Bear Spray and Gravel Tracks

a bikepacking journey across Slovakia’s Low Tatras Mountains

Feature type Story

Read time 10 min read

Published Apr 19, 2020

Author Jo Burt

Jo Burt

Not many rides require you to strap a can of bear spray to your saddle-bag, but as we head into the Low Tatras mountains of Slovakia that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Slovakia is at once familiar and yet very different. The country straddles the two sides of Europe; with Austria on its left border and the Ukraine on its right. The country’s central position is squeezed by both West and East and you can feel the subtle shift of influences as you ride through the complicated mix of history and cultures reflected by its position on the map.

Having flown into Vienna, Austria our plan is to traverse the Central Slovak Mountains to reach the border with Poland. Riding towards a distant endpoint encourages continuous change in mental state with so much to absorb, but with such constant progress, there is a gentle yet persuasive urgency to reach the place we’ve planned to commence the following day from. Every day, something important to aim for with no shortcuts.

A three-hour transfer from Vienna takes us past Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava and a quick petrol station stop for snacks to the start of the trip in Banska Stiavnica, an old mining town and current UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spend an afternoon here to build up our bikes, wander the historic town and discuss the days ahead over a sturdy evening meal and locally brewed beer. We’ll forgo the camping in the woods, napping in bus shelters and eating something half warmed over a fire. Instead we opt for the slightly more luxurious option of staying in local hotels overnight. We’re okay with faux-rugged. This means we don’t have to carry bulky camping/bivvy gear and it gives us the chance to get clean and warm each evening, wash clothes, indulge in some calorie dense local food, and raid the breakfast buffet for ride snacks the next morning.

Map Illustration by Philippa Battye

Map Illustration by Philippa Battye

Riding towards a distant endpoint encourages a continuous change in mental state with so much to absorb, but with such constant progress, there is a gentle yet persuasive urgency.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. Carrying all your kit brings with it certain challenges. Before you’ve even taken a pedal stroke there’s knowing what to take and how it’ll fit in your bike bags. There is no support vehicle or supply drop here so you have to pack everything you’ll need. Riding a bike laden with bags makes the climbs more challenging and the descents require a more determined concentration. This kind of journey can be incredibly tough on both bikes and bodies, but the rewards are immense. Each day we roll through the contrasts that make Slovakia so special and so different; from the bustle of a busy city to vast open fields in just a dozen wheel revolutions. We see ornate baroque architecture and stark socialist era tower blocks living within a few streets of each other and weary villages nestled in the folds of picturesque countryside with only a battered Skoda to show they’re from this century. Well, maybe the last.

In crossing a large chunk of a country, there’s a deep understanding of place, involvement, distance and purpose. Being constantly on the move on a bicycle, we pass through little vignettes of daily life, glimpse snapshots of a country easily missed by other forms of travel. Standing still for a while on a hairpin corner to take in the endless waves of forest in front of you, or just sitting on a step having a snack and watching town life roll by. Sure, you could always snap a shot on your phone, but absorbing it all for a hushed moment will stay with you far longer and doesn’t have a delete button. It’s a sensation only enhanced by carrying all that you need with you, bringing with it a warm glow of self-sufficiency and a tingling itch to just keep going when you reach your final destination.

Though the pace is social, both time and distance ahead of us continually whisper in the back of our minds. While we’ll always stop to look at the view or grab a coffee, there are odd moments when some hastier progress is essential. But with its myriad of short delays, group riding will always chew at the clock. Our lights remain on stand-by for the final leg through the trees.

This trip is probably the toughest one on the Rpm90 roster, the figures don’t seem to do it justice as it covers just 490kms over 5 days, but the constantly changing terrain combined with a lumpy 8880m of climbing and a stoutly laden bike makes each day a solid effort. The sort of riding here is exactly what a gravel bike is designed for, and then some. From the most perfectly smooth black tarmac to tricky rocky gullied off-road and everything in-between; bike path, field edge, forest fire road, singletrack, cobbled street, muddy doubletrack, logging road, pump track, broken tarmac, sand, riverside trail, concrete tank road, and a couple of rivers to ford. It’s the perfect variety of riding for the rider who wants the challenge and to push themselves and their bike a little bit both up and down hill every once in a while.

Slovakia does space and emptiness very well. We travel through five National Parks and from the very first kilometres we’re riding car sparse roads and deserted off-road trails. Any skirmishes with civilisation tend to be very brief and only included to help with food supplies and sleep requirements. An ascent to the highest village in Slovakia takes a steady 25km tarmac climb. The remote road leading to a scruffy cluster of houses would qualify for the Queen Stage on any other journey but isn’t the highlight of our ride. Another, more gruelling ascent that holds that accolade. The 10km haul of the half gravel, half broken tarmac road up to Kralova Hola – a 1,946m peak with a transmitter mast proud on its bald crown is like a mini Ventoux – is a significant climb which could find the lesser prepared off and walking with their bike more than once. The summit offers a chilly and windy but impressive 360 degree panorama with Poland and the High Tatras mountains to the north and the rest of Slovakia and Hungary sprawling out to the south.

Sure, you could always snap a shot on your phone, but absorbing it all for a hushed moment will stay with you far longer

I’ve visited Slovakia with Rpm90 a couple of times now and it’s definitely become one my favourites. There are certain areas which make the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and yet at the same time offering that sense that if you just kept pedalling in the same direction you could enter into a different world entirely. There are times when a grubby person in slinky lycra on a bike worth a significant proportion of a local annual wage feels like an intrusion, an alien being in a hilltop hamlet. But despite an appreciable language barrier the people are quietly kind, generous and humorously inquisitive. It all adds up to an experience that feels so far from what you might be used while remaining an accessible distance away.

We’ve not yet seen a bear but how are your sprinting legs?

Jo Burt is the Rpm90 Chief guide and author of Rapha’s Longer Rides

Rpm90 is a team of cyclists with a diverse range of passions, life experiences and interests that all blend together to provide you with a unique trip away. Their aim is to provide authentic experience that gives you a genuine feel for the pulse of a place rather than a ride through a shiny postcard snapshot. If this means warming your hands over an electric hob after the last descent of the day into a freezing sunset, using a tube of squeezy cheese as an energy gel or mending a bike in the back corner of a restaurant, then so be it.

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