Cycling Between Prague and Zurich in 8 Days
As a second wave of the pandemic grips the world, forcing us to spend more time inside, Joe the Bike Guy shares with us his story about bikepacking from the Prague to Zurich as Europe emerged from the first lockdown earlier this year.
Words and photos by Joseph Ferrell - September 2020
I arrived in Madrid, Spain in the fall of 2019 on the pretext of teaching English, with dreams of experiencing the epic European cycling I’d only heard about living in the states. The world had other plans - COVID-19 came on strong and from March through May 2020, a 3 month lockdown was imposed on all of Spain. Enforced by police and military, there was no cycling, no walks, only essential trips to the grocery store or pharmacies were allowed. With one of the highest incidences of the virus, people were being fined for walking their dogs too far from home or for not buying enough groceries on a single trip.
At the time, the concept of travel seemed foreign and far away. Fresh out of lockdown, I was hesitant to plan anything, much less an international bike trip. After being out of lockdown for a couple of months, my girlfriend and I took a last minute trip to Italy. The empty airports and the ease of travel at the time encouraged me to go ahead and plan an 8-day bike trip from Prague, Czech Republic to Zurich, Switzerland.
I had never been to any of the four countries I’d be riding through, so I was going in blind. Plus, I had only decided to do the tour 2 weeks prior. I used Komoot to build a quick route to follow and borrowed an Ortlieb seat-bag from a friend. I packed my Ritchey Break-Away Road and flew to Prague.
This was the start of my first tour of any magnitude in 10 years, with the last being Adventure Cycling’s epic Transamerica - coast to coast ride in the states. Aside from the Czech customs agent staring at my American passport for 2 minutes without blinking, everything went smoothly (American tourists are banned now, but I have a Spanish visa). Outside the terminal, I immediately started assembling my Ritchey Break-Away. My 9-mile downhill ride into the city couldn't have been timed better with the sunset.
The plan was to ride from Prague into Nuremberg, Germany ~ 3 days, then south to Munich ~ 1 day, next, ride the German/Austria border traversing the foothills of the Alps ~ 2-3 days, and finally crossing into Switzerland on the last day. I was going to “credit card tour” and use Warmshowers.com - a website designed for bicycle tourists and hosts. The trip ended up being full of positive experiences and inspiring me to plan more tours.
Some of the highlights
On day one, I stopped in Žebrák, a small town of 2,000 inhabitants. Having proper Czech cuisine for lunch consisted of dumplings, roasted pork and spinach, with gravy over everything. A great break from enduring headwinds and continuous climbs.
Arriving in Pilsen, Czech Republic, the home of the original Pilsner beer--Pilsner Urquell. A stunning city with a massive town square.
On day two, I crossed into Germany from the Czech Republic on desolate forest roads. I was thoroughly impressed with the German cycling culture: buttery-smooth roads with courteous drivers, bike lanes everywhere, friendly bystanders making conversation, full German families touring the country, and even grandmas on electric bikes transporting their fresh baguettes.
Leaving Munich was an impressive 20 miles of cycling alongside a pristine lake, with hardly a car in sight and many options for a swim.
Toward the middle of the day, the foothills of the German Alps seemed to magically appear. That evening was spent with my Warmshowers host, Tobias. He’d invited a couple friends over to grill some food. Enjoying the meal, he brought me up to speed on German beers.
The next morning, Tobias joined me on the first 50 km of my ride that day. It was some of the most epic riding I’ve done. Pristine mountain lakes, mountain passes, great food, crossing back and forth between Germany and Austria, and I ended the day with the kind of descent that you can’t stop smiling down--breathtaking scenery, hairpin turns, and miles long.
Later in the day I got a flat tire, followed by a quick rainstorm. Luckily, I was close to a rural bus stop and took shelter with another cyclist, Günther, an older German man on a day ride who spoke no English. We did a little Google Translate work and traded Strava accounts. He invited me to ride with him through the next town.
Unfortunately, the last two days of the tour called for heavy storms with flash-flooding so I was forced to take the train to Zurich. I was lucky enough to find a cheap ticket at the last minute.
On my way to board my flight at the Zurich airport, the government had just announced that any visitors arriving from Spain were to be quarantined for 14 days. I happened to be interviewed by the local news. They wanted to know about my holiday as a Spain visitor and they wondered if I was aware of the newly announced measures. There I was, an American with a “banned” passport, with a visa from Spain, one of the most affected countries in Europe. It’s almost comical! I narrowly escaped those restrictions by returning on that day.
I did notice that everywhere I visited, outside of Spain, no one seemed to be wearing face masks. Coming back home to Madrid was a stark contrast to that reality, where recently it has been mandatory to wear masks at all times, even outdoors.
Pandemic and all considered, I had a great trip. Traveling by bike is an amazing way to explore new places. Even with the limited time I had, I was able to see many towns off the beaten path and engage with the friendly locals.