Sprinkled with snow, the crumbling landmarks of Poland’s past provide the backdrop for an unlikely first bikepacking trip.
Words Dorota Juranek Photography Adam Klimek
It’s 7am on Saturday. The town is lazily waking up from last night’s bash. The streets are empty and all I can hear is the silent hum of the fat Farley tyres. No weather forecast predicted the snowfall, let alone blizzard. Inconveniently, the moment the world got covered with white snow was the moment I had to leave home. Well, what can you do? I slip my goggles off the helmet and exclude myself from the snowy assault, tackling the high street at maximum speed in order to get to the train station as quickly as possible. I may be looking rather peculiar. The bike is wearing bags like a Christmas tree; there’s the helmet and goggles which normal people associate with skiing, rather than biking… and those tyres… is that a motorbike or bicycle? So thick! How do you ride it? Anyone who has ridden a fat bike knows that they draw the attention of just about everyone. Just imagine a fully laden, bikepacking fat bike ridden by a goggled woman in the midst of the city. It’s like a wacko circus hit town.
I behave like everything’s normal. Somehow, I manage to get to the platform with all that stuff. Twenty-two kilograms – this is how much the scale indicated, and, oh, 22 steps. I feel powerful. Finally, a useful application of those years of kettlebell exercises. The train is waiting, ready to set off when I spot two guys nervously scoping the area. I quickly connect the dots; they’re my company for the coming four days. They didn’t believe I would show up. I did. My life’s experiences taught me that who doesn’t take risks, doesn’t drink Champagne. Curious to see how things will unfold, and accompanied by two completely strange guys, I’m sitting in a comfy chair in the Intercity train scampering towards Wałbrzych town. To relax the atmosphere, they offer a sip of wine from a bladder. I refuse. Let’s save it for the evening, when it’s clear whether I should open Champagne or look for a way to retreat.
Wałbrzych town is the quintessence of Lower Silesia. An uncanny mixture of old glory and present-day poverty. Our stomachs start to growl for food – this signal immediately reaches the brain, which, from the mass of other adverts, unerringly fishes out the signboard ‘Bar Dumpling’. Ten square metres, three heavily laden fat bikes, two tables and the most sympathetic staff one can possibly imagine. Emotions, uncertainty, and curiosity about upcoming events will combine to reduce my memories of this first day to single-frame pictures.
The ruins of the mausoleum, of which the internet says: “Hitler’s monument of pride, splendour and power officially commemorated the victims of WWI. In fact, it was a place of worship and cultivation of Nazi ideals. It lasts to this day, despite the fact that other Fascist buildings have been blown up by the Russians. Today, the forgotten mausoleum is falling into ruin and Wałbrzych authorities have to face its difficult history.”
The old church is where the boys entertain the idea of illegal urban exploration. The 1,560m long tunnel under Mały Wołowiec – the longest rail tunnel in Poland. This place has a sentimental value for me since the route of the Głuszyca Marathon ran through this tunnel. Wałbrzych’s singletracks wandering amid trees…
Frame by frame, kilometre by kilometre, I’m absorbing the day. This is what is important, here and now. The falling twilight doesn’t upset us. Only when our legs start to feel the distance do we stop to buy supplies in a small local store.
Back on our bikes, we slowly start to look for a place to spend the night. The dormant fears and doubts surface now. Even though I’m not particularly exhausted, my body has endured a whole day in the saddle. The temperature hovers around a couple of degrees below zero and there’s absolutely no chance of a warm bath and soft duvet. Instead, there’s dark, humidity and howling wolves. I’m hoping the boys’ experience will bring an auspicious end to the day. We enter the forest and several minutes later we find a perfect place to set up a camp. Within an hour, the fire is burning, the tent has been pitched, stomachs are full of freeze-dried food and the bladder of wine has been emptied.
It’s bright. It’s warm. I’m quite alright. I open my eyes, look at the watch. Sunday, 7am. It’s been 24 hours since my first bikepacking adventure trip started. Whew, I did it. I haven’t frozen, my limbs are intact and able to move. I haven’t been eaten by wolves or bears. It appears proper gear and its skilful usage allows for a comfortable night in a tent, even in below-zero temperatures. I look around. My comrades are in one piece, too, snoring loudly. The process of getting together in the morning is rather complicated; however, the fire is eventually burning and we’re devouring porridge and washing it down with coffee. We’re ready for the second day of our adventure.
After the initial couple of kilometres, however, to our amazement, our legs are not willing to cooperate. We quickly reach an accord – a second breakfast in the form of scrambled eggs will do the trick. In Kamienna Góra, though, finding a chef with a pan and eggs proves impossible. Instead of breakfast, we’re going for an early lunch and occupy virtually every electric socket in the bar. While the phones are recharging quickly, we can’t say the same about ourselves. Is it the air pressure? Or is it the empty wine bladder I found this morning? We ride on without haste, sunken in our thoughts, with the background noise of fat tyres against the unwelcoming asphalt. Suddenly Piątek raises his head from behind his handlebars and joyfully informs everyone about his idea. We’re going to take a shortcut across the river. I’m immediately sure that we’re up for a special treat. Before us appears an old, disused iron flyover. “Let’s ride through the old bridge, it’ll be great!” Having known each other for two days and spent one night in the same tent is enough to understand what ‘It’ll be great’ means… My presumptions find their confirmation when the trip through the wooden, moss-grown beams proves a challenge and causes the blood in our veins to flow faster.
Driven by adrenaline, we finally reach Colourful Lakes. The charm of the place works on us. Even though we have only ridden just over 20km and perhaps our bodies are finally starting to get going, and even though it’s still bright, there is only one thing for it: we’re setting camp. The roles were assigned the previous day: Piątek sets the fire, Mamba sets the camp and Klimek takes pictures. OK, I may be exaggerating a bit. Besides shooting, he also takes on the role of professor and patiently explains the principles of winter camping. Thanks to his explanations I become a master of melting snow for tea, setting of a tent on a difficult terrain, pumping the mats, and cooking freeze-dried food. Having received such an education, I may have become the ideal candidate for bikepacking wife. Come dusk, a million stars sprinkle the sky. It’s perfect.
I wake up. Klimek is snoring, again. Piątek hopes for a quick departure, gets up first and quickly cleans the area around our ‘home’. After a while, I’m handed two cups of hot, steaming coffee through the tent’s barely open flysheet. The scent quickly fills the tent. All of it has an effect opposite to our intention of leaving. A warm sleeping bag and hot coffee or cool wind on the bank of a frozen lake?
Summoning energy and with the contribution of my growling stomach, I eventually get up. I quickly turn on the gas cooker and get on with melting snow for porridge. I contemplate the likely impurity of this kind of water. Considering life in the heart of the Silesian urban area and permanent smog alert – do I not breathe in million times more of this crap? A little bit of dirty snow hasn’t killed anyone. As long as it’s not yellow. Back to the matter – instead of porridge, the boys go for the bolognese breakfast. We’re going to the Rudawy Janowickie range today and we’ll be climbing again – the boys probably hope that pasta will give them an extra surge of energy.
After several kilometres the landscape begins to change significantly. We leave the winter mood behind us. The snow gradually disappears, replaced by mud and olive-green grass. Spring is just ahead and can be felt with every breath. Once in the village of Miedzianka we lay eyes on a sign for the local brewery. What’s wrong with a little bit of luxury amid bikepacking wandering? We recharge the batteries, both ours and our electronic devices. Warm sunrays and a mug of gold wheat beer on a terrace induce laziness. Getting ourselves together to continue the journey requires some effort. We deliberately waste minute after minute.
The Rudawy Janowickie range is very tempting and our today’s goal is Sokoliki – a picturesque rock formation particularly loved by climbers. We quietly hope that we will get there before dusk, and somehow we manage: the mountain spirits are on our side. We climb the steel platform and narrowly make it in time to behold the beautiful play of colours of the setting sun.
Everything happens automatically. Waking up, changing clothes, dry-brushing teeth, quick meal (having crossed the change of seasons, we don’t have to melt snow for coffee or porridge), giggles, packing, a few snaps, and off we go. What takes a few characters of text to describe lasts two hours in the bikepacking realm. Although it’s already day four of our expedition, the plan remains ambitious. We must do the Bóbr Valley trail and make it to the train station at a sensible hour. Initially, the mountain spirits are again on our side. Reaching Jelenia town all I can think about is scrambled eggs. As we wander up and down the main street we are forced to settle instead for dumplings with cottage cheese and blueberries. The moment for rest is all too short and with a full stomach, I get on my bike, relieved that the trail is initially flat or slightly downhill.
I dream of finding a cosy coffee shop, ordering filter coffee, and sinking into an armchair to read some non-bike-related magazine. Unfortunately, the reality is entirely opposite to that. The narrow trail provides excellent if tiresome fun. The journey is going so slowly, but time is ticking by. I’m getting uptight in fear that we won’t make it to the train on time. I relax only when we reach the old rail viaduct at the Pilchowice Lake. The atmosphere of this place lets me restore my mental balance and put priorities in order. If not that train, we’ll take another. The road to Jelenia is asphalt, a surface that isn’t great with fat bikes. We focus our thoughts on good pizza and beer. Finally our culinary fantasies meet with reality and we find, by chance, the best pizza place in town. The staff don’t seem to be upset with our muddy bikes violating the white interior, or with the fact that our train leaves in 30 minutes. The pizza arrives at lightning speed and we attach it to a rack where to my amazement, it avoids being transformed into a shapeless slush. As the train leaves the station and our adventure ends, we have a whole compartment for ourselves. We lay our prize on the table and eat.
Ding di ring ding, ding di ring ding… Where did I hear this tune before? I sluggishly find my phone and press its only button. Quiet. Whew… Everything hurts. I have no strength for any physical activity. Through habit, I get up and make the first steps with eyes still closed. I press another very important button. The monotonous sound of the coffee maker sends me to sleep again. Suddenly, a shrill coldness enters my stream of consciousness. My hands are petrified with frost. A sharp blow of wind on my face eventually wakes me up. My boyfriend, shocked, enters the kitchen. I’m standing at the open window holding my titanium mug in my hand. “Why are you collecting snow from the windowsill, honey?”