Wednesday 14 July 2010

Boiling weather (and weathering boils)

This post began life as a straightforward - and probably rather dull - account of my recent ride up Mount Ještěd. Now, however, it’s going to be a torrid tale of my battle to cope with the extreme heat that day. What on earth possessed me to cycle up a mountain on the hottest 10 July on record?

The hyperboloid hotel, restaurant and TV tower atop Ještěd

But first a few words about Ještěd and my love affair with it. Ještěd is an elegant 1,012 metre peak just to the southwest of the North Bohemian city of Liberec. It is crowned by Ještěd Tower, a wonderfully wacky futuristic building described by my fellow Czech-based blogger Captain Oddsocks as “a giant Tin-man’s hat on a huge earthen head”. I’ve ridden up this hill at least once a year for at least the last six years, so it’s become an annual cycling pilgrimage for me. I’ve climbed it from various different directions, at various times of the year and in all sorts of weather, but never before on a day as hot as this.

The Elbe River at Brandýs nad Labem

This year, inspired by the Tour de France, I decided to give my road bike an outing and cycle there direct from my home in Prague. It’s a trip of about 125 km (77 miles) in all, not including the train ride home from Liberec in the evening. I’m not daft enough to embark on a jaunt like this without checking the weather forecast first, so I knew it was going to be warm. But really, how bad could it be?

I should point out here that I am not a hot weather person. My body can’t stand the heat, and my skin can’t stand the sun. I’m under strict instructions from my dermatologist to slap on the factor 50 on days like this. She’s already excised one iffy freckle from my right thigh, and I don’t want to add to her workload any further, so I set off early that morning dutifully greased up in sun cream, feeling more like a cross-channel swimmer than a leisure cyclist. On the outskirts of Prague I spotted a thermometer already reading 25 degrees C.

12th century Romanesque church in Mohelnice nad Jizerou

I was fine for most of the morning. The roads are mostly flat for the first 100 km, and I was cycling well within my comfort zone. But as the day progressed I began to develop a throbbing headache, a sure sign that my brain was starting to overheat. Despite drinking lots of fluids I was getting dehydrated. Things were starting to go awry.

The sun cream doesn’t help. Yes, it blocks the incoming UV rays, but it also clogs up the sweat glands. And that, of course, means the body can’t cool itself effectively. So, while I might not have been frying on the outside, I was certainly steaming on the inside.

Then there’s the flies (readers of a delicate disposition may wish to stop here). Evolution is a wonderful thing, but nature has yet to come up with a better way of catching flies than a pair of hairy legs coated in sticky sun lotion. Worse still, if I’m out in the sun all day I have to reapply the cream at regular intervals, and that means smearing all the hapless accumulated insects into my skin along with it. That’s exactly what I had to do after stopping for lunch just north of Mladá Boleslav (where they make Skoda cars). Cue nausea to go with that headache.

Maybe I should shave my legs. I’m sure there’d be less insect entrapment if I did. But where do you stop shaving? At the point where your thighs disappear into your shorts? At the top of your legs? Or do you continue into the undergrowth higher up? I’ve no idea. It’s a major gap in my cycling knowledge. Maybe someone out there can enlighten me.

Ještěd looming on the skyline

The climb proper starts in the little town of Český Dub (“Czech Oak”). After ramping up to the village of Světlá pod Ještěd the road flattens out for a while before entering a forest and twisting upwards to Tetřeví sedlo (“Capercaillie Gap”). Here you turn right off the main road and start the last, most difficult section. The views of Liberec below and the Jizera Mountains on the other side are breathtaking (that is, if you have any breath left to take). As the road rises above the tree line and corkscrews steeply around the mountain’s conical peak up to the summit station, you can almost fool yourself that you’re on one of the classic Tour-de-France ascents.

Nearly there

As I rounded the final bend, what little breeze there was dropped to nothing. The afternoon air was so hot, thick and heavy it was hard to inhale. On reaching the top I sat down in the shade of a rock and didn’t move for at least 15 minutes. After exploring the summit area and admiring the views of Bohemia, Germany and Poland I got back on the bike and descended carefully to Liberec railway station. Today, however, even the descent didn’t cool me down significantly. On the sweltering train home I read that the temperature in Liberec had reached 32.1 degrees C (almost 90 degrees F), beating the previous record of 31.5 measured in 1959. In Prague it broke through 35 degrees.

Summit scene

Liberec and the Jizera Mountains

Plaque on the ground at the summit

I awoke the next morning from uneasy dreams (as Kafka might have said) to find that a boil had erupted into pustulent life on a certain part of my anatomy, no doubt as a result of the heat. You could call it a sting in the tail.

Where was my boil? This well-rubbed statue might give you a clue

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