Rider in Osturňa
I have just finished the prelude: a starter to the main course. A climb up a fairly inhabited rural road, which leads to my first magnificent view of the Tatra Mountains. This was the very same Category 1 climb that has featured at the UCI WorldTour event, the Tour de Pologne on a couple of occasions.
In 2008 it was the location of Jens Voigt’s remarkable breakaway that won him the stage and set up his overall victory. He hit the top of the climb and turned right towards Zakopane holding off the chasers. Again, in 2013 the likes of Wiggins, Majka and Cancellara crested the same hill and turned right.
The Polish race is sometimes criticized for not selecting the most scenic roads for its routes. At the top of the climb in Łapszanka, I would tend to agree.
Today, I won’t be turning right. I will reach the top, soak in the view of the Tatra Mountains and turn left, which will lead me to the next 30 kilometres of pure cycling ecstasy.
I am keen to savour the next part of my ride, unfortunately for this sentiment (but fortunately for my legs) it starts with a descent through a protected nature reserve. This also marks the end of Poland and the beginning of Slovakia, where access for vehicles is limited. Combining these factors with a sparkly new tarmac road makes this little enclave a dreamy place to ride a bicycle.
There are three ways to reach the small village of Osturňa and all of them are as stunning as the other. However, there is one particular route, which done in a certain direction, never fails to take my breath away. For this reason, I continue through the outskirts of the village along another road to reach the highlight of the ride.
The next 7 km is a steady climb of around 5% through forested terrain, all the while on the same silky smooth and quiet tarmac road. I am in no rush for this climb to end. I stop often to take pictures of the rugged mountaintops, peering over the tips of tall ancient trees. Each time the road turns back on itself the elevation changes the view, or the angle changes the light, and that requires a new picture!
After a couple of sharp turns, you sense the top is coming. The crest of the road ahead has the silhouettes of the Havran and Ždiarska Vidla bearing down. They are the highest mountain peaks of the Belianske Tatra range and make up the eastern part of the wider Tatra National Park.
As the climb tops out, the trees make way and the valley is revealed. A deep intake of breath has little to do with the previous 40 minutes of exertion; it is purely the moment of absorbing what lies in front of me. If not for the occasional car, it would feel like I had stumbled across a hidden and untamed land from a fairy-tale.
The road continues along a plateau with flora on either side, low enough to not disrupt the views but adding to the majesty of the moment. Back at the junction to the village, I turn into a 7 km stretch of protected traditional folk structures that makes up Osturňa. With a population of around 400 it is a small affair indeed. First settled in the early 14th century by Ruthenians.
Ruthenians or Rusyns are an ethnic group of people with roots from what is now called Ukraine. The Rusyn diaspora can be found, often in mountainous locations, across Eastern Europe as well as in the United States.
It is still common to see the Rusyns dressed in traditional costume and while they speak the language of their adopted countries, their peculiar dialect has become a mixture of Slovakian, Polish and Ruthenian.
A traditional timber vernacular with a use of blue and red paint on the village buildings helps to create the feeling of a land that time forgot. Interestingly, the tradition of painting windows certain colours was a signifier to the young single men of the status of the women living there — married, unmarried or widowed.
These days the local residents are commonly farmers and sheepherders and welcome me through with a smile and a wave. I stop for a coke at the local bar; I settle instead for Kofola, a drink produced in Communist controlled Czechoslovakia as an alternative to the western Coca-Cola or Pepsi. A stage of the Tour de France plays on the TV in the corner and two locals relinquish their gaze of the race to check if I hadn’t taken a wrong turn?
The village draws to an end and I find myself on the third road into or out of Osturňa, a road that rises and falls, twists and turns and presents yet another vista in a new direction.
As I continue along the tree-lined roads with views across the mountains beyond, I contemplate why the Tour de Pologne has only ever turned right and not left. It has nothing to do with entering Slovakia; this has been done a number of times. Maybe they worry about the size of the roads? Maybe they just don’t know about this magical little cycling enclave?
I think I prefer the last option.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.