The Spring that Never Came: Oberlausitz Cycling

What is it like to cycle in parts one has ridden before? Do you cover the same tracks, especially those that delighted you before? Or do you set out on new paths, the ones that beckoned earlier but which you reluctantly left alone, to return to later? At a fork in the road, do you opt for the same turn as last time, or do you take the road that you have not travelled before? Occasionally I do the former, but more often than not the latter.

Our rides took place in the Oberlausitz region of Saxony, in that eastern corner known as Drielandereck, a region shared by Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. It was supposed to be early spring, in March and early April. But after a vague promise of a few days in early March, the snow kept coming down for another month. That did not stop me searching and hoping for spring. Nor did it deter me from riding.

Day One: Mobile Sauna in the Ice (March 2013)

2013 March 046 (Herrnhut)a

‘There’s a taxi’, she says with a longing look.

‘How about we see what the road is like on the edge of town’, I say without guile. ‘If it’s too icy, we’ll grab a taxi near the shops there’.

‘All right’, she says, unconvinced.

It had been snowing for a week, with the fields and hills and forests covered in white, and the roads a mix of salted slush and crisp, slippery ice. We of course had decided to bring our bicycles, to ride from the last railway station – Löbau – to our base for the next month and half, Herrnhut. Laden with food, winter clothes and books, the bicycles were not going to speed along.

A few slippery cobbles and snow flurries later we arrive at the edge of town.

‘I’m on my way now’, she says. ‘And I don’t want to stop’.

I smile and push on.

The catch with riding in sub-zero temperatures is not the cold but the sweat. At some point, usually on a climb, warm clothes become the equivalent of a personal sweat bath or sauna.

Up we ride through the wald, a climb to the Herrnhut ridge, and then a turn to the back road that twists in to Strahwalde. Single lane, winding in and out of fields and the village cores, we have it to ourselves. It’s these village cores that always intrigue me, for their arrangement speaks of a vastly different sense of space from a very different time: the houses, usually two-story (lower for animals) and with local patterns and styles, string out along the necessary creek – for drinking, washing, refuse. They not face the street in the series pattern of suburbs, but are jumbled about, at odd angles and perspectives. The walls too are never quite square, describing ellipses, odd corners bends and twists. And the road between them twists and turns, often turning a corner that is the corner of a house, running through an alley that is the narrow space between two houses.

Day Two: Streugut and the Snow Drifts (March 2013)

2013 March 207 (Herrnhut)a

A hint, a tease, an invitation even. A couple of days of slightly warmer weather invite the birds from further south and out of their holes. We too are seduced. The temperature may be hovering around zero, and the snow may be hanging around to see if there is any more fun, but we cannot wait. So we are off, getting used once again to the ageing bicycles that we have kept in Germany now for a year and a half. Soon enough, she realises that the crunching noise in her bike’s drive mechanism is still there, although the gears no longer slip (after some emergency adjustments). And I figure out that the seat on my machine seems to have slipped down and that the rear brake is a little too loose for comfort. Yet, even with its ageing and rattling parts, the bike is still a well-made piece of equipment into which I will settle quickly.

With snow still on the ground, we quickly learn two lessons. First, we need to choose roads that have been cleared. So we avoid the farm tracks and forest paths, since they are still iced over. Instead, we opt for more substantial roads and their obligatory traffic. Or so we think. After Ruppersdorf, the back roads around Nineve and the run up to Niedercunnersdorf, we turn into a peaceful road. Ah, how quiet it is at last, I think to myself … only to come to an abrupt halt. The ditch, almost a chasm, of a new road cuts our track at right angles. Suddenly there is mud, slush and snow drifts aplenty. We have a choice: retrace our route and take a long loop around, or take on the vast canyon before us. We opt for the latter, hauling our bikes down into the chasm, wading through waist-high drifts and getting the bikes covered in mud. Free at last … except that now the road on the other side in uncleared and snowbound. At least we can ride, although our tyres leave wobbly lines in the snow.

Second, Streugut is not necessarily good for tyres. This mix of fine gravel and occasional salt is left in containers along roadsides, in building entrances, on corners, and so on. Its purpose is to give one grip in icy conditions. But ‘grip’ means sharp objects. And sharp objects, much like mini flint axes, can catch on one’s tyres and slowly work their way in. In particular, tubes do not like sharp objects. Car tyres may manage such flint axes, but not the slim affairs on most bicycles. We carefully scan our tyres for the tell-tale back sliver that is gleefully working its way deep inside.

To no avail, as we soon find out. Until now, the day has been sunny. A little cool, but manageable. But now a snow storm hits, a serious one. Snow pellets sting our cheeks and eyes, forcing us to close our eyelids to slits. Snow cakes our clothes, and not all of them are completely waterproof. I laugh out loud at our sheer foolishness, loving every minute of it … until the flat.

We turn a corner, away from the driving snow, only for me to feel a sluggish response in my front wheel. A few metres later the flat becomes obvious. With snow beating down, I have no choice but to change the tube – with our only shelter, slight though it is, being the forest on the side of the road. Wheel off; tyre released; tube out; check for location of puncture; careful examination with bare hands to find that sharp piece of struegut that has caused the flat. Half way around the tyre my thumbs become numb, as do my little fingers. Nothing for it but to continue, through the complete reassembly, until I notice the front bearings have loosened. As I tighten them, she utters a groan. She has almost frozen solid, shaking uncontrollably. Eventually we manage to mount our steeds and make our way to our lodgings for the night. The thaw is slow and painful, but the warmth inside is unbearably pleasurable.

Day Three: Bladders, Cobbles and the Emperor Napoleon (March 2013)

2013 March 222 (Herrnhut)a

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.

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.

Day Four: Lonely Roads and Bare Trees (March 2013)

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The wind in my face tells me two things: a white Easter is on its way and the Siberian wind of the last few days is easing. Given the circumstances, we need no further invitation. We are keen for open road, lined by stark and bare trees reaching their fingers to the sky. It is almost impossible to put in words the physical sensation of riding along a single lane road across an open hill – a road seemingly made for us on this day and purely for this purpose.

Our route takes us on a northerly loop, seeking to fill in the Oberlausitz map: north-east to Berstandt, north to Kemnitz, west in a zigzag to Herwigdorf, and then south-east, back to our lodgings. Initially, we must ride on busier thoroughfares. Despite the ice tight by the roadside, German traffic in these parts behaves admirably well, giving us a wide berth where possible. I guess it’s because nearly everyone is a cyclist as well (in fairer weather), so they have some sense of what it is like to be peddling on the side of a road, with trucks and buses and cars whizzing by. After the left turn in Bernstadt, we climb steadily to Kemnitz, working up a sweat in our winter gear and removing a few layers. Of course, our ears freeze in the wind as the rest of my body cools.

Now the best part of the ride begins, for we turn onto that magical single-lane road, here today for us but perhaps already gone tomorrow, relocated to another place. I imagine such roads appearing for a day or so, linking villages in a new way, moving aside trees and rocks, only to close up the space and reappear elsewhere – hopefully when we are riding through. On that road the traffic does not come and we have the road to ourselves, even if today that involves the wind in one’s face and ice crunching beneath one’s tyres. But at least now we are somewhat experienced with the encrusted ice beneath the latest layer of snow. Nonetheless, we linger long on these roads, for their pleasure sets my memory tracks running, recalling the same bodily feel of what may well be one of the best pieces of cycling road in the world.

Again we are taken by the forest-topped hills, by the sweeps of fields cleared from the twelfth century onwards, by the villages nestled in folds beside a creek. Again we can locate ourselves easily – that’s Neuberthelsdorf on the hillside there, that’s Grosshennersdorf’s church there, that’s the long rise of the Spreequelle there. And we enjoy riding through the twisting streets of villages and towns, dodging the corners of houses that just out into the street, or rather around which the road must turn.

We skirt the edge of a large forest on the Wolfsberg, pass by a farmhouse with a Trabant and one of those glorious DDR garage (simple, functional and built to last), and then drop from the heights into Herwigsdorf. Too soon do we find ourselves on the final run, winding through the back lanes of Strahwalde before a stop for some of the ridiculously cheap German beer to slake our riding thirst.

Day Five: Eternal Winter in the Zittauer Gebirge (March 2013)

2013 April 003 (Herrnhut)a

The hills of the Zittauer Gebirge beckon – another part of eastern Europe that continues to fascinate me. With the Gebirge, the border between Germany and the Czech Republic reveals its sheer artificiality, for the mountains are a region to themselves, ignoring an imaginary line that human beings may have constructed.

We set off south, lulled into a false sense of security with the tail wind from the north-east. The drop from the heights – via Nineve and the mill at Birkmühle – helps too, so we barely feel the ride. We carve our way through villages, along country roads, around the back streets of towns. Our legs are light, the bikes fly, the ride is effortless … until the first snowflake.

It comes at a crucial moment. Thus far, our ride has seen us glide by familiar places – Ninive, the old mill of Birkmülle on the way down to Oderwitz. But as we turn right, to push our way to Eibau and its brewery, that snowflake drifts down and landed on my wrist. I look up: the sun which has shared our ride thus far is gone, retreating behind the opaque, off-white sheet of snow clouds. I prefer not to notice, for we need to negotiate some back streets and then farm tracks. More snowflakes fall, attempting to get me to face reality. Ah no, I reply to the snow god, there is no wind, so you are not serious.

Little do we realise that the river valley with its houses is sheltering us from a wonderfully biting wind. So it is as we cross the Czech border. The multitude of German signs gives way to the occasional battered yellow bicycle arrows of the Czech Republic. We relish the scruffiness of Varnsdorf, a welcome relief from the apparent orderliness of Germany – apparent, for it desperately seeks to control what it cannot control. Of course, the Czech arrows bear little relation to the German map we carry. At the first corner or two we debate endlessly about which is best, or indeed correct. We opt for the wisdom of the Czech signs and are not disappointed. They lead us unerringly through the quieter streets and then country roads, bringing us precisely to the point where the imaginary line of the border brings us back to the German side. It seems as though the bicycle maps produced in Germany – like the one we are using – make vague gestures as to routes outside that country, with little concern for actual routes and distances. Do they thereby suggest that, in their opinion, all outside Germany is chaos, while simultaneously exhibiting a lack of interest in anything outside its borders? Both, I suspect.

Now it is time to climb, into the Zittauer Gebirge proper. Up and up and up we grind, the very effort ensuring that our hearts are pumping and our circulation is good. Waltersdorf at last, with its twisting mountainside streets, churches clinging to cliff faces, and obnoxious holiday houses and hotels for the well-heeled German burgers from distant parts.

With relief we turn homeward … and are smacked in the face by the wind. It is blowing directly from the north, precisely the direction we need to ride home. A drop from the mountains is usually a time for catching breath, enjoying the silver spin of the front wheel, and occasionally touching the brakes. Now it enhances the effect of the wind, chilling fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs.

This is merely the initial cool down. Valleys – like the one along which we need to ride – are wonderful devices for channelling and accelerating any wind that may be about. Given that winds like this one also have the intriguing effect of producing significant wind-chill, we soon become icicles in motion. Each push of the pedals is an effort. Each bend in the road brings another gust of wind. We beat our hands on our sides, stomp our feet on the pedals – all to no avail.

I look across during one particularly gruesome stretch, laugh out loud to my snow-encrusted companion, and shout, ‘Fantastic! It doesn’t get much better than this’. Here we are, in the midst of a driving snow-storm, ice pellets cutting into our faces, the glorious single-lane road that we have to ourselves a treacherous and slippery ribbon between snow-covered fields.

She can’t help smiling, cracking off some of the ice on her face.

On the last climb into Herrnhut, we opt to walk up the slippery ice of the hill, Langsamer Tod. Instead of a slow death, the effect of walking is to bring circulation, slowly and painfully, into our numbed legs and feet.

Today, I do not begrudge the hot shower at the end of the ride one little bit.

2013 March 217 (Herrnhut)a

Eternal Winter in the Zittauer Gebirge: Cycling in an Eastern European Winter (Part 5)

The hills of the Zittauer Gebirge beckon – another part of eastern Europe that continues to fascinate me. With the Gebirge, the border between Germany and the Czech Republic reveals its sheer artificiality, for the mountains are a region to themselves, ignoring an imaginary line that human beings may have constructed.

We set off south, lulled into a false sense of security with the tail wind from the north-east. The drop from the heights – via Nineve and the mill at Birkmühle – helps too, so we barely feel the ride. We carve our way through villages, along country roads, around the back streets of towns. Our legs are light, the bikes fly, the ride is effortless … until the first snowflake.

It comes at a crucial moment. Thus far, our ride has seen us glide by familiar places – Ninive, the old mill of Birkmülle on the way down to Oderwitz. But as we turn right, to push our way to Eibau and its brewery, that snowflake drifts down and landed on my wrist. I look up: the sun which has shared our ride thus far is gone, retreating behind the opaque, off-white sheet of snow clouds. I prefer not to notice, for we need to negotiate some back streets and then farm tracks. More snowflakes fall, attempting to get me to face reality. Ah no, I reply to the snow god, there is no wind, so you are not serious.

Little do we realise that the river valley with its houses is sheltering us from a wonderfully biting wind. So it is as we cross the Czech border. The multitude of German signs gives way to the occasional battered yellow bicycle arrows of the Czech Republic. We relish the scruffiness of Varnsdorf, a welcome relief from the apparent orderliness of Germany – apparent, for it desperately seeks to control what it cannot control. Of course, the Czech arrows bear little relation to the German map we carry. At the first corner or two we debate endlessly about which is best, or indeed correct. We opt for the wisdom of the Czech signs and are not disappointed. They lead us unerringly through the quieter streets and then country roads, bringing us precisely to the point where the imaginary line of the border brings us back to the German side. It seems as though the bicycle maps produced in Germany – like the one we are using – make vague gestures as to routes outside that country, with little concern for actual routes and distances. Do they thereby suggest that, in their opinion, all outside Germany is chaos, while simultaneously exhibiting a lack of interest in anything outside its borders? Both, I suspect.

Now it is time to climb, into the Zittauer Gebirge proper. Up and up and up we grind, the very effort ensuring that our hearts are pumping and our circulation is good. Waltersdorf at last, with its twisting mountainside streets, churches clinging to cliff faces, and obnoxious holiday houses and hotels for the well-heeled German burgers from distant parts.

With relief we turn homeward … and are smacked in the face by the wind. It is blowing directly from the north, precisely the direction we need to ride home. A drop from the mountains is usually a time for catching breath, enjoying the silver spin of the front wheel, and occasionally touching the brakes. Now it enhances the effect of the wind, chilling fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs.

This is merely the initial cool down. Valleys – like the one along which we need to ride – are wonderful devices for channelling and accelerating any wind that may be about. Given that winds like this one also have the intriguing effect of producing significant wind-chill, we soon become icicles in motion. Each push of the pedals is an effort. Each bend in the road brings another gust of wind. We beat our hands on our sides, stomp our feet on the pedals – all to no avail.

I look across during one particularly gruesome stretch, laugh out loud to my snow-encrusted companion, and shout, ‘Fantastic! It doesn’t get much better than this’. Here we are, in the midst of a driving snow-storm, ice pellets cutting into our faces, the glorious single-lane road that we have to ourselves a treacherous and slippery ribbon between snow-covered fields.

She can’t help smiling, cracking off some of the ice on her face.

On the last climb into Herrnhut, we opt to walk up the slippery ice of the hill, Langsamer Tod. Instead of a slow death, the effect of walking is to bring circulation, slowly and painfully, into our numbed legs and feet.

Today, I do not begrudge the hot shower at the end of the ride one little bit.

2013 April 003 (Herrnhut)a

Lonely Roads and Bare Trees: Cycling in an Eastern European Winter (Part 4)

The wind in my face tells me two things: a white Easter is on its way and the Siberian wind of the last few days is easing. Given the circumstances, we need no further invitation. We are keen for open road, lined by stark and bare trees reaching their fingers to the sky. It is almost impossible to put in words the physical sensation of riding along a single lane road across an open hill – a road seemingly made for us on this day and purely for this purpose.

Our route takes us on a northerly loop, seeking to fill in the Oberlausitz map: north-east to Berstandt, north to Kemnitz, west in a zigzag to Herwigdorf, and then south-east, back to our lodgings. Initially, we must ride on busier thoroughfares. Despite the ice tight by the roadside, German traffic in these parts behaves admirably well, giving us a wide berth where possible. I guess it’s because nearly everyone is a cyclist as well (in fairer weather), so they have some sense of what it is like to be peddling on the side of a road, with trucks and buses and cars whizzing by. After the left turn in Bernstadt, we climb steadily to Kemnitz, working up a sweat in our winter gear and removing a few layers. Of course, our ears freeze in the wind as the rest of my body cools.

Now the best part of the ride begins, for we turn onto that magical single-lane road, here today for us but perhaps already gone tomorrow, relocated to another place. I imagine such roads appearing for a day or so, linking villages in a new way, moving aside trees and rocks, only to close up the space and reappear elsewhere – hopefully when we are riding through. On that road the traffic does not come and we have the road to ourselves, even if today that involves the wind in one’s face and ice crunching beneath one’s tyres. But at least now we are somewhat experienced with the encrusted ice beneath the latest layer of snow. Nonetheless, we linger long on these roads, for their pleasure sets my memory tracks running, recalling the same bodily feel of what may well be one of the best pieces of cycling road in the world.

Again we are taken by the forest-topped hills, by the sweeps of fields cleared from the twelfth century onwards, by the villages nestled in folds beside a creek. Again we can locate ourselves easily – that’s Neuberthelsdorf on the hillside there, that’s Grosshennersdorf’s church there, that’s the long rise of the Spreequelle there. And we enjoy riding through the twisting streets of villages and towns, dodging the corners of houses that just out into the street, or rather around which the road must turn.

We skirt the edge of a large forest on the Wolfsberg, pass by a farmhouse with a Trabant and one of those glorious DDR garage (simple, functional and built to last), and then drop from the heights into Herwigsdorf. Too soon do we find ourselves on the final run, winding through the back lanes of Strahwalde before a stop for some of the ridiculously cheap German beer to slake our riding thirst.

???????????????????????????????

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

Streugut and the Snow Drifts: Cycling in an Eastern European Winter (Part 2)

A hint, a tease, an invitation even. A couple of days of slightly warmer weather invite the birds from further south and out of their holes. We too am seduced. The temperature may be hovering around zero, and the snow may be hanging around to see if there is any more fun, but we cannot wait. So we are off, getting used once again to the ageing bicycles that we have kept in Germany now for a year and a half. Soon enough, she realises that the crunching noise in her bike’s drive mechanism is still there, although the gears no longer slip (after some emergency adjustments). And I figure out that the seat on my machine seems to have slipped down and that the rear brake is a little too loose for comfort. Yet, even with its ageing and rattling parts, the bike is still a well-made piece of equipment into which I will settle quickly.

With snow still on the ground, we quickly learn two lessons. First, we need to choose roads that have been cleared. So we avoid the farm tracks and forest paths, since they are still iced over. Instead, we opt for more substantial roads and their obligatory traffic. Or so we think. After Ruppersdorf, the back roads around Nineve and the run up to Niedercunnersdorf, we turn into a peaceful road. Ah, how quiet it is at last, I think to myself … only to come to an abrupt halt. The ditch, almost a chasm, of a new road cuts our track at right angles. Suddenly there is mud, slush and snow drifts aplenty. We have a choice: retrace our route and take a long loop around, or take on the vast canyon before us. We opt for the latter, hauling our bikes down into the chasm, wading through waist-high drifts and getting the bikes covered in mud. Free at last … except that now the road on the other side in uncleared and snowbound. At least we can ride, although our tyres leave wobbly lines in the snow.

2013 March 046 (Herrnhut)a

Second, Streugut is not necessarily good for tyres. This mix of fine gravel and occasional salt is left in containers along roadsides, in building entrances, on corners, and so on. Its purpose is to give one grip in icy conditions. But ‘grip’ means sharp objects. And sharp objects, much like mini flint axes, can catch on one’s tyres and slowly work their way in. In particular, tubes do not like sharp objects. Car tyres may manage such flint axes, but not the slim affairs on most bicycles. We carefully scan our tyres for the tell-tale back sliver that is gleefully working its way deep inside.

To no avail, as we soon find out. Until now, the day has been sunny. A little cool, but manageable. But now a snow storm hits, a serious one. Snow pellets sting our cheeks and eyes, forcing us to close our eyelids to slits. Snow cakes our clothes, and not all of them are completely waterproof. I laugh out loud at our sheer foolishness, loving every minute of it … until the flat.

We turn a corner, away from the driving snow, only for me to feel a sluggish response in my front wheel. A few metres later the flat becomes obvious. With snow beating down, I have no choice but to change the tube – with our only shelter, slight though it is, being the forest on the side of the road. Wheel off; tyre released; tube out; check for location of puncture; careful examination with bare hands to find that sharp piece of struegut that has caused the flat. Half way around the tyre my thumbs become numb, as do my little fingers. Nothing for it but to continue, through the complete reassembly, until I notice the front bearings have loosened. As I tighten them, she utters a groan. She has almost frozen solid, shaking uncontrollably. Eventually we manage to mount our steeds and make our way to our lodgings for the night. The thaw is slow and painful, but the warmth inside is unbearably pleasurable.

2013 March 207 (Herrnhut)a

Two Wheels in Eastern Europe

Snow stretched out over fields and hill-tops and mountains, ice sealed off any stretch of open water, and the wind bore that particular bite that touches your core. Instead of the bus, we had decided to ride our bicycles from the last railway station at Löbau to the village of Herrnhut, laden with more than a month of books and clothes and food. The bicycles were second-hand, purchased cheaply back in Berlin on Karl-Marx Allée, down past the Stalin Baroque buildings. Creaking and groaning, with odd wobbles and strange clunks that suggested less-than-round wheels, they undertook their tasks with as much willingness as ancient nags with shot knees and arthritic backs.

But my mind was not on the bicycle, not even on the fact that my overloaded backpack did not allow me to lift my head for a clear view ahead, not even on the fact that the extra load on the back rack forced me to sit on the pointy end of the seat. No, my mind was on the options that lay on either side of the road. To one side was a snow-covered field or an icy pond, bordered by the mix of mud and dirty ice that finds on the edge of such a road. To the other side was a constant stream of traffic on what was supposed to be a quiet road. Driven by grim-faced, solid Germans with five-day stubble and cigarettes hanging from thick lips, they were in no mood to grant any road space to a couple of rusty and overloaded bicycles wobbling along on the edge.

What in the world had possessed us to ride? The anticipation of a month of early spring weather deep in eastern Germany. The chance to ride daily along quiet roads through ancient villages. The appeal of our own transport in a place where the bus came twice, once in the morning and once in the evening. All of these seemed good reasons before we departed, but now, desperately negotiating icy sludge and streaming traffic, all while pushing up an interminably long hill in the teeth of an icy wind, they seemed like utopian dreams.

The cobbled streets of the village of Herrnhut – in the far east of Germany and close by the Czech and Polish borders – eventually appeared. Now we had the intriguing task of negotiating those worn stones covered with a slick layer of ice. But our bikes, having shaken off the cobwebs and rust of long neglect, laughed at us: ‘We’re German bicycles’, they seemed to say. ‘You think this is tough?’ They were to become close and trusted companions.

Villages

Our base was to be Herrnhut, the small but stately headquarters of the Moravian Brethren (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine). Invited to move to these parts in the early 1700s by Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the local potentate, aristocrat and would-be spiritual leader, the ragtag group of 300 Brethren had come here to escape persecution in nearby Bohemia. A village built, a spiritual revival experienced, a musical renaissance fostered, an astonishing world-wide missionary movement undertaken that saw their numbers blossom to almost one million – all from this small village, which is still their spiritual home.

But Herrnhut was a relatively recent affair in a much older landscape, where the Sorbians and Germans first began clearing the forests about a millennium ago. In the cores of villages thereabouts – Berthelsdorf (Zinzendorf’s home), Ruppersdorf, Rennersdorf, Strahwalde, Großhennersdorf and so on – a jumble of a few houses are separated by twisting laneways. They cluster about the stream, used for drinking, washing and rubbish dumping. This tumbled and seemingly unplanned spatial arrangement actually provides a unique window on a very different understanding of life: interwoven, overlayed, intimate and complex.

But even with the slow spread of villages since, so much so that they link up in parts (only 2-3 kilometres separates many of them), the smell remains: the concentrated odour of cow’s piss and shit, melting with the thaw and running in rivulets off the fields and into the streams. Less than 2% of European land now remains untouched by human beings … as well as cows, sheep, pigs, chicken, grains and what have you.

Nineveh

After exploring these local villages, I became bolder and set off further afield. I was in search of the biblical Nineveh, which I had heard was hereabouts. I pedalled down an ancient path, through a dank and dark German forest (Wald) and into the back of Rennersdorf. Here the cottages had the characteristic white-dotted black shingles on their upper stories, but I pushed on, riding through mist-enshrouded fields to Nineveh. A metropolis it was, with about three houses on either side of the street. Having determined that they had indeed repented from their sins, I returned home. Only to find out why they called the return climb, ‘Langsamer Tod’, the slow death: the path wound its way slowly and endlessly upwards, to the berg on which Herrnhut sits. The villagers of a couple of centuries ago, hauling with them their potatoes and beets and leeks and sides of beef for the Herrnhut market, used to curse it every step of the way.

Bernstadt

Soon enough she joined me on a chilly, windy day to wind our way to Bernstadt, a few kilometres down the road. It was old cobbles nearly all the way. Cobbles along winding village paths make for somewhat stimulating riding. Bells jingle, teeth chatter, parts of the bicycle rattle loose. Women tell me it can have a curious effect down in the seat area. I can vouch that the family jewels need to be kept clear of hammering seats. For some reason, German bike paths have a knack of choosing every available cobbled path between you and the horizon. Obviously, traffic is less, they wind more, they are far older and take you through some intriguing villages. But hitting a smooth piece of road feels like you are riding on silk cushions.

But Bernstadt was worth the ride. It is nestled on the Eigen Creek, climbing steeply up to the height with its towering church steeple, narrow streets and plenty of memories of the communist era. Trabants still putter about and appealing odd pieces of communist-modernist architecture are to be found at almost every turn.

I was taken by the extraordinary garages. A simple concrete-on-brick structure, rectangular with a sloping roof, solid timber doors painted all colours or none. I was mesmerised. Now that they had registered on my radar, I spotted them everywhere. One may have been decorated with a glass brick or two and an amateur artist’s efforts on the door; another may not have been touched since it was first built in the 1950s or 1960s; one had obviously become a second home for a man and his tools. Some were solitary affairs, standing beside a traditional village house, but others liked company, gathering in rows, each with variegated doors in a sheer celebration of what one can do with a timber door. Above all, they all had the same simple, solid design. If you don’t have a system full of advertising and the false of freedom of ‘choice’, then all you need is a design that does the job efficiently and is made to last. Something to be said for communism …

By the time we had loosened up our bones and stimulated our nether regions, we agreed that a direct return home was on order. But that involved a gut-busting climb, cars buzzing by and the cold winds sweeping across bare fields. At least the wind-park had plenty to celebrate.

Spreequelle

Finally, I was ready for a decent expedition. I had ascertained that in this part of the world was the source (Quelle) of the mighty Spree River, which cuts a convoluted path over some 400 kilometres, through Berlin and into the Atlantic. Within a few minutes of setting out, I also ascertained that a stiff wind was blowing from Siberia, proudly bearing with it a massive wind-chill factor. It cut straight through my carefully assembled winter gear – thermal socks and long johns and woollen gloves and scarf and a hat that normally kept my skull warm and toasty. So by the time I began to climb into the forest of the Spreewald, I had lost feeling in my toes and fingers and other tender extremities. Now ice covered what had become a rough dirt track, which ran at right angles to what the map was telling me. For some strange reason, not another cyclist was in sight. Actually, no walkers were out enjoying the fresh air either.

Find the spring at the source of the Spree I did, led there by a tumbling stream that was encased in ice. Being on German soil, that source inevitably had a sign announcing its existence, just in case one should be in doubt. After a pause to add my contribution to the Spree, I realised a number of things: these parts are known for wild boar, I had little feeling below my knees and elbows, it was still 25 kilometres back to my base and the sun was setting. Yet these insights had at least one effect as I sped home along the Czech border and over bumpy farm tracks Germans like to designate as bicycle routes – feeling slowly returned to my tingling outer parts.

Großhennersdorf

Once again she joined me on an expedition, out on a long loop to Großhennersdorf. The highlight was a muddy track winding its way up a barren hill, with the bitter wind turning westward and in our faces, the bike wheels bogging in the mud. Actually, the highlight was the foulest look she could muster.

It had seemed like a good idea at the beginning: make our way along quiet tracks following the banks of a stream as it bubbled its way to a larger river; turn to peddle along narrow country lanes with the wind on our back; make it to the intriguing Großhennersdorf, with its massive schloß-turned-orphanage-turned-retirement home. It used to be Hennersdorf, but at some time it simply grew too large, so the ‘groß’ was added.

Here almost 300 years ago the daughter of Count Zinzendorf had established an orphanage; here the fabled count had visited, walking – or, more likely, riding – along the old forest path between Herrnhut and Hennersdorf; here were ruins of great breweries and bakeries and a mill on the stream. Now, of course, a great sweeping road cut its way close by, making the journey by self-propelled motor machine between the two towns a matter of minutes – necessary of course in a world of speed.

We had come by a more round-about route, drifting gently downstream with the wind at our backs. The return entailed the opposite. At first it seemed bearable enough, for the bitter wind was broken up by the forest ahead, the gradient on the road persistent but not unbearable. In the forest itself, the road became even more acceptable, pleasant perhaps. But on the outskirts of Niederoderwitz we had to veer more directly homeward. The map called this road ‘Mittestraße’, the wide road to Birkmühle. The reality was a rough, muddy and steep track into the teeth of the wind.

The more we peddled, the more our wheels clogged with mud. We leaped off our bikes, or rather we barely managed to avoid being thrown off our two-wheeled horses. With every step she cursed the wind, the mud, bicycles, the world and me … Colder it became, the sun was setting, our noses and eyes ran and the path through Ruppersdorf and Langsammer Tod seemed long indeed.

The step over the basalt threshold and into the warmth was never more welcome. Eventually hearts warmed too …

Oder-Neiße

Within a few days, the weather warmed too. Spring came early, although it seemed an interminable wait. Coming into spring from an icy, snowy winter … creatures emerge from their holes and hideaways, sap rises, flowers – both literal and metaphorical – open to the world, sun beckons, skin is bared, eyes rove eagerly, smiles are contagious. A decent winter is worth undergoing at least once for this extraordinary experience, if only because it reminds us how much we are part of the natural world.

An early spring it was, so we threw a few items on our old bicycles and set off for the Czech Republic. We had some idea of where we would ride, a destination for the first day at least. We swooped by the Hengtsberg – the horse’s hill, since it once required teams of fresh horses held at the bottom to haul heavy carts to the top. Villages rolled by – Ruppersdorf, Nineveh, Buckmühle, Oderwitz. Initially, we cycled over open fields, following narrow cement tracks laid for heavy farm machinery. Atop the crest of Buckmühle, we could see the river valley to which we would descend soon enough. Beyond that were the low, regular hills of the Zittauergebirge spread out before us, and beyond them the higher, still snow-clad peaks of Neuerschweisse to our right and the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland to our left.

After the snow and ice of but a week or so earlier, the day began to feel almost tropical (it was really only in the high teens centigrade). As the revolutions on our pedals multiplied and multiplied again, we began to peel off layers. Soon enough we were in short sleeves, sweating in the heat, chasing each other along the bike routes, playing and joking in the year’s signs of life.

The kilometres rolled by and soon enough we had followed the Zittau river valley to that liminal zone of the Drieländereck. Here Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic shared the land, a traditional border zone. At the specific point, where the three countries touch, I threw my arms around the pole, thereby having a part of my body in each country.

With tired legs we looked forward to Hrádek nad Nisou, in the midst of a former coal-mining and industrial area. Now we were into the Czech Republic and one could immediately notice the economic effects of more than two decades of post-communist life. Even this close to the German border, the Czech Republic – like so many countries in the former Eastern Bloc – had been buffeted by the ill winds of capitalism. Rapidly de-industrialised and re-agriculturalised, many of its inhabitants had become itinerant and cheap workers in German industries – which really was the agenda all along of invading the east of Europe.

Hrádek nad Nisou’s lost glory had left it with one hotel. It was a pub, casino, nightclub and restaurant all rolled into one. The beds might have been sparsely padded boards, but the restaurant produced some extraordinarily good food. I ate and drank enough for three people, replenishing what had been burned up during the day.

We began the next morning with a plan to return to Herrnhut. Our first achievement was to get lost, head deeper into the Czech Republic and then roll into Poland. At last we found the Neiße River, now (post World War II) the border between Poland and Germany. Here was a gentle slope downstream; here a bike path along which you could roll all day. So as we paused to ponder the map, she smiled and said to me: ‘why don’t we ride for another day?’

About 50kms north along the Neiße was the fabled town of Görlitz. We pointed our front wheels in its direction and followed the river all the way. We rode in dappled shade from the trees at the water’s edge, sucking in the warmth of the sun and the quiet, bladder inducing sound of the water. We stopped by ugly, old Roman Catholic monasteries that claimed centuries-old heritage. We wondered at the red and while poles, clearly demarcating the Polish bank, facing off against the yellow, red and black poles of the German side. Given that the border was one insisted upon by Stalin and the Poles, a slab of the west that was returned to Poland from Germany (while a section of the east went back to the USSR), the Oder-Neiße has always been a temporary zone. Or it is in the eyes of some Germans. Visitors to the Polish side are known to opine – loudly – that this is really part of German, much to the great displeasure of Poles.

In their own way, the Poles get back at the Germans. Vast cigarette and petrol outlets line the border on the Polish side. Germans regularly cross the border to fill up – tanks with petrol and boots with all manner of produce. So on this ‘open’ border German customs regularly check cars for supposed contraband. To little effect, it seems. Whenever you encounter an empty cigarette pack tossed aside in Germany, you can bet it will be festooned with Polish writing.

They get back in another way even in Germany itself. Take any village in the east and you are bound to find streets named Dorfstraße, Untere Dorfstraße, Obere Dorfstraße. But you will also find Karl Liebknecht Straße, August Bebel Straße, Rosa Luxemburg Straße, Karl-Marx Straße … And these names are there to stay, reminders of a communism that refuses to disappear.

But we were getting hungry, so we lunch was on order. Lunch is always a simple affair. Our great love is to gather odds and ends to last a couple of days and then find a quiet spot to make our lunch. We sit by a stream, under a tree on the side of the track, on an old log in a field. On this occasion we spread out on a vast field in the sun. A few bread rolls, some solid rye bread, a couple of bananas and oranges, perhaps a small tin of tuna and some boiled eggs, a huge swig of water and a refill.

As we drew near to Görlitz in the afternoon, the track was no longer our own. A Sunday it was, the day to leave indoors behind and celebrate spring. Swarms of children and adult were out, walking, on bicycles, lazing by the water’s edge. Dogs joined them, leaping in the water, tearing about the bush, sniffing each other’s arses. The mood was summed up by an ancient fossil in her motorised wheelchair. She had every reason to be grumpy, with her body failing, death imminent, the cacophony of children and young people (pretty much everyone from her perspective) all about. But no, as we rode past she was grinning widely, her few teeth celebrating the spring, her face full of delight. ‘Guten tag!’ she cried.

Görlitz at last, with its stately homes of an old bourgeois centre. We twisted through its streets, following the signs to ‘Hotel Europa’. We knew nothing about it, its name being its only appeal. At last a door which led up some stairs. I managed the whole transaction in German, such was the day. And the bed was wonderfully soft and sensuous.

Early spring can, however, be a fickle mistress. The next morning she made off early, taking her scant clothes with her. In her place came a bitter wind from the south-west, precisely the direction in which we had to ride. Whereas yesterday had been one of t-shirts and knowing smiles, today began with frozen fingers and growls. After grinding uphill out of Görlitz and passing through the forest, the full brunt of the wind hit us. Each pedal was a strain, each metre hard-won.

At the first sign of shelter, the map came out and the glorious route over hills and across open fields was thoroughly revised. That way would entail the same wind all day, so we located river valleys, tracing out a more sheltered path even if it was along busier roads and less direct. Through Friedersdorf, Schönau-Berzdorf and Bernstandt, stopping for hot chocolates and big feeds for warmth as much as energy.

By the time we climbed the last hill, we felt as though we had ridden three times as far. The basalt threshold, the warmth of indoors, the hot shower, the beer – all were deeply welcome.