A green light for Czech cyclists

Michal Jon a Lucie Kovaříková

On May 1st, a Czech couple will hit the road and start a three-year journey around the world - on their bikes. Michal Jon and Lucie Kovarikova plan to cover all seven continents, taking in 33 countries and peddling 70,000 kilometres. In this week's Talking Point Pavla Horakova talks to Michal about the conditions for cycling in the Czech Republic and to a few other people who are trying to improve them.

Lucie Kovarikova and Michal Jon want to achieve a few Czech records: Lucie aims to become the first Czech woman to cycle around the world and they both want to be the first Czech cyclists to ride into the Antarctic and Greenland. Lucie and Michal have cycled a total of 45,000 kilometres together - 25,000 kilometres in the Czech Republic, the rest elsewhere in Western Europe. More than a month before their departure, Michal told me about the differences in conditions for cycling in the Czech Republic and in Western Europe.

"Well, we've been to northern Europe mostly, we've been to Scandinavian countries and we've also been to Scotland and Ireland. To say something about Czech bicycle routes - it's difficult to compare. As far as I can see, when we cycle around Prague, there are no special bicycle tracks and in Prague there are just a few - I don't know - two or three. And we cannot compare this with for example Austria, Germany or Denmark. In our country it's just beginning to develop."

What do cyclists do then? Ride on normal roads or footpaths?

"We choose secondary roads - or less than secondary roads. We never go on primary roads or highways - it's illegal. But we choose secondary roads or sometimes just tourist paths for walking. We are going to use bike paths in Denmark, the whole 300 kilometres in Denmark will be on special bike paths. It's the only country because in Sweden, there are bike paths in towns and cities but not between them and in Finland, the density of cars is so low that's it OK to go on primary roads."

But the times are changing. A month ago, a new bike path was opened in Prague's Vysehrad district - a 10-kilometre stretch joining two parts of a longer track. I spoke there to Petr Stepanek from the NGO "Oziveni". He told me that from that path I could cycle almost all the way to Germany. However, according to Mr Stepanek, the situation in the Czech Republic is far from ideal.

"It's just at the end, where you reach the river, there is a lower bank and that's the bike path which goes all the way to Dresden. And that bike path is nearly complete. There are stretches from regional capitals to other towns, like from Usti nad Labem to Litomerice and Roudnice. And basically, the only segment that nobody is taking care of is in Prague. It's a shame of our capital because much smaller cities with much smaller budgets are far more successful than Prague is and I just hope that the commissioners in the city and the mayor Kasl in an election year will understand that and that they are finally going to do something about bike path development. We showed in collaboration of a citizen association, private company and a city-owned company that it's possible, so the city has no more an excuse to omit bicycling transportation in its construction of roads."

One of the participants on the construction of the Vysehrad bike path was the Greenways movement - a European organisation which tries to promote regional development by building paths for non-motorised traffic and tourism. In March, the European Greenways Association held a meeting in Prague under the auspices of the Delegation of the European Commission to the Czech Republic. Ralf Dreyer from the Delegation explains the Greenways project.

"Greenways are routes, roads or national corridors used in harmony with the ecological diversity and their potential for sport, tourism and recreation. They bring benefits to local areas by promoting regional development through tourism while protecting nature and national culture heritage. Greenways improve transportation, recreation and tourism possibilities. They join citizens, states and local representatives, state offices and businesses to plan together and to improve life in the community. Greenways are seen as a tool for sustainable regional development. The delegation tested some of the wine trails at its team building exercise last September when some twenty staff members enjoyed a fantastic weekend cycling and wine tasting. So Greenways are a complete success."

Gilbert Perrin is a member of the Board of Directors of the European Greenways Association. He is proof that Greenways are a truly European organisation.

"I'll try to speak in English. I was born in Switzerland, I live in Belgium, I learnt French, German, Italian and Dutch. So I'll try to switch to English today and next time it will be in Czech and Polish together. This is Europe, I like it very much."

The European Greenways Association was founded in January 1998 in Belgium; it has 30 members in seven countries and five partners in non-European countries in South America and the United States. Gilbert Perrin gave a more precise definition of Greenways.

"According to the European Greenways Association what is a Greenway? Greenway is a communication route reserved exclusively for non-motorised journey and developed in an integrated manner which enhances both the environment and quality of life of the surrounding area. More, these routes should meet satisfactory standards of width, gradient and surface condition to ensure that they are both user-friendly and low-risk for users of all abilities. For instance, a very steep path in the Alps for us is not a Greenway. It's a very interesting path for hikers, but it's not typically a Greenway. A cycle route along a highway is an interesting tool for cyclists but maybe not a Greenway."

Daniel Mourek works for the Czech Environmental Partnership, the largest private source of financial support for environmental projects in the Czech Republic. He is the foundation's project manager for Greenways.

"Greenways can be understood as a tool for regional development, as a tool for restoration of cultural heritage, local heritage. It's about activating people, local initiatives which can provide services or organise events along the Greenways. Greenways is a whole concept which was brought here from the United States originally, but in Europe, there is a whole movement. In Central Europe, for example, in each of the candidate countries, there is an organisation working on a Greenway. We have regional programmes which are interconnected. Greenways connect for example Krakow and Budapest, Krakow and Vienna, Prague and Vienna. It's a network of trails and organisation which are trying to, as I said, activate local initiatives."

The Prague-Vienna Greenways Daniel spoke about is a network of 100-year-old hiking trails between Prague and Vienna. Travellers can walk or bike between historic towns and villages, visit romantic castles, medieval churches and monasteries, discover old Jewish sites and enjoy the picturesque countryside. The routes stretch 250 miles along the Vltava River in Southern Bohemia and the Dyje River in Southern Moravia. The new wine trails connect Moravia with the Austrian wine region Weinviertel on the way to Vienna.

When Michal Jon and Lucie Kovarikova return from their adventurous journey, they might be able to find more opportunities for cycling here in the Czech Republic. I asked Michal whether he wanted to see more cycle paths opening up in the country.

"Maybe after we come back in three years' time we would be very happy if there were a special route without cars from Prague to the South, to the Sumava Mountains because, I think, Sumava is the best for cycling in our country."