Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bicycling with allergies

The reason why I will deviate from using my blog for describing my usual trip or ride experiences and venture into a topic that borders on biomedical (where my professional expertise is) and sports (where I am a complete amateur) is twofold: this year, I have read about my friend's onset of asthma on her blog and on one occasion witnessed her to suffer a sudden onset of asthma symptoms while on a mountain bike ride, and the other reason is a recent experiment with my own allergies, more on that later.
I should warn all potential readers that I will describe my own personal experiences that may or may not apply to others, so take this study with n=1 subjects as such. I will also connect certain phenomena based solely on my own experiences without making any attempts to imply causation, just suggest a correlation, but even that may be wrong.
OK, so with the disclaimer out of the way, I will give you a summary of my own allergies and asthma.
- No childhood history of allergies or asthma
- No family history of allergies or asthma
- Smoked cigarettes from age 15 to ~ 30
- Diagnosed with severe asthma at age 23 after multiple bronchitis infections while working under stress and long hours on my thesis in an academic lab severely contaminated with S. aureus and being a parent while finishing school
- Heavy inoculation of nasal airways and sinuses with S. aureus nasal polyps found a few years later
- Couple of polyp surgeries, couple of hospitalizations for asthma attacks
- One 911 call after turning blue at 3AM
- Taking various medication, nothing seemed to work
- A radical polyp surgery in 1996 and started to use a preventative steroid inhaler daily

So I would say, until then (about 1997-1998) my allergies and asthma were out of control. I should also say that until then, I did not do any aerobic sport activities, some recreational bicycling, regular gym workouts but zero running.

I started mountain biking more seriously around 1999-2000 and even ended up racing the Sports category in the New England series. Around 2004, on my friend's advice, I bought a road bike as a means of training for MTB and started to do longer rides, eventually metric centuries. In those years, my nasal polyps were so bad that I breathed through my mouth mostly and suffered hours of excruciating pain during each longer flight due to inability of Eustachian tubes (blocked by polyps) to equilibrate middle ear pressure. I also started to have some numbness and weird sensations along the left cheek where one branch of trigeminal nerve was.

After moving to California in 2007, I started to ride a lot more - of course, great weather year around and many new places to explore on both road and mountain bike. I also suffered a bad middle ear infection (never had those as a kid) and ended up with ear drum perforation which did not want to heal. After couple of years, one more botched polyp surgery, countless treatments with antibiotics and prednisone, my sinuses and left ear were horribly chronically inflamed and I lost more than 50% hearing in my left ear. Those were also years when I logged in about 3000 road miles and 1000 mountain bike miles a year. My road rides were almost all over three hours and 45 miles, more regularly like 80+ miles and 5-6 hours long. I did some multi-day MTB races (2008 MTB Himachal, 2010 Beskidy trophy, 2011 BC Bike Race) and was generally in great biking shape, especially weeks after completing another prednisone run.

In 2010, I underwent another radical polypectomy, this time in hands of an awesome Stanford ENT surgeon, who then put me on an experimental treatment using topical steroid in a saline nasal wash to reduce mucosal inflammation. This helped tremendously my sinuses, but the doctors were cautious about the "off-label" use of budesonide and advised against long term use. My left ear drum had the perforation so I had no pressure equilibration problems but also next to no hearing. At this time, I also started allergy shots (a desensitization therapy) upon recommendation of my allergist. My allergist said that in order to keep the polyps at bay and eventually heal my ear, I had to start with long-term control of my allergies. I should also note that even during my worst sinus and ear issues, I had no asthma attacks and did not use any emergency inhalers for years.

 After moving to Seattle in 2012, I tried to be more active on my bike, entered some local races but in the turmoil of that life phase, did not pay enough attention to medication. It took a long time to get new allergy shots (vaccines) ordered and I had to re-start the dose escalation by weekly shots. My left ear had a big hole in it and yellow puss oozing out more often than not. All that until I consulted an ENT doctor at UW Medicine who had some new results from clinical trials on the topical use of steroids in nasal rinses. It is almost always the doctors at big university research hospitals who have access to the newest treatments and are willing to experiment on you, if you are game. I was, and after going back on washing my nose with salt water infused with steroids, almost all my symptoms went away. Even my ear has healed eventually (this took another two years) and I now have a decent ability to equilibrate pressure. On a bike, I continued mountain biking on those fantastic WA trails, but sold my road bike and stopped riding for long hours and long distances.

OK, so here is my first observation that links biking and allergies: with absolute regularity, the third day after my long road bike rides, my sinuses swelled, left Eustachian tube got "glued", middle ear infection followed and thanks to my ear drum perforation, effusion prevented any build up in the middle ear. This cycle repeated countless times for me to get convinced that there was a correlation. A correlation with what though? Aerobic activity on a bike? Bent down position on a road bike? Drinking sports drinks in large doses? Muscle and tissue inflammation due to hard efforts? Immune system suppression due to hard efforts? Multi-hour exposure and inhalation of airborne allergens? All of the above? The problem is that as a single study subject and without controlling for all the other variables, one person can never scientifically prove causation. Today, I do everything in my power to control allergies, I do not ride longer than 4 hours and only mountain bike and commute on bike, and I am trouble free.

Almost. Which brings me to the second part of my story: I told a friend recently that I have not been drinking any wine for more than 20 years since I was allergic to sulfites. A long time ago, I went to anaphylaxis after drinking couple of glasses of white wine, and also almost went anaphylactic during a hike in Death valley, after eating some dried fruit at a Las Vegas breakfast buffet. So for many years, I avoided wine, dried fruits and sauerkraut. This friend of mine is an engineer and scientist and he felt sorry for me. Next time we met, he brought me several articles about sulfite content in wine, and a nice bottle of dry red wine, 2007 vintage. One of the articles can be found here, but I was most surprised by the graph showing SO2 content in wine (in ppm) compared to other foods.

Look at the range - how I could get severe reaction from a food item with 3700 ppm of SO2 (dried fruit) as well as wine with less than 40ppm? That did not make any sense. My friend and I talked about this and it seemed like an interesting experiment for me to try. So one evening last week, I poured myself a small glass of that nice Rioja red and having my emergency inhaler and an epi-pen ready, I sipped the elixir. I waited for thirty minutes and nothing happened. No wheezing, no tightness of chest, no itching inside your wind tube or ears! So mid week, I repeated the experiment with the same result. Yay, wine! Welcome back to my life! On Sunday night, I finished what was left in the bottle and also had another two vintage reds ready to enjoy during long autumn evenings. That night, I woke in the middle of the night with a pretty bad asthma attack. It was not anaphylaxis, but severe enough to spoil my night and make me feel sick the next day, trembling after a steroid and beta-blocker overdose. So I guess the conclusion of this experiment is convincing enough: one out of three is enough for me when my health is considered. So I will be looking at (hopefully) next twenty years wine-free again, but I like beer better, anyways. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mendocino singletrack

This summer, I missed the organized fun in the deep Mendocino redwood forest, which I wrote about last year. I thought it would be even more fun to travel there with a group of friends and share the place with others. For this reason, I got really excited when two of my Czech (actually Bohemian-American) friends agreed to make a camping and riding trip to Mendo in October. We suffered an unexpected 33% attrition, but two Czechs is still better than one (and way better than none), so on October 9, Pavel and I drove north, after suffering the Friday evening San Francisco traffic. A dinner stop at Boonville, in the heart of Anderson Valley, made the drive bearable, but it also meant that we arrived at the Van Damme State park campground late at night. Here, to our dismay, we found the campsite full (half of the sites closed, many reserved), to the contrary of the information found on the park website. I guess, north of Petaluma, the Internet information is not valid. We pitched our tents at the hike and bike area and went to sleep after just one beer. I woke up at 3AM to the sound of large rain drops hitting the tent canopy. Large drops fell sparsely but soon it really rained and the drumming sound put me back to sleep. It was a wet morning but all stayed dry inside the tents.

After some failed negotiations with the park ranger, we had to relocate our camp to one of the regular spots that just freed up, so we were all set for the weekend. Equipped with a guide book and maps written by a couple of local riders, we drove eleven miles down to deep redwoods surrounding the Mendocino Woodlands camps. Yes, down, from a coast, where you think you would be at the sea level, the drive to the trails was mostly downhill on a fire road that got quite muddy overnight. Our first ride went through fantastic redwood groves along Marsh creek towards Camp 2. From the deep valley, the only ways out always point sharply upwards and our first big climb was a mix of singletrack and jeep road to a ridge trail.

From the ridge, we started descending to the Big Tree, where we had to stop for few photos before continuing down the singletrack.

 After Big Tree, the trail becomes a narrow track cut into a very steep slope, so steep, that any obstacle on the hill side forces you (if you have the new norm 760mm or wider handlebars) to the ravine edge of the trail. Good bike leaning and balance practice for sure.
This first loop took us back to where we parked and we continued on the camp road to Manly Gulch trail. I remembered Manly Gulch to be a grueling climb, so we had lunch first, which really paid off especially towards the top portion of this climb. But it was so nice! Technical singletrack, all rideable uphill and very tempting to ride down as well. But our planned route took us west onto Rd 408 close to area called Jiro's Playground. The goal for the day was to ride series of single track trails with names such as Gas Tank - Gas Cap - Fury II and Boiler, some of the best trails in the area. But first we had to find our way through an area marked on the map as "Total Confusion". If you look at a detailed map of the area, you will see why: there are at least three paved or gravel roads all named "Little Lake Rd", and many single track trails parallel these roads and cross them in unexpected angles. We tried to look at our map held upside down, turned 90 degrees left or right, but every decision to go LEFT or RIGHT seemed equally probable. Finally, with the aid of phone OSM maps (cleverly downloaded for offline use by yours truly), we found ourselves on the correct trails. But until then, we rode tons of very fun twisty, rooty and loamy trails while being quite lost and not minding a bit.
Pavel in awe. Boiler Trail
These trails along Rd 720 were the gems of the area. Steep, technical, then flowy with many short uphills and retrogrades to keep the fun factor high. 
We finished our day soaking wet (it continued to drizzle for most of the day in the woods), but after a hot (!) shower in the camp, we were ready to explore the north coast and the North Coast Brewery.

Cabrillo lighthouse sunset.

 On a bright and sunny Sunday morning, we started our ride along the left bank of Big River, on a flat fire road with excellent views of the river and marshes. It was a good warm-up before the trail pitched steeply up and climbed to an area called Dry Dock. Here, we rode some of the trails along Rd 720 but in opposite direction than on Saturday, while trying new options. This way we found Gas Tank Trail (clearly marked by an old car gas tank), climbed up some corkscrew-like trail not believing we could have ridden it down the day before and again got a little lost in deep fern canyons.
We exited the green jungle and rode on Rd 408 for a short stretch to connect to Ames Lodge trail, a single track that passed through at least three completely different micro environments: starting under redwoods on trail deeply carpeted with tree needles, then coasting on sandy trail through a Pygmy forest and finally a fast downhill through rocky and mossy lush greenery towards the river.

After the ride, we lied down on a fine sand beach at the mouth of Big River, ate leftover pizzas and drank what remaining beers we had. At this point, I really did not feel like getting behind a wheel and driving 200 miles home. What would happen if we just stayed and camped and rode our bikes forever? To make the finale of our trip more interesting, we drove down the coast on highway 1 to Jenner, me enjoying the sharp turns of the road and Pavel enjoying the views.

Sonoma coast near Russian River. There is a completely naked guy running on the beach.
 Ah, California! How nice it was riding with a friend, on superb trails, without the crowds. Looking back at a trip like this will enable me to survive the daily insanity for few more months.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Punisher

A week ago, in the allergist office, the doctor took the stethoscope out of her ears and said: "You are wheezing. Double up on your inhalers for the next three weeks." For some reason, the fall season transition is always the time I feel my allergies worsen. But after many years of living with it, my threshold for self diagnosis has lowered and it took a medical exam to reveal some sub-clinical inflammation and pulmonary obstruction. The long story short: got too busy at work, called for refills on Friday and got an automated message that my meds will be ready for pickup on Tuesday. So I left for South Lake Tahoe on Friday afternoon hypomedicated, but very much looking forward to ride trails that should be in prime shape after Thursday rains. The forecast called for another front bringing rain into the area on Sunday.

On a cool Saturday morning, I started my ride from the beach in SLT and climbed on Van Sickle trail, over the Nevada state line towards Heavenly ski resort. My plan was to complete the 30 plus mile ride, sometimes called the Punisher (there is also the Uber-Punisher, double the distance), which follows the Tahoe Rim Trail over some high passes and descends from Armstrong Pass back to the lake. Van Sickle is vane sick climb, littered with countless rock step ups, that require lots of oomph to lift the front wheel over. Here I had just enough oomph to do one or two of these steps, then walked the next three, thinking that my heart was about to escape my chest cavity through the esophagus. As I gained altitude, my sickness was getting worse, so as I crossed multiple ski runs, I took the smooth but steep service road to the top. Back on the TRT, the trail cut into several canyons while being perched on a steep slope with quite an exposure.

Skirting the eastern slopes of Monument Peak, views towards Nevada opened up, but as I approached the split with Monument Pass trail at about 8,600 ft, the technical nature of the trail and the lack of oxygen in my blood forced me off the bike. I got to the trail junction, just mere 10 miles into the ride exhausted and dizzy. It took me almost two hours to get here and I knew I should get going but needed some rest and sugar.
I could see the high point of my ride from here - Freel Peak (the bald mountain on the horizon in the photo above) and this perspective just added to my feeling of biting just too much to chew. The trail continued to climb gently but it took lots of effort to keep going, partly also due to loose decomposed granite trail surface.

But it was so beautiful up here! Cool breeze with occasional strong wind gusts, signalling weather change, excellent visibility and total solitude. My plan was to reach Star Lake and decide if to take a shortcut back down on Cold Creek trail. I rode this trail back in May and knew how technical that downhill was. I secretly hoped to have enough energy left for the Armstrong trail down.

Compared to how many people I saw until here, Star Lake was a crowded beach resort. I saw about five bikers here and spoke to couple of women who assured me that the next five miles to Freel Pass was a great trail not to be missed. So after another bar, a short hike a bike that (again) spiked my heart rate to some triple digit number, I continued south and up towards a saddle below Freel Peak.

I crossed the saddle at 9,800 ft and did not linger around here. The wind was howling. I just saw a rider ahead of me to put his body armor on and then I dropped the seat and picked up speed. In my oxygen depleted brain, it took a while to register that I was actually on quite a technical downhill. I somehow expected the trail to continue climbing towards Armstrong Pass, which is actually at 8,700 ft. The top part of this downhill followed the barren landscape in large switchbacks, often over boulders and with shifting coarse sand under the tires, requiring lots of attention. I rode this section in half dazed state, which was probably good, since I was loose and not afraid. Funny, when I think back, I completely assumed it was safe to ride all drops at speed, letting the bike to handle the rough stuff. Or perhaps it was all my imagination and I actually rode slow while being dumbed down?

One way or another, I "woke up" when my wheels hit the loamy dirt and rock of the perfect Armstrong trail. To ride here without enjoying every millisecond of it would be a waste of time. This trail flows, jumps, has few scary spots requiring commitment but mostly it is enormous fun. The next section was Armstrong Connector trail, here the riding got really technical, with more than a few spots where a trail "feature" suddenly appeared forcing me to stop and convince myself to walk back and ride it, or scramble and slide down rock faces covered in that coarse grained granite sand on foot. I finished the 10 mile descent on Corral and Sidewinder trails, getting dizzy again on Sidewinder, not from altitude but from the fact that this trail literally folds upon itself and looking ahead means seeing three switchbacks down the hill, unless they happen to be hiding behind tall berms. Sorry, no pictures from this part of the ride: go on YouTube and understand why stopping for pictures was not an option.

I reached the valley still high on adrenaline, called Marketa to be about an hour late and rode back to where I started on the last, eight mile long trail connectors. At this point, I was out of water, out of glycogen and out of any residual strength in my legs. There was still climbing to be done and I stood up and pushed the pedals, thinking that this was it, I was never ever going to finish this ride on these park like trails. A mile from the hotel room, food, water and warm shower, I hit 42 mph coming down Ski Run Blvd, just before stopping at an intersection with Lake Tahoe Boulevard, with continuous stream of traffic. A mile of street between the trail head and the main road divided the two worlds. This ride was a nicely punishing way to close the riding season at Tahoe.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Jan does Downieville

Almost exactly three years ago, I posted about our hiking trip to the Lakes Basin region of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It took us three years to return here, this time with a mountain bike. What I remembered from our last trip was the sheer beauty of many lakes scattered among granite formations, the craggy peaks of the Sierra Buttes and how remote and underpopulated the area was. In 2012, we camped at Wild Plum, a nice campground in the valley of North Yuba river. On one of our hiking trips, we discovered the Lakes Basin campground and thought it was the nicest spot in the whole area.
Fast forward to 2015. A month ago or so, I stumbled upon one and last available spot at Lakes Basin and reserved it immediately, hoping to organize a trip for seasoned mountain bikers for a weekend of fun riding. On Friday, it was just the two of us battling the afternoon traffic in the Central Valley and arriving at our camp way after dark, setting up camp with the aid of our headlamps and cooking late supper.
Saturday morning sunrise revealed the landscape around our campsite, as I remembered it. This campground had the advantage of a pretty swimming hole right behind our site. Grass Lake and views of the granite megaboulders were a five minute walk away.

My plan for the first day was to drive to Packer Saddle and ride down the famous trails of the Downieville trail system. I was hoping to complete a loop described on MTBR by A.S.S., which included about 2000 ft climbing up Big Boulder trail.

After leaving the ride start spot, which offered a great view of the Sierra Buttes, I enjoyed the swoopy and fast singletrack of Sunrise trail, with great views of the valley 5000 ft below. As the trail changed its name to Butcher Ranch trail, it became lot more rocky and technical. Here I met a group of five riders from the Bay Area, led by Tim, who used his helmet camera to document our more (or less) successful attempts to ride through numerous rock gardens.

We stopped often to session some of the trail features and to take photos. Up (or rather down) to here, nothing was unrideable, just few tricky spots like the dry creek crossing which was easy to ride down but quite difficult to use the momentum to make it up the other side.

The first real hike a bike section was the infamous "waterfall", which I walked and watched others to try multiple times only to scatter their bikes and bodies among the rocks. The rock was dry now, perhaps it is easier to ride through when it is lubricated by flowing water?

At the transition of Butcher Ranch to Pauley Creek, I split off the group and started climbing up Upper Pauley Creek. This trail turned out to be very technical, especially after crossing the second bridge over a creek cascade. It became clear this was a moto trail, badly churned up, very steep and for me not really rideable. I hiked up about 50% of it for about a mile and half to a wreckage of an old (30-ies?) truck. At a clearing I could see the Big Boulder ridge still ways far and many hundreds of vertical feet above. I did not have time to continue here and make the last shuttle out of Downieville. So I had a snack, dropped the seat post and descended. Surprisingly, I could ride the whole stretch of trail, including some extremely steep sections made of pavers. I knew these from trails in WA and knew that tire traction on these pavers was perfect, after all they allow motocross bikes to ride up.

I continued down to the Third Divide trail, which was fast, rutted, dusty and basically nothing more than a glorified moto trail. The fact that many mountain bikers raced down this trail a week ago had perhaps something to do with the state of this trail. Riding this trail required staying loose, looking way ahead and hoping that the bike's suspension would take care of the crap beneath the tires. I reached the bottom of this trail without an incident, just with blisters forming on my palms. After a fire road section, I entered the last leg of the downhill: The First Divide trail. This trail was relatively smooth, but perched high on cliffs above the Lavezolla and Pauley creeks. Exposure was quite extreme at few places and it was hard to know what was behind a bend. I guess if you overshot one of the corners, you would at least die happy.

I made it to Yuba Expeditions bike shop after four hours, with an hour to spare and spent it by filling my belly with Gatorade and ice cream.

I guess this ride was probably my most "reckless" downhill run ever and I was frankly glad to be done. I climbed 1230 ft and descended 5,125 ft!

Another gorgeous morning on Sunday saw us packing camp for a transition down the Golden Lakes highway to Mills Peak trailhead. This time, I was ready for some climbing and Marketa for some technical trail running.

Mills Peak is a trail built recently and sponsored by Ibis. I estimated its length at around 5.5 miles each way (out and back). The trail reaches a fire lookout tower at 7,342 ft. It was obvious that this trail was built well using modern methods. It is narrow, bermed, there is barely a straight section of it as it sneaks uphill. It was still very rocky and technical. Ascending over lose and sharp rocks at this altitude and hot weather was difficult even on 29" wheels and required lots of strength. It helped me a lot that we regrouped every half mile or so, just to make sure we stayed together. At mile 4, we could see the lookout tower at a distance and still very high above us. Marketa decided to turn around and start a slow descend with guaranteed treacherous footing. I continued up the trail, sweating buckets and almost constantly sucking on my Camelbak hose.

It took me another hour of climbing through big trees and even bigger rocks to reach the tower where my odometer showed 8.2 miles. The views from the Top of the World were well worth the effort.

And now I was at the point where the real fun started! The top section of the mountain was a pure singletrack heaven. The trail was very technical, requiring a constant attention and maneuvering but even at speed, it allowed enough time to react to obstacles. I enjoyed my descent tremendously, all the way to the flatter but rockier bottom part, which was as demanding as the top portion, if not more. After another eight miles of nirvana, my hands burned and my lower back screamed but the cramp I got was in my facial muscles from grinning. Cooling ourselves at Golden Lake, refueling with the best electrolyte there is (beer, as everyone knows), I kept thinking how lucky I was to experience such an expertly built trail (thanks Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship and Ibis!!!), on a super capable bike, at my age. I really hope that there will be more days like this one to come.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bicycle Touring in Southern Bohemia - Part III: exploring Šumava

The forests of Šumava mountain range reminded me of British Columbia, but a scaled down, gentler version of those rain forests. Šumava is known for harsh weather and it rained on the first day of our explorations. Majority of this region used to be inaccessible to tourism, due to a broad band of well protected no man's land along the border with Germany. Today, mountain towns are centers of tourist activity, hiking trails cris-cross the hills and numerous bike paths exist to provide safe bicycle travel for families and bike tourists. All with excellent trail signage. Special category are trails following the "shipping canals", as the Šumava web site calls them. I would translate it as "flume" since these canals were built to transport logs, not ships. An intricate system of water flumes was built by Joseph Rosenauer in 1791 and some of the flumes were used as recently as 1961.

The flumes are built impeccably - walled off by stones, with numerous merges and even a 2-level water crossing. The system was used to transport timber from the mountains to both Danube and Vltava rivers, supplying construction wood for both Prague, Vienna and many towns along the way.

A part of the system is also a 420m long tunnel under Jeleni Hora, with nicely restored portals. The bike trails that follow these flumes are wide double tracks with fine crushed gravel surface, and since the grade of the canals was just a few % to allow for smooth water flow, these bike ways are easy to pedal on.
During our first day, we chose to detour to Plešivé jezero (lake), a man made reservoir supplying the flume system with water. This lake was built on a slope of a high mountain, so it took a good amount of climbing to reach it. It poured heavily on the way up, making us worry about the steep descent on the slippery and sometimes sandy path. But by the time we finished our lunch of sausage and bread at a rain shelter, the weather improved and we could let off the brakes for a long descent back to our cars.

This was a relatively easy, 23 mile ride with only 1500 ft vertical, but nevertheless deserved a reward in the form of Kofola and blueberry cobbler.

The weather improved considerably overnight and while some of my family went for sightseeing around some cultural and architectural places of interest, I decided for a quick solo ride from the rental house, before driving back to Bělčice in the afternoon.

 I rode through the former Iron Curtain area, following old military service roads that were built for rapid deployment of troops to catch those desperate souls trying to escape our socialist paradise across this physical barrier.

It is hard to believe today that these roads used to divide the world into West and East. On "our" side, there were watch towers, strips of smooth sand to see footprints, electric and barbed wires, and also land mines. The mines were eventually removed by the communists after many border patrol soldiers blew themselves up.
One good thing resulted from this nonsense: very well preserved nature and miles of excellent bike paths.

I rode over Knížecí Pláně, a high plateau with huge mountain meadows and tall solitary spruces, before starting a long and steep climb over an unnamed mountain below which the Vltava river source is. Vltava (Moldau) is called the mother of Czech rivers and it becomes Labe (Elbe) at the confluence in northern Bohemia, before traversing Germany on its way to North Sea.

Forests around the Vltava source have been badly damaged by bark beetles, but it is a popular bike route from Kvilda, a small town with many good restaurants. Here I managed to get lunch of goulash and dumplings, washed down by some good beer, before turning around and finishing my Sunday 50km loop.
This trip left many places still unexplored, as well as enough room for planning a longer bike tour across the whole Šumava mountain range. It is amazing that in the center of densely populated Europe, there are still places largely untouched by civilization, but with enough infrastructure to provide for safe and comfortable bike travel.  Renting good quality bikes is also easy and cheap ($100 for an 8-day Specialized 29er bike rental). I can easily see myself bike touring here after I won't be able to ride at Tahoe anymore.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Bicycle Touring in Southern Bohemia - Part II: From Bělčice to Sumava

 On Friday morning I got up early, strapped my universal Thule rack on the rental Specialized Hardrock 29 bike and packed bare necessities for a three day trip into the panniers. The first 10km between Bělčice and Blatná were a slight downhill and I shortly reached bike route 312. The stretch between villages of Mačkov and Měčichov were some of the prettiest places I ever biked through. I wanted to stop, sit in the grass on the woods edge and listen to birds chirping. But there was a long day ahead of me.
 South of Horažďovice, the bike route left pavement for a double track winding through the fields. Soon, I could see the ruins of Rabí castle on the horizon. Rabí is the largest castle ruin in the country and a place where the famous Hussit leader Jan Žižka lost his second eye besieging the castle in 1421. After a steep climb, I pushed the loaded bike for the final 100m on incredibly steep entry way to the castle and after walking around the main courtyard, slid back down on slippery rocks. Just outside the castle walls, multiple refreshment options called for a break. I ate a potato pancake, washed it down with my favorite Kofola and continued southward.

 The bike route between Rabí and Sušice followed a dirt road alongside a railroad, weaving into and out of the woods, with some grassy and muddy stretches. For couple of hours, I did not see anybody, except two bike tourists with heavily loaded bikes. Approaching Sušice, I rode on the banks of Otava river where red rubber rafts loaded with tourists bounced down some rapids and weir drains. Past Sušice, the natural scenery changed, too. Open fields and rolling hills gave way to deep spruce forests, valleys deepened and the shaded road following Otava river got very twisty. The grade was still very mild, as expected when riding along a river, but I knew there were some hills ahead. I encountered the first brutal climb just past Anín, a narrow road climbed at 15% for 3.5km to an intersection of bike routes.

The sign pointed to the right, but the arrow pointing left said "Cemetary 300m". I was curious enough to take a 0.6km detour although my legs burned and I was dizzy with fatigue after the climb in a humid weather. Black clouds were towering over the horizon, signalling some afternoon storms. At the end of the detour trail, I found a small church and a cemetary. There was nobody around, the place was absolutely quiet, bird songs that I heard since the morning stopped abruptly. This was an old German cemetery, a place called Mouřenec, likely a Czech modification of St. Moritz. A nearby kiosk described this hill and church as a "place rich in legends". I bet, it felt downright spooky.

After some more climbing through small villages, I reached another interesting place: St. Vintíř's spring and church. The spring was inside a small lovely chapel but I did not use the water source. I still had plenty of water on me, although I had been working hard for several hours by now and I was soaked.
I crested another steep ridge on a rooty forest singletrack and was rewarded with a nice fire road through beautiful forest.
 I enjoyed mountain biking in this very remote part of Sumava foothills - this area used to be a military target range and off the beaten track for tourists.
Signs along the bike route warned of unexploded ordnance, but I had no intention to veer of the trail. The bike path went down steep valley in a straight line, but just before I dipped into the valley, I saw the ridges I would have to cross. As I was flying down the trail, my phone rang a text message alert. My sister was in the area, and she decided to bike towards a glacier lake Prášilské Jezero. Up to here, I was doing a great time and it was only about 2PM and I thought I was at about 80% of my planned distance.  Back home, I thought about this possibility and drew an alternate route which used more dirt roads and added about 20-30km, passing by Prášilské Jezero. I ate what food I had left and decided to head that way. Few more kilometers through the woods on logging roads and then I hit the road towards Prášily, a village on German border and on the main Sumava massif. The hills around me were about 1000m, those mountains ahead were more like 1300m, so I knew I had some more climbing ahead. I looked to the right, where the road was dropping down the hill, then left towards the climb and pushed ahead. Soon afterwards, the road pitched down steeply and after few minutes of flying downhill at high speed, I realized my navigational error. I was going east, away from Prášily and towards Modrava. In Srní, I looked back the steep grade I just came down and decided to follow the Vchynicko-Tetovsky flume trail towards Modrava. More on these "flume trails" later.

 After I crossed the wild river Vydra on a wooden suspended bridge, it was a short distance to Modrava. Here, among restaurants, hotels and B&Bs bustling with tourists, I found my sister's car parked and after a few attempts to reach her by phone, I placed a piece of paper with the message that I will push towards Kvilda and Nové Hutě, our weekend destination.

 The climb between Modrava and Filipova Hut was a real bitch. As I reached the plateau with fantastic views over the whole mountain range, I ran out of water and strength. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of fizzy lemonade, drank half of it and poured the rest of sweet liquid into my Camelbak. The sugary drink gave me enough energy to reach town of Kvilda, where I admired a unique church building covered with wood siding on the front wall. I knew I was close to the rental house so I did not linger here and after some ups and downs, reached a trail towards Nové Hutě. Riding through the village, I noticed it had one hotel with a restaurant, a small grocery store and one more restaurant. Nicely restored mountain homes lined the road and in one of them, I met my uncle, my cousin and his wife and two of their kids. My sister arrived later, having biked steep hills to the lakes. All my relatives were well supplied with food and I was fed, offered many beers and after that, we chatted and planned routes for the next two days until late night. I went to bed exhausted, but I looked forward to more bike rides in the deep forests of Sumava.