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