Tuesday 11 June 2013

Cycling to Prague by - 12

Life is a series of journeys – physically and metaphorically – all just waiting to be made.
Every journey starts with a single step
 It matters little whether my journeys have been a two-day sail in a 12-foot wooden dinghy, a meander by motor cycle beside the Mekong River or a camel trek through Iran, the question always asked is: why? The answer of course is quite simple: why not?
Not really my colour
     Some years ago I woke one morning and thought, 'I think I'll buy a bicycle'. The objective was not so much to save the walk to the newspaper shop, but more as a means of making another journey.         
   The Czech Republic had recently opened its borders to the west, and its capital of Prague seemed an interesting destination. It was certainly far enough away to be called a journey. Besides, ‘Pedalling to Prague on a Pushbike’ had a certain ring to it and therefore ought to be done. Why not?
     As with everything in life, one needs to put in a little training, but being a newcomer to cycling, I had no idea where to start. A test run of four miles to a nearby village was not only painful, but had seemed to take forever. I appeared to have an impossible task ahead of me!
Duane in 'Paris-Brest-Paris Race'
     Strength and stamina, not to mention technique, seemed to be the missing ingredients, so I armed myself with a cycle-computer and a programme of distance and speed objectives, then progressively, but painfully, pounded the lanes and byways of southern England. Five weeks later, having achieved an unbroken ride of 100 kilometres, I declared myself ‘fit’ and ready for the assault on Europe.
     Before leaving England, I telephoned Duane Hickling in America, not only was he a good friend but also an old hand at the Paris-Brest-Paris and Ride Across America cycle races. It was thanks to his expert advice that the expected hard slog across Europe became a dream ride. I should have consulted him earlier.
     His words of wisdom were: ‘Treat the ride like you treat your life, break it into short objectives, then enjoy each ten kilometre section as if it were a day in your life, don't ruin it by worrying about tomorrow’, and, ‘By the way, if you can't smell the cows crapping, it’ll be because you are travelling too fast, so slow down. You will only make the journey once, enjoy it’. He was also very generous with technical tips for cycle touring, all of which helped to make the trip enjoyable and stress free.
Posting news home from Germany
     Within forty-eight hours of that telephone call, and looking very much the part in Lycra shorts and an old ‘go-faster’ school cap, I wheeled my lightly loaded Dawes ‘Back Street’ bike ashore from the ferry-ship at Ostend, Belgium, and set off into the fast fading light to find a hostelry for the night. I was committed!
     The route across Europe took me through Belgium, Holland, and Northern Germany; countries that fortunately still subscribe to the Flat Earth Society. Cyclists are actively encouraged with dedicated cycle-routes, sign posting, and priority over vehicles from side roads, plus respect as equal road users. Road-planners in Britain have much to learn from our continental cousins.
Family cycling in Belgium
     Cycling became a daily pleasure with frequent stops at village bakeries for pastries and yoghurt. Well-maintained cycle-paths took me along riverbanks, around fields of wheat, past meadows of wild flowers, though cool forests and down country lanes, usually well away from traffic and pollution. The weather, with the exception of one very hot day and two of incessant rain, was ideal – comfortably cool and windless.
Frequent meetings with fellow cyclists
     Despite travelling alone, the days passed all too quickly. I frequently came alongside other cyclists with whom I chatted, using English or German as the common language. Evenings were spent sharing stories with fellow hostellers, or in the company of private families who provided overnight B & B. Only once did I fail to find accommodation and resorted to sleeping under the stars in my Goretex Bivy Bag.
     At the beautiful and lively university city of Munster, I quickly learned three things:
1.   Finding ones bicycle in a city where 45,000 students also have a bicycle is not easy!
2.   That it was illegal to travel without lights fitted, even during the daytime!
3.   When using a restaurant's facilities to rapidly change out of my cycle clothes for a luncheon appointment, I should not have waited until I had dropped my cycle shorts before discovering that I was in the ladies’ toilet!
     On crossing the recently opened border of East Germany, a difference in lifestyles was immediately noticed: cycle-routes disappeared, buildings were uncared for, colours of grey and brown predominated, and a plethora of cobble roads and potholes became a constant hazard, particularly on hills running down into towns and villages.
I think I prefer a unicycle
     The countryside was dotted with huge factory chimneys and even larger communal farms. People seemed unsure whether they preferred the fettered security of the past or the uncertain freedom of the present. Their blank looks of disappointment showed that whichever system was preferred, the promised Utopia was being as elusive as ever.
     The quiet, lonely climb up through the Erzgebirge mountains was rewarded with a welcome into the Czech Republic by a happy, but scruffy border control officer, who, on giving me a huge bear-hug, said: ‘Welcome Comrade English.’ He then thrust a can of Budweiser beer into my hand! I can't see that happening at the Port of Dover!
An old cyclist counting his pennies
     The route between the border and Prague had little traffic and even fewer signposts. I was twice forced into cycling along new motorways as the old roads had been destroyed. Streets in the towns and villages had an air of uncanny quietness, people spoke in hushed tones as they queued for groceries at ‘shops’ which were little more than doorways to private homes. They were also seen gathered in small groups to buy vegetables or ladies’ underwear from the back of trucks.
A young cyclist counting his miles
     Old ladies with headscarves and long skirts stood with wicker baskets on street corners selling wild mushrooms collected in the forests. Elsewhere, and in complete contrast, North Vietnamese immigrants traded cartons of western cigarettes and transistor radios from the back of ancient Trabant cars.
     It was as if in 1948 when the communists had taken over, time had stood still whilst the rest of Europe had forged ahead. 
     Outside the capital, a drowsy awakening was now happening, whereas in the magnificent city of Prague with its flood of tourists, it was already awake, but had as yet not quite gotten out of bed.
Mushrooms galore
     This was my third visit to Prague in as many years and I could clearly see the changes made in that time. The clanging old trams had been given a coat of fresh paint, a few billboards were in evidence, cafes had sprung up like spring flowers, and service was less of a hassle and more friendly. Some of Prague's wonderful buildings and sculptures were being renovated. Life was becoming fun again.
Journey's end on Charles Bridge Prague 
     It was with a sense of sadness that I pushed my bicycle the final few yards onto the historic Charles Bridge which crosses the Vltava River. It was there that I met a Polish cyclist who had ridden down from Warsaw, and, like the proverbial duck talking to a chicken without a common language, we managed to exchange experiences and swap addresses.

     I had reached the end of my journey: It had taken twenty days, 1,400 kilometres and not a single puncture. I was not only fitter and infinitely richer for the experience, but already planning to ‘Leg it to Latvia’ through Poland, Lithuania and to the Latvian capital of Riga the following year. Why not?
If you enjoyed this tale, click here to read of his near death experience on the Mighty Mekong River.

1 comment:

  1. Good grief Roy, the not so subtle colours of your lycra make you look some years younger. Another great read and motivational for those contemplating self inflicetd pain. Have you glossed over the finer details of training to prepare for the trip? There's no mention of wobbly legs after the first few long rides, of aching knees or of the necessity to select the lowest of low ratios for what appear to only slight hills when driving. For all that it's a truly relaxing manner in which to travel and to meet people. What a wonderful trip it would be to cycle up the (reasonably level) coast of Vietnam. Keep those tyres pumped up.


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