THE MOUNTAINS ARE NO JOKE
You know you’re in for some good times when planning a ride starts like this:
D: “ One stupid question, off the record. The weather is supposed to be nice next week, I’m thinking about doing the trans-Bohinj. Start by the Lake, up to Komna, in direction of Krn and back towards Tolmin, then take the train back. A whole-day effort. Interested? (I need a crazy guy to come along 🙂 )”
M: “Whoah, interested! Do you think that it’s doable with the AWOL?
D: “I guess you can do it with any kind of bike… we’ll have to hike for the first hour and a half but from there on it should be rideable, probably it would work. I don’t know, never been there before, but apparently they used to ride this with 26” hard tails and cantilever brakes… a fatty would be perfect.”
M: “Sold! When will you pick me up?”
I should have listened to Daniel’s advice and take the FatBoy, but my curiosity prevailed and I ended up switching the tires on my AWOL for the widest possible and hoping for the best. I don’t know what is it about that bike, but it gives me so much confidence that anything seems doable… and most of the times it is… unfortunately, most of the times is not enough. This is a story about an unforgettable attempt, which I could say was successful and left me itching for more…
During the World War I, the Austro-Hungarian and Italian armies fought a series of battles on present-day Slovenia territory along the Soča river. The battles also known as the Isonzo Front left behind enormous casualties, an overall total of around 1.2 million. But the population was not the only thing affected by the “Soška fronta”, the remains of the battles are still visible almost everywhere you look. The enormous infrastructure that was needed for the support of an army so large in numbers left a permanent mark on the environment which will never let us forget what happened. Those mountain roads built by soldiers, which were not destroyed by time or nature are now being used by hikers and cyclists on a regular basis. The morbid purpose they once possessed transformed into something that brings general enjoyment to everyone who likes spending time in the mountains. Sadly, the human habit of claiming ownership over nature and using it selfishly made these roads more “accessible” to some than others. And I’m writing this with a disappointed mindset, but there is one thing about this ride, that has to be made clear… what we did, was and is – illegal.
You see, there is a law in Slovenia, which prohibits mountain bikes, on the terrains where they were intended to be ridden. To some extent, laws like these exist all over the world. There are all sorts of organizations that are taking actions with dealing with this problem, but as anything that has to do with politics, it takes time. I can’t leave this fact out of the story though, because due to this law, our ride had to be planned precisely and with some coming to terms that there could be some consequences if we got caught. As you can imagine, this topic was also what we mostly talked about throughout the day and while I would love to say that we came up with a solution, I can’t.
The plan was to do the first climb early in the morning, mostly because we didn’t know how much time we needed for the whole route, but also because we didn’t want to meet any hikers along the way. Usually they are friendly and don’t give the anti-cyclist law real value, but every now and then they can be a real pain in the ass and they can cause unnecessary problems. So we woke up at 2am, packed everything necessary and headed out into the mountains. We first set foot on the illegal ground just before 5am and had a good hour and a half of hike a bike in front of us, we reached the top at sunrise and hurried away from the sight of a mountain cabin right after soaking in the views. And here’s where the first oxymoron of many emerged… how a mountain cabin with electricity and all that comes with exists in the middle of what we would like to call “unspoiled” nature without a problem, while a mountain bike is considered harmful for the environment is beyond me. The thought of unfairness was pushed aside as we continued our way away from civilization. The Julian Alps opened up in front of us in all of their beauty, and the first rays of sun started to warm up the surface. Soon, we found ourselves wearing only shorts and t-shirts in the middle of November, and as a consequence of the Indian summer, snow was nowhere in sight.
Our progress was faster than expected and after less than three hours of moving, we ended up on the highest point of this trip. At an elevation of 1800m, surrounded by wild life, silence and an incredible view, the day couldn’t have started better. As long as we were climbing, the AWOL seemed like the perfect choice, but as soon as the path turned downwards and the descents became technically challenging, I started to regret my decision. Not that it would be impossible to ride these trails with it, but the road brakes made me slow and slightly uncomfortable, it was still manageable, but a mountain bike would make me enjoy the descents even more. The early start allowed us to take a lot of stops and to think about which route to take not just based on time, but also based on what we wanted to see. And even though we had a general idea of where we’re going, we changed a couple of plans because the route looked nicer… at least on the map. Our only real concern was the fact that we have to catch a train back at 4pm, since the next one wouldn’t leave until 8pm, and it gets dark and cold really fast in the mountains. We ended up doing 56km and 3000m of elevation, and the fact that it took us eleven hours to do the trip, tells you a lot about how much hiking we had to do. My legs felt like stones on the next day, but if there were a chance to do it again in the morning, I’d forget about the pain in an instance.
Throughout the day, we talked a lot about the ridiculous law that prevents mountain bikers to explore these areas and what needs to be done. While my concerns and disappointment came from the simple love of riding bikes and spending time in nature, Daniels problems were more direct and serious. He is organizing a cycling event in a couple of months and has to deal with all the bureaucracy that comes along with it. As you can imagine this is a big concern of his, and can cause a lot of nerve wrecking. A popular mountain biking marathon was actually canceled because of this law a couple of months ago and no one wants to see this happen again, especially Daniel. The solution is not as simple as it looks, especially since so many different groups of people are involved. It’s hard to get on a mutual standing, when every one looks only after their benefits. Sure, the preservation of nature and it’s original condition gets spoken of a lot, but the fact that we have already affected it so much without thinking keeps getting hidden away. Change will never come through limitation, when double standards and selfish thinking contradict it. Change has to come through education, respect and understanding. And as long as we’ll keep judging each other, without realising our own problems, the law will stay unfair.
Take our trip for example. It is completely useless for the majority of the cycling popularity, and I would never recommend it to a person without experience. But on the other hand, it is still perfectly doable for a lot of us. The trails are solid and wide enough, and a mountain bike can’t cause any more damage to them than a hiker can. Still, should those of us who are able to ride these terrains be prevented from doing so? Is a fine of up to a 1000eur and a possibility to get my bike confiscated a fair and wise solution? It’s not hard to understand the anger of the cycling society when laws like these are limiting them from doing what they love. But the real problems are not the fines and the prohibitions, they are just consequences. The problem lies in the confusion and the misinterpretation of the mismatched and reckless bureaucracy. Last but not least, the real problems are the users, who chose to interpret the laws in their favor, but forget the ones that they themselves violate. We are spending too much time judging people instead of doing something that would actually be helpful for the environment, and while the fastest solution for the preservation of nature would be it’s complete isolation, this can never be expected. People need to explore and see it; they have to experience nature in order to respect it. And when you sit on a shore of a mountain lake, hearing nothing but the occasional sound of a rock rolling in the distance, you’ll see how simple life really is. You’ll realise how small and insignificant you are and maybe you’ll start thinking about the world in a different manner.
Every time I leave the mountains a changed man, and it was the same for this trip. We slowly traversed our way back to civilisation and got blown right back to reality after realising that we’re probably going to miss the train if we keep the same pace. The last 30 minutes of our trip ended up being a hectic rush towards the train station, where we ran over the railroads in order to catch our ride. We have barely made it, but it took us a couple of minutes to catch our breath before we could even manage to pay for the ride, the guy who sold us the tickets was polite and had a look on his face that said “why the rush?”. For a while there, it got me thinking; why end a day like this in a hurry? And I got my answer as soon as we left the train and started to feel the cold creeping in… the mountains are no joke.