• Jakub Stepaniuk

Cycling adventures in the era of Covid-19

Last week one of the most fascinating journeys in my life came to a close. After twenty days of sitting on my bicycle saddle I finally reached the Czech-Polish border to encounter the same people with whom I had started the trip in Warsaw. But coming back to Poland with two and a half thousands of kilometres in my legs which smoothly pedalled through the territories of seven other countries was not the definite aim I strived for. I actually did not outline any particular route I would follow, any defined points on the map that I felt “obliged” to reach.

I do not want to sound too “postmodern” and say that my trip lacked any tangible structure. I attempted to follow a general destination but I did not have any particular plan of how I would get there. “Tour de Belgrade” as I called it, suggested cycling between the two cities of particular significance for me: Warsaw where I spent my best school years and Belgrade where I recently worked and studied. I wanted to discover the space between these symbolic geographical dots in which I always feel the impression of “being at home”.

I had already flown from one to the other, rode a car or a bus, but I never travelled such a distance solely using the force of my legs. It might sound like a trifle but a swift relocation deprives the traveller of noticing the gradual change of space, a phenomenon of particular importance in Central and Eastern Europe where borders were notoriously challenged and reinterpreted. “Feeling” the change of cultural landscape makes one much more aware of the fact that the picture of contemporary Europe sketched by homogenous nation state boundaries is highly oversimplified and overgeneralised. Europe is a mosaic of fluid influences, interdependencies and frictions made up from local stories, heroes, and dialects, but discovering and understanding it takes time. It is more than obvious that a flight denies the space underneath completely, but what can we get from driving through the uniformly asphalted Europe of dull motorway inns and repetitive traffic signs?

In November last year, I rode a bike from Belgrade to Osijek and back in three days, the longest cycling trip I had ever took in my life. I thought that if these three days of continuous cycling were doable then twenty should not turn out as something impassable. The experience of the Osijek trip, especially the randomness of unexpected events that turned out to be unforgettable adventures, prompted me to set off for a longer journey.

Belgrade was here for motivational purposes only. The thought of the taste of Balkan cuisine and of my friends I wished to visit was to support myself in times of physical exhaustion, frustrating winds, and battered asphalts. I had taken a look on the dark colours of map showing Slovak peaks of Tatra I would have to hack through, I had calculated these abstract hundreds of kilometres in my head. Belgrade was a tempting, remote fruit. But I did not want to force myself in any sense to get there. My organism would only acknowledge an imaginable distance, my timespan capabilities were limited to a vision stretching between a single sunrise and sunset. Yesterday or tomorrow would wait for their turn as having a four-digit kilometre perspective was just too overwhelming.

It was not only the technical condition of my bike or physical force of my legs I would worry about. I had to be connected with the world at least to a minimum extent. I heard the stories of rising numbers of new corona cases, unclear status of borders, post-electoral Serbian streets that went up in flames. I would sooner get mad rather than relaxed if reaching Belgrade on my bike would be a question of life or death.

Some aspects of my journey were more fixed than the others. I set off from Warsaw accompanied by two other friends with a plan to reach Cracow in three days. It was Thursday evening when we arrived at the colourful facades of Cracow’s Old Town, the perfect time to start thinking of the lonely journey that awaited me in the next days. I became aware of the fact that the second ballot of the Polish presidential elections was about to take place on Sunday. My wish to participate in elections was faced with many dilemmas. Could I face the Slovak mountains and reach the Polish embassy in Budapest in time? Could I climb on routes and paths surpassing the heights of one thousands metres with my fifteen kilograms of essentials? I was only amazed with what I had encountered on both sides of the Tatra mountains. Making use of local bike infrastructure was a bit challenging for my fine road tyres although getting so close to the mountainous nature by constant refreshments in chilled streams made the Slovak crossing much more interesting than the monotonous plains of the first days of cycling. The indescribable exultation of reaching another peak with breathtaking views of valleys, flattering lakes and villages was enough to behold Hungarian waters of Danube and to cast my vote on time.

I started getting lost in my conflicting thoughts. Fear of getting into quarantine once I would leave the EU, fear of the desperate conditions of Serbian healthcare I had once experienced, fear of peaceful protests turning into massive revolution. Governments accusing each other of bringing in the virus, threatening to close down the borders again. I had prepared tens of alternative routes in my head avoiding Serbia. Before breakfast I had sketched the route to the Balaton lake but at the same time I realised that it was only the Hungarian Puszta that separated me from my “imagined” Balkans. The Polish Embassy in Zagreb ensured me that it was possible to cross the border between Serbia and Croatia, at least at the moment when we had our phone call. I changed my mind again and by midnight I already reached the main square of Subotica. Despite my huge sympathy for the Balkans I would not call them a cyclist’s paradise though I was probably even more disillusioned with the terrible conditions of rutted Hungarian roads. Riding a very familiar jarring road plates around Novi Sad I felt that I am getting closer. Just after the final race with Bosnian and Macedonian truck drivers I indulged myself in the tastes of Belgrade’s best pljeskavica and punjena paprika.

After a quick Serbian refreshment I made the decision to cycle back to Poland, I felt strong enough to do it. The only thing I was quite sceptic about were the state borders. Would the Croats still let me in the EU, would the Slovenians still let me in the Schengen area? My doubts were erased once I arrived at the border crossings. I felt like the fact I was using a bike actually helped me as if there would be no global pandemic whatsoever. Instead of health or hygiene the talks with border guards were focused on my adventures, alternatively leading to jokes on the number of cigarettes being smuggled in my saddlebags. Once the Austrians took my clear German pronunciation for granted and did not even check my documents, I felt safe and ready to get through the ranges of the Alps.

If I was to make a ranking of the most cycling friendly areas on my journey, Slovenia and Styria would definitely make the top. Avoiding crowded roads and getting practically through the entire region on a separate cycling route was not something I would have ever expected. I did not have many reasons to complain about Croatia either, however the Drava route stretching between Osijek and Varaždin sometimes ended up in random corn fields or the national road.

Music stage, massage parlour, boiler room or beer veranda make up the colourful mosaic of places where I had a pleasure to reload my physical batteries and continue the journey on the next day. For the end of this article there is nothing more to express than my huge gratefulness to everyone who helped me during the way, offered me a place to sleep, gave me some food and local beverages, sometimes provided me with dry clothes once mine got soaked in unexpected storms. “Tour de Belgrade” influenced me not only in feeling more knowledgeable about the Central and Eastern European cultural and historical heritage, feeling stronger in the sense of my physical skills or mental self-confidence. Despite my fears of corona deteriorating interpersonal relations I did not experience any scepticism, instead, I was amazed with how hospitable the people can be. A journey like this can deeply impact the way we perceive essential human values in the prism of selfless help. I would strongly recommend taking a bike and setting off to anyone who is still looking for some summer adventures.

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