About 120 miles east of Prague, on the border with Poland, lies a wonderland of trails in a magical fairytale land. It's a place where passion and persistence result in the most positive outcomes, and where nature and the landscape have the ultimate respect of the community that lives amongst them.
At first glance, Černa Voda, Czech Republic is a small town that looks sleepy, like a stereotypical quiet, rural European settlement without much more than agriculture and an ageing population. A place that is surrounded by rolling pastoral fields and seas of dark green trees, and whose name roughly translates to “black water”, would not lead anyone to believe that mountain biking exists there. A Google search will yield not much more than a brief Wikipedia page and a few random photos of people on mountain biking on technical-looking trails. It is a curious and confusing thing for sure.
From an international perspective, the Czech Republic is not exactly on the mountain bike radar. It does not have iconic mountains or big marketing budgets for bike tourism. In fact, it is a solid 225 miles from the Alps, in a transition zone between the North and East European Plains. Geography and money be damned - time spent in this central European country is certain to capture your attention, and probably your heart. Beyond the fields of swaying grain, those cozy forests will pique your curiosity, pulling you in to discover a place that has more riding than you ever imagined and a community of riders that is perhaps the most dedicated and diverse on the planet.
The Czech Republic actually has a long history of trails, dating all the way back to 1888 when they began marking hiking routes that would eventually criss-cross the country. In 1938, they had the longest marked trail system in the world, and today, the densest on the planet. Although there are thousands of kilometers of marked trails all over the country, it is the dedicated trail centers that really draw the attention of mountain bikers. There are 15 trail centers and 15 bike parks spread across the country in all directions. The trail centers have a mixed network of natural singletrack and purpose-built trails that require pedaling throughout. The bike parks are lift-accessed and are more downhill/gravity oriented. Both types of experiences have the business infrastructure to support the riding with at least one bistro-style restaurant and bike rental shop. It is obvious that these facilities have drawn people into the sport, providing for all ability and skill levels. They are also economic engines for the regions they serve.
This type of organized trail development started more than a decade ago when the Czech Mountain Bike Association (ČEMBA)
was formed. During that time, two of the original trail centers formed. The first, Singltrek pod Smrkem, was built en masse with machines, supported by a healthy dose of government funding. The second, Rychlebske Stezky (stezky is Czech for trails), located in the dreamland of Černa Voda took the grassroots approach, working directly with the community and an army of volunteers to build the trails. While Singltrek pod Smrkem was faster to market, gaining more popularity and praise initially, it has suffered the effects of heavy use, resulting in challenging maintenance issues. Rychlebske Stezky came to market through a more methodical approach. The majority of trails were built by hand with intermittent funding. The first year they opened a handful of trails and have added only one trail a year since. While both trail centers are successful, Rychlebske Stezky has created an extremely positive and sustainable model. They have grown into a popular destination while building a community that supports their vision. Their success can be measured in numerous ways, including the revitalization of Černa Voda.
Černa Voda, the home of Rychlebske Stezky, has not always been a haven for recreation, experiencing a sorted past. Until the mountain bike community developed, it was an oppressed town at the foot of the Jeseníky Mountains. Way back in the late 1800s it was a thriving village with a modest population and important businesses like a brewery, distillery, and a sawmill. In the 1930s, it had some popularity with tourism until a financial decline and the rise of Hitler snowballed into the harsh epoch of World War II and the era of Communism. In its heyday, Černa Voda was once known for its advanced stonemasons, something that had all but disappeared until trails began to develop. More recently in the 1990s, the town was caught up in the drug smuggling trade with its bordering neighbor, Poland. Like many rural areas around the world, Černa Voda was also experiencing young people leaving for the big cities and never returning. Before trails and mountain biking, the town was a pretty dismal scene for visitors - one sad hostel, one pub.
One could say everything changed when Pavel Hornik moved to town. He arrived in Černa Voda just over a decade ago as a forester, during hard times, and when, among other things, unemployment was over 30%. Not exactly passionate about his job, Pavel still spent a lot of time in the woods. He was a mountain biker and found the terrain around Černa Voda to be mystical and captivating. The forests were something along the lines of primordial, filled with gnarly, lichen-covered trees, colossal granite boulders, and a mishmash of ancient, overgrown hunting paths. It was an intriguing landscape, one that he and a few of his friends began to, literally, dig deeper into.
In the beginning, they cleared and marked a few of the old hunting routes using only a machete and a saw, cutting a few branches here and there. At the time bike technology was not as awesome as it is now, so the riding was hard, something they equate to what the trails were like in parts of Canada. In those times people discouraged them and were even too scared to ride with them. But like all great trail communities, they persevered, following their passion towards the greater vision. In the first year, 2009, they opened four trails: Tajemny, Mramorovy, Sjezdy, and Wales. They also bought an old farmhouse and made a trail center. This central hub became a hive of activity. It was not only a trailhead, but an info center, bike rental shop, and a pub serving up housemade dumplings and legendary pilsners.
The process of simply clearing existing routes eventually lead to bigger tasks, like “playing” with the rocks and boulders. A decade later, it is really the thing that celebrates Rychlebske Stezky's true character. Some would say, it is actually an obsession for the trail crew and volunteers. When they started, they moved everything by hand, back-breaking work for humans of even the most strength. With open minds and a thirst for knowledge, the crew learned classic rock breaking and moving methods to gain mechanical advantages. They essentially made themselves into Cerna Voda's new generation of stonemasons, a group of people that have created some of the most intricate and unique stone trails in Europe.
Eventually, more people joined Pavel’s group and the volunteer pool became more like an army. Rychlebske Stezky began to develop a following, attracting people of all ages to build and ride. “Since the very beginning the people have been the real center of the Czech mountain bike community - this is how we have always treated it.” shares Pavel. What happens here is simple - they take care of the people that show up. They want everyone to feel like an important part of the community and give each volunteer special attention. Often times, there are surprises on volunteer days. For example, the volunteers may get a t-shirt with a special design, something not for sale to the public. Trail workdays involve beer, food, and music, not just digging in the dirt and moving rocks. Admittedly, they are not doing a lot of things that end up being profitable. However, for the community they cultivate, it makes total sense. Ultimately, the people are the real heart and soul of Rychlebske Stezky.
Despite Rychlebske Stezky gaining popularity and influencing the rise of tourism, members of the town government did not necessarily support the effort during the initial phases of trail development. So Pavel did what any wise, long-term thinker would have done, he ran for mayor. Already a community leader of sorts, he put himself out there in a strategic move that paid off. The people in the town had seen what volunteers had built in the forest, something that brought tourists to the area. Witnessing the value firsthand, they voted Pavel into office, where he served for two and a half years.
Having moved on from his jobs as forester and mayor, Pavel is now a full-time trail designer, trailbuilder, and maintenance director. Some have nicknamed him “Chieftain”. Whatever they call him, he is at the core of a community that is solidly on the map for mountain biking. People come from all over the world to ride Rychlebske Stezky. While the trails are certainly memorable, the town and the community are what is most special. There are now 15 full-time employees that work for Rychlebske Stezky and another 15-20 that are employed seasonally. The marketing director moved from Prague to Černa Voda because it had everything he needed, especially living space and nature.
The destination has also inspired others to dedicate their lives to Czech Republic mountain biking. Jan Marcaník, owner of Czech MTB Holidays
, came of age as a mountain biker while riding at Rychlebske Stezky. "I have had a mountain bike since I was 10 years old, but back in those days mountain biking was all about riding wide fire roads or village asphalt roads, nothing technical. When I went to Rychlebske Stezky, it was totally different. I was lucky to visit Rychlebske Stezky in the very first year of their operation and ride those technical trails which are still there, including Tajemný and Wales. The style of these trails was something totally new to me. It was like gymnastics on the bike - you had to choose your line super properly, move the pedals in certain spots and in certain ways to sneak around various sharp edges and nasty blind turns. It wasn't fast or crazy, but technical, slow, and it was pushing me to become a better rider. Add some jumps, slabs, and drops...features you have never seen before into the mix and there you go, I was hooked!” Jan shares. Today Marcaník runs guided mountain bike tours throughout the country, showing people from all over the globe the wonderful experiences people can have on a bike, including the magical kingdom of trails at Rychlebske Stezky.
Certainly, both the Rychlebske Stezky and Singltrek pod Smrkem trail centers have influenced the mountain bike culture in the Czech Republic for the better. The former, with it is methodical, methodical grassroots approach, is inspiring other natural-feeling trail systems. One good example is Trutnov Trails, a system that started about five years ago, following the model of building mostly by hand with local volunteers. The result is a network of great trails with support from the local land agencies. Rychlebske Stezky and Trutnov worked together on a common way of creating trails and sharing knowledge when it comes to working with rocks. Their collaboration quickly inspired the country’s newest trail network, Kolovna Králičák. Started in 2018, it is still very much in the beginning. However, given the model created by a decade of hard work at Rychlebske Stezky, Pavel Hornik knows that, with enough passion and persistence, they have a good chance to build another great destination for the Czech Republic.@thewideeyedworld @slavikpetrcom