It was another chilly start. There was ice on our tent, panniers and even my shampoo was frozen. I was slow to get out of bed, but once I was out I was very quick to get dressed. It was so chilly that I needed to wear my trousers, shirt, sleeves, long-sleeve-tee, gilet and jacket. But I loved the frosty mornings.
Sharon went and made coffee while I downed the tent, erected the clothesline and threw the damp tent inner over it. Then I moved my bike into the sun and lay the fly over that. By this time coffee was ready, so we settled down and ate our muesli bars, drank our coffee and watched the sun dance with wild spruce and do a remarkably good job of not shining on our tent. We were fortunate, we did manage to mostly dry our tent before leaving.
First stop was Vavrišovo in search of yoghurt for our second breakfast. The cute little shop was packed, I grabbed our yoghurt and got in line. It seemed that everyone was buying fresh bread and ham which while we all waited, was being shaved off the bone. There was also a priority line where certain special people could walk in and get served immediately. After waiting a good five minutes and only moving a couple of places up the long line, I ditched the yoghurt and we made for the next village. We had a mountain to climb and I did not really want to waste time watching ham being delicately sliced, wrapped in paper and sold.
We slowly and perhaps a little reluctantly rode out of town, I liked the place and would have liked to have stayed longer. Very soon we found ourselves on a busy road shakily riding under an autostrada before coming across a long narrow bridge. The bridge was so narrow that cars could not overtake us on it. We were hungry and finding the Saturday morning traffic a little frustrating. We dived onto an empty side-road as soon as we could. We purchased our yoghurt and cycled into the city centre of a bustling Liptovský Hrádok. Though the day had well and truly heated up, it was not a very pleasant break. We quickly cycled west out of town, smiling and waving at all the cyclists heading east for a day in the mountains. The road was very busy, we tried to cycle close together to make it easier for passing cars and were very relieved to find the markings of an old and worn cycle lane painted onto the road. We put out heads down and butts up as we rushed through roundabouts and traffic lights, dodging and being dodged by trucks and cars. We were very stuffed but very happy to see the back of Liptovský Mikuláš. My plan had been to get past the busy part of this city and find a quaint wee café to stop for a coffee. We didn’t find anything quaint or wee and ended up stopping at a church on the very edge of town.
From here we picked up a lovely cycle path that took us directly to a water park that adults without children would never dream of going into. It was packed with families enjoying their weekend, the road got notably quieter as we left it in the distance. The road was undulating, though always heading up. On the left was a large lake and on the right once again were the mountains. I knew that at one stage today we were either going to go through them or over them. I allowed the lake and weekend cyclists to take my attention.
Still searching for coffee we stopped at Liptovská Sielnica. The town was not much more than a very large and nice lakeside camping ground. We could see some temporary cafés on the lake-front staying open in hope of straggling post-summer tourists. After finding our way through the fence we stopped at one. We had a beautiful view of a very blue tranquil lake, which like us was being harassed by loud commercial music and an irritating sweaty man leaning branches against the café wall and then snapping them under his feet. Good coffee was not to be found, but they did have large handles of Kofola.
We were already over halfway to our destination and it was still morning. Things were looking good. We turned north, travelled trough some lovely villages, over some creeks and through rows of deciduous trees just starting to turn their leaves towards autumn. It was beautiful and one of the favourite parts of my journey. As we rode I was continually searching the mountains for a pass. I was following the blue road line on my home-printed Google map and could see that very soon the line went all squiggly. It was about this time when Sharon spotted a sign that informed us that there was a restaurant ahead. Sharon is very goal-focused, so suspecting that we were about to climb a mountain we decided to stop have a snack and then aim for the restaurant and enjoy a long lazy lunch.
Right at the base of the mountain we found a kiosk that sold the fantastic turbo-boosting drug of Kofola. I drank as much as I could, had another muesli bar and ate the donated power-bar. We sat there in the sun for about twenty minutes, during this time a couple of experienced cyclists on light-weight bicycles stopped, had a drink, ate a banana and then got their photos taken in front of the mountain. This made me very nervous, so I returned to the kiosk and asked the young fella there ‘how far until the top’? His reply was ‘seven kilometres’. My bottom lip dropped and my head hung, I looked into his eyes pleading for a different answer. He obliged, corrected himself and informed me that it was nine kilometres to the top.
We had no option but to cycle onwards and upwards. I emptied as much of my water onto the ground as I could, got my photo taken, jammed a picture of mountain top shish-kebabs into my head, clipped in and started heading over the bridge. My bike was heavy, this hill was long and very steep. I stood on my peddles and dug deep, it only took minutes until my lungs were totally empty. I sat on my saddle again, relaxed and got my breathing under control. In an attempt to look over my shoulder I wobbled right across the road, but did manage to see Sharon down the hill pushing her bike. This was the perfect face-saving opportunity for me to stop and rest. I had travelled all of 400 metres up the road and was totally stuffed. It seemed that around every corner was another 100 metre vertical straight. Sweat was running down my left arm, hitting my watch, flowing over it and disappearing into my glove. Up, up and up we climbed, it was relentless and never-ending. Then finally I came around a corner and there was the summit, just metres in front of me. I screamed the news back to Sharon, pulled off the road, unclipped and waited for my breathing to stabilise.
Sharon caught up and was probably thinking the same thing as I was starting to; it was a strange summit. Unbeknown to us, we were under halfway up the mountain, the next 200 metres was a soft downhill before the pain started again. After another couple of kilometres we had to stop. Both of us had been gasping for air and were way out of our cycling-league. We sat in the gutter for about ten minutes, gulping water, sucking boiled sweets and watching the millions of passing weekend motorcyclists. Most of the climb we were amongst trees and could not get a good idea of how far we had come and had yet to climb. Often we had concrete retainer walls beside us and signs warning of falling rocks. I was thankful that it was yet another beautiful day and was loving the challenge, the sweet and high altitude breathlessness. This was heaven for me and I was eager to see the Pearly Gates of the summit. As the tree-line thinned and a expansive valley and stunning lake vista panned out over my left shoulder, I knew we were close.
On the horizon I could see a collection of about 15 buggered cyclists; all encouraging each other as they rode into a rest area. This was surely the summit. When I arrived they were all looking towards their friends arriving from the other side. They all rode light bicycles with small under-seat bags attached, they had two support vehicles and a couple of people strewn out in deck chairs. The last thing they were expecting to see was two idiot Kiwis fully laden with a week’s worth of gear, churning their lowest gears and sweating rivers of eye-stinging liquid. When they saw us their mouths hung open in disbelief. Then some of the braver ones came over and started taking photos of my bike, its six panniers and stupid rider. After that some of them wanted their photos taken with my bike and yet others started lifting my bike to get a sense of the weight I had just dragged up the mountain. No one spoke English, so we grunted and hand-waved our way through the conversations of ‘where have you come from’ and ‘where are you going”. They were day trippers doing a circular route over the mountain, along a valley and then back over a smaller mountain.
The next stats are a bit shaky, but from the bottom of the mountain to the top was a 600 metre climb over seven kilometres of road and took us three hours to climb. We still had not found Sharon’s restaurant.
I was aware I had not actually seen the other side of the mountain yet, so just before leaving I asked how long was it to the top. The answer was another kilometre. It was not as steep and in comparison to what we had just conquered it was nothing. As we left the rest area all the cyclists cheered and clapped us out, one of them even helped by pushing Sharon up the start of the hill. The descent was pretty much vertical and lasted about one short kilometre before it turned uphill again. We didn’t care because on top of that hill we could see a large restaurant surrounded by beer umbrellas and motorbikes. I got there first and again as I rode through the carpark towards the outdoor seating I felt the instant respect of the many tame quiet Slovakian motorcyclists. As I parked our bicycles amongst Harleys and BMW Paris to Dakar motorbikes, I quietly thought this maybe the only time my Lithuanian-made Panther could hold its own in such a crowd.
The feeling of accomplishment was quickly drowned out by the hunger-pangs screaming for attention in my stomach. We managed to find a table in the shade on a balcony overlooking rolling hills and a ski-field. We had been given money from Australian friends for a meal-out on our holiday. I had been keeping this a secret from Sharon, now was the time to tell here. This extra money allowed us to buy peppercorn steak, non-alcoholic beer and a cup of coffee. My feet were hurting after being clipped in for such an ordeal, so I took off my shoes, stuck them up on a spare chair, lent back against the wall and wiped the sweat off me. We lounged for about an hour in the cool mountain breeze before sadly saying goodbye to such a refreshing place.
From the restaurant it was all glorious, glorious downhill to our destination. As the descent started I said to myself that speed wise I have nothing to prove and that I should simply lean on my brakes and play it safe. Shortly after saying this I hit a 30 kilometre-per-hour corner. I was going so fast that my eyes were filling up with wind, insects and tears. I could not read my speedometer, totally misjudged the corner, hit it way too fast and hard on the brakes, swerved totally onto the wrong side of the road trying to gain control of my bike. Riding down a hill with six uneven pannier has about the same stability as riding an upright piano on castors. At the bottom of the hill I went flying past a sign that mentioned the 40 kilometre-per-hour zone had finished. In front of a rather ugly quarry I stopped, wiped the sweat and insects out of my eyes and off both the inside and outside of my sunglasses. Once I regained my sight I quickly focused on my speedometer to check just how stupid I had been. Indeed I was 58.34 kilometres-per-hour stupid, that is the fastest my pannier-strewn upright piano has ever travelled.
The two of us glided into Zuberec feeling remarkably refreshed. We stopped at a corner shop, worried that everything would be closed the next day, Sunday. Though a little bit late I also managed to purchase a topographical map and could now work out where the mountains were.
Zuberec was a gorgeous alpine village with narrow streets and many log-houses. We followed our map up such a street until we came to ‘Penzión ROHÁČ‘ and our beds. I had had all kinds of trouble booking this place. It seems that in this part of the world it is a little hard to get the guest-houses to reply to your emails and commit to your bookings. I even called the owner to confirm and spoke pure google-translator Slovakian. My neighbour called to confirm the booking a second time, he spoke to them in Polish. When we arrived we didn’t actually get what we had booked. What we did get was very comfortable, with a balcony, view of the mountains and it was cheaper. To my surprise our host’s husband actually spoke English thus negating all my previous hard work trying to translate everything into Slovakian.
Of course the first thing we did was unpack our damp sleeping bags and tent and aired them out on the spare beds. Then it was time for our pot-noodle supper. We were tired and spent the evening watching the BBC World Service and US Open tennis before retiring for a very very early night.
As I closed my eyes and drifted into my dreams my legs were recycling the day’s 54.03 kilometres with an average speed of 14.14 kilometres-per-hour.
Day 1. Mountain Mist and Burbling Brooks
Day 2 Lonely Roads & Hectic Highways
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter