Bicycling in Bohemia (with help from České Dráhy)

by Justin Wuycheck - 2007-02-03

When people hear that I’m going to the Czech Republic, they say, “Ah, Prague.”  The capital then becomes somewhat of a city-state, as if the rest of the country did not exist.  In whimsical tones, conversation centers around the city: it’s beauty, it’s beer, it’s accessibility to tourists, the fact that everyone seemingly speaks English.

One could also say “The beauty, the beer, the accessibility,” about much of the Czech Republic, as well.  Many treasures lay hidden in rolling terrain, and not surprising, there’s better beer too, than the monolith of Pilsner Urquell. The fact that train service is available to an incredible number of small towns and villages throughout this Central-European country (if only reasonably on-time). 

České Dráhy, the state-run train company, is now trying to move beyond its rails and onto two wheels – it has entered the bike-rental business.  In doing so, it provides an inexpensive and pleasant way for tourists to penetrate beyond the boundaries of Prague.   

Telč, Dačice, Jindřichův Hradec, are not names that flow often or easily from a tourist‘s tongue, but I decided to visit these towns near the Czech/Austrian border to try out the České Dráhy bike rental service.  The decision required an early start, 5:30am, to catch a 5:56 train near my lodging.  I might have done better to  have gone west to Pilsen or north to Cesky Raj, two closer regions where CD offers this service as well, but I’d made my choice, and south Bohemia it was. 

The biggest problem with the 5:56am train was finding a seat:  business women, workers, teens with their I-Pods - already the Czechs were starting their day a good two hours before my alarm usually rings.  The train arrived at Hlavní Nadraží quickly; I purchased my ticket to JINDŘICHŮV HRADEC; and moments later I boarded another train, this one so full that I wound up sitting with a few others in the passageway.  Outside, a blue sky promised good weather. 

After one more connection, I arrived at JINDŘICHŮV HRADEC, around ten o’clock.  In Prague, everyone seemingly speaks English, but Prague is not the Czech Republic.  When the attendant asked me something,  I could only reply with a large helpless smile. She smiled, waiting.  Fortunately, I had TIM (Tourist Information Magazine) with an advertisement in English and Czech for the bike rental; I pointed, things moved ahead.  The woman was very pleasant, very courteous, the only catch was a discrepancy between the magazine advertisement and the actual deposit  – the magazine read 500 Kč for a bike deposit while in reality it was 1000 Kč.  Not a big deal, as it would be returned at the end of the day.  The actual rental cost was an affordable: 50 Kč for up to two hours, 100Kč for up to four hours, 150Kč for up to six hours, and 200Kč for 12 hours. (The equivalent of nine US dollars for a day‘s ride is not bad at all).

A second, equally courteous worker took me to the station’s garage where 10 bikes of different sizes and in good repair hung on the wall. At 1.96 meters (6‘4“), I was a bit concerned about sizing, but I very quickly found a bike that I thought fit me well. The woman offered me the sole helmet in stock, but I had luckily brought my own. Two good signs, though, CD had a variety of different bike sizes to choose from, and at least one helmet.  

After selecting my bike, I returned to the first woman; somehow I must have indicated that I would be ending my ride in Dačice.  I signed a contract in Czech (English was not an option), showed two pieces of identification and paid; in a moment, before noon, I was on two wheels and headed into the sunshine of a Czech morning.

An unfamiliar bike always requires an inspection before a ride.  This one showed acceptable, end-of-summer wear on the brakes, but that was the only real  <<problem.>>  Well, that and I adjusted my seat a little bit higher.  On the big plus side, the chain slipped smoothly and quietly through all twenty-four gear combinations.  Also a patch kit and tire pump were provided. 

However, the first ten minutes of  the trip were not  pleasurable for various reasons.  First, the bike service did not provide maps or clear instructions to get on the well-marked bike-trail system. Fortunately, I brought my own map (Shocart – active #163 – Jindřicho-hradecko Česká Kanada). Secondly, I’m a road bike rider, a thin tire,  aero-bar, monocoque carbon frame junkie, and České Dráhy does not supply such bikes. They offer heavy steel tanks with wide, treaded  wheels, and a power-sapping spring-suspended cushioned seat.  For the roadie, riding such a machine is like pedaling a wet sock; for a mountain-biker it might seem much less responsive than a dirt devil, but for the casual rider it would do just fine, just fine.  All in all a good sign, CD is encouraging the average person to get out and ride.

The third reason why the first ten minutes of the trip were questionable, my seat was still too short.  I checked the seat post for signs of slippage.  Happily there were no problems but I did have to pull the seat post beyond it’s „maximum height“ mark.  Pulling the post beyond that mark can cause the frame‘s down tube to crack under stress,  but a low seat can cause knee pain.  One must choose.

With the seat height issue settled I was able to quickly find the cycling route.  The Czech government has done a fine job on marking their biking trails with an array of little, yellow signs leading away from major roads.  The advantage of this is twofold:  1) Safety.  Czech drivers are not awful, but they could slow down a bit.  There is a rule in the Czech Republic stating that cyclists must ride in line,  and drivers have been known to confront riders who ignore this by biking shoulder to shoulder.  2) The Scenery. Which is better, the view of semi after semi as they pass by on busy roads, or quiet villages with meandering country lanes?

I found the villages.  The bike lanes -occasionally a maintained dirt path, usually a quiet road - passed by hamlets of 20 houses, a church, and a bar.  It also passed small lakes and ponds, and the simple summer homes that are so popular in the Czech Republic.  The gardens were in the fullness of September, and I saw plum and apple trees sagging with fruit.

This is one of the greatest aspects of the Czech countryside – the fruit trees that line the side of many roads.  It has long been a Czech habit to plant various trees along the byways of their country, so that travelers could find shade and something to eat.  In spring one is nourished with cherries, and in fall the apples and plums, the mirabelle and pears and occasional walnuts feed the happy adventurer.  On a two-track I saw a clutch of plum trees that had been facing the sun all morning; the little, egg-shaped fruits were dark and warm and SO sweet.  The trees had no sign of an owner, I was not intruding on anyone‘s land – the fruit appeared to be growing there very much for the taking. 

Borders of fruit trees became a common sight on my route, and fueled much of it.  Beyond the trees, harvested and tilled fields rolled into one another or up to a thicket of forest. Occasionally, a lonely castle or church rested on the hill tops. The thick-tired ride of the bike allowed me to concentrate on the scenery without worrying about hitting a crack  and flying off into it. 

I made it to the town Dačice on time, an hour early, actually. I was dusty and looking forward to meeting my friends in the evening, back in Prague.  When I arrived at the train station, it was empty.  As in, not a  person or piece of furniture in the place.  Outside the locked door was a big sign stating that „this rail-line would be closed starting today.“  There was a large machine removing the tracks from beside the station.    I could make out something about buses from the poster, and so I found the bus station.  Since I had time, I thought I’d take my bike on the bus to Telč, a nearby city where I hoped to deliver the bike (according to the advertisement), and hop on another train back to Prague.

The bus driver did not blink when I asked to bring the bike on the bus.  As we rode, I was happy I hadn’t ridden the 13 kilometers to Telč because the terrain had become more hilly, and the 80km I had already ridden was enough for the day. I thanked the bus driver as I left the bus.  It was only a short ride to the train station.

Telč is not Prague, but I understood when the attendant said „no;“ it was with a scowl.  She was reading my bike contract.   „Dačice,“ she said.  I tried to explain that I tried to return the bike in Dačice, but that the station was closed; could I please leave the bike here?  Her second „no“ was less sunny than the first.  I tried to explain again that it was not possible.  Her third „no“ was less sunnier still. 

Finally, I persuaded her, using the international sign language „Exaspiranto“,  to call the station in Dačice. Lo and behold, the main station of Dačice which was very hidden and very, very open.  The attendant made it very clear, without speaking a word of English, that I must return my bike to Dačice, and only Dačice.

It was a hop back to the bus station, and back on the bus I was interrupted by a diffrent driver saying, „No bikes.“ 

„What?“ 

„No bikes?“

I didn’t fight, just biked; the anger made for a quick 14 kilometers back to Dačice.  That was with the quiet, country lanes going up a large series of hills. 

I would surely miss my train back to Prague, I was tired, and this experience had been preceded by one I had two nights before in Germany, which left me sleeping on the floor of the Frankfurt airport. I ate some plums from the side of a road.  Ok, those were really good. When I arrived to the other train station in Dačice, the attendants there were nice too. The man calmly and thoroughly examined my bike, then refunded me my 1000 crowns. There was a train waiting to take me to Telč, but this day not quite done, since the last train from Telč was already gone. The best I could hope for was a later train to Jihlava, and to somehow manage from there. In the end, there wasn’t a later train from Jihlava, so it meant a call to my hosts in Prague to rescue me. They arrived 2.5 hours later to find me waiting alone in the dark at a closed railway station just before 11pm.

On the long journey back to the Czech capital, I had time to contemplate the positives and negatives of České Dráhy bike program.   I hope this short list helps.

POSITIVES

-Beautiful areas in which to bike.

-Upkeep of bikes was satisfactory to very good

-Low, low prices

-Choice of bikes encourages a beginner to try riding comfortably

-Rental service obviates the need to lug a bike from home.



NEGATIVES

-Contracts in Czech language only

-Presumably, one can only return the bike to the station pre-agreed upon at the biginning of the trip

-Bikes are designed for the beginner and not for extensive road and/or off-road riding.

-The system needs at least some extra large bikes

-Scheduled train service to smaller towns is very, very limited (Telč only has 2 trains to Prague each Weekday, and neither are direct)



Although I would suggest this service to any casual riders wishing to visit these picturesque regions for one or two days, I would only do so on condition that they be prepared to face some rather daunting tasks. Besides signing a contract with unknown terms, given no directions to locate trails or stations where equipment must be returned, and seriously lacking customer service as well as connections after hours, there is no telling what could befall them. While it is clear that České Dráhy has put a great deal of time and effort into this offer, not to mention promoting it to non Czech speakers, users must be aware that it is a far from perfect system, and not nearly as user friendly as one might expect. All in all, it is a great idea that shows lots of promise. (editor’s note: we hope that České Dráhy takes notice, as there is plenty of room for improvement here)