From Intense Trails to Intensive Care: Dicing with Death In a Mountain Biking Paradise

How a trip to the undiscovered mountain bike Mecca of Slovenia took a turn for the worse...

Words by Stuart Kenny and Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Tristan Kennedy

Slovenia isn’t the first place that would pop into your head when you think of mountain biking. Or many other things for that matter. The truth is that it’s a bit of an unknown entity to most in the UK.

We weren’t particularly sure what to expect when we set off for a week on our bikes there either, but after landing in the mountain-walled airport of Ljubljana in 23 degrees of heat, it’s safe to say that our first impressions were strong.

Nine unpredictably eventful days later and we would return to the same airport to leave the country, having spent just two days on two wheels and six nights in a local hospital having lost a litre of blood to internal bleeding.

More on that unfortunate schedule-clearer later, but here’s what you really need to know; having lain in an intensive care unit and undergone a surgery-saving blood transfusion which lead to days of motionless anguish, when we eventually did leave the following week, we did so with one simple thought circling our minds.

We need to heal up and get back to this country as soon as humanly possible. Why? Well, the place is an undiscovered mountain biking paradise…

Jamnica Bike Park: A Perfect Home For A Bunch Of Nomads

Mountain biking is still relatively new to Slovenia, but it’s no surprise that it’s been steadily growing for a few years now. The terrain is endlessly diverse and beautiful.

Our first stop off was with tour group Mountain Bike Nomad, who own a farm and a five-star bike hotel in the heart of singletrail-heaven Jamnica Bike Park.

Dixi Štrucl is the manager of the hotel and the family business, and he also happens to be the driving force and ‘godfather’ behind the growth of the mountain biking scene in his homeland.

“In 1995 I quit my other job, and we bought an empty hotel close to where we are now,” he told us, admitting that most thought he was mad when he first opened the hotel. “At the time we were told that we had opened a hotel at the end of the world, but we said ‘how do you even know where the beginning is!’

“We have big potential here. Just in our region we have over 800km of forest roads, more than 700km of singletracks, and there are a whole lot of options. There are a lot of local bikers, but it’s a lot of space which we can build on and grow.”

“In the past here, skiing used to be the number one sport. Now it’s mountain biking, and it’s only going to keep getting better.”

Indeed, Bike Nomad are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and it’s yet another chance for the ever-modest Dixi and his wonderful family to sit back and appreciate what they’ve accomplished.

Most people thought Dixi was mad when he first opened the first mountain bike hotel…

When they first got started in ‘95, mountain bikers didn’t come to Slovenia, mountain biking was not a popular sport in Slovenia, and people simply didn’t believe that mountain biking could help feed your family. The Štrucl’s soon showed that people can be easily proved wrong.

Now the sport is in a very different place, largely thanks to the pioneer, and when we take a ride through the bike park, with Dixi’s son Anej proving a wonderful guide, it’s not hard to see why it’s quickly growing in popularity.

Everything from roots, rocks and flying dirt was available on the spotless singletrack. The hilly green scenery sits in front of truly breathtaking mountainous shadows, and whenever you do have to climb uphill, you’re rewarded with kilometres of downhill, winding through perfect dirt, with sharp turns, small technical sections and an abundance of flow which makes for a whole lot of fun.

The best thing about it though? Because the place is still largely an untapped resource, you near enough have the riding haven to yourself. That and it’s pretty much sunny all the time of course.

It’d be all too easy to spend hours on end on the trails day after day, but there’s even the option of riding through an abandoned underground mine if you fancy a change of scenery – it’s an hour and a half headtorch-lit journey like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

With the hospitality and top notch facilities provided by the Štrucl’s Ecohotel Koroš as well, it’s really quite hard to find a reason to leave.

Our reason though was Kranjska Gora Bike Park, where we would head the next day.

The tale behind its current ownership is one of tragic death and biking passion, and we would leave the park with a story of our own, bleeding from under each eye and vomiting our way to hospital with a nasty case of internal bleeding.

Not one of the best ingredients for a relaxing holiday.

Kranjska Gora Bike Park: Gnarly Dreams and Busted Spleens

The park is not particularly old, and it’s not a household name, although it’s status is growing after hosting the Downhill European Championships in 2013 and the first race of the iXS European Downhill Cup just last month.

We do know a couple of things for sure though, the park is ridiculously gnarly, and there’s one hell of a Hollywood story behind the setting.

We would leave the park bleeding from under each eye and vomiting our way to hospital with a nasty case of internal bleeding.

Gorazd Stražišar, another godfather of Slovenian mountain biking in the same vein as Dixi, was the founder of the park and owner until tragedy struck last month, when he sadly passed away in a riding accident in Ljubljana just six days after getting married.

His friend Jure Culiberg took over the ownership of the park after purchasing the property from Stražišar’s unfortunate widow, and he was off to a flying start when the iXS came to town.

Of course, the championship course was mostly blocked off during our visit, as we rode the park just one day before practice began, but a quick look at the footage above will show you just how gnarly it is. There’s plenty of air, plenty of technicality, and enough speed to make Lewis Hamilton shy away from the footage.

Safe to say that it was probably for the best the iXS course was off limits, because even the rest of the park is pretty damn crazy. There’s plenty of sweet berms and nice flowing sections, but it’s really one for the technical rider – with an abundance of big jumps and steep-as-hell downhills.

If you’re looking for trails where neglecting a full face and body armour is near suicidal, this is the place for you.

It’s sure to attract a whole lot more tourism after hosting the iXS, and the local hospital is likely to be fairly busy because of that fact.

For me, it was a frustratingly small drop off and a mind blank over the switched European braking set up that put an end to the trip.

After an unfortunate collision with my handlebars, there was blood coming from either side of my eyes and a pounding pain beneath my ribs.

A few hours and a couple of faints later, and it was off to the hospital.

A few unconscious regenerations and collapses on, and it was into the intensive care unit, waiting for a ruptured spleen to sort itself out and thanking the mountain biking Gods that it didn’t require surgery.

That’s when the worst of it kicked in, I closed my eyes, and was forced to accept a shattering truth; I was going to miss out on the next five days of riding in one of the most naturally gnarly, spectacular countries in Europe.

Shakespeare always said that the root of all man’s evil is birthed in his spleen, and judging from my experience, I’d have to agree.

He also said that all’s well that ends well though, and once again, it’s hard to argue.

It was farewell for now to the trails of Slovenia then, but I’m eyeing a reunion sooner rather than later.

Those perfect singletracks and that stunning scenery really get stuck in your mind…

*  *  *  *  *

Jesenice Hospital: Fear and Loathing in Ljubljana

It would be easy to claim that watching a friend and colleague give himself a life-threatening injury was the scariest thing I had ever witnessed. Easy, but untruthful. Because what was surprising about the whole thing was how innocuous it seemed, at least initially.

The crash itself was gnarly – watching Stuart’s head hit the ground I was convinced that he’d knocked himself out.

But having established that he was conscious with no broken bones or obvious injuries apart from cuts and grazes my first instinct as a photographer was to snap a shot of him – bleeding a bit, but grinning into the camera.

At that point it seemed that the worst of the damage was to his camelbak, which had burst and was leaking a steady stream of liquid out onto the dusty trail. Little did we realise that inside Stuart’s stomach cavity, his spleen was doing much the same.

His camelbak burst, leaking liquid out onto the dusty trail. Little did we realise that inside his stomach cavity, his spleen was doing much the same…

Taking the pain like a true stoic, he was conscious and even cracking jokes as we took him to hospital to get checked out.

It was only the following day, with Stuart in intensive care, that the enormity of it hit me and I really felt scared for the first time.

If we hadn’t taken him in that evening, a move which our guide Anej insisted on, Stuart could very easily have bled out in his hotel bed.

By that stage of course he was in the best possible hands – the doctors in Jesenice General were excellent – and all I could do was sit in Ljubljana and play a waiting game. Thankfully in between the trips to the hospital (where Stuart’s gallows humour never failed to amuse) there was plenty more to distract me from this morbid train of thought.

Kobarid and the Soča Valley: Hemingway and the Hand of History

From Kranskja Gora we headed south through the Triglav National Park. It may be the country’s only such park, but it’s big, accounting for three per cent of Slovenia’s entire landmass. It’s also stunning.

As we wound our way up over the 1,611 metre Vršič pass on grassy tracks, we stopped frequently to snap photos of the sheer rock walls of the mountains that surrounded us. “Sometimes I think we need to be better at talking about this,” said Dan, our guide for the day.

“In New Zealand they filmed The Lord of the Rings and they shout about how beautiful it is. Here they filmed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – this area is Narnia, but nobody knows about it.”

The area is also steeped in history. The road up over the pass was built by Russian prisoners of war, captured by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and put to work in brutal conditions. Many died of cold or at the hands of avalanches – their fate memorialised by a small Russian Orthodox chapel halfway up.

Our afternoon’s riding culminated in an epic 800 vertical metre singletrack descent through forests and past hunters’ cabins.

We stopped just as the rain rolled in, sitting down for snacks, beers and one of the shots of unspeakably strong schnapps that are a feature of any Slovenian meal on the shores of the turquoise blue Soča, just outside the town of Kobarid.

With a population of around 1,000, Kobarid might not sound like a place of particular historical significance, but that’s not surprising – it’s much better known under its previous name: Caporetto.

The brutal loss of tens of thousands of young lives was documented by Hemingway…

It was here in the First World War that the Austro-Hungarians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Italians, taking the town, the river (which the Italians knew as the Isonzo) and immortalising a name that even now doubles as a shorthand for ‘catastrophe’ in Italian.

The brutal loss of tens of thousands of young lives is brilliantly documented by Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms – loosely based on his experiences as an ambulance driver in the same region the following year.

Karst and Lake Bohinj: Sunshine, Showers and Incredible Variety

History was also very much in evidence on the South-Eastern side of the national park, where I embarked on a long, but relatively sedate tour around Lake Bohinj.

Our route was mostly on gravel roads, with the occasional foray onto singletracks, so we rode hardtails. Grega, yet another knowledgeable Slovenian mountain bike guide with incredible English, pointed out the sites along the way.

“That disused hotel there used to be the best in Yugoslav times. Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the North Korean leader now, he stayed there as a guest of Tito. They were fellow communists. Jean-Paul Satre used to come here too. Apparently he used to vomit every time he took the cable car to Vogel up there!”

Agatha Christie was another famous fan of the area, booking herself into another lakeside hotel for several summer holidays as “Mrs Smith” to avoid being mobbed by well-wishers.

It’s not hard to see what these three diverse figures – not to mention the thousands of Yugoslav Communist Party functionaries who holidayed here – saw in Lake Bohinj.

It may not be as famous as the nearby Lake Bled, with its celebrated church, but it’s bigger, deeper and arguably more beautiful.

Today it also has the advantage that, unlike Bled, it’s not on the standard tour route of every tourist-laden coach, so Bohinj and the valleys around it are less crowded.

We met even fewer tourists the day before, riding through the Karst region in the south.

This might have had something to do with the rain that soaked us as we climbed – unusual for this time of year, but a not entirely unpleasant experience.

Another area that was once part of Italy (they knew it as Istria) Karst still has a distinctly Italian feel.

Having reached the summit of Mount Golic, from which you can see into both Croatia and Italy even on a rainy day, we descended through a very Italian-looking landscape of vineyards and red-roofed houses, finishing up with a lunch that featured ravioli as a starter.

It felt a world away from the equally tasty, but much more Slavic food we’d eaten for the rest of our trip.

But this little enclave of Italianate culture is just an hour and a half’s drive away from Ljubljana, a city that feels more than anything like an outpost of Austria.

This is one of the main things that’s special about Slovenia. For such a small place (it’s marginally smaller than Wales and has a population of just 2 million) the country boasts incredible diversity.

The terrain we rode varied from leaf-covered trails that could’ve been in Yorkshire to dry, dusty singletrack that looked like Tuscany.

Slovenia’s history has seen it absorb aspects of all sorts of different cultures meaning that architecture, food, wine and even the dialect also vary wildly from place to place.

Combine this variety with excellent mountain biking infrastructure, a growing scene and incredibly warm and welcoming people and it’s no exaggeration to say that Slovenia is a genuine gem.

Or as Stuart put it, an undiscovered mountain biking paradise.

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