This article was originally published in Singletrack Issue 127 and has been available to subscribers via our online archive – we’re republishing it publicly for International Women’s Day.
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Amanda takes a few days to ride and decompress in Denmark. Along the way she finds food, friends, trails and adventures, but most of all, she finds balance.
Words Amanda Photography Max Schumann
As I stood on my tiptoes with the waves aggressively carrying me further away from the shore, I felt like I was like looking at the world through several Instagram filters… varying shades of blue and moonlight teasing the hazy silhouettes of docked boats. The outline of our hotel in the distance was just enough to convince me it was reality.
I could hear muffled shouts of concern from my adventure buddies. It was nighttime, I’d been drinking rum, and I was in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. This is no doubt a regular occurrence for many of the locals, but for me it was quite new. I’ve been scared of the sea for most of my adult life. Although I don’t have some far-fetched tale of a near shark attack or a jellyfish encounter, I’d just developed a huge anxiety around open water. Yet there I was trusting the water to take me wherever it wanted, with only the moon providing any light.
I started to make my way back to the group, relieved that there was no way they could see that I’d been crying – not from fear or frostbite, but from an overwhelming happiness that I had overcome another of my stupid anxiety-induced quirks. One of many things I can thank Denmark for.
Think of Denmark
When you think of Denmark, you’d be forgiven for having mountain biking low down the list of highlights. After all, it’s quite a flat country and it rains a lot. Not exactly prime riding conditions. And there’s the wind, too. What we would consider to be a blustery day is a gentle breeze in the North of Denmark. But when it rains, it’s brief, and it dries up equally quickly. The wind serves a purpose too – it stops you from being tricked into thinking you’re in a remake of The Truman Show. At times the only sounds or movement are given by the wind, a reality check you often need when surrounded by untouched landscapes and fairy-tale woodland.
There’s actually more in its favour for mountain biking than you’d expect. There’s a right to roam – and roam you can, due to an abundance of forests, coastal routes, and an excellent network of fire roads linking it all together. Trail colours have been based on UK grading, so you won’t be caught out by a trail you’re not cut out for, as can often happen in foreign country. There are camping pods popping up throughout the plantations offering free shelter and often a campfire for wild campers. Trail signage is up-to-date, clear and simple with a white outline on the coloured arrow to distinguish a marked bike trail.
More specifically, there is an area in the north that is developing into a mountain bike haven. MTB Slettestrand is a family-run holiday centre that works as a hotel and offers 35km of marked trails, skills track, guiding, skills coaching, trail building courses and bike rental. The ideal spot to begin an adventure…
Ice cream labelling.
To set the tone for the week, when I arrive at Aalborg Airport, it only takes ten minutes to get from my window seat to the car park, the most stress-free airport experience I could wish for. It’s here I meet our host for the week, Kristian, who hadn’t expected me to turn up with my own bike and quickly begins to dismantle the inside of his VW California to accommodate it, along with two other guests I’ll be spending the week with. During the short drive from the airport, Kristian explains the set-up of the hotel that he runs with his partner Mette and her family. In short, they offer a beach resort where disabled people feel welcome on equal terms to all other guests, with not a single detail overlooked (you can see the ice cream flavours from wheelchair height – you know, the important stuff.) They extend this equal opportunity mentality by employing a large number of very helpful staff, many of whom have a learning difficulty.
Arriving at the hotel we’re greeted by Mette along with trail builder and skills coach Esben. As we’re led through to the dining room Kristian light-heartedly draws our attention to the scuffed doorframes, an occupational hazard when you open your doors to anyone on two or four wheels.
We’re then joined by Jamie Nicoll, the Kiwi ex-EWS racer turned adventurer, his girlfriend Elena (who works for Santa Cruz in Morzine) and Max Schumann, German photographer and good friend of Jamie’s. Jamie spends his time travelling the world to visit people he believes are doing good things with bikes, so having him there got the cogs turning and I realise there is probably more to this trip than just trying out a new bike.
Our three course dinner is all fresh local produce, including schnapps from a distillery we’ll be visiting later in the week. Esben jokes about the consequences of drinking it… he and his wife have four children, all very close in age. It seems that once the nine months is up and his wife is able to drink, she does. As does he. She tends to wake up with more than just a hangover.
One knee pad.
Morning arrives and there’s a flurry of activity in the apartment with bikes being set up, people unsure of what kit to take and wandering around with one knee pad on, not fully committed to wearing or removing them. I choose to make my knee pad decision based on how far we’ll be riding. I’m advised around 20km before lunch and ask what that is in miles, which invites an onslaught of mockery about how I’m ‘too young’ to be working in imperial units. This gets worse on the admission that I use feet to measure my ascents/descents, and when the conversation finds its way to Brexit I’ve had enough of being teased and ask Max to help me set up my suspension.
“How much do you weigh?”
“Ten and a half stone.”
After a short traverse along the road, signposts become trees, hard-packed fire road becomes coastal silt, hedges become heathers and it suddenly feels very remote. We have arrived at the Svinkløv Klitplantage. The trails here aren’t ups or downs, they’re just trails. They flow, the landscape rolls, and you can pump enough speed out to rarely feel like you’re going uphill. This means you can cover a lot of ground without feeling like you’ve put much effort in – one moment you’re standing in a clearing looking at a distant landmark, visually mapping out how you could maybe get there to see if it’s as beautiful as it seems, then ten minutes later you’re there. You’re at that trig point overlooking the coast, you’re not out of breath, and it IS as beautiful as you hoped.
Esben has made great use of the materials to build with and the available space, sneaking features in at any opportunity without losing the natural flow of the trails. Much of the riding in Slettestrand is on land that used to be seabed, so it’s sandy and dries out really quickly. We regularly experience cloudbursts, but only a minute or two of heavy rain and the trails dry almost as quickly as the weather passes. That’s not to say it’s all smooth and dry. Just head into the trees and you’re greeted with greasy mud, roots and ruts that would make for a great stage in any UK enduro race.
After lunch we visit the Kollerup forest area that offers a 7km loop, which could be likened to a UK natural woodland trail. Singletrack through trees, damp mossy ground, twigs and bracken hiding the transitions and making you earn the right to a descent once you’ve fought your way through them. This area has the feel of a locals’ playground, somewhere to go and session the same trails and tidy them up along the way.
Having exhausted ourselves riding the same fun section over and over until we’ve got a good line through it, we head back for a serve-yourself spread (the term ‘buffet’ is not worthy. Probably not even ‘smörgåsbord’ either) of dishes, so many dishes… any one of which could sit comfortably on an à la carte menu.
We take a chance on another round of schnapps and head to bed, for tomorrow is a big day.
There will be portage
Our day begins with a relaxed ride out from the hotel after several rounds on the breakfast Serve Yourself™. We pass cornfields, we get rained on, we dry off, we do some hikeabike (yes, still in Denmark) and then ride… no, FALL down some incredibly steep and greasy switchbacks that come out of nowhere. Esben seems quite smug about these, given that even Jamie feels a bit caught out on them. We head for the coast, taking the most indirect route we can, because despite having a packed schedule for the day, why rush it?
I have a bad habit of staring at my front wheel when I ride, so noticing the sudden increase in sand and loss of traction, I look up. Cliffs to left, sand dunes to the right, tunnelling us towards, well, more of the same. We’re at the beginning of the Slettestrand multi-day 200km coastal ride development project, linking Blokhus to Vorupør (aka Cold Hawaii, a popular surf area). As we take some time to enjoy the view, I have a twinge of paranoia about the time. We have another plantage to ride, a prearranged picnic lunch, a distillery to visit, and that’s all before the afternoon! Why is everyone mooching around talking about dolphins?
There’s a lot to be said for this slow-paced lifestyle. When time is drawn out by a combination of a relaxed attitude and the landscape itself putting a vast expanse between locations, any given task loses its urgency. So how can you get stressed? As someone who gets incredibly anxious over the smallest of details and would rather be an hour early than right on time to any event, I needed this. Nobody else seemed concerned that we had various time-sensitive plans for the day as they stood on the sand dunes hypnotised by the movement of the sea.
Foraging for bolts.
Eventually we make our way east to a forest further inland. The riding here consists of some decent climbs that reward you with fast, long, playful trails with several line choices on the way down. The ground here is a typical forest floor, so it holds a lot more water than anywhere else we’ve ridden, adding to the fun when we grease out on a steep leaf-covered section.
Max has some gearing issues, which quickly escalate into an upturned bike, rear wheel removed and a missing bolt somewhere among the leaves. In true Danish style, as half the group forage for the bolt, the rest look for mushrooms and yellow wood-sorrel, which looks like clover but tastes like lemon. There’s something very surreal about the following ten, or thirty, minutes – I can’t be sure because time just grinds to a halt. We are in a clearing among tall trees, all working together in one way or another without exchanging many words. There are beams of sunlight sneaking through the gaps in the trees and complete silence all around that is only broken by a shoe crunching some sticks, a grunt from Max, and then right on schedule, another cloudburst to snap us all back to action.
We make it to our lunch stop, a picnic provided by staff from MTB Slettestrand. They accidentally added meat to the vegetarian option, so I tuck into a banana and hope to get some stodge in me before the distillery tour. Meanwhile, Elena is having a life-changing experience with a Danish pastry, as carb-free Jamie and dairy-free me try to act like we aren’t suffering watching her eat it.
The source of the children.
After lunch we ride some more, forage wild berries off ancient burial mounds, and eventually roll up at Nordisk Brænderi, the local gin distillery that’s responsible for a large percentage of reproduction in the area. And all four of Esben’s children. We take a tour while politely sipping a G&T, and then move on to the local vegetable-based schnapps. Now, schnapps is one of those drinks that only tastes good in the moment, like on a freezing cold chairlift with a snowboard hanging off your foot, or when you’re already half-cut on the last day of a holiday and are feeling the love for the local delicacies. The schnapps here is… interesting. All the vegetable flavours are so accurate it’s hard to believe you’re not just drinking a liquified vegetable, so you have another taste. I don’t really like beetroot yet I drank a good few shots of it, each time saying: “It really does taste like beetroot! Urgh!”
Feeling a bit numb in the mouth, fuzzy in the head and potentially pregnant, we stumble onto our bikes and have a very merry ride back to apartment complex, skirting past our front door and heading straight to the converted Nordic Barn next door.
We enter a very rustic barn. The dining area is dimly lit with candles and the kitchen bright enough to see what we’re doing, but not a fluorescent bulb in sight, so as not to taint the atmosphere. There’s a huge stone oven, jars and glass bottles on every shelf, nook and cranny, and a huge wooden bench full of fresh vegetables, seafood and some of the items we’d found along the way that day.
Currently this isn’t offered as part of a holiday package, but we are guinea pigs to see if it would be of interest. We’re joined by a chef who offers a few tips and suggestions of what we could make for our dinner, he shows us where his homemade vinegars live, and sets us to work.
Having buddied up with Leo, the token Frenchman of the group, and me the vegan, we make a kick-ass ratatouille and tuck it into the big stone oven. Meanwhile Jamie is making mayonnaise, Elena dresses some shrimp, there are pizzas, berry crumble (with rum in. So, ‘Rumble’), and all the schnapps that Jamie has smuggled back with him.
By this point, it seems we have all eased into the Danish way of life. We’re living and working together so fluidly that decisions are made with little discussion, as if we are already on the same page. We aren’t pre-planning, worrying about when we’ll fit a shower in, or if it is getting too late, too dark – we just do what feels right in the moment. Which subsequently leads us all to the sauna with a bottle of rum.
Kristian, wearing a gnome-like little woolly hat, has a bit of a routine going. First he feeds us rum, then he wets a towel, spins it around his head to create some sort of heat vortex, and then furiously wafts it at each of us in turn. For a brief moment, your body is lava, and then an eerie chill follows when you crash back down to regular sauna temperature. It quite literally takes your breath away, and is known as löyly.
I ask Kristian to löyly me a few more times, and then drink some more rum to further increase my internal temperature. We start to approach discomfort, so naturally head outside to cool off. Past the pool, through the door, onto the sand, and head first into the sea. Which I believe is back to where this tale started…
If you’re looking to go on a mountain bike holiday, you really need to ask yourself what you want to take from it. Do you want to return home with new skills, a tan, tales of raclette? Or do you want to come home feeling like you’ve been on an adventure, whether that be one of long drawn-out days floating through singletrack and enjoying the type of scenery you see in magazines, or an adventure of self-discovery?
Some experiences leave me with holiday blues, and returning to the ‘real world’ hits me hard. But my short time in Denmark has gone beneath the surface. I feel like I’ve brought the positives home with me. It’s not always about the ride, it’s about where it takes you.
Disclosure: Travel and accommodation covered by Santa Cruz Bicycles
Special thanks to: Kristian, Mette and Esben from mtbslettestrand.dk for their hospitality and guiding, nordiskbraenderi.dk for the gin, rum and schnapps, and Jamie Nicoll for making this adventure happen.
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