Bladders, Cobbles and the Emperor Napoleon: Cycling in an Eastern European Winter (Part 3)

The snow keeps falling. Having decided that the only way spring will come is if we will it to be so, we are out in the snow once again. Our sheer presence and will power, ploughing through drifts and skidding on icy, crusty surfaces should do the trick … or so we believe. This time it is the Löbau circuit: a swing in north-western direction along less frequented byways, skirting the mountain at Löbau itself, with its ancient fortress, and then south with an easterly bend, along villages strung out on an all-important stream.

Byways are wonderful cycle routes, with cars preferring the wider thoroughfares. But that is only the case if ‘wonderful’ includes plunging drops and granny-gear climbs, if it includes the practice of leaving snow to its own devices, to drift into hollows, to melt when it feels like it, and to hang around as long as possible. If one is lucky enough to have had a car or a truck pass through beforehand, then there may be a tyre line through the snow.

This time we are prepared, even to carry our steeds if needed over particularly icy stretches. After the first few kilometres, the road turns north and drops straight off the ridge to Herwigsdorf. Fingers and toes begin to stiffen as our body decides they should really keep our vital organs functioning in the face of imminent hypothermia. Until the climb: now the extra demand on our lungs and heart send blood coursing to our extremities, slowly warming them once again.

By the time we are in the outskirts of Löbau, the special blessing of a chill ride is upon me. My bladder always feels the need to remove extra fluids from my body in a way that can only lead to extreme dehydration. Either that or the water I keep sucking down needs to go somewhere. I have become rather adept at pissing anywhere and everywhere. My motto is one that I have drawn from Georg Lukács, when he was a communist agitator in Hungary: if you need to do something illegal, make it brief. An elaborate and strung-out affair multiplies exponentially the chances of being spotted. So also with a roadside piss, even in the most built-up areas: do it fast; do it hard; move on.

Apparently, Napoleon attempted the same thing when he tried to invade Russia. Retreating, I mean, not pissing, although he may well have been pissing as well. But he got caught, largely because taking an army over such a vast distance can hardly be done fast and hard. Napoleon? What has he got to do with this ride? The mountain of Löbau was a spot where he chose to make a stand – a century or two before we are passing through – with his fleeing, freezing and hungry army, to fight off the Polish and Russian troops harrying his tail. To no avail, it seems, he was handsomely beaten and had to retreat yet again.

2013 March 222 (Herrnhut)a

Back to our ride: we know that somewhere ahead is gentle decline out of Löbau, following the stream through the villages for a good stretch. The catch is that we need to cross a wide field or two to get there. And in these conditions a wide field means much snow. Fortunately, it is not so deep, so we crunch and skid for the next few kilometres, having to walk only a few hundred metres. Nonetheless, ice has a curious knack of gathering in one’s brake pads and then squealing incessantly for an eternity afterwards. It does not like dropping off, except with a solid pounding or two.

At last we find my longed-for creek and rattle our way down through Großschweidnitz and Niedercunnersdorf to Obercunnersdorf and many in between – villages strung out next to one another mean cobbles as far as the eye can see. The early houses in Großschweidnitz are ostentatious affairs, pretending to be village houses but speaking of old wealth and long years of exploiting hapless peasants. Lower down the stream the houses become modest, smaller and more appealing, away from the obnoxiously rich and powerful of the world.

By now, thoroughly loosened up by the basalt boulders they call cobbles in these parts, completely emptied of moisture after a dozen or more leaks on the way, and with all parts of the bike encased in solid blocks of ice, we realise that the end of the ride is nigh. We also realise that spring and we will need to muster up some stronger forces than mere will power.

2013 March 217 (Herrnhut)a

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