Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Perfect Bike Ride Redux

A man outstanding in his field. (Photo by Mark)

As Stewart and I have often said, riding a bike as an adult instantly takes you back to being a kid again.

Grabbing the handlebars changes your mindset. It changes your direction, in all meanings of that word.

Instead of that guy sitting quietly in the metro, giving your seat up for old ladies and making sure the music in your earbuds isn't so loud as to bother other passengers, your bike turns you into that guy sitting on the back of a mysterious stone statue of a Sphinx that you pass along the trail.

Instead of that guy standing patiently in a long line at the potraviny, all the while hoping that you have the coins you'll need to give the cashier the exact change so she doesn't roll her eyes at you and make a big fuss, your bike turns you into that guy zooming down a hill at full speed, more than a little recklessly, and not even wearing a helmet (see my last post, "The Joy of Riding Without a Helmet").

Instead of that guy sitting in another boring meeting at work, nodding politely, pretending to be paying attention, your bike turns you into that guy scrambling up a slippery rock face so you can squeeze your fat ass into a cool cave scooped out of undulating sandstone.

It's almost obligatory to take a shot at this bridge, with the Mělník castle in the background.

We -- that is, I, Mark, Stewart, and a new acqaintance, Jonathan -- decided to meet up last Saturday for the classic ride to Mělník. I've described it on this blog before as perhaps the perfect bike ride, and once again, it didn't disappoint.

Mark, Jonathan, and I met at the train station in Bubeneč. We hoisted our bikes aboard, destination Kralupy, picking Stewart up along the way in Roztoky.

From Kralupy, it's a wonderful ride along country roads and bike paths all the way to Mělník.

We passed fields of rain-slicker-yellow rapeseed and green young hops, sucked down some cold glasses of Holba at U Hofmannů in the unfortunately named village of Dědibaby, found someone's phone in the middle of the road and tried to return it to its rightful owner, inhaled a few burgers and a steak and few more half-liters at U Císaře in Mělník, and tried not to melt under the incessant sun.

And then, as we made our way back to Kralupy, we remembered that there is one train per hour back home, and we were devilishly close to being able to make the 6:41 p.m. But we'd have to hustle, and there would be no more beers on the ride home.

Getting our just desserts. (Photo by Mark)

At some point, Stewart and I -- flagging a bit, it must be said -- lost Mark and Jonathan somewhere up ahead. As we approached Kralupy, it didn't seem as if we had any chance in hell of making that train. Undoubtedly, we thought, Mark and Jonathan, far ahead, were already onboard.

We looked at our watches, and we pedaled, and we looked at our watches, and waited to cross a busy street, and we looked at our watches, and we raced through the back streets of Kralupy, and we looked at our watches, and we rode through the lobby of the train station (against the rules, I'm sure) and lifted our bikes up the stairs to the platform and onto the train with about 37 seconds to spare.

The train started moving.

Mark and Jonathan had missed it, we learned by SMS. They hadn't known exactly how to get to the station. Or at least the fastest way. We'd overtaken them somehow in the backstreets.

That's what you get, guys, for breaking off the pack and leaving the so-called weaker riders behind to be devoured by the wolves.

Mark and Jonathan cooled their heels with a glass of wine or two at the train station while they waited for the next train.

Hard to feel too sorry for them, really.

Length of ride: 65 kilometers
Average speed: 15 kph
Maximum speed: 47.4 kph
Time on the bike: 4 hours, 17 minutes
Pivo Index: Six

 A little spelunking along the trail toward Nelahozeves.

The chateau at Veltrusy.

Creamy, cold Holba at U Hofmannů in Dědibaby.

Discussing life's weightier issues at U Hofmannů.

On top of the world in Mělník.

A burger at U Císaře in Mělník, our traditional watering hole.

I just liked the old-fashioned feel and '60s-era sign at this flower shop in Kralupy.

Rapeseed on the road to Mělník.

Stewart had a puncture at this juncture.

Off the train in Kralupy, heading to the trails. (Photo by Mark)

What it's all about. (Photo by Mark)

Jonathan goes off-road (or off-rocker).

Jonathan's panorama app accidentally produced this intriguing photo of Stewart contemplating a beer or three.

Grant, meet Jonathan. Jonathan, Grant. (Photo by Mark)

Hops. Bikes. No cars. A beer in sight. (Photo by Jonathan)

I had to. I just had to. (Photo by Mark)

A cute little holiday camp near Veltrusy. (Photo by Jonathan)

Mělník castle. (Photo by Jonathan)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Joy Of Riding Without A Helmet

Tourist Shot #1.

I took a ride a week or two ago down to the Pivo Na Naplavce beer festival along the Vltava River, just south of the Charles Bridge.

My short ride was notable for a variety of reasons.

1. The beer festival, which featured the work of dozens and dozens of small breweries from across the Czech Republic, was phenomenal. Wonderful beer, great atmosphere, perfect weather, good food. It was exactly what the Czech Beer Festival on Letna was not but desperately needs to be.

2. My ride took me through some prime Prague tourist spots and I was able to appreciate the beauty of the city anew. Sometimes it's good to be a tourist in the place where you live.

3. And, perhaps most significantly, I decided not to wear a helmet or even to take my backpack (with its spare tube and a tire pump) with me.

As you may remember, we took a ride in Amsterdam back in October. Of course, no one wears a helmet in Amsterdam, and we didn't either. It was liberating. I felt like a kid. (We didn't know what a helmet was when I was growing up.) I experienced the true freedom of being on a bicycle, untethered. I wanted to feel that feeling again, and I did.

Some may say that drinking beer and then riding through the city without a helmet on is crazy, stupid, maybe even against the law. I can't argue with that.

I also can't argue with how great it felt to just hop on my bike and take off.

My bike was still wearing the residue of my last ride, "I Don't Like Mud Days."

Tourist Shot #2.

Tourist Shot #3.

Munchies at the beer fest.

One of my favorites.

Fried carp nuggets. Boneless and delicious.

Pivo Na Naplavce was all that the Czech Beer Festival is not.

Grilled sardines, from the good folks at Nenasyta, Food Adventure, the Prague 6 Slovenian restaurant.

Four wheels can be good, too.

Behind the scenes of a blog post. (Photo by Mark Baker)

A discerning palate. (Photo by Mark Baker) 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What It Feels Like When They Steal Your Bike

The author at Letna with Bike No. 3.

By Mark Baker

I saw a great video on bike theft recently on "The New York Times" website. According to the video, called "How to Catch a Bike Thief," police in San Francisco have formed a special unit to fight bike theft and employed some creative ideas to that end, including using "bait bikes" to lure thieves, hidden cameras, GPS devices, and social media.

For me, the most satisfying moment comes at the 1:20 mark, when through CCTV we see a thief make off with a bike, only to be wrestled to the ground seconds later by the police. The head of the bike-theft unit, officer Matt Friedman, chuckles while watching the thief go down hard. Sounds bad to say it, but I could probably watch that moment 50 times in a row and not get tired of it.

In the past decade or so living in Prague, I've lost at least six bikes to theft (to be fair, two bikes were stolen on trips to Poland, not in Prague). I long ago lost sympathy for anyone who would steal a bike for whatever reason, and would probably go to great lengths to try to catch a thief (even, perhaps, setting out a bait bike).

Trail of Tears

Many people don’t realize it, but finding that your bike has been stolen can set you off on an emotional roller-coaster ride. There’s the immediate surge of anger you feel toward the thief that actually seems good and healthy. That’s suddenly tamped down, though, by the realization that you’re never going to see the bike again. The prospect of recovering a stolen bike (here in Prague, and just about everywhere else) is nil. There’s no place for that anger to go and what felt like strength in the first moments, starts to feels more like impotent rage a couple minutes later.

There’s also the frustration (and boredom) of having to deal with the police and insurance company (if you’re lucky enough to have a policy) and all of the fruitless, pointless questions they ask. Make, model, color, serial number (who has that in their wallet?) This is just the start of the process. Where did you buy it? When did you buy it? Do you have the receipt? ("Yes, officer, right here in my pocket."). The police in Poland, on one occasion, even asked me to sketch out the bike on a piece of paper and
identify the angle between the crossbar and the down tube (45°? 35°? 65°??) On that occasion, the police kept me at the station for four hours filing a report -- without the slightest expectation they would ever catch the thief.

Then there are your friends -- your closest friends -- and their well meaning but maddening inability to understand your predicament.

Tell someone your bike’s been stolen and instead of sympathy you often get a barrage of questions: "Was it locked?" "Where did you leave it?" "How good was the lock?" "How long did you leave the bike unattended?" It’s as if they’re working on behalf of the bike thief and trying to find holes in your story.

(As a short aside, if you’re ever in the situation where a friend tells you his or her bike has been stolen, try hard not to make the first question, "Was it locked?" Of course it was locked. Simply say: "Sorry
to hear it. That’s really bad news.")

Maybe the toughest – and most unwelcome -- emotion is somehow related to the above. It’s the inward shame and nagging feeling that maybe you really did do something to enable the theft. "Of course that lock wasn’t strong enough." "I should never have parked the bike there." "What was I thinking?"
"What an idiot I was."

All these thoughts run through your mind over and over again, and inevitably lead you to the faulty, messed-up "realization" that somehow you’re complicit in the theft of your own bike.

It’s Not The Bike Owner’s Fault

Writing all this out now has been therapeutic and helped me to understand why, perhaps, I appreciated that "New York Times" video so much. In the video, Officer Friedman’s moral clarity is rare and refreshing in a way that possibly only a person who has lost a bike can really understand.

Simply by the way he talks and acts, you can see he knows that it’s NEVER the bike owner’s fault. It doesn’t matter where he or she parked the bike. It doesn’t matter if the lock was strong enough (or even possibly if the bike was locked at all). Theft is theft and honest people should be free to ride and park where they wish, without fear their bike will be stolen. It’s time to ditch the remorse and fight back.

Hear hear! What a welcome reminder, and I wish him and the San Francisco police department all the success in the world. I only wish now the police in Prague would get the memo (or at least see the video).

Mark Baker is a Prague-based journalist and independent travel writer. He’s co-author of the "Lonely Planet Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic." He’s been riding bikes in Prague for more than 20 years.


Bike 1 (no photo)
White Trek MB
Last seen: Betlemska 1, Prague 1, in 2000

Bike 2 (no photo)
Black Cannondale MB
Last seen: Cechova 20, Prague 6, in 2002

Bike 3
White/Black Specialized MB
Last seen: Lodz, Poland, in 2006

Bike 4
Blue Scott MB
Last seen: InterContinental Hotel, Prague 1, in 2007

Bike 5
Gold Kona Caldera MB
Last seen: Ve struhach 22, Prague 6, in 2008

Bike 6
Black Kona Caldera MB
Last seen: Plotsk, Poland, in 2011

Bike 7
Blue Specialized Rockhopper MB
Still have it. For now.

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.