The waiting is the hardest part
For 3 days we waited. Waited and rested. Recent days of constant climbing have taken their toll. We both needed the rest. The past week has left my legs feeling increasingly rubbery and C is faring no better. The tourist village of Kranjska Gora is a charming place to rest, alpine beauty in every direction. Triglav, the three-headed mountain, looking down at us from all angles, reminding us of exactly how small we really are. The following morning we begin our assault: Climbing Vrsic, the highest paved mountain pass in Slovenia, on our loaded touring bikes. 51 switchbacks and 1100 vertical meters in all.
As we meet more and more locals, we are regaled with tales of topping the mountain in 50, 45, 42 minutes. Everyone we talk to have a different tale to tell.
They all ask how much gear we’re carrying? How heavy is your bike?
Honestly, if we knew, we probably wouldn’t do this.
The one thing we do know is we will be slow going up. We estimate our time around 2 hours.
They all smile knowingly when we tell them of our plan, as if to say, “are you sure…?”
“Yes, we’re sure, we think.”
And it begins
Leaving the village center, at the base of the climb, an illustrated sign marks each and every switchback and its elevation. Cruelly, each switchback along the road is numbered as well. I don’t want to know. Putting my head down, I just pedal forward. C is behind me someplace. Early on, an elderly Italian roadie, two young mountain bikers eagerly clinging to his wheel, passes me. Giving me a quick glance up and down, he smirks, “Bravo! Good luck”
Great. Even the old guys think I need luck to do this.
At switchback #7 I can’t believe there are 44 more to go. Seems like we’ve been climbing for hours already. The first dozen or so switchbacks are spaced far apart making for long, straight and steep sections. Starting and stopping every 500 meters or so, I keep pace with some hikers walking along the road. I decide to wait for C at a spring gushing forth from the mountain. Trying to look like I’m not resting. Just waiting.
Someplace around switchback 15 things start getting a little tighter with turns coming every 100 meters. 16, 17, 18… Now that’s more like it. I pass the 2 mountain bikers from earlier, stopped to have a snack. They must not have been able to keep up with the old roadie either. Soon there are more cyclists along the road; taking pictures, eating, resting.
Again, as I wait for C further up the mountain I’m befriended by a Slovene couple who stop to ask where I’m from?, where I’m going?, why Slovenia? and all the other questions we’ve answered a dozen times in the past weeks. They tell me that this is their Sunday ritual. They have climbed Vršič 8 times, or maybe it’s 10, this year alone.
‘We only have 100 meters more to go…’ He smiles.
‘No, no no..’ She refutes, ‘He means 1000 meters.’
As they debate the remaining distance another loaded bike tourist pedals past.
“How much further?” he asks. I shrug.
Soon C has caught up and we’re so close that we can see the sign for switchback 24 in the next corner. That’s the last one on this side. Nice. All downhill after this.
Stopping at the top to survey the view, we watch the roadies charge up, turn and head down just as fast. Soon apples, bread and cheese fill our mouths. We recline in the cool alpine morning, snapping pics, checking the gear, and pull a wool hoodie from my bag. Down we go.
The dark (blue) side
Down, down, down, turn after turn. Switchbacks 25-30 are passed in the first minutes. Soon I’m behind a minivan from The Netherlands struggling to make sense of the incline, braking hard into every corner. A few motorcycles are backed up behind me. We accelerate, then brake in unison for the next 5 or 6 switchbacks. Eventually the motos pass us both. The minivan driver seems even more tenuous. I stop to cool my brakes and wait for C again. The edge of the road is sheer, and I can see the unbelievably blue Soča river far below. A mis-step on the road would send the unwary cyclist tumbling for 100 meters or more. Ouch!
Rejoining me, C stays close for the last few turns. Even though we’ve now past all 51 official switchbacks it becomes obvious that we have several hundred more meters to descend to the Soča valley. Soon we’ve hit the flat and we’re cruising along the Soča river.
Deep Turquoise blue water below us.
Giant Alps on all sides.
It seems almost unreal that we were even on top of one of the giants only 30 minutes earlier.
These mountains have both protected and isolated the residents and natural resources of this valley for generation upon generation. An impenetrable military obstacle in the first World War. A natural barrier, preserving a river and a culture.
Now home to rafting, kayaking, canyoning and mountain biking the Soča holds endless adventures and almost no crowds to speak of. Our plan is to take some ‘off the bike days’ and get in the icy cold mountain water tumbling along beneath us. We will meet with local bike advocates and tourism officials, and find all the special little gems of this area.
It’s gonna be great!