Being Dutch, I was born on a bicycle. As a youngster, your bike is your only legal faster-than-foot way; later. I started to appreciate the fact that I never had problems parking, and even later I realised that cycling kept me in shape, and gave me lots of environmental karma points. Most of all however, I love the wind in my face, the feeling of freedom, the rest it gives me, whether on a 5 minute shopping trip, or a 12 hours-a-day roadtrip to Berlin or Paris. So whenever I go somewhere, especially for a longer trip, I like to know what my cycling options are, what the rules are (officially, and, more importantly, practically), whether car-drivers are going to be respectful, or will try to kill you. And, obviously, how to find the best roads, those roads that are quiet, but don’t require you to cycle through mud, end up in a field with only option to turn around, etc. In order for others to make this easier, I’m sharing my experiences.
I do feel that many of the more general rules probably apply more widely to (at least South-Western) Poland, however I have no experience there.
The timing could have been better, but in autumn 2020, while all of Europe was going into its second Corona lockdown, I moved to Wrocław, Poland, for a two month stay. My girlfriend and I rented a very nice AirBnB in the outskirts in Szczodre, about 10km from the city. While my girlfriend was happy to take our car everywhere she went, I cycled around the place, doing shopping, going places, workouts. I had taken my Idworx Easy Rohler Evo, a study bike with 45mm tyres (this is wider than a city bike, but less than a mountainbike).
Wrocław is a wonderful and very beatuful city, that has had a tumultuous history over the past century. Before WWII, the city was German, and known as Breslau (despite the hugely different spelling, the names Breslau and Wrocław sound very close when pronounced in German and Polish respectively). During the Russian’s advance westwards, at the end of WWII, the entire city centre was destroyed. It got rebuilt (including the historical centre being restored to it’s pre-war glory) during its time in the (Communist) Polish People Republic. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s, Poland has gone through huge economic growth, and joined the European Union, and, as many places around Poland, Wrocław has seen major changes, and is still changing rapidly. In many regards things are far behind what we’re used to in Western Europe, however at the same time they are catching up fast.
It did take me a couple of weeks to find the ins and outs of cycling around here, but I do have to say, it was worth it. It’s a gorgeous environment, with cities, swamp, nature, rivers, hills, villages, everything.
Where can I cycle
Note: It’s your own responsibility to inform yourself of the rules and laws governing cycling; the following is just meant as anecdotal personal experience: As far as I have been able to attain, there seem to be very few rules on which roads can be used for cycling. In some cases it’s easy, if there is a dedicated cycling or shared cycling/pedestrian path on a road.
However for the rest, little seems to have been arranged. In my time here, I’ve not seen any paths (including small forest trails, etc) that were off-limits to bicycles. Also, it seems that there are actually semi-highways, where cars are allowed to go 100km/h (and more often do 140), without shoulder, that seem to be legal to bike on. My advice: don’t do this latter, stay away from any multi-lane road without sidewalks. However for the rest, as long as you’re respectful, I’ve never run into any problems, or people that seemed upset with my cycling there (and this does include forest paths, sidewalks, and 80km inter-village roads).
Mostly: be respectful, don’t race when you’re on a road that has pedestrians on it, don’t cross any farmers fields, unless you’re sure you can do so without damaging any of the crops, and you see others already did so. And be aware that occasionally you’ll be stuck behind a family with a pram, on a road that is too small to pass.
Who is cycling in Poland
Cycling in Poland seems to be on the rise (as can be seen by the number of cycle routes appearing). However, in my (limited) experience, cycling seems to be limited to some specific groups:
- Children (sometimes with parents)
- Old people (whether they cannot afford a car, don’t have a license or for another reason, I don’t know)
- People wearing cycle-clothes on race-bikes or mountainbikes
- And, as you come closer to the centre, I did notice a more diverse group, including people in jeans on race-bikes and even the occasional middle-aged couple on electric bikes.
It does mean that people may look at you funny when you drive with your bike full of groceries back to your house, although in my experience this was always curious/amazed, not with any negative thoughts.
Use sidewalks when the roads are unsafe
If you’re don’t feel comfortable when cycling on the road, cycle on the pavement. Especially old people and children seem to do this, but I certainly know that I at times preferred the pavement, when cycling on the road would result in a long line of cars behind me that would be very eager to pass. It’s probably not 100% legal to do so, but keep your head and you should be fine.
Obviously, realise that you’re a “guest” on the pavement, and act that way — don’t demand that people will move aside (even though most will), and don’t be in a hurry, and if the pavement is busy, just get off your bike and walk, there’s no shame in that!
Ow, and in case you’re on the pavement and want to use a zebra crossing or other pedestrian crossing to cross, be aware that while you’re on the bike you do not have right of way, even though most cars will stop for you — just make sure to only cross after you’re sure that the cars are stopping.
Don’t trust automated (google) directions
Probably one of the most important pieces of advice I can give you. If you ask Google Maps or OpenStreetMaps (or probably Bing maps, although I didn’t try them) to plot you a cycling course, it will happily send you via the semi-highway mentioned above. Even though it’s (probably) legal to cycle there, I also think it’s not very smart.
The problem however, is that as soon as you want to go from one village to another (or one suburb to the centre), the straightest line is this busy multi-lane road. However, explore the alternative roads on your own, and you will find better roads (to give you an idea, after 4 weeks I’m now confident that I found a reasonable quick and nice road to a place I like to visit every other day).
Don’t trust Google Maps
Google maps does a great job in knowing all the paved/car roads, however in many cases it pays off to go off the beaten track. At least in the area around where I’m staying, there are literally hundred of unpaved roads. Some are very good (hard-packed dirt, that stays dry), whereas others are absolutely terrible (muddy, soft, etc). The only way to find out is to take them (and, as I mention later, be prepared to turn back if it gets too bad).
I found OpenStreetMaps to have a much better idea on where roads are. It doesn’t have all of them, and sometimes it claims there is a road somewhere, but a farmer may have plowed that area into his field, but without OpenStreetMap, I would not know about 80% of the roads I regularly take these days.
There are many interfaces to use OpenStreetMaps. I’m personally using WorkOutDoors on the Apple Watch; this app costs a couple of euros but been worth its price 100 times over.
Don’t trust overzealous local maps
In many places in Wrocław, you can see the map above. It looks absolutely great, however seems to be more of a “Wrocław biking group wishlist” than actual reality. And as much as I do appreciate optimistic thinking, a small disclaimer would have prevented me for looking for a bridge for 10 minutes that is not there (yet?).
Conclusion: trust your OpenStreetMap, and experiment with routes.
Take your time
Considering the things mentioned above (and some of the things below), unless you’ve done a route multiple times, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to where you want to go. A road that looks completely OK on the map, may not exist, be very muddy, or need to be travelled at slow speed.
Even the roads with cycle paths, these are generally not made for high speed. Whereas in my experience, if I need to visit a place that is 20km cycle from my home (in The Netherlands), I can easily be there within 1 hour, in Wrocław you will find that you share the pavement with pedestrians, you will have streets where the bike path alternates to being on the left and the right side of the street a couple of times (each time needing a couple of minutes to wait for the lights to cross the street). All not a huge problem, just take it into account in your planning.
If you travel a lot between 2 points, try different paths. Don’t trust the maps to tell you that there is no path. Sometimes (often), it means getting stuck and returning. Sometimes, you’ll be rewarded.
For instance, sometimes there is a semi-highway between 2 places, however there is a small path (probably mostly used by people walking their dogs) next to it. Feel free to see where it leads you.
The quickest (and nicest) route between 2 points may actually be: follow the forest path, take the 20cm wide bridge across the stream, go under the viaduct, then up the stairs on the side, wiggle past the fence, walk 10 meters along the highway and follow the road into town (followed by a forest track that demands you carry your bike over a fallen tree twice). True story!
Be prepared to get dirty
Unless you want to adhere to the next rule, be ready to get dirty, wet, and possibly scratched by bushes. During my stay, we did have some rain, and some flood warnings, still some paths (or even normal, paved roads) had completely transformed into mud baths. In the best case, you get your bike very dirty; in a worse case, you slip and lose your balance.
Also, some paths may actually be under the water level…. It will clean your bike again to take them, but you better dress warmly…
And some places are actually official fords (even labelled that way on OpenStreetMaps — although not everything labelled as a ford there also actually has water in it…)
Be prepared to turn around
Especially in the first couple of days, I had many moments when I did have no choice but return on my tracks. In addition to the situations above where I did not feel like getting dirty / wet, I remember one particular route when I did not really know this rule yet. I went through some mud, then soaked my socks driving through water, and then ended up on a small track on an embankment to one of the rivers. The track got smaller and smaller, nettles and prickly bushes were 2 meters high and touching me on all sides. Finally, after 30 very slow and painful minutes, the embankment started to have holes in it, and I was quite worried that I would fall. In the end, 45 minutes later, I was back where I started, very much less happy. The track was on Google Maps (I didn’t know yet that I needed to use OpenStreetMaps), but I guess it stopped being used a while ago. My lesson: don’t be afraid to stop, check your map, turn around and try another route.
How do cars treat you
I was warned that cars might not give you the space on the road that you, as a bike, may want. I have to say that a very very great majority of cars treat you very well, give you plenty of space, and patiently wait behind you if they cannot pass immediately. Having said that, about 1 in 100 cars unfortunately does not do this (I’m sure it’s from a lack of experience with bikes rather than malicious intent, but the result is the same). They might pass you with 80km/h at very close range, or turn without looking out for you. This means that, unless you intend to stay only on cycling and pedestrian areas, you should feel very comfortable on your bike, be constantly alert, look in front and behind you, and cycle in a straight line, ideally a bit from the side so that you can move to the right 20cm when a car actually passes you.
Cycle route does not mean safe cycle route
There seems to be a lot of ambition in creating cycle routes, however practice does not always keep up. In addition to missing bridges and missing routes (mentioned above), you will definitely run into situations where you’re following a cycle route, and it takes you on a road where cars drive 80km/h next to you. The same goes for cycle paths: sometimes there is a path for 500 meters, only for it (and the pavement) to disappear, and you having to use the road again. As far as I have been able to tell, it’s not necessarily that the most dangerous parts have the cycle paths either :).
If cycling in the dark or rain, light up like a Christmas Tree
I do think that it’s important to realise how few bikes there are on the Polish roads, and therefore how important it is to alert drivers that you’re actually there (aspecially when they’re tired, grumpy after work — or possibly had a glass of vodka). I always cycle in a high-viz jacket, and always have my bike lights on. These are also proper lights, front and back (not the €5 binky LEDs that let you avoid a fine in The Netherlands when cycling at night, but actually do little for your visability). In general I try not to cycle at night, or in the rain or fog (it is much harder for cars to see and anticipate you. And the places without cars are just too dark to feel comfortable, unless you’re into that kind of thing). However, in those cases that you do have to make the trip (it gets dark at 3:30pm there in December), make sure you light up. In addition to my normal bike lights, I do have helmet lights (front and back — front is also nice if you do have to make a small route through a dark forest and you want to light the place you look at), and I mount my phone on the handlebars with the flashlight on.
Having said this, I did also occasionally see people on racing bikes, without lights, cycle in twilight, so maybe I’m just overdoing it. Can’t hurt though.
Share your discoveries on OpenStreetMaps
OpenStreetMap is a map that is maintained by active members of the community. Even though it has lots of smaller paths and roads, you will still quite often stumble upon paths that are not in there yet (or, alternatively, you will find that paths that are on OpenStreetMap do not exist (anymore) in real life. In this case, please contribute!
After a cycle (or run in some cases), I overlay the GPX track of my workon on the OpenStreetMap edit page, and update the map with my findings. It’s hard to do so perfectly (in many cases, you’re left with questions, is this path next to the field actually an official path? Is the pavement “unpaved” or “dirt”. Is a certain path open for bikes (officially), what about horses? Is the path that I couldn’t find actually gone, or just temporarily closed?), however just ask yourself if your edit is going to make life easier for the next person, even if it’s not perfect (probably the answer is “yes”). In that case, please make the edit and share the results.
All in all, be safe, be aware of your surroundings at all times, don’t take a road just because it’s allowed to cycle there. The area is great for cycling, and improving so all the time, but be aware that some other participants in traffic may not be used to bikes (yet), or have other things on their mind while driving.
Great routes around Wrocław
After all the pitfalls mentioned above, I would like to share some of the great routes that I have found around Wrocław. I know that inside the city centre there are some very nice routes which take you by all the highlights, however I already did all my sightseeing on previous visits, so I stayed mostly outside the city. The countryside around Wrocław is gorgeous, with rivers and streams, moors and swamps, agricultural fields, forests and parks.
I added GPX tracks to the routes — these can be used in the aforementioned WorkOutDoors app (or in most other apps).
The left bank of the river Widawa
The Widawa river lies just north or the Odra, the main river through Wrocław. The south-east (left) bank has a very nice cycling route along it, right up the embankment all the way. Sometimes, right next to the water, sometimes a bit more inland (I expect that in these places, the river has some more space in case of high water). The route as drawn is about 14km long. During my stay, there were one or 2 spots where you need to take a short detour, unless you’re happy to cycle through 1m high water :).
On it’s south-eastern end, it connects to many other cycle paths around the wyspa Opatowicka (the island in the Odra), and in the north-west you can follow the road (although only partly cycle path) to Trzebnica.
Download the gpx file here.
Around Wrocław, from Psie-Pole
This 35km route (with 500 meters aggregated height difference) starts very nicely with a cycle along the Widawa river. However as we got to the Wyspa Opatowicka, in the west, the one bridge from the island was blocked, and we had to make a detour all the way to the zoo. When you come to the south part of Wrocław, you’re more or less forced to cycle along the main ring route (although, there does seem to be a nice alternative, which I plan to explore later). There are cycle lanes, but it is noisy and busy, not my favourite. Finally, however, as you return to the right (north) bank of the Odra, the path becomes a nice cycle and pedestrian path again.
I did the first (north/west) half of a route posted on bikemap.net, and I was not disappointed. Even though I had passed the starting point of the route every day for the past 4 weeks, within 2 minutes this route had taken me on 5 roads I didn’t know before (and have travelled much afterwards!). I was truly disappointed that I only had time to do the first half (and the next couple of days it was raining). I do intend to finish this soon.
In general I have found that bikemap.net has some very nice routes, that let you explore a place you are much faster than on your own. On the other hand, some routes are also boring, or even dangerous, so, as always, be smart.