By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN More than 25 years ago, Mary Wiemiller of Winsted participated in her first 500-mile, seven-day bike ride through Minnesota led by Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar. She learned about the ride through a full-page ad Klobuchar had placed in the newspaper.
She was unable to get anyone she knew to go along with her, so she ended up going alone, after taking many practice runs around town with her new 10-speed bike, packed with all of her gear, early in the morning while the rest of her family slept.
Through the annual Klobuchar bike ride, she met three women Carol Coburn of Chanhassen, Mary Daniels of Chaska, and Colleen Johnson of St. Cloud. All of the women, “who are more like my sisters now,” Wiemiller said, were in their 30s and 40s at the time and had one important thing in common they love to bike.
They haven’t let their age slow them down, because whatever attracted them to biking years ago has continued.
“I am more comfortable on my bike than in my car,” Wiemiller said. “And with biking, you are out in the fresh air and you can see things and smell things you can’t driving in a car.”
In addition to the Klobuchar annual bike ride, which Wiemiller has never missed, the women begin riding their bikes as soon as the snow melts in the spring.
“We usually do a weekly ride together, when the weather warms up,” Wiemiller said. “Then, during the winter, we cross country ski, so we do a lot of things with our families, too.”
Their bike tours have taken them across the ocean, where they have found traveling along the countryside by bike makes it easier for them to really get to know the people, according to Wiemiller.
The women have biked the entire west coast of Ireland, the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, went into Bosnia to see the Medjugorje Shrine, and they have toured the Czech Republic twice.
Their first trip to the Czech Republic was in 1994, shortly after the fall of communism. Their second trip, Aug. 22 to Sept. 4, was to return and see the changes that have happened to the republic since the Russians no longer occupy the country.
“I had no plans to go back to the Czech Republic,” Wiemiller said. “We had been talking about biking in Italy and it just came up.”
A group of five participated in the second trip Wiemiller, Coburn, Daniels, and two other friends of Wiemiller’s, Tom Gray and Maureen Reiss of Manitowoc, WI. Johnson was not able to make it.
Both trips were suggested and planned by Coburn, whose ancestors are from the Czech Republic.
“We went because of Carol,” Wiemiller said. “This will probably be her last trip to the republic and we just wanted to see the country through her eyes,” Wiemiller said.
Coburn grew up speaking Czech and it came in handy on the trip because she was able to communicate with local residents when the maps didn’t help and they found they needed some guidance.
For the first trip to the Czech Republic, the travelers biked on roads. For their second trip, their plans were to follow the Greenway Trail, which they thought was a biking and walking trail.
What they discovered, through translation, was the trail was regarded as a corridor between Vienna and Prague. Some of the trail was paved, some of it was broken, part of it went through plowed farm fields, a portion was under water, and some of it just didn’t exist at all, according to Wiemiller.
“We had to pick our way around and get on a trail now and then to get back to Prague on time,” Wiemiller said.
“When we got to a part that wasn’t bike-able, we just went around it and if time was of the essence, we would load our bike on the train for $3 and away we would go,” Wiemiller said.
“The Czech Republic today is absolutely beautiful,” Wiemiller said. “I think out of all of the places that I have been privileged to see in the world, the Czech Republic, to me, is the most impressive, and I think, underrated. I think if people knew what a bargain it was to go there, and how absolutely gorgeous it is, how friendly the people are, there would be many more tourists.”
Under communism, there wasn’t any economic system 16 years ago, according to Wiemiller. Everything was collective farming, and some of the people who had farms were put to work in factories at gunpoint.
Wiemiller was impressed with how self-sufficient the country has become. “Everything that we bought in the stores was made in their country, so they don’t import a lot of goods. They export a little.”
Through the entire trip, the travelers felt safer there than a lot of places they had been, according to Wiemiller.
This trip, they noticed there were a lot more cars on the road.
“There was virtually no traffic when we were biking there before,” Wiemiller said.
The bikers also noticed a change in the landscape on their second trip. There were small, functional homes with gardens and beautiful flowers, and flowers in window boxes. Previously, the people had been discouraged from owning their own homes, according to Wiemiller. The communists had built ugly square, concrete apartment buildings and encouraged people to live there.
“This time, when I went back, most of those gray communist buildings had been painted bright colors,” Wiemiller said. “They would paint a third of the building a beautiful salmon color, another third would be sky blue, and maybe another third would be yellow. And they had added window boxes and decks, and tiled, peak roofs.”
A highlight of the trip for Wiemiller was their visit to the wine skleps, or a wine cellar.
“You can go wine skleping all over the Czech Republic, where there are these little caves that are tunneled into the hillside where the people have made their own wine for centuries,” according to Wiemiller.
A special moment for Wiemiller was meeting one of the men who owned a sklep.
He stood on top of his sklep and called out to the women, “Come and try my wine.” Later, he told them his wine, “is fit for a king.”
“When we came into his cellar, he poured us this white wine, siphoning it from this big oak barrel, and never spilled a drop,” Wiemiller said.
“It was delightful,” was Wiemiller’s description of how the wine tasted.
The trips Wiemiller has been on with her friends have proved to be history lessons, and she has learned to be self-sufficient on the road, and to survive, and to be resourceful and not panic when things go wrong, she said.
“It is just a great learning experience at any age and at this age, I am just thankful I have the health to do it,” Wiemiller said.”
“I can’t say I have ever had a bad experience on our trips,” Wiemiller said. “There is not a place that I have been that I wouldn’t want to go back again.”