Saturday, March 8, 2014

I Don't Like Mud Days *

That's my camouflaged front tire.

I know mud.

There was the my 2008 New Year's Day mudbath.

There was the 2009 post called "Fog, Nuts, Puppies, And Beer." 

There was the mud that looked like brownie batter in 2010.

There was "Here's Mud In Your Eye (And Everywhere Else)" from 2011.

And, of course, 2008's infamous "Rendezvous With A Gorilla," in which I lost my patience, my temper, and any ability to rotate the wheels on my bike.

But until my most recent ride, with my usual mud-loving companion, Stewart Moore, I'd always been able to use a stick or my fingers or something to dislodge enough mud to get my bike moving again.

A few weeks ago, though, on a dirt road through a farmer's field above Okoř, a road we'd cycled many times before (meaning we should have known better), sticks and fingers just would not work.

I had to actually remove my front tire to dislodge the paralyzing clay/mud that had jammed itself between the tire and my fender. Actually, I had to remove my front tire twice in the space of about 10 minutes. My tires simply wouldn't budge. I couldn't roll forward. I was stuck, grounded, frozen, paralyzed.

This time, rather that cursing my predicament, or cursing Stewart (as I'd done in the "Gorilla" post), I found myself laughing out loud. I'd suggested the route this time. It was my fault. Stewart, whose bike has no fenders, had an easier time of it and was way ahead, waiting for me.

My bike was too heavy with mud to carry, and I could go neither backwards nor forwards. I was stuck, and all I could do was take my tires off and hope.

Well, once I managed to remove my front tire, I was able to scrape enough mud off to get me rolling again. My back tire was just as bad, really, but it finally yielded to the gravity of me riding downhill with a clean front tire.

I can safely say that that was the worst mud (more like clay, really) that I've ever cycled through.

Stewart and I had decided to meet at the late, great, burned-to-the-ground Koliba (whose ruins are still hard to look at after all these years), and cycle to Okoř. It used to be our go-to bike run, when we both lived in Prague 6. A good length, a good beer or two waiting in Okoř, with its picturesque castle ruin, some country roads with little traffic, mixed with a few trails.

Koliba now ...

... and the paradise it used to be.

I'm now back to living in Prague 6 after venturing out of the city for a few years, and Stewart's in Roztoky, but I have a feeling we'll be revisiting this run again in future.

At U Lasiku

The homemade quiches and tarts at U Lasiku

We stopped in Únětice, at the always charming U Lasiku, for a few half-liters of the locally brewed Únětice pivo and some German Weizenbier and some of the most delicious savory and sweet homemade quiches and tarts you will ever shove into your mouth hole. We sat outside in the sun on beat-up old furniture as dozens of other cyclists and walkers also stopped in to hydrate and we felt like there was no reason to ever really leave our cozy spot.

But we did.

We headed to Statenice and then to Tuchoměřice, and then on the farmer's road that proved to be our downfall. Once we extricated ourselves from that quagmire, it was on to the Family Hotel Okoř for a few more half-liters.

It was fantastic to be riding in February. Fantastic to be out on the trails again with Stewart, the mud notwithstanding.

Now I've got to figure out how to clean the dried brownie batter off my bike now that I live in an apartment in the city.

* Stewart's brilliant idea for a blog post title

Length of ride: 41 kilometers
Pivo Index: 4
Distance ridden so far in 2014: 41 kilometers

At U Lasiku

It's very difficult to leave U Lasiku once you've sat down.

I thought it was a good time, in the middle of our mud bath, to break out a flask of medovina, aka mead, that I'd squirreled away in my backpack.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Renting Bikes In Amsterdam

Yes, we're tourists. But we're having fun.

We love Amsterdam, and we love cycling, but until recently we'd never combined the two, and this in a city where the bike truly is the king of the road, taking precedence not only over cars but even pedestrians. As you know if you've been, if you're walking in Amsterdam, you'd better look both ways with almost every step you take, and not for cars.

We booked a tour through Mike's Bike Rentals, only because Mike's came up first on a Google search and it seemed to have a lot of happy customers on TripAdvisor. We're glad we did. We had a great time and an entertaining (if slightly overenthusiastic) tour guide, Karl Schilling. (Turns out it was his last day as a bike guide in Amsterdam. Think he said he was heading to Australia. He's also a musician and street performer. Check out some of his work here.)

We decided to book Mike's Countryside Tour (24 euros per person). A ride through the congested streets of the city just did not appeal.

The Countryside Tour included a ride along the Amstel River and visits to what they described as one of the last remaining authentic windmills, as well as Rembrandt Hoeve, a small family run farm outside the city that makes it own cheese and carves its own clogs. Perfect. The total tour was 3.5 hours and around 25 kilometers in total.

Daisy is (almost) persuaded to buy a pair of wooden shoes at Rembrandt Hoeve.

And let me tell you, it was the easiest, most pleasurable 25 kilometers I have ever cycled. We never encountered anything that could remotely be called a hill, only what can only be called a few gentle bumps over bridges. It was paradise, but not exactly a workout. I was wearing a smile, not a sweatband, the entire ride. It was so much fun not to have to worry about a steep climb up ahead or about cars zooming too close for comfort. It was possible to simply enjoy the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle. Heaven.

Karl told us that if there is an accident involving a car and a cyclist in The Netherlands, the driver of the car is always at fault. If that's true, that's pretty cool. And, in fact, we did witness an accident, in which the driver of a delivery fan hit a well-dressed cyclist, knocking her and her shopping bags to the street and flattening the entire front of her bike. Thankfully, she was not injured, just shaken up a bit, but her bike was totaled. The cops were on the scene within seconds.

"The Bike Watch"

According to The Netherlands By Numbers, there are 18 million bikes in the country. That's more than one per inhabitant. And while there are dedicated cycling lanes everywhere, I was surprised to find that one-quarter of all traffic fatalities in The Netherlands involve cyclists -- 200 in 2011.

But interestingly, no one -- and I mean no one -- wears a helmet. The same website quotes the Dutch cyclists union as saying that helmets not only give cyclists a false sense of security but that 60 percent of those who cycle would not do so if helmets were made mandatory. This story from "The Telegraph" cites statistics from Australia and New Zealand that would seem to back that theory up.

Karl, our tour guide, actually wore these customized wooden shoes while he was riding. They are surprisingly light and sturdy. He swore by them.

I must say, cycling without a helmet is very liberating indeed. And with so many cyclists and so many dedicated cycling lanes, you'd look and feel like a dork if you were wearing a helmet in Amsterdam. There are more cyclists wearing high heels than helmets in Amsterdam. But with so many aggressive drivers in the Czech Republic, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to give up my helmet in this country yet. But I think I might do so if I'm just pedaling around Stromovka or Sarka.

If you're going to Amsterdam, by all means rent a bike and take a ride. It's magical. And it'll probably make you wish, as it did us, that you lived in a city where cycling was safe, where it was supported by the authorities, and where you didn't feel like an exposed target for motorists who drive like the road is theirs.

At Rembrandt Hoeve.

Still in the city, but without a care in the world.

Along the River Amstel.

At Rembrandt Hoeve.

We passed the spectacularly weird ING House outside the city. It's nicknamed "The Shoe" or "The Dustbuster."

Karl, our tour guide, with Daisy and Emma.

Houseboats along the Amstel.

At Rembrandt Hoeve.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Urban Bro-Cycling

Here's to us!

Stewart and I decided to meet up for a little urban exploration a few weeks back. (OK, it was about two months ago now. Egads.)

I wasn't into anything too strenuous, but I wanted to get out on the bike, get some air, drink a few beers, and shoot the shit.

He lives in Roztoky, I live in Vokovice in Prague 6, so we decided to meet up near the zoo, at a pub that's a short ferry ride across the Vltava from Podbaba. He would take a different ferry at Roztoky to get to the eastern side of the river.

Me and my bike take the ferry from Podbaba across to the zoo. What's cool is that regular Prague transport tickets are also good for the ferry.

Unfortunately, the ferry wasn't running as regularly as Stewart had hoped, so he was a few minutes late for our rendezvous, time which I was forced to fill by drinking a very delicious half-liter of Svijany for 25 CZK ($1.30). Or two.

When he did arrive, he was not alone. His 13-year-old son Jules was also along. It was time for a real bro-cycle ride.

We drank another pivo and then headed south, past the zoo, intending to head along the river toward Liben, perhaps have another drink at the Trojan Horse pub, which was recovering from some serious flood damage. However, the world championship was being held on the kayaking course on the river just past the zoo, preventing us from going any farther.

So we headed up. Up a steep climb past Troja into a neighborhood full of cool, modern, expensive homes, until we eventually emerged on the edge of the Prague Botanical Gardens, which I knew were there but had never known were so beautiful or extensive. It was all fenced off, and there was an admission charge, and we had our bikes, so we didn't go in, but I'm definitely going to take the family there sometime for a nice walk.

Some sleek modernist construction in the neighborhood near Troja.

Some sleek modernist construction in the neighborhood near Troja.

By this point, we're high above Prague, in the area known as Bohnice. I'd always sort of written off Bohnice, having seen, and been not impressed, by its jagged skyline of raggedy old panelaks from afar.

But it was actually very cool -- a mix of old communist-era high-rises, some cool new construction, and a crazy BMX course we happened to stumble upon. We even came across a game of women's fast-pitch softball being played on a baseball field near a school.



And then I got to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time -- stand on the high bluff at Bohnice that looks out over the Vltava, over the village of Suchdol, over Sedlec and the Riverside School, and over much of Prague 6.

It's a sweeping view. Sadly, on this day, the clouds and spitting rain spoiled things a bit, but it was still a fantastic feeling to be up that high and know that we cycled up there, baby. (I admit, I had to walk my bike part of the way up the hill. Just too, too steep.)

From there, it was down a fast mountain path until we emerged back along the bike path on the east side of the river. We headed back to our original meeting place, where we had a few more beers before parting ways.

Sometimes it's cool just to stay in the city and explore.

Length of ride: 24.5 kilometers
Average speed: 11.8 kph
Maximum speed: 43.4 kph
Time on the bike: 2.03.56
Pivo Index: 4
Paltry distance ridden so far in 2013: 182.5 kilometers (jeesh)

The view from the Bohnice Bluff.

Savoring the view.

We stumbled upon a game of women's fast-pitch softball.

Feeling safe, heading south on the bike trail along the Vltava.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Missiles, Boar, Beers, And Bellyaches (Exploring An Abandoned Czech Missile Base)

Standing in what we thought was a missile blast chamber. We now know better.

I should have known I was in trouble when some asshole by the side of the road outside Černošice mocked me as I walked my bike up a steep hill.

"Want to put it in my car?" he asked, laughing.

"Fuck you, buddy," I thought to myself while contemplating a confrontation. I could feel my blood rising. That's a dangerous thing, when I feel my blood rising.

My cycling buddies were far ahead, much better climbers than I, a sometime-cyclist who hates hills like (bad metaphor alert) Mario Andretti hates speed bumps. I thought the better of a fight and kept slogging. I hopped back on my bike and pedaled for a few more meters before hopping off again, my quadriceps on fire. It was just too steep. It wouldn't be the last time I'd be pushing my ride.

When all was said and done, this day, this ride, would qualify as one of the toughest I've ever taken. (The others would have to be "A Ride For The Centuries," "The Boys Take A Big Bike Trip To Mělník & Kokořínský Důl," and "A Rock In A Hard Place").

I had suggested a bike ride to my pal Stewart Moore last week, who also mentioned it to fellow cyclist David Murphy (and occasional "Grant's Prague Bike Blog" guest blogger, such as here and here), who came up with the idea of trying to explore what he thought was a decommissioned Czechoslovak missile base near Dobříš, some 30 kilometers or so southwest of Prague.

In a nutshell, we wanted to see some launch pads.

On the train, and the journey has begun.

The Berounka River in sleepy Černošice.

Stopping to take photos of flowers gives me a chance to rest my weary legs.

It sounded like a very cool idea, but it also sounded ambitious.

I've either been on these types of rides before or heard about them later. The initial conversation goes something like this:

Them: "Such-and-such destination is only XX kilometers away. It'll be a piece of cake."
Me: "But I don't want to be back too late. I can't afford to be gone the whole day. I've got things to do. Dinner with the family, etc."
Them: "Don't worry. We'll be home by mid-afternoon. We'll take the train back."

In the end, I left my apartment at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, August 11. I returned to my apartment -- dirty, bleeding, slightly drunk, and totally exhausted -- almost 12 hours later.

I should have known better.


We all met at Prague's main train station. Dave's plan was to take the 8:54 a.m. train out of Prague to Branik or Modřany to get ourselves out of the city, and then to meander our way toward the military base along some cycling paths that he had scoped out ahead of time.

Except that when Stewart and I arrived at the train station a few minutes before our train was scheduled to depart, Dave was nowhere in sight. And he wasn't answering his phone.

Stewart and I made the executive decision to buy tickets all the way to Černošice, which we thought would not only get us and our bikes out of the city but closer to the military base and, in the end, more quickly home. We boarded the train, only to then receive a call from Dave, who was somewhere in the station and looking for us.

The route may have been all uphill, but it was undeniably beautiful.

Of course, we weren't on the train Dave wanted us to be on, but by that point, we didn't give a shit, frankly. We told him where we were and to hop on board if he wanted to ride with us that day. He found us, and we were off.

(Oh, it turns out Dave had changed his mobile telephone number but had neglected to tell anyone. Nice!)

We disembarked in sleepy Černošice. And after crossing the Berounka River we headed, well, up. And up. And up. Into the Brdska Highlands. I have never taken a bike ride where the route only went uphill for about 50 kilometers. And I never want to again.

(According to my Garmin GPS gizmo, we ended up with 3,068 feet, or 935 meters, in elevation gain on the ride. That seems like a hell of a lot to me.)

We passed through Jíloviště, where we enjoyed our first cold beers of the day (including Guinness on tap for 60 CZK, or $3, a pint!) at the welcoming Restaurance Pod Lesem, and then slogged our way – yes, all uphill but on some gloriously beautiful paths -- through forests to the village of Černolice.

And still the road went uphill.

From Černolice, a network of walking and cycling paths headed further uphill deep into the vast forest that hid the missile base.

Along the way, we discovered a serene little spot known as Skalka, on a bluff above the town of Mníšek pod Brdy. The site contains the baroque church of St. Mary Magdalene and the Stations of the Cross, as well as a lily pond, a rustic pub, and a few other ruins.

A blooming water lilly at Skalka.

The baroque church of St. Mary Magdalene at Skalka.

The beer garden at Skalka.

Stewart and Dave share a special moment above the lilly pond at Skalka.

It was a delightful spot. Kids roasting hot dogs over an open fire, chairs and benches hewn from logs, dogs running around, beer flowing freely, biker and hikers galore, and the occasional whiff of pot. We grabbed a few sausages for sustenance and a few more beers.

Back on the bikes now, we were on the homestretch. The missile base was only about six or seven kilometers away, along more forest paths.

Now, let me be the first to admit that, throughout this entire trip, I had been complaining. Loudly. Annoyingly. Vociferously. Mostly I complained about the constant hill climbs. I believe my laments were something along the lines of, "This is the worst bike ride I've ever been on." Or words to that effect. And I meant it.

I also offered a prediction that we would never be rewarded for our constant, crappy climbing by seeing any launch pads or missile silos because the base in question would naturally be surrounded by razor wire or an impenetrable fence and that we would simply have to be content with photographing some rusted old sign hanging on the main gate. I would have bet a good chunk of money on that one.

I was wrong. I admit it now.

Scaling the wall.

Our bikes went over, too.

Yes, there was a four-meter-high fence surrounding the base on all sides, but we found a place on the wall where others with the same urge to explore had left a sturdy homemade wooden ladder.

We climbed the ladder, hoisted our bikes over, too, and we were in.

The base was big and overgrown and crisscrossed by roads made of crumbling cement slabs. We rode around rather aimlessly, exploring a few abandoned buildings and empty bunkers, not a soul in sight, until...until…until we came across a genuine launch pad, complete with rail tracks leading from a storage bunker to what we surmised was a blast chamber for the missile's exhaust.

The rail tracks that guided the missile to the launch pad.

One of the three large ramps that Dave had seen on Google Earth. They originally housed some sort of guidance system or radar.

At the top of the ramp, where the guidance system used to be.

Coming down the ramp.


We were, as they say, chuffed. A real missile launch site! We felt like three excited kids. It's one of the wonderful things about cycling, that it can rekindle those feelings from childhood when you and your bike was all you needed to explore the world.

An S-200 surface-to-air missile. Note the rail tracks leading to what we thought was a blast chamber but which contains the launch mechanism. This is the exact same configuration we found at the abandoned missile site.

A closeup view of the guidance or radar system that was once housed at the top of the ramp.

An old photo I believe is of the exact same ramp we ascended, shown when it was still holding the guidance or radar system.

Dave had seen, on satellite imagery, what looked like three giant ramps somewhere on the base. After a further bit of wandering, we found one of the ramps. Ignoring the spray-painted entreaties to stay off, we rode up the ramp and enjoyed sweeping views over the old base. Could this be the launch pad for an ICBM, we wondered? It was so much larger than the first site we'd found.

Some sort of storage bunker. Nothing inside. Everything picked clean. Still cool.

These crumbling roads made of concrete slabs crisscrossed the entire base.

To make a long story short, after a bit of web surfing on all of our parts on our return, we discovered a few facts about his abandoned base:

  • That it was code-named Klondajk (although I have no idea why).
  • That it was never officially decommissioned, so the land is still owned by the Czech military.
  • That in its day the base housed Soviet-made S-200 surface-to-air missiles.
  • That what we thought was a missile blast chamber was intended to hold the mobile launcher for the missile.
  • And that the huge ramp we ascended appears to have been designed not for an ICBM but for some sort of guidance or radar system for the missiles.

Oh, and I believe this is the site where the United States had intended to install a new radar base as part of a controversial European missile-defense system that would also have had a missile-interceptor component in neighboring Poland. The Czech Republic withdrew its support for the plan in 2011.

Oh, and did I mention that while we were riding around on the base, we startled two deer, as well as one very large boar, who snorted loudly after we surprised him (and he, us) as we rounded a corner. I stopped to take a picture of the snarling beast, who was probably 10 meters away or so, and while I was taking his photo he started WALKING TOWARD ME.

We surprised this very large wild boar (or should I say he surprised us?) on one of the base's roads. As I took this photo, he started walking toward me.

We encountered a herd of about a dozen smaller boar a short time later.

I'm used to wild animals being afraid of humans. We hightailed it out of there, only to come across a herd of about 12 smaller boar a short time later. They, too, just walked toward us, unafraid.

It was getting late, and we all had to be getting home. We decided to take a train from the nearby town of Řevnice, which Dave knew had direct connections to Prague's main station. Řevnice looked to be about seven or eight kilometers from the base. And you know what? IT WAS ALL DOWNHILL!

It was the longest, most exhilarating downhill ride ever. It never seemed to end. And when it did, we were in Řevnice. Magical.

From Řevnice, it was a short train ride back to Prague. But it ended, for me, at least, with another painful slog, from Dejvická metro to my home in the Vokovice neighborhood of Prague 6. I hate riding up Evropská. It's another five kilometers or so, it's all uphill, and it never seems to end, coming as it always does after a long ride. I despise it.

But there I go, complaining again.

Length of ride: 58 kilometers
Average speed: 11.7 kph
Maximum speed: 61.2 kph
Time on the bike: 4.37.38
Pivo index: 6
Distance ridden so far in 2013: 158 kilometers

We found this working weather gauge lashed to a railing on top of the ramp. So obviously *someone* comes around the base every once in a while.