When we talk about cycling destinations, a couple famous ideas come to mind- Passo dello Stelvio in Italy, French Alpe d’Huez or an iconic Mont Ventoux. Every enthusiast has such climbs in his/hers bucket-list and there is a good reason for that- they are a part of most important races in today’s professional peloton calendar. Such havens test your endurance limits and then reward you with views of a lifetime that you have only seen on TV.
But what about Poland, in particular Zakopane and surrounding Tatra mountains area? It is not really talked about, isn’t it? Well, I am here to change that, there might be a reason why this region is always featured in Tour de Pologne, a World Tour race that is usually held towards the end of a professional season. In the summer of 2021, while local racing was in full swing, I decided to pack my bike, all the clean bibs and jerseys I had, and organized a five day training camp for myself in the Tatra region.
Atmosphere in Zakopane
Getting to this part of Poland might be a bit exhausting, the last 50 kilometers might easily take a couple hours if you are planning on coming during the summer season, but once you finish your last banana and patiently make your way through traffic tie-up, you will be greeted with mighty Tatra mountains. Going down into Zakopane’s valley you will most certainly feel a different vibe. Hikers with backpacks bigger than themselves strolling along the road, eager to conquer Rysy peak, a chain of mountains surrounding you and giving that feeling of upcoming adventures. The view is spectacular, especially if you live in a relatively flat country. It really takes your breath away and you might start worrying about cycling here. Will there be enough flat roads for the recovery days? Don’t worry, you will find everything here.
Accommodation in cosy homes straight out of a fairytale
Zakopane is a resort town with a lot of guest houses. There is something magical about those little wood trimmed buildings. They are usually maintained by owners themselves, so you will always feel an extra level of care and hospitality. On top of that, people around here are super welcoming. When I was staying in one of the guest houses, an elderly owner would prepare a buffet type of breakfast for the whole house every morning. Each day you wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread, which was brought straight from a local bakery, and once you hear a comforting rustling in the kitchen- you know you will be taken care of, all you need to think about is getting ready for today’s training. You should have seen the amount and variety of food that was provided every single day. This little woman was running around the dining hall asking everyone if they were satisfied, while mixing eggs in a bowl and pouring coffee in your cup if it is at least half empty.
Tatra region traffic and attitude towards cyclists
Arriving in Zakopane I didn’t really know what to expect. A little worry was constantly bugging me, in regards to drivers. I have never pushed pedals outside of my country and every cycling friend I have, kept saying that I should be careful in Polish traffic. To be honest, I have never felt safer on a bike. No one seemed to be irritated with me being a part of traffic, on the contrary, I received a couple thumbs up and one driver even striked a conversation with me while we were stopped at the crossing. As I mentioned before, during peak hours, there might be some traffic jams, but most of the drivers will move their cars towards the middle lane, so a cyclist could pass.
Fellow cyclists are friendly as usual, this is not something unique to Zakopane. Engaging in a conversation, rolling friendly turns in a group or exchanging “Na Zdrowie!” with a glass of beer in the local bar on the side of a road is a universal language among cyclists and you will most certainly get that here.
Cycling in Tatra mountains region
First of all, this region surrounding Tatra mountains will offer elevation gain. Every direction you go, you will be greeted with “steep hills” road signs. I noticed that when going towards Slovakia, down south, the road is usually getting steep more gradually than going north. In this part of the region, you will be able to do longer and more sustained efforts. I’m going to cover a couple routes that I planned for my training camp. My goal was to ride climbs, so I gradually increased the complexity of routes during my stay in Zakopane.
On my first day I did a 45km ride back and forth towards Morskie Oko. This route has 800m of elevation gain and is a perfect choice to warm your toes before digging deep. You will make your way up to Punkt Widokowy and will be able to see the whole Zakopane from above, then have some fun descending and make a couple more sustained efforts towards Morskie Oko parking lot. One downside is that this route is quite busy, as commercial busses towards Morske Oko are constantly buzzing back and forth, but this course is quite popular among local cyclists, so drivers are aware of them and I had no problems doing this route twice.
On my second day I decided to gain 1700m of elevation over a 67km ride, which was most likely planned under the influence of beer. It is not a surprise that Zakopane and Tatra region is usually featured in the Tour de Pologne. Going north from the city you will receive a fair amount of short but extremely steep climbs that will push you to your limits during every effort. Burning legs, that constant attempt to switch gear hoping that you still have at least one more left are devastating. These roads are also featured in amateur Tatra road race’s distance called “Hell”. Well, rightly so. Such climbs are fierce with segments pinching well above 10% and are packed very densely, meaning that there is no time to rest. I’ll even go as far as to say that the majority of the rest you get, is going up 5-7% hills. Looking at a course profile, it might not look like that, but in my opinion, this route is puncher’s heaven. I have to admit, that I bonked hard. After proper bonk experience, I decided that I never want to experience it again and written down a complete guide on how to avoid bonking. While riding more iconic sections, you will notice messages from the past editions of this World Tour race written on the pavement, be that a motivation to push even harder. World tour Riders like Julian Alaphilippe, Philippe Gilbert, Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel would shine here, so if you feel up for a challenge, give it a go!
Cycling previous Tour de Pologne routes
Tour de Pologne is the closest World Tour race that is held to my home country. Before this trip to Zakopane, I did just that and witnessed the race start in Lublin a couple days back. You can read about it here.
On my third day I was quite sore from yesterday’s effort, but decided that there was no time to rest and went on an even longer ride with slightly less elevation. Some of the sections were known to me from previous days’ efforts, but it packed a bit of everything. In the first half, I was once again greeted with the same short, steep and energy sapping climbs, but after that it leveled out and offered more sustained longer efforts. This route was a favorite of mine, it offered great views, a fair amount of descents on narrow country side roads, a couple strategically placed cafes and shops as well as nearly 1500m of climbing over 77km course.
Witnessing Joao Almeida’s triumph on Tour de Pologne stage 4
Planning this trip, I was fully aware that TdP will be happening at the same time and stage four will finish in Bukovina Resort, 15km away from where I was staying. After completing my daily training, I was super excited for the evening. Seeing how many cycling fans gathered in Lublin, where the race started, I decided to get there a bit early and find the best place to spectate. As the finishing town was restricted for private vehicles, I parked a couple kilometers away from it and made my way on foot. Closing in on the point of interest, you couldn’t help but feel enthusiastic, the media buzzing around, spectators watching action on big screens placed all around the finish line, while munching on local street food and downing a beer or two. With every kilometer ticking down for the peloton, the atmosphere around the finishing line was heating up. Helicopters whirling around, race commissaire and team cars passing by, and once a first rider came into view, I swear to god, people went crazy, it felt like being in a stadium. Cheering on cyclists until the last of them crossed a finish line. Joao Almeida finished first just before Matej Mohoric and Andrea Vendrame. Poland’s hope Michal Kwiatkowski was one step away from that day’s podium and came in fourth. After that a usual post-race routine took place, interviews and podium action.
In search of flat(ish) roads
On the fourth day, I have to admit, I woke up tired. Once again after eating breakfast in a cosy buzzing hall, I set out for another day in the saddle. I had ~1500m elevation planned once again in the North, but after cycling out of a city, my legs didn’t allow me to turn right onto Butorowy Wierch road, which would have led me into another day of leg agony. I just went past it and pedaled on turning into every road which seemed flatter than the previous one. This was a great decision, because by taking an easier day I allowed my body to rest and be ready for tomorrow. I stopped at a local cafe, enjoyed Zakopane’s city center on my way back and had a great time in general. By the end of the day I felt rested and ready for my final day of cycling in the Tatra mountains region.
The end of training camp in Tatra mountains
On the fifth and final day, I decided to do the same route I did on my first ride here- Morskie oko. After that I grabbed a surprisingly good pizza in Da Grasso restaurant and packed my stuff. In reflection, I have to say that this cycling camp exceeded my expectations. Coming here I expected angry drivers, conditions not suitable for road cycling, but I was proved wrong. Polish people are exceptionally welcoming and warm. I’ve been to quite a bit of countries and hotels, but this was by far one of the most caring stays I have had and I feel like doors are always open for cyclists in Zakopane. You might not get the most iconic climbs or routes here in Tatra mountains region, but you should not underestimate how tough most of these are.
While the roads and infrastructure may not always be as pristine as you may find in France, Italy or Spain, Tatra mountains region and Zakopane is more rugged, more raw, and more exciting. Here, you’ll find the same dramatic scenery and majestic mountains – without the crowds and with a double dose of hospitality. If you’re keen to take the road less travelled, Zakopane will reward you.
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