Saturday 31 December 2011

Happy 2012!

Just a quick post to wish all my readers - regular, occasional and one-off - a Happy New Year!

For various reasons (which I won’t bore you with here) I haven’t been blogging much over the past couple of months. Unfortunately the winter arrived before I found time to do the final leg of my trip (Stage 7), so that will have to wait until the spring. On top of that, I still have to write up the last couple of days of Stage 6, which I rode in late September, so I can’t even write a review of 2011 yet.

Not to worry. I promise to return - refreshed and re-energised - in the new year.



Friday 23 December 2011

Václav Havel RIP

The Czech Republic is in mourning for its former president Václav Havel, whose funeral takes place at midday today.

Václav Havel addressing hundreds of thousands of people on Wenceslas Square in 1989

Václav Havel led - and still symbolises - the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which overthrew communism and restored democracy to this part of the world. He was a fighter for and defender of freedom. For me he is a hero and inspiration.

On Wednesday I went into the centre of Prague to pay my respects. On Wenceslas Square, my eye was drawn to a handwritten note lying among the field of flickering candles: "Honza, 22 let, 22 let svobody" ("Honza, 22 years old, 22 years of freedom"). Czechs are feeling this loss personally. So am I.

When I embark on the final stage of my Circuit Ride in the spring, Havel and his legacy will be foremost in my mind. Before 1989, most of my route along the Czech border would have been out of bounds to the vast majority of the population, never mind to an English cyclist. Now I am free to cross in and out of the country as I like.

Thank you Václav Havel. RIP.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Tripoint number three

Stage 6, day 2 (Sunday, 25 September 2011)
Nové Hrady to Slavonice (99 km)

The tripoint stone is tucked away behind some bushes behind a tourist information board. I tread carefully towards it, as the ground is littered with white tissues, a sure sign that it is used as an open-air toilet by people out walking in the forest. It is here that the historical border between Bohemia and Moravia meets the Austrian frontier. Each of the three sides of the base of the stone has a letter carved in it: Č for Čechy (Bohemia), M for Morava (Moravia) and Ö for Österreich (Austria). This is the third tripoint I’ve visited on my lap of the Czech Republic, the first two having been Poland-Germany-CZ and Saxony-Bavaria-CZ. Unfortunately, the German-Austrian-CZ one, high up in the Šumava mountains, is off-limits to cyclists, so I had to bypass it. As of today, I have two more to go: Slovakia-Austria-CZ and Slovakia-Poland-CZ, both of which lie on the final stage of my circuit ride.

The tripoint of Bohemia (Č), Moravia (M) and Austria (Ö)

Monday 10 October 2011

Uneventful, but sensational

Stage 6, day 1 (Saturday, 24 September 2011)
Horní Dvořiště to Nové Hrady (61 km)

Some days not much happens when you’re bicycle touring. Take today, for example. I’m in the Nové Hrady Mountains, a lesser known region deep in the south of Bohemia. It consists mostly of unpopulated forest and there are few tourist attractions to lure people in. But while there might not be much going on here, there’s more than enough to satisfy the senses: the sickly sweet scent of pine resin oozing from log piles at the side of the trail, the ever-shifting dapple of the auburn autumn sunlight on the ground below me, the cool crisp air roaring across my ears as I coast downhill. Yes, today may be uneventful, but it is - literally - sensational.

Stage 6 official start: Horní Dvořiště railway station

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Stage 6 on

The map below shows the the route I actually followed on Stage 6 of my Circuit Ride in September this year

Bike route 1287137 - powered by Bikemap 

Monday 3 October 2011

Stage 6 slideshow

I've been busy over the last few days putting together a slideshow of Stage 6, which I completed last week. I hope you like the results - Southern Moravia looks particularly pretty in the autumn sunshine. Click on the panel above to see the full-sized version with commentary.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Stage 6 completed!

I'm on the train, heading back to Prague via Brno after completing the latest stage of my Circuit Ride. Today I took a detour away from the border to ride the sandy trails of the Lednice-Valtice Park (Lednice Chateau pictured). Thanks to the wonderful weather, the relatively easy terrain and the easy-going Moravians, this has been the most relaxed stage of my trip so far. Only one more stage to go now, back to the start in Bohumin. But will I manage it this year?

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Lovely Mikulov

Extraordinarily, the owner of the B&B I stayed at in Znojmo, Derek, turns out to be from my home town of Stoke, so we had a nice chat over a cup of tea at breakfast this morning. I then cycled 90 km through the vast vineyards of Moravia and Austria in unseasonally hot weather. After doing battle with an uncyclable cycle trail, a scary main road and a forest full of dangling spiders (even more scary) I arrived in the charming historical town of Mikulov, my destination for today, late in the afternoon. Tomorrow I complete Stage 6 with a fairly short, flat ride to Breclav.

Monday 26 September 2011

Heaven, I'm in...

...well, I am, in fact, in Znojmo (pictured), but it's heavenly enough. After a superb day on the bike, weaving in and out of Austria through some spectacular scenery, I've shacked up for the night at an English B&B. Not only does it have the most space-age shower I've ever stepped into, but it also has tea-making facilities in the room (something you never see in Czech guesthouses). Circuit-riding doesn't get much better than this!

Hardegg Castle...

...perched high above the River Thaya on the Austrian-Czech frontier.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Goodbye Bohemia, hello Moravia!

Pictured is the point where Bohemia meets Moravia meets Austria. It lies not far from historical town of Slavonice, where I'm spending the night. Highlights today included Gmund, a town that was literally divided by the Iron Curtain, as well as a short diversion to the northernmost point of Austria. Tomorrow I'll be passing through two national parks en route to the wine-making town of Znojmo. Cheers!

Saturday 24 September 2011

Sensational September

How I love September! After a fine autumn afternoon's cycling through the forested hills of deepest South Bohemia I've arrived safely in Nove Hrady as planned. Tomorrow I ride west into Moravia.

Stage 6 starts

I've just got off the train into the warm autumn sunshine to start Stage 6 of my circuit ride. My destination today: Nove Hrady.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Countdown to Stage 6

It’s raining here in the Czech Republic and has been almost continuously for the last two days. However, we’ve been enjoying some fine weather for most of this month, and according to the forecast the Indian summer is set to return today.

This is good news for Stage 6 of my circuit ride, which is due to start on Saturday. I’ll be travelling for five days from Horní Dvořiště in the south-west of the Czech Republic to Břeclav in southern Moravia (click here for more details). Preparations are in full swing. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been refining my route (using, among other things, the excellent Cykloatlas online cycling atlas of the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and learning as much as I can about the interesting places I’ll be passing through. I also have a full set of maps printed out and installed in my map holder.

Three useful trip-planning websites: Cykloatlas,...

The next step is to reserve accommodation at each of my overnight stops - in Nové Hrady, Slavonice, Znojmo and Mikulov. Booking in advance is probably not really necessary at this time of year, but it does mean I’ll have one less thing to worry about on the road. I’ve drawn up a shortlist of interesting-looking guesthouses (partly with the aid of the Cyclists Welcome website) and I’ll be contacting them over the next couple of days.

...Cyclists Welcome...

The other thing I need to do is book myself and my bike onto the relevant trains. Thanks to the Czech public transport timetable website I know which services carry bicycles and which of them have mandatory or optional bicycle reservation. Unfortunately I can’t buy bike tickets online, so I’ll have to go down to the main station in Prague later in the week to do that.

 ...and the public transport timetable
(all three available in English)

The day before I leave I’ll print out my packing list, gather all my stuff together and load up my bike ready for departure. On Saturday I’ll get up early, head down to the station and catch the 9.16 am express to České Budějovice. If all goes to plan, I’ll reach the official start point shortly after 1 pm and immediately set off into the Nové Hrady mountains.

Hopefully I’ll have both the autumn sun and the prevailing westerly wind on my back.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

(Lack of) progress report

Last November I wrote a post celebrating the first anniversary of this blog. In it, I commented that writing the posts, rather than cycling the miles, had - to my surprise - proved to be the toughest aspect of my circumnavigation of the Czech Republic on a bicycle.

On the basis of my experience this summer, I have to revise that view.

I still maintain that the cycling itself, while being certainly very hard work at times, has been the easy bit and that writing up my exploits is certainly the more laborious task of the two. But the most difficult part of all has been to find enough time for circuit riding at all.

Take this summer. Originally I’d planned to do Stage 6 of my circuit ride in July or August. I could make excuses about the bad weather (July, for example, was a washout), but the truth is I’ve been too busy with work, family commitments and (yes, I admit it) other holidays to get on with my journey. Now I find myself in September - with two stages and some 500 miles left to cover - and my diary is still almost full. Where this leaves my plan to complete the whole project this year, I’m not sure.

However, I can see a window of opportunity. At the end of September - on the 28th, to be precise - there’s a public holiday in the Czech Republic. It falls on a Wednesday. This means that by taking just two days off work (Monday and Tuesday), I can engineer a break of five days (Saturday to Wednesday), which is exactly how much time I need to ride Stage 6 (from Horní Dvořiště in southern Bohemia to Břeclav in the south of Moravia).

You can consider it pencilled in.

Horní Dvořiště: where I left off in June

Then all that will remain is Stage 7 - the final leg back to Bohumín (where I started in May 2010). Whether I still manage to do that this year depends most of all on the weather in October. At some point in the autumn, the Slavic weather gods will switch off the heat and we’ll be plunged into at least five months of winter. And that, in turn, means no more circuit riding till the spring.

Needless to say, I’m praying for an Indian summer.

Bohumín: when will I see you again?

Saturday 27 August 2011

Stage 5 on

Here's the map of the route I took on Stage 5 of my circuit ride in June this year.

Bike route 1218512 - powered by Bikemap 

Wednesday 10 August 2011

(Not) going to extremes

Stage 5, day 4 (Sunday, 5 June 2011)
Vyšší Brod to Horní Dvořiště (26 km)

I am - you might say - extremely inefficient. Last year I failed to visit the northernmost extreme of the Czech Republic because I was in danger of missing my train back to Prague that evening. And in April this year I got within a few hundred yards of the westernmost point before the path disappeared into an uncyclable bog and I threw in the towel. Today I’m standing on the Czech-Austrian border looking up a sign that reads “Most southerly point of the Czech Republic 300 metres” and I already know this is as near as I’m going to get. The muddy path ahead is so overgrown with nettles it’s barely visible. I’m wearing shorts and I’m not carrying a machete, so it’s effectively impassable. And do you know what? I don’t really care. First, it’s a near miss, as the actual southernmost point is only a few yards south of where I am now. Second, there’s nothing to see there apart from more nettles. And third, whatever this circuit ride is about, it’s not about ticking off places on a list. Mind you, I'll be disappointed if I don't make the easternmost point while cycling Stage 7 later this year.

The Cistercian monastery in Vyšší Brod

Thursday 4 August 2011

Channelling Šumava

Stage 5, day 3 (Saturday, 4 June 2011)
Strážný to Vyšší Brod (94 km)

First, a quick history lesson. The Schwarzenberg Timber Floating Channel (Schwarzenberský plavební kanál) was designed by forestry engineer Joseph Rosenauer and was built in two phases between 1789 and 1823. It begins on the Czech-Bavarian border, crosses the watershed of the Danube and Vltava rivers, and runs for 32 miles through the Šumava forest before flowing into the River Mühl in Austria. It is around 2.5 m wide, 1 m deep and draws water from 27 springs. During its 100-year heyday between 1793 and 1892, almost 8 million cubic metres of firewood was floated out of Šumava to Vienna. The city’s grateful authorities made Rosenauer an honorary citizen for his efforts. The channel fell into disrepair after timber floating ended in the 20th century, and it is only now gradually being restored to its former glory. Why am I telling you all this? Because I cycled almost its entire length on this day of my trip along the Czech border.

Setting off from Strážný

Wednesday 6 July 2011

The forest is crying

Stage 5, day 2 (Friday, 3 June 2011)
Železná Ruda to Strážný (78 km)

The mournful title track of “The Forest is Crying” (an LP of Bulgarian vocal music I bought back in the 1980s) starts to play in my head as I emerge on the plateau of the Šumava National Park and take in the sheer scale of the devastation up here. Much of the former dense forest has been reduced to stumps. Logs litter the ground, ghostly pale after having been stripped of their bark. The silence is broken by the rasp of chainsaws as foresters fight to control a barely visible enemy: the bark beetle. It is a pest that is turning these “Green Lungs of Europe” brown. The forest is indeed crying.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Riding down memory lane

Stage 5, day 1 (Thursday, 2 June 2011)
Nýrsko to Železná Ruda (36 km)

Just a half day’s cycling in store for me today, on the back of a four-hour train ride from Prague to the start point of Stage 5 - Nýrsko on the northern edge of Šumava National Park. I begin by retracing a small section of the Prague-Munich ride I did with a couple of friends three years ago. Back then, the weather was cold and wet. The steam rose from our backs as we laboured up the climb to Špičák pass, and the subsequent descent chilled us to the bone. In Železná Ruda we took refuge in a pub to warm up, but the manager switched the heating off as soon as we arrived. It’s none too warm today, either, and for reasons not even known to myself I’ve booked a room at the same place tonight. It doesn’t bode well.

Špičák pass, wet and cold, May 2008

Friday 10 June 2011

Stage 5 slideshow

Here's the Stage 5 slideshow, folks!

Sunday 5 June 2011

Stage 5 completed

The church clock on Horni Dvoriste square is striking noon as I enjoy a celebratory pint and an ice cream outside the village pub. It seems as good a way as any to celebrate the end of Stage 5 before catching the train home.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Castles in the Sumava sky

This afternoon I climbed to the highest castle in the Czech Republic - Vitkuv Hradek. Look closely at the photo and you might see a rock climber hanging off the keep. From the top of the castle there are fine views through 360 across Sumava, and especially of Lipno reservoir, aka the South Bohemian sea. Tomorrow I plan to visit the southernmost point of the Czech Republic, but given my previous failures to find the most northerly and westerly points I'm not feeling too optimistic.

Easy rider

Saturday lunchtime and I'm eating blueberry tart in a sunny pub garden. After yesterday's hard work I'm easy riding today down the Schwarzenberg channel, which in past centuries was used to float timber out of the Sumava forest towards Vienna.

Friday 3 June 2011

Hard climbin' man

What a wonderful day on the bike today, despite some 4,500 ft of vertical ascent in all (including to the summit of Polednik, pictured). Sumava is wondrously beautiful at every turn. Even the weather, despite some ominous clouds here and there, held fair for me. Shame that Strazny, where I'm spending the night, is such a hole, but one can't have it all. Tomorrow will be much flatter, but there'll be a lot of miles to cover.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Bottomless, unfathomable

An afternoon of heavy duty climbing today brought me out at Cerny Jezero (Black Lake), which is said to be not only bottomless, but unmeasurable. From there it was more climbing then a long descent into the frontier town of Zelezna Ruda, where I'm spending the night. Tomorrow I'm aiming for the highest point of my entire lap of the Czech Republic - the summit of Polednik.

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Stage 5 starts Thursday

Stage 5 of my trek around the Czech border will start on Thursday this week. I'll be cycling through the "green lungs of Europe", better known as Šumava National Park. My route (described in more detail here) starts in the town of Nýrsko with a daunting 650 metre ascent through the forest to the pass at Špičák. After overnight stops in Železná Ruda, Strážný and Vyšší Brod, I hope to reach the stage finish in Horní Dvořiště on Sunday and catch the train back home to Prague.

View Stage 5 in a larger map

Highlights along the way will include highest point of my entire journey around the Czech border (Poledník, at 1,315 metres above sea level), the 45-kilometer-long Schwarzenberg Canal, formerly used to transport timber out of the forest to Vienna, and, if time allows, the most southerly point in the Czech Republic.

There is a cloud on the horizon. Literally. Until a few minutes ago the weather forecast was looking very good. Now they're saying that clouds will build up during the day and that there is a chance of storms in the evening. So, it looks like I'll have to get up early and finish early. As usual, I'll be blogging on the go, so keep checking in to the blog to track my progress.

Monday 30 May 2011

Stage 4 on

Here's the map of the route I took on Stage 4 of my circuit ride in April this year.

Bike route 1002648 - powered by Bikemap 

Friday 27 May 2011

Return of the Curse of Circuit Rider

Stage 4, day 4 (Tuesday, 12 April 2011)
Babylon to Nýrsko (34 km)

Today is an in-between day - a transition stage, you might say. I’m leaving the Bohemian Forest, but I won’t quite reach Šumava National Park further to the south. I’m not travelling far either, only as far as Nýrsko railway station a couple of hours away. A good thing, too, as the weather has broken. The cursed rain that blighted the first stage of my circuit ride last year has returned in earnest.

I was woken up in the early hours of Tuesday by a chill wind gusting through the open window of my hotel room. A cold front had arrived. By the time I got up a couple of hours later, the clouds were lying low over Čerchov mountain, where I’d been the day before. It was a stark contrast to the glorious sunshine of the previous three days. After breakfast I cycled out of Babylon along a tranquil woodland trail then joined the road heading west. The weather held steady to begin with, but before long a drizzle turned into a downpour and I had to pull up and put on my raingear.

Čerchov from my hotel bedroom on Tuesday morning

Before setting off, I’d had an uneasy feeling about Stage 4 of my trek along the Czech border. Now, as the gloom descended, the wind whipped up and the rain came teeming down, I realised why. Cycling along those long lonely stretches of the former Iron Curtain would have been a miserable experience had the weather been like this the whole weekend. It didn’t matter too much now though, as I’d soon be heading home in a warm dry train.

Nearly there

I took shelter from the storm on a pub veranda in Velruby. I consulted my damp maps and decided to make straight for Nýrsko along the main road rather than take the more scenic route closer to the border. After a while the rain eased off a bit, so I set off again. A stiff north-westerly wind carried me at startling speed towards my destination, sometimes even threatening to sweep me off the road entirely.

Stage 4 completed

On the outskirts of Nýrsko I checked the time and discovered I might just make an earlier train home. After a mad dash through the town, and at least one wrong turn, I arrived in a bedraggled state at the station with less than five minutes to spare. My journey home was complicated, involving four different trains, one bus, one van and one missed connection, but I arrived back in Prague in time for tea.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Crank Honors 2011

Voting has just opened for the 2011 Crank Honors. This is your chance to vote for your favorite cycling blog and help determine the top dog in various categories. I'd like to encourage you all to go and cast your votes, not only because Circuit Rider CZ is up for the Best Travel Biking Blog award, but mainly because Crank is a great gateway into the world of bike blogging. You're sure to find something of interest among the sites listed there.

Riding down the Curtain

Stage 4, day 3 (Monday, 11 April 2011)
Přimda to Babylon (68 km)

God I love the mountains. This hill is steep - granny-gear steep, lung-burstingly steep, as steep as anything I’ve encountered since Poland last year. But I don’t care. However much it hurts, it's still more fun than staring at a computer screen at work. The day I’m no longer physically capable of doing this will be a sad day indeed. I feel lucky - so lucky - to be here. I round a corner and the twin towers of Čerchov suddenly come into view through a gap in the trees. I descend briefly, then hit the final ramp to the summit.

Čerchov comes into view

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Half way round

Stage 4, day 2 (Sunday, 10 April 2011)
Cheb to Přimda (92 km)

I’m standing at the base of Milíře, a steel telecom tower built in 2001. I’m feeling pretty exhausted after a long day in the saddle, so it takes me quite a while to persuade myself to tackle the 126 steps up to the viewing platform. As I ascend, my cycling shoes beat a slow percussive rhythm on the metal grill steps. The sound contrasts eerily with the plaintive moaning of the wind rushing through the girders around me. My cycling muscles complain painfully about this unfamiliar form of exercise, but I keep going to the top, where I can feel the whole structure swaying in the breeze. Some 80 feet below me, the long shadow of the tower on the field points east towards my destination for the day - the town of Přimda.

Přimda Castle from Milíře

Thursday 21 April 2011

Warming up

Stage 4, day 1 (Saturday, 9 April 2011)
Aš to Cheb (79 km)

I’m on the shuttle train from Cheb to Aš, the same train that I took in the opposite direction more than six months earlier at the end of Stage 3. I should be raring to go after such a long winter break, but I’m not. I might be physically prepared, but I’m not feeling mentally ready to resume my circuit ride of the Czech Republic. On top of that, my unease about spending three days alone on the Iron Curtain Trail is resurging. Still, at least the sun is shining.

Aš on a warm sunny afternoon in autumn 2010, and on a cold sunny morning in spring 2011

Thursday 14 April 2011

Stage 4 slideshow

Here's the slideshow for Stage 4 of my trip. Click on the photos to enlarge them and view the accompanying captions. I'll be posting full write-ups of the stage just as soon as time allows.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Stage 4 completed

Made it to my destination Nýrsko in double quick time this morning thanks to a strong tailwind. A couple of heavy showers dampened my mood along the way, but I'm dry again now and waiting in Plzeň for my train back to Prague.

Monday 11 April 2011

Summit of Čerchov

Highest point on Stage 4 (1042 m)

Babylon beckons

Left Přimda (above) this morning and headed straight down into the depths of the deserted frontier forest. This area is littered with sparse remains of old villages, their ethnic German inhabitants having been thrown out of the country after WWII. Ahead of me now is a 1600 ft climb to the top of Mt Cherchov and an equally long descent to Babylon.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Halfway home

Today was tougher than I'd expected. I left Cheb (above) at 10 am and didn't arrive in Přimda until 6.30 this evening. 90 km along the switchback Iron Curtain Trail was more than enough for one day. However, I've now passed the halfway point of my circuit ride of the Czech Republic, so I'm feeling suitably pleased with myself.

Saturday 9 April 2011

On the road again!

Left the official start in the town of Aš today and made for the northwest tip of the country - the tripoint where the Czech Rep meets Saxony and Bavaria (pictured). Now heading south towards Cheb with the wind at my back.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Stage 4 this weekend!

After a six-month hiatus, Circuit Rider CZ is hitting the road again. On Friday evening I’ll take the train to Cheb, and on Saturday morning I’ll make for the town of Aš to start Stage 4 of my trip around the Czech border. From there I’ll head for the north-westerly tip of the country and turn south along the Iron Curtain Trail through the Bohemian Forest. If all goes to plan, I’ll reach the stage finish in Nýrsko by Tuesday lunchtime.

Aš here I come!

I’m back on my own for this stage, but my feelings of unease about it have ebbed and I’m itching to get going again. The weather forecast is good and the trails should be pretty dry. I’m now busy refreshing my memory as regards what to take, how to blog from my mobile phone and generally how to be a touring cyclist again.

View Stage 4 in a larger map

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off now and get on with booking accommodation, sorting out trains, packing my bags, finalising my route plan...

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Renting a bicycle in the Czech Republic

Quite a few people have contacted me asking for advice on where to hire bicycles in the Czech Republic.

I’ve never rented a bike here, so I can’t vouch for any particular bike rental company. However, the following firms have information in English on their websites:

Biko Adventures
City Bike
Praha Bike

(Topbicycle specialises in bicycle touring and claims to deliver rental bikes all over Central Europe)

Týnec nad Sázavou

Rent Bike Brno
("Rent a bike and explore Brno")

You can also hire bicycles from numerous railway stations in the Czech Republic. There’s more information in English on the Czech Railways website.

Many hotels, guesthouses and campsites also provide bike rentals for their guests.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you know of any other Czech bike rental companies, or have any experience with the ones listed above, feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Circuit Rider is back

It’s been all quiet on the blog in March, but I haven’t been idle.

First of all, I’ve been training pretty hard - both on and off the bike - to get back into shape for the remaining four stages of my cycling circumnavigation of the Czech Republic, all of which I intend to complete this year. For the first time in my life, I have something approaching a physique.

Out training in Prague

I’ve also been giving my mountain bike (my machine of choice for the remainder of the trip) a bit of TLC after the battering it suffered last year. All that mud and rain put paid to the bottom bracket, so I got my local bike shop to replace that and to service the front forks, a process which, for reasons unknown, took them a week and a half. All the rest I’ve done myself: I’ve given it a deep clean and lube, installed shiny new wheels (a Christmas present) and replaced the brake pads. All that remains is to change the brake and gear cables and I’m ready for the off.

I’ve also been busy planning my annual summer cycling tour with my friends Ryan and Ciaran. Last year we cycled from Munich through the Alps into Italy on the Via Claudia Augusta. This year we’ll be taking up where we left off in Trento and continuing south towards Florence, mostly on the alluringly named Cycle Route of the Sun (Ciclopista del Sole) - but more of that in a later post.

On the run-in to Trento last year

Speaking of the sun, I’m currently in the market for some new summer cycle clothing. (In a triumph of hope over experience, I’m planning for sizzling weather this year.) I’ve given up on Czech bike retailers owing to a dearth of choice, especially in sizes that fit my lanky frame. Instead I intend to buy from Wiggle in the UK. I’m always reluctant to purchase clothes online, but the detailed sizing charts and flexible returns policy at Wiggle take most of the uncertainty out of the process. On top of that they deliver free to the Czech Republic on orders over £100.

So what’s next? Stage 4, that’s what. And it might come sooner than you think. Spring has definitely arrived here in Prague and I’m keeping a close eye on the weather forecast. As soon as a suitably warm and sunny weekend comes up I’ll be on the road again. And then, rest assured, the blog posts will start coming thick and fast.

Monday 28 February 2011

The end (of the winter) is nigh

The Central European winter drags on for months, and to a cyclist on a mission to cycle around the Czech border it can seem never-ending. But now, on the last day of February, I can finally see the end in sight. The sun was out in Prague this weekend, and for the first time this year I could feel some heat from it. Soon, I hope, the daffodils - and the hemlines - will be rising.

Like the ice at the Czech Yacht Club, the winter is receding

As an Englishman I’m accustomed to long autumns and long springs. Here in the Czech Republic, though, the transitions are abrupt. The heat is switched off usually sometime in November and back on again in April. I call it binary weather.

The winter does have some advantages, I suppose. It has given me time to plan my route and to clean up and service my bikes for the season ahead. But it’s not easy being a bike blogger in these parts at this time of year. I simply don’t have much to write about, as I’m not doing much cycling.

It’s not the cold that’s the problem - I have the clothing to keep me warm(ish) on the bike even when the temperature is below freezing. It’s the slippery surfaces that thwart me. This winter has been particularly bad in that regard. The snow has been lying on the ground so long it has gradually metamorphosed into sheet ice. As my fellow Prague bike blogger Grant found to his cost last month, it’s not a good surface to cycle on. Now, I’m glad to say, it’s thawing fast.

One thing I do try to do in the winter is stay fit. I’ve learned the hard way that doing no exercise only leads to agony when I get back on the bike in the spring. My love-hate relationship with spinning continues. And, for the first time ever, I’ve been doing strength training, inspired by some helpful advice posted on the Loving the Bike blog. It’s all good exercise, but it’s no substitute - physically or psychologically - for cycling.

The next stage of my circumnavigation of the Czech Republic runs from Aš down to Nýrsko in the west of the country. It’s mostly fairly low-lying, so I’m hoping to be able to cycle it in April. That should give me plenty of time to complete the three remaining stages before next winter sets in.

I just hope the summer is not such a wash-out as it was last year.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Circuit Rider’s packing list

It’s a much-discussed topic among touring cyclists - what (and perhaps more importantly, what not) to take with you. There’s a trade-off between comfort on the bike and comfort off it. On the one hand, low weight makes the bike easier to propel and easier to handle. On the other hand, every traveller has things they can’t bear to be without, even if they don’t absolutely need them.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Online cycling map of the Czech Republic and Slovakia

About a year ago I wrote a post about Czech cycling maps. In it, I concentrated on the various series of printed cycling maps available, and I only mentioned the online Cykloserver cycling map of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in passing. However, the link I gave to this map has since become the number one exit link from my site. In other words, people click on it and never come back here.

Monday 24 January 2011

Stage 7 route plan

Stage 7 will be the last leg of my jaunt around the Czech Republic, the one that takes me back to Bohumín, where I started my journey in May 2010. It’s another long stage across some arduous terrain. Day 1, however, should be relatively easy, taking me over the low-lying flatlands of southern Moravia, past the tripoint with Slovakia and Austria, and into the foothills of the Western Carpathians. Then things get seriously hilly as I negotiate the series of mountain ranges running along the Czech-Slovak border (the White Carpathians, the Javorníky and the Beskids). The highest point on the stage will be Čartak viewing tower at 950 m above sea level. From there I’ll enter Slovakia and head further east until I reach the Czech-Slovak-Polish tripoint near Hrčava. Then I’ll turn north and descend into the historical Polish town of Cieszyn, the final overnight stop of my trip. The last section is a short, flat run around the back of the city of Ostrava to Bohumín railway station.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Stage 6 route plan

It’s a long stage, this one, but it’s the flattest one of them all - especially once I’ve completed the first day’s ride between Horní Dvořiště and Nové Hrady. With a bit of luck I’ll have the prevailing wind aiding my progress as well. I’ve cycled through this region before, on my way to Vienna on the Prague-Vienna Greenways route. This time, though, I’ll be criss-crossing the border with Austria to vary things up a bit. Points of interest along the way include the northernmost point of Austria, the tripoint where the historical borders of Bohemia, Moravia and Austria meet, two national parks (Podyjí in southern Moravia and Thayatal in Austria) and several historical towns (Slavonice, Hardegg, Znojmo and Mikulov). And just before I end the stage in Břeclav there are two real treats in store in the form of the Pálava Landscape Protected Area (a UNESCO biosphere reserve) and the immediately adjacent Lednice-Valtice Area (a UNESCO world heritage site). I just hope I’ll find time to sample some of the region’s best-known products - its excellent wines.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Stage 5 route plan

Šumava - the largest continuous area of forest in Central Europe and the biggest national park in the Czech Republic - is the setting for Stage 5 of my trip. It’s a stage of two halves, this one: a brutally hilly first 100 km and a flatter latter section. Instead of following the relatively easy Šumava Cycle Trail (Šumavská magistrála), I’ve elected to use lesser known and - I hope - more interesting paths that pass through some of the remotest areas of the park. The climbing begins as soon as I leave the official start in Nýrsko and culminates the next day at the viewing tower on top of Poledník. At 1,315 metres above sea level, this will be the highest point of my entire journey around the Czech border. Later, I’ll be passing by the source of the Vltava, the river on which Prague stands. Things should get a lot easier on day 3, when I hit the 45-kilometer-long Schwarzenberg Canal, formerly used to transport timber out of the forest towards Vienna. As well as the Czech Republic, I’ll be riding through parts of Germany and (for the first time on my circuit ride) Austria. And if time allows I’ll take a detour in search of the most southerly point in the Czech Republic, before catching the train home from Horní Dvořiště.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Stage 4 route plan

I’m not sure why, but I’ve had a sense of foreboding about Stage 4 right from the start. It’s certainly not the longest leg of my trip - in fact, at an estimated 270 km it’s going to be one of the shortest. Nor it is the most mountainous, although you could not describe it as flat (as the profile below graphically shows). It does, however, pass through one of the most sparsely populated and least-frequented parts of the Czech Republic - the Bohemian Forest (Český les). During the Cold War, this area was out of bounds to all except border guards, as it formed part of the Iron Curtain that descended across Europe after World War II. Indeed, for much of Stage 4 I’ll be travelling along the official Iron Curtain Greenway cycle trail. My base for the first two nights will be Cheb (one of the few towns on this stage). This will allow me to leave most of my stuff in the hotel and cycle super light around the Aš salient on day 1. Then I’ll pack my bags and head south, crossing in and out of Germany until I reach Nýrsko, gateway to Šumava National Park. Along the way I intend visit the westernmost point of the Czech Republic and (according to one definition at least) the geographical midpoint of Europe. However, that gut feeling of mine tells me things might not go entirely to plan...

Thursday 6 January 2011

Surprise, surprise

As you can see from the photo, I’m busy planning the remaining four stages of my circuit ride. In doing so, I have discovered - to my surprise - that I am almost halfway around the route already. Last year I rode the northern border of the Czech Republic in three stages, from Bohumín in the east to Aš in the west, covering 1,067 km in the process. All that remains for me now is to cycle back to Bohumín along the southern frontier. And my back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate this is only about 200 km further than I travelled last year.

Which brings me to the surprise announcement I mentioned at the end of my previous post - Circuit Rider’s review of the year: I have decided to try to complete all four remaining stages of my trip this year. My original plan had been to leave Stage 7 until 2012, but I admit it never made much sense to leave things hanging over another long winter. So, if all goes well I’ll have completed my cycling circumnavigation of the Czech Republic by the end of 2011.

I’ll be rolling out my route plans for the remaining stages in the course of this month. However, I can already reveal that along the way I’ll be dropping in on all four countries neighbouring the Czech Republic (Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland) as well as visiting the westernmost, southernmost and easternmost points of the Czech Republic. Bring it on!