Whizzing Through the Czech Forests
In the late summer, in the Hansel and Gretel magnificence of the vast Moravian forests of the Czech Republic, I fell in love. With a bike. A gravel bike.
My friends and I were lost, proving once again that you can’t trust GPS. The route that we had been riding down had narrowed from a gravel track, to a footpath through a marshy meadow, to a root-strewn single-trail over rocks and between thick bushes taking us over moss and twigs.
Now it was just a struggle through trackless wild grass. The bike, which felt to all intents and purposes as nimble and light as a road-bike, was still going, taking all this terrain in its stride. To my great surprise, I hadn’t fallen off yet.
Sturdy But Nimble
Gravel biking is the big trend in the cycling world. And when I say trend, I mean real cyclists have been enthusing about them for several years as a means of adventure but now I have finally caught up.
Having got my toddler to sleep, I was watching a youtube video about the Dirty Kanza in the USA, reputedly the hardest Gravel Bike ride in the world, and realized there was a whole world out there I’d known nothing about.
I messaged my friend Michael Knoll who owns a bike shop. I’m always trying to persuade him to do a cycling podcast with me. “I’ve found a new trend,” I announced pompously. If it is possible to roll your eyes on Facebook messenger, he did so. But he also offered to lend me his own bike to try it out. But, he warned me, “look after it like your own child.” Whoops.
“The technology has advanced so you can produce a bike that is sturdy like a mountain-bike which means you can explore all sorts of terrain,” Michael told me has he handed over his two-wheeled baby, “but is almost as fast as a road-bike so you can cover a lot of ground.”
Vysocina Gravel Rally
This makes them perfect for adventure. Cyclists take their gravel bikes on bike-packing trips but also to take part in the growing number of gravel bike events that are springing up all over the place. There are some great events over our northern border in the Czech Republic when access to the forests is much less restricted.
As someone who often feels lonely at the back of a race, the concept of the rally appealed to me. It’s basically a cruising ride with friends through the forest which is intersected with five individually timed “stages”.
Here you give go full throttle over a section of between two and three kilometres, before re-grouping and the end of the segment and riding together to the next stage.
The race, at a place called Nové Město na Moravě, was on Sunday, which meant we could go for a fun group ride on the Saturday and I could get use to Michael’s bike. Nové Město is a cross-country skiing and biathlon centre in winter and is surrounded with thick forest.
After only a few hundred metres on tarmac we were on a moist path through a grove of pines. It felt strange heading onto the single-trail with my hands gripping drop handle bars and the frame feeling vulnerably skinny. However, the slightly thicker, knobbly tires gripped well and we were off.
Kuba Szczepanski was leading the way because he had downloaded the route on some clever app he has on his phone. We emerged out on the forest and on to a farm track, passing some horses grazing in a field that was sprinkled with white flowers. Compared to slogs on a mountain-bike, I felt we were whizzing along effortlessly on the flat.
„There is no traffic“
I pulled alongside Kuba and asked what had brought him to gravel biking: “The first thing is to see places I would never see otherwise”, he told me. “And the second thing is, there is no traffic.”
That was true. We’d been riding now for over 40 minutes and seen just one car, a white van belonging to a local farmer. This has been one of the main reasons for the boom in gravel riding in the USA; where gravel bike events now outnumber traditional road racing events. A series of accidents (worldwide) involving car drivers hitting cyclists and a sense of aggression on the tarmac have led cyclists to search for the roads less travelled.
It certainly felt stress-free knowing you could ride side by side, have a chat and not fear some Lewis Hamilton wannabee might come storming up from behind wildly sounding the horn and pushing us into the undergrowth.
But more than the safety aspect, it was the spirit of exploration that appealed to me. Kuba at the front seemed to me to be like a lycra-clad Robin Hood leading his merry men and women through the mysterious forest. “It’s a little adventure with your friends,” he agreed, “bringing you out of your everyday life.”
Missing In Action
Of course, all explorers have mishaps, just ask Dr. Livingstone. The beauty of forests is that they grow and transform. Paths that were rideable when a route was first discovered by the GPS boffs can gradually disappear under the undergrowth. That’s why we suddenly found ourselves in the chest-high grass and shrubbery feeling like a patrol in one of those iconic Vietnam War films.
But this was the spirit that attracted me to cycling a small child, seeing the bicycle as a way to explore a world that expanded beyond my tiny village.
Sometimes you get lost, sometimes you have to carry your bike, but it is all part of the fun of the sport.
Vysocina Gravel Rally
The next day, with the late summer sun shining down hard, was race day. There was our team of nine riders from Vienna and then four of five Czech teams who looked lean and hungry. There’s an added challenge in taking part in a race in a country that brews the best beer in the world and produces delicious dumplings. My elite athlete nutrition program had gone somewhat out the window.
Organiser Michal kindly gave us a run down on the rules in English and the we were off into the forest in search of new adventures on a mixture of forest-trails, fire-roads, farm tracks and single trail. At the five checkpoints we’d go in turns, those most likely to be fastest setting off first and the next rider setting off when the rider in front had disappeared out of sight.
Stefan Beisteiner, who had taken part in races like this before, gave me a prep talk. The cruising and chatting was over; now it is time to get my heart rate up: “There is only one motto. Everyone goes through the sector like hell. Leave nothing in the tank. And then we re-group and it is easy-peasy again.”
I always tell myself that I don’t take the competition element things seriously, but as soon as anyone has a stop-watch, I lose myself. I was tearing through the forest tracks with my thighs burning and my lungs bursting trying the save every hundredth of a second as if I was Geraint Thomas on a Tour de France time-trial.
It was only in the middle stages of the day’s ride when an angel of caution raised its little voice over the loud red demon of competitiveness in my head. The gravel path, after a long climb, was on a long, swinging descent and I was flying. Then I remembered that, although I was used to these speeds on my regular rides through the Vienna Woods, these were all on my mountain bike, which, compared to a gravel bike, is built as sturdily as a tank.
“This is one of the main challenges”, agreed Stefan. “You have to keep in mind that you don’t have any suspension and with the tyres being thinner than on a mountain bike you do have to check your speed on the bends.”
Vysocina Gravel Rally
The Spirit of Cycling
Dear Reader, I survived. In Ursula Loitzl, our Vienna-crew produced the second quickest woman in the race, but for me the event was more a question of burning off those dumplings and finally enjoying this peek into the deep forests I had spied through the window when riding trains through the Czech Republic.
The final part of the ride was a long descent besides some sun-splashed pastured land and then a glorious single-track helter-skelter through the woods.
We arrived together, crossing the line with broad grins and sweaty jerseys, after an adventure together, far from the roar of traffic in the magical forests of central Europe. It felt like I’d rediscovered the spirit of cycling.
Publiziert am 10.09.2019