Soća Valley MTB Marathon

We had been in Slovenia for five days, all of them sunny and pleasantly warm at just over 30˚. These had mostly consisted of ridding around the Triglavski National Park in the north west of the country, admiring the views and eating ice-cream wherever we could find it.

Riding into Slovenia from Austria, via Italy, a couple of days
after a 24hr probably wasn't great race preparation but was still
rather pleasant.

There had also been, on the Saturday morning, a running race as part of the Soća Valley Outdoors Festival. We hadn’t planned to do it, we just arrived in Tolmin and saw a sign, so turned up and joined in and they seemed more than happy to have us along. Being unplanned we had no running shoes with us and those which we had borrowed at very short notice from the lovely helpful people of Adidas Austria weren’t quite the right size and had given me a blister, about which Gina was enormously sympathetic, despite how stoic I was about it.

Even worse than that, I had fallen down the stone steps cut into the gorge down to the river and had hit my knee on the rocks and, worse still, my other knee but I was very brave and still managed to hobble around the rest of the route.

I rode from the finish of that race in Tolmin to the venue for the Soća Valley MTB Marathon at Kobarid, ignoring the pain and making no fuss at all, barely even mentioning it in fact.

I had a terrible night’s sleep thanks to my toe, my knee and of course my other knee. When I awoke, far too early, the weather had turned and it was chucking it down, the only wet day of what would be ten days in the country, and I tend not to go well in the wet.

I think that’s all the pre-race excuses covered. Oh, go on then, just one more. It was exactly a week since the European 24hr Championship at Davos, not nearly enough time to recover.

Anyway, excuses over, unless I can think of another one. Actually, I had the wrong tyres on, we were touring after all and not expecting to race.



We left the arena at Kamp Koren on the banks of the Isonzo river and made our way up to the centre of Kobarid for the start, quite a few locals had come to see us off despite the weather.

Front row spot. I didn't stay there long once we started!
 
There were a couple of miles of tarmac behind the local fire-truck and then a lot of very fast and surprisingly entertaining fireroads. I knew that the total climbing would be around 4,800ft but what no-one had mentioned was that the vast bulk of this would be in one single, brutal, hill.

The scale on the left is meters by the way, not feet!
It also appears that the Slovenian word for 'Gravel' is 'Makadam'

In a bizarre sort of way I actually quite enjoyed the climbing. It began gently enough, a little gradient in the farm tracks, gradually getting steeper. There was even a tarmac section for a couple of miles about a third of the way up, the main road up and out of the valley had been closed off especially for us. There was a sharp right at the top of that into a singletrack climb which lead us straight up the face of the hill and then out of the woods onto another LandRover track.

This zigzagged it’s way up the side of the mountain for what seemed like hours, just on and on, up and up, back and forth into the rain and fog, the top of our hill hidden in the mist, but the summits of neighbouring ones across the valley occasionally peeking through the tops of their clouds.


Eventually it relented and we found ourselves on a plateau, 3,967ft in one continuous climb, there’s not many places in the UK where one could do that! We had also passed the 25km mark, halfway, the return trip was looking promising.

There was a feed stop just over the peak, I refilled my bottle, grabbed a banana and headed off into the woods.

This was a wake-up call. After nearly two hours of really tough climbing with my brain fine but my legs screaming for mercy the positions instantly flipped. We plunged down into the trees, really, really steep, a chute lined closely on both sides with trees, wet roots all over the place making the steering extremely difficult and braking all but impossible. My legs got a well-earned rest but my head seems to be the bit which takes the longest to recover from a 24hr and it was struggling to take everything quickly enough, my reaction times just weren’t up to the job. This is a shame because it was a fabulous piece of trail and it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to ride it at speed but I just daren’t.



Lower down the mud started to build up and I found myself, along with quite a few others, sliding down the hill, one foot clipped in and the other waving around for balance, bouncing off the sides of the hill. Each turn of the helter-skelter was an act of faith, get my breath back, point the bike in the right direction and then hold on and hope for the best, before seeing if I could get the speed down enough in time for the next corner.

Lower down the hill the mud gave way to rocks, great big wet, shiny, slippery rocks. I was all over the place again, still unable to think fast enough to keep the bike under control. I ended up in a heap in a bush at one point but managed to avoid landing on any of the rocks and so no damage was done. I was rescued by another helpful rider who freed my left foot from the pedal it was trapped in, my poor wounded knee not being strong enough to unclip while laying on my side tangled up in the bike and the undergrowth.

I promised myself that I would be more careful but soon found myself getting carried away again, going too quickly and falling once more as I slid over the stones. I remained mostly upright as I rode into the embankment at the side of the trail but this time hurt my finger and my other finger as I put my arm out to save myself. Despite these injuries the descent was a huge amount of fun. The rain had stopped by this point and a lot of locals had come out to cheer from their houses, gardens and fields as we sped passed.

The Isonzo river is also pretty

About five miles from the end I passed someone who’s name I have forgotten but whom I had been talking to near the top of the climb. Talking with the locals is easy, in common with most Brits I speak very little Slovenian but almost everyone we met spoke perfect English. Standard procedure seemed to be for me to ask if the person I needed to talk to could speak English, German or Italian, since I can just about muddle through in the latter two, the languages of their neighbours, and they would reply that they could speak all three fluently and which did I prefer?

Anyway, we had been discussing the comparative riding to be had in Slovenia and Scotland and the relative merits of each country’s access laws before he left me behind and disappeared up into the clouds. When I saw him again he was pushing his bike with a flat front tyre. He and I were probably the only two 26 inch riders in the field and so I was able to give him one of my tubes, and I also took a bit of a risk and gave him my pump (not expecting to race I wasn’t carrying my usual gas but had the Lyzene frame-mounted track-pump with me)

I took the last few miles a bit more carefully, just being a little cautious in case I pinch flatted as I too would now be reliant on the generosity of a passer-by. It was not needed and the remaining fireroads were dispatched without incident, bringing us back to Kamp Koren, where shortly afterwards I was handed a pump and a beer by a very grateful Slovenian bloke.

As I expected I hadn’t done very well, My toe, my knee, my other knee and general fatigue had left me down in 46th place at 3h53m but I had enjoyed it enormously, which is the main thing. It was a proper, tough course. A good hard climb, technical descents, some fast sections, and generally very well run.
Proper race course. Start in the town at the bottom right of the
picture, up to the summit at the top left, over the top and back
down the other side.

I was chatting to one of the marshals afterwards, who of course spoke perfect English, and she expressed surprise that I would come all the way from Scotland for the race. I explained that we had actually come for the European Championship in Switzerland and had just been touring around Slovenia when we stumbled across the race by accident. She asked how the two events compared and seemed equally surprised when I said that this was by the far the better. A lovely area which they really made the most of. I know a few people who have been to Slovenia and they have all come back saying how lovely it is, how friendly everyone and how I really should go. They are right, and if you are reading this, you should go too.

Just because you are racing doesn't mean you can't
 

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