Off Roading: Slovenia
Home of Tour de France stars, the Julian Alps, beautiful lakes, forests & a small but stunning coastline, Slovenia is an off the beaten track cycling destination just waiting to be discovered. Our local gravel expert, Miha, spent months working with us to perfect an epic 4 day gravel route from the shores of Lake Bled to the Adriatic coast. We sent Max & Freddie out to test it out…
After a winter in the UK it was finally time to jump on a plane and experience some gravel riding outside England. We set off from the UK with a mixed bag forecast, some rain and a glimmer of hope that we would have some sunshine. We chose to focus on the latter. Our plane landed at Ljubljana airport and we were already blown away, it may have been raining but all we could think about was how stunningly beautiful the surroundings of the airport were, just a slight improvement from the scenery from our takeoff in Stansted. We met Miha, who had planned the route for us and he drove us to Lake Bled, one of the main tourist attractions of Slovenia.
The lake surrounds a mediaeval castle, a picturesque island with a church and a steep cliff, which provides a stunning backdrop. The lake is a popular destination for tourists and we could see why. It was late so we headed for dinner and an early night before our first day on the bikes.
Stage One: Bled to Bohinj
We woke up very fortunate that our balcony had a view over the lake, an absolutely stunning view to wake up to. Despite the forecast it was currently dry and after a quick wander around we headed for breakfast. Slovenia seems to have entered a new era of technology and in the breakfast area they had traded wait staff for robots, an odd experience and not sure something I’m quite ready for.
We then met Miha to set up our hire bikes and get on the road,we layered up in all our winter clothes and set off on the first leg of our adventure.
Having not seen much of the route we were unsure what to expect, other than that it would be uphill straight out the gate. We had a quick warm up around Lake Bled before we started on the main climb of the day. The gradients were fairly relentless but the reward was just, every now and again we got a glimpse of Lake Bled and were reminded of the beautiful country we had found ourselves in. The first part of the climb ended up being 6k at 9.5%, quite the beast on a gravel bike. The top of the climb was Pokljuka, a ski resort in the winter and sitting at around 1400m we still had plenty of climbing still left.
Towards the top we popped out on the road and hit the snow line, gloves and buffs on, we carried on to the top, buoyed in the knowledge it was all downhill from there.
The descent may have been freezing cold (we were riding in April with snow still in the mountains) but each corner graced us with another spectacular view of the valley below, so we forgot about our cold hands and lapped up every moment. The best vista was saved for last as we got a view of Lake Bohinj as we cycled through a picturesque Slovenian village.
Our hotel for the night was also pretty spectacular. We checked in and sat down with Miha and ordered a quick drink to savour the great ride we’ve just been on. Three beers arrived, Freddie and I exchanged glances, both cider drinkers we knew this would be a challenge. I struggled from the first sip but Freddie powered on and finished his drink for ‘international relations’, feeling slightly refreshed. We headed for the hotel spa (tough life I know) and then it was dinner in town. After probably the biggest pizza I’d ever eaten and a bowl of chips for good measure we headed back to the hotel for the evening, over dinner we found out the origins of the stunning hotel we were staying in, it was recently rebuilt with funds made when the owner sold their crypto currency exchange. The decadence on show throughout the hotel suddenly made a bit more sense.
Stage Two: Bohinj to Nova Gorica
The next day started with a train ride and it wasn’t your ordinary train journey. Slovenia is home to some motorail tracks, Miha drove us on to the back of the train, and off we went. The train cut straight through the mountains surrounding Lake Bohinj and dropped us off to the next valley along, a pretty unique experience but we were more concerned about the climb we were about to tackle.
Miha had given us a little bit of warning but we we really in for a brute, 4km at 14.6% and mainly off-road, we gave ourselves a warm up along the Soča river (as it turns out, one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve seen, a very distinct emerald green colour). Once on to the climb we could settle in to some sort of rhythm until we hit the first off road section, we had stunning views of the snow capped Julian Alps to our right and it made the taste of lactic in our mouths just about worth it. Once at the top we were graced with the most stunning view yet, with the sun shining and moral high we continued on with the rest of the ride.
After traversing through some forest tracks, a few picturesque villages we arrived at the final climb of the day. It’s used as a summit finish in the tour of Slovenia and we could certainly picture Pogacar launching a devastating attack, we hadn’t eaten enough food though so I can imagine watching us climb was a much less entertaining affair. After taking in yet another breathtaking view, we had just descending left to the border town of Nova Gorica, our hotel tonight was also a casino. It’s a common theme in the border towns with Italy as with much more lenient gambling laws to have many Italians crossing the border to spend their evenings gambling. Myself and Freddie had severely undereaten on the ride, being on the border with Italy, we went out for Pizza and then made a supermarket run for a second dinner.
Stage Three: Nova Gorica to Portoroz
Our final day would take us to the coast of Slovenia, they only have a small slither between Italy and Croatia but they manage to fit in one of the most picturesque towns along the Adriatic coast. It’s well preserved historical old town makes a fitting finish point for our trip to Slovenia.
Our ride started with us criss-crossing the border with Italy before we arrived in the Karst region, a geographical term to describe the rocky limestone plateau that occupies the area of land just inland of the Adriatic. For the last two days all the gravel had been smooth but today we hit a few rougher patches, our hire bikes were setup with tubes and our tyre pressure was way too high, so quite quickly the inevitable happened, 4 punctures later and one immovable skewer which took the power of a local MTBer to undo we were on our way and a bit behind schedule to finish before sunset. Not all gravel rides go perfectly and that’s what I think often makes it a special discipline, this ride seemed to be one of those. I punctured again and suddenly we were out of tubes, I went to find a bike shop in the van and left Freddie and Miha to carry on exploring.
Typically, Freddie informed me that the trails were some of the best of the trip, I was just secretly glad to give my legs a break. A few hours later, we had sight of the sea and were on our final approach to Portoroz. The sight of the sea made for a real transformation of landscapes, from the mountains surrounding Lake Bled, through the forests of the Karst region and now finally approaching the Adriatic, it felt we had truly experienced Slovenia.
After a short transfer back to the capital Ljubljana our three days riding in Slovenia had come to an end, the rain that was forecasted seem to arrive at the perfect time. With the roads drenched we felt very pleased with ourselves, a fantastic mini getaway to an amazing country. Don’t be put off by my description of the climbs, they lead to some absolutely stunning views and I think long climbs make for an easier day out than the relentless climbing we often face in the UK. I would recommend Slovenia to anyone who wants to experience a unique cycling destination with a mega friendly culture.
As the snow thawed and the summer came, we were back to Slovenia with Miha to perfect the route for our first event – OffRoader Slovenia in Sept 2022. We made some changes to the route taking out a couple of climbs and adding in some epic new sections. You can check out the 4.5 stage route for this now annual event HERE.