ljubljana slovenia bike0074
ljubljana slovenia bike0074

A hazy memory of gondola and DH trails in the capital city of Ljubljana, taking a few days for a bit of Slovenian style relaxation seemed like a pretty good idea, my loose plan was falling together nicely...

LOOSE PLANNING IN LJUBLJANA

Words by Victor Lucas. Photos by Victor Lucas.

If there is ever a historic graffiti wall dedicated to DH racing, the name ‘Maribor’ (Slovenia) will certainly be sprayed all over it. Seasons have come down to the wire in this small Slovenian town and titles have been won and lost over a few fractions in its dark rooty forest. The course has got a bit of everything and will reward a racer who’s willing to take a few risks. Especially the bad–bastard rock garden, it makes the safe–players weak at the knees and brings a wheel building mechanic out in a cold sweat. The big names have been raging down this hill for many years, usually followed by some serious mayhem in the local bars and clubs. Most people truck in just for the race and then blast out again with a cheap hangover and hoping not to get fined for the motorway toll sticker they didn’t buy on the way in.

On one of these trips, heading west towards Italy in a fog of energy drinks and low–grade vodka, we made a short stop in the other popular bike park at Kranjska Gora, the endlessly stunning alpine scenery left a mark on my ‘places to explore’ list.

So a couple of years later, and after some hasty web trawling, it turns out that Slovenia is a fairly small country – about 2 million people scattered over a place the size of Wales but with half of it up in the mountains. It’s also the third most forested country in Europe after Finland and Sweden. The Mediterranean is close by too, with borders to Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary. Plus the weather is nice. There was also a hazy memory of someone telling me there was a gondola and some DH trails in the capital city of Ljubljana (sounds like Lube–Lee–Yana). So combine all this with the fact that the dust was just settling after the Maribor (2010) race and we had 1500 miles between us and the next one in Fort William, taking a few days for a bit of Slovenian style relaxation seemed like a pretty good idea, my loose plan was falling together nicely.>>

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[part title="Downhill Trails in Ljubljana, Slovenia - Page 2..."]

Travelling band

ljubljana slovenia bike0022
ljubljana slovenia bike0022

First priority was to get our damp socks and race gear hanging up on the hedge, then finish off by scattering our bikes and spare parts as widely as possible. But still there was no curtain twitching from our neighbouring Hymer dwellers. What a chilled out bunch the Slovenians are. I guess it might be to do with all the revolution and fighting here just 25 years ago, in today’s peaceful times you have to try pretty hard to upset these folk.

Whenever you are exploring somewhere new, the key to success is getting some local knowledge, and this brings up maybe the only problem with finding your way around Slovenia…the language. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It was hard enough to remember people’s names, never mind getting directions on how to find the riding spots. Luckily most Slovenians speak good English. So apologies in advance to all the great locals who showed us around, I am surely going to insult you by getting your names completely mixed up!

Our first man on the ground was Goraz Strazisar. He runs the Kranjska Gora bike park and seems to know everybody who is anything to do with bikes in Slovenia. He hooked us up with four Ljubljana locals who would show us the best riding spots – and I thought I was seeing double when they told me their names – the first two were both called Jan and the other two guys were both called Ziga!

Beech Leaves and Berms

ljubljana slovenia bike0004
ljubljana slovenia bike0004

Secret spot

Destination number two was well hidden away down some small country roads outside Ljubljana, you’d never find it without getting an invite from the builder – Krystjan – who was waiting for us there. It’s pretty obvious that many hours have gone into this place, digging and carrying water from the nearby river when the summer gets hot and dusty.

It took a while to figure things out, with lots of lines criss–crossing each other between the tall trees. It’s sort of like a pumptrack that grew up into dirt jumps. Berms, rollers, tables, and a couple of fairly sizable gaps were there to be tackled. Krystjan has the smooth lines dialled here. Sam and Ben loosened up from racer mode and we rode there till the sun started to sink and hunger levels just got too much.

Back at the campsite, we settled in to try and decipher the local dinner menu, which is damn frustrating with a raging hunger. Through sheer luck, we ended up with various tasty grilled meat dishes. Not sure what it was exactly, but it went down well with a couple of bottles of the local Zlatorog beer.

[part title="Downhill Trails in Ljubljana, Slovenia - Page 3..."]

Which way to the Gondola?

ljubljana slovenia bike0059
ljubljana slovenia bike0059

I got on the phone to our next local legend – Sergej Ocepek – to arrange our day’s riding. I suppose I must have developed a dyslexic memory or something, as Sergej tells me there was never a gondola in the centre of Ljubljana. There is a hill and a castle, but no gondola or DH trail. My loosely made plan seemed to be developing a couple of leaks. But Sergej had another option for us, 25km from Ljubljana is the country’s second largest ski-resort – Krvavec (sounds like Lenny Kra-vav-itz) where there is a gondola and some DH trails. Only snag was that the gondola was closed for repairs, but Sergej said he had the perfect uplift vehicle ready to go. The loose plan was back on the rails.

It’s just a short drive from Ljubljana, but after the washing line project and several wrong turns trying to find some unpronounceable places, we were very fashionably late when we finally found Sergej and his crew, waiting and ready to go with their bikes jammed into the back of an ancient Mercedes van.

We piled in just in time for Sergej to floor it up a steep, rough fireroad. The engine revving its nuts off in first gear, the rear axle sounding like it could snap on the next hairpin, but Sergej just cranked up the stereo with what sounded like some kind of Slavik–Folk–Punk and assured me ‘it’s best not to use a good vehicle on these roads’. That gave me a sort of ‘Apocalypse Now’ feeling.

Over the racket, Sergej filled me in on his history as a DH racer and race organiser since the early 90’s. He got close to a Slovenian title a few times and has organised many of the biggest races in Slovenia. These days, when he’s not coaching young tennis prodigies, he rides and builds trails with his MTB Club Kranj. This trail in Krvavec is their latest project, and it’s a big one. They hope that someday this ski–resort could also have an awesome bike park close to the city, and it’s certainly got the potential.

After 30 minutes on the redline in first gear, the van coughed and roared its way to the top of the trail, where the top gondola station is, at around about 1800 metres. The trail heads into the steep dark woods and we got straight into the action. It reminded me of the Italian Alps, with its beech and oak trees over loose rock–strewn ground. There’s plenty of elevation and shape to the terrain, so there’s plenty of line choice through the widely spaced trees. It’s a festival of sharp rocks and webs of roots - fast and tricky in the dry and it must be a real challenge in the wet. The locals have built some berms and jumps, but the trail is mostly natural and uses whatever it finds on its way down the mountain. This is certainly no manicured work of art for prancing and posing, it’s more of a hairy–arsed backwoods demon with challenges for a real rider to get their teeth into. That’s if you survive the full 15 minute descent before the trail gets its teeth into you.

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ljubljana slovenia bike0024

Good times

It may be the capital, but Ljubljana is quite small really, it’s the perfect size city to get around by bike. With lots of narrow pedestrian streets, you can pretty much ride anywhere you like.

There are only 280,000 people here, but damn, there are a fit and healthy bunch. There’s a definite Italian influence, everyone looks good and they seem to spend most of their time relaxing in the cafés that run along the Ljubljanica river, bang in the middle of the old town. Beside all this, there’s the big castle on a hill, where I thought the DH track was. We did take a look around, but all we found were some nice views of the city and mountains. There is a tram to the top though. Maybe one day Sergej and his crew will build a track here and I can tell the lads ‘I told you so!’