The story you’re about to read comes courtesy of Escape Collective member Peter English. A big thank you to all of our wonderful members for supporting what we do here, and especially to Peter for sharing his story.
Twenty years ago I met my first Slovenian. It’s not that kind of love story, but it did involve long-distance yearning and often unrealistic levels of desire. She was on the Paris Metro after a day at the French Open and while swapping backpacker stories I revealed a long-held secret: I liked lakes and mountains. “You need to come to my country,” she said, matter of factly, and with no hint of an invitation. “We have lakes and mountains.”
During that six-stop trip, Slovenia became #1 on my travel list. Some years the daydream would happen whenever I spotted a map or, later, when I found cycling and saw the nation on a season schedule. Then Primož Roglič emerged, and for weeks at a time his flag or jersey was hypnotising me to visit. In my mind at least, a far-off country rumoured to have beautiful lakes and mountains quickly became the land of Roglič and Pogačar.
I had often wondered, during long, late nights watching from Australia, who was the most popular on home roads? Tadej Pogačar, the two-time Tour de France winner now with five Monuments by the age of 25? Or Roglič, the owner of a Giro to sit alongside three Vueltas, an Olympic time trial gold, Liège-Bastogne-Liège – and that second to Pogačar in 2020. From a hemisphere away, I was certain Pogačar would rule, but then Kate Wagner wrote that Roglič is the national hero. How could that be?
As my family pedals under mountains and past turquoise lakes during a long-planned holiday, I pester some locals to find out who is the cycling king of the Slovenes (with apologies to Matej Mohorič, Luka Mezgec, Jan Tratnik, Jan Polanc, Urška Žigart, and many others). If we are letting the road decide, Roglič has already won before we enter Slovenia. Having started a 10-day flashpacking trip in Salzburg in Austria, we experience the best detour of our lives, slipping sideways into Italy for a couple of hours for coffee and cannoli in Tarvisio.
It’s only three weeks since Roglič painted this town pink along with an estimated 40,000 Slovenians. The bike path above the café still has “Rogla” and “Slovenija” painted on repeat. And can I really see that steep concrete pinch to finish the hilly time-trial where he overcame a slipped chain to sweat past Geraint Thomas?
The Slovenian information magazine, Sinfo, celebrates Roglič on its front cover, and apart from his helmet being fitted perfectly, the grimace during his ride to victory looks the same as his Tour de France loss three years earlier. Is he meeting with triumph or disaster? He treats them both the same, just as Rudyard Kipling would have wanted.
Thinking about his recovery on that hill, and the push he received from his old ski jump teammate Mitja Mežnar, gives me more shakes than falling off the espresso wagon for the first time in a decade. When in Italy, right?
We leave Tarvisio along the same bike path with the Roglič remnants and spot a ski jump. This place really should be re-named Rogličio, because it was here in 2007 that he won the world championship as a junior in the team competition. The nearest Slovenia town, Rateče, is about 10 km away, so they should at least award him a holiday lodge.
Roglič could then ride back home any time, starting on the bitumen of the renovated rail trail that offers a gradual climb to around 900 metres that suits families, touring bikes, and classic-Italian-kit-clad roadies. Helmets are optional. Flanked by forests, rivers and the mountains of three countries, it’s already the best rail trail I’ve ever ridden.
We stop at the Slovenia border sign, the official beginning of my two-decades-in-the-planning pilgrimage. Now I can start my research, asking locals whether Roglič or Pogačar is their favourite. I’ve laminated photos of both riders in case my English doesn’t work and, while it embarrasses both children, they are quick to nudge me later in the trip when I forget to ask someone their opinion.
Our first Slovenian, a woman in her 50s who loves her e-bike, can’t decide. “I like them both,” she says, before pushing off in the hope of beating the threatening storm clouds.
A short uphill turn leads to the Planica Nordic Centre, the ski-jump site of Roglič’s sliding doors – and body – moment. Roglič said he didn’t respect the big hill enough, breaking his nose and suffering concussion, and that crash turned him slowly towards cycling. Looking up at the slope is scary enough in summer. The landscaper fixing his whipper-snipper at the base said he was there the day Roglič and three others fell. He remains a Roglič fan, impressed by his toughness in his “new” sport.
I attempt to recreate Roglič’s podium celebration, gaining peak cringe from my photographer daughter, and we chat to a French guy from Normandy who has also come here just because of Roglič. Well, he drove. But after getting a selfie and chatting with Pogačar at the Slovenia time trial earlier in the week, he’s now on Team Tadej.
Freewheeling into the downhill ski resort of Kranjska Gora, we spot a young kid wearing a UAE jersey and his mum taking photos of the passing riders. Next we spy our first Slovenian bike shop and it’s a mini tribute to Roglič. A frame in the window is wrapped with pink around the top tube, and the sales assistant is excited to show us all the Jumbo-Visma gear.
She’s on the Roglič superfan spectrum, only briefly waving her hand in the direction of a few UAE jerseys way down the back. “He is more sympathetic,” she says, suggesting Roglič is relatable because of the ups and downs across his career.
With a jersey costing €160 and being even more retina-threateningly-yellow in real life, we move on to our first kremna rezina, a vanilla slice-style cream cake. It has much more subtle colours, limited nutritional value, and leaves icing on our noses like we’re Classics riders from the early 2000s.
The scenery and crisp air as the storm passes are breathtaking. An afternoon and morning are not enough in this town with its waterfalls and pair of turquoise lakes offering mirrored views of the sharp peaks above. Mountain bikers shuttle up and zip down while I dip in the icy water, hoping for some therapy on weary but smug legs. The road winds from here up to the 1,600 m Vršič Pass, where you might briefly glimpse Pogačar on a training ride.
In the cool of the morning we ride up to the lakes for another reflective moment before starting the 40 km towards Lake Bled. Our city bikes are like tractors and the pedal stomping of the commuters we saw in Austria now makes sense as we fight to get them up to speed. In such wonderful surrounds it feels spoiled to complain, but whenever we go uphill they are uncomfortable, heavy, and our butts ache in unusual places. How much would it stretch my friendship with my mechanic if I asked for a bike fit on Zoom?
Today is downhill for the first 15 km along the perfect rail trail that cruises through thick forests and quaint towns. A mix of carbon and touring bikes fills the popular path and we adjust our sunglasses as we pass a Jumbo-Visma kit. It’s not the holidaying Roglič. The openings in the trees reveal Slovenia’s highest peaks, which still cradle patches of snow in their crevices in late June. We will keep looking up for most of the trip.
As we cross over Sava Dolinka we face the day’s only categorised climb. Usually 3 km at 6% would pass without many grumbles from our team of four, but the pitches spiking at 10% feel like at least 15% on our loaded weapons. It’s also never good for morale when the bike computer struggles to register a speed.
Our 3×7 setup comes with an aunty gear instead of a granny, forcing us to dream of spinning as we grind and stand-up pedal. On one steep section my daughter and I look back to check on the rest of the family and see a runner wearing a marathon shirt. A few minutes later she passes, then distances, then drops us. We laugh in embarrassment. A couple of points in our defence: she has calves to dream of and we are six days into our tour riding city bikes.
In tribute to 21-year-old Roglič, we are all wearing sneakers. With three different trips planned for our month away, choosing one pair of cycling shoes was too hard, and nobody wanted a pedal-removing tool in their carry-on. At least our feet are comfortable for all the side trips to waterfalls and lookouts, where our phone memories bulge with images.
After the summit of the Mojstrana climb, the descent opens to reveal Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak at 2,864 m, and one we’ve been trying to pick since arriving. Until now, each mountain seemed to grow bigger but the winner is as clear as every creek.
Slovenians mention Triglav almost as often as the high quality of their tap water. We admire both points of pride today. As we rush towards the base, we cheer a roadie doing a wheelie up an 18% section. We also consider whether we need new calliper brake pads – if anyone still sells them.
At the bottom we are again in trees with a stream by the side, watching riders going up lugged with bags, or head down pushing for KOMs. There are beautiful bikes and views everywhere, with one edge of the valley rising up hundreds of metres like a block of cheese, but the sign for a tasting leads to a dairy where even the eyes of the guard dog are closed.
The forest continues as we exit Triglav National Park for today and drift back into tiny villages. Following a small berg we are swooping down Flanders-style single lanes towards Bled, excitedly looking to see the water at every turn. That view finally comes with a splash of turquoise and we almost roll off the road as we stare at the church-island, standing out like a candle on a cake. Already the day has been filled with postcards and as we soft pedal around the lake I wish I could ride this route every week.
Bled is understandably a tourist town, and one with a heavy cycling presence. At dinner we talk with the waiter as riders buzz past. “Primoz Roglič is the best,” he says. “He has the style for cycling.”
One of the reasons there are so many bikes: the Slovenian Nationals road race is on the next day in Radovljica, just 6 km away. With a hat tip to Kate Wagner, we plan our rest-day recovery ride. My struggles with iPhone navigation, having left the reliable Wahoo at the hotel, double our trip time. Nobody in our peloton is particularly happy either when our city bikes with panniers are briefly on the same circuit as the under-23 race when the rolling police line forgets about the back markers.
Roglič is absent and still enjoying his Giro win, but it’s a week from the Tour, giving Pogačar a last chance to test himself after breaking his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It’s the only day of our trip when Pogačar is preferred to Roglič. A dad with two kids at the start line is pro Pog, and a man in a volunteer shirt is one of many others voting for Pogačar. Kits from UAE and Team Pogi – the junior team Tadej sponsors – are everywhere. We only spot one Jumbo-Visma jersey.
At sign-in, the excitable announcer spots Pogačar, but in the best tradition of aging commentators manages to call him “Mohorič” once. There is no stopping for autographs or photos, so I can’t ask Pogačar for his favourite rider. In the hilly circuit race Pogačar and Megzec are the break after one lap and the result is already decided.
Back in Lake Bled it’s an exciting morning when we switch bikes for the second phase of our tour. We receive a lecture on theft, and we’ve never looked after such cheap frames so well, locking them religiously with our spaghetti-string combinations. Despite our new wheels, a van takes us to the Pokljuka plateau at an elevation of 1,200 m and our departure point in another impressive pocket of the Triglav National Park.
Life in Europe is more relaxed for many reasons than on our last bikepacking trips around Kangaroo Island and along the Mawson Trail in South Australia. “Dad, what animals can kill you here?,” my daughter asks. I tell her not many. “It’s nice to see grass and not be worried about snakes,” she replies.
Only later do we find out about Slovenia having a population of 1,000 bears, but they have better things to do than chase us through the fringes of the forest on the way to Lake Bohinj. On another spectacular descent I feel emotional seeing the mountains across the valley that operate as a natural cul-de-sac. It’s also satisfying because the teenagers keep saying “wow” whenever something beautiful appears around the next turn. The 20-year wait has been worth it, and that’s before we see the water.
The lakes Bled and Bohinj are like Pogačar and Roglič. Bled is bling, bustle, and flair; Bohinj is quiet, remote and at peace. Both are treasures in their own ways, with each undoubtedly a national monument.
On the shore of Bohinj, a rockclimbing coach votes for Roglič. “He has more charm and experience with his age,” he says. “Pogačar is young.” He admits he’d rather ride than watch cycling, and directs us to our hotel in Bohinjska Bistrica, along another manicured bike path shadowed by more mountains and rivers.
Breakfast before our queen stage is a little nervy when my daughter wakes feeling nauseous. After bacon and pastries – her choice, on separate plates – she says she is ready for the 750 m elevation gain over 12.5 km from the first pedal. I drop back down the line after we’ve warmed up for an update and see she’s trying to mid-ring it to the top. I dad-splain about the importance of pacing, tempo, and saving some energy for the end of the climb, which is between 8 and 12%. She half-wheels me for most of the final third so I guess we both learned a lesson.
Our new bikes feel like Euskaltel–Euskadi throwbacks – but without the street cred. There are still times when we have to resist Rohan Dennis-style thoughts to plonk them by the side of the road, but they are lighter and actually roll. The 3×8 gearing gives us a little more relief and there are moments when they feel like an Orbea Orca compared with the grey elephants we shepherded through the early days. In reality, we take it slow as we creep towards the 1,280 m summit.
The ascent to the Soriška Planina ski resort is double our Montville practice hill and at a much steeper gradient. At almost two hours, the duration of the climb remains a PB for three family members even after our visit to Alpe d’Huez two weeks later.
The gilets go on for the descent, with multiple sweeps of switchbacks, and suncream at the bottom. It’s a strange weather day but we manage to beat the storm by 30 minutes, passing the socialist-era apartment blocks into Skofja Loka, a town celebrating its 1,050th birthday. In the local sports shop there’s a photo of Roglič in Jumbo kit. I ask the assistant if there’s one of Pogačar? “Just Roglič,” he says, signalling an end to the conversation.
Our last night is a few kilometres across the main road from where Pogačar grew up, but after 10 days of riding we aren’t in the mood for a diversion when we see the sign to Komenda. We follow another sparkling river and there is a noticeable increase in touring and serious cyclists, something we haven’t seen since Bled. A couple of Ljubljana team kits sweep past us and we hear an Australian accent – Dylan Hopkins, perhaps – in the chatter.
Two small hills later we reach the outskirts of Ljubljana. We are sad that our ride is ending, but in a city known for its fin de siècle mansions, we are satisfied to be fin du cycle. As we check-in to our hotel the Tour de France is on in the foyer. “I like Roglič,” the receptionist says. “I don’t want to say he has bad luck but …”
In the old town Primoz is pictured in an exclusive watch store and when we are guided around the city our guide says she cheers for both riders. Just like my wife. Nobody in the family has changed their positions on being on Team Roglič or Pogačar since the start of the trip.
Like all kids, both children prefer the latest version. I like Roglič for his flaws, persistence and bike-computer obsession. While Slovenia is a small country, it’s big enough for two global cycling stars – even if Roglič is usually the local favourite.
After waiting so long to visit, I was nervous about disappointment, having dreamed so often about this place. Not to worry – it’s been spectacular. As we leave Ljubljana on the overnight train, I think back to that Paris Metro conversation. Now it’s my turn. If you like cycling, lakes and mountains, you need to visit Slovenia.
A few more photos
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