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Uranium Bike Tour

After the Second World War, another tide of the arms race slowly but surely began to develop in the world. With the first nuclear power plant built in Obninsk back in 1954, in the former Soviet Union, it became clear that atomic weapons and the nuclear industry overall would mark the second half of the twentieth century. Today, about 80 years after the first nuclear reactor ever built, "Chicago Pile-1", the current numbers for the commercial use of nuclear power indicate that 50 countries operate about 220 research reactors with as much more operating power plants in majority of these countries. The military numbers are expected to be even higher, and the fact is that nuclear submarines and ships can be equipped with multiple nuclear reactors on board. Some of the aircraft carriers can have up to eight of them.

The AI representation of cyclists on the 'Uranium Bike Tour' :-)

Of course, all those nuclear reactors require a nuclear fuel to operate. In most of the case it is enriched uranium (U-235) isotope produced from the uranium concentrate powder called yellowcake, which is an intermediate step in the processing of the uranium ore and usually produced directly in the mines. During the 1960s, world demand for uranium ore skyrocketed and many countries joined the ride. Serbia was no exception. The only deposits of uranium-oxide-rich ore in Serbia were found near the small town of Kalna, some 50 km east of my current place of residence and in a short period of time, shrouded in secrecy, the uranium mine operated fully and produced respectable number of yellowcake (UO2) and even significant amount of metal uranium as well.**

In the beginning, even the miners believed they were digging an ore for the production of copper and gold. Only three persons in the mine knew the truth. After four years of production, the mine was closed, the pit buried and the operation moved to a more profitable location. The old mine is still there, inaccessible as it is and the old buildings are still standing but locked and sealed. The soil and aerial environment are tested regularly and even though the radioactivity is slightly above normal and most likely deadly deep in the ground, on the surface the entire area is a safe environment to live in. However, many believe that the story of the site is not over and that more ore veins are still waiting to be found.

The 'Uranium Bike Tour' path and elevation

In the meantime, due to the expansion of tourism in the Balkan Mountains, recently the road has been rebuilt and it is now perfect for cycling. The local cyclists, both professional and amateur and those, like my son and me, which are considered to be enthusiasts, love the path for testing the limits, entertainment and health. The last weekend we spent more that six hours on our wheels enjoying a pretty hard and elevated track which is 58 km long and more than 400 meters elevated from the starting and the highest point on the way. We call it the "Uranium Bike Tour" and it's something we started to do last year. In the image above, there are both, trajectory and elevation lines. It starts from the city of Niš, passes through the small town of Svrljig, through several villages on the way and across the phenomenal landscapes almost the entire way.

The video below is made out of a GPX file of entire track, created by the Fabien Girardin's amazing tool from his Rumbo* website. As for the track itself, and to be completely on the honest side, we didn't go all the way this time, because we rode our heavy mountain bikes with fat tires which are not the best option for this kind of trails, but when we turned off the asphalt to get to this weekend (family) destination, the dirt road ride was almost effortless.

The 'Uranium Bike Tour' GPX video illustration*

Geographically lying in the heart of Balkan peninsula, just 27 kilometers away from Niš, a small town of Svrljig, which we passed three hours after departure, is acting as a capital of a relatively small Serbian land surrounded by exactly 38 villages. The entire complex of it's southern mountain range is called 'Svrljig Mountains' and the track is following the path just next to them. The highest peak, Zeleni vrh has an elevation of 1,334 meters above sea level and was the impressive site just next to the road on the 40th kilometer of the tour.

In just half a century, the human population of the area is more than halved with more and more villages containing more empty houses and those in which more people die than are born. Rural environments in this part of the world is more or less the same and while cities are becoming larger and larger, the economics and agricultural fate of small villages are grimier by the year. To me, it's far away from elementary logic and I only hope this trend will change in the future.

The landscape from the village of Vrelo, near Svrljig

The same goes for the final destination of the tour, the once small town of Kalna, which flourished in those half a decade, when the mine was active and where 800 miners lived in prosperous mining settlement, is now almost a ghost town with nothing but memories of the good times 60 years ago. The last remaining mine worker in Kalna, who was a locksmith in the mine at the time, Hranislav Grujić, and who is now in his late 80ies, remembers the good time: "When we pass the tavern, the waiters laugh: "Here are the miners, it's going to be a good day!"

But, there were incidents as well, after all, working with the yellowcake is not the safest job on the world. He remembered the time he was in contact with the ore: "They bathed me with a hose in a special chamber, and they set fire to all of my clothes. I was sent on paid leave for two weeks, even though I felt fine. I just had a bit of a headache and felt faint. But it was nothing terrible, really."

At the entrance of Svrljig (Сврљиг, cyrillic) town

Anyhow, 'Uranium Bike Tour', the cycling route how we lovingly named it, actually is not for the faint of heart. And when I said it, I mean it literally. With a huge elevation change along the way and maybe a slightly longer route than usual, it requires endurance and strong muscles as well as professional equipment. At the end, it demands commitment and love for this kind of achievements. When we were on the path for the first time, somewhere in the middle of the journey, Viktor asked me how I felt. After all I am not in my prime years and he wanted to know I was okay. It was a simple question and I wanted to give him a good answer. So I thought about it a little longer than usual.

"I feel free", I said.

And that's the simple truth of how I feel when I get on my bike and ride into the countryside outside the city.

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