Rob Houghton takes some time out over the winter to reminisce on his mountain biking research trips to Slovenia. Using his own hard-won experience, he provides some advice for those considering a biking trip to this most beautiful of alpine countries.
Winter is a lovely time of the year. Think of all of those beautiful, frosty mornings with the crows calling from the leafless trees. Imagine all the snow-covered trails that finish at a pub, ruddy-cheeked and happy. I love the fresh air bonhomie that abounds at this time of the year.
Who am I kidding? Winter is mostly about numb fingers and mud so deep you could lose a bike in it. Winter is a good time for sitting in front of a fire with a table full of maps and guidebooks, making plans for the year ahead. Better still, sit in front of that fire with a glass of whisky (or the tipple of your choice) and a patient audience and reminisce about your glorious trips past. Personally, this year, I’m thinking back to my three research trips to Slovenia.
The main reason I’m doing this is that the guidebook I wrote on mountain biking in Slovenia is out now and I am inordinately excited the whole thing. But I’ve also been thinking about what I learned from the whole experience. Surely after eight weeks of riding a bike up and down in a breathtakingly beautiful country (I’m just showing off now), I should have learned something? Right?
When I was preparing for my trips to Slovenia, I was living in Denmark. Now, I love Denmark but, in terms of terrain, you couldn’t find a place more different to the alpine Slovenia. I was training for quick-drying limestone trails up mountains by riding a fatbike through the mud of loamy northern Europe. I did, however, realise the importance of getting fit for my trips, and this did save me a great deal of anguish later on.
Slovenia is mountainous. It’s beautiful, but I cannot emphasise enough that it is very precipitous. Almost every day I was there began with some extraordinary climb. The longest I did was 11km but it was not uncommon to tackle 5km just a few minutes into the day’s ride. For this you need some fitness if you want to avoid spending several days of your precious holiday time flat on your back too exhausted to go out.
My advice, therefore, is to get yourself onto some sort of training program. It doesn’t have to be hardcore (here’s a moderate mountain biking training plan), in fact, you may stick at it better if it isn’t. In the long run, however, it will pay dividends to stick to a plan.
It wasn’t on one of my book research trips, but on a previous occasion in Slovenia I got so dehydrated that I drank directly from an animal trough. I’m not proud of this moment and I’m certainly not proud of my lack of preparation that led to it but it does illustrate a point.
I had attempted a 50km circuit up and down a mountain called Stol and along the achingly beautiful river Soča. For some reason, I had reckoned that in order to tackle this epic on a sunny, summer’s day, I would need two litres of water. I was wrong. I finished the two litres before I had reached the summit of Stol. The mountains of Slovenia are limestone and they drain very quickly; there is rarely any running water on the slopes and, unless you come across a mountain hut, you’ll often find nowhere to fill up a water bottle. I say again: take plenty of water with you.
Of course, if you do come across a mountain hut, you’ll be able to buy a beer but then you’ve got a whole set of other problems.
Take it Steady
My previous two points lead me on to my third. Take it easy. I quickly learned that going hell for leather on the first half of your first ride is less likely to earn you respect from your peers than to it is to break you and, potentially, ruin your holiday.
Remember what I said before: 11km of climbing. Off-road. With a gradient of 15%. There is no shame, under these circumstances, to use your granny gear. You have a bottom gear for a reason, if you’re not going to use it on a climb like this, when are you going to use it? Take it easy, conserve your energy.
Also, bear in mind that the corollary of a gigantic climb is an equally gigantic descent. You may think that the descent is where you can relax a bit and recover from your exertions. Trust me, however, unless you have the grip strength of a gorilla, after an 11km descent, your arms will be burning and your legs will feel like blancmange. Revel in the sensation, but remember that tomorrow, you’re supposed to be getting up in the morning and doing it all again.
So there I was, 30km in to a 60km ride; it was hot, I was tired and low on food and I’d just got my second puncture of the day. Fortunately I’d packed everything I needed, right? No, I had not.
I was riding a borrowed 29er and, back home, I was riding a standard 26. The inner tubes I had carefully packed before my trip were, therefore, useless and I hadn’t bothered to buy any more thinking that I probably wouldn’t get a puncture anyway. I was right, I didn’t get a puncture, I got two.
It is no fun to repair a puncture by the trail side, no fun at all. To do that for the second time that day whilst hot and irritable taught me an important lesson that I probably should have learned when I was cub scout: be prepared.
As mountain bikers, we are blessed by the fact that we can wear a pack while riding and not look a complete fool. That being the case, it means we can carry quite a bit of stuff with us. As a start for a suggested packing list, I reckon the following makes sense for an extended day in the Slovenian mountains:
- Inner tubes (preferably the same size as your bike’s tubes), tyre levers and pump
- Multi-tool (with a chain link attachment and spare links)
- Spare hanger
- At least two litres of water (see tip above)
- Packed lunch and high energy snacks
- First aid kit (see my recommended first aid kit list)
- A charged mobile phone
- An EHIC (European Health Insurance Card)
- Waterproof jacket (it does rain on occasion on the sunny side of the Alps and, in any case, the tops can be quite chilly)
- Camera (Slovenia really is a very beautiful country)
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but Slovenia is stunning. If you’ve already been there, you’ll be able to attest to this. If you haven’t been, you may have met someone like me who bores you with regular updates on just how beautiful the place really is. The thing is, the whole country is attractive, but most folks will only ever visit a few key places.
If you’ve already been to Slovenia, the chances are that you went to the capital, Ljubljana and to Bled. Now, there is no doubt that these are marvelous places to visit. Ljubljana is a little gem of a city that straddles the river Ljubljanica with aplomb and style. Bled is, well… Bled is ridiculous: a fairytale castle sits on top of a cliff overlooking a temperate lake in the middle of which lies on old monastery on an island, the whole thing surrounded by mountains. You couldn’t make it up.
It’s very easy, however, to be blinded by these two fabulous locations and to miss other, equally amazing places. For the sake of getting in a car and driving for an hour or so, you could see Postojna where you can ride routes that take in caves and castles or a mysterious disappearing lake. Similarly, it would be a terrible shame to miss out on the particularly vivid shade of turquoise that the river Soča boasts. Never let it be said that you visited Slovenia and didn’t sample the undulating rides around the vineyards of the Vipava valley from where it’s just a short hop to a seafood dinner on the shores of the Adriatic. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t deprive yourself of the isolated grandeur of Črna na Koroškem.
In other words, if you are sitting at that fireside table strewn with maps and guidebooks, take another look at Slovenia. A week in this most compact of countries can fulfil so many requirements of a good mountain biking holiday. Go on, look it up, you won’t regret it.