Making Friends in the Balkans: Letters from Croatia to Bosnia and Back

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These three stories were first shared with friends and family via email, reprinted here as a vignette of touring life in Croatia and Bosnia. For the record, I don’t normally run into the police more than once in a week.

///Split, Croatia

“Don’t drink the water”, he says in English. “The fires,” he pauses, pointing to the nearby mountainsides which have burned in recent months, looking for the words. “The fires make the water bad”. His English is less accented than our own, speaking in a precise manner, pausing only to find the best words to describe his thoughts. It charms me to see young people speaking English so proficiently.

Abe and I are paused at a fountain in a small neighborhood at the edge of Split, Croatia. We’re drawn to a fig tree with ripe fruits which stands next to a gurgling public fountain next to which there is a picnic table and three boys on bikes. The boys are filling their bottles from a large portable plastic water tank, presumably provided to local residents by the city as the groundwater has been contaminated by the fires. I pull into the small public space and lean my bike up against a fence, unloading the edible contents of my framebag onto the table as the boys watch us. I am well aware that three young boys on mountain bikes will be curious about what we are doing, just as I am curious to learn more about them. As I slice dried sausage, cheese, and cucumber the most outgoing of the three boys circles the space attempting wheelies and riding onto the raised base around the fountain, not more than the height of an average step. After each maneuver he looks to his friends, he looks to me, and he looks at his next move. Another boy halfheartedly throws figs at him, not intending any harm. That’s what boys do. I spent much of my youth doing similar things to impress people older than myself. In lieu of anything I would revert to being a bother by throwing fruits or providing some such similar nuisance like punching an older cousin in the stomach with my little fists. That’s what boys do.

Split had been our destination for over a week since departing Zagreb. The city stands proudly on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, harboring a busy touristic port backed by dramatic rocky mountains. Our effort to depart the city is met with the usual reluctance to leave and the excitement of riding into new terrain. In only two days, we’d become accustomed to the conveniences of burek around the corner and the nearby beaches and abundant wifi and beer. What more could a traveling cyclist want? But something pushes and pulls you out of town and you go.

Packed and rolling not a moment sooner than 12 noon, which is the checkout time at our rented apartman, we begin along our planned outbound trajectory. Abe has charted a route using the Komoot mapping program, which we have used to develop a route suitable for mountain bikes. We select a fitness level of “pro” in the program, which means the route might just happen to include a massive hike-a-bike at any time. At present, we don’t have any idea what the route will be like.  That’s how the program works, you select you activity (road bike, mountain bike, hike), and your fitness level. In the past two weeks we’ve ridden Joe Cruz’ Adriatic Crest Route. Pushing off toward Bosnia puts us in new territory with a new route. I love riding established routes. I love riding untested routes. It turns out I love traveling by bike. I don’t ever want to stop.

“Where are you from?”, the boys ask. I make them guess.

“Germany?”

No.

“Netherlands?”

No.

“England?”

No.

I smile, “Alaska!” Their eyes light up, but I see that coming. This happens anytime you tell someone you are from Alaska.

“We watch Alaska on the TV!”, they all race to tell us. I’ve since forgotten which version of Alaska they were most interested in, perhaps is was the ice road truckers or the state police or the crazy homesteaders. One of the boys was most interested in the bears.

“Do you want to ride with us to the river? It is very beautiful.”, offers the most talkative boy. He speaks about the river’s beauty as if it was a woman with whom he was in love. “It is very beautiful.”

I tell the boys we are going to Bosnia. Again, their eyes light up. “And then Crne Gora, Albania, and Greece”. Now, this is the thing that makes me most happy to know these boys. For the first time in their lives someone has told them that they can ride their bikes anywhere, and everywhere. We ask where they normally ride, and they gesture to the nearby streets, naturally. Abe is quick to tell them that they have mountain bikes. Even though I haven’t offered yet, I think I’ve already made the sale. “Do you want to ride to Bosnia with us?”, I ask the group. The decision to ride out of town together is unanimous. We now have a Croatian bike gang.

We pedal up steep paved neighborhood streets. Two of the boys gesture to their homes as we pass. We continue, onto a larger road and then an immediate right up a dirt road covered in a layer of loose crushed limestone. The boys pause to confer. They have never traveled this way. Perhaps, they have never seen the reason or the need to ride uphill to nowhere on a road which does not provide good traction. The conference dissolves and they proceed, although the boy on the white Kilimanjaro fails to gain adequate traction with his rear tire. Abe stops to coach him. A little less air, a little more weight on the seat, a lower gear. The leader, the boy in the the red shirt who acts as the voice of the group is forced off his bike due to the steep grade yet makes no hesitation to push his bike up the hill to keep up with the group. The tallest boy, with blond hair, maintains a low gear and a constant cadence, remaining on the bike for the duration of our uphill ride. Abe continues ahead. I wait to photograph the three boys riding and walking up the hill. Once again they congregate in front of me. Mutiny is imminent. “We must go home’,  they confess. Their greater concern is how they will descend this road. Their tires, they have learned, will likely slide over the loose surface. I gesture downward and exclaim that this is the reward in cycling. “Going down is the fun part!” They laugh, nervously.

I organize the group for a photograph which they willingly and politely oblige. And then, as I have come to expect, the blond boy removes his backpack and digs deeply, unearthing a Huawei smartphone. “Do you have Instagram?”, he asks, passing me the phone. I type my name into the search bar and they all crowd around to see. We shake hands, sharing our real names, which I repeat until I’m provided the affirmation that I am pronouncing their names correctly.

———-

///Rasno, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last night, we rolled through rural Bosnia after crossing the border a few hours before. The sun was dropping and we sought a campsite.

The area is thickly wooded with scrub oak and limestone, dotted with stone houses, so no open space appears and the few fields we passed didn’t appeal as they are planted or gated. We finally rolled into a small town with a church and a football field and a basketball court, and quickly planted ourselves beside the basketball court to eat dinner at sunset. We saw a few people in town and nobody seemed to think much of us. I waved at everyone (of course!) One of these people is an old man who drove up in his white Mercedes. He parked the vehicle and disappeared into the thicket to return with two cows. He drove behind them up the road, honking at them to move along. That is the state of herding animals in Bosnia! The white Mercedes returned a few hours later in the dark, now with another man. The driver remained in the car, the other man got out, I greeted him and worked hard to impress upon him that we were jolly tourists on bicycles. He was telling me something about a “problem”, not sure if we were a problem or if someone else would give us a problem and we should beware. They left, we set up camp in a small field behind the courts to be a little more discreet. It is not uncommon for people to attempt to dissuade me from sleeping outside, sighting all kind of “dangers”. We lay down looking at the stars.

A few hours later a police car rolls by slowly, flashing blue lights. It passes, and returns a few minutes later to drive onto the ball court. This time, the officer gets out of the vehicle and looks around with a flashlight. He approaches us. A young man is with him, tall and slender and handsome. He speaks near perfect English. The officer requests my passport. In no time the young man, not much more than a boy, admits to me in English that there isn’t really a problem. But, we must walk over to the ball court and present our passports to the police officer, who has his trunk open so he can fill out paperwork. Typical European bureaucratic style requires the officer know what city I live in and my profession and my parents names and where they were born. We oblige, the boy is most helpful. The police officer is obviously a small town guy, because the procedure excites him and he takes is very seriously. The officer is impressed that I speak some Hrvatske (Croatian), although I admit that I really don’t. I tell him that I know some Ukrainian and that my mother is “Ykrainka”. At which point— this has happened twice in a week— they refer to a recent football game between Ukraine and Croatia, which I know nothing about. I pretend to follow the conversation.

A man lurks in the shadows, who I recognize as the man I spoke with earlier, who I now consider an active informant in the affair. Another man remains at the far end of the court, deeper in the shadows, who I assume to be the Mercedes cowboy, seemingly too cowardly to confront us on any level.

The police officer is satisfied with our papers, which is good because I think we illegally crossed the border through a farm field earlier in the afternoon. The man who is the active informant comes closer as the proceedings come to a close. He is the one who makes reference to the Croatia-Ukraine soccer game. I laugh as if I know what the hell he is talking about but I don’t follow sports and know nothing of the match. He likes that.

I ask Ante, our 18 year old translator about his life, where he grew up; “Oh, you go to university in Mostar? How is it?”. He informs us that Mostar is a nice city and there is a Red Bull cliff diving event in progress right now. The active informant, who has moved out of the shadows and into our inner circle pulls out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and offers one to me, Abe looks over and is offered a cigarette as well. The police officer pulls out his own pack of cigarettes and we stand around in the bright lights of the basketball court of a small Bosnian town for a few minutes as friends, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Ante clarifies that the reason we were questioned was because they don’t normally have people in their village like this, and someone called the police to check on us. Furthermore, they are concerned for our safety, because there might be wolves and it will be cold at night. Had we had wanted we could have slept near the church and would have been provided with water and possibly food.

Before we part ways I joke that these are our first friends in Bosnia. Everyone seems satisfied to hear that. Ante recommends a nearby cave which we might like to visit in the morning, because Abe is a geologist. We all shake hands and say goodbye, “Dobre večer”. Welcome to Bosnia.

———-

///Bosnia-Croatia border

I’m listening to Deer Tick on my headphones, over and over and over. The song is “Twenty Miles”. When I find a good thing, I just want to hit the repeat button, over and over. I fall asleep to the song, I wake up to the song. I listen to it for an hour at a time during the day while riding. I’m in a melancholic euphoria— it is a sunny day and Abe and I are riding back to Split from Mostar, Bosnia, but ’ve just learned a few days ago that there is a family emergency back in New York and I feel responsible to be there as soon as possible. From Mostar, I’ve found a $400 plane ticket from Split back to New York City, so we’re pedaling back to Split along the same route we used to get to Mostar.

Abe is riding ahead and we’ve just navigated a segment of grassy doubletrack farm roads in a broad agricultural valley. As our tires pass onto a well-used gravel surface Abe pulls a Laško beer out of his Feed Bag and opens it, riding one handed. This is the exact moment when I sense a vehicle behind me. I look back to find a small white sedan with flashing lights, clearly marked Policija. I shout at Abe. No response, he also has headphones in his ears. I shout again, louder. He cranes this neck backward, apparently stunned by the scene but as certain as ever he slides his beer back into the bag on his handlebar. We pause about 20 yards from each other as the vehicle pulls up next to me.

The passenger window drops. I greet the two men in Croatian, but that’s about as far as I can go. The driver transitions to English with ease and informs me that we have just crossed the border into Croatia, illegally. I am ignorant, mostly, and I play the part. I inquire about the nearby paved roads and checkpoints, and act surprised to learn that there are border checkpoints there. Interesting.

Here’s the truth: we passed these exact same roads in the opposite direction less than a week ago without issue. At the time we wondered whether this border was manned by border agents. If traveling on a main road, would there be an actual border crossing? Most EU countries have open borders and we’ve become accustomed to passing borders without showing passports or without seeing border police. But we both know with 99% certainty that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the EU. Perhaps they are slated to join the EU and are in the Schengen Area? On our route into Bosnia last week I scoured my GPS maps for signs of an actual border station along the main roadways, but nothing appears. Most often the OSM maps on my Garmin will show these checkpoints. None appear. So on our route into Bosnia we pass a series of little used farm roads along unplanted fields into the country, illegally.

Yet on our way back into Croatia we follow the exact same path with a different result.

The younger police officer— the driver— exits the vehicle and asks for our passports. We provide them and they disappear into the vehicle. There is no sense of urgency or the feeling of actual transgression. The entire exchange is procedural. The officer returns to us and informs us that we will most likely need to visit the station in Imotski, and to be honest, he’d rather not see his boss either. I plead with him, “can’t we just go around to the road and pass through the border the right way?” He laughs, and declines to cooperate with my plan. There are cameras, he tells me. And since we’ve triggered the system we’re responsible to continue down this path. The system will decide what to do with us. The officer pulls out a silver case with loose tobacco and rolling papers. Abe does the same, and on both sides of me men focus on a small piece of paper in their hands as cigarettes are in progress. This is how you pass time and commune as friends in the Balkans. I inquire about the area, as I relight my poorly rolled cigarette. Where did you grow up?

The officer points up to the hillside. “You see that house, with the red roof? The one to the left is mine.”

I ask how old he is, figuring it more polite to do the math myself to see how old we was during the Bosnian War than to ask outright.

“I’m one year younger than you”, he replies with a smile. I blush, remembering that even though we are speaking as friends and sharing a cigarette, he is my captor and holds my passport hostage. We both laugh.

The phone rings. We are informed that we must go to Imotski to the station. A van will soon arrive to transport us. There may be a fine, there may not.

A van arrives, a Mercedes Sprinter or a similarly shaped vehicle with armor over the windshield and lights with the word Policija written all over. The two rear doors are opened and we are told to get in with our bikes. The back of the van only has one small window into the cab, and the space is finished with stainless steel from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. We are officially getting a ride in a Croatian paddy wagon. The van bumps over country roads, turning onto pavement and lurching up a steep hill to the police station. We leave the bikes inside the van and enter the station to meet the captain.

A man in plain clothes, well dressed and attractive, is apparently the person we didn’t want to see but at first meeting he seems polite and professional. Our captor relays the details of our situation, and I can understand just enough of what he is saying in Croatian to know that he is advocating for us. He isn’t making a hard sell, but he includes all the details which I intentionally inserted into our conversation to hopefully illicit some leniency. I hear him, “they had a map with some roads on it… going home to New York because someone is his family is sick…”

The small office party grows. Four men are now five and six as curiosity builds. We really aren’t criminals, I know that and everyone here knows that, but I also feel greatly out of place now that I am in a small room with fluorescent lighting. Abe and I are both tanned with sunburnt faces; bearded, dirty, and momentarily morose. It is times like this when I wish I had shaved and worn a nicer shirt, but I keep a smile as much as possible and answer all of the captain’s questions with care. I provide the same details which he has just heard from our captor. He is satisfied, then the room sets about to decide our fine. There is much chatter, there are occasional outbursts of laughter, and I keep hearing 300-something in the Croatian language. In Croatian currency, kuna, 300 would only be about $50 USD.

The captain returns to us and informs us that if we wish to accept the charge and pay the fine we will be free to go. We must only pay 2000 kuna, but if we pay now we are only responsible to pay 2/3 of the fine, or about 1300 kuna plus a few small processing fees. That’s $200 USD! I must have misheard their conversation, they were saying one-thousand and three hundred. Technically, I can afford it but I pretend to be outraged, politely. “That’s a lot of money”, I say out loud. I’m stalling, hoping that perhaps someone will sympathize and just crumple the papers into the trash. Abe is quick to tell them that we have the money and we would be happy to pay. I’m a serial negotiator thanks to my mom and I’d prefer to dig my heels in a minute before giving into the fine. I enjoy my moment of indignant bargaining and then I too am bored and want to get out of this place. We agree to pay the fine and sign on the dotted line.

Our captor escorts us outside to another vehicle, an unmarked car, and we drive further up the hill to the bank. There we are allowed to exchange and withdraw money to pay the fine. Official paperwork documents the details of our fine and we pay through the cashier at the bank, who notarizes the documents. The process take much too long. There are multiple forms and fees and I want to double-check ever piece of paper even though it looks official and the entire process is professional.

We are in a bank in the middle of the afternoon with two police officers. We are two dirty, bearded men standing at the counter paying their way out of something. The room can’t help but stare. Bank agents come out of their glass cubicles and hover at the edge of the room to spectate, whispering to one another. A young mother walks into the bank with her son, who is elated to see police officers and calls out to them. The younger officer replies with a smile and a wave. We collect our papers and drive back down the hill to the station. There, our bikes are released from the back of the van. I shake hands with our benevolent captor and ask to take a photo with him. Without hesitation, he agrees and we shake hands again. I thank him and he says, “next time you come to Croatia you come find me, so I don’t have to find you.”

———-

Split draws tourists from all over Europe and the world who explore the touristic old city and the nearby islands. The mountains in the background are calling.

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We spend a few days in a well-priced apartment in a neighborhood of Split, several kilometers from the bustle of the tourist center.

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Nationalistic imagery is still alive in urban Croatia.

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The city is growing with new development. The touristic economy is very important to Croatia.

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Abe mapped a route with Komoot from Split to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even before leaving town we find a few dirt roads.

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Olive and fig trees line our route out of the city.

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At a fountain near the edge of town, we assemble a short-lived Croatian bike gang these three young boys.

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Ah, a boy’s first hike-a-bike.

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These three boys really were inspiring. They were kind and open to meeting new people, and their curiosity brought them far up a hill out of town, where they’d never gone before. Mountain biking and cycling in general is a universal concept— a universal conveyance and a universal joy.

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Finally, we reach the steep rocky mountainsides visible from town.

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Where fires burned earlier in the summer.

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Everything is built from limestone around here.

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Cetina River, popular for rafting with its green waters and limestone canyons.

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Here, limestone has formed a large crater-like valley.

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With several karst lakes in the area. They are hundreds of feet deep.

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The emblem of the Hajduk Split football club joined by violent nationalistic imagery and an odd Confederate flag.

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Imotski, as seen from out first pass through this valley, immediately prior to our first illegal border crossing.

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The internet says there are roads here, and there were no signs to warn us of an illegal border crossing. Without incident we ride right into Bosnia.

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On our first evening, we exchange money and learn the lay of the land in a new country.

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Our route winds through a rocky landscape covered in scrub oaks and scattered farm plots.

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The village of Rasno is the site of our meeting with the local Bosnian police. At sundown we sit on this basketball court and enjoy dinner. By dark, we are camped behind the basketball court. A couple hours later, blue lights arrive.

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Leaving Rasno.

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En route to Mostar, we race from rainclouds.

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One final valley to cross, one final climb, and then a big descent to Mostar.

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The city unveils a different landscape— bigger mountains, bigger valleys. Bosnia is actually a very mountainous country.

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And we look forward to a 5000ft climb out of town.

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We burn up our brake pads on the steep descent into town on narrow lanes, stopping only to fill up on figs.

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Kiwis in the wild!

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Mostar was the site of prolonged conflict during the Bosnian War. Much of the city is rebuilt and is now a popular touristic destination. However. abandoned and damaged buildings still remain.

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This is the first time where we see a large number of mosques, and we begin to unravel the details of the country. About 50% of the population are Bosniaks, who are Muslim. while the remaining people are Croats and Serbs who share cultural elements and a similar language but strongly identify as different ethnic groups.

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Mostar is named for a famous Ottoman bridge build across the Neretva River, the mostari were the bridge keepers who managed the resource. Most is the local Serbo-Croatian word for bridge.

The bridge was destroyed in 1993 by Croat artillery fire.

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Bustling touristic markets surround the old town and the Stari Most.

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While graffiti colors newer parts of town.

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This large building is still abandoned and shows signs of war.

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Elsewhere, the city exhibits typical concrete-block apartment buildings. After decades of habitation, these austere buildings take on a colorful and organic character.

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Resupply.

While in Mostar I decide that I need to be back in New York with my family, and we both purchase plane tickets back to the US.

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Thus, we retrace our tracks backs to Split. If feels strange reversing our forward-looking trajectory, but Abe and I agree that it is fun to revisit the same places. Where know all the swimming holes, and the best cafes, and the best campsites. We’ll be back.

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Fields of these leafy plants topped with pink flowers are everywhere. I speculate, but am not quite sure.

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Until I meet this man and his son. His son was crouched in the grass wrenching on a bicycle which was much too tall for him. He leads me to his father.

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They are harvesting tobacco, locally called duhan.

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The yellow leaves are harvested and will be dried and cut before being sold. I shake the man’s hand, which is coated in a sticky residue from the tobacco leaves.

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It is a beautiful plant. The only other place I’ve seen tobacco growing was in Albania and there it was a much shorter plant. These plants are nearly as tall as me.

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Back through Rasno, back toward the Croatian border.

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We enjoy camping next to a tobacco field, and preparing Turkish coffee the right way with out newest souvenir. I purchased a cezve in Mostar to bring back to some friends in Alaska, but I feel I need to impart the terroir of the place onto the equipment before giving it as a gift. More reasons to sit around in the morning sun and drink lots of coffee.

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Ominous clouds roll in for our second illegal border crossing. At this point, we aren’t thinking anything about anything, just riding out bikes and listening to music and having a good time.

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Twenty minute later we are in the back of a police van. I’m not sure Abe is as amused as I am. I love meeting the local people!

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it was an expensive taxi ride and tour around Imotski, but I greatly enjoyed spending time with my captor, whom I now consider a friend. Next time, I’ll find him so he doesn’t have to find me.

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As we roll away from the police station the stories come rolling out about what I thought and what Abe thought and what they might do and all the possible scenarios. I’d rather not entangle myself with the law, but in this case it was a positive experience. The Croatian border police were ultimately professional and courteous.

We camp in the same crater-like valley.

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Ride the same postcard quality dirt roads.

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Visit the Cetina River again.

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Visit the same cafes, although this time we arrive just in time for the town to celebrate a wedding. The bartender is serving alcohol in the middle of the road as a car drives through with a flare. These people know how to party!

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We both want to keep up this lifestyle. We both love the sun and the coffee and the vigorous rides. But for now, I must return to New York. It has been two months.

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Abe has been such a great traveling partner. It is powerful to be able to travel with others who share the same sense of adventure, a similar carefree attitude, and a love for nature. he is also an excellent rider— i am not accustomed to chasing people on climbs! I’ve shared time with lots of people on bike tours, and it can be a gamble. Our partnership was a powerful and productive thing. I look forward to sharing the trails with you again soon Abe!

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Back in Split, we arrange bike boxes and stuff our faces with burek before we return to the land of uninspiring supermarkets and winter.

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Swimming, and some local microbrews. The beer is named Barba, which means beard.

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One last look at Croatia. I return to New York, Abe returns to Alaska. We’re both planning our next adventure already. Most recently, Abe has mentioned plans to ride in Arizona and Baja this winter. It will be hard not to join him as those are some of my favorite places to ride.

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The finer points of bikepacking, packing the bike and transporting a bike box!

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We carry the boxes across town to the bus terminal, pack our bikes across the street, and board the bus to the airport.

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Goodbye Croatia! I hope to be back soon. I’m already scheming to be back here next fall with a projected route and a group of friends. Linking existing routing in Croatia (the Adriatic Crest Route) and Greece (Greek Bike Odyssey) provides bookends to a possible Balkan Bikepacking Traverse, aka The Burek Tour. We’ll see what next year brings, but I would love to return. And at long last, I would love to get back to Albania!

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Croatia and the Adriatic Crest Route

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Abe rides a macadam road above the sea on the Adriatic Crest Route in Croatia, a route mapped and published by Joe Cruz on Bikepacking.com. 

The man uses both hands to carry the steel bucket out from his cramped home, which is half of the ground floor of some kind of outbuilding to the larger home on the property, which is shuttered for the season. We’ve asked him for water, but mostly we are just poking around a small community in the mountains in the rain to see what there is to see. The dirt road we were riding intersected a paved road from the coast, which appears to end here. My default topic of conversation when I don’t speak much of the language is to ask for water. The man obliges, but I hear him say malo which means little and I try to say that we don’t really need to take his water. He walks away toward the sink and lifts the bucket, walking it across the room and through the door to us. He leaves it on the table and offers a plastic mug to scoop the water to fill our bottles. I look into the bucket and laugh. He looks at me. I look at him, surely he is joking. There is a dead mouse in the bucket, floating peacefully in the water. I gesture to Abe, and look back at the man. It is clear that he hasn’t seen it yet, but when he does, he doesn’t laugh. He lifts the bucket and dumps it off the ledge into the grass. We walk over to a concrete cistern with a steel cover. We lower another bucket into the well and fill our bottles.

We have only been in this country for two days, and it feels like two weeks.

There comes a time when wearing a rain jacket is pointless. The rate of rainfall and the rate of perspiration are equal and you can choose to be hot and wet, or well-ventilated and wet. The conundrum, a topic of conversation more than a real problem, has us thinking on a long climb above the coast. We could see the Adriatic Sea, except we’re climbing in a thick cloud and can’t see anything. But I couldn’t be happier that our biggest challenge is trying to decide if we should wear rain jackets or not. Three days ago we were wrapped in our sleeping bags under a wooden pavilion outside Ustron, Poland wondering how we would ride through this kind of weather for the next two weeks. The now-obvious answer— in retrospect— is that we wouldn’t. I made mention to Przemek that I was looking at trains to the south. He and I think much the same way, and he quickly began searching train timetables and weather forecasts for us on his Polish smartphone. The next day we were in Zagreb, the next afternoon giving ourselves bellyaches from ripe plums found on the roadside, the next evening finishing a grueling accidental hike-a-bike through a limestone canyon. Poland was a distant memory in less than a day. I’ll be back to Poland, and I think Abe is even more curious than me about what lie across that border. I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about “The Red Trail”, as I call it.

We came to Croatia because it was a convenient connection by train from Czechia. We’re here to escape the rain. I rode in the Balkans first in 2014 and since that time, I have always wanted to return.

My friend Joe Cruz stitched together a route through Croatia this year called the Adriatic Crest Route, which he published to Bikepacking.com. Joe is a philosophy professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who seems to cash in every free moment in life to ride his bike. I’ve crossed paths with Joe in New Mexico, Alaska, and Czechia, most recently visiting him at his country home in Vermont. I enjoy following his digital lines through space almost as much as I have enjoyed riding and traveling with him. I know just enough about him to sense the process of route design when riding his routes.

The Adriatic Crest Route begins across the border in Slovenia, to the north, and passes south to ride two of the larger islands in the country before crawling back to the mainland for the remainder of its path. We connect with the route from Zagreb, and join Joe’s routing where it leaves the islands for mainland Croatia, continuing south along a spine of coastal mountains toward the end point in Split.

The route is a pleasant blend of forest roads, leading up to a high point of 5200ft; narrow paved farm roads and rural routes; and a few fragments of rough doubletrack and singletrack. As with any route you will follow from Joe, there are some short walks with the bike to make essential connections. 

Some of the prime features of the Adriatic Crest Route are a long summer season and pleasant late-summer days and nights, stunning scenery, and abundant fresh fruit. Yes, passing through populated areas and small towns results in an abundance of fresh fruits, especially plums, figs, apples, and pears. The riding is accessible, with some prolonged climbs. Several sections focus our attention to picking lines down the mountain, but mostly the riding is a consistent pace on roads of varying kinds.

While we missed the first part of the route which hopped across a number of islands up north, the southern part of the route reconnects with the coast and affords the opportunity to enjoy the rocky Croatian coastline and its mellow waters, an essential experience when visiting Croatia. After a week in the mountains, Abe and I were happy to finish the ride along the waterfront of Šibenik, Trogir, and Split. Deliberately slowing our pace afforded several lazy afternoons and an overnight beach camp before catching a boat into the busy touristic center of Split.

For more info on the Adriatic Crest visit Joe’s original post on Bikepacking.com.

Follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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Boarding the train at 5:45 AM along the Czech-Polish border, we roll across the Slovenian border at sunset, pass border control into Croatia in the dark, and arrive in Zagreb at 11PM. The air is warm and dry, the city is calm. Our decision to come south is brought with great confidence the moment we step outside.

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In the morning, we awake to sun and clear skies.

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Within a few hours of being in Croatia, we enjoy burek and kefir and begin our ride out of the city.

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Burek is a pastry made of many thin layers of dough, filled with cheese or meat, and sometimes found with savory vegetable fillings or sweet fruit filings. A tart farmer’s cheese filling is the most common, and arguably the best. A greasy burek is best paired with a small jogurt or kefir.

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Abe an I plot a route out of the town for the afternoon. The plan is to get into the local mountains and learn the ways of Croatian roads and trails. In a couple days we will connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. For now, we soak up the sun and new surroundings.

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Learning the ways of Croatia. The mountains are steep. Not all trails are rideable, not all trails get regular use or maintenance. Abe and I descend an overgrown trail into a strenuous downhill hike-a-bike in a tidy little limestone drainage. Little do we know what is ahead. 

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Passing the point of no return. Of all the times we should have decided to turn around, we’d look at the GPS and declare, it is just another 0.41 miles. 

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Little do we know that it ends in a 100 ft waterfall. There is a trail around it, but it is so steep that we hike it all first without the bikes, then come back for our beasts of burden. There are steel cables along a portion of the descent, which help. The rest is a creative and physical endeavor. At least it finishes with a great place to swim.

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We exit the forest at sunset, to the minute exactly, and rip down a packed limestone road to the nearest town. We order a beer and laugh at the whole endeavour— barely a half day out of Zagreb and we’ve already given ourselves a week worth of adventure. We find an unoccupied building in the middle of town to bed down in, mostly to keep the dew off. It is always fun to interpret the former use of such buildings by analyzing the interior. Whenever I first enter an old building like this, i walk around and try to identify the different rooms. I imagine myself as the cook in the kitchen or the headmaster at a desk. Then I find a little piece of floor without any broken glass or tiles.

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Our first morning outdoors in Croatia, and the beginning of a long transport day to get closer to the coast to connect with Joe’s route. After yesterday’s experience, we agree to follow “mostly roads” today. Mostly we keep to cycling routes shown on the Open Cycle Map in Gaia. By the end of the day we’ve ridden 70 miles, which Abe informs me is the longest distance he has ridden on a bike in one day.

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It is good to see a variety of signed cycling routes and advertised touristic loops for bicycles.

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After a period of lowland riding, we pass back into the mountains and ride over a series of N-S trending ridges nearing the coast.

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Resupply.

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Finally, cresting a ridge at close to 3000 ft, we descend to connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. Our first few pedal strokes include a mellow descent above the sea.

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Some singletrack.

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Rocky abandoned doubletrack, or doublesingletrack as I’ve often called it.

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The command center has grown over the years, with a camera bag on the far left and a large insulated wine holster on the right (aka Revelate Feed Bag). The Sinewave Beacon headlamp simplifies things a little as the USB charging device is housed within the light’s head unit. I use both a Garmin eTrex 20 and an older iPhone 5 on the handlebars for navigation. The Garmin provides all weather function, best for existing routes and inclement weather. The iPhone is not in a waterproof case but helps when navigating cities and for some large-scale routing, as well as quick wifi missions in town. Abe and I are both running the Gaia program, and are beginning to dabble with Komoot for route planning as well.

Deer Tick plays on repeat for a couple of days.

A liter of graševina in the Feed Bag, with a bit of rosemary for dinner.

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We begin to see these fruits, which I recall are called thana in Albania. In English, they seem to be called Cornelian cherry, scientific name Cornus mas. They are bitter like a cranberry but eventually ripen to the point that you could eat them. In Albania they were being collected to be made into raki, a homemade liquor.

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With rain in the forecast, we enjoy a dry evening above the Adriatic Sea.

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Morning is warm and damp, but not uncomfortable in any way. Rain jackets come on and off throughout the day as we wind our way up to the high point on the route at 5200 ft.

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We are in a section of the route which is described as having no immediate resupply for over 100 miles. However, we encounter a vender on a mountain road selling smoked cheeses and honey. The cheese only comes in 1 kilogram rounds. A kilo of cheese is no match for two hungry riders and I pass over the cash in the rain. This powers us all the way to the end of the route.

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Nearing the top of the National Park Sjeverni Velebit, which would normally provide stunning views of the mountains and the islands below.

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At 5200 ft, we’re stuck in a cloud. The mountain hut provides respite from a damp day.

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The history inside the building is obvious the moment we enter with photos of the hut in winter and memories from mountain conquests in the Himalaya and other distant lands.

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We sign the guest log, purchase a beer from the caretaker, and enjoy a few moments in a wooden chair out of the rain.

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Descending from Zavižan, we look for a place to hide away for the night.

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This old forest cabin remains as a shelter. Incidentally, another 100 yards down the road is another cabin which is equipped with a wood stove and other amenities such as cots and jars of coffee and tea. Even so, this one is clean, and dry.

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The national park encompasses a broad mountain massif and protects several higher peaks and a large forest.

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Some of the shelters listed on our maps are closed for the season, although they would normally be staffed through the summer.

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Descending out of the clouds, we drop into a world of limestone crags.

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A popular climbing area, with routes shown on this map.

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Joe’s GPS track takes us from one valley to another via a “short hike-a-bike”. It was short, and totally pleasant. I laugh to myself, because I’ve been on some long hike-a-bike segments with Joe and know his great love for pushing his bike. I’ve been told I am the same way. It must be a matter of perspective.

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Most hiking trails in Croatia are signed with this bullseye pattern.

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Limestone and beech trees.

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The route drops us into the town of Gospić, where we quickly resupply at the supermarket with a stop at the bakery and are out of town just before dark to find camp in a farm field under the hum of high-voltage power lines. Rain returns overnight, and showers are forecast to come and go through the next few days. The plan is to ride when it is dry, and find cover when wet— if we can.

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A final climb should take us over a rocky pass to sea level for the first time.

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The jagged limestone mountains are different than what we’ve been seeing, and as soon as we cross the high point the climate changes. There are distinctly different climates between coastal Croatia and inland areas. The coast is mostly dry and rocky.

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Descending to sea level at Obravac, we encounter a group of boys in town. Rather, I immediately lean my bike against the bridge and slip off my shoes and shirt. I hoist myself onto the railing and dive into the river. The boys come running.

They speak some English, I toss a little of my Ukrainian at them for fun, which they mostly understand. I try my hardest to convince them to come swimming, but mostly they just want to get me to do a “backflip”. 

Unprompted antics for the camera.

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Serious faces.

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And our first fig tree, on the climb outside Obravac. Thus begins our obsession with figs.

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Thunderstorms brewing.

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Home for the night. This part of Croatia has tons of abandoned buildings, as well as old stone walls and other aging infrastructure. This area feels much older than the inland cities.

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Look at the size of that fig tree!

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While bathing in a local river, we discover an old limestone building with a well. There are actually a series of buildings which we interpret to be some kind of mill. Water is channeled into several different pathways.

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To drive these machines.

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The area between Obravac and Šibenik is interesting. Low hills, scrub oaks, lots of limestone walls and buildings. Lots of abandoned buildings, some old, some not that old.

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Soon enough, the river we expect to cross comes into view. The Krka River is locally famous for its travertine waterfalls, and the hydroelectric history that was pioneered in this area. We’re mostly just looking for figs and swimming holes.

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We also see the first of many signs celebrating the local HNK Hajduk Split football club. Split is our near destination, and the team’s patters show up all over the place. Abe photographs his Advocate Cycles Hayduke in front of the “Hajduk” graffiti. A hajduk was a peasant warrior, something between a robber and a hero, who famously opposed Ottoman forces in the Balkans.

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A series of pools and lakes are found along the path of the Krka River, making for some prime swimming opportunities, even on a humid and damp day. We manage to avoid most of the major deluges that day, until the evening.

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In the final miles, we pedal through a pounding rainstorm and rummage around an old factory until we find a building with a good roof. Setting up tents in the rain is no fun, rolling into a spacious two bedroom apartment with great ventilation and good views— priceless.

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Croatia provides palatable wines, although this is actually a Macedonian bottle. We don’t quite have the appropriate stemware, but these little 0.6L titanium pots suffice.

To my untrained palate, most Croatian wines taste like cooked sausage and onions, with notes of coffee and a touch of titanium. Or is that just my kitchenware telling me it hasn’t been washed properly in a month?

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The morning is hot and sunny, and everything except for our shoes are dry.  

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Šibenik.

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I love these old concrete block apartment buildings.

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The bike section at a supermarket. They sell dynamo lights at the Kaufland! Many urban bikes in Europe are equipped with rack, fenders, and a bottle dynamo.

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Grapes.

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Craft brew, from Zagreb.

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Figs. Everybody loves them!

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A large comercial vineyard leads us to a big rocky climb.

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Joe’s instructions: “overgrown, push through”. 

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And push up.

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If you think you’ve seen a lot of figs, imagine how many we have eaten. So, many, figs.

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Figs are rotting on the roadsides they are so plentiful. Many local people will harvest and dry them for the rest of the year. But nothing beats a ripe fig.It took Abe no more than one fig to became as rabid a fan of this fruit as I am.

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Trogir, our first real taste of high-density Croatian tourism. The city is beautiful and historic and worth a visit, but I’m glad our routing hasn’t been along the coast the entire time.

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We push out of Trogir in the afternoon and ride to the end of the road, until it turns into a trail. We hike our bike the final few minutes to a remote rocky camp.

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Croatia is everything the tourist office wants you to think. The craggy limestone mountains are just as you expect, the sea is as good as it looks, and the figs. Oh, the figs.

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The final few kilometers of the route include a ferry from the island into the center of Split. What a way to finish the route! I love when routes finish in a city or at the sea, or both, and I love putting my bike on a boat. 

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After a rest day in Split we’re off to Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania!

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Raining on the train: CZE, AUT, SVN, HRV

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Arriving at the Czech border town of Český Tĕšín, Abe and I cross the river to Poland. A series of produce stalls are selling bulk potatoes along the road parallel the river, massive dried sunflowers and dill stalks accompany the display. We climb a wet cobblestone street into the old city in search of cover. We spent our last Czech koruna at the Billa supermarket across the border. Now, we seek a Polish ATM to withdraw zloty for the next week. We’ve seen the forecast, and it calls for some days of rain. In the past week these forecasts have become increasingly grim, with two days of rain growing to a full week of rain. Going through the motions, we withdraw cash, eat pastries and kefir under cover of a bus stop and pedal to the start of the Main Beskid Trail in Ustron, about 20 km away. En route, we both realize that the GPX tracks we have loaded are incomplete. The files we loaded contain nearly 13,000 points and our Garmin eTrex devices will only display tracks with up to 10,000 points, so only 200 miles of the route are shown. At the top of the mountain we pass a turn which would connect us to the Beskid Trail but we decide to descend into town to modify the GPX track and reload it to our Garmin units. 

In Ustron, we stop into a local bike shop where Abe borrows a wrench to tension his leather B-17 saddle. He asks how many spare sets of brake pads I am carrying, expecting me to reply “None”, along with some secrets of lightweight travel.

“Four. Four pairs.”

Abe is impressed.

I contest, they are small and I don’t think it will be easy to find pads for my SRAM Guide brakes. He agrees.

Abe buys a pair of Shimano brake pads. The shop is a small room, clean and professional with a small inventory of bikes and some quality equipment, including Maxxis tires, disc brake pads, and carbon handlebars. A row of kids bikes are lined up out front of the shop, several models featuring a long handle with an ergonomic grip for a parent to follow behind. We ask to log into the wifi network at the shop to use an online program called GPS Visualizer which I know can modify our GPX track as needed. Instead, they suggest we use the free wifi in the city center about 300m away. We roll to the city center and link to the internet, where we discover that we must input a cell phone number to receive a login code. Neither of us has a phone. We manage to ask the woman at the tourist information office to use her mobile phone to receive the code. Once she understands our request she willingly agrees to help.

I begin work to condense our oversized GPX tracks through the GPS Visualizer program and limit them to 9999 points, enough that the entire track will load on our devices and the track resolution will be adequate. I connect my eTrex 20 and begin loading the file. I do the same with Abe’s eTrex 30, although my old USB cable ejects the drive several times before I successfully load the track. Right before we pack and roll out of town, I check the latest weather forecast. One site shows rain for every single day, for two weeks. My fingers are cold while typing next to an open window in the tourist office in Ustron at 1300ft. We plan to climb up to almost 5000ft over the next couple of days, topping out on Babia Gora along the Polish-Slovakian border. Memory serves the distinct sensation of soggy shoes, and sweaty rain jacket, and incompetent cold hands fumbling with zippers. Add to that poor visibility, wet roots, muddy trails. I inform Abe of the forecast. He doesn’t say anything, the sometimes necessary job of a first mate. But I can tell. I don’t want to be wet for two weeks either. I load the German rail site in English and run a few searches. A second Google Maps tab reminds me of the geography of Eastern Europe. Ostrava to Zagreb results in relatively few connections and a 15 hours trip with a layover in Vienna. Just something to think about. We pack our things and ride out of town to a public picnic area we passed on our way into town. I spotted a large wooden pavilion on the descent and figured we could come back for the night if needed. 

Przemek arrives around 9:30PM, his young dog waking me by licking my eyeball as I sit up from my sleeping bag. Abe and I have been asleep for over two hours. Przemek and I hug awkwardly from my seated position in my sleeping bag. His first question, “Do you want some wodka?” What do you say to a towering Polish man with a Husky mutt when he asks if you want wodka in the middle of the night. “Of course.”

I hear the van door slide open across the park, and then slam closed. Przemek arrives with a bag of oranges, a pouch of rolling tobacco, and a bottle of spirits, a Lithuanian vodka called Strumbas with two raspberries sunk to the bottom. This is a perfectly acceptable evening digestif in this part of the world, although it might be short a few cloves of garlic and some pickled fish, or pork. We talk under cover of the pavilion until midnight before disbanding to sleep. It rains all night.

Przemek and I have shared trails in Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, and Colorado. He and his partner Saška were some of the first riders on the Baja Divide this past fall. This summer they married and are expecting a baby in the next few weeks. Przemek is working in Poland while Saška is with family in Slovenia. Once he receives the call, he will make haste to meet his daughter.

Lael and I first met Przemek in Zwardon on the Poland-Slovakia border in 2013. We met at the train station and immediately began climbing out of town on a steep walking trail. Thus began my love with Polish footpaths. The next few days we followed his lead along ridgelines between the two countries. We continued riding together for the next month in Poland, in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and in Crimea. In that time, we all got food poisoning, we enjoyed late evenings with Djorka and Yulia and their friends in Strij, and we were escorted off a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. In that time, Przemek curated an alter ego as a slippery Polish man working to illegally import wodka under the guise of operating an Italian pizzeria. He was alternately Mr. Polish and Tony the Pizza Man, and you’d never know who might crawl out of his tent in the morning. If he didn’t have a university degree that allows him to commission power plants in Europe I think Przemek might have found a career recording his shtick to budget comedy LPs.

I had said that I wished it to rain all night. I said, “I hope it is pouring in the morning”. Now that a seed had been planted and we might be able to escape the rain, all I needed was the affirmation to make that decision. I didn’t need much, and it would have taken a miracle of morning sun and a perfectly clear forecast to change my mind. Instead I was hoping for a deluge of reasons to escape the impending rainy season. It rained all night.

We are going south.

Abe and I confer. I suggest we take the train to Zagreb and I think it a good idea to avoid two weeks of rain. He quietly chuckles in agreement. We have both been wet and cold before. This time, we fold our hand and find another card table. We are going to the Balkans. Summer will be ours once again.

Missing the chance to visit Ukraine leaves a little hole in my summer. It is a special place that has provided so many positive and meaningful experiences. Visiting family in two consecutive summers, and celebrating two consecutive birthdays in Ukraine is part of it. The riding in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains is also a great adventure. I’ll be back. It will be there. Had I been traveling alone I might have pressed on in the rain and bought an old farmhouse with a good roof and a fireplace in the Ukrainian mountains and disappeared forever. Good thing Abe is here.

And so, with no plan other than a good weather forecast and a taste for burek, and figs, and rakija, we are going south. Our train will arrive in Zagreb just before midnight.

Follow our travels on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow, and check Abe’s blog akschidtshow.

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Mr. Polish, aka Tony the Pizza Man, aka Przemek. 

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Into the Mountains on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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Abe climbs a trail out of Špindlerův Mlýn, CZ crossing signed DH bike trails and chairlifts which won’t move for another couple months until the snow falls.

Following my first week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route where I traced the Czech-German border in alternating days of clouds and rain, I rested for several days in Liberec anticipating my friends Abe and Malcolm to arrive. Malcolm would only be in the country for a week, while Abe begins an open-ended journey. Together, we head east. East, always east!

Until it gets cold, and then we go south.

I meet Abe and Malcolm at the train station in Liberec. They are both coming from Alaska by plane via Frankfurt, and by train from Prague. My friend Spencer from the Baja Divide group start last winter arranged a host for the night in Prague. Abe and Malcolm built their bikes at the airport and rode into town, passing the busy old city of Prague just as the sun set and tourists were wandering dumbly at critical mass taking pictures of that one clock tower which does something every couple of hours but is currently concealed in scaffolding. Prague is a beautiful city, but the hordes of tourists make you want to run away to the countryside and go for a long hike or bike ride, which is what Czech people seem to do in the summer.

In Liberec, we efficiently resupply and begin riding out of town. Within a couple of hours we are atop our first pass, riding a forest road along the contours of a mountainside, and descending to our first village for celebratory beers. Riders in many European countries can do the same— traveling from major cities into the mountains via human power and public transport within a matter of hours is easy. The ride out of Liberec was along a signed cycling route, some of which was dedicated bike trail. In fact, there are so many routes and trails in this country that it helps to have the guidance of the 1000 Miles Adventure route. Rather than deliberating over maps all day and making hundreds of small decisions, we can pedal and spend more time thinking about what is for lunch and when we might find a place to splash around in a stream or a lake.

Our week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route would differ from my first week. We enjoyed warm sunny days all week, with cool late summer nights at elevation. We climbed and descended, and climbed, and descended, and climbed— the route right out of Liberec ascended into the Jizera Mountains and then Krkonoše National Park, along the Czech-Polish border. The route, as before, continues along a series of forest roads, minor paved lanes, and singletrack walking trails. While in the mountains of Krkonoše National Park, bikes are mostly only allowed on wide gravel roads and paved routes. As we pass east of the park boundary— still traveling in similar terrain with peaks over 4000ft— the route utilized more rustic corridors. The footpaths in Czech, as in many European counties, are used most often by local traffic, not long-distance users like us. The people we meet include families enjoying a weekend hike from a nearby city or locals collecting blueberries and mushrooms. Even so, the dense network of local walking, cycling, and ski trails in any one area connect in all directions. Since starting the 1000 Miles Adventure route in western Czechia about 600 miles ago, I have never left the signed recreation trails that make this route possible. I’ve pedaled plenty of pavement and passed through many towns, but at all times I can see colored paint blazes on trees and fenceposts and stone churches.

European walking and cycling routes do not fear the civilization through which they pass, in contrast to our obsession in North America with experiencing the wild, even if in a curated manner. Clearly the land use practices and population density differ greatly from Europe to North America, but for a place with such discontinuous wild spaces, European trail resources are extremely well connected. Why do American trails so often go nowhere? Why do we drive to mountain bike trails to ride in circles? I strongly appreciate the interconnectedness of the trails in Europe, and much of that is possible because there are fewer fences and fewer signs prohibiting access, some of which must technically be private land. Many walking routes pass very near to rural homes and farmhouses, some are even signed on the corner of a house or down a gravel driveway.

I first started saying this years ago when riding footpaths in Europe in 2013, but the result of such a network of trails is a massive opportunity to “choose your own adventure”. On the weekend, Czech families are out in great numbers riding bicycles, walking, collecting food, and eating outside. While there is plenty of vehicular traffic to access the national parks and the mountains, nobody drives a car around all day to “see” the nature. They get out and experience it under their own power. Eastern Europeans are a tough and self-reliant lot. We regularly see parent hauling kids in child seats and bike trailers up long gravel climbs, and once graduated to 12″ and 16” wheel bikes those same children are now descending those same routes.

Malcolm left us one morning to descend to the nearest town with a train station to return to Prague and Alaska, while Abe and I stayed on course. We departed the 1000 Miles Adventure route yesterday to link to the Main Beskid Trail in southern Poland, the longest walking trail in the country. Officially called the Kazimierz Sosnowski Main Beskid Trail (or Główny Szlak Beskidzki imienia Kazmierza Sosnowskiego, in Polish), the trail travels nearly 500km from the small city of Ustron in south-central Poland to the Ukrainian border in the east. By comparison, the Main Beskid Trail should be more constantly challenging than the 1000 Miles Adventure route, both physically and technically. Abe and I are looking forward to it, now that we’ve each got some miles under our legs.

Follow Abe’s stories from the trail on his blog AK Schmidtshow. For smaller morsels follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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In other news, I ordered a new bike frame yesterday, although it won’t ship until late fall and I won’t likely see it in person until spring. My friend Cjell Monē has spent the past two years refining the designs of two bike models under the brand Monē Bikes. The La Roca is an adaptable short chainstay steel hardtail for 29″, 27.5+, or 29+ wheels with all modern bikepacking attachment points; the El Continente is a drop-bar 29+ steel touring bike.

Cjell and Corbin were two of the first riders down the Baja Divide this past fall, while Cjell is otherwise known for his exploits as a global bike adventurer, Tour Divide singlespeed veteran, ultralight thru-hiker, and all-around kook great human. Cjell has built bicycle frames under his own brand, sewn and tested his own bikepacking luggage and hiking packs, and established a legacy as a man who charts his own course and has fun doing it.  Pick up the La Roca and El Continente for special preorder pricing through this weekend, frames are $750 right now but will be sold for $1250 after the weekend. All frames will be handmade in Taiwan this fall. Check out how much brass is on show– these frames are gorgeous and I can’t wait to ride the La Roca!

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Rolling through Liberec in northern Czechia to meet Abe and Malcolm.

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Out of the city, over a small mountain, through a forest, and into another town. The pattern begins.

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Note, red circles indicate prohibited activities, such as possessing a phonograph or riding an elephant.

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Water runs from the mountain sides, moist forests harbor blueberries and mushrooms.

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Resupply is uncomplicated, until Abe and I forget to plan ahead for the weekend when most stores are closed. We decided to eat out all weekend at mountain huts and small beer gardens. It wasn’t terrible.

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Mountain bike trails! These were pleasant, although some of the walking trails are much more fun.

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Temperatures have been warm, but totally comfortable when off the bike. When climbing two thousand feet at a time up steep grades, it gets a little sweaty.

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Many mountains in Europe form natural boundaries between countries, and in the case of the 1000 Miles Adventure the route follows the German border until Poland appears to the north.

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These border trails, in virtue of being drawn through virtual space are all wonderfully wet, rocky, and rooty, unlike other trails which are selected for good drainage and mild grades.

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Dancing across the border, we end the day in Poland and make use of a small shelter for dinner.

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Blueberries are everywhere above about 2500 ft. Pine forests alternate with tall beech forests, all are new growth. Many old photos show logged landscapes, and even an ecosystem challenged by the early industrial era and a stifling atmosphere from local industries.

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Unable to procure alcohol for cooking in Liberec, our first coffee outside is made over a small fire of pine.

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To provide the best bikepacking hospitality I know how, my framebag is stuffed to the gills with treats. Over the course of our first three days of riding, I continue pulling out delicacies from Liberec.

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The Jizera Mountains northeast of Liberec are reforested with pine, mostly, with rounded peaks topping out around 3500ft.

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Once we go down, I tell Malcolm and Abe, we are going to climb that distant ridge. Day two included no less climbing than day one.

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An old mine is found along the CZ-PL border.

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Keeping to a strict diet of soup, beer, and sausages, we stop into a Polish eatery at one road crossing.

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One of my clever route innovations, resulting from taking a wrong turn and seeing another connection on the GPS. Note, it is better to go back and follow the route. My frame is still stained with blueberry.

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But as a reward, every time we hit the top of a mountain we find a mountain house serving hot food and cold beer.

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And every time we drop to town resources are plentiful and free wifi is common. This is what social media looks like. #optoutside

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Then begins the next big climb. Over the first couple of days the climbs seem to get bigger and bigger. The total elevation gain isn’t massive, but some roads and trails take relentlessly steep routes out of town.

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Climbing through a ski area, with signed DH mountain bike trails.

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This was one of our nicest evenings on the bike, climbing out of Špindlerův Mlýn to camp at 4200ft for the night.

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Once again we find a shelter to call home for the night.

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I don’t go anywhere without a bag of cabbage.

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While Abe and i are both carrying small pots, Malcolm selected not to bring a vessel for his short trip. The reasoning is sound, but we constantly had to find creative ways to serve three people with two dishes,without fighting over a pot of food like dogs.

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I made Malcolm an ultralight coffee mug.

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Our ride that morning was a little more of my creative routefinding. Once we topped out at 4400ft, I wanted to descend by some other means than a gravel road. We found a winter ski trail. It started off rideable, and turned into a wet hillside traverse before finally clearing toward the end.

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As Abe would say, it was a “spicy” descent.

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Yep, you guessed it. Another mountain house.

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Of course, another beer. This is the local Krkonoše beer from Trutnov.

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Our route continues to nudge the Polish border, passing through some of the highest mountains in Czechia. For this reason, the hills are alive with people walking, riding, and simply being outside. When not being active outdoors, people are eating and drinking beer en plein air. The mountain houses that we frequent are a mix of private guesthouses with beer gardens and restaurants, while a few on the mountaintops are operated or at least leased by the KČT, or the Czech Hiking Club. Many in Poland will be operated by the PTTK, or the equivalent hiking organization in that country.

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As we exit the national parks and the more popular touristic regions, we begin to see a less polished version of Czech and Polish life. It reminds me where we are going in rural Poland, and Ukraine.

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Finally, passing through small communities we find an abundance of plum trees. I’d been promising this to Abe and Malcolm and until now, I would have been lying. Then we happened upon more plums than we could eat. The best fruits are found on the ground, recently separated from the tree and ripened in the sun.

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These smaller varieties of yellow and red plums are some of the best. Many of the larger more typical plums are not quite as plump and sweet this year. I suspect a hot dry summer is to blame, despite recent moisture.

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Of all the signage we pass, this excites me greatly, The upper symbol is the radiant sun of the Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain. From all over Europe you can connect to routes leading to the same place. I was excited to see a sign indicating the terminus of the route over 3000km away.

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We pass the famed sandstone formations of Adršpach. So many of these towns and places are familiar to me, as our route in 2013 wound through some of the same country.

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The beauty of following a prescribed route is that you can release ourself of the responsibility of route design, and simply follow a concept through space. And then, just pedal and open your eyes. You’ll see what you see, you will meet people, you will eat things.

Then you might take a wrong turn and be too proud to turn around and the GPS says there is a way through and now three guys are carrying their bikes through a forest of sandstone towers.

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My fault. Glad you both enjoyed the scenery.

Some of the older trail signs appear to be hand painted. This one dates from 1993, the year that Czech Republic and Slovakia split.

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The lower yellow sign, which denote cycling routes, warns of a “dangerous downhill:. We never got the warning that it was a strenuous uphill.

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Border monuments are painted red and white, with survey markings or coordinates on two sides, and the first letter of each country listed on the other two faces. The other side has a large P, this side a prominent C, yet a faint ČS reminds us of the former Czechoslovakia.

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Polish cycling routes are signed with bicycles, and as you trend further east, cycling routes get more and more “rustic”.

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If you love maps, you’ll love traveling in this country as every major trail junction provides a map of some kind. Often, several maps are provided highlighting cycling routes, hiking routes, topography, national park boundaries and touristic features.

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If you are ever unsure of where you are, look for the point on the map without paint. Hundreds of fingers have worn away the color.

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Weekends can be very busy.

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A series of bunkers dating to around 1938 line the modern Czech-German and Czech-Polish borders. In either case, the enemy was the same— the Third Reich.

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While thousands of small bunkers form a line in the mountains, a series of larger bunkers served as logistical bases and as more substantial armaments against the enemy.

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A groundskeeper invites us in for a tour.

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This communication device is made in Czechoslovakia.

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This gun was made in Venezuela.

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This truck is Russian.

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I was intrigued to learn that there is a gauge to signal how much maslo, or butter is available. Does the word also mean oil, as in motor oil?

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More traffic on the trail.

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Bunkers, everywhere in these mountains.

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Eventually our route follows a small river and we find time to rinse our clothing after a sweaty week.

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Rolling into town on Saturday afternoon we are surprised to find the store closed at 3PM. We seem to have missed our chance to buy food for the weekend. Plan B is to eat at mountain guesthouses and small town eateries. On our first night we find an authentic Italian pizzeria in a small city.

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And roll out of town at dark.

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Plugging a battery into my new Sinewave Cycles Beacon dynamo light provides full light power even as slow speeds, or when stopped. This is perfect when searching for a campsite in the dark. On this warm, dry evening Abe and I lay out under the stars. Within a couple hours, heat lightning surrounds us. Enchanted with the feeling of a warm breeze and distant lightning, I go back to sleep. The next time I wake up it is pouring rain. We both scramble to erect our tents; I quickly insert my sleeping bag and other sensitive items into the tent body before installing the poles and stakes. I manage to keep things dry, mostly.

Buckets of rain fall for hours.

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By morning, the wet earth is steaming and calm. Since losing a few hours of sleep, we are both slow to get moving in the morning.

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The free laundry service is much appreciated. The scorpion underwear are courtesy of the Asian markets on the CZ-DE border.

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Abe packs up that morning, finding a place for all of his things. He is riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke, which is only a few weeks old to him. After a couple days of riding he sent some equipment home with Malcolm, so he has established his kit for the season. Everything now has a place, packing becomes a ritual.

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Signs. So many signs.

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Another quick spin up to 4000 ft. Finally, after a week with a lot of climbing, our legs and lungs are catching up.

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Alas, there is food and beer at the top.

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Our recovery is due in great part to a healthy diet of potato knedliky, meat, cabbage, and beer. 

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Now out of the mountains, we pause for a moment in Opava before riding across the border to the Main Beskid Trail in Poland. I have about 600 miles of this route behind me, with around 300 miles of the Beskid trail to the edge of Ukraine. One way or another, the 1000 Miles Adventure continues. Ukraine is a whole other adventure.

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A Week on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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In 2016, the Czech government released a more palatable English language name for their country, replacing the cumbersome [the] “Czech Republic” with Czechia. Modern sources such as Google Maps and The US Department of State now prefer the name Czechia.

I know I’m snoring when I wake up abruptly and don’t know what woke me. This was the case in a small hiking shelter on the Czech-German border. The day began with a battleship grey sky and even though it wasn’t raining, the previous night’s dew would not dry from either the inside or the outside of my tent as I prepared myself in the morning. I reluctantly packed up the wet parcel and stuffed it into my seatbag. I get an incomplete feeling when packing wet tents and soiled clothing and electronics with dead batteries. I knew the rain was coming that day. Crossing the Elbe River the day before dropped me into the largest city I’d seen since Prague— Dĕčín— where I was able to source a weather forecast for the coming days from the wifi network at the public library along the river. I check email, I check the weather, I buy pastries, I buy beer, and I’m riding north out of town along the Elbe River bike path. Some of my favorite bike touring days include these in-and-out of town resupply blitzes, bounded my dirt and mud on both sides. The cashier at the grocery store has no idea why I’m sweating and dirty, nor why I’m buying so much cheese and beer.

My tires track a damp, rooty trail along the border. In fact, the trail is the border and with exactness the signed trail follows a series of knee-high concrete structures painted red and white, with coordinates painted on two sides and the letters C and D on opposing sides, signaling Czechia and Deutschland. Unlike most of the forest access roads or forgotten doubletrack corridors of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, this is physical, technical riding. These roots would be tough in dry weather; in wet weather it is a game of Russian roulette. I say that because I know how quickly serious injuries happen. Lael fell off a narrow wooden bridge this summer while riding and cracked several ribs. My friend Sue, whom we solicited from the Baja Divide group start to work in Alaska with us at The Bicycle Shop this summer, stepped off a mountain bike trail to allow downhill traffic to pass, anchoring her foot in a mess of logs and toppling to one side. She broke her leg in three places. All I want to do is finish the day with all of my faculties, but all I want to do is to have fun.

I rest in a small wooden hiking shelter, enclosed on all sides save for an open window and doorway facing the trail. There, I prepare a meal of noodles and klobása, and finish with a poppyseed koláč and a cup of coffee before laying down on the wooden bench to rest.

Awake, I rub my eyes and peel away cobwebs. I slowly finish climbing the gentle grade to a high point, my heart beating not much more than resting rate, and point the bike downhill on these same wet, rooty trails. Now, with sugar and caffeine and twenty minutes of rest, my ride is one of complete concentration. Focus and passion are irreplaceable elements when riding. 

Following a busy summer of work, a busy week of travel to California for QBP’s Saddledrive event, and a couple days of riding and planning in Central California before two and a half days of plane travel via Oakland and Stockholm and Prague to the far western border of the Czech Republic by train, I am tired. I disembark the train in Cheb and ride straight out of town along a river, camping next to a dammed lake for the night. I set up my Tarptent Rainbow for the first time as men in olive green fishing tents line the far shores. Rainclouds make good on their promise and I slip into the lake to wash away the greasy feeling of two days of travel before putting on clean woolen clothes for the last time in a while.

That first night out of town is the first good night of sleep I remember since the end of March. But the next morning, I rise and pack and ride and eat and ride and don’t stop until sundown. For the next 7 days, I keep the same pattern along a small magenta line on my GPS. By the end of the week, I can sense the need to take some time. Reluctant, but operating on an informed autopilot, I descend to Liberec and peck around town until I find a technical college that rents dorm rooms for a good price. For less than $15 a night, I have a large room with windows, two beds, three desks, and a shared kitchen and bath (with the other unoccupied private room). For four days, this is my home. The freedom of walking around in my underwear while cooking knedlíky and klobása and kysané zelí; sitting down at the computer with a beer to write, and revise, and edit— these things remind me what it means to have my own space, they remind me what I have been missing for much of the last ten years while traveling. To most everyone else in America, having a kitchen and a desk and privacy is taken for granted.  

The first week of riding along the 1000 Miles Adventure route is much like I expected, and that’s why I traveled here. I’ve only ridden some of the route in the past, near the Nizké Tatry National Park in Slovakia, but after two summers of riding footpaths and old roads in Europe I had a strong sense of what to expect. Even so, the borderlands between Czechia and Germany are more consistently wooded than I realized. This land, most of it managed for public recreation as well as timber industries, is extremely well signed with walking routes, cycling routes, and ski routes in every direction. Large public maps and signposts, covered picnic tables, and winter shelters abound in these forests. Towns are often no more than several hours apart by bicycle. The result is a fun and civilized route through an historic land with abundant natural space and people who love being active outdoors. With just over a quarter of the route behind me, I look forward to seeing how the country and the culture changes toward the east. I’ve only just left the German border behind in trade for the Polish border. Eventually, the route enters Slovakia and finishes at the border of Ukraine. 

The way I most often describe European bikepacking holds true on the 1000 Miles Adventure. Ride out of town on a narrow lane past some homes with fruit trees overhanging the road, ride through a farm field, into a forest, over a small rounded mountain on doubletrack and singletrack, back down into a farm field, past some houses, and through the center of town past a church and a store and a public space. In the first 250 miles, that is the general pattern. A number of small ski resorts are found along the route, a region of peat bogs and ponds are found in the mountains feeding brown tannic streams, and an area of towering sandstone cliffs and rock spires define a part of the route bounded by the Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Národní Park České Švýcarsko). Amongst the familiar, there are daily surprises.

My friend Abe arrives from Anchorage tomorrow to join me. We hadn’t seen each other all summer until he contacted me looking for a bike to go on a trip. I managed to get my hands on an Advocate Cycles Hayduke for him, and offered my carbon 27.5+ Knight Composites dynamo wheelset since I wasn’t using it. He had loose plans to travel to Central Asia, but once I got talking about Eastern Europe, his ears perked up. It might just be my passion for sausage and sauerkraut and beer that did it, but a couple of weeks later he bought a ticket to Prague. Abe and his friend Malcolm land in Prague tonight and will take the train to Liberec in the morning. We’ll roll out of town on Tuesday afternoon and head straight for the hills, riding into the Jizera Mountains followed by Krkonoše National Park.

For smaller portions, follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman

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 My first few pedal strokes on the 1000 Miles Adventure route are promising. 

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The first few towns and classic European communities: stately city center, old world city structure, a few small stores, an amateur metal rock festival in progress…

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Some small towns in these mountains have small ski areas to match, operating one or two very old lifts, most often no more than 100-200 vertical feet. Cycling is also popular in these parts in the summer. Ortlieb is pushing the new sport of “bikepacking”! 

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Singletrack along railroad tracks.

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Forest access roads and singletrack to a popular rocky outcropping atop a local mountain.

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A developed spring, signage, and a covered picnic shelter.

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The first few days are a little wet, but I never get as thoroughly soaked as I did in Prague on my short ride from the airport to the train station. Suited for adventure, I’m running a Garmin eTrex 20 and an iPhone 5 for navigation, with a Sinewave Cycles Beacon headlight on the bars, which serves up to about 750 lumens at night or USB charging during the day.

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Tailwinds and an old railroad grade on a sunny afternoon make you want to bunny hop every mud puddle at 20 miles per hour.

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But when the rain comes back these ski shelters prove extremely useful, not that I mind a night in a tent, but this provides better ventilation.

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Failing to pack a utensil, I spend the first few days cooking and eating with a stick, until I upgrade to a plastic fork from a market, and finally a stamped steel spoon from an Asian discount store on the Czech-German border.

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Alcohol for cooking is easy to find at many gas stations in Czechia.

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Further infrastructure exists in these mountains, and I know I will find more in some of the higher mountains which are most popular with hikers and cyclists. On this morning, I happen upon a small woodland dwelling which houses a cafe. For $5 USD I order traditional sausage with a slice of rye bread, a beer, and a piece of poppyseed cake. Mustard and horseradish are on hand.

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Blueberries are in season up high.

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Apples are everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

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Plums. Some are still not ripe, yet some of the smaller yellow and red varieties are nearly past prime and are sweet as jam.

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Blackberries and raspberries, this particular hedge forming the border between Poland and Czechia.

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Rose hips add color to the thicket alongside many tracks on the route. 

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These purple thistles are common, and a sign of the waning summer season.

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Fireweed tells the same story as it turns to cotton.

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Trail markers and maps and signs are everywhere. The first time I travelled across Europe by bike it was without GPS, relying only on signed routes, posted maps, and some free local maps available from tourist centers. It is easier with the GPS, but there is beauty in looking at the outside world in search of guidance, rather than staring down at a device.

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Mostly, I navigate using basemaps on the Garmin eTrex 20 downloaded from openmtbmap.org, and Open Cycle Maps on the Gaia app on the iPhone. It helps to have something I can use to quickly search for new routing, check weather, or find an address in a city, even though the iPhone is wifi only. I use a simple flip phone back in the States, which I’ve left behind.

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The roads and trails along the 1000 Miles Adventure are varied, greatly varied. One of the things I love most about bikepacking in Europe is how often the scenery and the trail surface and the signage changes. Sometimes it seems like more of a scavenger hunt than a prolonged bike ride, which is a nice distraction for anyone who thinks staring a 50 mile bike ride in the face is daunting. Just pepper the experience with a treasure hunt and regular beer and pastry stops— that should make bikepacking fun for anyone!

A classic forest road.

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Rocky footpath.

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Faint farm tracks.

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Psychedelic bike path along the Elbe River.

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So many dreamy forest roads.

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A ferry from Germany back to Czechia. I love a bike route with a boat ride.

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Climbing out of town under an old ski lift, still in use in winter.

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Dropping into town.

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Back to pavement.

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Into the city to look around and resupply.

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Free wifi at the library. There is so much free wifi in Czechia, it would make for a simple working vacation destination.

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Back out of town.

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Up and over another mountain.

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To see what might be hiding at the top. An old stone tower, a restaurant with a beer garden, communication towers, an old bunker. In fact, just around the corner is a mountain hut with wifi and food and beer.

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Finished with a little night riding by the light of my Beacon.

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To wake up wherever you wake up. The world looks much different in the morning after selecting camp in the dark.

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Dropping into town means it is time to resupply. With the frequency that you encounter towns along the route, you never need more than a day of food. You could easily ride from town to town on an unloaded bike if you wanted to eat and sleep at established services.

In the countryside it is still common for people to leave their children outside the store unattended, and their bikes unlocked.

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My everyday diet includes sausage, cheese, vegetables, and the ubiquitous crusty white bread rolls that can be found at any store. Fruit often comes ripe off the tree. Czech pilsener is an essential part of hydration. I can’t read the labels, but I’m pretty sure they recommend one every four hours.

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Coffee and poppyseed pastry offer a regular afternoon diversion, along with a nap.

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My only meal in a restaurant thus far has been at a rural train station. I don’t know what community was served by this station as there were no houses or people around, but the most wonderful smell of cooked onions and dough was coming from one end of the station. I decided at that moment that I would sit down for my first restaurant meal in the country.

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I could keep living like this for a while. Fingers crossed that the summer sticks around.

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The Deep Greens of August, Czech Republic

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Summer, I know where you are going. I’m coming with you.

I’ve arrived a month too late. The leaves are as deep green as they get before turning other colors and dying. The raspberries are few but those little succulent shriveled fruits hiding behind the furthest leaves. The purple thistle is tall and strong, the nettles aren’t stinging, the spruce tips are sharp and hard and ready for winter. The fireweed has turned to cotton. There are reasons to love August. Blueberries populate hillsides up high and there are some plums to be found, ripe as jam. Apples are in high season, but for a fruit that keeps so well year round, it is hard to be excited about apples. If I hadn’t been born in August I’d be more in love with late June and July, and March and April, and in some places, October is a brilliant moment on the path to winter.

But I was born in August and every year I remember looking forward to my birthday with anticipation, only for it to pass as quickly as any other day. I’d look forward to Christmas and snow, and the end of the school year and the beginning of the next school year. The passage of time is accelerated by anticipation, only to realize that I’m almost 32 and I’d better slow down. And I thought I was still eight years old.

These days— these last three days since arriving in Czech— have felt like forever. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow because today is alright and tomorrow is something of the same and there is no reason to run faster than the clock. In fact, if I could slow the summer to half-time I would. When traveling without a destination, today seems as important as the next and the days last as long as they are. The pace of these last three days are as close as I’ll get to putting the summer on hold. For that, I have another solution. Seasonal migration.

I regret some of my summer in Alaska. Even though the sun is out and the days last all night, I spent the last four months inside working. I spent almost every single day working. I only went swimming once, even though Anchorage isn’t known for hot summers or swimming, it doesn’t feel quite right to call it summer without swimming. To show for my time I worked hard and made money. I respect the opportunity to do this, and I respect the freedom that comes from it, but for four months I saw the inside of one building and thought about one thing only— bikes, bikes, bikes. However, the real reason for regret is that I came out of the summer with less than I started. Lael and I arrived this spring from Baja with the story of a successful winter on the Baja Divide with hundreds of riders, with the success of her FKT ride, and with a future. I hurriedly left Anchorage a week ago, alone. By some twisted miracle, Lael has gone her own direction without me and I’ll never understand it. She’s found someone else and I now realize something very personal about the perceived passage of time. Nearly eleven years of my life— most of which we lived at a vigorous pace where every hour is saturated in new experiences– seem to have vaporized.

I’ve been at this puzzle for over a month now and finally, I’m coming out of the dark. I did the only thing I knew how to do to protect myself, I made a plan to get on my bike and ride. Leaving Anchorage was the first step. Arriving in Eastern Europe is the second step. Beyond that, I’m hoping to ride and slow the summer to wring the most out of it. And then, I’ll go south, to the Balkans and Albania, to the Middle East and Northern Africa. I’ll migrate the same way I’ve done for years, the same way I’ve ridden through the Rockies and into the Southwest and into Mexico.

This blog has been scarce since spring of 2015, after our travels in Israel. Life got increasingly busy with Lael’s racing, work, travel, and the Baja Divide. But this story will continue. In the last few years personal blogs have gone from being commonplace to rare, as micro-media like Instagram and Facebook take over. But I still like to write and I hope to enter my second decade of bicycle travel with the goal to continue sharing information and experiences, honestly and for free. I’m hoping to breath life back into this crackly AM radio station. Thanks for listening. For someone with nowhere to call home, the community of people in this place is the nearest I have to a home sometimes.

Incidentally, I started this blog the second day after leaving Annapolis, Maryland in 2011. At that time, Lael sat me down and told me that she didn’t love me anymore. I pleaded and stewed for a few days. Then, I ordered a mapset of the Great Divide Route and a book about the Arizona Trail. Less than two weeks later I was riding out of town on my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, the beginning of a 7000 mile journey across North America and the Great Divide Route. Six years later, I’m staring at the same open road.

Arriving in Prague three days ago, I built my bike outside of the airport in barely 30 minutes. I loaded local maps on Gaia and set off into the rain for the city center and the main train station. I wrung out my socks before entering the terminal. Inside, I purchased a ticket to Cheb and waited for the platform to be listed next to my train. Several other cyclists were on board and we all shared a seating cabin near the bikes. One was riding a carbon XC mountain bike, clearly leaving the city for a weekend race. Two riders were on road bikes. Later, while I was asleep, a young woman boarded the train and all of the other riders had departed. I learned that she was looking forward to two weeks in the mountains to teach Czech language classes to Germans students. There, she would enjoy some cycling in her free time. Upon learning of my plans— great thanks to her excellent English— she remarked that two of her friends had completed the 1000 Miles Adventure route a few years ago. The bicycle car on a Czech train is a great welcome to the country.

From Alaska to California to Stockholm to Prague, I’ve since transported myself to the far western edge of the Czech Republic, at the border of Germany, where I begin following a digital line on my GPS. The 1000 Miles Adventure is an annual bikepacking race which travels from the German border, across Czech and Slovakia, to the Ukrainian border. I’m not certain I will follow the entire route, as there are some outstanding hiking trails in southern Poland as well. In either case, I have an approximate roadmap for the coming months. My only real goal is to eventually spend some time in Ukraine before turning south for the season. Ukraine, like August, is my place.

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I love Eastern Europe. It is exciting and real. This time of year the countryside is dripping with ripe plums, blueberries are found on the mountaintop polonina, apples and pears are on the way, mushrooms are hiding in the forest, and food is being stored in pantries and root cellars in every home. The mountains are big and inviting, more like the old rounded mountains of the east coast where I grew up. Old roads and trails line the ridges, along former boundaries now forgotten by the open borders of the European Union. In Poland, the PKKT national hiking club maintains a system of huts atop the larger mountains which serve hot food, fermented dairy, and cold beer. Anything east of Germany is exciting to me, but crossing east of Poland and east of Slovakia into Ukraine is another layer. Ukraine is decrepit, but lively, and stands one step closer to the Russian sphere of influence and one step further from the German. There is sadness there, but once you enter into a home and the curtains are drawn and the table fills with food from edge to edge, smiling faces come out of hiding. Food, after religion and family, is the most important thing to Ukrainians.

The roads have been failing in Ukraine for 25 years, jobs and factories are since gone and the economy is weak while Russia continues to pound down doors in this part of the world. Yet some of the new generation of Ukrainians are willing to risk being hopeful. The old generation doesn’t really know what to do in these post-Soviet times, except to keep living. That’s mostly what they did before the Soviet Union collapsed anyway. I don’t know if I would care much about Ukraine, or for Ukraine, if this wasn’t also my home. But it is, and even though I wasn’t born here much of my childhood was spent learning about the country the way that my grandparents remembered it before the war. My grandmother, a recent widow, emigrated from Ukraine in 1941 with an 18 month old daughter. My grandfather wound his way through Europe as a soldier and somehow connected Italy and the United States. Nobody really wants to remember these things.

I’d like to revisit the Balkans. Albania in particular stands out in my memory, but I know that going new places is also worth it, always. However, revisiting Ukraine and Albania will be like turning the page to the second chapter of a novel I picked up a while back. I know the characters, I know the setting, I know the pace and the language, but I still don’t know where the story is going. Come winter, I’m hoping to migrate further towards the equator. North Africa and the Middle East come to mind. It has been my dream for the last 9 years to travel by bike. That is still true.

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Revisit my resource of European Bikepacking Routes, which I hope to update with new information this season. For further reading, check out my article from Bicycle Times Issue #30, titled “Bikepacking Europe: North Sea to the Black Sea”.

Bunyan Velo, Issue #4 also features two outstanding stories from Eastern Europe: Lael (page 72) writes a lovely piece about our time in Czech Republic called “Červenec in Czech”, and Przemek (page 148) writes “I’m Happy and I’m Riding and a 1,2,3, 4…” about our shared time in Ukraine. Bunyan Velo, Issue #3 also features my story “Chasing Red and White” about the newfound possibilities of bikepacking in Europe.

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More from the 1000 Miles Adventure coming soon!

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Tonight in Anchorage!- “The First Season on the Baja Divide: Media, Women’s Scholarship, and Lael’s FKT”

Lael and I are back in Anchorage and have begun working at The Bicycle Shop on Northern Lights Blvd, so you will be able to find us there for the next few months. We’d love to help you plan for a ride, race, or long tour and we have tons of bikepacking equipment in stock this season!

Tonight, we host an event to discuss the first season on the Baja Divide, and will share new videos from our friends Tales on Tyres and Holly Wade, as well as images from the group start and Lael’s FKT ride. Snacks and beverages provided, including ice cold Tecate, of course. Parking is available at The Bicycle Shop and at Sweet Basil Cafe next door. Or, ride your bike to the event!

This event is being held to raise money for Lael’s newest project, a middle-school girl’s bike mentorship program called Anchorage GRIT. Bring cash to support the project! See you at The Bicycle Shop.

Lael Wilcox Establishes Baja Divide FKT in 11:13:02

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Lael crosses the impromptu toilet paper finish line in Plaza Mijares in historic San Jose del Cabo, the end of a challenging self-supported ride through the Mexican backcountry. Collin, Sue and Sam brought the party and also celebrated the end of their ride down the Baja Divide. Another rider was also present that had just completed the route.

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Lael Wilcox has established a fastest known time (FKT) on the Baja Divide route, arriving in Plaza Mijares in San Jose del Cabo at 6:14PM local time on March 13, 2017. She finished the ride in 11 days, 13 hours, and 2 minutes after departing Tecate, BC, MX in the early morning hours of March 2. She travelled 1546 miles of the Baja Divide route from the US/MX border to the southern terminus of the route, an adapted version of the full touring route. The Baja Divide is comprised of mostly unpaved backcountry routes, and ranges from decent quality dirt roads to rough 4×4 tracks. Sand is a frequent challenge while riding in Baja, along with loose rocky roads, sun and heat, and limited resources.

The complete Baja Divide route leaves the airport in San Diego and navigates the rider to the small border crossing at Tecate. From San Jose del Cabo in the south, the complete route also includes a return leg to La Paz which forms a circuit called the “Cape Loop”. Both segments are excepted for the purposes of a timed ride down the peninsula.

The Baja Divide is a free route resource that can be ridden at any time, although the best season falls between November and March. Riders are encouraged to tour the route at any pace that pleases them and six weeks is recommended to complete the route at an average touring pace. Any rider may challenge the existing FKT on the Baja Divide. To do so, visit the Records page on the Baja Divide website and contact Nicholas at bajadivide@gmail.com.

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I arrived at the airport hours before Lael rolled into town. I went straight to old town San Jose del Cabo and found a cheap motel near the plaza to prepare for Lael’s arrival. I then rolled back north along MEX1 a few miles, stopped for a seafood coctele at my favorite mariscos restaurant and waited for Lael to arrive. She dropped out of the mountains and onto the pavement at dusk, switching on her lights for the busy 8 mile ride to  the plaza in old town. I chased her through traffic to get a few photos. There were a lot of cars on the road and the energy of the evening was high in anticipation of the carnival that had taken residence near the old town. Mexican drivers are extremely courteous so the final miles into town were enjoyable. Lael was loving the cool night air and the end of what she calls “the hardest ride of my life”. She rolled into the plaza to a small crowd of friends and curious onlookers. Our friends Collin, Sue, and Sam strung a piece of toilet paper across the road and showered Lael in a can of Tecate as she finished. These three riders departed San Diego during the the group start on January 2 and are the final riders on route from that event. They are part of a small movement of riders who celebrate their chosen touring pace with the name DFL, which stands for “dead f——— last”. On the Baja Divide, all touring styles exist in harmony. Thanks so much for the finish line celebration!

Lael was riding a prototype Sinewave Cycles dynamo light on this ride which I mentioned in a previous post. I realized while editing these photos that the beam pattern and brightness are displayed nicely here, although minor changes in optics and output may occur before the production models are finalized. This light features a very bright beam, USB charging, and a unique battery power mode where the light can be provided additional power from a standard cache battery which allows for substantial light output at low speeds and while stopped. Dynamo lighting typically flickers and dims at low speeds, but with a battery backup the light remains bright even when walking the bike up a steep grade or churning through the sand at 3mph. Lael began her ride in Tecate with a 10,000 mAh Anker battery which was fully charged. She used it every night in addition to the power coming from the dynamo hub, and charged the battery from the light during the day. In ten nights of riding, she never plugged into a wall.

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Lael Wilcox Baja Divide FKT: Los Barriles

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Lael is 91 miles from the finish at San Jose del Cabo. She will finish later today, 11 days and some hours after leaving Tecate.

Lael called yesterday as she was riding into La Paz, I hadn’t spoken to her since San Ignacio. She sounded good, her voice was hoarse but her breathing was fine. She complained that her knees hurt, but then she said that they really only hurt when she was sleeping and that they warmed up during the day. I’ve noticed that her riding speeds have actually increased in recent days. I have a feeling she is happy that the nights are warmer. Lael planned to sleep early last night for another early morning start before racing to the finish today. I bet she will find a little extra energy as she gets closer to San Jose del Cabo.

I am boarding a plane from Salt Lake City where I attended the North American Handbill Bicycle Show this weekend. I’ll make it just in time to catch Lael at the end.

Follow Lael’s Baja Divide FKT attempt on Trackleaders.com!

Lael’s Baja Divide FKT Bike: Specialized Fuse 29

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You know all those new 27.5+ bikes? They are all just 29ers in waiting. Lael customized her Specialized Fuse with new 29×2.6” Nobby Nic tires for her Baja Divide FKT attempt. Keep your eyes open for more 2.6-2.8” tires for 29” wheels in the next year.

Lael began riding a Specialized Fuse Pro last summer. She got it the day before setting off on the Colorado Trail. She had been riding a road bike all summer, the Specialized Ruby which she rode from Alaska to Oregon and raced in the Trans Am Bike Race, and subsequently used on a number of short tours. With the exception of a month of fatbiking in the spring, she had not been on a mountain bike since riding the Advocate Cycles Hayduke in Baja during the winter of 2015-16 when we researched and rode the Baja Divide.

However, the Fuse was a familiar bike as it is similar to the Hayduke, with some minor differences. Most notably the Fuse features a lighter aluminum frame. Frame geometry falls within the same range in most respects, including the 120mm Reba fork that was stock on both bikes. However, our initial iteration of the Fuse saw some customization, including a 130mm Pike fork and an aggressive Dirt Wizard tire up front. The bike worked well, and while the Pike fork was much appreciated, I think a 120mm fork would have served just as well if not better during much of the climbing that is found on the CT. Undoubtedly, when Lael sent the bike downhill her riding was more confident and inspired than before, best compared to how she rode on the Specialized Era, which is the only full-suspension bike she has ever spent time riding. Lael rode the Fuse in this format for the remainder of the year along the first half of the Colorado Trail and over a series of high passes to Grand Junction; from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe along the new Reno-Vegas route; from the Tahoe Rim Trail to the Bay Area and south to San Diego; and  finally, in Baja for two weeks.

Returning to San Diego, we reconfigured the bike for touring the Baja Divide. There, we installed a Lauf Trail Racer Boost suspension fork— a short travel carbon fiber leaf spring fork. We swapped tires to Schwalbe 27.5×3.0″ Rocket Ron (R) and Schwalbe Nobby Nic (F) on new Roval Traverse Fattie SL carbon wheels which feature a nice 38mm internal width. These wheels strike a nice balance between width and weight for this category. Lael has ridden rim widths ranging from 30mm internal diameter to 45mm internal with 3.0” tires and has a strong opinions about rim width. Basically, she hated riding on narrow rims with big tires. Only a small center contact patch was engaged, sideknobs almost never touch the dirt, and the center of the tire wore rapidly. The i45 WTB Scraper that she rode on the Hayduke was very well suited to riding the Baja Divide. Tire volume is maximized, and tire sidewalls are well supported at low pressure. The 38mm internal width of the Roval wheels may have been her favorite all around rim— no doubt because it was made of carbon— but the width does well to provide a useful profile for both traction and flotation, while providing a slightly rounded profile that rolls nicely on narrow singletrack as well. In short, 38-45mm internal rim widths see to be best for 3.0” tires from our experience.

The 38mm rim width in particular would be perfect with the new range of  27.5×2.8” tires which are now available. For instance, Maxxis is making their famed DHF and DHR II tires in 27.5×2.8”, Specialized has a Butcher and a Slaughter in this size, Schwalbe does both Nobby Nic and Rocket Ron in 2.8”, and if you must have tan sidewalls Onza is making a nice looking 2.85” tire. On full suspension trail bikes, we will continue to see 2.8” and 2.8” tires in place of 3.0”. Most likely, 27.5×3.0” will remain most common on hardtails. But something is missing from this conversation— 29” wheels.

In the past year, riders and the industry have fallen in love with 27.5+ wheels. I enjoy riding that size and know how successful it has been in the bike shop setting, especially for new riders or anyone looking to get off the beaten path, so I consider this to be a positive and informative trend, but 29” wheels have been forgotten in the past year. The last time there was any great excitement about 29” wheels, the leading concepts were 2.0-2.2” XC tires, 2.2-2.5” trail tires, and the 3.0” plus tires. It is my opinion that true 29 plus wheels are too big for most riders, and most rides. I don’t expect 29×3.0″ to grow considerably. Bikes like the Trek Stache and Salsa Woodsmoke do well to make a 29+ bike feel a little less like a boat, and the new Salsa Deadwood SUS brings some extra attention to the wheels size in a full-suspension platform, but 2.6-2.8” tires are the future of 29+, or “large-volume 29” tires” as I like to call them. As such, I was extremely excited to see a 29×2.6” Schwalbe Nobby Nic at Interbike this past fall, and I just learned at NAHBS that Terrene is releasing a 29×2.8” tire this summer. I might have ridden that size in Baja this winter if the tires had been ready in time. They weren’t, and instead I finally put some miles on 27.5+ wheels on my Meriwether.

When Lael decided she wanted to do a fast timed ride on the Baja Divide, I presented a large-volume 29” tire as an option. Although 27.5+ felt more confident over sandy sections and large cobblestone chunk, I recall my 29” wheels feeling faster. The rollover argument that has always accompanied 29” wheels is still valid, I believe. I’ve notice Lael getting hung up on obstacles on 27.5+ wheels, where I think a slightly larger wheel would help. But was I remembering correctly? Are 29” wheels faster, and is rollover really that important? After much deliberation, we decided to rebuild the Fuse with wide 29” rims and 2.6” Nobby Nics.

Our parents visited us in southern Baja after touring the Baja Divide this winter, bringing most of the supplies needed to rebuild the bike. The challenge of organizing parts to be shipped to Alaska and New York was far greater than the actual build process, and in the end we dipped into San Diego for a day to pick up a new suspension fork from Cal Coast Bicycles, who were able to get final build parts for us in a day. They have been super supportive of the Baja Divide since our initial rides last season, and they built Lavanya’s Advocate Cycles Seldom Seen this winter. Working in our friend Cale’s workshop, we finalized Lael’s bike build. Almost everything here is exactly as we would have wanted it. I did have an SP dynamo hub for the build but couldn’t get a 28H carbon rim in time, so I bought a 32H SON hub from The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage and laced it to my well used 29” Light Bicycle rim, which features the same dimension as the Roval Traverse Fattie SL 29 carbon wheel used in the rear. Also, the bivy that Lael brought is a thin silnylon VBL, meant to be used inside a sleeping bag to increase warmth. We couldn’t find the other Mont-Bell bivy in Alaska– or at least the friend we had looking for it couldn’t find it— so we grabbed this one instead. Definitely not the best choice, as nights were cold for Lael in northern Baja.

Aside from the wheel and tire size, the other outstanding features of this bike are the light system with the new Sinewave Cycles dynamo light, the 100mm SID fork with the new Charger damper, and the Cirrus Cycles BodyFloat suspension seatpost. Lael also found her favorite cheap Cannondale saddle in a take-off bin at a bike shop in La Paz. This is the same saddle she toured on for many years and used to ride the Tour Divide twice in one summer, so we know it works.

Follow Lael’s Baja Divide FKT attempt on Trackleaders.com, she is 10 days into her ride and only 200 miles from the finish!

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Frame: Specialized Fuse, M4 Alloy

Fork: RockShox SID RLC 27.5+/29, 100mm, 51mm offset

Tires: Schwalbe 29×2.6” Snakeskin, Trailstar, TL Easy

Rear wheel: Roval Traverse SL Fattie 148 (30mm internal carbon rim, DT Swiss ratchet freehub, DT Swiss Revolution spokes, 3x)

Front hub: SON28 110mm 32H dynamo hub

Front rim: Light Bicycle carbon, 30mm internal

Front spokes: DT Competition, black alloy nipples, 3x

Stem: Specialized XC 40mm

Handlebar: Specialized carbon, 3/4” rise, cut to about 700mm

Grips: Ergon GP-2 with short bar ends

Seatpost: Cirrus Cycles BodyFloat, purple spring upper and black spring lower

Saddle: Cannondale take-off

Brakes: Guide RSC

Rotors: 160mm SRAM Centerline

Crank: SRAM S-2200 carbon, 30mm spindle

Chainring: Wolftooth 32T elliptical direct mount Drop Stop ring

Pedals: Shimano XTR Race

Bottom bracket: SRAM PF30

Shifter: SRAM GX1

Rear derailleur: SRAM XO1

Cassette: SRAM 1195

Chain: SRAM X1

Luggage: Revelate Designs custom Ranger framebag, oversize Jerry Can, Mag Tank, Viscacha seatpack, Feed Bag

Lights: Sinewave Cycles dynamo light with USB charging and battery input mode, 2x Black Diamond Icon Poler (helmet/handlebar), NiteRider battery taillight

Battery: Anker 10,000mAh battery for backup power to dynamo light at low speeds and while stopped, also for phone charging if needed

Accessories: King Cage top cap water bottle mount, 2x Specialized Rib Cage, 2x Specialized Purist water bottles, Specialized wireless computer, Garmin eTrex 20, ESI handlebar tape on bare section of bars, Stan’s Race Sealant, alloy tubeless valves

Clothing: Nike Pro 3” compression shorts (size XL for comfort), cotton tank top with custom Mexican embroidery patch, Patagonia merino long sleeve top, Patagonia merino bottoms, Patagonia Barely bra, Smartwool PhD lightweight socks, Patagonia midweight socks, REI down vest, Patagonia M10 shell, knit hat purchased in Tecate

Cycling equipment: Specialized Ambush helmet, S-Works XC shoes, Specialized Grail fingerless gloves

Sleeping: reflective windshield sunshade trimmed to size, Etowah silnylon bivy, purchased cheap sweatpants and plastic trash bag on route

Tools, etc.: Crank Brothers M17 multi-tool, Lezyne HP road pump, 2 oz. Stan’s sealant, Presta-Shrader valve adapter, Genuine Innovations tire plugs and tool, curved needle and thread, tube and patch kit, 11sp chain link, DumontTech Lite chain lube

Other: 6L MSR DromLite bladder, toothbrush and toothpaste, sunglasses, sunscreen, Revelate Designs Peso Pouch, 8000 pesos 

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