Words by Stuart Kenny | Photos by Tristan Kennedy
Tour guide Anej Štrucl tells our small group of riders to turn off our head torches, and one by one, the muzzled lights illuminating the path ahead completely disappear.
Now just the flickering red of a GoPro remains, and when that’s gone, it’s total darkness. Unseen voices call out and humorous squeals ensue, but the truth is that if our guide left us now, we’d be trapped in a maze hundred of meters below the earth with only a headtorch to guide us and a full-suspension Specialized Camber 29er to keep us company.
Where are we? We’re deep underground in a Slovenian mine which has been abandoned for more than 100 years, undertaking one of the most unforgettable showcases you can experience on a bike.
Let’s take a little step back to before that blackout though, when we were first gearing up to ride into the mine. It takes a hearty mountain biker to complete the climb that leads up to the entrance, though the ultra-fit Anej made more than light work of it. Safe to say that by that point, we were already used to him making us look bad on two wheels.
Anej's father was the man responsible for opening the mine to bikers to begin with, along with his mother who actually owns the company which manages the mine.
The route sees riders enter the mines in the town of Mežica in the Korosko region of Slovenia and ride beneath Peca mountain to resurface in another small town, Glančnik. Around 2,000 cyclists ride through the passage each year and more are expected as biking tourism continues to grow in the country.
Back to that hill, though. It’s safe to say that if you’re a bit of a ‘beer-after-biking’ rider – while we fully endorse your choice of lifestyle – you may find the climb a bit of a challenge.
But don’t let you put you off, the terrain in the mines themselves is not so tough. The route followed is a 5km path formerly used by a mining train, so there’s a lot of flat, though the sheer humidity and tenebrosity of the venue creates a surreal atmosphere distinct to the setting.
It's a sad moment when you realise one of the only things your homeland has in common with a sun-drenched trail-haven is the temperature inside of a cave
Of course, that same humidity also contributes to a notable drop in temperature as soon as you enter the mine. While the drop to a constant 10 degrees was cause for extra layers for the freezing natives though, it was a welcome break from the scorching sun outside for us Brits, comparable to a pleasant spring day in Newcastle or the middle of summer in most of Scotland.
Admittedly, it's a sad moment when you realise one of the only things your homeland has in common with a sun-drenched trail-haven is the temperature inside of a cave.
The tour that ensued was something that will live long in the memory. The gate shut behind us, sealing us in, and we ploughed onwards into the depths of the underground labyrinth, riding single file and following the dim glow from our headlights in the knowledge that a chain break or flat tyre could cause serious problems if not communicated with haste.
Endless turns and new route options seemed to appear out of nowhere every hundred or so metres, and the scale of the mining operation soon became boldly apparent.
There's over 800km of caves lying below the mountain we were riding through, built from 1665 onwards until the end of the 19th century, when digging lead ore was stopped. Many of the mining tools still remain behind though, dulled with rust and hanging from cavern walls with an ominous peculiarity.
We briefly stop at a drainage grill built into the tracks, where Anej throws a rock down to fall slowly to the mine floor. It clatters off the cave walls and metal framework for an unpropitious period of time before hitting the mine floor far, far below.
The sound recalls that which rung around the Mines of Moria after Peregrin Took sent a skull flying downwards in Lord of the Rings, though thankfully we weren’t met by a goblin army, a Balrog or an angry ginger dwarf out for the vengeance of his forefathers when we continued on with our journey.
It wasn’t all jokes, stories and shouting J.R.R Tolkien quotes though. At times we were forced to dismount from the bike, such was the severity of the claustrophobia thrust upon you in the caves.
Any one six foot or over could get their head taken off with relative ease down there if they weren’t careful. An anxious atmosphere is a pressing probability for much of the ride as a consequence, not knowing what’s coming next or when the path will open back up, if at all.
When we fall a little bit behind after stalling for photographs, it’s a mad dash to catch up with the rest of the group before we get lost. One turn off is improvised, but thankfully it’s the right one we choose and we soon regroup with the rest of the pack. Crisis averted.
Continuing on, we make turn after turn to be greeted with yet more dark and eldritch trail as we learn that we are indeed getting near to the exist.
Occasionally, water splashes us from nowhere; concealed puddles of blackness on the floor providing a frosty bath while you’re still on the saddle. We learn that the place often floods below the trail, and was indeed flooded when the guys first tested it out on a bike. Apparently you can even head out on a kayak if you delve far enough into the mine, but that seems like another adventure for another day.
A small light eventually appears at the end of the tunnel, and subsequent to a slightly concerning period spent rustling for keys, a rusty gate releases us back into the outside world.
The natural landscape of the Slovenian mountains couldn't contrast any more with the dark distinction of the caves. After an hour and a half underground, returning to the sun, the warmth and the stunning greenery was like riding out of the uncanny and returning to Earth.
The murky atmosphere certainly provided an abundance of change to the usual surroundings you see on two-wheels; sun and light traded for chilling darkness, dirt and mud traded for gravel and water, the great feeling of openness chucked out the window for confinement and claustrophobia.
It’s not a change that anyone would want to make permanently, but it’s certainly one which makes for an essential one-off experience, taking the obscurity of night riding and amplifying it into the preternatural.
One thing is for sure, it's another box worth ticking for those who want to look back on a bucket list a little more unique than the average.