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Czech biking culture

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Biking season in the Czech Republic has officially begun. There are numerous cyclists out now on the wooded path near our house. For many Czechs, biking isn’t just about clocking kilometers or arriving at a particular destination, it’s about the journey, including time spent enjoying the nature and of course, the tasty pit stops at pubs along the way.

Biking in the Czech Republic has its own culture and set of rules. On one of my first biking trips here, Radek, Anna Lee and I took toured through Moravian wine country. We enjoyed the autumn vinobraní (wine harvest) festivals and I noticed that even the most serious bikers left plenty of time for leisurely breaks. During our day-long trip, we stopped off at several wine cellars and Radek bought a large bottle of freshly fermented wine for us to share that evening back at the pension. The same zero-alcohol tolerance rule for applies to bikers just as drivers.

Along the five-kilometer wooded stretch where our family regularly cycles locally, I’ve counted four pubs, which all offer basic pub food, beverages, and convenient outdoor seating. On warm, sunny days, the pub gardens are just as crowded, if not more so, than the paths themselves. It’s common to see bikers taking a breather from their physical efforts to enjoy the casual, friendly atmosphere, to swap stories about their mileage and indulge in an on-tap beer or fizzy drink along with a sausage from the grill. On our biking adventures close to home, we’ve encountered all types of bikers, from a woman biking with her two dogs leashed in front, like Huskies pulling a make-shift bobsled, to parents towing their children in covered carriers. There are bikers who whizz by my family at speeds that make my heart pound and then there are those who slow their pace to shout “Ahoj” and give a nod to our children. Although both Radek and I like biking longer distances, as a family activity, biking allows all of us to get a bit of exercise, breathe some fresh air and reward ourselves with a pleasant stop (or two) along the way.

There has recently been a boom in the number of biking trails. As of 2008, the Czech Republic boosted an impressive 37,000 kilometers of bike trails, 4.5 times more than in neighboring Germany. However, of the thousands of kilometers of trails in the Czech Republic, ranging from mountainous passes to rolling countryside, only 3% are marked exclusively for biking. This dichotomy is most apparent in highly populated areas like Prague, which despite having the most kilometers of marked biking trails (98km) isn’t outwardly a very bike friendly or even bike-safe place. Apart from courier messengers and some dedicated bike-commuters, bikers are not commonly seen on the city’s busy streets. Yet, on any sunny day, the paths on either side of the Vltava River are swarming with bikers. There are several ferry services that cart bikers and their equipment across the river on the same ticket that is used on all the public transportation. Biking to and from the zoo is a popular activity, as is biking along the river out of the city in either direction.

The region around Pardubice, with its flat roads and extensive trails system, including many paved biking trails, is considered the most bike-friendly area in the country. Whenever we visit our friends in the area, I’m surprised by how many babičky and dědy we see doing their food shopping, café hopping and errand running by bicycle. Ideally, I’d like to be able to bike the few kilometers up the road to the Tesco for some quick shopping, but the cars whizzing past me at up to 90 kilometers/hr scare me enough to reserve my road biking stints for the weekends, when the traffic is considerably lighter. Unfortunately, for many bikers in Prague and its surrounding suburbs, getting to a “safe biking path” means first traveling on busy, main roads that lack a bike lane or sufficient shoulder. Red-painted biking lanes have been added in some Prague neighborhoods, but sadly, I’ve seen more cars double-parked in the biking lane than I’ve seen bikers using it.

I consider our family lucky to be able to bike straight out of our house on to some nicer trails. Last week we took the first family ride of the season. Anna started off shakily on her new 6-speed bicycle. I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle the bumpy parts of the five-kilometer path that lay ahead. Oliver rode in a bike seat behind Radek, and I had the honor of biking with Samuel behind me. At first, I was too worried about whether or not Anna could handle the new bike and if the baby was capable of riding in the bike seat to enjoy the day, but after a few kilometers I began to relax. Bikers passed us in both directions and I had to smile at the seriousness with which Anna politely greeted each passerby with a proper “dobrý den” instead of the more common, colloquial “ahoj”. Despite falling several times in the gravel, I could tell that she was proud of her ability to ride like a real biker instead of on the back of her parents’ bike. She used her bell to announce our arrival to walkers, and after riding a few kilometers on a flat, paved stretch she managed to master switching gears. We stopped mid-way for a leisurely snack of ice cream, coffee and beer and let the children play in the pub’s garden while we chatted. The ride home was a bit more challenging as it was slightly uphill. When Anna complained of sore legs, I figured it was probably warranted. All together we did 14 kilometers, which seemed like a pretty fair distance.

Although I thought our family’s accomplishment was exceptional, biking with kids at an early age seems to be commonplace in the Czech Republic. When I began chatting with the other mothers at Anna’s dance class several of them mentioned off-hand doing comparable or even longer trips with their children. It’s typical to see 3 and 4 year olds riding bikes behind their parents, connected with a tow bar, instead of using training wheels. It is a popular way to let young bikers experience the thrill of biking on the road without having to do the work of balancing or peddling. During our afternoon ride, we watched as a boy attached by a tow pole to his dad’s bike held on tightly while his bike bumped and slanted over the uneven ground. It didn’t look that appealing to me, but Oliver’s eyes widened in interest. When we returned home later that night, Oliver pushed his own bike onto the road in front of our house and began practicing. I thought he was inspired by the little boy, but instead he told me that he wanted shoes to clip into his pedals like Radek has. Whatever inspired him, I was glad that he wanted to learn.

For me, the best part of biking is that it gives our family a chance to do something that is both physical and social together. It’s great to see more of the Czech countryside. But even more, it’s nice to know that the reward of a beer or ice cream is waiting at the end of wherever we might decide to go.

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