Carmen Sandiego, is a serious pursuit– that man is everywhere. We’ve meet twice before– Alaska in March and New Mexico in October.  Prague in July sounds like it fits the pattern. 

Ukraine is still one of those places I need to visit.  My grandparents lived there, until they fled during WWII via Germany and other places unknown to me.  I have spent too many years listening and learning in Ukrainian not to be curious, even though few cycletourists put Ukraine on their wish list.  If we don’t prioritize travel towards Ukraine, even though we keep saying it will happen sometime later in the summer–sometime– it may never happen.  France will always be there.  

And, all those places in between here and there sound fascinating, mostly because we know very little about them.  Slovakia sounds awesome.

Our superbrainstorn begat more than a few lightning strikes of good and bad ideas.  Eventually, the best idea struck.  Let’s go east.  Let’s run into Joe Cruz.  Let’s stop in Konstanz to visit Andi.  We can ride some of the EuroVelo6 route along the Rhine, which we have encountered before in the Loire Valley; we can take some trains if we need to meet Joe’s rigorous travel schedule; and after visiting with Joe and Margaret, we will already be in ‘the East’, and we can settle into our normal pace again in a very different world.  Much of the distance we covered in two months of riding from Amsterdam to Alsace, we will pass in the next week.  The pace is frighteningly mad to us, but the result is exciting.  

A short ride out of the Vosges Mountains, we stop in for a visit with some friends in Mulhouse.  Julian’s new Renault camping van, much like the popular VW vans, strikes a chord with us.  Lael is adamant that she will never own or drive a car.  It is blue, just like her bike, and she likes that.  

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Riding out of Mulhouse on the EuroVelo6, to connect with the Rhine River to Basel, Switzerland.  Signage and surfaces are varied, but consistently reliable.

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Basel is situated at the junction between Switzerland, Germany, and France.  The Rhine River takes a turn, and innumerable bike paths complicate navigation.  We successfully exit France, but find ourselves between Germany and Switzerland several times.  Finally, we stop to pick up some food at a small grocery.  Signage is in German.  The prices are similar to prices in Euros, or even Dollars, although something is not quite right.  It is not until we receive change from a 50€ bill, that we discover for certain that we are in Switzerland.  It is nice enough here, although now we have a bunch of strange currency for a country we do not plan to spend much time in, for a country that is notoriously expensive.  

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We figure we can exchange the paper bills at the border.  We blow the rest of the money on some baked goods, a super cheap bottle of Swiss wine, and the only item we could find that cost less than one Swiss franc– some explosive ‘poppers’.  We enrage dogs and frighten old ladies on the way to the German border with the paper-wrapped ‘cherry bombs’.  In fact, as all of these countries are part of the Schengen Zone, none of the border crossings exist with active border patrol.  Disused customs facilties still exist, with minimal monitoring.  Even though Switzerland is not in the EU, time spent in Switzerland still counts toward the 90 day tourist visa allowed to US visitors.

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Exchange the rest of the money in an automated machine.

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Both Switzerland and Germany feature excellent bicycle facilities, included posted maps and signage.  The Swiss system is particularly efficient.

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Germany is incredibly cheap, and most European discount stores are originally German, such as Aldi and Lidl.  Typical grocery stores in Germany are filled with all kinds of junk, in addition to common German fare.  The American section is embarrassing, especially considering a store full of quality German sausage.  We enjoy spätzle, sausage and sauerkraut.

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Riding and swimming along the Rhine, along EuroVelo6, is a best case scenario when not riding in the mountains.

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Swiss signage is extremely efficient.  They condense multiple routes onto one placard, including signed routes for walking, cycling, mountain biking, canoeing, and rollerskating or blading.  Rollerblading remains popular in Europe.  Long-distance bladepacking anyone?  Rollerskate upstream and packraft downstream?  A simple inner tube may suffice for a S24O roller-packrafting trip.

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For a while, we are stuck on the south side of the river in Switzerland.  Unwilling to get roped into their currency once again, we fast until crossing back into Germany.

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Switzerland is famous for its junk, presumably because they have been able to afford nice things for a long time.  I found a gold-plated wine key for Lael.  She loves gold things.  We paid in Euro.  It cost 0.50€

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To reach Konstanz by that evening, we jump on a Swiss train.  The train is efficient, clean, and at least a little futuristic.  We couldn’t figure out how to get into the bathroom without assistance from a local.

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Although only 60 miles away, we connect 4 local trains to reach Konstanz.

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Lake Constance is the largest natural lake in Germany, and a great place to kill a day in July, especially in the company of Ricky and Andi.

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Deciding to keep at our current pace to reach Prague in time, we purchase an all-day ticket on the German rail, which costs only 25€ per person, and another 5€ for the bike.  The pass is limited to regional normal-speed trains.

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Five trains and eight hours later later, we are near the end of the line and near the Czech border as the clock strikes 11:58PM.  We get off at the second-to-last stop to ensure a reasonable chance at finding camping.  We don’t have a map of the area, so instincts are in charge.

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Deboarding the train, our hopes are rewarded by a dirt-road crossroads and only two houses within sight.  As short ride away we find a forest, and a dirt service road.

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The only challenge is to find some flat ground.  We awake in view of the Czech Republic, and a low range of mountains that serve as the border.

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A few snapshots at the tourist office gives us some direction for a dirt route over the border.

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And this life-sized topographic relief map also helps.

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A geniune draft beer in Gemany is also a necessity.  Dampf, as in this pint from the local Dampfbierbrauerei, is the German word for steam.  I also purchased a new Schwalbe Hans Dampf tire before leaving Germany, which is considerably less expensive than it is in the US.  Hans ‘Steam’ is a jack-of-all-trades– he is good at everything.  Andi also suggests that the colloquial Hans Dampf character is a lady killer.  Sounds like a good tire.  Until my current tire wears completely, the 29×2.35″ Hans Dampf serves to take a lot of space in my saddlebag.

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Headed for the hills, and the Czech Republic.

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Getting close.

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At last, we escape to the Czech Republic over a small wooden bridge over a stream.  First impressions suggest great things.

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TMV: Châtenois to Thann

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Divided into three segments, the southern third of the Traversée du Massif Vosgien (TMV) comprises the most mountainous stage.  The granitic southern Vosges is most visited, both in summer and winter, and challenges riders with climbs nearly as great as 3000 ft.  For more details of the route, I’ve shared words and images from the previous two stages: from Wissembourg to Saverne, and from Saverne to Châtenois.  

This stage is defined by the rivers crossed and the ridges crested– thus, major descents and climbs, valleys and vistas.

We begin by leaving Selestat near Châtenois.  Selestat is the larger town a few km off the route, with access to the TER Alsace train and connections to further destinations.  We dropped Andi and his Pugsley at the train station; tended to some necessary affairs, including laundry and bicycle maintenance; and returned to the hills before the end of the day.

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Climbing, loaded with treats such as local cheese, wine, and bread.

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The climb reaches a plateau, where we camp for the night.  Castles can be seen on multiple hilltops nearby.  Shelters such as these are maintained by local hiking clubs.  Lael’s new Opinel knife is the first of many birthday presents given during the week.

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The next day, climbing towards 1200m.  Abundant logging and managed forests account for the complex of forest service roads, most of which are closed to private motor vehicle traffic.

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Most roads are durable hardpacked dirt, especially in the granitic southern Vosges.  The northern part of the Vosges are sandy, underlain with sandstone.  This road was recently tilled by the tracks of logging equipment.  In the transition zone between sedimentary sandstone and igneous granite from Saverne to Châtenois, we identify green, flaky metamorphic rock.  

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Cresting and riding the crête of the Vosges at 1200m, our highest point yet.

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Abundant water sources are found throughout the Vosges, especially in the south, where less permeable bedrock and steeper hills account for more surface water.

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The TMV mounts more than 20 named passes, or col. Here, looking back toward the the last col we passed, on our way to two or three more in the same day.  This is called ‘pass hunting’ in French and Japanese cycling traditions.

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A bit of rough doubletrack catches our interest, between endless rideable dirt roads.

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Intersecting many ski areas atop the mountains, we also encounter this downhill biking course, a growing source of summer income for ski areas around the world.  This one looks easy and fun.

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This one looks impossible.

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This, a little beyond our skills.

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Near the top of the ski area is a huge winter refuge.

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At the pass, we encounter a paved road, power lines, hotels, and the ski lift.  I understand why some people travel to the US in search of serenity, and the wild, but we don’t mind the the diversions from the forest and from riding.  Downhill from here.

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This map section is called Les Lacs for the four major lakes along the way.  

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Still descending.  The TMV frequently intersects local VTT circuits.

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All four of the lakes are contained by earthen or concrete dams.  In some cases they provide hydroelectric power, and a fine place to have a picnic or cool off.

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Streams and shade air-condition the forests, making a pleasant place to spend a hot July afternoon.

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The final lake on our descent to the Munster valley, accessible only by foot or by bicycle, was the busiest of all.  Alpine scenery and clear water are the reason.  

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Climbing away from the Munster valley, home to the famed cheese.  I enjoy climbing in the evening.  

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In the mountains, there are abundant hiking refuges which house as many as several dozen bodies in the winter.  In the summer, they may provide an option for lightweight travel without a tent.  It is possible to connect refuges and gîtes along the TMV for indoor accommodations and prepared meals.

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Nearing the highest elevation of the entire route…

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…on pavement, actually, but only for a km or two.

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And our most spectacular campsite in the Vosges.  By morning, thick fog climbs over the ridge, enshrouding the mountaintops.

 

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It clears by late morning for our second to last descent of the entire route.

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Arriving in the valley below, we are only 8km from the eventual finish.  The route favors another 22km through the forests in lieu of riding the roadways in the valley.

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We fill our bellies and our bottles in Moosch for one final climb and one final descent.

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Climbing for the last time.

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A well-used shelter awaits at the top of the climb.  Still early in the afternoon, we point our wheels towards Thann, only a few km away.

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The eastern flank of the Vosges Mountains are home to all of the wines produced in Alsace, depicted here from south to north.

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The same signage found in Wissembourg is also presented in Thann, over 400km away.  Continuing from here, one could connect either the Swiss or the French routes through the Jura Mountains, beginning less than a day away by bicycle.  For now, we have other plans.  

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Which bike?

Choosing a bicycle for the TMV is a simple affair, as any bicycle that accommodates a 2″ (50mm+) tire will suffice.  This may include a Surly LHT or an old ATB; a modern hardtail, full-suspension bike or even a fatbike.  Lael and I are both riding steel-framed mountain bikes with 29″ wheels, disc brakes and a wide range of gears.  Suspension forks have been valuable when exploring new terrain, but are not strictly necessary on the TMV as the route is mostly comprised of well-groomed dirt roads.  However, we have been happy riding with a suspension fork, which allows us to descend faster and tackle some more challenging rocky climbs.  

People sometimes ask if a hybrid-type bicycle with 700cx40mm tires will work for such a route.  It may, but only if packed lightly, if the rider is skilled, and if willing to walk short sections of the route.  It also requires that you don’t mind bumping around on dirt roads with medium (-high) pressure tires.  We don’t, and thus ride big rubber at lower pressures.  

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You may have noticed that we are somewhere in Switzerland, Germany, or the Czech Republic, on our way to points further east.  Some superbrainstorm sessions have given us new direction, to be discussed soon.  For now, if you live in northern Czech, southern Poland, northern Slovakia, or western Ukraine, send a message (nicholas.carman(at)gmail.com) if you’d like to meet for a ride or if you may be able to assist our route-planning efforts.  

Jolly Good Lael

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She can stand upside down on her hands, ride all day and still have energy for a run, and speak some or all of a half-dozen languages.  She laughs more than anything else, and enjoys riding bikes as well as not riding bikes.  Resting, relaxing, and enjoying are the things she brings most to our bike tours, because she knows there is no prize at the end of the road.  Still, she will beat you up a climb and rip the descent– this is some of the reason she likes such big tires.  She is real good at slicing and dicing vegetables at camp, making me look like less of a hobo in a new place, and ensuring that my framebag is always topped with a bottle of local wine (sometimes to my surprise).  Lael is also the best at drinking water, and peeing on the roadside without shame.

We crossed the border into the Czech Republic yesterday from Germany, on a small wooden bridge over a stream connecting one dirt road to another.  This small act was exciting to both of us– to her it was thrilling.  We frequently cross borders, reach towns, crest hills, and descend hills, and with each accomplishment comes a similar enthusiasm.  Riding with Lael is exciting– in fact, it is thrilling.  Today is her birthday.  Say something nice in the comments below.

Last year Lael was in Corsica for her birthday while I was riding from Alaska to New Mexico.  We did the same thing on the blog to celebrate; everything that was written then is still true, and more.  Say something nice!

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Check out Lael’s Globe of Adventure for more words and images from our travels.

TMV: Saverne to Châtenois

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This is the second section of the TMV, a newer long-distance bikepacking route in Alsace, France.  If you’ve missed it, check out the first part of the the route from Wissembourg to Saverne.

The Traversee du Massif Vosgien (TMV) continues from Saverne, back into the hills.  Andi jumped on a train from Germany with his Pugsley to meet us with only a day notice.  After a quick coffee and croissant at the train station, we immediately set out riding and routefinding, blending traditional maps with his Garmin GPS.  Once on the route, we settle into a big climb back to elevation.  In each of the the three major sections of the route– the north Vosges, the piedmont, and the more mountainous southern Vosges— the route becomes more topographically dramatic.  Through the piedmont segment from Saverne to Châtenois, the route ranges from about 200 to 800m (∼600-2600ft).

Climbing back into the hills.

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Cold, clear springs can be found along forest service roads and in towns.  This one was situated next to the church, under a watchful eye.

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For lunch, Andi turns cold water into a warm pot of green tea.  Lots of fun titanium bits to discuss.

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And plenty of fatbike discussions.  His Surly Pugsley is built with durability in mind, using doublewall 36h Surly Large Marge rims to a weatherproof Rohloff gearhub and a Schmidt dynamo hub.  Phil Wood, Chris King, and White Industries represent top-quality American makers, while additional German products round out the component list.  Luggage is a mix of Revelate equipment, and a homemade framebag, which features a fully-weatherproof zipper, as may be used in underwater equipment such as a wetsuit.  I tested the zipper– it is actually waterproof, unlike the shielded zippers use on lots of outdoor equipment.  All of this came together with lightweight camping equipment and DIY fenders for his ride on the GST this past month, a new bikepacking route in Germany that follows the former border between East and West Germany.

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Every good descent is countered by another good climb.  These aren’t the Rocky Mountains, but our legs are tired at the end of a day on the TMV.

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There is some pavement on the route.  With luck, that means climbing on pavement and descending on dirt.  It doesn’t always work out that way.

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The trail is very well maintained by local VTT clubs.  Active forestry means a few recently downed trees stand in our path.

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The climb from Ottrott to Mont Sainte Odile is a push, ending in well-worn singletrack.  At the top, swarms of tourists visit the mountaintop convent.  Swarms of tourists ogle Andi’s Pugsley.  Lael’s French is far superior to either of ours, so she is on ‘diplomatic fatbike duty’.  This is something all of us are familiar with, each having spent considerable time on a fatbike.

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The TMV is heavily forested much of the time, although not without the touch of humans.  Many forests are heavily managed as evidenced by selective cuts, picnic tables for hikers and bikers, and this owl, sculpted from a remnant pine stump.  Small towns can be found everywhere– in the valleys, on the hillsides, and even sometimes at the top of a climb.  Forest service roads are largely closed to motor vehicle traffic, in which case the forests are signed as ‘Zones of Tranquility’, for the practice of silent sports.

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The Vosges give a characteristic shadow feature every evening.  It is our plan to camp high when possible.

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This evening provides a special treat.

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Along the route– above the route– Château du Bernstein offers a place to sleep for the night.  These ruins are accessed by a dirt road, and are less popular than some of the other great castles in the area.  Spending a night in a castle is a special way to experience such a place.

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A little hike-a-bike up to our camp.  Note, grabbing hold of he chainstay is often the best technique to haul a bike up or over things, especially on a bike with a sloping top tube.

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But our sights are set even higher.

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After local wine, dinner and a fire, Lael and I climb further.  A dark, narrow staircase leads to the top.

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Andi’s camp below, in the master bedroom.

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Ours, above.

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Our bedroom for the night is breezy with a 5AM sunrise– perfect.  In the past it might have been a watchtower, or just a nice place to watch the sun rise.  It may have been a good place to plan local conquests, although it is now a great place to imagine routes and rides in the hills.  On a clear day, the Rhine River and the Black Forest are visible.

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From here, we descend towards Châtenois, near Selestat.  Wild strawberries slow our descent.

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As do wild poppies, which have been present for many weeks.  We are growing to love Alsace greatly, especially when the sun is shining.  It has been almost two weeks without a drop of rain.

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Where the mountains meet the valley of the Rhine, grapes grab hold to hillsides.  Above, our momentary home– Château du Bernstein.

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The third and final section of the TMV can be found here, from Châtenois to Thann.

TMV: Wissembourg to Saverne

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The Traversée du Massif Vosgien connects the forested Vosges Mountains of Alsace from north to south.  The Vosges are an understated range with few rocky exposures– they are the French mirror of the Black Forest of Germany, which is found just on the other side of the Rhine River.  The TMV has been in existence since 2004-2005, when it was officially mapped and signed by the Alsacian Chapter of the French Federation of Cycletourists (FFCT).  It claims over 400km of trail and 8000m of climbing, favoring the east side of the mountains and the intermontane zone along the eastern flank where most Alsacian wines are produced, between the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin regions.  Compared to American dirt touring routes, the TMV offers riding similar to the Great Divide Route, with climbs as much as 800m (2500+ft) and a highly rideable dirt surface.  Maps and trailside signage serve to make navigation simple.  Resupply is simple, and available daily.  The route includes only about 10% pavement– little enough not to bother the dirt lover– and big climbs with grades and surfaces manageable enough to be inclusive of any athletic rider.  The TMV balances physical challenges with accessibility.  Also within range of many bike-friendly TER Alsace train stations (regional ‘slow’ trains accept bikes at no cost) and several major cities (Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Basel), and short enough to be done in a week, the TMV will likely gain popularity as more French (and German, Swiss, and Belgian) riders become wise to the pleasures of dirt touring.

Taking a few days to regroup following weeks of rain, we center ourselves in Wissembourg at the start of the route, at the north end of the Vosges.  We climb into the hills every night to tuck away in the woods. Free, legal camping close to town is always a treat.  A morning descent to croissant and cafe is routine in France.  An inexpensive public pool is real special to a touring cyclist.

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Located just outside the ramparts.

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We installed new brake pads, a chain, and replaced Lael’s worn WTB Exiwolf tire while in town.  Espace Cycles in Wissembourg is one of the best mountain bike shops we have seen so far and readily supplied all of the parts that we desired, including Schwalbe tires for cheap.  A 30€ folding Schwalbe tire is a treat, considering that similar tires cost as much as $90 in the US.  With borrowed air from the shop’s compressor, tubeless touring is a breeze.  We haven’t had a single problem in two months of tubeless touring.  We have some spare sealant and tubes packed away, but haven’t had any use for it, and haven’t experienced any flats.  We’ve only used our pump a few times in two months.

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A placard near the center of town describes the trail and serves as an official start point.

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It departs, winding through historic Wissembourg, and follows a paved cycle path out of town.  Within six km, it joins a forest road and sets the tone for the remaining 400km– tranquility, with some climbing.

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Atop the first climb, we meet Gaby at his home.  He works as a mechanic at Espace Cycles and offers to lend us a hardcopy of the maps, which are currently out of print.  The complete set is available as a .pdf file online.  He and his wife Valerie lead us to a special camping place near Climbach with a fresh water source.  The site is an old chappelle, which predates Christianity in the area.  For a little guy, 26″ wheels still make sense, but 29″ wheels are starting to take off in France, even on some longer travel Cannondale models found at the shop in Wissembourg.

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The next day, despite some rain, we enjoy a diverse range of forested tracks connecting small villages.  The elevation along this part of the route ranges from 200-400m.  Still, there is plenty of climbing.

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And plenty of water.  Les sources, or public springs, are found in abundance in the Vosges.  Even when declared to be ‘not potable’, we usually fill our bottles.  All of the water is cold and beautiful.  Cemeteries are also a reliable source of water in Europe.

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Endless forest service roads are found in the area; most are closed to motorized traffic.  Mostly hardwood forests around, with interspersed conifers which favor well-drained sandy soils.

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Some roads are recovering doubletrack, on their way to becoming wide singletrack corridors.  Follow the orange signs marked TMV.  We mostly follow trailside signage, although the maps help us whenever we feel unsure about the route.

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Nearing another town we find scattered houses and farms.

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A church, mairie, école, and a bakery.  Often, a war memorial reminds of both major conflicts that affected this region in the last century.

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Some towns, especially in the Vosges, feature the ruins of ancient castles and forts.  They cannot be reached without a steep climb, ever.

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As quickly as we arrive, the trail leads out of town.  Steep climbs provide occasional challenges, although mostly the route is extremely rideable on anything from a rigid 26″ mountain bike (even a Surly LHT for example) to a full-suspension 29er or even a fatbike.  A minimum 50mm (2″) tire is recommended, especially as the northern Vosges are underlain with sandstone, thus mostly sandy roads.  Luckily, sandy soils drain well after weeks of rain.

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Evening is one of our favorite times to ride.  Mornings are reserved for coffee.  Some people tour early in the day, we prefer to ride late.

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Note, baguette protrudes from the Carradice saddlebag.  Overall, we both ride lean machines.  Framebags hide a lot of gear, even on Lael’s small frame.

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Even at the end of the day, Lael must go for a run.  As this was the 4th of July, I took the chance to prepare a special evening.  While she was gone…

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I prepare a fire for her to light.  We rarely, almost never, have fires on tour.

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Chilled some crémant Alsacien, a sparkling white wine, and a couple Alsacien beers in the source.

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Prepared a feast of sauerkraut and sausage, to be served on baguette with mustard.  This was our best effort at hot dogs and beer in Alsace.

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No fireworks.  Not bad.

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In memoriam, the cork becomes a new bar-end plug the next morning.

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The following day is our best day on the trail so far.  Smooth singletrack and wild blueberries spoil us.  Bicycle touring is not hard– not never, but not always.

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Sandstone defines the northern Vosges– the area encompassed by the Parc Naturel Régional des Vosges du Nord, from Saverne to Wissembourg along the TMV.  Sandy soils are ever-present, but rarely are they soft like beaches.  Mostly rideable hard packed surfaces are found, while pine needles and beech leaves quiet the ride.

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Many tourist offices provide resources for free, or for a small fee.  The TMV maps are out of print, but I know at least one copy exists in La Petite Pierre if you want it.  A trail map is not essential, but a regional road map would help in case you lost your way and were traveling without the official guide.

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The FFCT promotes cycling touring, and the growing sport of touring by velo tout terrain, or VTT.

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A few squishy, muddy spots make things interesting.  Mostly, very little special equipment is needed except for a big tire.  Guesthouses and hiking shelters offer an alternative to camping for some.  Camping is possible almost everywhere along the route.

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Local hiking and biking clubs maintain trills, signage, and shelters.  The number of hiking routes in the area is astounding.

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These aren’t guesthouses, but troglodytic homes restored for viewing.  For the culturally curious, there is much to do in the area.  Alsace has changed hands many time between French and German leadership over many hundreds of years, and Alsaciens maintain a strong identity despite a diverse heritage.

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For us, the riding and the camping are most important.  This is some of the best.

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Ride down to Saverne to meet Andi for a few days of riding.  The TMV is officially mapped in three sections: the northern Vosges, the piedmont, and the mountainous southern Vosges.  Leaving Saverne, we begin the Pidemont des Vosges, gaining elevation.

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Out Somewhere in the Vosges

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We’ve just descended the Vosges Mountains for the last time, having enjoyed just over a week on the Traversée du Massif Vosgien.  The TMV is a newer route in the east of France– in Alsace, upland of the Rhine river– with over 400km of mapped and signed dirt riding.   We shared the route for a few days with Andi, a new friend and a Surly Pugsley rider from southern Germany.  More soon, but some great representative images can be found on his blog Out Somewhere.

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Thanks for a great time Andi!

Detour aux Vosges

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A wet week post-Luxembourg has sent us looking elsewhere for good weather.  Clay-rich French soil has caked our drivetrains more than a few times, and soaked our socks to the point that you don’t want to be behind us in line at the supermarché.  After nearly two months of rain, excepting my hiatus while visiting New York, we began looking south– at Provence, Spain and Italy.  Instead, in the face of potentially more wet weather, we set our sights east to the Vosges mountains, and a new long-distance mountain bike route through Alsace, the forested northeastern corner of France.  Notably, the region is home to the Rhine basin and cool-weather grapes, but the uplands rise quickly and sharply, in Appalachian style, in a way that continues to remind me of home.  They are also responsible for some of the only beer brewed in France, a continuing theme of our trip.  The Traversée du Massif Vosgien will be our home for the next week. 

The only risk of this decision was more wet weather, making muddy mountain trails unrideable, and no fun.  We broke from the GR5 after drying out in Metz, and hit the road for two days to reach the start of the trail.  Lael and I swore that if the rain continued, we would, absolutely, ride south as fast as possible.  Two days of road touring reminded us why we ride off-pavement whenever possible, although we did encounter many peaceful canals, voie verte and country roads.  Road touring in France is blissful, for sure, although we still find it more peaceful, and interesting, to ride dirt.

With barely the chance to check the weather forecast in the past two weeks, a funny thing happened when we arrived at the start of the route in Wissembourg near the German border– the skies cleared, and the sun promised to stay all week.  What lucky kids we are!  We made a brief tour along the Rhine to Strasbourg to let the forest dry for a few days.  Strasbourg is surprising– perhaps our favorite city anywhere– boasting pan-European style, bikes of all kinds, hip kids and old French, and the mighty Rhine.  There is more to say, but make a visit if you can.

Below: Near Metz, in the north of France near Luxembourg, at the top of a muddy hike-a-bike that convinced us to begin looking elsewhere.

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Riding to Wissembourg from Metz, to see for ourselves if the trail was in rideable condition.

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Crossing the northern stretch of the Vosges Mountains.  Camping in public forests is straightforward in this part of the country.  Always comparing to the familiar, this feels much like Oregon, or the Lost Coast of California.  The southern Vosges are supposed to be much taller and more rugged.

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In Wissembourg, Espace Cycles is a good place to check in for parts and repairs.  Cheap 29″ Schwalbe tires are in abundance.  Lael has got a new Nobby Nic in the rear for 30€.  Wissembourg, like a very little brother to Strasbourg, is also amazing.  Situated at the north end of the Vosges on the German border, it is a haven for hiking and biking.  Germans visit daily in hordes.

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The TMV, on verra.

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