Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bielsko-Biala, Poland

Friends: If all of Poland is anything like the first thirty miles I have come so far, I will be most happy to have only 25 miles remaining before I escape to the Czech Republic.

The roads have been narrow and rough and the traffic relentless, even on a Saturday morning. It has been survival cycling, the most dire of these travels. At least this city is an amiable oasis, with blocks and blocks of its downtown streets restricted to pedestrians and cyclists, giving me a chance to recover and regroup.

Yesterday evening when I crossed into Poland, traffic wasn't an issue. But I wasn't happy to be greeted by one village after another without any campable countryside between. It is universal throughout Europe when one comes upon a town for there to be a sign at its outskirts announcing itself and also a sign when one leaves the town with the town's name on it with a slash through it. They came simultaneously here, signs with a slash through it and also a sign with a new town. Poland was looking like Italy with the countryside fully occupied.

I wasn't regretting my decision to swing through Poland, but I was beginning to regret my decision to have so hastily left the Slovak Republic, as there had been the most inviting of pine forests right up to the border begging to be camped. But it was only six p.m. and I hoped these forests would extend into Poland. I wanted to get within 20 miles of Bielsko-Biala, a nice distance to start the day off with before my first break of the day.

I am constantly bypassing great camping and 99% of the time not regretting it. The lone notable time when it turned out to be a mistake was in Laos, when Laurie and I pushed on for an extra hour neglecting forest camping that looked so exceptional that we could have lit a camp fire. We found ourselves on a climb with steep terrain on both sides as it grew dark. I sped ahead to try to find a nook to retreat to before dark fully settled in. I found something flat and discreet, but we were invaded that night by thousands of stinging red ants. They were so voracious they ate
through my baggies to get into my food. When we awoke to their stings in the middle of the night and started fighting back, they sounded an alarm and retreated through the same small hole they had found in the corner of our tent. We put duct tape and mosquito repellent on it and slept off the night.

I've had other occasions when I've had iffy camp sites, but I am most often rewarded for not quitting early, and such was the case again this night. The homes and farms did not let up, but just as I reached my goal of 20 miles before B-B, I came upon a small forest behind a field of wheat that was camping of the highest order.

As is frequently the case, the Poland/Slovak border was at a high point. My final 50 miles north out of the Slovak Republic was a gentle climb past a series of ski resorts in thick pine forests. The highest peak was less than 5,000 feet, though the road never climbed higher than 1,000 feet.

There was no skiing on the Polish side however. It was an immediate steep three-mile descent into farm lands. There was no Slovak customs to go through, just Polish. The customs official took my passport into his small cubicle. I could hear him entering information into a computer and then a minute or so later there came the sound of my passport being stamped. I hoped it wasn't a big stamp, as my pages are filling fast, though it sounded like one of those heavy-duty, single-hit contraptions with the self-contained ink pad that can take up a full page.

I've passed through eleven countries so far on this trip and have three to go. After I send this, I will start heading west for the first time. It is 200 miles to Prague and then 500 miles to Strasbourg, where The Tour starts two weeks from today. It will be nice to arrive a couple days early to scout out the region. The Ville Depart always has an assortment of special exhibits and activities celebrating The Tour. It will also be nice to give the legs a bit of rest. Once the race begins, I will be pushing it hard to keep up.

I have no doubt that being at the epicenter of The Tour day-after-day for three weeks will be no less captivating than it has been the past two years. The Cannes experience has only grown more lustrous year after year. I am already looking forward to the next one, just eleven months away.

For now I'm counting on the cycling in the Czech Republic to be as idyllic as it was in its former partner, the Slovak Republic. I have about four days of it to look forward to all the way to Kalovy Vary. And I'll also be hoping that such good cycling will spill over into Prague and not be the nightmare that getting out of Budapest was.

Later, George

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