Juliana ambassadors Julia Hobson and Rachael Walker ride the Slovenian Alps all the way to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
The summer may seem a long way distant now, but if this doesn’t have you checking flights to Slovenia then something is terribly wrong with you.
Rachael Walker and Julia Hobson tackle the Slovenian Alps on their Juliana Roubions.
Photos by Roo Fowler | Words by Rachael Walker.
I first visited Slovenia about 12 years ago, when my good friend Jonny invited me to join him on a trip there. Jonny had visited the country with his father in 2006 and bought an old house in Luce, a sleepy village around 10 miles from the border of Austria.
Back then, not too many people had heard of Slovenia. All I knew was that Slovenia hadn’t long been independent from the old Republic of Yugoslavia…. that was it. I knew nothing of the mountain bike scene, if one existed at all.
Jonny returned from his 2006 trip describing Slovenia as “epic” and the mountain biking and snowboarding opportunities as “endless” and asked would I like to go down and help him renovate the house. Ever the one for an adventure, I didn’t hesitate.
In January 2007, we loaded up the old white Mercedes Vito van and started the long-drive down to the Balkans. Some hours and many cans of Red Bull later, we’d entered Slovenia and started the long twisting journey through the mountain pass which led into the Savinja mountains region of Slovenia, our home for the next six months.
The journey was a little sketchier than we’d anticipated. Slightly young and naive and from the UK where snow lasts for a day or two each winter, the idea of snow-tyres or putting snow chains on before the pass didn’t cross our minds. Ever the optimist, Jonny assured me he had his drifting technique dialled. I closed my eyes and turned the music up waiting for the winter alpine rally to be over. Surprisingly, Jonny was really chuffed with his time at the bottom of the pass, reckoning he could beat it next time.
The winter months passed with us doing 1 part renovations to 9 parts snowboarding and exploring. We spent hours climbing mountains and getting lost, snowboarding at every spot we heard of, and driving up mountain roads just for the sake of it. And we always said yes when an opportunity to socialise with the locals arose, especially if the local beer, Lasko, was involved. We immersed ourselves in the culture and slowly started piecing together what the mountain bike terrain would look like once spring arrived.
The snow finally melted, and the ski resorts turned into bike parks. As pure downhill kids back then, first up on our hit list was the infamous Maribor Pohorje bike park, home to one of the most popular downhill tracks on the World Cup circuit. We rode park day after day, shuttled old disused walkers paths, and soon discovered a very healthy and strong mountain bike scene. As we met and talked to more riders, it was apparent Slovenia was littered in both man made and natural tracks, and the opportunities to ride were indeed endless.
In the years since 2006, Jonny remained in Slovenia constantly exploring the varied terrain the country has to offer. From steep and technical tracks in the mountains bordering Austria, to more roaming terrain which surrounds the capital city Ljubljana, to loose and rocky hills in the Mediterranean southern area of Slovenia bordering Italy and Croatia. In 2012, the doors to Ride Slovenia were opened.
With a vast amount of knowledge, Jonny started guiding in the surrounding trails but quickly thought of a long-term idea of piecing together trails from the border of Austria through to the City and then on to the coast. With a population of just over 2 million people, Slovenia is pretty small. It’s possible to drive from the north of the country to the south in just a few hours. If you can drive it, why not ride it. Hence, the Ride Slovenia Mountains to Sea trip was born.
Over the years, I’ve moved from downhill racing to adventure stage racing to pure adventures. Many of these trips have been shared with fellow adventurer, mountain guide and great friend, Julia Hobson. We both love the “experience” side of the mountains, the feeling of getting a little remote, and ‘earning the turns’, so to speak. If it involves a little carrying, a little pain and a few dark moments along the way, that’s fine. It’s always worth it. So, when the opportunity arose to head to Slovenia with Julia to ride Mountains to Sea, there was no doubt we had to make it happen.
As a highly experienced and phenomenal mountain bike guide, Julia often takes the lead role in planning the specific route for our trips. She has better knowledge of reading terrain and maps than almost anyone I know. Normally we would take control of seeking out the best trails and piecing together an adventure, but this trip would be a little different.
We were taking a back seat and asking Jonny to show us the best sections the Mountains to Sea trip could offer, not easy to do for two strong ladies who like to plan. A few discussions later, we headed out to Slovenia in October with Sam Needham and Joe Bowman to document the journey for a short film for Juliana Bicycles, with Roo Fowler taking snaps.
Day 1 of the Mountains to Sea started in the Koroska, in the Savinja Valley region of Slovenia just next to the Austrian border. A few may have heard of the region after the Enduro World Series stopped off here for Round 4 of the 2018 series. It’s one of the higher, more alpine regions of Slovenia offering steep, technical trails in the dense pine forests.
This area is famous for mining and, as a result of its past, has countless numbers of mining paths which are hundreds of years old. These old paths now, conveniently, make great mountain biking trails.
As our shuttle dropped us off at the start of the first trail that sense of excitement built. At over 1500m in height, the air crisp and cold, the sky a bright strong blue, we stood taking in the first glimpse of what was around us – peak after peak in one direction, thick forests beaming with incredible autumnal colours in the other.
As we lined up at the trailhead, Jonny gave us a little brief of the trails ahead. Half listening and half still gaping at the colours, all I heard was “steep”, “tech”, “could be slippy”. Julia and I gave each other a nervous look. Despite the fact we are both good technical riders and capable of riding pretty much most things well, apart from pesky 50ft gap jumps, we both always have that initial doubt and nerves about what lies ahead (“can we ride it ”, “how hard is it going to be ”, “you go first ”, “no, you go first ”). Then we set off, started shredding and smiling, and the nerves were soon forgotten.
We dropped in, trying to make our way through the waves of leaves they seemed to be spraying as they carved the long flowing corners leading us further into the multi- coloured forest. The ground was covered with a sea of oranges, reds and yellows making it hard to track the trail, but also adding to the excitement that you had no idea of the terrain underneath your wheels, no idea of the grip.
The flowy trail turned into a walkers path and soon crept up in gradient. Before we knew it, we were into steep switchbacks with swarms of roots pulling your eye into the corner instead of out of it. Time to breathe for a second then the terrain had changed again, and we’d landed ourselves in a high-speed gully with little drop-offs and natural wall rides to pop off along the way.
We regrouped at the bottom of the trail, out of breathe, and a little gob-smacked by what we’d just ridden. That trail on day one set the tone for everything we would ride and experience over the next five days, diversity. Every trail and every day would be completely unique and offer us something new.
To follow the script of diversity, we ended the day following a dramatic ridge-line trail dropping over 1000m of vertical descent. The trail offered window pockets of the sun setting behind the distant mountain layers. Arriving at the van in darkness and ready for a few well earned beers, there was no doubt it was a mind blowing start to the trip.
Day 2 took us slightly south, out of the alpine region and into the open mountains above the capital city, Ljubljana. We all voted for a sunrise mission. When you’re in the mountains it’s easy to be motivated by the prospect of seeing the sun rise, seeing the day start whilst most people still sleep.
After the 4:30AM alarm went off, it became a race against the sun. By 6AM we’d beaten the sun to the top of the plain, although it did mean we had to seek shelter from the sub-zero conditions whilst waiting for it to appear. Julia and I huddled together sharing sips of hot flask tea whilst also performing intermittent versions of the keep-warm dance. It is always worth it when golden rays light up the mountains and you descend knowing everyone is still in bed.
In the space of less than 12 hours, we moved from loamy alpine forests to wide open plains with rocky traversing trails spiralling off in all directions. We spent the rest of the day on a roller coaster ride up and down from the top of our sunrise plateau, along to its neighbours, and finally down through loamy woods dropping into the sleepy village of Luce, our home for the night.
Over the next three days, our Mountains to Sea journey would lead us from the towering mountains to the north of Ljubljana gradually down towards the small coastal town of Izola. Along the way we were treated to more ridges and more mind-blowing trails, but what stood out for both of us was the change. In such a short space of time we’d moved from steep loamy trails and high open plateaus, to loose rocky fast tracks in a distinctly different Mediterranean climate.
In just one day, the trails changed from being surrounded by pine trees to olive trees and the culture changed from rural and mountainous to Italian and chic with gelato cafes galore. As we neared the small Slovenian coast at the end of the week, the trails mellowed and gave us time to reflect on the crazy last few days of riding. With the trip ending at the Adriatic Sea, those brave enough had the opportunity to dip into the water (Julia, definitely not me!), an almost cleansing process bringing you back to reality after a somewhat surreal few days traversing from one side of the country to another on two wheels.
Our Mountains to Sea trip was five days instead of the usual six. The trails and the route we rode from one end of the country to the other were tailored to us – what we liked to ride and how much climbing and descending we preferred to do. In five days, we’d covered just under 200km on two wheels with almost 14,000m of descending.
It almost feels like a double edged sword writing this article. Whilst both Julia and I would happily tell everyone about the amazing trails, culture and nature the country can offer, you almost have a feeling of wanting to keep it a closely guarded secret. Many riding spots have fallen victim to their own success in recent years, Finale Ligure being one example. But Slovenia is so unique and special it would be a shame for others not to experience it. Julia and I will definitely be heading back there again, with hopefully no trips to the hospital next time.