In the parking lot, prise open overstuffed duffels that we hefted through airports and on taxis, finally adjusting velcro and fastex buckle straps to the frame saddle bar bags. Bikes from a stock that looks to be new for this season, so they’re shiny, somewhat sheepishly untested appearing, Žiga at the local outdoor adventure shop cut us a 20% off deal owing to the length of our rental. Aluminum Scotts, Deore derailleurs, Suntour forks, better than junk but worse than good—solid enough for our ambitions—650b wheels. Grocery stop gets distributed into the empty spaces and then coasting down the hill to round Lake Bled with its impossibly quaint island and sentinel castle, pedaling into unexpected heat and hills that ripple outward from the Alp peaks in the near distance as if the forested foothills were liquid and roiled as the stone was plunked down.
West north, first through a corner of Triglav National Park, then just the rural countryside, necks craning to catch the drying hay and sometimes breaks to investigate the local techniques for beekeeping, about which Jack has a considerable interest. Tiny gravel roads, sometimes one paved lane, single track double track, paths through crushed riverside rock. The plan is a nine day circuit round this half of the country, toes across the Austrian border and then later a thirty hours in Italy before crossing over again. Haze dust Tyrol architecture houses but more modest, sky clean bright, its blue a third color to the saturated green and wheat turned dirt brown golds.
Always the flinty points through the glimpses, we roll into an enormous meadow after lunch, pollen mid afternoon still so that our shirts are soaked three quarters up every ascent. A long roll on a loved bike path for a dozen kilometers, fitness cyclists, commuters, mountain bikers using it as an connector between home and trail, by its end map’s curves suggest that we have a committing upward section next and away from villages, so our breathing and the sound of knobby tread on sticky asphalt until that gives way to gravel, steady eight sometimes ten percent with no point trying not to overheat, upwards rasping dry mouth grips slick sometimes standing with a pause before dropping weight and persistence to the advance.
Late enough for camp, arrive in a clearing high up woods, hunter’s cabin, carved banisters and nailed awnings, stream fed pipe spills into a mossy trough. It’s padlocked but we sit at the picnic table out front and lay out dinner. From here we can see down the valley that we made it most but not all of the way up. Tents on a flat terrace nearby, sleep.
On the second day we complete the uphill to the ridge, emerging into a sward with marmot holes and the gps shows a different kind of mark a few hundred meters away, the border that traces the high point. Sometimes we’re riding sometimes we’re pushing on narrow choppy single track, there’s a longer section off the bikes and then we’re looking down over the brilliant valley, there’s Austria, a big town with the glintty shimmer of life and movement that can’t be made out in its details. We find a border marker and ritually step over and back a few times, then eat pears and apples and press onward is downward as the bikes pick up carving through the berms speed. We ride in remote woods for hours, and then an asphalt highway with campers and motorcycles snaps us back into humanity. A village with darkened ski hotels, a square with a bakery, and off onto a gravel path to lead us to the end of the day paved climb up Vršič Pass.
The cobbled switchbacks, we metronome up again, up, a tunnel of trees. We’re passed by a few roadies testing themselves on this col, they nod approvingly wincingly at our camping gear. By twilight we turn onto an alternate, a woman tidying up around her lodge says it’s the more beautiful way up, the Russian Road, an old World War I road, so we take it until a spot to camp in the lee of granite and mist sunset.