Śnieżka is the tallest summit in the Sudetes. Due to its quite northern position that settles vegetation levels quite low (the subalpine level is reached about 1300m of height, and the whole top is made of bare rock), its modests 1602m and its unique shape whittled by sharp ice erosion confere it a character of genuine mountain, not found anywhere else in the Sudetes. No other summit more prominent is found within until the Alps or the Carpathians.
It is located in the massive Karkonosze range ("Giant mountains"), in the area covered by both national parks of Poland and Czech Republic, as it stands on the border.
For this precise reason, unless we give it a try illegally, Śnieżka unfortunately can't be climbed by bike, which is a pity. Shall we add, a shame: the cobbled trail is large and convenient, many people do not see in which cyclers represent a threat to nature nor the other hikers... But here we are, the law is the law, Śnieżka is forbidden, and this is why it won't be so far a "trail page" on MBpost as well as the reason I haven't done it before.
Fortunately, there is still one possibility to bag Śnieżka by bike. There is the yearly race called "Uphill race Śnieżka", which usually takes place in August, and as it name tells, consists in a one-go ascent of the mountain from Karpacz, the resort located at the foot of the range. About 900m of gained elevation for a length of approximately 13km. The race is quite old, already 22 editions took place in 2012 ! This means the event appeared just at the fall of the iron curtain, even before the apparition of mountain bikes !
The route to the top consists in the historic cobbled path "Śląska Droga na Śnieżkę", existing since several decades (couldn't find the construction date on Wikipedia), probably long ago during pre-war period when the region was a part of Prussia. Most of the original cobbles remain perfectly in position, despite some anecdotic fragments of the route were damaged by avalanches, landslides or other weather events, and roughly repaired with granitic boulders (these short sections, however, revealed to be the most annoying to go through).
This is the route used by vehicles that supply the several objects that are located on the top: the famous UFO-shaped restaurant, a mountain hut, a wooden chapel and a cabin-lift on the Czech side...
For a reason that came obvious once I was on the crowded top, the race cannot welcome more than 300 participants. This added to the popularity of the event, being one of the 300 is already a challenge by itself...
I was considering taking part last year, but had a look in the registration section a week or two too late, and discovering that the participants list was already full. Eventually, the catastrophic weather that occured that day relativized my disapointment of not having been there, and I sweared myself I would be amongst them in 2012. Whose date was ideally set, after my vacations and a week before the triathlon.
I belong this year to the fellows team "Daleko Jeszcze ?" (read previous race reports from this year), who decided almost unanimously to take part. The rule for being eligible participant is to register as soon as possible, and most of all, to undertake the fees payment as soon as possible. First payments received, first subscribed ! Wojtek has an online bank which enables doing express bank transfers, so we did such a transfer for all of us at once, which worked well. Eventually, we learnt that the same evening when the registrations opened, the 300 limit was already reached, and people couldn't register anymore already the day after !
For this special event, I had decided not to ride with the usual suspended Tomac, but with the old blue hardtail Specialized Rockhopper ! Three reasons explained that:
- Despite the cobbles, the suspension - additional weight - wouldn't be useful, and hardtails ensure a better transmission of the effort when going only uphill.
- The old Specialized Rockhopper is featured ghetto tubeless since recently, and a significant gain of weight resulted from that: the whole bike weights 11kgs only !
- The old Specialized Rockhopper is indeed slightly too big for me, 19 inches, which makes my cycling position a bit too flat with the handlebar a bit remote. Unconvenient for usual XC riding, but great when pedaling uphill...
Furthermore, since my father had installed ergonomic handles with endings that forbid mounting "horns" on the handlebar ends, I decided to try a little experiment that consisted in mounting horns not at the endings, but in the middle of the handlebar, just after the brake and gear bindings.
This way, the handlebar looked a bit like those of triathletes... Few tries on flat roads on my daily commute proved that the idea wasn't so stupid: cycling straight, this configuration allows a very comfortable and optimal position, but this is at the detriment of bike-handling as soon as we enter rough terrain.
Unfortunately, the Śnieżka cobbles proved eventually to be a bit too rough for using the horns during the race, except the first kilometres leaving Karpacz on the asphalt.
Finally, I made the choice not to carry anything (no spare tube, no pump, no water - buffets on the path), apart from a belt containing my little camera. What ? Hey, I don't cycle to Śnieżka every day !
Unlike the MTB Karpacz Maraton earlier this year whose start was at the same place, and despite I came once more with my wife and son, I arrived in time, partly thanks to the fact we drove the day before and accomodated nearby...
I registered and attached my number. But despite my early arrival, I had the stupid idea to wait in the queue of people waiting for the event T-shirt, which costed my precious time I could have used in warming up.
Later started the collect of warm clothes in numbered plastic bags - the temperature being significantly colder on the top, the clothes issue was to be taken seriously, especially knowing that competitors would ride down only from the moment the last rider finishing withing the elligible time (3h) would complete the ride, which meant almost a two hours wait on the top.
Today's weather was OK, despite huge rains that occured the Saturday before, rains from which remained huge misty clouds that gave Śnieżka an even more majestic allure... Despite the return of the sun, this wave of cold had brought significantly low temperatures.
The start was given in the Karpacz Stadium, but this was only a preliminary start: the real starting shot was given in the main street of Karpacz, crowded my tourists and supporters, after we rode couple of hundred meters. This allowed to place myself a bit more in front of the queue, at the same level than Wojtek and Michal.
The first two or three kilometers were on asphalt. As expected, Michal, whose condition is much above the rest of us in the team, quickly vanished. Wojtek, accordingly to his habit, also took a meteoric start, which he eventually justified by not willing to struggle with traffic jams, but for this event with limited amount of people and large track I don't think it was a problem.
Despite he went quickly far ahead, I tried not to loose him from sight because I knew from previous races his physical condition was close to mine, and I was keen in taking over him this time. A game in which he took part with enthusiasm, responding to each of my attacks with short accelerations accompanied by a big smile.
Mateusz, who I met the previous time in Karpacz, also took a quick start, but unlike Wojtek, I lost him from sight, perhaps partly due to his dark jacket.
As we passed the Wang church, we entered the cobbles kingdom, which would last until the end, by the very steep portion at the entrance of the national park. Even before that, I had seen Wojtek's advance slightly melting, and I reached his level few hundred meters later on the cobbles. We rode together some time, but a two chain derailments (yes, that's the main defect of the old blue Specialized Rockhopper...) broke my tempo and forced me to catch him back slowly again.
Some ephemeral flatter short sections enabled him to regain some advance, which I would make up later again and again. As we reached the end of the first big steep part of the race, I felt that Wojtek had less and less power for responding by provocations and I overtook him for good. He was some twenty meters behind as we passed the mountain hut "Strzecha Akademicka".
Later on, the slope faded to give place to a long flat (and even slightly descending) section that precedes the second mountain hut "Śląski Dom" and the main top. Unlike the previous flat parts, I pedaled 100% in order not to let Wojtek come back to me, or at least not so quick. Surprisingly, he didn't succeed to reappear in the descent, where was my main fear.
The final meters
So far, sun had shined. Now, we entered the fog, and the scary shape of Śnieżka, partly draped in the fog, came in sight, like a big dark monster...
Another familliar massive silhouette came in sight ahead, it was Mateusz with his dark jacket with long sleeves (he must not have felt cold !). He also seemed to pay the price of the agressive start. Before I reached him, as we rode the first steep meters, I passed countless competitors that seemed also out of breath.
On the opposite, I felt better than ever, with good vibes in my body. My breathing tempo was set on my pedaling tempo, I felt a good reserve of strength that would enable me to perform a good finish. Mateusz was reached as expected on his turn, but unlike with Wojtek, instead of struggling against each other we tried to ride together to support mutually ourselves, that's at least what I tried to do with him. We rode together most of the piece of trail elevating on the north face of the top. But at one point, again, I felt that my colleague was slowly running out of munitions, while I had still some good bullets to shoot. I passed him and attacked straight forward.
I passed a couple of other bikers ahead, and after the second, a big gap came in sight with the next rider far ahead. We were entering the spiral-shaped turn that leads to the final portion to the top, and decided to bid for all-or-nothing. I crushed pedals as strong as I could, increasing as well my breathing tempo.
Many hikers were standing aside the trail, screaming to encourage the competitors, like some final stage of Tour de France. Well, we could describe it like a Paris-Roubaix settled like a Tourmalet pass.... The atmosphere of this race was just fantastic.
Legs sent me the first signals of saturation but I didn't give up, cycling straight into asphyxia, but straight to the top as well... I finally came in the wheel of that next biker, but failed to pass him on the line partly due to the fact he secured the best trajectory and blocked me behind. But oh well... I was relieved it was finished.
As soon as I step down, a commentator told my name and I received a medal from a nice girl.
After I executed these formalties, I turned my head and looked backwards to see where Mateusz and Wojtek were. Mateusz had visibly tried to keep my pace and even seemed to have caught me back a little bit at the end. Wojtek came less than a minute later, puzzled to know which of us had taken the best.
Michal was waiting at the top. He had completed it in one hour and seven minutes, much better than his time from the year before. I was only second in our team "Daleko Jeszcze ?", but the struggle from passing from the fourth to the second gave me entire satisfaction. I have completed the ascent in 1h14'57" and rankings show I am 60th over 300, which is not bad. Moreover, my time is better than Michal's one from 2011, so there is hope ! Marcin and Bartek came much later, as well as Dorota, Mateusz's fit girlfriend, who finished fourth in the female rankings.
Wait and ride down
Then we looked for our plastic bags and dressed warmly. I had taken several fleeces but ommited leggings, which was a big mistake. Fortunately Mateusz lent me some. Then we ate, as more and more bikers were gathering on top top. Śnieżka's summit was looking more and more like a big bicycle mess !
This was the occasion to admire a bit the views during the ephemeral moments foggy clouds allowed some. Fortunately I have been already on foot on Śnieżka few years ago and taken proper photos.
Around 2pm, the signal of the descent was given. Wild down-riding was strictly prohibited and everyone had to slow down and follow the car, otherwise penalties could result into disqualification. To be honest, the ride down on the cobbles had nothing very pleasant, especially on a hardtail, so this wasn't a big loss...
We chatted still about the race while riding down, and I seized to opportunity to take some photos of the trail and of the event at this occasion, despite riders rode the opposite way. Karpacz downside was much warmer and after we got T-shirts and trophy we all rode home. Here ends that day, that we could summarize as follows: a great bike party.
My wife and Mikolaj spent few more days in the area, which gave me the occasion to ride couple of times more, and bag a new mountain in Karkonosze, Čierna Hora. A page to come soon !
For those who read Polish, my friend Wojtek also wrote a funny and epic report of the race, seen from his own point of view, and where my name reccurently appears ;)