In retrospect

Nearly three weeks have gone by since we arrived in Mosonmagyaróvár, and we had to dive headfirst into work and family – not much time to think about the trip. But my fingertips are still numb, and I still appreciate every minute I spend inside a heated building. Or on a bike, of course.
First of all, we have to apologise for dropping the joyride between Esztergom and Budapest! From what I heard, some people were really counting on it, but all in all, we just couldn’t make it, our progress was a lot slower than anticipated. Our average speed never really reached the 15 km/h which we planned the trip for, so we had to spend a lot more hours cycling, add an extra day, and even then, shorten the trip by some 150 km, arriving in Mosonmagyaróvár. But we made it!

Quick summary for those who join the blog now: We planned a long-distance bike trip from Copenhagen to Budapest, riding a cargo bike (to be bought in Copenhagen) and a folding bike (to be brought from home). We are collecting donations for a charity foundation who are fighting poverty, including transport poverty in Arló, a village in Northwestern Hungary. We travelled out by train from Budapest, took the night train from Vienna to Hamburg, endured some delays and successfully collected the cargo bike in Copenhagen. We got a tour of the cargo bike workshop – it felt like the Porsche museum I once visited, but without the bad conscience. We left Copenhagen at six in the evening, weaving through dense but normal bike traffic, Szoki learning the ways of the cargo bike. We rode through the night to the ferry station in Gedser, across the suburbs of Copenhagen lined with used car dealerships, pizza and chinese restaurants, and picture-perfect houses. We continued on the highway, enjoying the wide curb and the low traffic, occasionally stopping to munch a muesli bar. Eating while riding was not an option, the cargo bike needed both hands. We passed a lot of parked trucks, the heating system buzzing as the drivers slept. We crossed the old Storstrombroen bridge in a gale with rain and sleet, it felt like a weird post-apocalyptic world with the rusty bridge structure, the howl of the wind and the endless row of lights along the bridge. As we continued towards Gedser, the trucks we passed during the night started overtaking us on their way to the ferry. We arrived at approximately six in the morning at the ferry station. Too late to bivouac and sleep, too early to get on the ship. We found shelter from the wind in the station building, cooked some canned food and waited for our fate. End day one.

We parked the bikes on the ferry among the trucks, and took turns sleeping in the passenger area while our power banks and phones were plugged in. The ferry ride was way too short to make up for the night we lost riding, but at least it offered some opportunity for collecting our energy. It was bright daylight by the time we arrived in Rostock. Thanks to the navi, we followed the way south without much hesitation – though I did get an opportunity to test the cargo bike. We stopped for our first supermarket breakfast, and then continued south, hoping to reach Berlin by the end of the day. This soon proved unrealistic. We had a strong headwind, and the road regularly led up steep climbs where we had to switch to lowest gear and move forward at crawling speed. We followed the main highway south through Mecklenburg, enjoying the bike path where possible, trying to leave space for the trucks where we had to go on the main road. By early afternoon, we were sleepy and exhausted, but luckily, our track led us off the highway. We left the highway after Teterow, circling around the Remplin lake, and decided to make a siesta. We found a spot – not trivial due to the flooding – on a lake shore, spread out our sleeping bags, and slept two hours, waking just before sunset. We had to notify our friend in Berlin that we would not make it to town on that day, and we had to carry on. Here the shortest track took us over some hills, up some peaceful side roads, but also along a road that turned out to be more of a dirt track. We had to turn back and make a detour after Szoki’s chain was dunked in a puddle, making a lot of cleaning and oiling necessary. It soon grew dark as we weaved our way through small villages and curvy roads that seemed to lead nowhere. From time to time, we would not even see a light on the horizon – I didn’t know there are places in Europe that are so sparsely populated. The landscape was still beautiful, with massive oak trees and undulating hills, but the road surfaces demanded a lot of attention, some were cobblestones or even just large rounded pebbles. Bearable on the Birdy which has suspension, but wrist-numbing on the Bullit, which is long and heavy. Around midnight, we set up our first camp in a forest above a little village called Bocksee, cooked some pasta and called it a day. End day two

Day three started with cooking oat porridge, striking the still wet tent and following the road up and downhill towards Neustrelitz. Neustrelitz is actually a pretty place with a large chateau and nice architecture, here I was releived to get back on a straight highway that clearly led towards Berlin. I cooked a noodle soup while Szoki did the shopping, and we picked up some speed despite the rainy and windy weather. After Neustrelitz we joined the No. 96 Highway – as it later turned out, this was to be our path all the way to the Czech border. The landscape gradually flattened and though the headwind remained, our progress was encouraging. We passed an old roadside milestone proclaiming that Berlin was not more than 50 kilometers away, then we conquered one village after the other, stopping occasionally for a muesli bar and some isotonic drink. Around 6 in the evening, we reached the outskirts of Berlin. Good timing for an overnight stay, except that we were already one day late compared to our schedule. So we dediced to cross the city in one dash, skip the overnight stay offered by my friend and camp when we have passed the German capital. We were hoping that with the wind covered by buildings, navigation provided by Google on my phone and a network of bike paths, we can cross the whole city in an hour or two. Well, again we had to recalculate. The shortest path took us up some hills, over some “bike paths” that were actually dirt tracks, down some other “bike paths” that were only parts of the sidewalk separated by a painted line, often gnarled by tree roots or obscured by parked cars. Szoki took some time to carve a bottom board for the front of the cargo bike out of an old plastic advertisement he found on the ground. We stopped at a kebab place and had a big dinner, which we very much needed. We continued onwards through the night as the traffic started becoming lighter, crossed the Spree and paused to take photos of the Bundestag, and went up the hill again. We reached a petrol station on the southern outskirts of Berlin around 11 at night. We had our water bottles filled by the cleaning lady at the closed petrol station and mixed some more iso drink. We searched Google Maps for the nearest forest to camp and decided to make some more headway to collect 200 km altogether for the day. This was fun: as it turned late, there were no more cars, so we could ride side-by-side and talk about hiking trips, long-distance race tactics and the philosophy of life. We found our forest patch after the town of Baruth, pitched the tent at about 02:00 in the morning and fell asleep. End day three.

Day four started with rain, but we bravely packed away the tent and cycled to the next petrol station. The wind was straight in our faces, carrying the rain, making every meter difficult as we fought for headway. Luckily, the traffic was light and the topography was more or less flat. We spent hours cranking the pedals, surrounded by this weird combination of silence and noise, nobody talking, the wind howling through my bike bell. We were quite starved when we found a little bakery in a little place called Schlabendorf am See where we took shelter from the weather, gobbling up sandwiches and pastries like there was no tomorrow. The little shop looked like a time capsule from the 1960’s, with the diamond diploma of the owner proudly framed on the wall. We spent our last euros in cash (there was no card terminal), but the food was delicious. The next leg of the journey took us uphill again, into what is called the Calauer Schweiz, a little range of hills with high relief, lovely forests and rocks and romantic little lakes. We were really challenged by the slopes here. Szoki was exhausted and his knees ached, but there was no mercy, we had to make headway, so he pedalled the cargo bike up the steep mountain roads until we reached the top, where we paused for some well-deserved snacks. After crossing this little gem of a landscape, it became more and more difficult to continue. We tried pausing at a bus stop in the little village of Barzig to catch some sleep, but that was not really refreshing. We had to continue south along the motorway and then across a barren landscape of a recultivated brown coal mine. Here on the top of the hill we found a small rain shelter with very inviting benches, so we whipped out the sleeping bags for another rest. When it turned dark and Szoki’s knees did not get better, we decided to stay for the night. We ate the rest of the sandwiches we bought at the magic baker and huddled into our sleeping bags. I had a hard time falling asleep, I kept thinking about options for abandoning the trip and getting the cargo bike home by train. End day four.

We woke early on day five. In fact, we woke in the middle of the night, when a large dog came running and barking towards us, but the owner heard us yelling, called the dog and everything was OK. So we woke early and Szoki felt OK again, so we quickly packed up our bivouac and started off, past the mine site, into the town of Spremberg and onwards in the direction of Zittau. This region is hardcore former East Germany, with large power stations, abandoned factories for mining machinery, shiny veteran cars and the option to buy a 1:50 mixture of oil and petrol (for two-stroke engined cars) at some petrol stations. The landscape changed again, with villages of Polish heritage, feeling familiar with their statues of saints and roadside crosses – something we did not see so far. The wind was somewhat better, but the hills were back again. We stopped for a supermarket lunch once more in a place called Schwarzadler, and continued climbing the winding road to Bautzen, the last major town before the border to the Czech Republic. We soon found ourselves grinding up a mountain road with real hairpin bends and big signs warning how steep the incline was, but Szoki conquered the mountain pass and we had some time to roll downhill towards Zittau, the border town. This was a beautiful, romantic area with bike roads following small rivers, old half-timbered houses and friendly people. We soon learned to watch whether the river was flowing in the same direction we were cycling, or against us… We passed Zittau without much ceremony, ticked Poland off our list of countries, but stopped for a selfie on the Czech border – we have been waiting for this moment for so long! The road took us up and down again until Hradek nad Nisou, where a steady uphill section beginned again. It seemed to be the end of a long day, but we were in the zone, the traffic dwindled away as we would our way upwards. However, I was suspicious of the river that flowed alongside: the drainage divide can’t be too close if it carries so much water. I was right. We arrived at what seemed like the top of the hill, and entered the town of Liberec. Here we followed the shortest path and the bike track again, which meant a lot of very, very steep streets. From time to time Szoki had to get off the cargo bike and push it on foot. The rain started, but the town seemed never to end, we grabbed some dinner at a petrol station, and continued the long climb to the final ridge of the mountain chain. After a short rest and some welcome downhill cruising in the dark, we found a somewhat sketchy campsite near Hodkovice nad Mohelkou, wedged between the motorway, the river and the hillside, pitched the tent in the rain and finally closed our eyes. End day five.

On the morning of day six, everything was wet and misty, but at least it was not raining. We cooked some pasta before starting off, enjoyed some more downhill roads, and then the roller coaster began. We climbed up a plateau enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful landscape, even testing the solar charger for a while. We stopped by a small chapel built in the memory of the fallen officers of the Battle of Königgrätz. The hills were now behind our back, the sun was slowly setting as we rode from village to village. The bike lane network leads on small backcountry roads, some with many potholes, but all with hardly any traffic. It was very enjoyable, except of course for the pain and fatigue. But we made good progress. By the evening, another climb was on our route, not very steep but quite long. We planned to stay the night in a rain shelter by one of the high points of the route in a forest near the little village of Miretice, and counted down the kilometers and elevation meters as we approached it. The rain shelter was not much good, but we found a spot for pitching the tent close by. End day six.

The next day was supposed to be the last, according to our original plan, but we were two days behind schedule according to our position. We expected some more climbing in the morning, up to the highest point of our route on the Danube-Elbe drainage divide, but first, we had some good downhill roads to the town of Hlinsko. It was a sleepy sunday morning, but we found an open shop, so we could grab our usual pastry breakfast and eat it while watching the dog-walkers around us. After that, it was up and down all day. Luckily, the weather was OK, and most of the roads had hardly any traffic, so we settled into the rhythm of grinding the pedals uphill, pausing for a breath at the top, and racing downhill as fast as we could until the next climb. The roads were sometimes littered with leaves, pine needles or gravel, so we had to be (or should have been) really careful, but we needed to make progress. We stopped at a kebab place in a little town with a beautiful baroque main square, and were rewarded with the biggest and most tasty kebabs we have ever seen, flowing over with meat slices, difficult to eat even with two hands. One of the hilltops must have been the long-anticipated highest point, but there was no marking, the mountains just started to slowly open up, the villages became bigger, and after more ups and downs we found ourselves on a straight and wide highway approaching Brno. Here the navigation played a trick on us (the road was so new that it wasn’t on the map), we took the wrong turn onto the ring carriageway around the city, but since cycling was not prohibited, we were happy about the kilometers gained and carefully rode the curb until the next exit. At the edge of Brno, we had a decision point: we could get on a train to Budapest, abandon the rest of the trip, and still have the next day off to regenerate. Based on our condition, this was the reasonable choice, but we needed to hurry up to catch the train. Here the bikes really played their strong cards: a fast cargo bike and a little folding bike are both ideal vehicles to beat big city traffic, and we made it to the station with time to spare. However, here a nasty surprise awaited us: there were no more bike reservation tickets available for the train to Budapest, nor for the last train of the day. We would have to stay overnight, even if we wanted to go home the next morning. Budapest was still more than 250 km away, with another uphill grind and a long stretch of flat country afterwards. We chose to change the destination, hoping to reach Hungary in Mosonmagyaróvár, the town closest to Brno. This meant avoiding major hills but riding along the river Morava – seemingly an easy job. We went into a rundown pub to fill our water bottles and even bought some beer to celebrate the last evening of the trip. We found a peaceful little meadow near the village of Pouzdrany, and pitched the tent after a very long day, enjoying the instant pasta and the beers. End day seven.

We hoped to have the last day over relatively quickly, so we got up early. However, the wind was already awake, and it was blowing in our face again. We had to work hard for every kilometer, but the scenery was really nice, with the sun rising over the Morava plain. The hills, the trees, the vineyards (the first grapes we saw on the trip) all looked remarkably familiar, similar in a way to Hungary. We crossed the lake of Nové Mlyny on a causeway and bridge, climbed up the edge of the hills nearby, and stopped again for a well-deserved breakfast at the village shop. We continued south through Breclav, working our way slowly into the wind, calculating whether it was realistic to arrive in time for the last train in Mosonmagyaróvár. We skirted Breclav and entered Austria, riding due south as the wind grew stronger and stronger. After Hohenau an der March, we crossed the Slovakian border, coming closer and closer to Hungary. The bike track took us across a beautiful and very flat floodplain with meadows and groves of trees, but we mainly cared for the  trees and buildings that offered brief shelter from the wind. But we started picking up speed again. Following the highway towards Bratislava, we grabbed a quick petrol station sandwich lunch, and then arrived to the Slovakian capital. This brought some more hill climbing, partly on bike paths in very bad condition. We struggled to keep up our speed and out blood sugar level, but by early evening we crossed the Danube and the hill climbing was over for good. Comparing the time of the day and the GPS track, we found that we could make the last train if we kept up our rate of progress. We were eager to arrive, so on the flat bike lanes south of the Danube we made some really good speed. The roads were wide, there were hardly any cars, we took turns riding in the front to break the wind and riding at the back for what seemed like a rest. At Cunovo, we finally crossed the Hungarian border, successfully completing our mission to bring the cargo bike home. We still had some 15 kilometers to go until Mosonmagyaróvár, but the bike roads were good and we were motivated. So despite pausing to take photos of the rising moon, we arrived well in time, not for the last train but for the previous one. We were greeted by a friend who lived in town at the railway station, had some well deserved snacks and bought the bike tickets from the vending machine without trouble. The train rolled in, we managed to load the cargo bike, and celebrated in the dining car with some sausages. We arrived at Keleti railway station half an hour before midnight, completing day eight.

As it turned out, an average speed of 15 km/h was way too ambitious in the plan. We rarely made a mean speed (including stops) above 10 km/h, and over more than 1000 kilometers, this is a major game changer. Luckily, our bosses were flexible and we could take an extra day out, and combined with shortening the trip, this allowed us to make it home. The navigation worked really nicely, though perhaps the shortest path was not an optimal choice and we would have been better off following the main highways with less mountain climbing. But we will never know, and we are happy to have seen the landscape. I was positively surprised by the bike infrastructure in the Czech Republic and Slovakia: the bike paths are signposted and form a large network, even the main roads often have a separate bike lane, and most towns also have bike paths. The electronics did their job, but managing the photos was a hurdle: Szoki’s big camera could not connect to his phone, only to mine, which had a newer Android version. My camera could not connect to my phone, only to Szoki’s, because it used an older version of the app. We uploaded the pics to Google Photos, but that had to go through my account, because Szoki’s account was full. So the pictures that were downloaded from my camera had to be transferred over Bluetooth to my phone before uploading. All this cost a lot of power, and after day five or so (remember, we planned for six days!) we had to ration the power banks. The bike lights were charged first, then the GPS and the live tracker, and finally, if there was more power available, our phones. Our bike bags and the waterproof kayaking bags we brought for the cargo bike did their job nicely, we did not have wet gear despite all the rain we endured. It turned out that taking a gas camping stove instead of the petrol burner was a good choice: the temperatures were not that low, so the gas cooker worked OK, and practically all cooking was done inside the tent, which would have been too dangerous with a petrol stove. I remember we conteplated not bringing a tent at all, but the decision to carry it along allowed us a lot of flexibility in our daily schedules. The tent, theoretically for four people, was also large enough to accommodate all our winter gear.

We managed to raise some 250 000 HUF in funds so far, and additionally, it seems that a donation of used bicycles is on its way. This will allow setting up a workshop and buying a few bikes in Arló, as we hoped. Finally, we strongly hope this winter adventure is convincing people like you to rethink the way they travel and hopefully cycle more. Enjoy the ride!


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