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.
My first few pedal strokes on the 1000 Miles Adventure route are promising.
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…
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”!
Singletrack along railroad tracks.
Forest access roads and singletrack to a popular rocky outcropping atop a local mountain.
A developed spring, signage, and a covered picnic shelter.
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.
Tailwinds and an old railroad grade on a sunny afternoon make you want to bunny hop every mud puddle at 20 miles per hour.
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.
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.
Alcohol for cooking is easy to find at many gas stations in Czechia.
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.
Blueberries are in season up high.
Apples are everywhere, absolutely everywhere.
Plums. Some are still not ripe, yet some of the smaller yellow and red varieties are nearly past prime and are sweet as jam.
Blackberries and raspberries, this particular hedge forming the border between Poland and Czechia.
Rose hips add color to the thicket alongside many tracks on the route.
These purple thistles are common, and a sign of the waning summer season.
Fireweed tells the same story as it turns to cotton.
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.
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.
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.
Faint farm tracks.
Psychedelic bike path along the Elbe River.
So many dreamy forest roads.
A ferry from Germany back to Czechia. I love a bike route with a boat ride.
Climbing out of town under an old ski lift, still in use in winter.
Dropping into town.
Back to pavement.
Into the city to look around and resupply.
Free wifi at the library. There is so much free wifi in Czechia, it would make for a simple working vacation destination.
Back out of town.
Up and over another mountain.
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.
Finished with a little night riding by the light of my Beacon.
To wake up wherever you wake up. The world looks much different in the morning after selecting camp in the dark.
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.
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.
Coffee and poppyseed pastry offer a regular afternoon diversion, along with a nap.
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.
I could keep living like this for a while. Fingers crossed that the summer sticks around.