An autumn bike ride that was, but wasn’t, a race
Too late, I looked up. I saw Radek sloshing through an enormous puddle-pond, the wheels of his mountain bike churning round and round like the slow fan on the back of the air boats that we saw in the Florida Everglades last summer. He made it to the other side.
I heard Radek say in Czech, “Did I splash you? Are you wet?” I realized that a hiker who was walking along wooden planks set up as a make-shift bridge at the edge of the puddle-pond was annoyed. Instead of ignoring the man, Radek was arguing back.
I groaned. Biker vs. hiker standoffs were par for the course on Czech trails. Despite my best attempts to be courteous on foot and on bike, I had found myself on both sides of the equation. Still, I hated confrontation. And, it was a cold enough day that I wouldn’t wish for anyone to get wet.
In the nanosecond between when I saw Radek on dry land and I entered the puddle-pond myself, I felt my bike wobble. I pedaled another rotation, but I had lost too much speed. One foot touched down. Then the second. Water seeped through my aerated biking shoes. When I lifted my foot to the pedal again, water sloshed between my toes.
Before I could tell Radek what had happened, he’d pedaled off. Half relieved that the confrontation with the hiker hadn’t escalated and half annoyed that I didn’t have anyone to give me sympathy, I set off behind him. It wasn’t the first time I’d trailed my husband on a bike ride. I just hoped my feet wouldn’t freeze before we stopped for lunch.
It was a beautiful, but chilly, Saturday in mid-October. Along with some 3,000 other mountain bikers, my Czech husband and I were riding the trails that wound up, down and across the Jizera Mountains, a mountain range situated along the Czech/Polish border. The greens and browns of the evergreen forest were interrupted by sharp pops of orange and yellow. The sky was azure blue, but there was a chill in the air that foretold colder days ahead.
Unwittingly, we’d selected the same day for our autumn ride as the , a 67-kilometer race that garnered almost as much fanfare as the historic a 50-kilometer cross-country race held on the same trails each February. (In a weird coincidence, we’d also been in the mountains for the February race weekend.)
Nicknamed panelové peklo, (panel hell), the bike racecourse crisscrossed old logging trails and service roads formed by large concrete slabs. It wasn’t a technically difficult course, but it was a bumpy one. The riders would also gain more than 1500 meters in elevation.
A competitor at heart, I loved the race atmosphere, both on bikes and on cross-country skis. I was thrilled to see the peloton whoosh past us at the first control point and excited to spot a mature female rider toward the front. Although the mass of bikes and riders intimidated me, I also had a strong urge to join them. Could I bike 67-km at a pace fast enough to keep up?
Unlike the race contestants, though, I was engaged in a different sort of adventure. Radek and I were trying to bike at least 50 km without crossing the race path. (At least that’s what I thought we were doing.)
At breakfast, Radek explained, “It’s not going to be easy. The race cuts through most of the trails we usually ride.” To a rider unfamiliar with the mountains, it seemed impossible that we’d manage to merge on and off the racecourse. But Radek grew up biking, hiking and cross-country skiing these trails. If anyone could navigate an alternate route, he could.
Still, I flashed back to a moment last February. After several hours of cross-country skiing during which we’d heard race announcements, but we hadn’t seen the contestants, suddenly we skied smack onto the course. After waiting till the initial rounds of fast skiers had passed, Radek asked a volunteer if we could ski alongside the racers until our path veered off again about 200 meters into the woods. They agreed. Seconds after we’d started out, a skier in front of me tumbled. Caught off guard, I fell too. I scrambled up and off the course before I could slow anyone else down, but the memory stuck.
Wide-eyed, I suggested that we forget about stopping at our usual spots and bike somewhere totally out of the way of the race. Radek smiled. “Let’s go. We’ll figure it out.” He pedaled off before I had a chance to argue.
As we left the road beyond our pension and went deeper into the woods, we spotted race officials in bright yellow Author Cup vests marking the course with plastic ribbons, setting out folding chairs and sipping coffee. At the first intersection, a volunteer stopped to ask where we were going. When Radek told them, they waved us on and said, “You’ve got 30 minutes.”
A few kilometers later, we passed two white-haired women who assured us that we could join the route: they were the final check point. At the same time, Radek lifted the race ribbon to scoot under it and onto the course, we heard a noise. Within seconds, a large four-wheel drive truck spun past us kicking up dirt. Seconds later the first fistful of bikers sped by.
“Whew, that was a close one,” Radek grinned. He was worried the truck might take us out. I was worried we’d wreck the race. Both women looked at us in disbelief and turned to study their race map.
We continued to pedal headfirst into the race. Despite Radek’s assurances that we’d be off the course before we met the racers again, I was still worried. I pestered Radek with questions, and he responded, “When you see a racer coming, just hop off the path into the woods.”
Near the top of a hill (to my relief), a race official finally stopped us. The peloton was coming. He couldn’t let us go further. Although Radek started to protest, citing that we were prepared to hop off the course at any moment, another biker pointed to a path on our left. The alternate path was a mixture of concrete panels, thick roots, ditches and wooden footpaths. The ground was wet and slippery from the previous day’s rain. It took all my concentration not to slip into the mud. When the path turned downhill, the distance between Radek and me grew.
As I pedaled, I thought about how my husband and I are different. Although we both love spending as much of our free time as possible outdoors in motion, I love the security of planned events. I like registering for a race, selecting a training plan, attempting to stick with it, and finally, on race day, laying it all on the line.
Radek prefers the challenge of the unexpected over organized race events. He thrives on going off-route, bumping over wooden bridges and lifting bikes over fallen trees. He rides without water, gauging that his thirst will hold out until we reach the next pub. When it’s closed, he pedals on to the next village where he is certain we’ll find a hospoda ready to welcome us. In contrast, I fret that I’ve forgotten my water bottle. At the first outdoor stand, I stop to buy a bottled water. I chug it repeatedly during the morning’s ride.
Twenty minutes after I get wet, we reach the village of Jizerka and our planned lunch break. I confess to Radek that I fell into the puddle. At first, he shakes his head. Then, he is concerned. Bypassing the picnic tables, he leads us to a table indoors.
I wring out my socks in the bathroom sink. At the table, I stuff paper towels in my shoes and sit cross-legged with my bare feet tucked under me. Instead of a beer, I ask for a hot tea. Radek and I both order venison goulash and rice. In years past, I would have pitched a fit about my wet feet. I would have blamed Radek for not waiting for me or for exchanging heated words with the hiker.
“We still have 25 kilometers to ride. Don’t you want me to go for the car?” Radek’s offer is kind, but I am only halfway through my biking day. “Or, I can give you my socks. If we had plastic bags, you could put your feet in them. That’s what we used to do when our feet got sweaty on cross-country skis.”
We ask the waitress for two plastic bags, but she comes from the kitchen empty handed. I determine that my socks are dry enough. Warmed from the tea, my sense of adventure is back. Now that the official race is over, or at least nearly, I am also less nervous about getting in the way of the competitors.
In the final kilometres of our ride, we stop for blueberry koláč (and to warm my feet again) at the Šámalova mountain hut in Nová Louka. When we hit the village of Bedřichov, the postrace party — complete with music, food tents and stands selling biking gear — is getting started. (I even spy some socks for sale.) An announcer lists prizes over a loudspeaker. People are everywhere. The celebratory atmosphere is contagious.
We swoop down a grassy bank and cut across the parking lot. As the music fades in my ears, Radek climbs the final hills faster than I can keep up. He will beat me back to the pension. But it doesn’t matter. I am cold but content. At the end of the day, we have biked 54 kilometers with 950 meters of elevation gain. It is not quite the distance of the organized race, but we are both impressed with ourselves.
“So, should we start training and register for the race next year?” I am only half joking.
“You know. I liked our ride just the way it was,” Radek replies.
There is a part of me that will always want to register for a planned race – to know the variables I am up against and to gauge my chances against known odds. But, I am also coming to realize that learning to adapt (with a cheerful spirit) to circumstances beyond my control is a race-worthy skill of its own.
I have my husband (and our life in the Czech Republic) to thank for keeping me on my toes. Next time, though, I’ll bring an extra pair of socks.