Red trails in Poland (to Ukraine)

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My primary purpose, our purpose, when traveling by bike is to make a life on the road– to spend time, discover, and to enjoy ourselves in each place that we visit.  The main function of choosing to ride in Europe was to discover the network of walking trails found across the continent.  We arrived, asking, “Do the trails really exist?  Are they legal, and rideable?  Are there sufficient places to camp?  Are they fun?”.  The answers to all of these questions have been overwhelmingly positive.  Finally, we arrived in Amsterdam with the intention to eventually visit Ukraine.  Growing up in a thriving east coast Ukrainian community has left me wanting to see this place for myself.  At the time of writing, I am already in Ukraine.  This is how we got there.

Przemek plans to return by train.  We have spent several days riding together recently, before parting ways.  I had some business to tend to.  Przemek continued riding and pushing over southern Poland’s higher mountains. After the first week of his tour, he made a quick trip home to re-evaluate his bicycle and luggage.  He left on a Surly Pugsley with 26×4.0″ Knard tires.  He returns with something different.

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Przemek and I first met through the internet, as we discovered that we were building the exact same 29″ wheels for a Surly Pugsley within weeks of each other.  We swapped ideas from across the globe.  Now, for a few days, we ride and camp together, and marvel at how amazing the internet can be.  His route is composed of other riders’ trials and errors in these same mountains, shared via blogs and forums.  I hope that these words and images will inspire others to ride in these mountains.  The internet is an amazing place.

We meet in Chabowka at 6AM.  By 8, we are riding uphill on a red walking trail.  I am beginning to love these red trails in Poland, which signify scenic, long-distance walking routes.  They can be heartbreakingly difficult, but they can be supremely rideable for great distances as well.  Interspersed with mountain huts (like hostels), the experience is as cultural as it is bike-centric.

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Hiking signs indicate the time (usually not the distance) to the nearest resource or junction.  Above, we rest about 45min from the hut at the top.  Below, singletrack 5 minutes from the top.

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This is one of the larger mountain huts we have seen, originally constructed in 1924.  All trails lead to cold beer and hot food around here.  Homestyle dishes are served inside, and basic rooms are available.  The Polish hiking organization PTTK is responsible for all the trails, signage, and huts.  Members receive additional benefits, although all the facilities are inclusive of non-members and visitors.

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Inside, the building is a treasure of old maps and photographs.  Pope John Paul II was an avid hiker in his youth, and once walked many of these trails.  Newer papal routes are now marked in his honor.  Our red route is shown below on the ridge.

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Below, our route is not shown, but it traverses the area between Rabka on the left, and Rytro on the right.  In two days, riding at a mellow pace, we encounter only one paved road crossing.  We top out near 1300m, or about 4000ft.

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At the top of the mountain, this is a great place to wait out some weather.  Looking out the front door, Lael keeps an eye on the High Tatra.

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Inside, a plate of potatoes and cold beer is only a few dollars.  Kefir, soup, warm beer cocktails, and other Polish comfort foods are available.

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As the skies clear, we embark into the cool evening air– a spectacular time to ride.

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We descend, and briefly ascend back to the next minor peak.  From there, it is a long way down.

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Most of the descent is rideable.  As Lael and I incorporate more trail riding into our touring repertoire, I keep my eyes on more capable bikes.  I am considering something with a more descent-specific geometry, such as a Surly Krampus or a Kona Honzo, without giving up the positive climbing features of a hardtail.  I’m also thinking a full-suspension 29er may be in my future, something like the Salsa Horsethief.  Incidentally, I’m thinking of a full-suspension bike more for its ability to climb chunky stuff– and to maintain traction– than for the high-speed descents.  After a few over-the-handlebar experiences on the Pugsley, I’m a bit chicken when riding downhill.  I value my health greatly.  Sometimes walking wins.

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Lael, however, rides with her eyes wide open.  She descends with abandon.  Here, she lands in a muddy hillside while trying to ride some off-camber trail composed of clay, post-rainstorm.

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The following morning, we cross the paved road and ride back up, following the red trail and an assortment of bicycle routes.  Przemek’s Pugsley now features a Manitou Tower suspension fork and 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires.  The rear wheel is built with a Velocity Synergy O/C rim, while the symmetrical front wheel uses a Stan’s Flow EX rim.  He is using a SP dynamo hub and Supernova E3 Pro light.

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Berries by the trail give us reason to stop.  We compose a handful of berries and a small bouquet to celebrate Przemek’s birthday.  This is the first of many gifts, one for each year.

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Passing a small community in the mountains, a group of women congregate the roadside.  A white van appears.  Groceries can be purchased from the van; prices are competitive with the small stores in the valley.  What a convenience and a luxury for us to buy fruit, milk, and fresh baked goods at 1000m at 9AM.

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We continue along the ridge to the next peak, above 1200ft.  Here we find a small shelter offering food, as well as tents for the evening.

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The red trail traverses the green forested section, having crossed the road just off the left side of the map.

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Where are we?  Usually, everyone else has made it obvious on the map.  Thousands of fingers have grazed this signboard.

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While Luban is only a single shack with a wood-fired stove to prepare simple meals, wifi is advertised.  Tents are offered for the night, and a spring provides fresh water nearby.  Polish hiking culture is really fun, and inexpensive.

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Naleśniki with mak.

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We push and sweat to make it up here, yet we meet another rider on a 25 year old ATB that arrives without a drop of sweat.  On top of that, he is collecting rocks, and is slowly filling his pack– an example of Polish grit and enthusiasm.  For all the time we spend optimizing our bikes and our gear, other riders remind us of the simplicity that we pursue.

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His favorite rock was shaped like the #1.

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From the top, it is all downhill.  I like how succinct each riding section is around here, requiring relatively little planning, and less than a day of food or water.  One could traverse many of these beskid, the Polish word for a lesser mountain range, with no more than a framebag or small backpack, especially as food and lodging are frequently available in the mountain huts.  As we aren’t rushing to the next supply point, there is plenty of time to explore.

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Dropping into town at dusk, we explore the Dunajec Gorge which forms the border between Poland and Slovakia,  a popular spot where tourists pile into rectangular wooden boats, piloted by traditionally costumed men.  The boats navigate through the shallow water with long poles, and two operators.

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Thirty-one years old on this day, Przemek is still a kid at heart.

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Nearly dark, we roll up a dirt road out of the gorge to find camping.  We prepare a feast in honor of Przemek’s birthday.  We all wake up with food poisoning.

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Sixteen hours later, we summon enough energy to roll up our tents and roll back into town.  We are without any surplus energy.  I may never eat buckwheat again.

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Tomato juice, Coca-Cola, and water is on the limited menu today.

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We push towards the east to find a campsite for the night.  Laughing at ourselves, and our misfortune– there is something hilarious about being violently ill and drained of energy.

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Przemek’s home and his horse– a disguised 29″-wheeled Surly Pugsley and a Tarptent Double Rainbow.

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Feeling better the next morning, we find just enough energy to ride uphill.  This is our last day together.

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We discuss bikes and gear, and decide on an approximate bikepacking standard for loading one’s bike.  Throw grams and kgs out the window– the bike must be light enough for the rider to lift it cleanly over the shoulders.  There are many instances where the bike must be carried.  There are many steep uphill grades in the world.  There are many fun descents.

Przemek’s Surly Pugsley with 29″ wheels and suspension fork.  Welsh-made Wildcat framebag and Revelate packs elsewhere– more organized than it looks.

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Lael’s Raleigh XXIX, originally a single speed model, customized with gears and suspension fork.  Revelate framebag and Viscacha seatpack, Oveja Negra Lunchbox up front.  Low gears, big tires, and her favorite gold-anodized On-One Mary handlebar.

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My Raleigh XXIX+G with suspension fork, custom wheels and frame attachments for mini-rack and extra bottles.  Porcelain Rocket framebag and handlebar bag, Carradice Camper saddlebag, and Revelate Gas Tank.  29x 2.35″ and 2.4″ tires, tubeless.  Between the three of us and six wheels, there are four Maxxis Ardent tires.  For all around dirt touring, I love the large volume of the 2.4″ Ardent and the durable rubber compound.  For dedicated trail touring, I’m coming to appreciate the 2.35″  Schwalbe Hans Dampf.

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Przemek and his Pugsley pass the test.

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A typical Polish descent ends our ride, landing in a small town, and a rustic restaurant serving pyrohy and piwo.

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Once in the valley, there are myriad discoveries to be made, including the FART store.

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A local art exhibition, adjacent to the tourist office where I purchase hiking maps for the Ukrainian Karpaty.

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With phallic paintings of bread sculptures.

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And familiar scenery.

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A handsome public square.

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And jovial Belgians on Dahon folding bikes.

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Parting ways with Przemek for the last time, we shoot for the train station.  There, we encounter two riders on older mountain bikes with backpacks and camping gear.  They help us navigate the train schedule.

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On board the train, two, three other riders join us.  The bicycle car is typically the last car in sequence, with only a few folding seats along the wall with plenty of open space.  In total, there are six bikes and riders on board this train, all returning from multi-day trips in the mountains.  All but one are on a mountain bike.

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We ride to the bigger city to connect with another train towards the Ukrainian border.  Much like the German train that deposited us near the Czech border, we will deboard at midnight in search of a campsite.  I load local maps of our destination onto the Nexus 7, with a few good ideas for a campsite about 5km out of town.

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A seatful of stories: Lael is reading in French, riding in Poland, beginning to study some Ukrainian, and interested in everything.  Her change purse is from Mexico, a gift received in Temoris en route to the Copper Canyon.  Her favorite thin wool Surly socks are almost entirely worn through.  We are thinking about riding fatbikes again this winter.

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11:36 PM.

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5km to a great campsite up a dirt road out of town.  Only 15km to the Ukrainian border in the morning, and our official exit of the EU.  In two days, we leave our bikes for a period to meet my parents and travel around Ukraine by more conventional means.

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E-mail me for more details about routes in Poland.  I may compile them here in the future, but I do have a series of GPS files to share.  As well, a series of Compass brand laminated maps is available for each mountain section in southern Poland.  These maps along with on-trail signage would be sufficient to navigate the region.  I can also help put you in contact with more experienced Polish cyclists.

Updates and broken things:

Aside from being very busy in Ukraine, I have also experienced some major hard drive issues with the MacBook Air.  In Kyiv, I purchased an additional external drive to back-up files. and successfully reinstalled OS X onto the MBA.  A day later, the internal HD no longer appeared, and I assume fatal damage to the physical drive.  I am limping along by operating OS X from an external drive, a valuable workaround that I hope will get me through the next month when I return to the US for proper diagnosis and repairs.  Yesterday, Lael and I purchased two cheap plane tickets from Simferapol, Ukraine to NYC, flying through Moscow on the Russian airline Aeroflot.  There is no charge to transport our bicycles if they are packed in a box.  Post NYC plans are in flux, but may include some riding in the west in October/November.  Our leading idea for the winter?  Return to Alaska to ride fatbikes.  I have a lot of unfinished business up there, and the bikes are only getting better.

Next…a tour of Ukraine by more conventional means– overnight Russian sleeper trains, crowded buses, overcrowded hired cars, and some walking.  Ukraine is a rich and colorful place, here is a preview.

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Some time in Poland

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Leaving Przemek and his Pugsley in the high country, Lael and I spend a few days writing and planning.  First, the next issue of Bunyan Velo is to be released in the upcoming month, and some time near a power outlet and wireless internet is in order to record some ideas that have been gestating all summer.  Second, my parents and my brother will soon arrive in Ukraine, where we will meet them to make a brief cultural tour around the country.  Our prime focus will be to visit the two villages where each my maternal grandparents were born nearly 95 years ago.  Finally, after a few more days on the trail without us, Przemek’s yellow Pugsley makes a quick trip home to return to the mountains as a hardtail 29er, where we will rejoin him for a few days of riding.  This leaves us with a week to go nowhere and anywhere.  We direct ourselves with our sense for great campsites, by our internal clinometers (up, always up); we shoot for small towns and trails in Poland and Slovakia, guided by an occasional glance at Google or a public map; and we do what (cycle)tourists might have always expected of their summer vacation– we spend some time.

Without a map or trail to follow, some real (micro)adventuring is in order.  The day is spent indoors writing; we mainly seek a campsite for the night, so we ride up.  Past a ski lift, one of hundreds that line the local hillsides, past ripening fruit and farms, to the low ridge that composes the border between Poland and Slovakia.

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Either side of this monument reads S and P, for Slovakia and Poland.  We have been following similar markers since the Czech/Poland border.

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This will do for a campsite.  Lael prepares a fungal watercraft dubbed the ‘Yankee Doodle’ to float down the stream.  This is how we spend at least some of our time.

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The following evening, following thundershowers and some writing, we go searching for a campsite.  We ride into some nearby forested lowlands, presented as a narrow green swathe on the map.  We enter via farm roads from the pavement, without a map or guide of any kind.  After a half an hour of winding routes, a small stream crossing, and a few dead-ends, we cross a small shelter perfect for a rainy night.

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No Polish shelter is complete without a shot glass.

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Lael was hiding something in her framebag to taste.  Sweet, but herbal.

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Public maps serve us well in many regions.  We habitually stop to see what kind of new information we can gain.  Much of this information could easily be learned from a detailed map or gps file, although the experience of piecing things together is interesting, if not always the most efficient method.  I’ve long considered a GPS on board the bike, although a cumbersome interface is uninviting.  And, I don’t already own an iPhone.  We use Lael’s Google Nexus 7 tablet to navigate some cities, or to find camping, although it is impractically large for full time use.  Solutions?

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The following day leads us toward the Tatra, a succinct range of the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains, straddling the Slovakian/Polish border.  Near or far, these mountains are stunning.  The peaks are clear — we compare to the Tetons.

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While looking for a market to pick up some food for dinner, we pass this red trail.  The church is alive with the sounds of mass.  Poland is a strongly Catholic country, and papal hiking routes in honor of John Paul II are ubiquitous in this part of the country.  A public map shows that the red route connects to Zakopane, 15km away.  Zakopane is a major international tourist destination, and a good place to replace our dying cookpot, we think.  It will also afford closer inspection of the mountains.

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Summer in Poland ends the same way as in Alaska.

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We settle on this hillside facing the High Tatra for the evening.  Not the flattest ground, but some of the best scenery of the trip.

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This local red route, unlike some of the sections in the high country, proves to be perfectly rideable with only a few steep pitches.  With my new 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tire, climbing incredibly steep pitches has become a part-time hobby.

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Over the last hill to Zakopane.

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We meet hordes of tourists.  Mostly, it is an innocuous crowded mountain town where local smoked cheese is sold in incredible numbers.  There may be more than 100 individual vendors in town with displays such as this.  Low-moisture smoked cheese makes for great bikepacking fuel, even in the heat.  About 3 zloty to the dollar, so prices are quite good.

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Sliwki is also in season, although most country people probably already have a glut of plums at home.  Fruit trees are found everywhere in Poland.

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Giant sunflowers and dill perfume Polish markets, and roadsides.

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The usual collage of tourists, pamiatki, and high-end retail merge in Zakopane.

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Lucky for me, Lael is cheap and settles for a 1 zloty strand of dyed wooden beads, and some colored leather laces that will eventually replace the broken laces on her shoes.  Between her weathered Clark’s boots and new adornments, she has developed an eclectic mountain aesthetic.  Bulging calves round out the look.

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We also spent some time looking for another skirt– something a little more like this.  Maybe in Ukraine.

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The main function of our trip to Zakopane was to find a new cookpot, which had recently revolted by souring a meal with the taste of aluminum.  Once coated with a hard anodized finish, the pot is now barely holding together.  We browsed dozens of high-end hiking shops stocked with footwear and outerwear, but little camping equipment.  Looking for a 1L stainless steel cookpot…

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Eventually, we find what we are looking for in a large cookset at InterSport, a large European sporting goods chain.  For about $40, we poach the smallest pot from a nice looking set of large, but packable kitchenware.  Unsure of what to do with the remains, we leave the box and its contents outside the store.  Hopefully some hungry backpacker will discover the prize.

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Quickly, to meet Przemek early the next morning at a distant train station, we exit Zakopane with fresh legs and lunch in our bags.  We will not have anything to do with this.

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But if we have to, we will do this.  Back through the countryside to rejoin Przemek.

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Threadbare and a shoestring budget

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For me, things wear out more than they break.  Below, a record of things that have broken, worn out, or required attention in the last few months.  Above, the last laundromat we found was in Selestat, France, over a month ago.  Even in France, public laundries are uncommon.  East of Germany, they are nonexistent.  After discovering that we would not find a laundromat for the rest of the summer– except possibly at a hotel or hostel, or in a major city– we selected the old fashioned method of washing clothes by hand.  A one dollar bar of laundry soap, a 64 oz. Kleen Kanteen for ‘agitate’ cycles, and a cold stream get the job done.  Concerned for the health of the stream, we dispose of soapy water in the bushes, although the final rinse happens in the stream.  Surface water quality is Fair in Czech, Slovakia, and Poland, except in the mountains where water is still cold and clear.  The result of our hand washing?– clothes that smell like soap, look a lot less dirty, and feel crisp after drying in the sun.  Every time we go to a grocery store, Lael still wonders if she is the one that smells like ripe meat.  Usually, it is the old man next to us.  Welcome to eastern Europe.   

Laundry

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We used sil-nylon dry bags to soak the clothes, a 64 oz. Kleen Kanteen to agitate heavily soiled items, and time.  Total procedure from dirty to dry: about 2 1/2 hours. 

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Alcohol stove

Since 2009, I have used a homemade alcohol stove, based upon a design called the Penny Stove.  I have a few qualms about the design– notably, the exposed lip of aluminum is susceptible to damage– although the stove performs well, and it is easy to make along the trail with a pocket knife.  The first stove was made in Tacoma, WA in 2009 with Heineken keg-shaped cans (now discontinued) and specialized tools, including a fresh razor blade and a drill.  The second stove was made exclusively with my Swiss Army knife in Steamboat Springs, CO, out of Ska Brewing Co. cans.  I made this stove last week in Korbielow, Poland from Harnas beer cans.  This time, I used Lael’s new Opinel knife, which is still as sharp as the day we bought it.  With some experience, I can make a functioning stove on the first try.  Total build time: about 15 minutes.

The old stove, shown below, which recently endured the weight of a human exiting the tent to go pee at night.  Names will not be named.

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The carnage of stove-making includes three beer cans.  In Poland, denatured alcohol (90%+ ethanol) is colored blue or purple and is called denaturat.  The purple, or aubergine, Opinel knife is extremely sharp.

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New stove, old penny.  Works great.  Negligible weight.

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Homemade pot stand for our alcohol stove needed some repair.  Baling wire, purchased in an exact length (1/3 meter, for free), holds the supports together, which are made of stainless steel bicycle spokes.

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Tires

A pair of wire-bead WTB Exiwolf tires came on my used Raleigh XXIX+G.  I put one on my rear wheel, and the other on Lael’s.  We replaced hers with a Schwalbe Nobby Nic tire in France.  I made it to Ostrave, CZ before replacing it with a 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf that I bought in Germany.  The Hans Dampf only comes in a 2.35″ width for 26″, 650b, and 29″ wheels; it only comes with tubeless ready technology including durable Snakeskin sidewalls (a heavier Super Gravity version is also available).  Mounted in the rear, at appropriate trail pressures, the Hans Dampf sticks like a gecko– it is amazing.  This is one of the biggest tires available without applying for a fatbike permit (have you seen the new Surly ECR!).  

No flats for either of us all summer.  No problems of any kind.  Tubeless touring is the way to go.  Even if I am carrying spare tubes, I’d rather pack them away than tote the weight in the wheels.  I’d also rather not patch tubes.

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Hans Dampf is big, and bites in any direction– uphill, downhill, and sidehill.  I would like to see more tires like this in 29×3.0″.  A 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf or a 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent on a Velocity Blunt 35 or a Sun MTX33 makes for a voluminous combination, yet will fit in many traditional frames for 29″ wheels.   

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Luggage

Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag, with damaged zipper.  I frequently stuff, and overstuff, my bags.  This is what happens.  Sent home from France for future repair.  We both have more luggage capacity than we need on our bikes so this is no problem.

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Lael uses a Revelate Viscacha seatpack, and attaches her sleeping pad to the four loops on top of the bag.  Abrasion has worn through one of the loops, while the others show signs of wear.  Some repurposed shoelace makes a solid repair.  Handy to have needle and thread for such projects.  Below, worn loops in front, broken loop in back.  Newer Revelate bags uses a different attachment with more durable plastic hardware and nylon webbing.  Also, Eric has a cool new waterproof seatbag in the works, called the Terrapin, which appears to be modular.

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I sleeved the nylon shoelace over the existing material, and sewed it into place,

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Carradice bags are well made, although I have repaired the stitching on many of the leather straps over time.  Needle and thread save the day again.  A simple fix, although a bit tedious to mend leather and canvas with a standard gauge needle.  

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The same shoestring used to repair the Revelate seatbag also serves to replace the broken retention cord on the skirt of the Carradice Camper.

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Early in the summer, I was dissatisfied with the way my front load obscured my headlight.  A spare tube strapped under the stem shims the front load out of the way– an easy fix, and another good use for nylon gear straps.

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Brake pads

Brake pads wear out.  We replaced Lael’s rear pads and my front pads recently.  A wet, muddy day on the trail can lead to rapid pad wear.  I always carry spare pads on a longer tour– they are tiny, and light.

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Bottom bracket

This one is unusual.  When I purchased the bike secondhand from Tim in Santa Fe, he mentioned something like, “the bottom bracket cups are a little damaged, but they tighten into the frame just fine”.  I took his word and rode away.  Several months later, after hearing the occasional creak from the bike’s nether regions, the drive-side cup was loose, stripped entirely of threads.  I diagnosed the problem, removed the crank, wrapped the damaged threads in duct tape to reduce damage to the BB shell, and reinstalled the crank.  I rode it for another day or two,  When I found the opportunity to replace it, I discovered that the steel BB threads were undamaged, although the BB cups were stripped entirely, made of aluminum.  This is another (unexpected) reason to ride steel bikes.  

Hard to see, but the BB shows a gap between the cup and the shell.

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Aluminum threads on the BB cup are toast.

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Steel BB threads look fine, despite grinding for several days in the mountains.  Steel is harder than aluminum.

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As both cups were loose, I removed them by hand and installed the new SRAM GXP cups by hand.  I rolled the bike into the shop to borrow the driver to tighten them.  The crank is easily reinstalled with my multitool.  I imprint the shape of the tool into my hand trying to tighten it appropriately.  Loose crank bolts can be fatal to a crank.

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All better.

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All work done outside a sporting goods store with a well-stocked bike department.  Total cost, 31€.

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Lael also rides a lot.  Her bottom bracket had developed significant ‘play’, as the bearings have worn over the past year.  We replaced it in Germany for an inexpensive Shimano model.  RaceFace cranks use the Shimano BB standard.  Also riding a Raleigh XXIX, her frame is mostly like mine, although it has an eccentric bottom bracket as it was designed as a singlespeed model.

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Shoes

After weeks of mud and rain on the GR5, preceded by several months of work in New Mexico, these Merrel boots are toast.  They were holding together pretty well, and had a little rubber left on the sole, but they were no good for foot hygiene.  With sunny skies in the forecast, it was a good time to invest in a new pair of shoes.  I found my favorites– Salomon XA Pro 3D Mid GTX— on sale for a good price.  Salomon originates from Annecy, France, although the company has been bought and sold a few times in recent decades, and is now part of a conglomerate including Mavic.  I don’t use clipless systems, but it seems the two companies should collaborate to make a genuine touring shoe for those that do. 

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This Salomon mid-height boot is lightweight and layered with Gore-Tex.  Built like a running shoe for comfort, the outsole is designed like a good mountain bike tire for traction in the rough.  The Velo Orange Sabot pedal features a generous platform, sealed cartridge bearings, an array of replaceable pins, and a slight concavity to hold the foot in place without the need for clips or straps.  The broad platform distributes pedaling forces evenly across the foot, eliminating the hot spots experienced on quill-style pedals.  It is an excellent touring and bikepacking pedal.

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Cork extraction

Without a way to remove a cork, properly, I utilize the hobo method all through France.  Credit to Chris Harne for describing this to me one winter in Florida a long time ago.

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I bought a gold-plated wing corkscrew for Lael in Switzerland at a junk sale.  Andi tests the acquisition.

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Eyewear

Lael now carries two shades of glasses.  Her primary glasses are Ray-Ban knock-offs for sunny weather.  But in the evening when the bugs come out, she frequently gets gnats and no-see-ums in her eyes.  These bright lenses cost 5€, and keep the bugs out.  They make everything look really bright.

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Brake lever

Lael broke a brake lever several months ago, shown below with pink tape.  We replaced it with a new Avid lever gifted by Ricky and Andi in Germany.  I made the swap while waiting for a train in Munich.

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Tents and zippers

We have used a Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent since 2008, exclusively.  At one point, we lost part of the tent in a windstorm.  Later, I tore the rainfly in a midnight zipper mishap, and eventually both zipper sliders on the mesh tent body began to fail.  As a result, I now have some refurbished tent parts in NY, replaced by some new parts from Big Agnes.  However, the current tent (composed of newer parts) has seen heavy use this summer and is also having some zipper issues.  Sliders– the parts that engage the teeth with one another– are known to wear out, and can be replaced several times in the life of the zipper, much like bicycle chains and cassettes.  I tried to repair one slider by compressing the channels together, but it broke.  The other slider now works better.   

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Tent stakes get lost, or are broken, especially when hammering them with rocks into tough soil.  On a stormy night, I tied the tent to a tree on the windward side– you ain’t goin nowhere.

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Reflective vest

For years, Lael and I have shared one reflective vest which we received for free in France, mostly reserved for tense situations on the road.  It fits me like a loose shirt, while it hangs off her frame.  We finally found a vest to fit Lael, intended for 3-6 years olds.  Now we have two brightly colored reflective vests for busy roads and riding at night.  We bought her a juice box in celebration.   

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Sometimes it is too hot to wear a shirt underneath.

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Personal hygiene

People look at me like I am homeless in Poland, which is true, although I am happy to avoid the attention.  At least in this part of the country, only bums wear beards.  Time to shave, in a stream.

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Lael’s Google Nexus 7 tablet makes a great mirror.

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Derailleur hanger

Oh shit!  A log snags my derailleur, cleanly breaking the aluminum derailleur hanger.  A spare hanger makes an easy fix.  Unfortunately, no more spare hanger.

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Threadbare and a shoestring budget

Mostly, everything works just fine, although leaving on a trip with used equipment requires more care and maintenance.  By the end of our travels this summer, additional equipment will require attention or replacement.  Even though such equipment can seem expensive when purchased all at once, with some care, it enables many months and thousands of miles on the road.  Life on the road is inexpensive.  Time on the road is irreplaceable. 

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Many thanks to Ricky and Andi for the new brake lever; Big Agnes for timely tent repairs and replacement over the years; Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket for durable goods; Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for similarly durable goods, and great designs;  Priscilla at Carradice, who stitched my bag (really, the tag has her handwritten signature); and my parents, for constantly shipping and recieving things for us.

General thanks and appreciation to whomever is responsible for the existence of the 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires, Brooks B17 saddles, Ergon GP1 grips, steel bicycles, reflective materials, sealed cartridge bearings, Gore-Tex, cotton duck canvas, VX-series textiles, dynamo lighting, wide comfortable handlebars, and bicycles.  Seriously.

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Karpaty

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A plan is made to meet Przemek— or Dusza, as he is often called amongst friends and Polish bike forums.  He and Marcin arrive in Zwardon by train at exactly sometime after seven, and we arrive exactly 15 minutes late for our multi-day tour without a single morsel of food in our packs.  Pzemek and Marcin have been here before– this, the second annual meeting of old university friends to push and ride bikes in the mountains.  It is hardly an excuse for our lateness or lack of preparation, but we awoke in the Czech Republic with both Czech and Polish currency in our pockets.  We crossed into Slovakia in the morning, where the Euro is used as currency, and did not return to Poland until the final few kilometers of the day.  Not wanting to invest in a third currency for a brief day trip, we ate the last crumbs out of our bags and shot for the Polish border.  Luckily, Polish stores are open late.  Arriving in Zwardon, a tiny railroad town in the south, we quickly purchase kolbasa, ser, piwo, and kapusta, staple foods of the Polish bikepacker.  We are joining Przemek on his trip, unaware that this moment begins a two-month long tour, unaware of where we are going exactly.

Crossing into Poland on an unfinished superhighway, exactly fifteen minutes late.  Projects like this will change a place.  The existing road is small and serpentine.  The new road will allow Polish tourists to speed into Slovakia to go skiing.  The Polish love to drive fast.

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We camp for the evening, finding new routines and old routines together.  Morning is the time to pack and repack, tune bicycles and bodies.  Lael’s bike works just fine, so she opts for some yoga.  I forget, now I remember, that it is a real pain in the ass to adjust the rear brake on a Surly Pugsley.  Departing, we ride, hike, and scramble up to 1200m and more.  These jeeps tracks are decidedly unrideable.  Optimistically, as is easy on the first day of a trip, we continue.

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Conditions improve, but ‘up’ is the direction of choice today.

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Reaching one of many mountain huts in the area, we break for the afternoon to avoid the heat, and to enjoy cold piwo, baked pyrohy, and shade.  A cold shower is available for a small fee.  In the winter, a sauna invites guests.

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A happy Alaskan finds wild blueberries to add to bike grease.  These hands tell stories of summer.

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Back out for an early evening ride, we encounter incredible singledoubletrack along the ridge– down, and back up.  Ridge trails are notoriously undulating.

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The red route signifies a long-distance hiking route, while other colors indicate approach routes– the shortest route to a ridge or a peak.  Locally, a papal route is signed by green blazes (dedicated to the Pope, so it must be easy).

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The four of use ride vastly different bicycles, all capable of rough stuff and changing conditions.  Surprisingly, we don’t discuss bicycles much, although the stregths of each are apparent as the trail changes.  Marcin’s full-suspension rig descends like a rocket.  Przemek’s bike does exactly what a Pugsley does– everything.

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Looking towards Slovakia, our eyes graze the High Tatras.  There are a lot of riding possibilities in this region.  The Carpathian Mountains form a broad crescent, stretching from the eastern edge of the Czech Republic, through Slovakia and Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.  The bulk of the range exists in Romania (about 50%), although each country offers enough riding and hiking for years of exploration.

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As evening falls, we approach another much smaller mountain hut, this one a bit more like a hostel.  For about $3 we get a shower and a place to pitch a tent.  The canteen sells cold Zywiec beer and prepared foods, as well as some packaged goods for the trail.  Superlight travel would be easy around here, especially in the summer.  One could plan multi-day tours in the mountains without cooking or sleeping equipment.  On clear nights, a simple bivy would suffice to save a few zloty and to enjoy star-filled skies.  After our first real day of riding, we rest tired feet and legs.  Some legs are more tired than others.  Lael never gets tired.  She ends the day with a run in the mountains, minutes before dark.

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With separate agendas, we part ways in the morning.  Before descending to town, we visit a small hut where smoked sheep’s cheese is prepared, either called oscypek or gołka, from sheep or cow’s milk, respectively.  The structure is saturated with smoke.  The cheese is formed in a  wooden mold and smoked for days, although the texture within is much like cheese curd.  It contains little moisture and squeaks between the teeth when bitten.

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We enjoyed riding with Przemek and Marcin, and value seeing old friends reconnect on the trail.  We hope to ride with Przemek again in a few days!  For more Polish Pugsley adventures and rainy Welsh bikepacking trips, visit Prezemek’s blog In Between Spokes.

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Around Krokonoše

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Running away from Prague, running towards the mountains, we land near the Czech/Polish border in and around Krokonoše National Park .  Rising, riding from the hills into the mountains, we seek the usual mix of dirt and singledoubletrack, signed as bike paths and walking routes, most of it rideable, all but a few km of it legal.  National parks offer fewer opportunities for riding and walking trails– more people and more restrictions are the rule.  Poland is a more beautiful rustic derelict than Czech, at least in these few mountain towns, but we like it no less.  The Polish, a bit more edge and as much more heart and grit to make up for it.  Stores smell of dill and sausage, and home, for me.  Some days of riding up and over the borders on roads and routes that were once unknown and barely imaginable, are now very real and normal, not to be confused with boring. 

Polish kids smoke dope at the pass, on our first entrance into the country.  Backpackers by the trailside with mohawks and tattoos, grandmothers riding bikes, and kids going places unsupervised on bikes.  Poland is exciting.  Back in Czech, a Pink Floyd acoustic tribute band plays above 1000m.  The Dutch make a home in the hills, and shoot guns, because there are too many people in Holland.  Between the two countries, an eclectic mix of two cultures both similar and different.  Add television and travelers and whatever else people see and read and do, and there are no simple descriptions of places.  However, the Czech are calm, and the Polish have an energy.  

Czech mountains scattered with guesthouses offer rooms to get out of the cold, in the winter, and cold beer to get out of the heat, in summer.  Lael makes friends in universal languages with kids, cooing and smiling and waving hands.  Making the most of a our descent from the border for the last time, back into the Czech Republic, we hug the dotted borderline, climbing as much as we descend until the end of the day. 

Much of the Czech Republic is surrounded by low mountains, interlaced with more walking and biking trails than you could ride in a dozen years.  One could or should plan a mountain bike tour around the country.  In my opinion, you can skip Prague, unless Joe and Margaret are there again. 

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