The Sudety Adventure
I have quite recently finished my very first bikepacking adventure. As the reality of our current world makes travelling not an easy task, I have decided to play it safe. I therefore chose Sudety mountains as my destination – easily accessible by train and close to home, if an emergency arose and instant retreat was required. As they are not yet very well known to me, I try to visit them and explore quite regularly.
I have swiftly and almost effortlessly prepared a GPS track for the trip, putting main focus towards Jesioniki and Orlickie mountains, so often praised by many of my acquaintances. I think that I have managed to create almost an ideal route, taking into consideration an absolute lack of knowledge of the terrain. Czech mountains have, from the tourist perspective, a very neat perk – they feature a whole lot of paved country roads, that most of which have the motor traffic banned, and so I tried to follow them as often as possible.
While planning the route I was heavily affected by some kind of a FOMO syndrome. I wanted to ride all of the harpins I have seen on the map, visit every possible significant uphill I found on Strava. Of course, in reality that would render impossible to do. It would be quite impossible to tackle physically, given time I had. It was also logistically impossible to create a feasible track featuring all the places I wanted to ride. Having that in mind I have set aside a handful of roads to conquer during the trips to come.
There is a thing about country roads in the Czech mountains. Not once, not twice, while following such a route, paved yet gnarled by disintegrated tarmac, you ride for an hour with no company but yourself, the wind and the “music of the forest”. Riding solo has its perks. You are alone with your thoughts. It’s soothing. You needn’t worry about the necessity of talking, about social interactions. There is only you, your bike and the route you follow.
Praded, as an uphill, was probably one of the biggest disappointments of the trip. I didn’t quite know what I was expecting out of it. As it’s the highest peak of Jesioniki mountains, its name can be heard here and there, pumping the expectation bubble. In reality it, unfortunately, turned out to be quite mundane, dull, steady effort. The route was leading mostly through the forest, with the exception of a short, cobbled segment through a picturesque village of Karlova Studanka, and a summit stage, where the forest opened up and the constant sight of trees gave way to the broad landscape of Jeseniki. And that one was astounding. Having the luck of a fantastically beautiful weather with almost clear sky, the panorama presented unimaginably splendid, worth every minute of a boring climb. Riding downhill was also a prize. Low-traffic road, with almost perfect tarmac, winding left and right with a long, shallow turns allowing to steer with almost no deceleration – an ideal, rollercoaster-like ride, with full control over a wagon you’re riding in. Pure perfection.
While riding downhill you are one with the tarmac, the air and the gravity. You see twice as much as normally, twice as quick are your reactions to the events on the road. You lift your left leg to lean into the turn, then the right one, you brake for a harpin and once again lift your right leg. Forest like a dull movie speeds away somewhere in the periphery of your vision, you spot only single clearing, or the mountain lurking from between the trees. There is no place for an error – after all, you ride at the speed considered to be ludicrous, having the fragile shell of a helmet as your only protection…
The road going up towards the Dlouhé Stráně reservoir starts through a village with a mellow gradient, quickly leading into the thick shade of the dense forest. It passes the barrier blocking out the motorized traffic and slowly climbs through the greenery of trees. With the distance and elevation gained, it slowly but unavoidably steepens, gradient creeping up, slowing the ride down, ever so slightly, to peak with a painful 3 kilometers with an average of 10%. With the luggage weighing the bike, and me, down, seat bag swinging left and right, that hurts. From time to time, I hear some voices behind me, some other riders slowly crawling up, so I push the pedals harder, taking the challenge not to be overtaken.
Suddenly the road widens, the view opens and here it is, the top station of the Kouty chairlift. A short but punchy effort after the slope points downwards, allowing to rest for a little while. But the pain is not yet gone – there is still 200 meters of elevation to gain before indulging in the view of the reservoir, and the mighty Praded in the background!
Downhill to the Kouty nad Destnou is yet another rollercoaster, this time a bit more challenging – among high-speed corners there are hidden harpins to navigate through – all of them covered by mostly smooth tarmac. A couple of holes and cracks can clearly be seen from far away, making avoiding them an easy task.
There was adventure to be had that day, for sure. While circling Ucháč, the planned route surprised me with an unexpected gravel. But, as the gradient was mellow, and the grit not too gnarly and thick, it was a pleasant and welcome change to an even surface I rode before during that day.
Bonking is not a thing of choice. Sometimes you hit the wall purely because you fucked up – as a result of dehydration or under fueling. Sometimes it just happens. Heat, long-term fatigue. It can be a matter of riding just a couple of miles too far in one go. Everything is brilliant, you are pushing those watts, riding dynamically and eagerly. Next thing you know – your pace drops instantly, and instead of speeding you just linger. Each crank turn is a pain. The only thing you can do is to find a quiet spot in a shade of a tree, dismount. Sit down for a bit, grab a snack, flushing it down with a sports drink or a juice. Relax for a bit. You analyze the remaining track for the day wondering, if you can make it. Then you hop on a bike and ride away, not as quicky as before the bonk, but way more vigorously than before the break.
Orlickie Mountains are the most spectacular discovery that I had brought back from the trip. Marvelous road, closed to motorized traffic, magnificently followed the crest of the Velka Destna massif.
But before I got there, the day started with a warming-up ride through Czarna Góra. Winding, shaded road from Old Morava to Janowa Góra made me want to stop and visit the old uranium mine. Unfortunately, the only way would be to leave the bike unattended, so I opted out this time. The next uphill, leading through the Puchaczówka pass was theoretically undemanding, but unexpectedly made me sweat and utterly suffer. Maybe the heat has started to affect my performance, or maybe the fatigue of the previous 3 days of riding finally kicked in? I shall never know. Long, but quick descent through the villages took me down to Bystrzyca Kłodzka. Quick espresso, dark and bitter, being the first one during this trip, tasted like never before. Complemented with a juicy tiramisu cake and a serving of creamy panna cotta topped with a raspberry mousse, made my spirits rise and stamina revived. With a new power I set off to conquer the Spalona pass. Knowing I still have a long way to go, and taking the last couple of days into consideration, I was slowly moving forward, carefully pacing my effort not to run out of gas before the end of the day. The uphill itself was uneventful and not quite special. The memory of the prize will, however, remain substantially longer than its taste lingered on my tongue. The Jagodna chalet’s special – deep-fried, huge racuchy pancakes with sour cream and wild huckleberries. The serving was enormous, the taste – unbelievable.
Couple of minutes later I have finally reentered the Czech Republic territory and started my way towards the Velka Destna. Tattered, grainy tarmac casually led through the dense forest, opening up in the higher parts of the slope. The trees became sparser, with a lot of air around the road. The sun, warm and pleasant, beamed through the crowns creating a spectacle of sunlight and shade on the ground. As the miles passed, the number of tourists on the initially abandoned road grew, especially on e-bikes.
The way to the highest mountain of Orlickie Mountains required me to ride a little bit of rocks and roots. Fortunately, the section was short and almost flat. The summit welcomed me with a fancy watchtower. The view from above the trees was spectacular, broad and undisturbed.
The final stretch of the day led through a significantly less popular parts of the range. Riding for about an hour, I have met almost nobody. As the day started to grow older, the light became softer, not as keen to pass through the wall of trees as earlier. Infrequently visited, the forest grew darker, wilder. The sounds of leaves and animals had a sinister vibe, the pave on the road seemed to be even more destroyed than ever. That made the downhill an unbearably mental strain, and I uttered a sigh of relief when I finally joined the main road. Quickly hopping to the Polish side of the border I have blizzardly rode down, being overtaken only by a bunch of motorcyclists, to get myself into the town of Duszniki Zdrój. Tired, but positively buzzed, I devoured a large pepperoni pizza and slowly rolled into the campsite for the day’s rest.
Rest day is a time just for you. You don’t need to ride, you can just lie down, take a Kindle and lazily spend the day. Or, if you feel adventurous, you can go to see the town, spot the places you missed from the saddle. You chat with other campers, even if you know you will never see them again, anonymous as they are. Finally, eating four helpings of spaghetti, you can rebuild your glycogen levels depleted by a prolonged activity.
The Broumovsko area seemed insignificant and not worth remembering for too long. Pretty as it is, it looked a little bit like a mix of things I have already seen. Nice and idyllic fields mixed with dense and dark forests were quite like the ones I’ve seen in Jeseniki. The area was, however, much more in the scheme of the rolling hills rather than the mountains I came to ride. I do not really feel strong in this kind of terrain, the long uphills is what drives me. The biggest climbs of the day, Teplickie Craigs and Chvalec, did not make it better. On the map they looked difficult and fearful, but in the reality, came out to be unremarkable grinds, posing no difficulty whatsoever.
My humor did not get better after eating my beloved Czech fried cheese. The probably most popular bar in the area made sure not to cook it thoroughly. To make things worse, instead of unavailable Kofola I have ordered a big serving of Malinovka – a fizzy raspberry refreshment, that tasted mostly of the longing after 70’.
Day after day, the routine kicks in. Every evening you have to unpack, eat your dinner and grab a shower. Wash sweaty kit, chat a while with your wife, read a couple of pages and bang! You have no more stamina left to do anything but to fall asleep instantly. Same thing goes in the morning – you swiftly pack your things, eat your breakfast, quickly strap the luggage onto the bike and away you go, rushing down the road, ready to meet another day’s adventure.
Routine kicks in along with merciless lack of time, crawls into you, disguised by weariness of a whole day’s ride. Exhaustion grows to be so profound that even the birthday party happening just below you – disco hits blaring and DJ yelling into the microphone are unable to pull you out of the deep, restful slumber.
As my biggest strength on the bike is climbing, the ride from Lubawka to Okraj is another surprise. Uneventful, long and steady, with wide hairpins and no spectacular views, it did not fall into the category of “I’d like to repeat that”. The only challenge was the surface, that from time to time required me to zigzag around the holes and already destroyed patches. Jelenka, however, is a climb from another world. 2 kilometers, with an average gradient of 11%. It’s Grande Finale is literally a wall that peaks at 22%. Adding around 13 kg of luggage to the equation, it was probably the hardest cycling effort I have ever endured. Fortunately, the tarmac is of a high quality, save the beginning section that have a little bit of gravel scattered over the surface, waiting for the rider to make an error and lose traction.
Halfway through the last, steepest part, a view of the clearing with the hut in the middle opened up. As the weather was, once again, beautiful, the scenery astounding and place not that far from the parking lot, the glade was filled with tourists enjoying the view, the sun and the shelter’s food. For the last couple of meters of my endeavor the air got filled with the thunder-like, deafening sound of people cheering and clapping their hands. It is true that such a doping makes your heart rise and the pain diminish.
As the last part of the route Karpacz, I chose to pick one small loop on the border of Rudawy Janowickie reserve. Just after finishing the very last climb of the day I spotted this narrow, welcoming tarmac route going further up, into the forest. Quick glance at the map assured me that this one does, in fact, end quite near the place I needed to find myself in. Not thinking too long I steered right into the unknown of the Wilczysko slope. Not easy as it was, it was no match to eye-watering difficulty of Jelenka. Narrow, almost mint-condition tarmac, winding through the sparsely growing trees, just after the crest transformed into a sketchy gravel downhill, with a section of tennis-ball sized loose rocks scattered all over the place.
Every unplanned gravel, surprising as it may be, is a welcome one. Even on a road cycling trip. Riding down the loose rocks on a road bike makes your hands itchy from the amount of vibrations coming through the handlebars, your fingers pulse in pain from the force you need to apply to keep your speed on a leash. When the gnarled, deteriorated tarmac – but still a tarmac – transforms into a coarse gravel, you know it’s gonna be tough. You know how to ride this kind section down; you’ve done things like that countless times. Only that was on a full suspension bike, with a knobby 2.2 tire. Now you have only thin rubbers, inflated to 7 bars, with no more amortization available. Braking heavily, you try to carefully pick your line and roll down, trying to navigate between the biggest and the loosest rocks. The time seems to pass even slower than on the steepest climbs, but meter after meter you conquer that barrier, and finally you can breathe deeply, letting the brakes go.
Czech Karkonosze have one peculiar perk, when it comes to the paved roads high in the mountains. In most places you would find hairpins, easing up the gradient. Here, however, most routes leading to the mountain chalets are led straight up the slope, making the trips bold and most challenging. They look like the architects did not care about the gradients at all.
The Cima Coppi of the penultimate day of my trip was the infamous climb from Pec pod Snezkou to Modre Sedlo. From 780 meters above mean sea level, up to 1525 in only 6.5 km, averaging over 11% gradient. It’s tough from the very beginning. It first leads through the alpine looking, green and grassy village slope to the border of the forest. Then, moments after reaching the life-saving shade of the trees it starts to steepen – the first wall is slowly and painfully leading up the hill. Passing 15% I started to break a sweat, slaloming the width of the road to ease up the unforgiving incline. It did not last long, thankfully. A couple of moments later a short down-sloped section and an unremarkable uphill part gave me a time to rest and led me to the Richtrovy Boudy clearing, a place where the real selection starts. The trees here start to grow a bit more sparsely than below, they are shorter and bushier. The fatigue kicks in, clearly proving that these are the mountains, not some hills or highlands. The road skyrockets to an incline of over 20%, combined with not-so-great quality of the old tarmac makes me fight for every single meter of the road, while trying not to fall off the bike.
Getting out of the forest made me see the end of the climb. So close, and yet so far. It got colder, as the shrubs were too short to block the wind out. On the other hand, getting out into the top sections meant one spectacular thing – the landscapes, the panorama came into play. Stunning, picturesque image of the Karkonosze around did not make the last meters physically easier, it did however put my mind at ease and, for the first time I could truly see I will make it to the top in one go.
There is a certain vibe to riding uphill. To make the long one more bearable, you set yourself a handful of checkpoints as you go. You’re trying to pace yourself between this turn and that tree, this post and that crest. You obviously don’t want to release the fireworks in the beginning of the effort, as you’ll need every last bit of stamina towards the end of the climb. Left leg, right leg, left, right. 14% gradient. Left, right. 550 meters elevation to go. Why do these meters pass so slowly? Left and right and left and right. Flat section ahead, only 10% gradient. You can truly rest, compared to the last 10 minutes. Then you see this wall up ahead, and instantly know it’s gonna hurt like shit. It seems vertical, rising there in front of you, guarding the entrance to the pass. Left, right, now standing on the pedals, left and right. 16%. 400 meters to go. 20%. Elevation does not matter anymore, neither do watts. Left, then right then left and right is the only thing in your head. That, and the pain. Legs burn, lungs do, too. You are truly out of breath, and every inch of your body aches, begs for more oxygen. You pray to every god you have ever heard of, and to all ones that you are not yet aware of, for this wall to end. Left and right. 18%. Only 100 meters left. 50 meters. You see the crest of the climb. 20. You-are-almost-there. 10. And victory! Out of breath, out of power, but you know you conquered a beast of a climb. You take a couple of photos, mostly as memorabilia, you rest a minute and you can finally point the wheels towards the downhill, you can rest for a while on your way back to the valley. The landscape, the view, is a prize. So is the satisfaction from successfully finishing that effort. Which one is more important? For me, the latter.
The last day was kind of “a turning a knife in your own wound” endeavor. The air was filled with the scent of an incoming weather change. It was still warm enough to ride in shorts, but the wind started to strengthen, and blowing fiercely it gave me goosebumps from time to time. The legs were burning and the only thing they wanted was for me to lie down with a beer in one hand and the book in the other. What they actually got was the exact opposite – more work to do, more effort and pain.
The first, flat part of the day was mentally tough, but I still managed to ride it quite briskly. When the uphills started, all my eagerness went away. The power plummeted, speed came down to almost a walking pace. For the first time during my trip, I have really struggled to get to the top of the climbs, both mentally and physically. Maybe because of this fatigue and exhaustion I found Michałowice, Zachełmie and Sosnówka quite boring and mundane segments, compared to the uphills ridden during the previous days. Even one of my favorites, Karkonoska Pass, brutal as always, was not as enjoyable as usually. I have conquered it probably only by applying a mind over matter philosophy – slowly grinding my way to the top, repeating “shut up legs” as my mantra, over and over again.
It is always better to ride up a climb you already know. You can anticipate the next section; you know what awaits you behind the next turn. Pacing gets easier as well – you know when the slope gets steep, and where you can rest. Knowing the surface, you can pick the line better, shaving these tiny bits of energy that will make the difference in the later part of the trip. Gradients also look more manageable, more friendly. It simply seems easier. In the most painful moments knowing how far it is to the flat segment is a bliss, it may be the key to the success, the difference between winning and losing, making the climb and having to dismount and push.
Up to this point I have always travelled with panniers rather than the lightweight set of bags. How do I like bikepacking? I’ve fallen in love with it. As the weight is distributed over whole bike, in line with its axis, the ride is significantly more stable than with the side-mounted bulky panniers. Less volume available means less gear – you can take only the stuff you really need. Less gear leads to a significantly lighter bike. Lighter bike can be directly translated into faster ride, and in the outcome, more distance covered. Sometimes it can even make the difference between being able to ride an uphill in one go with no rest or a need to dismount and push. What’s not to like in that kind of setup?
My 1.5 week of the crazy 2020’s holiday consisted of 8 riding days and 2 rests. 16 km of uphill covered on a distance of 753 km, and over 10.5 km/551 km with the bags on. I’ve drank an enormous amount of Kofola (Czech/Slovakian cola-like soda), devoured kilograms of gummy bears and chocolate bars. I have mostly dined out, eating pizzas and burgers and fried cheese and Czech stews. The weather was an absolute win – no rain at all, it was mostly sunny with an occasional light breeze. I’ve spent hours and hours on my beloved uphills, and even more time alone with myself, pondering about life, the universe, and everything.