Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A View From The Bridge

It was always a bridge too far. Too far into the urban jungle of Prague's Prague 3 district. Too far from  my house. Too far from where we usually wanted to ride.

But I loved that bridge. I passed underneath it many times on my way to work, watching as runners and cyclists and walkers quickly crossed and then disappeared and I'd always wonder, "Where does that path begin, and where does it lead? And what's the view from up there?"

My usual view of The Bridge, from below, taken from my car on a rainy afternoon

I celebrated my 54th birthday a few weeks back and, just by chance, I had the day off. I asked Stewart if he was up for a ride of urban exploration, instead of our usual off-road hijinks. The ride would certainly involve cars and traffic lights and busy streets, but hopefully it would make up for that by throwing a few pleasant surprises into our path.

The Bridge, from up-top, at last

Stewart met me at my flat in Prague 6, like a true gentleman a bottle of Grant's in his hand for my big day, and we set off.

First stop: the beer garden at Letna for a quick morning tipple, before crossing Štefánikův Most and winding our way through the streets of Old Town to where I thought the path likely began: somewhere near the confluence of Husitská and Seifertova streets, not far from the main train station, Hlavní nádraží.

The rather unassuming start of the paved city trail, at the top of the stairs

We did find it, a decidedly unassuming start to what is actually a cool, paved cycling path that winds its way along what used to be an old train track beneath Vitkov Hill that runs parallel to Husitská and Konevova streets. (My cycling buddy David Murphy wrote in detail about this new path when it first opened in 2010. You can read that post here.)

The bridge crossing comes pretty quickly, and it felt great to finally be up there, looking down for once, from what must have once held the weight of locomotives.

(UPDATE: Thanks to reader Jakub Cikhart, I've discovered that the bridge is called Velká Hrabovka. Read more about it here, in Czech.)

We passed through a cool tunnel (the first of two on this trip) and discovered a fanciful pub, sadly not yet open, named U Vystřeleného oka (The Shot-Out Eye) (Note to Self: Make a return visit soon); stopped at Zahrádky Žižkov, a huge beer garden full of dozens and dozens of tents that seems as if it was built on an old abandoned lot, all overgrown and kinda shabby but also kinda cool, with a children's playground smack dab in the middle (only in Prague!); and then headed toward Vitkov Hill and the huge statue of the celebrated, one-eyed (hence the name of the aforementioned pub) Hussite General Jan Žižka atop a giant steed, at 22-meters high one of the largest equestrian statues in the world. It's an impressive bit of bronze, to say the least, and the site offers sweeping views across much of Prague.

The bronze statue was unveiled in 1950 and was designed by Bohumil Kafka. The total weight of the statue is said to be 16.5 tons.

(Read more about Žižka here, including how it's said he had a drum fashioned from his own flesh so that he could lead his troops into battle even after he was dead.)

From there, we took the Žižkov-Karlín pedestrian tunnel down into Karlín, discovering (or should I say, rediscovering, since Stewart and I had had a beer here back in 2001 or so, as I remember) a wonderful pub called U Tunelu situated just at the bottom of the tunnel. Step inside and step back in time. The place is a dream of a pub, with Art Deco cabinetry above the bar and all sort of antique knick-knacks scattered about the interior. They even served our beer in mugs that had been chilling in an ice bath. Fantastic place.

And two doors down is Peter's Burger Pub, where we sat outside and wolfed down a couple of tasty burgers (not the best in town, but pretty decent) and another beer or two.

At the Forgotten Sculpture Garden

From there, our goal was to find the bike path that we knew existed that would connect us to Prague 8 and Libeň. We found it pretty quickly, a dusty trail on the other side of Rohanské nábřeží that took us past the Forgotten Sculpture Garden, after which we connected with the trails that took us back down the Vltava toward the Prague Zoo, Troja, Stromovka, another beer, and home to Prague 6.

Thanks to Stewart for braving the streets with me. I actually find it quite exhilarating to ride in the city for some reason. There are few bike lanes in the city center, and the drivers here are notoriously hostile to cyclists, but I still like it. It's the sense of freedom, I guess, when everyone else is closed up in their cars, waiting at stop lights. And a declaration of sorts, I guess, that we have every right to share the road (as long as we obey the rules!). 

Anyway, what a great trip. Happy birthday to me!


Length of ride: 26 kilometers
Average speed: 12.8 kph
Maximum speed: 29.5 kph
Time on the bike: 1:58:51
Pivo Index: 6 (4.9 ppk)

The start of the Žižkov-Karlín pedestrian tunnel

I've had a lot of beers in Prague, but this was the first pub I can remember visiting where they kept the mugs cool in a bath of ice water.

U Tunelu's interior

Peter's Burger Pub

The new bridge over the Vltava, between the zoo and Liben 

 Zahrádky Žižkov, a charming dump of a place

Some amazing bas-reliefs on a giant door at the Vitkov monument

Near the top of Vitkov Hill

Inside the Žižkov-Karlín pedestrian tunnel

The Shot-Out Eye

At the Shot-Out Eye

Inside the train tunnel

Sharing the path with a skateboarder

In Letna, overlooking the city, with the first beers of the day

Thanks, Stewart!

A closeup of one of the bas-reliefs at Vitkov

Karlin has really experienced a renaissance since the disastrous floods of 2002. Forum Karlin is a cool place to see a concert. I saw Jack White there last year. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Ride Down Memory Lane

Before, in 2007

After, in 2015

My butt hurts.

Which is what happens, I guess, when you haven't ridden a bike in, well, forever. At least since the beginning of January, but even then, I don't remember my butt being so sore, and I'd been off the bike even longer before that ride.

Butt I digress.

Daisy and I had an American friend, Dale Bemis, visiting Prague from his home in London. (We'd last ridden together here in Prague back in 2007.) Dale is an avid biker, often traveling around England and to the continent to participate in races. In other words, he's a serious cyclist. So why he wanted to go out on a ride with the likes of us is a bit of a mystery.

Dale said he wanted the full Grant's Prague Bike Blog experience, which is to say he wanted what is basically an old-fashioned pub crawl interrupted by brief interludes of peddling.

We were more than happy to oblige.

Dale and David Murphy met at my flat and we set off -- Dale riding Daisy's bike -- to meet Stewart at the ruins of the late, great Koliba in Roztoky. (Daisy decided to sit this one out.)

As regular readers of this blog know, Koliba -- until it burned down under mysterious circumstances in 2009 -- was a favorite haunt of ours back in the day. A more gorgeously situated restaurant you couldn't find -- a cute ivy smothered A-frame chalet with a big fireplace inside for those nippy winter rides and outside a charming little pond stocked with carp and surrounded by umbrella tables.

To sit outside and sip on a beer in the shade after a long ride while watching the fish noisily break the surface, feeding on insects, was heavenly.

On one of those nippy winter mornings a few years back (in 2007, to be exact), Stewart and I and Mark Baker sat inside and had some soup and beer in front of the fireplace. We had the waiter take our photo, so cozy was it. Since the fireplace is the only thing remaining from the old Koliba, I had this idea awhile back of re-creating that photo today, amid the ruins of the restaurant, with Stewart, Mark, and I taking up our old positions. A kind of homage to our lost oasis.

Mark wasn't with us on this ride, so we had Dale stand in for him. As if we weren't sad enough about Koliba's demise, this visceral juxtaposition of years makes the tragedy feel that much deeper.

We cycled from Roztoky along the wonderful forest path to Únětice, where we were obliged to stop at Únětický pivovar to allow Dale to sample a few pints of our local treasure.

From there, on this sunny day, our plan was to ride to Tuchoměřice, to have a bite of lunch at the Belgian place, Auberge de Provence, which has a beautiful outdoor garden (and which I hoped was still in business). But wouldn't you know it, on our way, just a few kilometers outside Statenice, we discovered Kopanský Mlýn, a brand-new restaurant and riding stables, with outdoor seating next to a tiny, duck-speckled pond. Fabulous.
We'd noticed this area being under construction the last time we were through, but we had no idea that it was being turned into such a grand affair.
The inside of the place is pretty spectacular, too, with dining tables overlooking a large covered riding arena, huge wooden beams arching over the sawdust floor.
We sat outside and ordered a few more beers and lunch. The roast duck and dumplings was superb. Definitely a find, this place, in the middle of the countryside, and perfectly situated for a mid-ride stop. We'll be back.
We'd spent too much time drinking and talking and it was getting late, and a lot of us had wives and responsibilities to return to, so we headed back toward Prague.
Passing through Únětice, however, we couldn't help but stop for a quick one at U Lasiku, one of our favorite local haunts, an ancient wheelwrights that's been turned into a funky pub and restaurant by a local couple. And who should we run into but Robin Bond and his wife, Julie, who adopted one of our stray kittens, Maddy, when we used to live up the road in Cerny Vul.
Great to see those guys again, and to hear that Maddy is the love of their lives and doing great these many years later.
My new ride

Hey! I just figured out why my butt hurts so much. It's the new saddle on my new bike! My butt hasn't adjusted yet.

After eight years or so with my old trusty 2006 GT Avalanche 2.0 26er, and too many people telling me that my bike was too small for my rather large frame, I gave in and bought a 2015 Specialized Rockhopper Comp 29er, with a 21-inch frame and a Shimano 2X9 Alivio derailleur. 

The new wheels feel great, and I apparently no longer look like a clown on one of those tiny circus bikes.

Let's ride.

Length of ride: 32 kilometers
Average speed: 16.1 kph
Maximum speed: 34 kph
Time on the bike: 1.59.30
Pivo Index: 7 (or 4.5 kpb -- kilometers per beer)

Dale on the abandoned road just outside Roztoky.

On the road again with Dale

We ran into this charming lady walking
her eight dogs near Koliba.

The duck at Kopanský Mlýn

The indoor riding arena at Kopanský Mlýn

A local football match in Statenice

At Kopanský Mlýn

Robin and Julie

A three-legged cat at Kopanský Mlýn

At the brewery in Únětice, with eight beers between us,
taste-testing to see whether we liked the 10° or the 12° better.
The answer is lost in time.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dog Doo Afternoon (Or A Tale Of Warm Weather, Broken Bikes, Flat Tires, A Crash, Beer, High Winds, And, Oh Yes, Pooh)

Brian navigates a cool BMX track near Bila Hora.

Shitenfreude (noun): A feeling of secret enjoyment that comes from seeing your cycling mates covered in feces shortly after they had made fun of you for the same.

It was the best of rides. It was the worst of rides.

In other words, it was a ride that had everything. A broken bike. A flat tire. Beer. A head-over-handlebar crash. Beer. Gale-force winds. Unseasonably warm temperatures. Home-smoked sausages. Not to mention the aforementioned feces. Oh, and beer.

My friend Brian Reagan and I met for a ride at the Starbucks in Prague 6 on Saturday morning. The weather forecast was for wind and cloudy skies, but -- get this -- a temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 Celsius). I hadn't been on my bike since September and was (and still am) woefully out of shape, but I couldn't pass this chance up in good conscience.

We were going to do a route that we call the Bakerloo Run, an urban but mostly car-free route that passes through the upscale villas of Střešovice, past what is commonly known as the Star House in Obora Hvězda, then snaking through the panelaks of Prague 17 and Prague 13, before hooking up with the park called Prokopské údolí, which empties into the Prague suburb of Hlubočepy.

From there, we cross the Barrandovsky highway bridge (which has a protected bike lane), connecting with a bike path that hugs the east side of the Vltava River and takes you all the way back into Prague's Old Town.

At the Star House in Obora Hvězda.

But no sooner had we cycled a kilometer or two into Střešovice when I noticed that I seemed to have no gears. A quick dismount revealed the cable that connected the gear shift on my handlebars to the derailleur on my rear wheel had rusted clean through. I was, for all intents and purposes, riding a fixed-gear bike. It wasn't stuck in the toughest gear, but it wasn't in a granny gear, either.

Hard to see, but that's my busted gear cable hanging down.

Quite a few times, I almost decided to call it a day and get some lunch and head home. The gear problem meant I had to walk my bike up all the hills, but that was something I would likely have had to have done anyway, so out of shape am I. So I just kept going until it basically made no sense to turn around.

The wind was a force to be reckoned with, to be sure, but it was warm, it was mid-January, for chrissakes, and it felt so good to be back in the saddle again, despite my crying quadriceps.

Somewhere amid the panelaks of Stodůlky, my phone rang. It was our cycling buddy Stewart Moore, who had said he wasn't feeling well and anyway had to pick his bike up from the shop and maybe could meet up with us later but likely wouldn't. Well, it turns out he did feel up to it and was just a few kilometers behind us on the Bakerloo.

A few minutes later, Stewart came into view and suddenly we were three.

Stewart weighs in:
I thought I'd be over my cold by the time Saturday rolled up for our Bakerloo run. But it's of a strain that doesn't know when to quit. On Friday, I realized I was feeling pretty bad. Sweating, shivers, coughing, headaches. In addition, on my previous outing, I had fallen and broken my front derailleur, my back light, and very nearly my leg (or so it felt).
On that ride, Dave Murphy and I had set off from Klecany to Kralupy and on to Okoř for lunch. That was the plan anyway. But I wiped out in an icy puddle and was soaking wet on one side, it was minus 5 Celsius, and we very nearly halted at Kralupy. 
But we rode on after soup at the Marina Vltava in Kralupy. As we rode alongside the railway line near Budec, I discovered my gear issues. So I parted ways with Dave at Okoř and went home. Maybe 30 kilometers -- maybe -- all told. It certainly felt longer and likely made my cold into something worse.
Saturday, Bakerloo Day, rolled around and I didn't think I could make it and very reluctantly made my excuses. I don't like backing out. In this case, I half believed I'd kill my cold with a good bit of cycling, but I felt awful. What to do?
I decided I'd walk over to Cyclo Adam, about six kilometers, and get my bike. It's a forest walk. Lovely. Plenty of hills to climb, too. By the time I arrived, I felt terrible, again.
 I highly recommend the services of Cyclo Adam. They are good-natured and my bike always feels fantastic when I get it back from them. This time was different. It was better than fantastic. It flew. On our icy ride, Dave had advised me to switch to a lighter tire. He said it would likely make an incredible difference, and it did. The bike glides now. I've been on fat tires so long that I had come to feel that it was the norm to be sluggish. As Grant put it, "Your bike no longer sounds like a swarm of bees."
I need a sturdy tire because I prefer trails, but the Schwalbe's I switched to look almost the same as my old fatboys, only they are far lighter and so fast for it. I can honestly say I'm enjoying riding again.
I shot down the street and realized I also felt a lot better physically for some reason. Maybe I could do the Bakerloo after all. But I was now very late, maybe an hour behind Grant and Brian. I went through the route in my mind and guessed where they'd be and then I raced after them. I was in upper Suchdol and had a ways to go just to reach the starting point -- maybe seven kilometers.
Only ... I rode straight to the metro at Hradčanská. You can take your bike on the subway here and it's a great way to head to various starting points, parks, forests, without riding through the city itself. I changed to the yellow line and jumped off at Zličin. I raced down and behind Ikea. I wanted to meet the boys on the bridge over the highway near there. Only, I got totally lost. It took 10 minutes to find the bridge, but by then they'd passed that point.

I called and Grant could hardly make me out because of the high winds at my end. He said they were at the panelaks (tower blocks) but couldn't tell me where.
I floored it. (Can you floor it on a bike?) Anyway, the 'Goose' complied and in no time I reached the lake in 'Central Park' in Stodůlky. I could see the boys racing away and in no time I was at their backs.

Centralni park -- I love the lake here and the buildings around it. They are well-kept tower blocks and I always think it would be a good place to live, unlike their equivalent in the U.K. or the U.S. -- an estate or the projects. But it can't be so easily compared. I don't know what happened to make what is essentially the same housing system so different here. 

There is an optimistic feel about the place, as though those colorful architectural plans designed to sell the idea of a workers' paradise (that never seem to be truly realized off paper) actually panned out for once. The metro briefly breaks cover here and zooms above the lake in a rust red and glass tube. There is something a bit Fritz Lang in that, too, that I just love to see. A tongue-in-cheek brutalism that works in reality. 

And just as suddenly, I had a flat rear tire. First, no gears. Then, a flat. Great. Sure, I had a spare tube and all the tools, but I was in no mood to futz with a flat. But what are you gonna do?

We found a flat place to do the dirty work. Which turned out to be even dirtier than I had expected when a bunch of mud on my tire turned out to be dog crap. My hands were covered in dog doo. But what are you gonna do?

Tire fixed, we continued on the Bakerloo, down, down, downhill through the lovely Prokopské údolí.

At one point, we decided to take a detour through a cool tunnel carved into the cliffs. It was longer than we expected, and it was pitch dark in there. We were blind. I almost ran into Brian who was also walking his bike just a few centimeters ahead of me. When we exited from the other side, two things happened.

First, Brian hit a rock with his front wheel and went head over heels over his handlebars. He'd been riding very slowly on a rough forest trail, so he didn't hurt himself, but still. Jeez.

Secondly, I noticed that Brian and Stewart's shoes and pants were covered in liquidy dog pooh, picked up in the tunnel, no doubt. Somehow, I'd escaped. At least we thought it was dog pooh, but on second thought, what kind of dog takes a dump in a pitch-black tunnel? I'm thinking now it was human, but let's hope not.

By that point, we needed a beer, and badly.

Our only hope was a place we called The Blues Shack, a decrepit shelter surrounded by discarded trash and three-legged chairs and piles of old lumber that looks like something straight out of "Deliverance" but which smokes its own sausages and serves cheap and good beer and always has a cat or two slinking around. The Blues Shack has made quite a few appearances in the blog. It's one of our favorite places.

But would it be open? It was mid-January, after all.

It was.

We sat outside and drank three crisp half-liters of Hubertus and slurfed down a few juicy sausages slathered in mustard and horseradish, with fresh brown bread on the side. Nourishment fit for kings, it was.

It was getting dark by this time, we'd been out for much longer than I had anticipated, and there was a dog at home who needed walking. In other words, I needed to skedaddle. 

We headed down toward the Vltava, but just before the Barrandovsky bridge, we encountered a few talented graffiti artists plying their trade on some concrete walls along the river. Stewart and Brian stopped to chat with them, but I had to get home, so left them there. Brian took some photos, and Stewart said he'd write up his chat with the artists.

I crossed the bridge solo and took the bike path north toward Prague 1, passing under the imposing ramparts of Vyšehrad and by architect Frank Gehry's famous Dancing House (below), with the dramatically lit Prague Castle looming ahead.

Truth be told, I hopped on the metro with my bike at Staroměstská and was soon home -- sore, tired, but glad to have gotten back on the bike, and pleased that I hadn't backed out when my gears gave out.

The ride reminded me why I ride.

Stewart again: 
Later, post-ride, post-poo, post-Blues (Booze?) Shack, we stopped to take a snap of a graffiti artist on the river. I asked his permission and agreed not to show his face.
Grant had to head off, he was needed elsewhere, so we parted here. As this was happening, another artist approached and Brian and I had quite a chat with the guy. 
Even though it was a "free wall," he also did not want to be identified. Fair enough. By "free wall," he meant the city had sanctioned the use of the wall as a canvas for graffiti art. What these guys were doing made colorful an otherwise massive blank concrete bridge and highway system. Good for them. I've always liked that bold wall and I'm pleased to see it's ever-changing graphics. Brutalism pimped, in this case. When I heard it was a free wall, I even considered buying spray cans myself. 

Finally, Brian and I stopped on the Nabrezi back in Prague and, within sight of the Manes building, we had a final pivo on the river. Brian struck up a conversation with a St. Petersburg couple bound for San Francisco and a new life working for Facebook, but that's another story. 
It was an easy ride and it killed my cold and I felt much better. Brian went off to host an (American) football party and I jumped on a train at Maserykova Nadrazi for the final short ride home. Easy as pie, or poo, as the case may be.

Length of ride: 37 kilometers
Pivo Index: 3
Distance ridden so far in 2015: 37 kilometers