A mission of distance: Warsaw to Rzewnica

The sun is slowly dragging itself down the trees and fields, revealing dark and shady spots creeping ever higher into the horizon. The sky’s blue colors turn slowly into shades of pink, yellow and orange only occasionally ripped by contrail scars. I put my head down and spin my legs round and round, winding the chain further down the road with each turn. The view ahead is pure rapture, with fields of young grain and forests in the distance to keep me occupied once I look down.

I breathe and inhale the air, it’s filled with exhaust fumes, cars passing whipping our ears with engine roars. What am I doing here? Where are the forest roads? Why do I choose to hear the buzz of knobby tires against tarmac rather than their gentle hum on gravel and dirt?
We are on a mission, a mission of distance. Sandy forest roads left some 30 kilometers behind us, we gain time and speed, we gain distance. We are off to the annual touring cyclist meeting in Poland. Saška, Krzysiek and me.
Having enjoyed mostly off-road travel for the past four and a half days it’s time to step up the game and catch up with the remains of what was left to travel. Tarmac was the only option.
In these few hours my head is wandering in places seen, ridden and slept in the past days. Lush, fragrant and colorful  are the trails of Central Poland.
Fast Rewind.
Friday, Velenje, Slovenia. I leave work and together with Saška we pack our bikes and stuff in a small car. Engine starts and we point it north.
Saturday, Belchatow, Poland. Check the bikes, change the forks, change the tires, Saška trains her tire-lever-less tire mounting skills. 29+ it is!
Sunday morning, Belchatow, Poland. Fitting, test rides. Saška’s eyes are almost as big as the wheels, spilling sparks of excitement on the garage floor. Wheels off. In the car. Go north.
Sunday evening, Warsaw. Meet and greet, drink and eat. We meet at Krzysiek’s place, although he cannot join us now he will be with us shortly and with him his trusty two wheeled friend.
Monday. Play!
Central Poland might seem a flat and dull place for cycling. Cities, roads, villages… But when I look at the map it is the stains of green I’m looking for. Forests are the ones that grab my attention. Polish forests are known for their dense trail structure, from singletracks, through dirt roads to well maintained gravel forest service roads. It’s all here and waiting to be ridden. Trails, although mostly unsigned, can be navigated easily in each direction given there is help available from somewhere above the exosphere.

My GPS track is a mix of precisely drawn curves and long straight lines dashing through forest where trail data was not available. I did a similar thing some time ago when visiting my grandma. It worked out pretty well then and I have high hopes it will do exactly so right now. There are many resources to aid your off-road route preparation and navigation in Poland. Most notable are:

Geoportal – with topographic coverage of the whole country, sadly no route creation feature.
UMP Garmin – free of charge topographic map for Garmin devices.
OSM Garmin – same as above, based on popular OpenCycle maps.
Planeta Gór – Topographic maps of Carpathian and Karkonosze mountains with basic routing option.
Leaving the concrete jungle of Warsaw we land in Puszcza Kampinowska. A vast protected forrest area of 270 square kilometers – a Warsavian’s favorite place to escape the city rumble. For this part the route was prepared by Krzysiek. Having spent many hours cycling up and down Kampinos the trails have embedded on the back of his hand forming a secretive network of trails going deep down to his wrists.

Riding Kampinos is tons of fun. Mostly flat it does offer a few climbing and “downhill” opportunities, not as exciting as a 2000 meter mountain, but they offer certainly welcome change now and then. After a short while in Kampinos it is clear why this place is so beloved by local hikers and bikers alike. Not only does it offer singletrack, doubletrack, whatever-track and no-track but also has a lot of historical places commemorating Polish resistance against German invasion forces during 1939-45 period. It’s a mix of bikepacking bliss and haunting lessons from the past. Places like Palmiry will send shivers down your spine. Although all of this is a thing of the past and Kampinos is no longer a hiding place for Polish partisans (funny enough Germans called them “terrorists” back in the day) don’t be surprised when you find a well maintained cementry in the middle of nowhere.

Did I mention there is lot’s of sand? Get some rubber. Darek took a pair of 700×41 Knards and this decision soon took it’s toll.
We take our time and stop once in a while to take in the fresh spring pine smells and have a sweet treat of Kasztanki – chocolates with cocoa and wafer filling. At the age of five I’d kill for those chewy-crispy things.
Past pines, past birch-trees, around sand dunes and under old oaks. You never know when a deer or rabbit will cross your path, and I swear I saw that elk somewhere in between those branches!
As Kampinos is a national park it is prohibited to camp inside or you might face a fine from the forest servicemen. Darek persuades to aim for a camping spot revealed to us by a friendly lady from the shop where we stocked up for the night and morning. Tomatoes, onions, pierogi (cheese and potato filled dumpling) and słonina (salo, the best for cooking) are in the menu. Now it’s Tułowice or bust. Not far away is the village of Brochów where Fryderyk Chopin was baptised.
The camping place is not bad, but me and Saška would prefer to stay somewhere in the wild. We don’t even care about the firing making lesson thought to us by the camping caretaker. It turns out you don’t have to blow on the glowing coals. All you need is just squirt of gasoline. Brilliant and simple although I’ll stay with birch bark and dry pine needels.
We all are eagerly waiting for Krzysiek to join us, riding with him has always been great and we miss his presence greatly.
Next morning we are glad to be on the other side of the fence and back on the road, soon to become trail. We join the Vistula riding close to it’s banks with the gentle flow of the river. Sun is yellow and so are the fields of rape. Combine these two and you fill the whole air with a familiar smell.
Once back in the forest we hit again some serious sand trails. No problem for our massive 29×3.0 tire or the less humongus 29×2.2 of Krzysiek, but Darek on his thin tires is struggling – having a heavy loaded bike doesn’t do him any favors either and soon he finds himself lagging behind. Traveling light time is one of our few possessions and we don’t mind waiting for him to catch up.
For this night we get ourselves a special treat, a beautiful lake in the middle of the forest. Far away places are nice, home is better, home is where we are. We unpack the tents, as this is exactly the spot we want to call home for the night and the day is already ripe.
We want to get as close to Toruń as possible, I’ve already told Saška all about the city’s specialty, Pierniki. Traditional gingerbread cookies with honey. I want to make sure we have enough of time to cruise around the old town, inhale the sweet smell of fresh gingerbread and of course fill our bellies up to the brim.
The sandy trails have been to much for Darek and his bike, and so he decides to pursuit some easier roads more matched to his gear of choice. We continue down the forest trail, providing much needed trail works where needed. Fallen branches and trees disappear from the path once we are done with it.

Circumnavigating small lakes brings fresh air into our ride and riding out of bug season we don’t have to worry about to many mosquitoes.


In and out of Włocławek we join the road, but soon find in degrade into gravel, then dirt. Small villages bring us small dogs, only brave enough to chase after one cyclist, they disperse as soon there is a group of us. 

We camp in a small forest just shy of 20 kilometers from Torun. Me and Krzysiek perform kitchen duties and Saška works on her Polish getting better day by day.
 
With frogs croaking in the distance I slide into my sleeping bag and once my eyes are closed I hear three powerful explosions far in the distance, yet so close. Followed by silence and then more explosions. The only thing that’s missing from the image I draw in my head is a burst from a machine gun. Then I hear it… RaTataTataaaa, RataTaaa slicing through the air and leaving it’s echo-tail whipping through forest leaves… 
 

What would you do if war broke out – asked me Saška. 

I would go home – was my immediate reply. 
 
What would you do?
Turned out somewhere far away was a military training ground and we just witnessed a peaceful, controlled devastation. Take it easy folks, it’s just a drill.
We make an early start to catch as much of Toruń as we can and not delay our trip to much. As we ride cycle paths into the city a sweet smells fills the air and if you’d catch enough of it in your mouth you’d feel the taste of honey infused pierniki. But this city is special not only because of it’s delicious confections, it is most notably known as the birthplace of Mikołaj Kopernik – polish astronomer who with his heliocentrism thesis changed astronomy forever. The day the earth stood still. The day the sun advanced.

Once in the city we stop at a bicycle shop, to get some bottle cages for Krzysiek’s fork. I cannot stand the look of a water bottle dangling from his rear pannier Ookie-style, threatening to fall of at every bump. I offer him my water bottle as kickstarter kit, reverting myself to a plastic bottle filled with carrot-banana-raspberry juice Kubuś. Never used mine to it’s full potential, simply preferring to open the bottle and drink out of it rather then suck and squeeze.

We cruise around the old town admiring it’s architecture, gingerbread shops abound. After we fill our bags and packs with lovely calories we take the excess to the nearest post office and send a sweet surprise to our families. Just yesterday my sister asked me to eat some white chocolade-coated pierniki for her, better yet, she can eat them herself.

Out of city, out of road, out of trail – a ride on railroad shoulder provides a shortcut. Yet again we look for blue spots on the map in search of a suitable camping spot. Seeing a lake as the last thing in the evening and first in the morning is one of those things a cannot get enough of, also unlimited access to water helps with keeping things and people clean.

Next morning brings THE day. We are behind with our schedule. Short of time and long in distance that’s left to go we attempt to come up with a plan. A quick glimpse at the route and we face around 180 kilometer which off mostly is composed out of dirt trails and possibly sandy tracks. After quick decision making we opt to split the route in half. Half of it is speed and distance, the other half shall be fun and fun. Fields roll by, gentle hills propel our bikes down their slopes, on to paved cycle paths which bestow us with the gift of distance and provide shelter from car traffic, yet they fail to save us from some heavy rainfall. It’s not bad, sun’s just around the corner and soon we find ourselves back on forest tracks, getting dry and finding our way into unsigned trails, non-existent on our maps. We loose some time, we loose some distance, but it’s fun, fun, fun.

Tuchola is our checkpoint, the last town we stop at before it gets to late to buy anything for the evening and the planned end of off-road sections. Take a pizza, hit the road and don’t look back.
As we ride the road the sun is slowly dragging itself down the trees and fields revealing dark and shady spots creeping higher into the horizon. The sky’s blue colors turn slowly into shades of pink, yellow and orange only occasionally ripped by scars of contrails. I put my head down and spin my legs round and round, winding the chain further down the road with each turn. The view ahead is pure rapture, with fields of young grain and forests in the distance to keep me occupied once I look down.
We ride late into the night and take a turn of the tarmac road, a short cut. It leads through a forest, the skies are clear and we ride under a thick canopy of stars and trees. Tires gently hum on the sandy surface, lights illuminate the path ahead. As we ride we’re grateful for this final moment of peace.
We are on a mission.
 
A mission of distance.
 

Luckily just for one day.

 

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