Biking in the Jizera Mountains with cycling champion Jan Kopka

16-08-2007

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview extreme mountain biker Jan Kopka for Radio Prague's Czechs Today [25.04.2007], only weeks after the rider had won the world's toughest race: the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Iditarod sees riders take on 1,800 kilometres in the dead of winter in the Alaskan outback, an incredible feat in which one's life is constantly in the balance. Now, Jan has returned to his home in Jablonec Nad Nisou in picturesque northern Bohemia, and a chance to join him on local trails was too good to pass up. Jan was kind enough to take me on a number of nicer routes in the nearby Jizera Mountains, where he has spent many hours in the saddle.

Cyclist Jan Kopka:

"We are now in the Jizera Mountains which are kind of like my 'home' mountains. They are also very popular and are sometimes very crowded, so I prefer to come here for training or to relax but I try to come here at other times than crowded periods. I especially like to ride my snow bike in the winter at night, with lights, and there is nobody there beneath the stars. I feel good when I am alone in a big area and I can just 'go'."

The Jizera Mountains, known as Jizerske Hory in Czech, are perfect: a small, easily accessible range a little more than an hour away from Prague. Local busses heading up into the area even allow cyclists room to hang up their bikes. Once there, the mountains provide gorgeous views. There are still some bare patches - the local forests suffered greatly from acid rain in the 1980s - but most areas have been reinvigorated since. The hills are also known for famous peat bogs, and are lined with many different kinds of trails, from asphalt roads to more tricky single-track. Again, Jan Kopka:

"The mountains are quite easy because they are quite easy for biking and cross country skiing because the drops are not too deep. They are only steep from one side. But when you get up they are not too difficult at all.

Are there any single-track trails where you have to manoeuvre among trees and rocks?

"There are some, but they aren't that well known, They are known mostly to locals. I too like to ride them too. But yeah, there are quite a lot. Today I think we will do an easy route. A quite nice and relaxing ride."

Never trust a cycling champion when they tell a ride will be easy and relaxing: for me this was like pumping iron with Schwarzenneger. Of course, I had only myself to blame: I had known about this for weeks and not backed out! Our overall route of 45 kilometres of course was fairly short but it was a matter of keeping up: for a pro like Jan this was the kind of short warm-up he eats for breakfast. Even at 43, he is tireless. His lithe physique a professional racer's and it's daunting, more so when one sees him in action: massive quads, legs like pistons. During the day I am content to spend most of the time catching up. Every so often I catch sight of the slogan on the back of his shorts, which reads: "Jan Kopka - The Real Alaska!"

Soon we pedal at a faster clip. Coming out of the rocks and trees, we pass a deep black lake.

"We went around Bedrichov Lake - a very beautiful part of our ride and I always pass by this lake and it always reminds of Canada. I didn't spend a lot of time in Canada, so I don't know really, but today when I am here with you, a Canadian, who was born there and lived there, you said just 'Oh! It looks like in Canada. So I know that the feeling wasn't mine alone."

By 11 am, the sun bears down on us, but the top of the hills are cool. Even though the Jizeras are not particularly high mountains, on a good day one can see far.

"Now we're at a look-out point and there's quite a steep slope here down to the valley, and in the distance you can see Germany and Poland. This side of the Jizeras is much steeper than the other, where Jablonec and Liberec are located. By crow's flight it's probably about a kilometre or a little more to the valley but by trail heading up it's much more difficult. It's difficult to get up to the mountains from below. For people who like hills it's very good training."

Form there we head to a nearby bulletin board and Jan shows me the route we will following:

"We will continue here - not on the ridge - but along quite an easy asphalt road and there some very beautiful views. We'll see the tallest mountain in the Jizeras, its name is Smrk which means "spruce" in English and it's more than 1,100 metres."

Back in April, when I first interviewed Jan shortly after he won the Iditarod, I asked him how he felt about the Czech countryside now: so mild, cultivated, and innocent, compared to the extreme Alaskan wild.

"I loved the Alaskan nature: it's very wild and rough and without people. It's real, rough nature. But when I came back I was surprised also how beautiful nature is in the Czech Republic. It was just so green and fresh in the spring!"

In fact, on this day, Jan is on the very same mountain bike on which he won the Iditarod: a light shiny black aluminium frame from Duratec, a respected Czech manufacturer and one of Kopka's main sponsors. The bike features the rider's name in small letters on the crossbar. In Alaska he mounted fat 29-inch tires to help eat snow on the trail.

"Today I used my '29er' - the same bike on which I won the Iditarod. I only changed the front and rear wheels for summer wheels. But I didn't use it a lot for competing, but other special race bikes."

The only thing is, we can't rely on his cycling computer: its wire dangles away torn, a memento from this year's race:

"My computer doesn't work! Sorry! I have my computer now just to check the time. Of course, on my other bikes the computers are working, but this I haven't repaired till now. Alaska... Alaska taught me that miles or kilometres are not important. The only thing that's important is getting to the finish."

I can certainly relate to that: there were times on our ride in the quiet Jizera Mountains, mild as they are, that I wondered about exactly the same thing. But unlike Alaska, in Czech national parks there are always stop-offs if you run out of water or want to grab a quick beer.

JV: So we've got about twenty kilometres under our belts so far and we're still at the top part of the Jizera Mountains and were currently at one of the cabins that line the route were you can buy a beer or a cola. Do you think that these cabins too are part of the Czech cycling & skiing experience?

"Probably yes. They're quite rough little cabins but you can get something to eat or drink. I don't use them too often but I like them."

JV: What about the interior of the cabin itself: you have the cast-iron stove and animal skins, and the antlers.

"They belong to wild nature. We have no 'rough' nature in the Czech Republic but at least we have similar cabins!"

Now, only about twenty more kilometres to go, five on asphalt, seven or so on switchback, the rest all uphill. We gun it on the way down, hands always ready to brake. I am now far, far behind Jan Kopka, who waits at the bottom.

"I think all of us enjoy downhill and it was nice. There were more possibilities. Jan... Jan chose a safer route down but his friend and I choose a steeper route. It was good. I think seven kilometres down, we enjoyed it and now we are at the bottom and the now the harder part of our ride is waiting for us."

JV: Er, If I get to the top before you I promise I'll wait, okay?

"Okay! {laughs} Thank you!"

Cycling with Jan Kopka is an unforgettable experience and I have the bruises to prove it: yes, I took a spill. A guess that means I'm buying. It's not often one gets a chance to join a real champion on the trail. As it stands, Jan is now spending almost as much time writing along with riding, a new book about the Iditarod, that race in which cyclists regularly sleep under the stars at - 40 degrees. Me? I found the Jizera Mountains quite challenging enough. I did promise I'd come back again next year.

16-08-2007