Singletrack Magazine Issue 123 : Bohemian Rhapsody

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Tom Hutton goes deep into the Czech Republic to discover a world of epic trails and amazing scenery. And the odd earworm too. 

Words & Photography tom hutton

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Caught in a landslide, with no escape from reality

Noooo! Why did somebody have to mention Bohemia? 

Sure, it’s a good thing to ride with a little earbug swirling around in your head, right? It loosens you up a bit. Possibly even makes you smile, which has got be better than grimacing your way down the trail. 

And if you really stretch your imagination, maybe those Scaramouche and Galileo sections might just provide a soundtrack that works for a few sweet, short, sharp turns. But… Trying to find your flow while singing goodbye to everybody and predicting an imminent end… mmm, not sure this is helping. 

But I am in Bohemia. And I am trying to think of a title for this feature that isn’t a play on the Czech and check thing (Czech mate – Czech this out, etc.), so if I can shake off this relentless harmonious humming after a day or two, then maybe, just maybe, the orchestrator of this musical torture chamber might be forgiven. 

Meanwhile, there’s riding to be done. And what awesome riding it is too – a seemingly endless ribbon of dry, dusty singletrack dancing its way through some delightful deciduous woodland. Twists, turns, humps, bumps, little ups, big downs and huge smiles. My guide, Jan, is a cross-country monster and fast, and I’m breathing way too hard to sing anything at all, while still barely keeping his rear tyre in sight. 

So where is Bohemia? In a nutshell, it’s the western end of the Czech Republic. It’s a blossoming ex-Iron Curtain nation wedged between Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria. 

It’s probably most famous for its picturesque capital city, Prague, or its biggest export, Skoda cars. It’s also well known for its beer consumption. But the good news for me is that the Czech Republic also takes its mountain biking very seriously, so much so that the Nové Město round of the UCI XCO World Cup was voted as the best of the 2018 season. And, as luck would have it, I was in Nové Město enjoying some of those very trails, known locally as Singltrek pod Smrken, attempting to clear my head of classic rock ditties while holding on to the ever-disappearing Jan.

I’m on a week-long, three-centre mountain bike safari that takes in the trail centres of Singltrek pod Smrken and Trutnov, linking them with some more natural stuff in the delightfully rural setting of Kokořínsko. 

The trip has a truly international feel to it, with my fellow riders hailing from Denmark, Italy and Mexico. And we’re ably led by the ever-smiling local Radim, and the rapidly vanishing, World Cup organiser, Jan. 

Coffee brake.

Singltrek pod Smrken was my introduction to Czech mountain biking and while I’m not really sure what I expected, it almost certainly wasn’t this. The trailhead – a spacious clearing at the edge of the forest – was bathed in warm morning sunshine when we pulled up, and we enjoyed a decent espresso from a sunny serving hatch while waiting for the bike shop to swap over the brakes on my hire bike. 

It was a scene that could have been anywhere. The shop was modern and tidy with a great array of bikes and spares, and banners and flags from the brands stocked shimmied in the breeze outside. No sign of Eastern Block stereotypes here.  

Caffeine hit over and freshly mounted upon a current Trek Remedy – coincidentally exactly the same model I’d been riding in Scotland just a few days before – I chased Jan into the forest on a mission to locate the others, who’d already sorted bikes and gone on ahead. 

The opening trails were definitely more up than down – not a lot of change there then – but they were mainly singletrack and with enough going on the whole time to make them interesting and take away the pain. 

The downs were sweet. Sorry, I’ve tried to find a better word but there isn’t one. The sliver of singletrack (and I mean sliver rather than the excavator-width we’re seeing more of in the UK) that we’d followed uphill, hurdled its anonymous wooded summit somewhere and turned tail downhill – suddenly it was all action, and barely any time to switch suspension into fun mode. 

This was full-on flow. Never gnarly, never technical and rarely slow. Yet it had that old-school feel of maybe the older trails at Coed y Brenin or Nant yr Arian or even Cwm Rhaeadr. Modern flow trails seem to have a certain style, which to me tends to feel false and very man-made. These somehow felt like they’d been there for centuries, trodden first by deer or wild pigs, yet still with rollers to pump off, shapely berms to dig into and the odd kicker to help log flight time. 

I’m no trail centre aficionado, but in places these trails were as good as any blue or red grades I’ve ever ridden. It didn’t come as that much of a surprise to learn that they were in fact crafted by none other than Dafydd Davis, architect of many of those aforementioned Welsh trails. 

Break for the border.

If this revelation wasn’t enough to excite me, we then stopped briefly at an interpretation board and Jan casually announced we were now in Poland – wow, hadn’t seen that one coming. The Polish trails were a little rougher than their Czech counterparts – apparently different funding and maintenance routines – but they all formed part of the same huge network; they wove their way through some equally amazing broadleaf forest, and the fun-o-meter was still cranked up way beyond ten. The best descent yet led us to lunch. 

We feasted on polenta. Portions were gargantuan. As we soaked up the sun, I secretly hoped we’d be putting some big miles in after lunch to burn it all off. Luckily it wasn’t long before helmets were back on heads and we returned to the woods for more of that sumptuous singletrack. 

After the morning’s delights, I feared the afternoon might prove an anticlimax. How wrong can you be? More singletrack, more amazing descents and the occasional section that could only be described as sublime. 

The standout moment for me came as we rounded the head of a small combe beneath towering beech trees. The trail was fast in, swung left on a minimal berm, then ricocheted back sharp right on a steep bank that funnelled you down onto a narrow terrace with a steep drop below. A couple of well-placed rollers made a pumping exit almost mandatory. I could have ridden that one section all day.   

Mixing it up.

I think my Czech hosts had prior knowledge of my limited attention span, because our second morning in Nove Mesto was something completely different to the first. It started with an uplift. No, not a mud-splattered minibus full of sweaty blokes hugging full-face helmets type uplift. This was a proper gondola – the centrepiece of a small ski resort. 

We were ushered out of the top station onto an airy traversing track and then we climbed to the foot of a lofty observation tower. Spiral steps led steeply to the very top. The views were awesome, with mainly wooded hills stretching away in all directions. I guess this was the Czech Republic I was expecting, but I’d never really considered how much quality singletrack could be hidden away beneath those trees. 

For now though, it was a bit more natural riding – this time a steep rock garden that definitely switched the technical difficulty up a few notches. We all cleaned it. And most of us even clambered back up for a second go down. We then climbed again, now on a similar rock garden to the one we’d just descended – I love technical climbs. As a decided non-climber it’s the only bit I can do a half-decent job of. 

Not this time though – my freehub had obviously seen one sharp ratchet too many (or could it have been my power…) and halfway up I logged a decent cadence while going absolutely nowhere. Bugger. 

I should say at this stage that the bike was really in decent nick – I’d hate anyone to think this was a reflection on the hire bikes in general. Apart from slightly worn tyres – this was the end of the season – it was as up together as the one I hired in Scotland. In a way, it was almost fortuitous. The easy answer was going to be a descent all the way back down to the hire shop to swap the back wheel. And Jan figured he knew a route that would require minimum pedalling, although he warned it was a little steep in places – it was. 

The trails that followed certainly wouldn’t be part of the usual itinerary. Think Snowdon Ranger/Rhyd Ddu on steroids. Top end of my ability on a good day – with a working bike! Freewheeling was a whole new game. It was fun though, and amazing how nimble and quick Jan was through this stuff on a 120mm cross-country bike. I needed all 160mm and more than a bit of luck to keep the Remedy anywhere near him.

The steep bit led to more of that wonderful singletrack and in an attempt to avoid pedalling, we really got a lick on with me pumping every dip and doing all I could to keep downhill momentum high enough to get me over the ramps. It was incredible fun, though tiring beyond belief. Made worse by the fact that no matter how well I thought I was doing, Jan was always that little bit ahead (and looking comfortable). 

The payback was twofold though – first, it was great fun, second, in my breathless haze I was finally released from the torture of Freddy’s finest moment. By the time we swapped the wheel, slammed down another espresso and headed back onto the trail again, my mind was finally free. (No, there’s not another Queen song in that.) 

Moving on.

We’d had two great days at Singltrek pod Smrken. As an introduction to the diverse Czech mountain biking scene, it would be hard to beat. I’d ridden some amazing singletrack – the network is huge with over 80km in total. 

I’d met all kinds of riders, from Lycra-clad cross-country racers to casually dressed hobbyists clinging to the bar ends (yes, that’s where they all went…) on bikes that looked 20 years out of date but still worked perfectly, to a couple of enduro style warriors, to guys that looked a little like us – can I call them trail riders? The riding was great fun, but definitely British blue/red territory. I was assured there’d be more technical tests ahead. 

Nové Město had also been my introduction to Czech culture, although our hotel was pretty rural so it was really only one side of the coin. My thoughts were mixed – super-friendly people and everywhere signs of a country that was trying to drive itself forward – even the Singltrek pod Smrken trails were an initiative to bring tourism to an otherwise seldom-visited part of the country (we’ve definitely seen that model before). 

But it also had a slightly austere feel that definitely alluded to its previous position on the east of the Curtain. A plus was the beer, which was great with plenty of variety. The food, however, was more functional than fantastic – no great issue for me, but I guess it could be for some. 

Fear of a flat planet.

The journey to Kokořínsko was my first opportunity to get a good look at the Czech countryside in daylight and it was all pretty pleasant without ever being gobsmacking. We left the wooded hills behind and clambered up onto a plateau of ploughed fields lined with towering beech trees that bore a great resemblance to the Salisbury Plain area of Wiltshire. It was rather worrying to pull up at our hotel with barely a hill in sight. But Kokořínsko had a secret up its sleeve.

After a very comfortable night in a pretty plush hotel that would equal four stars in the UK with no bother, we got one hell of a shock to find the ground dropped steeply away just metres from the hotel gate. 

The trails, and there were plenty of them, were actually a secret network of narrow pathways contouring the steep sides of an incredibly complex series of valleys and sub-valleys that fell away from the plateau right behind the hotel. 

These weren’t bike trails like at Nové Město, these were shared walking trails, in places shaped and cared for by the mountain biking community. The contouring trails were fun, although the drops off the side were slightly disconcerting. Like Singltrek pod Smrken, these trails were narrow. But it was the odd little steep section that really floated my boat – BC-style, steep bouldery drop-ins that tested balance and nerve. And definitely required a bit of butt-buzzing at times. 

I loved it – certainly feeling at home on the more natural nature of the terrain. But my enthusiasm was soon dampened. First, by a slipping seatpost on my latest rental bike and then, quite literally, by a serious downpour. 

Jan had suggested we braved the steep climb from the bottom back up to the top to bag ourselves some more of these steep little lines. But as we made the plateau, the open, the bit with no shelter at all, the heavens unleashed the wet. 

Rock and a hard place. Lose the height on tarmac and shelter down in the wood below. Or don waterproofs and wait it out. 

Ever seen those sheep standing in a field, totally still, with their backs to the wind, water flowing off their fleeces in an opaque curtain, and expressions that suggest they’d like to be anywhere in the whole world except where they are right now? That was us. It was probably only 10 minutes, 15 max. But we were totally soaked. It was just like having buckets of cold, clean water thrown over you.

It finally dissipated, leaving the road and trails streaming, and the fields steaming. Jan and I shrugged, mounted up and set off across the top to locate the next trail. Not surprisingly, everything had become a bit more technical. 

Going down.

What was surprising was how well our tyres dealt with it. I found out just how slippery it really was by getting off to look at one steep section and slipping instantly onto the floor, where my softshell shorts did a great impression of a bin liner on a water slide. It then took a very muddy version of me a good few minutes to clamber the ten metres or so back up the hillside to where I’d abandoned my bike and grinning companion. 

I had another little fall before lunch. Schoolboy stuff – a big handful of brake on the only root on the whole trail. I was glad of a chance to dry off and warm up when we hit the café at the bottom. The soup was spot on. And the sun was back out again by the time we’d all refuelled and dried off a bit. 

The afternoon was more of the same. Unbelievably, any sign of the deluge had disappeared by the time we got back out. We whiled away a few hours sessioning the odd steep section, hammering other bits and generally having a big loamy ball. These were definitely my favourite trails of the week. 

Technical Trutnov.

From the rural idyll of Kokořínsko, we journeyed east to the town of Trutnov and the renowned Trutnov Trails. Trutnov itself really did feel Eastern Bloc to me. It was industrial, busy and neither welcoming or unfriendly. It was just doing its own thing really and we didn’t seem that important to it. 

The trails, by contrast, were amazing. We were lucky enough to have Dusan, ex-Whistler guide and one of the main Trutnov protagonists, to show us around. The plan was to use Dusan’s knowledge to show us the very best sections, linking them together in a kind of ‘best of Trutnov’ mash-up. We could then look into the area in more depth the next day. 

These trails were something different again and very purpose built. The singletrack still had that same natural feeling, but here it linked a succession of spectacular technical trail features. Big boulders, steeps, slabs, drops that couldn’t be rolled, wall rides, skinnies – you name it, it was here. One section was actually referred to as ‘Whistler’. 

We stretched ourselves. All of us feeling pretty buoyed after a week of riding every day. Though nobody cleaned the double black diamond section. Another day perhaps…

It was massive fun – well built and undoubtedly well thought-through – yet somehow so much more daring than anything in the UK. It was also mentally draining – time for some R&R if we wanted a grand finale tomorrow. 

Damp squib.

That sadly was never to be. The heavens opened again – this time a little more than a shower. And the consensus within the group was to sit it out in the morning and see how it looked later. It improved. We went. But the sheer intensity of the downpour had left the trails sticky in places and slippery in others. My bad luck continued and my mech hanger snapped at the top of the main climb. 

I had two choices: either singlespeed my very muddy bike, or roll back the way I came. The work involved in the former, just to chance my luck on a singlespeed bike on a short section of very slimy singletrack, seemed a little excessive, so back I rolled. 

It worked out well again. I enjoyed some really warm hospitality from the trailhead bar and shared the bike wash and some interesting conversation with a few riders over from Poland for the weekend. Despite my misfortune, it was a great way to end the tour. Definitely adding some depth and texture to my grasp of this still-developing scene. 

In all, it had been a great trip. Well-organised and fun with superb riding. I’d had five amazing days on the bike, and seen a part of the world I may otherwise never have visited. 

It’s great how mountain biking can do that. 

Tom travelled to the Czech Republic with Czech MTB Holidays czechmtbholidays.com

The trip was organised courtesy of Czech Tourism mtbczech.cz

He rode at:

• Singltrek pod Smrken singltrekpodsmrkem.cz

• Kokořínsko

• Trutnov Trails trutnovtrails.cz

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