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5 June 2024

An assisted cycle through scenic Silesia

How I conquered picturesque Polish volcanoes, e-bikes and endless vegetarian meals.

By Nicholas Lezard

I made it back from Poland in one piece. Sorry, I’m jumping the gun; I made it out there in the first place. For in my previous column, I left you on a cliffhanger: I couldn’t find my passport. But I did find it, of course, in the drawer where I Keep My Passport Specially. I just hadn’t looked hard enough.

I wonder why. When I accepted the commission – to go to Lower Silesia, from Stansted, at stupid o’clock in the morning, to then get on a modified bicycle and cycle in a somewhat hilly region called, as I came to learn, “The Land of Extinct Volcanoes”, for no money bar expenses – I must have been very bored indeed, and possibly on a death wish. The closer I got to the departure date, the more I felt a sense of impending doom. It seemed a toss-up whether I would die from a heart attack or being run over. At the very least I would fall off the bicycle and break my leg. So when I couldn’t find my passport I felt a kind of relief: ah well, I won’t be able to go, and that’s the end of that.

But of course, I went, first via the Radisson Blu at Stansted, which does have a rather spiffy bar but whose prices are a little steep for my liking; so after a meal of a burger and a glass of wine for £30 I retired to my room and watched a BBC Four screening of John Betjeman’s Metro-Land. This made me feel even less like leaving the country. I wanted to travel no further than Amersham, not Wrocław. I slept uneasily for two hours or so and then staggered off to the airport, stoned with exhaustion.

As it turned out, everything was fine. The PR rep was superbly good at her job, even if she was given to patting my arm and asking if I was all right, as if I were in a care home and well on the way to losing my marbles. Well, I suppose I am, really. (Not the care home bit.)

After a disappointing lunch – it was vegetarian, which surprised me – I had a brief nap in a hammock before being summoned to inspect the bikes, and be taught how to use them. It turned out I had completely the wrong idea about what an e-bike was. I had assumed it was one of the stumpy things with fat tyres that the Deliveroo riders use to whizz up Brighton’s hills without any effort. I had assumed incorrectly. What I was looking at instead was something that looked almost exactly like a hefty mountain bike, but with extra controls on the handlebars. I tried to remember the last time I had ridden a bike. I didn’t have to try very hard. It was shortly after I’d moved into the original Hovel, following the ejection from the family home. I had a nifty Peugeot racing bike I’d inherited from my wife and one day in 2007 I took it for a spin and went over the handlebars in Mayfair after applying the brakes too swiftly. After that I wheeled it back to the Hovel, where it gently rusted to bits on the terrace. I never missed it. After all, I was in central London.

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And now I was in the middle of nowhere with a machine it would probably take days to master. And I was in the company of travel journalists, who have been everywhere on Earth, if only for four days at a time, but two of them talked casually of their surfing, their 5K runs, their bear-wrestling, their general level of superhuman fitness. I had winded myself getting out of the hammock. We wobbled around the lumpy garden for a few minutes and our instructor declared us ready to go. Our first ride would be a short one – 20, 25 kilometres or so.

I quickly learned that the electric motor on the bike provides little more than psychological help; if you put the thing in turbo mode it only works if you’re in a low gear, so your legs are pedalling ridiculously fast, albeit with little resistance. But they’re still moving. You are still expending energy. If I’d been a Deliveroo driver I’d have chucked it in a hedge and asked for a real e-bike, illegally modified if possible. With a V-twin 500cc engine. I thought grimly of the aches and pains I’d be suffering the next day.

But I survived, and not only that, the next morning I was entirely ache-free. Our hosts had poured as much wine into me as I wanted, my bedroom on the first night was the size of my flat in Brighton, and oh, the scenery. It may surprise you to learn that I am a child of Nature: and the countryside, in that pocket where Poland, the Czech Republic or whatever they call it now, and Germany meet, is glorious. “F*** me dead,” I exclaimed as we paused for our first view: a stunning vista spread below us for 30 miles or more, mountains in the distance and, to one side, the cones of those extinct volcanoes. It was like being transported to Middle Earth.

So in the end I had rather a jolly time. There were disappointments, largely down to the well-heeled boho nature of the places we stayed, which meant no pierogi, no Polish sausage and more vegetarian meals in four days than I have had in four years. But I have lived to tell the tale.  

[See also: Parrot’s pint lost]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024