Cycling Europe from Prague to Austria
''If you survive this morning, this afternoon will be a piece of cake," grins Pavel.
Not exactly what I was hoping to hear on day one of my first long-distance cycle trip. While the rest of the group are busy making last-minute adjustments to their bikes, I've got a horrible feeling I'm wearing my cycling shorts back to front.
We set off, weaving our way through the cobblestoned streets of Cesky Krumlov before crossing the Vltava River and running straight into our first hill.
In a car, a hill is a minor inconvenience; on a bike, it can be a spirit-sapping physical assault. This is my first visit to the Czech Republic and I'd hoped it might have a similar topography to, say, Holland. It doesn't.
It's the first of two notable climbs this morning, the second being a particularly testing 12 per cent ascent through fields of swaying rapeseed. Everyone makes it up eventually and the reward is a grin-inducing descent into Rimov for lunch.
Waiting at the restaurant is Henri, our support driver and saviour. For the next seven days he will transport our luggage and meet us at regular intervals to dispense snacks and encouragement. If at any point someone wants a break, he'll pop their bike on the van and they can jump in with him.
The headline of this UTracks tour is Cycle Prague to Vienna but in reality the cycling portion is from Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic to Mistelbach in Austria, a still-not-insignificant distance of 350 kilometres.
We spent the morning before driving from Prague to Cesky Krumlov and on the last day we'll have the option of being transferred to Vienna or taken back to Prague.
This is a guided departure so we have an experienced English-speaking guide (Pavel) and access to Henri and the van.
But it's also possible to tackle it self-guided using maps and a GPS. Luggage is still transferred between hotels each day but you're responsible for getting yourself there.
Pavel talks us through the lunch menu and I settle on a Czech classic - slices of stewed beef in cream sauce with dumplings. It's sturdy fare - ideal for cycling, farming or fuelling a revolution - and with a coffee is cheap costs a wallet-warming $10 or so.
Our group is an unlikely assortment plucked from four continents. There are three cycle-fit Danes in their 60s, a woman from Vancouver, two sisters from Puerto Rico, a 20-something management consultant from Shanghai and a delightfully earnest English teacher from Germany.
Having survived the morning, the afternoon actually is a piece of cake. We cycle along quiet back roads, past carp-filled ponds and through a succession of quaint villages with unpronounceable names (try Ohrazenicko for size).
The easier terrain means I start to notice the butterflies dancing across my handlebars, the fragrant smells from fields and farms, the birdsong emanating from hedges and trees.
Everyone's getting used to their bikes and the morning's rattling soundtrack of ill-advised gear changes has all but disappeared.
Our destination is Trebon, the first in a series of picturesque medieval towns we'll stay in during our passage through southern Czech Republic.
An ominous blanket of grey cloud inspires weary legs and we eventually reach our hotel at 6pm.
Like all the accommodation we'll stay in this week, it's in the two to three-star range. Most of the properties turn out to be well-located with clean, functional rooms but there are a couple of exceptions, most notably Chez Anita where I'm shown to what feels like the cramped attic bedroom of an unloved child.
But overall, the biggest gripe is the lack of airconditioning. It's July and the temperature is regularly in the mid-30s. In one place my room is so hot I seriously consider sleeping in the lobby.
Dinner is included and is taken either in the hotel's restaurant or a local eatery. Mostly it's a set menu with one meat and one veggie option and, much like the accommodation, it's functional rather than fancy.
Over the week we tuck into pastas, fish and stews and, on the whole, it's good, tasty fare - although to be honest, after cycling 65 kilometres, I would have eaten my helmet. After dinner Pavel talks us through the plan for the next day and patiently fields questions about the weather, the stops and, of course, the hills.
One climb, in particular, takes on a mythical quality. Pavel says he's led this tour nine times and only two people have made it up Cat Hill, a short but brutally steep ascent on day six.
As the week progresses it gets easier to get back on the bike each morning and by day four I'm genuinely looking forward to another day in the saddle. The cycling takes on a meditative quality, the kilometres ticking by in a pleasant blur as we wind our way through an attractive montage of fields, villages and national parks.
Along the way we visit several monasteries and castles (including one in Bitov with a disturbing collection of stuffed dogs) and stay in delightful mediaeval towns such as Telc and Znojmo.
We see remnants of the Czech Republic's communist past including a preserved section of the Iron Curtain, the electrified fence that once ran along the border with Austria.
Despite our disparate backgrounds, an easy camaraderie forms within the group and soon we're teasing Hilde from Germany about her old-fashioned camera and the Puerto Rican sisters about their punctuality.
Pavel, too, reveals a wickedly dry sense of humour. When Hilde gets on my bike by mistake one day, he shakes his head and says with a mischievous grin: "First it's your bike, then it's your country."
UTracks rates this trip as "moderate" but the consensus is that it's closer to "hard". We spend seven to nine hours in the saddle each day covering anywhere between 40 and 80 kilometres, which doesn't leave a lot of time for sightseeing. It's a trip geared more towards cyclists than tourists.
Day six arrives and Cat Hill lives up to its reputation. After 25km of pleasantly undulating terrain the road suddenly veers skywards. Two of us make it up, cheered on by the rest of the group, but it's not something I'd want to repeat.
On the last day we cross the Austrian border, which today is just a white line painted on the road. Aside from the signs being in German, everything looks and feels much the same. And then a pedestrian smiles and waves as we pass by. That didn't happen much in the Czech Republic.
Pavel warned us that apart from Cat Hill the last two days are relatively flat and that we'd miss the hills. We scoffed at the time but now as I cycle towards a shimmering horizon I can see what he means. It's not just the sense of achievement from conquering one, it's the focus required to do it.
I feel a pang of sadness when I hand my bike back to Henri in Mistelbach. I've spent a week in delightful company, cycled through enchanting countryside and eaten more dumplings than one man probably should. And I've finished the trip feeling fitter and healthier than when I began.
The writer was a guest of UTracks.
UTracks' eight-day guided Prague to Vienna trip costs aout $2000 and includes bike hire, accommodation and most meals. See utracks.com.
FIVE MORE CLASSIC EUROPEAN CYCLING TRIPS
BRITAIN'S COAST TO COAST
This four-day trip starts in Whitehaven on the Irish Sea coast and meanders to Newcastle. Along the way you'll see some of Britain's most picturesque countryside, including The Lake District, Eden Valley and the Pennines, cycleactive.com.
AMSTERDAM TO BRUGES
The ideal introduction to a multi-day cycle trip. Starting in bike-friendly Amsterdam, this eight-day tour explores the lowlands of Holland and Belgium. Highlights include the home of Gouda cheese and the windmills of Kinderdijk. Bruges' chocolatiers are the final reward, utracks.com.
CROATIA'S DALMATIAN COAST
This family-friendly trip uses bikes and boats to explore the islands and coastline of southern Dalmatia. Each day brings a new island including Korcula with its old town and Hvar with its Venetian architecture, utracks.com.
PISA TO FLORENCE
While the start and end points of this eight-day tour have obvious appeal, there's plenty of interest in between. Admire the mediaeval walled city of Lucca, the thermal-spa town of Montecatini and the birthplace of Pinocchio's creator, the tiny village of Collodi, biketoursdirect.com.
THE LOIRE RIVER
The Loire a Velo is an 800km cycle route that serves up chateaus, vineyards and historic towns as it follows France's longest river into the heart of the Loire Valley. It's the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure cycle trip, cycling-loire.com.
Sydney Morning Herald