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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European Bikepacking Routes

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Two years ago I wondered about bikepacking routes in Europe.  After eight months of riding, researching, and blogging from Amsterdam to Sevastapol to Athens, this resource is the culmination of our efforts.  Europe is a great place to explore by bike, off-pavement, and self-supported.  Eat great food, visit fascinating cultural and historical places, and learn new languages, in between bike rides.  In Europe, there are rides and routes for every interest and skill level.  Use the search function or the archives on this page to learn more about our rides in Europe through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Greece.  Read more about our adventures across Europe in the Bicycle Times article Bikepacking Europe: North Sea to the Black Sea.

This is an incomplete list of European bikepacking routes.  These routes are either mapped, signed, and/or available as GPS tracks.  Many routes originate as self-supported off-pavement endurance races, multi-day stage races, or challenging routes for solo ITT.  Some are government tourism projects.  Others are the creation of avid riders or cycling organizations to promote the riding in their home country.  Lastly, some routes suggested here are repurposed walking routes, which may be done in sections or as a whole.  One route is currently planned, but is incomplete.  Additional rouetplanning resources include online retailers of maps and guides, or digital trail-finder resources.  The basic concept of this project is to awaken the world to the breadth of bikepacking possibilities in Europe, despite the lack of a single superstar route such as the Great Divide Route, Colorado Trail, or the Arizona Trail.  Bikepacking is a global phenomena, born of the passion to ride somewhere, off the beaten path, self-supported.

Use these links as a springboard to do your own research and riding.  Some routes may be easy with significant paved sections, non-technical terrain, and uncomplicated logistics.  Others are extremely challenging, with a large component of hike-a-bike.

Any assistance to improve the list is welcomed, including relevant comments about any of the listed routes and new route suggestions with links.  When possible the routes are linked to the most informative or relevant webpage, which most often originates from the route organizer or creator.  In a few cases, routes are listed without an official webpage or an official GPS route, such as The Red Trail in Poland, but the route is known to exist on the ground, is signed, and is indicated on Compass brand maps (and others).  To keep this listing simple I have chosen not to indicate the distance, difficulty, or source of route guidance (map, GPS, signs).  These features may come in the future, and if anyone wishes to host this list in further detail, contact me directly.  Start dreaming and get riding!

Please use the comment form below and check back in the future as this page develops.  Special assistance is needed to include routes from many countries, including: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary (The Countrywide Blue Tour?), Serbia, Kosovo, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belorus, Russia, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.  Israel is not in Europe, but is included due to a growing bikepacking scene.  Surely, there are many more routes in the countries listed.  Tell your friends.  Share it online.

Spain: TransAndalusTranspirinaicaTransiberia, Camino de Santiago, Camino del Norte, Transcantábrica, Via de la Plata, Camino del Cid; GR 48, Transnevada.   Many Spanish route maps and guidebooks available from labiciteca.com.

Portugal: Rota Vicentina, Via Algarviana

France: Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Traversée du Jura (maps), Traversée du Massif Central, GR5/E2 trail; VTTrack.fr for interactive MTB trail map of France

Belgium: GR5/E2 walking trail (general info); also, some images and info about the section in the Ardennes Mountains

Germany: GST: Grenzsteintrophy

UK: Bearbones 200England-Wales-EnglandLakeland 200, Pennine Bridleway, Ridgeway Double, South Downs Double, Coast to Coast, Trans Cambrian, Welsh Coast to CoastDevon Coast to Coast (Westcountry Way).  All routes and links thanks to selfsupportedUK.net.

Scotland: Scotland Coast to Coast, Highland Trail 550, West Highland Way, Cairngorms Loop

Italy: Italy Coast to CoastTuscany TrailSan Remo-Monte CarloMyLand Non-Stop (Sardinia), Alto Adige-Südtirol Extreme Bike TrailDolomiti TrailItalia TransmountainsThe Fat River (fatbike route), Transardinia.  Most routes courtesy of bikepacking.it.

Switzerland: Navad 1000National TrailsAlpine Bike #1Panorama Bike #2Jura Bike #3; Alpencross; National website for Mountainbiking in Switzerland

Sweden: Kungsleden

Poland: The Red Trail (Sudecki and Beskidzka, basic info only).  Compass brand maps show all hiking trails and cycling routes, including the long-distance red trails.  Note, the red trail is not a single trail across Poland, but a series of trails with lesser trails marked with painted blazes of other colors.  There is a route most of the way across the country E-W, mostly along red trails.

Czech/Slovakia: 1000 Miles Adventure

Croatia: Adriatic Crest

Montenegro: Top Biking Trail 3: Eastern Enchantment

Greece: Bike Odyssey

Israel: Holyland Bikepacking Challenge, Israel National Bike Trail (in progress), Israel National Trail (hiking)

Other resources: Footpaths provide the basis for many routes in Europe, most of which have developed over the past century.  Generally, these routes allow bicycles, with local exclusions, but they do not exclusively travel singletrack trails across wild lands and will pass towns, farmland, and paved sections.  The European Rambler’s Association (ERA) aims to complete a long-distance international trail system of footpaths throughout Europe, with numbered routes from E1-E12 currently in various phases of completion.  Most routes are assembled from pre-existing local and national trails. Each country may provide more detailed resources in the native tongue via dedicated websites or guides about national trail systems, such as the GR5 listed in France and Belgium, above.  Most often, printed regional trail maps can be found at local touristic centers, and commercial maps and guides may also be available.  Detailed roadmaps are also suitable for broad-scale navigation, and often show more detail than typical road maps in the USA.

Also worth mentioning is the EuroVelo network of cycling routes, fashioned much like the ERA, with international cross-continental routes numbered 1-12 in various stages of completion.  EuroVelo routes are generally ridable on a trekking bike, hybrid, or rigid mountain bike, and in some places are not recommended for a tire less than about 40mm.  Check out the EuroVelo6for the popular route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea.

If you wish to submit a route, please provide a link to the best source(s) of information and a brief description of your experience on that route, if any.  To qualify a multi-day off-pavement route for this listing, consider that it must be documented in detail, like the routes listed on Pedaling Nowhere-Routes or Bikepacking.net.

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Poland, The Red Trail

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Czech, Sumava National Park

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Ukraine, Polonina Borzhava

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France, Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Château Bernstein

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Ukraine

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Serbia

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Slovakia, 1000 Miles Adventure

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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France, TMV

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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Luxembourg, GR5/E2 trail

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Belgium, GR5/E2 trail

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Guidebooks for routes in Spain.

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Poland, The Red Trail: one of many PTTK resources for hikers and cyclists available in the mountains, often serving hot food and cold beer.

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Maps in a Slovakian supermarket.

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Interview at The Bicycle Story

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More questions and answers, this time thanks to Josh Cohen of The Bicycle Story.  Curious to know about my next touring bike, where we will be riding later this summer, and how we started touring?  Check out the full interview entitled Nicholas Carman: Pedaling the World as a Gypsy by Trade.

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Photos: Lael Wilcox, Przemek Duszynski, and Nicholas Carman

In print, photograph, and film

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Recently, friends from all over the globe have published an array of media that capture a specific time or unique aspect of our lives.  In the deepest part of winter, is is nice to have such sun-bleached memories to use as fuel for the next season of riding.  It is nice to know such an amazing network of people.

Print and photograph:

Our friend and Polish riding companion Przemek has published a series of beautiful stories on his blog In Between Spokes.  These photographic journeys document some of the time we spent riding together in Poland.  I especially enjoy the post entitled “Born on the trail: Chabowka to Szczawnica“, and this one detailing our first days on the trail together, “Days better than other: Zwardon to Makow Podhalanski“.  Our last days of riding together in Poland are captured in “Goodbyes, Hellos: Szczawnica to Krynica Zdroj“.  Without knowing at the time, we would eventually reconnect with Przemek in Ukraine to ride together in the Carpathian Mountains, and also on the Crimean Peninsula.  All told, we spent nearly a month living and riding with Przemek.  It was the best experience we have ever had sharing the trail with someone (Lael excepted).

Look for more of Przemek’s words and images in the upcoming issue of Bunyan Velo.  The fourth edition of this free quarterly magazine is due to be published next week.  Finally (finally!), it will also have some of Lael’s words as well.  Catch up with the wide world of bicycle adventure by revisiting the first three issues of Bunyan Velo.  Full-resolution copies of the magazine are available for download for a few dollars, and the BV web store now includes some cool paraphernalia.  I’ve been wearing a wool Randi Jo Fab hat with Bunyan Velo logo all winter.  Or, just donate some dollars to keep Bunyan Velo alive!

All photos Przemek Duszynski.

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My friend Mary has also published an interview with me on the Chasing Mailboxes blog.  We first met on the C&O canal outside of Washington D.C. in 2010, by chance.  Mary has been documenting the lives and minds of various cycling bloggers over the last few weeks, including interviews with Shawn Granton of the Urban Adventure League and Kent Peterson of Kent’s Bike Blog.  I am happy to have shared some very personal thoughts about riding and blogging with Mary, including some insight into why I’m tired of classic bikes, and how much my load of electronics weigh in comparison to ultralight camping equipment.

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At the time, I was only reading a couple of blogs, irregularly, although I was heavily interested in bikes and was learning at a rapid pace.

In the past years, I had spent a lot of time digging through Sheldon Brown‘s webpages and learning through my own mistakes and experiences. I was also reading Dave Moulton’s blog regularly, and enjoyed discovering some of Jacquie Phelan’s old articles from 80′s MTB magazines. I loved the concept of a literate mountain biker. I was keeping up with news from Velo Orange and Rivendell, both of which postured themselves in a unique position against the mainstream market.

By the time Lael and I went on our first bike trip in 2008, I still hadn’t explored the blogosphere deeply. However, I remember such things were more sparse back then. There are more blogs now than ever, which is a good thing.

I started the blog after leaving my job at Velo Orange in Maryland, on my way out to Banff, Alberta, to the start of the Divide. I felt young and energetic, with a whole summer of riding ahead of me.

I had been touring for over two years already, and felt like I had something to share that could be valuable to others. I also felt like I had something to say for my own benefit, as a personal outlet. That summer, and for the next year, I managed the blog entirely from an iPod Touch.

Read more on the Chasing Mailboxes blog.

Print, photograph and film:

Finally, our friend Vital from Ukraine, has compiled an awesome film of our two day ride up and over Kemal Egerek, one of the tallest peaks in the Crimean Mountains, just a few kilometers from the Black Sea.  His humorous edit– set to the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage”– will surely put a smile to your face.  The five minute film gives an honest impression of some of the roads and trails in Crimea, Ukraine, and also captures our camaraderie on the trail.  The film also features my favorite trailside repair, ever.  Highly recommended.

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Vital has also published a nice report of our time together on his blog, whose title translates to “burning or blazing saddles”.  Check it out, and if you dare, filter the Russian language through the Google translator.  I’m sure that some of the original meaning is lost, but the result is hilarious.  Thanks for such great memories Vital!

I wrote about our ride with Vital over Kemal Egerek on the post “Above the Black Sea, Krym, Ukraine“.

Red trails in Poland (to Ukraine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Naleśniki with mak.

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

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His favorite rock was shaped like the #1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Przemek and his Pugsley pass the test.

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

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

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

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With phallic paintings of bread sculptures.

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And familiar scenery.

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A handsome public square.

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And jovial Belgians on Dahon folding bikes.

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

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

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

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

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11:36 PM.

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

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

Updates and broken things:

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

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

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Some time in Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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No Polish shelter is complete without a shot glass.

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

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

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

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

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Summer in Poland ends the same way as in Alaska.

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

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

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Over the last hill to Zakopane.

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

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

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Giant sunflowers and dill perfume Polish markets, and roadsides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karpaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Around Krokonoše

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

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

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

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

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