“Oh, Slovenia, you’re breaking my heart…” Barney and his prolific plethora of puns take a trip to Eastern Europe.
Words by Barney. Pictures by Uros Svigeli.
There is so much work that goes into a press trip. Corralling a large number of hapless journalists from a variety of countries, making sure all flights are booked, documentation is in order, everyone can get into the country of choice, and keeping everyone happy. And dealing with the unforeseen one-in-a-million, which will naturally happen nine times out of ten (thanks, Terry Pratchett – RIP). It’s tough enough when the organisers are a bike company, perhaps – keen to show off a new bike or an impressive geegaw which will hopefully prove indispensable in a year or so. But what if you work for the tourist board of a country, and as well as getting everyone there, you need to choreograph an itinerary that takes in the best that a whole country (not just a component) has to offer? In five days? It’s a tough ask.
Step forward Brina. Brina is the marketing manager for all of Slovenia. She and I had exchanged a flurry of emails before our first sorting-out-the-details phone call. This was an odd conversation – not least as I was walking round a stately home (no, not mine) with my family on a bank holiday Monday. But it meant we were all set.
Approaching Ljubljana airport a few days later, the plane banked as it descended, and the topology of the country was quite clear to see. The city gave every impression of sitting in a placid, verdant lake of flat land, surrounded by mountains and hills in every direction. At the airport, we were met by a driver, and I sat mainlining coffee until my colleagues from a variety of august British and continental publications showed up, and we headed into Ljubljana, where we met Brina.
She’d organised a bike-based city tour for us all, so our first contact with two wheels in Slovenia was on town bikes. Ljubljana really is rather flat, although we could occasionally see the mountains in the distance, peeking through the gaps in the buildings like multi-million-ton children playing hide and seek. We trundled happily about listening to our guide Tevz Cernigoj regale us with facts large and small, and trying not to bunnyhop off pavements. I could’ve done that all week.
But sightseeing had to come later; we are, after all, steely-eyed mountain men. So we luggaged up and took a minibus to Ekohotel Koroš the headquarters of BikeNomad in Jamnica Bike Park, extremely close to the Austrian border. The whole shebang is run by Dixi Štrucl, something of a local legend – he was one of the (if not the) first to promote mountain biking in Slovenia, and he’s been passionately doing so for 20 years – so naturally enough he was Brina’s co-conspirator in our trip.
Dixi’s son Anej was our guide over the next few days – our point man, our first port of call, guiding us across his patch while allowing other experts in their respective regions to show us the best the places have to offer. We couldn’t wait. But first for Anej’s local trails, in Jamnica Bike Park – and what trails they are! They have been personally made by Dixi, Anej and a crew of local volunteers, so they’re absolutely perfect.
We started (as is utterly correct) with a climb. Not a long one, but still plenty enough to get us warm and to prepare us for the descent. A high-speed, relatively open section soon led into some startlingly impressive singletrack – twisty, rooty and muscular, with smaller step-down and rocky sections. The red-graded routes we rode were genuinely testing; the blacks were even more mouth-watering. After lunch, we encountered yet more trail awesomeness – a stiff climb, a truly glorious ribbon of ridgeline singletrack – and the first casualty of the week: a tacoed front wheel, in a spectacular over-the-bars incident.
Wheel replaced, it was time to get gloomy. The Peca mountain isn’t all that spectacular, as mountains go. But it does contain a secret – over a thousand kilometres of tunnels on hundreds of levels, built over hundreds of years. And you can ride a bike in some of them. It’s hard to describe the eerie feeling of hurtling through a tunnel with the ceiling scant inches from your helmet (taller riders take note), but the battle for the Death Star at the end of Star Wars springs to mind. At the moment you can only ride on one level, but the potential is there for something truly extraordinary. At length we emerged from the constant 10 degree temperatures of the interior to the high twenties of the real world, and it was back to Ekohotel Koroš for food and nattering.
Day two dawned with a simple doubletrack ride along a fire road trail with some ridiculously spectacular views. To our left was the verdant valley of Logarska, and ahead a much more pointy New Alp//Barney – is this a name, or was it just a new alp?!. This was easy riding, and the rewards were pretty much entirely visual, unless you took a corner too fast and started to wash out, but it was no less amazing for all that. I watched balefully as the fitter members of our party disappeared into the distance, but the scenery encouraged a certain amount of dawdling – I was more than happy to loiter at the back.
And then there was (whisper it) an enjoyable road descent. It’s typically the case (and with good reason) that if dedicated mountain bikers are faced with the option of riding down the road or riding down pretty much anything else, the latter option will be chosen. In this case, no option was present; it was the road, or the van – or possibly a plummet – so we all took to the simple pleasures of the flat grey stuff.
And it was, weirdly, excellent. There’s actually something to be said for hurtling down an alpine road pass as fast as you can. For one thing, you get to practice your cornering technique in an environment where grip is pretty much optimal, and secondly you get to learn the limits of your tyres. The loud buzz as you reach – and exceed – 40mph, and the chirrup as you lean into the tight switchback corner and your tyres reach the limit of what they’re capable of, and start to walk away from you, each knob turning into a treacherous knuckle of rubber – it’s technical riding, but not as we know it. And absolutely worth trying – if only the once. Maybe there’s something to this roadie lark after all.
Spleen and pleasant lands
I had a moment of brief uncertainty, there at the top. We’d borrowed downhill bikes for an uplift session at Kranjska Gora bike park. I’d forgotten that those European types (and indeed everywhere uncivilised) run their brakes right rear – so a flutter on an unexpectedly swift corner entered somewhat further into ‘mild peril’ than I wanted. It was a timely reminder that I should squeeze both brakes together if I need to stop and try to ignore any subconscious front/rear weight desires.
And, perhaps inevitably, one of our number momentarily forgot this upon landing a jump too, and promptly sent himself over the bars. His cuts and bruises looked so superficial, until he passed out in the hotel later on and he was packed off to hospital. He was in intensive care for four days, with a ruptured spleen. Bloody hell.
Somewhat muted by our compadre’s misfortune, the next day we started on a long, and ridiculously pretty, climb up the Vršič Pass. Not technical at all, to be fair, but it did give us a chance to admire the scenery. Which was astonishing – the region is the movie stand-in for Narnia, so if you want to know what the place is like, just watch the films. Another ridiculously fast and weirdly challenging road descent dropping into the preposterously turquoise Soč Valley followed before we piled into the van again.
But of course now we were split – and as well as keeping tabs on us, and what we were up to, Brina now had to factor visits to hospital into her schedule (our compatriot was to be there for several days, but happily he made a full recovery). A marketing manager’s job is never done.
Russian to conclusions
The afternoon involved Russian Orthodox chapels and interminable climbs, before dropping smartly into forest, and one of the best slices of singletrack I’ve ridden in ages. It felt like the Quantocks on steroids. Enjoying a long, long descent, contouring the side of the forest, we hopped (and in one case carried – I don’t want to die) over logs and fallen trees, wheelied limestone stepdowns, nearly washed out on scrabbly corners, and launched into hyperspeed blasts through sun-dappled meadows where the grasses whipped our legs like miniature cat’o’ninetails, before plunging back into the relative blackness of the forest once again. And it got steeper the closer to the end we came. Bliss.
One of the great things about this trail in particular was that in no way did it feel manicured or groomed. It was more reminiscent of being shown your mate’s favourite trail – the one he doesn’t tell many people about. And it blows any of my home trails out of the water – not least because it descends about 800 vertical metres. Of course, this trail too claimed its victim – we arrived at the bottom minus a brake lever, and plus a couple of extra holes in someone’s leg. Back to hospital.
And still the day’s casualties weren’t over. Our photographer took another member of our party to a ‘secret spot’ for some more photos.
And on his way back – yup, he crashed. Hard. A slightly mangled face and a swollen wrist were the products this time. More medic time needed. I’d not have been surprised if Brina was a whimpering wreck at this point, but she seemed to have managed to cope with the whole thing. And we were all (well, apart from spleen-bloke) still keen to carry on riding – even photographer Uros bound up his wrist, taped up his face and soldiered on. That’s the spirit!
The next day we were ferried over to a region known as the Karst – a huge limestone plateau with no running water on its surface at all – it all seeps down to subterranean rivers. It was drizzling; I felt right at home. After a long but steady climb, we reached the top of the pass, and found ourselves close to Croatia, which is apparently somewhat less friendly to inadvertent trespassers than Slovenia’s other neighbours, Italy and Austria. So we rode for a while with that weird shifty feeling, like we were walking through customs.
Nothing to declare
Doubletrack eventually gave way to a rolling climb through meadows. Glorious flowers of many intense hues I can’t identify (I’m rubbish at flowers; I don’t think they were exotic or anything) appeared in clumps amid the washed-out grasses. We rode through a forbidding cutaway dividing Slovenia and Croatia, and then we plunged into the descent.
It was easy at first – a fast, smooth, rolling singletrack of staggering moistness. The overhanging grasses soon had me glad of my covered shoes, although my socks soon became soggy from the cleat up. But later on, as the trail assumed a more rocky countenance, I was glad of a British biking upbringing as I practically skied my way down the slippery rubble slopes. It was one of those times when it’s genuinely easier to go faster; the rocks under my wheel seem to change behaviour as I clattered over them. You could almost carve your way down the trail – I didn’t really steer; I just held on, and kind of wished my bike into a given direction. For the most part, it obliged.
All too soon, it was over. We found ourselves at a restaurant, where we were allowed to get out of our drenched cycle clothing (but not to touch the furniture), and more food awaited. This area is very close to Italy – so twists on Italian-seeming dishes were the order of the day. Ravioli. Bread. Wine. Soup. Mmmm. Soup.
And the very last thing on the itinerary – a digestif, if you will – was a trip to the UNESCO-celebrated Škocjan//ACCENT// Caves. Which emphatically answered the question ‘where is all the water?’. Oh. There it is. Yup.
Trips like this must be hugely difficult to organise, a nightmare to orchestrate and a privilege to participate in. It’s only when things start to go wrong that you can truly take a peek into the machinery that lies behind it, and it’s humbling that so many people want to go to so much effort to show off their country at its very best. Organising a trip to the Lakes with my mates won’t ever feel like quite the logistical challenge it used to.
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