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The quick emergence of Primož Roglič from Olympic ski jumper to serious Grand Tour contender has gotten cycling fans to sit up and begin to take notice. After a dominant spring he barnstormed the Giro prologue leaving no doubt in the eyes of his rivals that his Romandie performance was no fluke. Subsequently, his countryman Tadej Pogačar showed dominance at only twenty. Winning at the Amgen Tour of California, and currently it is Pogačar’s teammate and fellow Slovenian Jan Polanc who wears the maglia rosa.
When they ask “where did these guys come from?” The answer is… Slovenia. The tiny country (the size of New Hampshire) has two million inhabitants and sits at the western edge of Central Europe, bordering Austria to the north, Italy to the west, and Hungary and Croatia to the east. Slovenia only became an independent country in 1991, after being annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and is a relatively recent addition to the European Union. Despite its history, Slovenia has remained under the radar, an undiscovered gem with a natural beauty that lends itself to those of us on two wheels, both on the trails as well as the road.
Slovenia’s topography and population make it a made to order destination for cyclists. Though the border it shares with Hungary is largely flat, over ninety percent of Slovenia is either hilly or mountainous. The Karavank range and the dramatically picturesque Julian Alps, including Slovenia’s tallest peak,Triglav dominate the country’s northwest. Most of Slovenia’s car traffic navigates the country on a small network of highways, leaving Slovenia’s wide country roads to those of us on skinny tires, while the country’s road cycling chops are still being built, Slovenia boasts trail networks and gravel roads that go on endlessly, it is a tiny destination that packs a cycling wallop.
The thing about jet lag is that you almost always rise before the hotel breakfast starts. On a glorious summer morning I find myself kicking around the top of Krvavec, a mountain resort north of the capital of Ljubljana at the beginnings of the Central Karavanks range. It’s a clear morning and you can see all the way to the capital city to the south, and to the west the Julian Alps lead towards Italy. It’s peaceful and quiet here this morning, save the ringing of a few cow bells (totally serious) and I’m a bit nervous, while I’m an experienced road and cyclocross rider, I’ll be dipping my toe in downhill and enduro riding this morning for the first time in my life at the Krvavec Bike Park. Slovenia has built an impressive array of mountain bike parks fairly recently, taking full advantage of their ski resort infrastructure, and mountainous topography.
Gašper Budkovič puts me through a few paces before he unleashes me in a full face helmet and knee and elbow pads on the park’s nine kilometer Muci descent. I should say that in Slovene muci means pussycat, but if I’m being frank it scared the hell out of me at points. There are moments when we pass out of the forest and are treated to amazing views of the valley, but my sheer terror only allows me a glimpse. By the end of our second run, and a few wipeouts later, I see the appeal, but it’s still scary. Gašper is a central player in the Slovenian mtb community and he and compatriots like master trail builders Dixi and Anej Dušan are a big part of the reason that the UCI holds so many enduro and downhill world cup races here: it’s that and all the glorious vertical.
The culinary reputations of France and Italy date back eons, complementing perfectly the world-renown wines that grow alongside their respective cuisines. The same is exactly true of Slovenia, which people are just now beginning to figure out. After picking the downhill dirt out of my teeth, I find myself seated for a multi-course lunch at a former eighteenth century farm, now known as Dvor Jezeršek, high gastronomy in the village of Cerklje na Gorenjskem, population 1,400. The family operation is run by Slovenia’s Master Chef host, Luka Jezeršek. The food here is focused, local and seasonal, and the wine list is all Slovenian. Everything is captivating. If Slovenia is getting the notice it deserves right now, it’s on two fronts: the amazing natural beauty and how that translates to killer mountain biking, and—probably even more notably—their cuisine.
In a country like Slovenia with such an abundance of wild beauty, it may be difficult to pinpoint a crown jewel, but it’s probably the mystical and majestic Soča River Valley. The green mountains and cerulean blue of the Soča River make it nearly impossible to believe the horrors that this part of Slovenia was once home to. The Isonzo Front (the Italian name for the Soča) depicted in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms marked a protracted entrenchment between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in this now bucolic valley from June of 1915 through November of 1917. Twelve battles were fought here. It was a nasty stretch of warfare that was ultimately responsible for more than half of Italy’s total casualties of the Great War. Over three hundred thousand Italians and two hundred thousand Austro-Hungarian troops perished here.
Today the Soča River’s clear blue waters have the valley awash in adventure tourism. The tiny hamlet of Kobarid is home to a bevy of mountain bike guiding and white water rafting operations. Paragliders pepper the blue skies and the wide open and winding roads that climb up and down throughout the valley are just begging to be pedaled. It is here, a short drive along the 102, a tree lined road from Kobarid’s town center that Slovenia’s most important ambassador to the world does her magic.
Ana Roš is a phenomenon, uniquely Slovenian. The world renown and self taught chef (Roš was recently named the world’s best female chef) got started as a ski racer on the Slovenian national team. She and her sommelier husband Valter run his family’s restaurant Hiša Franko, a farmhouse that was also once an impromptu war-time hospital along the Isonzo Front (there are some rumors Hemingway finished his novel here, but others point to him never having actually stepped foot in the valley). Despite her recognition and the honesty and dynamic creativity of her culinary approach, there is not a hint of pretense. Hiša Franko even allows dogs. The multiple course dinners, either eight or eleven courses, all paired with Slovenian wine, make the case that this country, as small and unassuming as it may be, can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Europe’s gastronomic giants—even if there is no Michelin Guide for Slovenia.
The current gastronomic movement in Slovenia, launched in many ways by Roš’ creativity and the inimitable wines being made at select estates like Burja and Hiša Movia, mark an era that demands attention. This is an exciting time. Slovenia’s pastoral setting may be misleading, but this country is on the cutting edge of taste right now.
Gonzo for Gravel
The trails of Jamnica and the mountain bike oasis that father and son Dixi and Anej Dušan operate is indeed world class, but the gravel riding here among forest roads and cart paths may rival it. Though their park has become another of Slovenia’s Enduro World Cup sites, and mountain biking is their bread and butter, the explosion of gravel riding has seen an uptick in visitors coming for the over 900 kilometers of local and forest gravel roads with little-to-no car traffic. These roads connect lonely farms that dot the border between Slovenia and Austria, including some great gravel byways that shuttle you between the two countries.
You can disappear for hours on a self-guided GPS gravel tour, or ask Anej to lead you around the myriad rough roads and ample climbing. At the center of their bike park sits the farmhouse-style Ecohotel Koroš. With just ten rooms, Dixi managed to host nearly a thousand guests this year. There is a refrigerator full of beer and an honor system, as well as dinner served by Dixi and his wife every night; and you can’t be late, we all eat together. The front porch looks out on the mountain shared between Austria and Slovenia, the Austrians call it Petzen and the Slovenes, Peca. After a day of riding, about ten or twelve of us from five or six different countries jockey for position on the front steps. With cold bottles of Laško we settle in for what is a daily ritual here in the summertime: the setting sun casting a color show against the limestone flanks of the mountain. A proper goodbye on my last lovely night in Slovenia.
While much of the cycling tourism infrastructure favors the fat tire scene, there is plenty of riding to be had on roads of gravel, or pavement, along with generous hospitality. Slovenia offers everything you would find in some of Europe’s more well known, classic destinations, including great pizza and fantastic wine, and it does so at a bargain.
Bring an appetite and your bicycle, and Slovenia will take care of the rest.
Photos Courtesy of Slovenian Tourist Board #IfeelsLOVEnia