A Gravel Biking Journey Through Slovakia
Words: Tom hill // Photography: Cal Nicklin
Looking back, my memories of Slovakia meander as much as our route did. Snippets of trail, a mid-afternoon beer in the sun, fixing a puncture in the dying light of the day, a Romani woman washing clothes in the stream, singletrack through meadows, locals picking mushrooms in the woods.
The seven of us sit around the hostel table, a long pine tabletop in a room of more pine. Floorboards, walls, rafters. Bowls of goulash and pierogi wait in front of each us. My stomach feels small and tight – the kind of hunger I only get after days of riding. I want everything, but the effort to eat feels harder than the hundreds of kilometres ridden.
My appetite builds while I draw my bike. Each of us attempts to do the same. I’m not sure who suggested it, but here I am, biro and notepad in hand, sketching out my Stayer – a gravel bike that looks like it went to a fancy-dress party as a 1990s mountain bike. I do this how I have drawn bikes since my early mountain-biking days of the 1990s, when I would doodle pictures in the back of my schoolbooks, daydreaming of riding in the Pennine hills I could see out the classroom window. Not being particularly talented, I aped the style of ‘Mint Sauce’ – a cartoon strip that appeared (and still does) in the pages of Mountain Biking UK magazine. The tales and mishaps of a mountain-biking sheep – naturally – seem to define my visual memories of the time as much as my formative rides. I put down the pen and squint. That’ll do. I pass the notebook across the table to Jo, the last of the group. He nods. And in that second, I realise I have passed my particularly weak interpretation of a Mint Sauce bike to the illustrator whose invention it was. Jo Burt graciously doesn’t mention it as he effortlessly pushes the pen across the page.
Looking back, my memories of Slovakia meander as much as our route did. Snippets of trail, a mid-afternoon beer in the sun, fixing a puncture in the dying light of the day, a Romani woman washing clothes in the stream, singletrack through meadows, locals picking mushrooms in the woods. The days blur into one, yet each was different in character. In many ways it no longer matters when or even where these things were. This isn’t a how-to guide. Don’t follow my instruction. I will start at the start, though, and after that you’ll have to fill in the gaps for yourself.
My memories are so intertwined with the people I shared the journey with that it’s impossible to split them apart. I’ll attempt to briefly, though: Nick Miles (owner and lead guide of RPM90; this is his trip, one he recced last year, and we are to be a guinea-pig group before he starts guiding it in 2020), Jo (pro-level colouring in, and Nick’s support guide), Cal (photographer with the jawline, eyes, and hair of someone who should be in front of the lens), Nicky (former British XC Champion, quite short), Liam (young scamp, racer, son of Sean Yates, owner of an iffy moustache) and Philippa (handy at this bikepacking racing lark, good/bad influence on the lunchtime beer front). It would take some sort of complex family tree to illustrate who knew whom and how. Not that it really matters. It’s the nature of this kind of ride that, once we started, our world shrank to the horizon in front of us, our history as short as the last climb or village or corner.
Our plan was to spend five days gravel riding in a vaguely north-easterly direction, starting in Banská Štiavnica and finishing right on the Polish border – 500km or so, with a fair chunk of climbing through the not-so-low Low Tatras mountains. Nick had put in the hours planning the route, working with a Slovak hiking guiding company to find the quietest roads and most interesting tracks and trails as we meandered towards our goal.
One afternoon. Near enough to the end of the trip that legs have that used feeling. It takes them a little while to start turning over smoothly in the morning, but once they are, they feel worn in, rather than worn out. Like a long-loved favourite pair of Vans, there’s a risk they’ll collapse completely at any point, but for now, they are perfect.
At 1,946m, Kráľova hoľa has the slightly contrived honour of being the highest mountain in the Low Tatras with a road (one-way, gravel) up it. This means, of course, that we need to ride to the top. The sun is so bright that my memories are overexposed. White everything. Glacier-blue skies, silver grass. We string out along the climb, each settling in to our own comfortable discomfort, nowhere to get lost, no finish line, just a point beyond which we can no longer climb. The road corkscrews around the mountain, revealing the toothy comb of the High Tatras as I gain height. Alpine, snow-capped peaks look down on me as I pointlessly toil up a pimple. Sometimes, though, we need distance to find perspective. I tug on extra layers at the top and stare out at the range: wide-angle views from end to end. A view that would be impossible to match in the midst of the needles and spires of rock and ice. Next to me is a Communist-era TV transmitting station, reminiscent of a James Bond villain’s lair or a lunar base in a lost Tintin book. The red paint of the metalwork is weathered, bleached as white as everything else. Our group gathers, passing around hip flasks of the finest Slovakian liqueur that can be bought for €2.50. Sugar and raw alcohol strip taste buds. If it is possible to taste a colour, this too is white.
The scorching glare of mid-afternoon mellows as the sun dips and we descend towards our evening accommodation, hearts light in the knowledge that it is downhill all the way. Three punctures and a time trial against darkness. ‘There are still wolves and bears in Slovakia, you know?’ I’m not sure whether I can outride a bear. ‘You don’t need to. You just need to make sure you aren’t the slowest.’ We make it as the last of the colour drains from the sky.
As a child of the 80s and 90s, my first memories of Slovakia are news reports of the Velvet Revolution and Fall of Communism in 1989. While I sat doodling bikes, the globe in my bedroom suddenly became out of date as Czechoslovakia split in two in 1993. This country with few natural borders has been in flux for centuries as politics has ebbed and flowed, subsumed at various points by the Ottoman Empire, Poland, and Hungary. The architecture of the towns we passed through en route reflects this heritage. Soviet-era housing blocks regularly marked the boundaries of a town, many re-clad in bright colours, some still retaining their stark concrete exterior. The more significant towns had ornate architecture at their centre, dominated by spires, domes, and flourishes.
We quickly found routine each day, stopping mid-morning for coffee and a supermarket raid. I wandered the aisles of familiar-but-different foods, picking out an eclectic selection for lunch. Tins of fish often won out, as did smoked sausages and sachets of ‘ener-cheese’ (processed dairy products that bore a passing similarity to cheese – except for the time it wasn’t cheese at all, but houmous), and those cheap and bizarrely flavoured liqueurs, quickly transferred to my hip flask.
The scorching glare of mid-afternoon mellows as the sun dips and we descend towards our evening accommodation, hearts light in the knowledge that it is downhill all the way. Three punctures and a time trial against darkness. ‘There are still wolves and bears in Slovakia, you know?’
The bar is the only place open for coffee. It is 10.00am and the only other customers are a group of men in hi-vis jackets, drinking pints of lager. The orange walls are largely blank except for an eerie painting of a young girl, a 20-year-old CD player with the wire aerial hanging off a nail, and a small television in the opposite corner. Our coffee is thick with grounds, slowly settling in the glass mugs as we get sucked in to local Slovakian television. This rural corner of the country has a different feel to much of the land that we’ve been travelling through. After eating our coffee, we will ride concrete tank tracks through ploughed fields, and through visibly poorer villages – houses in disrepair. It feels strangely fitting that the skies are overcast as we village-hop through the gently rolling landscape. The skin of many of the residents is darker. The Roma communities are often marginalised by other Slovaks and it certainly feels like we are riding in the margins.
We roll away at a more sedate pace, in a closely packed group, chatting away. It is these times that I treasure the most. The in-between times. Neither arriving nor leaving – not Riding, but still riding – travelling and sharing the experience.
It was easy to ascribe prejudices and first impressions to an area that we had little real knowledge of. We were warned about a couple of the towns, but experienced nothing worse than a few stares as we passed through. As with almost everywhere, our greetings of ‘Ahoy’ were returned. I (usually) managed not to suffix that with ‘there me hearties’.
Sunday, and the only supermarket that we are likely to pass closes at 11.00am. It’s 10.30 and there’s a long way to go. After climbing all morning, it’s mercifully downhill all the way. I cling on to Liam’s wheel as we take increasingly risky lines down the rough Land Rover track. The ruts made by four-by-fours cutting through mud have dried into natural berms that we rail around as we bounce and rattle our way down. My biceps itch with the vibrations, but the exhilaration of speed is joyful. Too often I run out of time to make a line choice and simply hang on through jumbled sections, praying that I won’t puncture. Tarmac is blessed relief as we timetrial our way to the village, tumbling into the store a few minutes before 11.00 and closely followed by the rest of the group. I over-buy and we spend a while sitting in the sun munching our way through enough of our spoils to fit the rest on the bike. As I go to pack away a spare ener-cheese, I notice that I’ve sacrificed a badly stowed flip-flop to the descent. It was almost worth it.
We roll away at a more sedate pace, in a closely packed group, chatting away. It is these times that I treasure the most. The in-between times. Neither arriving nor leaving – not Riding, but still riding – travelling and sharing the experience. We take it in turns on the front, sharing life stories, tales, private thoughts. Rarely does the actual story matter, but the relationships that form are stronger as a result.
A local rider passes our group. ‘Ahoy!’ – but he’s already well up the road. Sprinting off the back of our group, the young scamp has closed the gap by half in a few seconds. Our lad in cotton T-shirt and checked shirt (missing a sleeve after another ‘not quite secured to the bike’ incident) with a gravel bike bedecked in bikepacking luggage pulls alongside Mr Lycra. Now out of our sight, I can only imagine the next few minutes as Mr Lycra eases up the pace. Liam matches, smiling. Mr Lycra tries a bit harder. Liam is still there. The boy who grew up the son of a Tour de France yellow jersey wearer, so laid back, laconic, is playing. He peels off and leaves Mr Lycra to stare questioningly at his power meter. We pull up a couple of minutes later to a cheeky grin and Yates Junior drops into line. Just one of those things that happen on the road, eh?
The best things happen off the road though. The fox slinking across my track silently, the can of beer while sat next to a rusting Trabant, lying in the grass in the afternoon sun, perfect switchback climbs through heavy forests pierced by shafts of autumnal light, stumbling across a pumptrack in a park and riding laps, freewheeling forever, hopping roots, stripping layers as we climb in the first heat of the day, a gifted sweet on a climb… and yes, the inevitable last bit of tarmac each day to ferry us from the hills to our accommodation.
The end of a trip is so rarely a single moment. It is, rather, a longer goodbye. The last climb of the last day is otherwise anonymous. The profile on my GPS makes it look worse than it actually is, being relatively higher than the preceding kilometres of riverside track, and never-ending false flat eventually ramps into something worthy of being called a climb. I sit on Jo’s wheel as we reach the crest, and pause at a small shelter while we regroup. We share a picnic of leftover food – peanuts and cheese and endless chewy sweets. There’s still an hour or so of riding before we reach the gorge of the Dunajec River, marking a literal but arbitrary border between Slovakia and Poland. The ride is already ending, though. That last hour disappears in less than a minute. The last minute in a second. And there we are, sat in a room made of wood, drawing pictures of bikes.
Weathered faces, sunglasses tan lines. A fresh T-shirt pulled over still-wet-from-the-shower hair. Laughter and shared stories fill the room, despite having the restaurant to ourselves. Another round of pivo. Na zdravie.
Except this wasn’t the end of the trip. Because after the final shorter-than-short second, the tail lasts forever. The tales last forever. Messages pinged between us during the week after. Photos shared later. Memories surprise me as I drift off to sleep. Plans are made for the next time; because there’s always a next time, and so we sustain. Until the next time.
The best things happen off the road though. The fox slinking across my track silently, the can of beer while sat next to a rusting Trabant, lying in the grass in the afternoon sun and perfect switchback climbs through heavy forests pierced by shafts of autumnal light.