About a month ago, the Viennese bike shop Citybiker advertised “The Slovakia Experiment 2022”, a rather mysterious event which involved a lot of cycling and Slovakia.
My first big ride of 2022, I reached out to some friends who were interested in a long day in the saddle. The Komoot map for the “Extended Experiment” route (there and back, rather than train there and ride back) was finally published, and we quickly found out that it was chock full of gravel. As a group with a preference for the harder stuff, we decided to replan the route on Komoot a bit to roughly follow the proper TSE, but stick more to the asphalt (route below).
That Saturday, western and central Europe was being battered by Storm Eunice with 40 km/h winds. The original plan was to join my four other friends with my speedy Cannondale, however I didn’t fancy getting blown around with my deep carbon rims, so I decided to take my more robust Triban winter bike.
Outbound to Bratislava – the easy bit
We met up at 8 am and, pleasantries having been exchanged, we snaked our way out of Vienna through bike paths and back roads, avoiding Saturday morning traffic and red lights. We finally hit the countryside and began the enjoy the benefits of the strong westerly winds across the plains north of Vienna.
Unless one plans well, this area can be quite monotonous, with wide featureless expanses interrupted by the odd village and factory. Nevertheless, it was nice riding along with my companions, chatting about various things and enjoying our first proper group ride of the year. Komoot lived up to its well-earned reputation, sending us through a mixtures of scenic forests and smooth bike paths built from old railway lines, but of course potholed gravel stretches designed to test the mettle of any true roadie. The weather was quite pleasant and sunny, however it was colder than the promised 8C due to the wind. I’m glad I brought my winter jacket.
After meandering through villages and fields, we eventually picked up one more companion just before we crossed into Slovakia over the “Fahrradbrücke der Freiheit” / “Cyklomost slobody” (Freedom Bridge for Bicycles – more info here in German). I later learnt that a while back a vote was held in Slovakia on naming the bridge, and the winner was the “Chuck Norris Bridge”. Sadly this was not officially accepted, but the name stuck.
We hit the streets of Bratislava’s outskirts, with an odd sensation that the trip had all of a sudden become international. We weaved our way through Bratislava’s Saturday morning traffic (déjà vu), and after a while turned off the main roads, through a few dodgy backroads with potholes the size of a mountain bike tyre. We then found ourselves in Železná studnička park (in German Eisenbrünnel, more info here in German), a beautiful forest road free of traffic and surrounded by parkland. Having lost two of our party at a rather steep hill earlier on, three of us made our way up the gentle winding road through the forest in silence.
At the top, we were woken from our reverie with the promise of a steep descent leading back to the city centre. With us dodging cars and walkers, Arti took the downhill in his stride and shot off into the distance – oddly enough, the next time I saw him was about 2 hours later, back in Austria.
We met the rest of the TSE group at the Isadore Bratislava Community Hub, a funky bike clothing shop in converted factory near the city centre. Standing outside in the modern square outside, I fettled with the bike a bit (my back wheel came loose), chatted with some friends, topped off my water bottles, and grabbed some cake and a double espresso. A word for the wise, no bike shop should be without an oversized shiny Italian coffee machine.
Inbound – 70 km of headwind
One of the organisers stood in the centre of the group, brought us to silence, and announced that we were heading off. Shortly about 50 of us were slowly rolling through the city centre, across the bridge over the Danube, and out of the city. There was a bit of confusion where to go, with the gravel route being a narrow muddy path through some bushes. Later we discovered that the path was blocked with a few fallen trees from the storm.
Those not of the gravel persuasion hooked a left onto a local bike path, which led straight across the border back into Austria. The group had already thinned out, and combined with the flat landscape, this left us fully exposed to the strong headwinds. It was at this point my legs started cramping.
Progress had been smooth so far, however when my quads, hamstrings and calves simultaneously cramped up, my morale went out the window. The pain coupled with the headwinds meant that my speed went down to about 12 km/h – with 70 km to go.
That was when my friend David spotted me and very kindly rode at my pace to provide shelter. Progress was slow, but after a couple of gels the cramping improved and I felt I could ride at about 40% power without too much discomfort. We kept on battling the incessant wind and made it into the town of Hainburg an der Donau, nestled on the bank of the Donau. We eventually crossed over the impressive Danube Bridge and into the national park of Donau-Auen.
We rode along the Eurovelo 6 bike path, a road which runs through a beautiful forest lying beside the Danube. Whilst asphalted and well maintained, it is dull, straight and flat, normally a 35 km straight line of monotonous riding – but now with 30 km/h headwind. David and I sought to keep up each others spirits, talking about anything and everything, and fighting our way through a variety of leg cramps.
We spotted other groups of TSE cyclists along the bike path, each fighting their own individual battles against the wind. We joined in a couple of groups, taking shelter and making conversation until either we would overtake them, or my leg would cramp up and we would need to stop.
The one thing that kept me going was the thought of visiting Hermi’s Radlertreff, a small restaurant of sorts in the latter half the forest. Whilst it serves only basic food and drink, it is a true oasis to any weary cyclist. This being February, I had a niggling suspicion that it would be closed, however thankfully this worry was unjustified. Clearly others were thinking the same thing, Hermi’s had a regular throughput of weary looking cyclists that day.
I ordered a restorative Käsekrainer sausage (complete with bread and mustard) and an Almdudler (a delicious Austrian soft drink), and David and I plopped ourselves at a table. We were shortly joined by another cyclist who told us that he had started off in Eisenstadt, and we had a pleasant chat about this and that. I later discovered this was fellow cycling blogger Der Kilometermacher, whose writeup of TSE22 is here.
Feeling somewhat restored, David and I headed back onto the road and made it up the last 10 km to Vienna, where we parted ways. I still had another 20 km after that, so it was technically the home stretch, however with almost permanent cramps in my quads and calves, it was a fair old challenge.
This wasn’t my longest ride, but with the high winds it was one of the more impressive and challenging. For several days afterwards I had mild tendonitis in my right ankle, as well as a raw nose and pain at the back of my throat from breathing in the cold air for those hours.
The one thing I had really gained an appreciation of during this trip was that of camaraderie on the bike. Everywhere I looked, people may have been complaining about the wind, the distance, directions or various aches and pains, but this brought people together.
Cycling is perhaps uniquely social – there are not many sports where several people can spend hours practising the sport together but being able to talk and chat the whole time. Not only this, I was immensely thankful for David’s support in riding with me despite my slow speed. This was an example of selflessness and teamwork in action, one of the many meaningful gestures I have experienced from others when cycling.
When you’re out riding, don’t forget to help others – you might just make someone’s day.