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.
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!
Rolling through Liberec in northern Czechia to meet Abe and Malcolm.
Out of the city, over a small mountain, through a forest, and into another town. The pattern begins.
Note, red circles indicate prohibited activities, such as possessing a phonograph or riding an elephant.
Water runs from the mountain sides, moist forests harbor blueberries and mushrooms.
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.
Mountain bike trails! These were pleasant, although some of the walking trails are much more fun.
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.
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.
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.
Dancing across the border, we end the day in Poland and make use of a small shelter for dinner.
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.
Unable to procure alcohol for cooking in Liberec, our first coffee outside is made over a small fire of pine.
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.
The Jizera Mountains northeast of Liberec are reforested with pine, mostly, with rounded peaks topping out around 3500ft.
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.
An old mine is found along the CZ-PL border.
Keeping to a strict diet of soup, beer, and sausages, we stop into a Polish eatery at one road crossing.
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.
But as a reward, every time we hit the top of a mountain we find a mountain house serving hot food and cold beer.
And every time we drop to town resources are plentiful and free wifi is common. This is what social media looks like. #optoutside
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.
Climbing through a ski area, with signed DH mountain bike trails.
This was one of our nicest evenings on the bike, climbing out of Špindlerův Mlýn to camp at 4200ft for the night.
Once again we find a shelter to call home for the night.
I don’t go anywhere without a bag of cabbage.
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.
I made Malcolm an ultralight coffee mug.
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.
As Abe would say, it was a “spicy” descent.
Yep, you guessed it. Another mountain house.
Of course, another beer. This is the local Krkonoše beer from Trutnov.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lower yellow sign, which denote cycling routes, warns of a “dangerous downhill:. We never got the warning that it was a strenuous uphill.
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.
Polish cycling routes are signed with bicycles, and as you trend further east, cycling routes get more and more “rustic”.
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.
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.
Weekends can be very busy.
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.
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.
A groundskeeper invites us in for a tour.
This communication device is made in Czechoslovakia.
This gun was made in Venezuela.
This truck is Russian.
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?
More traffic on the trail.
Bunkers, everywhere in these mountains.
Eventually our route follows a small river and we find time to rinse our clothing after a sweaty week.
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.
And roll out of town at dark.
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.
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.
The free laundry service is much appreciated. The scorpion underwear are courtesy of the Asian markets on the CZ-DE border.
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.
Signs. So many signs.
Another quick spin up to 4000 ft. Finally, after a week with a lot of climbing, our legs and lungs are catching up.
Alas, there is food and beer at the top.
Our recovery is due in great part to a healthy diet of potato knedliky, meat, cabbage, and beer.
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.