Ancestral Roots at the 2023 Bohemia Divide

The Bohemia Divide is an unsupported 800-kilometer bikepacking race through the Czech Republic. Joe Knechtel of the United States was one of more than 100 finishers from this year’s event, and we reached out to hear more about his experience. Find Joe’s story and a stunning selection of photos from the 2023 Bohemia Divide here…

Words by Joe Knechtel, photos by Bohemia Divide

When I saw the 800-kilomter Bohemia Divide bikepacking race advertised several years ago, my interest was piqued, especially since my grandparents were born in the northern part of Bohemia close to the race’s finish line. I grew up hearing interesting stories about their homeland and about the family members they left behind. I had also visited that area twice before while researching family history and was amazed by its beautiful villages, mountains, forests, castles, and sandstone geological formations. I remember it feeling magical and always wanted to return. The Bohemia Divide looked like the best way to really get to experience my ancestral homeland.  

When registration opened in December 2022, I immediately signed up. Jan Svarcbach, the race organizer, was always quick to respond to my emails and offer help, especially with locating places to stay and how to shuttle from one end of the race to the other. He also put me in touch with two fellow countrymen, expats Patrick Stephans and John Urbanic, who had ridden this race previously. They were very helpful in my planning.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

After arriving in Prague, I had a busy and stressful day and a half of unboxing and putting my bike and gear together, and then shuttling by several trains from the finish line at Varnsdorf to the race start at Vyssi Brod. The race “headquarters” was at a renovated mill along the Vltava River, where I signed in and picked up my tracker. It was also a place to sleep for the night. There was a pre-race gathering at a restaurant that evening where I met two English-speaking veteran racers, Patricia Berthelier from France and John Urbanic. I acquired good intel on navigating the Czech lands, especially from an American perspective. I also learned that “cash is king,” that stores/gas stations are few with limited hours, and that restaurants are even fewer with stricter hours. Hotels are even fewer and mostly limited to online booking. Hearing this, I started to sweat, especially about the cash issue, realizing I should have exchanged more cash in Prague.

The next day, I got up early and spent the rest of the time going over my gear, charging batteries, and milling about with the ever-increasing crowd that was rolling in for the race. Just prior to noon, Jan gave a pre-race talk in Czech. Then they gathered the English speakers together to give us the same speech. At noon, we were off! What a beautiful country. Pine forest and wide-open views over rolling fields, mountains, and quaint villages. Even though the race finish was north, we rode south into Austria and eventually wound west along the border, dropping in and out of Austria before turning back north into Bohemia. I always enjoy the beginning of bikepacking races because everyone is still grouped together and in a great mood, talking, laughing, and having a good time.

2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

This first day was a taste of what was to come. The course was very remote with few places to stop and refuel, and few streams, at least in the southern portion, to filter water. The northern sections had a lot more streams. The course was also much more challenging than I imagined, with more gravel and forest roads than pavement, intermixed with tough singletrack and steep terrain. There were some serious hike-a-bike sections that exceeded any I have ever done. The number of bumpy farm fields and cobblestone streets had me wishing for a full-suspension mountain bike.

The first check-in and aid-station was at an old church ruin at Pohori na Sumava, where Jan and volunteers met us with tasty kremrole cake and water. Later in the day, a rider shouted out that I had missed a turn, an unfortunate habit that I didn’t kick for the rest of the trip. I thanked Matej Zenis from Slovakia, and since he was so friendly and knew English, we rode several hours together into the night and helped each other navigate the trail.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

We eventually stopped at a waffle shop that served beer and was packed full of riders from the race. From there, I rode out with another racer, Petr Sedlacek, who was super friendly and spoke flawless English. We set off at a brisk pace since we were getting into the flat “lake region” of the course. In fact, we may have pushed too hard, and Petr mentioned a couple times that maybe this pace was “unnecessary.” But the beer and waffles did something to our legs! As we passed the waffle house group that left before us, Petr said with a laugh, “This pace is stupid!” We eventually settled down to a good clip and decided to ride until midnight. Then we stopped and camped just off the forest road, where others had stopped for the night as well.

The next day, Petr and I paused for lunch at a small restaurant in the largest town so far. I should have followed Petr’s lead when he asked the clerk if he could borrow an outlet behind the counter to charge his batteries. Instead, I thought I could rely on my dynamo to get me through. This mistake bit me hard later in the day and was a source of trouble throughout the race. My battery management had been very poor so far. Using my cell phone as my navigational device, with the “airplane” mode turned off was a big mistake, especially on a race with the average speed on the low side of the dynamo’s capabilities. Unfortunately, I watched my devices slowly drain as the day progressed.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

While riding with Petr and several others out of a very small village, my phone shut down completely. The battery pack was finished, and I didn’t have any hardcopy maps. I dejectedly watched Petr and the others crest a hill in front of me. I turned back toward the village to ask for help. As with most small villages, there were no stores, so I had to rely on the good graces of the residents. Luckily, after some struggles communicating my problem, I found a woman who allowed me to use an outlet inside her house. After about 50 minutes, I had a 38% charge. I kindly thanked her and started on my way in the dark.

Later that evening, John Urbanic caught up to me. We got caught up on our adventures while riding our way across farm fields and tough singletrack to the next town, Mlada Vozice. This was a decent size town, but nothing was open that late at night. I decided I couldn’t trust riding on with my battery situation, so I told John I was going to camp there for the night and try my luck getting my batteries charged in town the next morning. He rode on.

The third day, I broke camp and was back in town by 7:30 a.m., where the only place I could find open was a bakery. I claimed an outlet and started charging. I grabbed several bottles of water, juices, some coffee, and a few bakery sweets, and I went to the counter to pay. As I mentioned, cash is king, but some places allow credit, so I used it when I could. So far on my travels, I found that the Czech system had issues with my American charge card, and this one was no exception. It was actually worse. It crashed their system! The clerk had to lock the door while she called for outside help to reboot the system. I felt so bad, and I ended up using cash anyway. This was the first of several mornings sitting in bakeries charging my devices. They are obviously the center of morning social life here and are always very busy. The customers were pleasant and greeted each other politely with “Dobry Den.”

2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

Once the supermarket opened, I loaded up with supplies. Canned meats, tuna, bread, Snickers bars, non-carbonated water, and juices. These became my go to foods wherever I could find them for the rest of the race, especially the Snickers bars.

After starting out late, the next 57 miles took me 11 hours and were essentially pure mountain bike territory, with long mud bogs, two monster hike-a-bike climbs, and sketchy off-camber singletrack throughout. I passed two castle ruins, making five so far this race, and a monument tower that was built to honor the Czech Blanic Knights. Legend has it that they are buried there and will come alive to avenge the Czech nation in times of need. Later in the evening, I saw the cathedral and the surrounding buildings of Kutna Hora, which were lit up and amazing to see at night! I took a few photos, kept going, and camped along the Elbe River by 2 a.m.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

The next morning, I woke to the sound of bike tires on the trail, so I peeked out of my tent and saw John pedal by. His head was down, and he didn’t see me. I must have passed him somewhere during the previous day. The next 20 miles were more of the Elbe (Labe) River, then north toward Poland. At 300+ miles into the race, the bike was perfect and my body felt good. I was in uncharted territory, distance-wise, since this was the farthest I had ever biked on back-to-back days. Running into other bikers was becoming rare.

2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

Closer to dusk, I started to get into the mountainous northern Bohemia region with deep wooded ravines, mountains streams, and impressive rock formations. Looking off into the distance, I could see the Trosky Castle perched on two tall stone pillars. An impressive sight, for sure. The scenery was beautiful, with the bright moon and the mist shrouded ponds. Then wham! The hardest climb of my life, Kozakov. It was incredibly steep. Half step forward, lock brakes, pull myself forward, and repeat for 50 minutes—and in the dark! I almost fell backward a few times lifting my bike up and over boulders. Then it was downhill to another big town, Semily, which was closed for the night. As with the previous night, I was almost out of batteries, so I camped in the forest outside of town.

Once again, I woke to the sound of bike tires on the trail. I peeked out and saw it was John again. I called out and startled him. “Sorry John, it’s Joe!” We shared stories, about Kozakov of course, and I told him more about my battery problems and that I was headed back into town to get food and a recharge. John ended up pushing hard the next couple of days, finishing sometime the day before me. I took a bath and washed my clothes in the nearby stream, thinking I was probably not the first Knechtel to do this in a Northern Bohemian stream. After recharging and refueling my body at another bakery, I was riding again by 10 a.m.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

As I started up toward the Polish border, I realized that I would rather enjoy the beautiful countryside rather than kill myself trying to finish by a certain day or time, especially since the next couple of days would take me through where my grandparents and ancestors once lived. With this mindset, I now had the most satisfying couple days of riding in the race and my life. It helped that almost every day had blue skies, mild temperatures, low humidity, and little wind. The rest of the day was mostly climbing up to the highest point of the race, Smrkem Mountain, along the Polish Border, which had a fire tower to catch the 360-degree views looking into three countries.

After a 10-mile downhill off Smrkem, which took me on some super fun, flowy trails of the Nove Mesto na Smrkem bike park, I came to a pretty resort town, Hajnice, which was set against a mountain backdrop with exposed cliffs. After a large pizza with soda and a couple of beers, I took a gravel road that slowly climbed through the forest for miles. My legs felt great again, like after the waffle house the first night. Who needs energy drinks when you can have beer!? I rode on into the dark, not needing to turn my lights on because of the moonlight.

2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

The next day took me across a spit of Poland, to the northernmost point of the race, then south along the German/Polish border, on a river trail back into the mountains. I happened upon an open scenic spot, high up on a mountain, where I could see southward over the area where my family was from. I recognized a couple mountains from my previous visits, and I could see way off in the distance the impressive mountaintop castle, Bezdez. My late father and I hiked to the top of that castle’s turret back in ’99. Sitting almost 1,000 feet above the surrounding valley floor, it is visible for miles in all directions. That view summed up the whole reason why I wanted to do this race. I can’t really describe the feeling.

  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap
  • 2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

I continued along through the forests and pushed hard to the next checkpoint, a pub at the Jedlova train station, where I hoped to get before 7 p.m. to get my free beer. I got there with 15 minutes to spare! A couple of English-speaking mountain bikers made me feel welcomed, like Norm from Cheers. People were patting me on the back and saying how impressed they were that I was riding such a distance. I found out that Phillip Uhlenbruck from Germany was just there and he had the group primed and excited about the race. After finishing my beer, I said goodbye, hopped on my bike, and headed out, getting some shouts of encouragement from the crowd. Just like the night before, the next 10 miles were ridden without lights. I startled a hiker when I came up on him out of the darkness. He was obviously out listening to the elk that I heard bellowing for the previous several miles. They were everywhere. I eventually put my light on and rode until I found the best campsite of the race. Knowing it was my last night, I felt good. The moon was full and the elk calling throughout the night topped it off.

The final day I woke up early and was riding by 6:30 a.m. to do the last 40 miles. I didn’t notice at the time, but the next village I rode through was where my great-grandmother had been born. I even stopped in this village to look at the well-built log houses with nice, neat picket fences, gardens, and flower boxes in the windows. As I left, I passed another WWII bunker in a wooded mountain pass, which reminded me of a family story about my great uncles being in the reserves and manning one of these when the Germans crossed the border in 1938. Could this have been the bunker? The route then passed through the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, which is a rough pine forested area with deep ravines, stone monoliths, and exposed cliffs in every direction. The area is also unique because of the houses, stables and even castles tunneled out into the sandstone cliffs.

The race eventually routed back through Rumburk, back through Germany, and I finished at the Pivovar Kocour Brewery at about 12:30 p.m. Jan and Borek were there to greet me with a beer. I rode 527 miles in total, including the missed turns, backtracking, and going off track for food and charging. I drank many, many beers, learned many bikepacking lessons, and have way too many memories to include here. It was the best ride of my life. And, yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat!

2023 Bohemian Divide Recap

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